Nearly everyone now says gender is a social construct and therefore fluid or a spectrum rather than a binary. Many conservatives dismiss or ridicule them while many progressives chant them enthusiastically. Rachel Doelzal (now Nkechi Amare Diallo) uses skin darkener, hair dye, and gets her hair permed in order to be a light-skinned black woman. She claims “race is a social construct” and considers herself “trans-black.” But no one has stopped to ask what we mean by “social,” how it constructs anything, and what God thinks of social constructs. Let me take a few moments to consider these questions.
By “social constructs” what I believe we mean are generally agreed upon definitions of what we expect of people. When you see photos from the ‘40s and ‘50s, men commonly wore jackets and ties and hats. Now men wear them (minus the hats) in more formal settings. In Burma men commonly wear long skirts tied at their wastes with a particular kind of knot and carry their belongings what we would call purses. Likewise, they wear suits in more formal situations. So what we mean by “social” is what we agree upon. Social constructs are the rules that societies have so people can live together.
How these rules are made is immensely complex. In older societies, they are rooted in deep traditions. For example, a friend from New York was surprised when she went to a party in the Midwest and saw people sit down. She said in New York you would never sit down at a party because it would be rude. The society in New York is older than it is in Chicago; Chicago was at one time considered the frontier. The further West you move across America, the more lax the rules get yet there are rules or constructs. Constructs are formed by things like tradition, media, necessity of survival, reaction against old rules, influences from other societies, etc.
A friend of mine says that culture is the stories we tell ourselves and I think he’s on to something. Our social constructs rise from the stories we tell ourselves because that’s where our culture comes from. Movies and TV from the 1940s and ‘50s reinforced the idea that a woman’s place is in the home. And so it was till the 70s when Mary Tyler Moore, a 1960s TV stay-at-home mom, entered the work force with her own TV show. That Girl, Marlo Thomas, had her own career and a boyfriend she didn’t depend on. Enjoli perfume promised women “I can bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan, and never let your forget you’re a man.” The story we told ourselves changed from “a woman’s place is in the home” to “a woman can do it all and have it all.”
Social constructs are complex and malleable. They arise from complex sources but they aren’t as irrelevant as Doelzal and transgender activism. And that leads us to the third point: what does God think of social constructs? As it turns out, he pays attention to them and may judge them when they deviate too far from what is right.
I get this from the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. In Genesis 18 God says that the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah was great and their sin was very grave. What exactly did they do wrong? Gay rights advocates point to Ezekiel 16:48-49, which says the cities had become proud and didn’t care for the poor and needy. Those who support tradition sexual ethics note that Jude 7 says it was for their “sexual immorality” and “unnatural desire”. These charges answer to what God had originally said about Sodom and Gomorrah. The outcry of the poor and needy was great against them and their demand “to know” Lot’s visitors was a sexual sin which echoed in Judges 19.
Social constructs enter in to this when you remember that “the men of the city, the men of Sodom, both young and old, all the people to the last man, surrounded the house” and demanded Lot hand over the angels. The sexual nature of their demand is clear when Lot counter-offers his virgin daughters. Why would “all the people to the last man” of Sodom demand such a thing? Because their society had cast off any concept of caring about non-Sodomites, they turned their backs on the poor and needy and threw off sexual restraint so that they would rape strangers. This was their social construct. The story they told themselves appears to have been that they were the center of the universe and it was right to indulge themselves. And God judged them for it.
Social constructs are real, they are fluid, yet they matter. Doelzal is right, race is a social construct but ethnicity is biological. Those of African descent are genetically identifiable, so are males and females. Those things cannot change as society wishes. How society treats and expresses those things can change however. African Americans have long been treated with disrespect and suspicion in the broader White culture. Male and female roles and expectations have changed over time. If we, like Sodom and Gomorrah, allow our social constructs to become so fluid that how we treat the disadvantaged poorly or if we cast off sexual ethics, we’re in danger of provoking God’s judgment as a society, as individuals. Because society are made up of individuals.
And that’s where there is good news. Though Sodom and Gomorrah’s social constructs disintegrated, God would never sweep up righteous Lot (2 Pet. 2:7) in the judgment due unrighteous Sodom. We needn’t fear social constructs of the culture we live in nor must we participate in them. Instead, as part of the mix that constitutes culture, we can add in the prophetic call to God’s definition of right and wrong, actual righteousness. And we can call people to flee the coming judgment by leading them to trust in Christ.