Asking the wrong question

The Church of England recently held its General Synod.  As part of this, people get to ask questions.  Question Time can actually be the most entertaining part of the whole event.  One of the questions submitted in advance was:

What is the Church of England’s definition of a woman?

The ‘official’ answer was

There is no official definition, which reflects the fact that until fairly recently definitions of this kind were thought to be self-evident, as reflected in the marriage liturgy. The LLF project however has begun to explore the complexities associated with gender identity and points to the need for additional care and thought to be given in understanding our commonalities and differences as people made in the image of God.

To be honest, I think that is about as good an answer as you will get.  But parts of Twitter practically went into meltdown.  ‘They’ve abandoned the Bible’, ‘The Church of England isn’t Christian anymore’ and so on and a lot worse.  With all these people so convinced that they knew what the Bible’s answer was, I was tempted to ask for a Biblical reference.  But if you step even a morsel of a toe into that cesspit, you just get covered in sh*t, rather than an actual answer.

Leaving aside the arrogance of those who believe that they know the mind of God with absolute conviction, in Biblical terms, the questioner was asking the wrong question.  The Bible is not concerned with defining a woman, there is no reason that the Bible should be.  In Biblical times the only relevant question would have been about defining if someone was a man.

In Biblical times, being a man mattered.  Being a man was high status, there were expectations placed on men that were not placed on women.  Certain offices, like priests, were only open to men.  Women were expected to wear head coverings, men weren’t. 

In the 613 laws of Moses, some laws only applied to men or to women.  Being faithfully Jewish meant keeping the laws, so you needed to know which laws applied to you.  That was the only reason there was any interest in knowing if someone was a man or a woman.

Even in Biblical times it was recognised that knowing whether someone was a man or a woman was not always easy.  There were people whose body was ambiguous.  It was recognised that where the religious authorities were not sure, that they should ask the person themselves.  The person would know best whether they were man or woman.  In contemporary jargon, we might consider this asking for their gender identity.  Sometimes even the person didn’t know, only God did.  In those cases, the person followed a modified set of laws combining some of the elements of male and female laws.

With the hindsight of modern medicine, we can identify some of the conditions that Jewish rabbis grappled with.  With that hindsight comes a different perspective on what is important in identifying whether a person is male or female.

To take one example, there is a medical condition called hypospadias where the urethra (bringing urine from the bladder) does not fully extend to the end of the penis.  The urethra may end at the base of the penis or part way along it.  Where that happens the end of the urethra is always on the underside of the penis.  This led to the rabbinic test known as the ‘arch test’.  In the arch test, to prove maleness, it was necessary to be able to urinate in an arch.  The urine had to be able to go upwards.  Failing the arch test was evidence that a person was not male.   Simply having a penis was not sufficient, in Biblical times, for a determination that someone was male.  With modern medicine we would consider hypospadias an inconvenience that could be corrected by surgery. There were many such tests.

As Christians, we have always seen the question differently.  In Galatians 3.28 Paul wrote There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. In Christ it no longer matters whether we are male or female.  As Christians we no longer need to ask the question.  God knows who we are, that is enough.

More detailed medical information can be found in:

John Hare’s chapter Hermaphrodites Eunuchs, and Intersex people: The Witness of Medical Science in Biblical Times and Today in Susannah Cornwall (ed) Intersex, Theology and the Bible

Julius Preuss, Biblical and Talmudic Medicine