Sex Difference in Christian Theology

Male, Female, and Intersex in the Image of God

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Megan K. DeFranza
  • Grand Rapids, MI: 
    Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
    , May
     2015.
     327 pages.
     $24.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780802869821.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Sex Difference in Christian Theology makes an important contribution to the scant theological literature on intersex. Megan DeFranza’s significant accomplishment is in providing a study which is much needed, thoroughly researched, and eminently readable. DeFranza succeeds in selecting, organizing, and integrating a wealth of information from a wide variety of disciplinary resources. This text is both a trustworthy introduction for new learners as well as a study of depth for those with experience considering sex, gender, and sexuality in Christian theology.

DeFranza writes explicitly to a conservative Christian readership, straightforwardly identifying her personal evangelical faith commitment, explaining that “it is the dearth of substantial reflection from evangelicals and Roman Catholics that motived the present study” (11). While her evangelical lens may prompt impatience at points from readers, like myself, who are well outside that theological context, the study is never alienating, offensive, or uninformed. This, too, is a significant achievement. I found DeFranza’s work a pleasure to read even as I disagreed with the evangelical approach. 

DeFranza rejects a position taken by some Christian conservatives that intersex is a consequence of the Fall, a punishment for humanity’s sin. Instead, she argues that intersex is part of human diversity in the image of God. This position leads to her assertion that intersex is a legitimate identity, meaning that persons should not be or feel forced to choose either a male or a female identity. As a result, DeFranza argues that the sex binary can no longer be upheld. At the same time, however, DeFranza separates theological consideration of intersex as the image of God from consideration of LGBTQ sexuality.

The book is organized into two parts, with three chapters in each. The first part provides a solidly researched overview of challenges to the sex binary in a variety of disciplines, especially medical and social science resources. Following this overview, DeFranza turns to the history of eunuchs in biblical tradition and Christianity history as a resource for considering intersex, in the conviction that the Scriptures offer “a third option” (66). DeFranza argues that Jesus’s positive statement about eunuchs in Matthew 19:12 has not been fully mined for a contemporary Christian theological affirmation of intersex.

The last chapter of part 1 traces themes of sex difference in the human as image of God through the Western classical, Protestant modern, and postmodern periods. This chapter concludes that conservative Christianity “must not only reconsider the binary sex model but also consider the theological edifices that have been built upon it” (150).

In part 2, DeFranza builds a theological anthropology of sex, gender, and sexuality in light of intersex. Analyzing similarities between Pope John Paul II’s theology of the body and the theological anthropology of Stanley J. Grenz, DeFranza finds that commitments to an essentialist view of sex difference in each are problematic in that they sexualize an otherwise sound social view of the image of God. In addition, both the Roman Catholic and evangelical traditions fail to properly distinguish sex, gender, and sexuality, leading to a problematic overreliance on love in the heterosexual marriage as the primary image for divine love.

DeFranza reviews and ultimately rejects extant theological responses to intersex according to three tropes: “omnigender” represented by Virginia Ramey Mollenkott; “the end of gender” in the work of J. David Hester; and the “kenosis of sex identity” in Susannah Cornwall. DeFranza rejects each of these and turns toward Miraslov Volf’s approach to reconciliation across difference, grounded in Christology, in that “the cross decenters as well as recenters the self” whatever that self’s identity-markers (281). 

In her conclusion, which builds upon Volf to stress humility and finding common ground across theological differences, DeFranza maintains the evangelical priority on “personal holiness” which imitates Christ. She understands this to be a category which can be distinguished from and understood apart from social structures. For DeFranza, personal holiness must include “monogamous chastity within marriage and celibate chastity outside of marriage” (282). A tentative door seems to open toward monogamous gay commitments, though this is approached as a controversial matter. 

Although she gestures toward the Spirit, DeFranza does not dialogue in depth with pneumatologies as robust correctives of the androcentric theological tradition or as resources for theologies of sex, gender, and sexuality. Many Christians will not find DeFranza’s theological conclusion satisfying; evangelical Christians may find it challenging.

DeFranza models the virtues she calls upon Volf to stress with respect to how she believes Christians ought to respectfully and compassionately discuss their differences with each other. This meticulously researched, and clearly written, text is accessible to non-specialists, including upper level undergraduates. 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Alison Downie is Associate Professor in the Religious Studies Department at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

Date of Review: 
January 5, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Megan K. DeFranza is a Christian theologian and liberal arts educator who has taught at both Gordon College and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and is currently a visiting researcher at the Boston University School of Theology.

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