Standing Firm in a Culture of Gender Confusion

By Chris Priestley    |    September 4, 2023

Topic:    

I pastor a church in West Virginia, the final frontier for every trend, fad, and advance of progressivism. Yet, even out here, the confusion of gender ideology has arrived and sunk its roots deep into our culture. Here, as in the rest of the nation, a toxic war rages around the idea of masculinity—and caught in the very center of the conflict, with casualties stacking up at a breakneck pace, are our nation’s young men. Some are responding by rejecting their masculinity as a poison, many are tragically taking their own lives, and a growing number are taking a “red pill” and imitating the most extreme characterizations of the worst sinful proclivities of men.1 Some young women are reacting by embracing the #tradwife movement and replicating 1950s gender stereotypes for a 2020s social media audience, while the majority of young women continue racing towards progressivism and its gender ideology, even as growing mental health troubles and dissatisfaction with life keep pace.2

Our culture is confused about gender, but so are our churches. A casual stroll downtown in my city will carry me past half a dozen apostate churches that fly rainbow flags outside their cathedrals—while inside, female pastors lead white-haired crowds in reciting sparkle creeds to a non-binary god. Among the faithful churches that still profess the gospel, many pastors avoid teaching or speaking clearly about gender and sexuality. Where does that leave the men and women in our churches who are caught in the crosshairs of confusion? At Crossroads Church, we have members redeemed out of gender dysphoria and homosexuality, striving to live faithfully. We have members who have been threatened with disciplinary action in their workplace if they omit their pronouns in their e-mail signatures. We recently had a visiting boy tell his Sunday school teachers that he is a girl who goes by “they/them.”

Amid such gender confusion and warfare, how should pastors respond and engage? I find Paul’s closing words to the struggling church at Corinth to be of help. Paul writes, “be watchful, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong. Let all that you do be done in love” (1 Cor. 16:13–14).

Be Watchful

Paul’s first admonition is watchfulness. It is tempting to choose avoidance over watchfulness. Like the fabled reaction of an ostrich to danger, some of us pastors stick our heads in the sand––either choosing to remain unaware of our surroundings or pretending that any dangers are so far away that our own families and churches will never be impacted. This approach remains naïve to the extent and influence of human depravity, and it neglects pastoral care for the Christians in our churches who are struggling against internal sinful desires and external cultural pressures. In contrast to this temptation of avoidance, Paul charges each Christian at Corinth to be a watchful soldier with an ear to the ground, an eye to the times, and a finger to the wind. Troops must be watchful and alert in battle and must not fall asleep on the job. Watchfulness is the vocabulary of warfare, and there are four main directions in which pastors must exercise that watchfulness.

The first direction of watchfulness is to look out. Pastors must stay aware of the dangers, arguments, and enemies outside the church. In one sense, there is nothing new under the sun. Since the fall, recorded in Genesis 3, people have experienced inordinate desires (like Lamech, who took too many wives) and people have experienced disordered desires (like the Sodomites, who went after strange flesh). The Corinthians, to whom Paul wrote this charge, practiced the exploitation of effeminate boys whom they shaved, dressed up like girls, and brought to men at feasts for their wicked pleasure.3 Some of those boys were likely included among the number who were “washed, sanctified, justified, in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ,” mentioned in 1 Corinthians 6:9. I find that comforting because it shows that the depravity we are up against in our towns and churches today is not new. Idolatry has always been evidenced by sexual sin (Exod. 32:6). Wherever Jesus is not worshiped, the beauty of biblically faithful gender and marriage appears bizarre to the surrounding culture and to every sinful heart.

In another sense, there is a novelty to the gender confusion in our cultural moment. It is spreading like a social contagion among young girls, who are choosing new pronouns and gender identities in groups.4 Among boys who exhibit gender identity confusion, the majority had mothers with depression or bipolar disorder.5 It would be inappropriate for us as pastors to let our newsfeeds set our sermon calendars, yet it would be pastoral malpractice for us to avoid the issue or to neglect to speak with conviction and clarity from the Bible on gender and sexuality. Our culture is not failing to disciple our members and children in lies (often through their parents).

The second direction of watchfulness is to look around. Pastors must be watchful of the struggles within the churches we pastor. If the church at Corinth included a man who was sleeping with his mother-in-law, then we cannot think gender confusion stops at the entrance of our church buildings. Is the culture, conviction, and teaching of the churches we pastor a place where it is obviously good, beautiful, and sane to embrace God’s good design of gender and sexuality? Wherever Christians go, they are pressured, tempted, and counted as insane for believing what is plainly true; it must not be so in our churches. Our churches should be places where the glory of the Gospel displayed in gender, marriage, and sex needs no apology and is not minimized but expressed, enjoyed, and articulated as a good gift from God.

The third direction of watchfulness is to look within. Pastor, examine yourself. Where is your own heart oriented towards lust, cowardice, envy, bitterness, or unbelief? Watchfulness includes a call to personal vigilance in repentance, in prayer, and in the ordinary means of grace that fuel communion with Jesus.

The fourth direction of watchfulness is to look ahead. Be watchful of what is to come, or more significantly, who is to come. Jesus is returning, and he is making all things new. Such hopeful farsightedness keeps us from a hand-wringing watchfulness in the present. We do not only keep an eye on the crazy in front of us, but we also keep an eye on the sky–where the Lord Jesus reigns from the throne– and we are filled with joy, confidence, and gratitude.

May it be said of pastors what was said of the sons of Issachar, “They were men who understood the times . . . to know what Israel should do” (1 Chron. 12:32).

Stand Firm in the Faith

Paul’s second admonition is to stand firm. Paul apparently expects in hard times that some will not stand firm in the faith. One temptation, when the wave of culture sweeps in, is denying the goodness of gender, marriage, and sexual complementarity that God created. Instead, the church is tempted to hop on that cultural wave and pretend that the Bible can somehow be twisted to affirm whatever the culture decided was true ten minutes ago. Too many pastors are happy to be “tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine” (Eph. 4:14) as long as it does not harm their platform and reach. Many claimed to be complementarian and gospel-centered a decade ago when it was more “in season,” yet now, that cultural winds have shifted and that truth is “out of season,” they now affirm sin and deny the Bible. More subtly, some pastors only talk about gender and sexuality with an apology, as though the good design of God is a necessary evil we must begrudgingly accept. In contrast, Paul calls Christians to stand firm.

The faith is not a Build-A-Bear project—pastors picking their favorite parts, filling it up with fluff, and taking home something cute that everyone will like.”

—Chris Priestley

He instructs us to stand firm in “the faith” because it is not simply one faith among many. The gospel of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection for spiritually dead sinners is the only gospel given among men by which we must be saved. That faith is received, defended, and handed down; it is not created each generation. The faith is not a Build-A-Bear project—pastors picking their favorite parts, filling it up with fluff, and taking home something cute that everyone will like. However great the hostility we encounter, we must not minimize the parts of the faith that contrast most starkly with our culture’s idols and ideology. Those are the very points on which we must stand firm, disciple, preach, teach, study, and engage faithfully.

Every century faces its primary doctrinal attacks. Battles raged over the divinity of Christ in the fourth century, the human nature of Christ in the sixth century, and now anthropology in our own. Such battles serve to test and strengthen the church when they are met with greater clarity and conviction from the Word. Such battles serve to sift the church of wheat and tares so that that which is solid will remain. To stand firm in the faith in a culture of gender confusion requires clarity, in particular on gender, sexuality, and sanctification.

Our culture teaches that gender is an individual assignment determined inside out, from internal feelings and desires outward toward personal expression. The Bible teaches us that our gender is given to us from on high as a blessed gift of God from the outside in. “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Gen. 1:27). Though we are all fallen and may experience gender dysphoria, by the grace of God in Christ, we are not what we feel we are or what others tell us we are; we are what God says we are. In Christ, grace restores our nature as men or women.

In our churches, pastors can restore clarity in part by moving away from the unhelpful language of “gender roles in marriage and the church,” which communicates that men and women are essentially androgynous and interchangeable outside of marriage and the church. Such egalitarianism is no more than functional transgenderism. The truth is that each person is either male or female, regardless of whether we marry or not, regardless of whether we are in a church building or not. Pastors can counter this cultural confusion, in part, by discipling men and women into the inherent goodness of what it means to be a man or a woman.

Our culture views sexuality as a form of individual self-expression. The Bible teaches us, however, that God gave that sexuality for fruitfulness through the union of sexual difference within the covenant of marriage. As sons of Adam and daughters of Eve, sinful men and women are born with a sin nature and will likely experience disordered or inordinate sexual desires. We as pastors can bring clarity by teaching that the purpose of sexuality is essentially creative. Any desires contrary to that good design must be repented of in faith, submitted to Christ in obedience, and (if married) directed towards a spouse in love.

Our culture teaches that anyone who experiences gender dysphoria or disordered sexual desires cannot change and, indeed, must not change. Our churches add to the confusion when we teach an inept theology of change that promises that all experiences of temptation will be instantly removed at conversion or that sanctification is impossible for men and women experiencing sinful attractions or gender dysphoria. Nothing is more dehumanizing to people and belittling of the gospel than teaching men and women who struggle with gender dysphoria or same-sex attraction than saying, “the gospel can change liars, drunks, adulterers, fornicators, porn addicts, and anyone else . . . except you.” Our churches must have and offer clarity on progressive sanctification—real change is really possible in Christ. Jesus died and rose, not so that all our temptations might be immediately eradicated, but that they might be increasingly overcome by growing faith in our Savior, as we are transformed by his Spirit from one degree of glory to another (2 Cor. 3:18).

Act Like Men, Be Strong

Paul’s third admonition is to “act like men.” Paul writes this command to a church full of Christians struggling through suffering, expecting that all of them would understand what that means. Do the men and women in your church know what that command means? Do you? Paul calls the whole church at Corinth to exhibit fortitude and refuse to yield to societal pressure.

As Christians in our churches grapple with unwanted sinful desires within and a growing hostility without, they will stumble if they fight without a robust theology of suffering. God is not only glorified in what we do for him in faith but also in what we bear for him in faithfulness (2 Cor. 4:17). Our endurance through suffering, including our struggle against the temptation of sinful desires, is not a sign of God’s abandonment but rather, it is a battleground wherein Jesus can be revealed as what is most valuable to us.

With enduring faith in Jesus, our churches will outlast the world.”

—Chris Priestley

Pastors too may yield to oncoming pressure, if they are led by a love of comfort or approval. There are enough verses in the Bible and pages in church history filled with persecution to prove that we can be as loving and kind as humanly possible and still be hated. Jesus was. That realization is not permission to be a jerk. However, as I have heard Pastor Doug Ponder say, “We must let Jesus define what it means to be a jerk.” If believing the Bible and speaking the truth is labeled hate speech, misogynistic, homophobic, or transphobic, then we must get used to being called names and choose to rest in the approval and love of God.

Church history records that Paul’s spiritual son Timothy died as an old man protesting a pagan festival in Ephesus. The pagans of his day dressed in costumes and marched through the streets committing debauchery and singing and shouting in praise of their goddess. Along the way they began harming women, until pastor Timothy rebuked them by preaching, “Men of Ephesus, do not rage in idolatry, but clearly recognize him who is God.”6 Indignant and undeterred, they beat Timothy with sticks, dragged him through the streets as part of the parade, and finally left him for dead. Like Timothy, Pastors should go first in refusing to yield and, instead, standing firm in a culture of gender confusion. We have members of our churches whose jobs are on the line—in the medical profession, in the universities, in the schools—if they do not capitulate and lie to their students and patients. Pastors cannot wait for the Overton window of acceptable discourse to shift before we begin to act like men and be strong. We must not refuse to preach clearly and with conviction in areas where our own members are facing pressure. Instead, we must support our congregations and heed Paul’s words by modeling courageous conviction with compassionate speech.

Let All That You Do Be Done in Love

Paul’s final admonition is to “let all that you do be done in love.” What if the churches we pastor were to out-love the culture in its farcical claims of love? Of course, such love must be defined by Jesus and not by our world. Love is not love; God is love. Love accords with God, his character, his Word, his law, and his gospel. We must say what is good, show what is good, and love what is good. It is good to be a man. It is good to be a woman. It is good to repent of disordered sexuality and embrace God’s good design. I believe there is no greater force against the onslaught of rage in our culture than holy joy in the Lord and love for the life that he has given us. Preach the gospel; disciple men to become men of valor without shame; disciple women to become noble women of character without fear. Invite other men and women into that community to taste and see that the Lord and all his ways are good. It is that love that the world can only cheaply plagiarize. It is that love out of which we are called to act.

As fellow pastor Michael Clary helpfully points out, love looks different depending on the audience.7 John Calvin wrote, “A pastor needs two voices, one for gathering the sheep and the other for driving away wolves and thieves.”8 Likewise, there’s a difference in the way we ought to approach speaking to a struggling individual who has drunk deeply from the lies of our culture and is ensnared in sin and deception and the way we ought to approach destroying strongholds, arguments, and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God.

We love struggling individuals who are caught up in the gender confusion of our culture. We love them by treating them not as enemies but as prisoners of war who need to be redeemed by the Gospel. We love activists and wolves who are teaching for shameful gain what they ought not teach. We love them by naming, rebuking, and silencing them. We love naïve unbelievers who do not share the gender ideology of our age but go along with it to stay out of trouble. We love them by reasoning with them, educating them, and calling them to repentance and belief in the Gospel. We love nominal Christians who profess faith in Christ while denying God’s Word and design like Jesus loved the church at Laodicea. We love them by exposing their unbelief and calling them to repent and obey Jesus. We love faithful Christians who are standing firm and overcoming their struggles with their own sins with faith in Jesus. We love them by supporting, strengthening, and encouraging them and by reminding them that they are sane, Jesus is Lord, and the future is on his side.

The tide of gender transitioning and sexual experimentation will turn. When it does, men and women who have drunk deeply from its depths and found only pain and despair at the bottom will need hope. May our churches be there, ready and waiting. May our churches not be there wagging our fingers or shaking our heads in disappointment or having abandoned the faith, but rather be there still lifting up Jesus and opening our arms to out-love and out-welcome every broken and contrite sinner who repents and believes. With enduring faith in Jesus, our churches will outlast the world. So be watchful, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong, and let all that you do be done in love.

  1. See Nancy R. Pearcey, The Toxic War on Masculinity (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2023).
  2. Catherine Gimbrone et al., “The Politics of Depression: Diverging Trends in Internalizing Symptoms among US Adolescents by Political Beliefs,” SSM – Mental Health 2 (2022): 100043, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ssmmh.2021.100043.
  3. Ben Witherington III, A Week in the Life of Corinth (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2012), 69. 
  4. Abigail Shrier, Irreversible Damage (Washington, DC: Regnery Publishing, 2020).
  5. Sonia Marantz et al., “Mothers of Boys with Gender Identity Disorder: A Comparison of Matched Controls,” Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry 30, no. 2 (1991): 310–15.
  6. Recorded by Polycrates in Lance Pierson, In the Steps of Timothy (Leicester: InterVarsity Press, 1995), 211.
  7. Indebted to Pastor Michael Clary for first making this observation. Michael Clary, Twitter post, April 3, 2023, 3:24PM, https://twitter.com/dmichaelclary/status/1642971286249848834.
  8. John Calvin, 1, 2 Timothy and Titus, Crossway Classic Commentaries (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1998), 184.
Chris Priestley

Chris Priestley is pastor of Crossroads Church in Morgantown, W.Va.

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