Some children are born without being clearly one sex or another, usually in the case of having ambiguous genitals. Even as puberty progresses, a few medical conditions can arise that make it impossible to label a child a boy or a girl. These children, usually referred to as intersex, have faced shame and alienation from society and sometimes even painful and invasive surgeries to “correct” the way they were born. Sadly, this trauma is often inflicted by Christian communities.
Megan DeFranza’s Sex Difference in Christian Theology challenges that treatment. Written primarily for Christians with more conservative views on sexuality, the book shows how the demographically small but pastorally significant question of intersex people points to larger problems within a Western conservative theological anthropology. If we understand the Trinity to be reflected in our sexual or marital relations, we end up with some seriously problematic theological and pastoral implications for our broader treatment of gender and sex.
DeFranza’s key pastoral goal is to enable conservative Christians to hear the voices of intersex people and to understand their concerns over non-consensual surgeries and exclusion from the life of the church.
Sex Difference in Christian Theology is incredibly useful pastorally and fascinating theologically. It is neatly, almost precisely, split in two. The first half describes the medical, philosophical, and social history of intersex people and how we have built our sexual culture from a masculinity that totally identified with real humanity, to two sexes that are ontologically different. This introductory groundwork is necessary for the rest of the text but the volume of detail will make it tricky for pastors — or at least made it tricky for me — to persevere. She raises necessary pastoral questions and makes it impossible for us to merely dismiss intersex as a thought experiment. Still, this first half drags, especially when the latter is so tightly argued.
In the book’s second half, DeFranza brilliantly describes the theological problem arising from the reality of people born intersex. Her analysis of the problems with John Paul II’s Theology of the Body and Stanley Grenz’ Sexual Ethics: A Christian Perspective — her main interlocutors for the second half of the book — is likewise stellar.
I would echo many of her concerns on our culture’s and our theologies’ over-emphasis on sexuality as a means of being human. Grenz and John Paul II tend to reduce being in community with others to being married to a spouse — requiring that Christians be married to be fully imagine God.
Grenz and John Paul’s emphasis on the distinction between men and women raises, rightly, serious problems for DeFranza. As she points out, we face problems with Christ’s incarnation as a human man if we assume that there is an ontological difference between men and women. This leads us to say that God, somehow, doesn’t assume the nature of women. And that means, according to historic Christian ways of understanding the atonement, that women cannot be saved by Jesus.
Probably not what Stanley Grenz or Pope John Paul II want to say.
DeFranza is steadfastly unwilling to conflate problems — she carefully avoids putting intersex questions under a broader LGBT tent, though these issues often are conflated. This makes it a bit peculiar, toward the end of the text, that she discusses how the church might seek to undermine a restrictive vision of marriage and sex as heterosexual in favor of holding up an ideal of monogamous marriage, straight or gay.
I pray that Christians can take a caring pastoral approach to intersex people while continuing to affirm what DeFranza recognizes as the church and Bible’s historical options of heterosexual marriage or celibacy. On a pastoral level, we must encourage parents to stop hurting their kids — and we can do this without needing to talk about same-sex marriage.
DeFranza speaks powerfully to current debates on what the image of God means and shows clearly how these complicated theological problems directly affect people’s lives. I hope her important work will help pastors and families care for intersex people, and not reject them.
Greg Williams is Communications Assistant for Sojourners.