The Mailbag: Church Roles and Ambiguous Anatomy


I’m curious to know if someone who is medically intersex should be considered a man or a woman for the purposes of appropriate church roles. I’m not sure if the Bible addresses that or not. 

According to the National Institutes of Health, “Intersex is a group of conditions where there is a discrepancy between the external genitals and the internal genitals (the testes and ovaries). The older term for this condition is hermaphroditism.” In other words, a person could have XX chromosomes (genetically female) and ovaries, yet the external genitalia appears male (i.e. penis instead of vagina), or vice versa for a genetic (XY) male. There are also some other genetic anomalies that result in intersex, and a wide variety of genital anomalies not related to sexual identity that fall under the category of “intersex”.

(And just so we’re all on the same page here, “medically intersex” refers to a congenital abnormality– a birth defect. It does not mean, nor does the reader who sent in this question mean, a physically/genetically normal man or woman who has decided to mutilate his/her body with surgery to appear to be the opposite sex. That’s different. Also, the reader who sent in the question is not asking whether or not a medically intersex person may be saved or may be a church member. She is only asking how the biblical roles for men and women in the church {i.e. preaching/teaching/leadership roles} apply to a medically intersex person, so that is the question I’m answering.)

But because “intersex” has become something of a catch-all term for a so many genetic defects related to chromosomal abnormalities and/or internal reproductive organ abnormalities and/or external genital abnormalities, it’s nearly impossible to answer a question like, “How common is medical intersex?”. But even the (now defunct) Intersex Society of North America (an advocacy group, which we can probably safely surmise would be fairly liberal/over-generalized in its statistics) estimates that only .05-.07% (half of 1%) of babies at birth have genitalia so ambiguous that they require a consult by a sex specialist, and far fewer end up needing surgery to correct these anomalies.

Now, keep in mind that, as I said, that .05-.07% is the total estimate for a wide variety of reproductive and genital anomalies, many of which do not affect sexual identity. So the number of people who are genetically female with male genitals or genetically male with female genitals (what the reader who sent in this question is referring to) is only a fraction of that .05-.07%. In other words, it’s an extremely rare condition.

So, take that very tiny number of people and add on the qualifiers for this reader’s question. The medically intersex person has to get through the narrow gate of salvation (because unsaved people don’t have “church roles,” as they’re not part of the church, and, naturally, shouldn’t be serving or leading in the church in any way whatsoever). Now your numbers have gone from tiny to tinier. Now, whittle those numbers down even further: the person not only has to be saved, but has to have a doctrinally sound understanding of the roles of men and women in the church, the person has to desire a position of leadership or servanthood in which the biblical role of men/women is an issue (for most positions in the church, it generally isn’t), the person has to be otherwise biblically qualified to serve in that role (e.g. above reproach, sober-minded, etc.), and the person has to find and become a member of a doctrinally sound church that actually follows the Bible’s teachings on the roles of men and women in the church.

Now your numbers have gone from “tinier” to, “Get me the strongest electron microscope in existence.” Statistically speaking, this is never going to be an issue in any doctrinally sound church.

But it’s interesting to think about.

There isn’t a Bible passage that describes medical intersex and whether or not a person so afflicted may or may not serve in the role of pastor, elder, deacon, preaching to/teaching Scripture to men, holding authority over men, or older women teaching the younger women (the church roles assigned to either only males or only females).

The closest the Bible comes to addressing this issue is in Leviticus 21:16-23, which says that a man with crushed testicles may not serve as a priest in the temple. However, this passage does not apply to the question at hand for a couple of reasons, which are abundantly clear if you read the passage in context.

First of all, “crushed testicles” is only one condition in a litany of other physical abnormalities which disqualified a man (only men could serve as priests) from the priesthood. And the reason for this had nothing to do with sexual identity. The reason men with physical “blemishes” couldn’t be priests was basically the same reason that when you brought an animal for sacrifice, it had to be perfect, free of any physical defect: It symbolically pointed ahead to the perfection of Christ. Christ was not only the unblemished Lamb of God, our perfect sacrifice, He is also our perfect high priest. That’s why both the Old Testament sacrifice and priest had to be “without blemish”.

Second, although there are some similarities between the Old Testament temple and the New Testament church, they are two distinctly different entities with different qualifications for leadership. This is easy to see if you compare some of the requirements for the Old Testament priesthood with the requirements for pastors of New Testament churches. Other than the fact that the pastorate is restricted to men, there are no physical requirements for pastors. Certainly we would not say that a man who is blind or has psoriasis is disqualified from being a pastor strictly on the basis of those conditions, would we? Yet these men (and others with all types of physical “blemishes,” including crushed testicles) were disqualified from the priesthood.

So, having no direct biblical passages to go on, here are a few thoughts…

  • Such a unique situation that isn’t directly addressed by Scripture will need to dealt with on a case by case basis by the pastor, elders, and church leadership.
  • The medically intersex person who meets all of the qualifiers I outlined above should set up an appointment with his/her pastor, explain the medical condition, explain whether he/she has been living as a man or a woman, and why, and get pastoral counsel on which positions of service or leadership would be appropriate.
  • I would think it would be helpful for the medically intersex person’s current pastor to contact his/her former pastor for insight on how the situation was handled at his/her previous church. The current pastor might end up making different decisions than the previous pastor, but getting the benefit of the previous pastor’s experience would seem to me to be beneficial.
  • The medically intersex person seeking to serve the church has probably already established an identity (dressing, behaving, considers him/herself as, presenting as) as a man or a woman in his/her daily life. Taking that into consideration and weighing all of the other factors and details, church leadership may prayerfully consider it appropriate to let this person function in the church as the sex he/she identifies as. In other words, if the person has established an identity as a woman (she considers herself a woman, dresses/acts like a woman, her family, friends, and others consider her to be a woman, etc.), it could be an appropriate decision to allow her to function as a woman in the church, following the Bible’s role for women in the church.
  • Another appropriate decision the church leadership might make would be to err on the side of caution and help the medically intersex person find a place of service that is not impacted by the Bible’s parameters for men and women in the church. Here and here are a couple of good jumping off points.

If the medically intersex person and his/her church leadership prayerfully come together seeking wisdom from the Lord, and trying to discern what is pleasing to the Lord, there is one biblical certainty about this situation: they can trust Him to direct their path.

If you have a question about: a Bible passage, an aspect of theology, a current issue in Christianity, or how to biblically handle a family, life, or church situation, comment below (I’ll hold all questions in queue {unpublished} for a future edition of The Mailbag) or send me an e-mail or private message. If your question is chosen for publication, your anonymity will be protected.