A few days ago, the “dating service” Tinder unveiled that their app would no longer allow users to only identify as male or female but now had transgender options. As Albert Mohler put it, tongue firmly in-cheek,
“Tinder was a part of the problem until November 15, 2016. It was a part of the oppressive patriarchal regime. But all that changed with just one announcement on one day and now Tinder according to the New York Times and others is joining the right side of history.”
Indeed. And here we note that when given the option to identify as “transgender”, between 1 in 215 or 300 (depending on the study) will do so. On the other hand, the numbers are much lower for “those who are formally diagnosed with Gender Dysphoria or who present at specialty clinics” (more like 1 in 10,000 to 13,000 for males and 1 in 20,000 to 34,000 in females). (Yarhouse, 92, 99-100).
That kind of fact hits me hard, driving me to reflection on this issue. How should Christians respond to the transgender revolution, as we are relentlessly told that this is “where history is going”? In America, even Republican President-Elect Donald Trump seemed unconcerned about the Obama administration’s efforts to cause American schools to change its bathroom policies.
A few things come to mind right away:
- Christians believe that God designed human beings as male and female and that this is intrinsically good, true, and beautiful. And as theologian Scott Stiegemeyer points out, this is not just some “secret knowledge” that Christians have. To the contrary, even if “attitudes toward gender identity these days might not favor the binary”, “the human reproductive system does.”
- As Focus on the Family’s Glen Stanton points out, even understanding the initials in LGBTQ involves depending, to some degree, on universally held binary assumptions.
- Paul McHugh, co-author of a recent report on sexuality in gender in the New Atlantis with Lawrence Mayer, states that “Without any fixed position on what is given in human nature, any manipulation of it can be defended as legitimate.”
Even so, among many Christians who are now exploring these matters there is a good degree of confusion about how best to proceed. First of all, many increasingly witness the struggle that their friends, family, or acquaintances have with this issue – and their compassion is rightly aroused. Second, there is the matter of the Bible’s witness. Even as Jesus upheld marriage between one man and woman (see, e.g., Matthew 19:1-9), He also did not blame the man born blind – or his parents – for his malady (see John 9). On the other hand, throughout the church’s history some have treated hermaphrodites (today we say “intersex”), for example, as if this certainly were the case with them.
Is it possible that Christ’s message to his disciples about the man born blind is His message for us today about those who struggle with transgender inclinations: namely, “this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him”? In other words, nothing that has gone wrong among us – things are “not the way it’s supposed to be”! – can’t be redeemed in Him. Due to the ravages of original sin, we are all “disabled” in the same and different ways – some of us having particularly difficult crosses to bear.
Christian therapist Mark Yarhouse, in his book Undertanding Gender Dysphoria, attempts to lay out what is at stake when it comes to transgender issues, and the church’s appropriate response:
“…it should not be underestimated that gender dysphoria, insofar as it may be experienced by varying degrees by many different kinds of people who fall under the transgender umbrella, represents an issue within our culture that is hugely symbolic. In the context of the social and cultural discussions and debates (and political wars) surrounding sex and gender and ethics, it represents to some an opportunity to challenge structures of authority that they have experienced as oppressive. To others it represents an effort to deconstruct meaningful designations of sex and gender. To still others it may represent great pain and hardship that seem to offer few satisfying pathways to resolution.
The Christian community aces a unique challenge in rising above the culture wars and these symbolic dimensions as we think about how to engage both the broader culture and the individual who is navigating gender identity questions. There remains the theological challenge associated with thinking clearly about sex and gender, debates about essentialism and social constructivism, and theological anthropology and ethics. There also remains the pastoral challenge of how to translate the theological work into practical necessities and pastoral accommodations associated with compassionate care for the persons who are navigating gender incongruence in their lives. (p. 100).
Yarhouse is determined to put forward a faithful Christian perspective in a very nuanced and gentle manner, which I can certainly appreciate. On the one hand, I think he generally succeeds in this: there is much valuable insight – and perhaps empathy (not everyone to be sure!) – that one might gain from reading his book (especially chapters 5-7). At the very least, no one should blithely dismiss his talk about “complex choices” (60), the dangers of “reduc[ing] complexity to simplicity” (142), and the pressing need for Christian leaders to look to the medical and psychological community for assistance when it comes to healing (see 158).
On the other hand, I must agree with biblical scholar Robert Gagnon when he says that he finds Yarhouse to be overly accommodating (see a formal back and forth between them at First Things here and here). Yarhouse, for example, only emphasizes that Scripture is “a reliable guide” for a believer (29), and he constantly downplays the sex differences between men and women (even implying we should question the universality and stability in creation here!, see e.g. 42, 47, 150). Finally, I think that his “diversity framework” confuses the distinction between the celebration of “transgender identity” and the celebration of human community often found by those drawn together because of this phenomenon (see, e.g., 122, also see 59). In the end, I found his overall approach liable to create both unwarranted doubt and to chip away at what is appropriate Christian resolve.[i]
It is with this in mind that I put forward the following short list of the problems the transgender revolution presents. This list concedes only for the sake of argument (against the current best evidence, I believe[ii]) that transitioning (with or without surgery) away from one’s biological sex will most likely benefit an individual in the long-term (in terms of resolving their dysphoria and the issues that are often coupled with it). I am pointing out the implications for the neighbors of the person with gender dysphoria:
- While it is true that no male or female may want to be trans, the trans person definitely wants to be male or female! And there will be consequences of this idea – starting with some acceptance of the transgender displays those who transition say is essential to their well-being.[iii]
- Persons are not only their bodies, but they are, in part, their bodies. We are integrated people all the way through (to counter the idea that “gender” = what’s in head and “sex” = what’s between legs).
- In the Western world today, there is increasingly less stigma if you identify as transgender and we hear more and more that discouraging young children – who, it appears are able to be influenced by talk therapy treatments and more – from transitioning is not wise or right.[iv]
- Even if one is not affected by the growing acceptability – and even trendiness – of being trans, making the decision to transition in spite of this, what about others who are more liable to be swept up in the phenomenon?[v]
- Even if some identifying as transgender who attempt to transition sound reasonable and insist that they are not “mentally ill” or “disordered”, what about those who can’t make this case? Whose gender dysphoria seems inextricably related to deeper psychological issues? How can we say that some are reasonable and justified in taking measures as extreme as surgery while others are not?
- Why shouldn’t we let anyone who is at risk of committing suicide – even persons with what is called Body Integrity Identity Disorder, for example[vi] – have the surgeries they think will make them happy?
- And we come back to the importance of the material, concrete world we see and that is so foundational for all we do: is the strong-willed child who meets or knows well a MtF (a he who identifies as a she) and insists – in Emperor-has-no-clothes fashion (?) – that he is a he, simply to be dismissed?[vii]
- If the Church admits that efforts to transition should not be countered, how does it not discredit itself? What Alan Jacobs says to Christians who now want to say gay marriages can be holy, namely: “Either throughout your history or at some significant point in your history you let your views on a massively important issue be shaped largely by what was acceptable in the cultural circles within which you hoped to be welcome…”, can also be said about this issue.
- The 10 commandments and other law in line with the natural law, like Deuteronomy 22:5, cannot be put against the two great commandments to love God and neighbor.[viii]
Contrary to what the world will say, opposing the sale of the transgender revolution is not the opposition of individuals suffering from transgender inclinations: the malady of “gender dysphoria”. The world may increasingly see transgender identity not as something disordered but as something to celebrate, but the church cannot “go there” without a betrayal of all those Christ came to save.
As theologian Scott Stiegemeyer puts it:
“Satan attacks sexuality with such intensity because it is the conjugal union of man and woman, which is God’s most powerful image in the world. Unable to strike God himself, the enemy strikes God’s image! The Platonizing tendencies of our culture must be resisted and the goodness of the objective body confirmed” (p. 47, “How Do You Know Whether You are a Man or a Woman?”)
For it is by looking at the image of God in both male and female – and the uniting of the same in marriage, that we see a critical sign of the Lord’s salvation: God, in Christ and His cross and resurrection, re-united with His now sinful people in a marriage that we did not deserve, but that He longed to enact. Christ has defeated our enemies of sin, death, and the devil, and gives us confidence that there is a new heavens and earth – and new healing – to come. Contrary to the lie, our “best life” is most definitely not now.
Having had some experience interacting with Christians who suffer from gender dysphoria, I agree with Mark Yarhouse when he says “Once you enter into a discussion of pastoral care for people navigating gender dysphoria, the practical issues that surface require great wisdom and discernment.” That said, because of the Gospel message of God’s mercy for us in Christ, I submit that we must also quickly assert that those suffering from this malady will need to embrace their cross in suffering. Even as we – hopefully! – quickly lend our ears, hearts, and hands to help in this terrible, terrible burden. Otherwise, they will be increasingly liable to find “hope and life” (150) elsewhere, apart from Christ’s Church.
In sum, I think our primary message here should be this: “We commend and exalt all Christians with gender dysphoria who “fight the good fight” and resist transitioning. We want your cross to be our cross.”
(for those specifically interested in the topic of pastoral ministry to those suffering from gender dysphoria, I have, with the help of several pastors, put together this document which I hope many will find helpful).
Images: Tinder chart by Kayleeelizabeth888** (licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license) ; El Greco’s “Christ Healing the Blind” from Wikimedia Commons ; 14th century, Apostle Paul, Icon of a Deesis tier from Ubisi (Wikimedia Commons); Lord’s Supper from https://www.flickr.com/photos/waitingfortheword/8615802772 (Attribution 2.0 Generic [CC by 2.0])
[i] In addition, Yarhouse speaks of social constructivism, even saying that we must be humble in “articulating a biblical witness about important constructs in this area (157),” but does not really address how this way of thinking about thinking tends to, in practice, amount to the mind and soul-killing philosophy of social constructionism. The dangers here are very real, as I argue here.
[ii] In one robust Swedish study of post-operative transsexuals, it was determined that their suicide rates were 19 times higher than that of the general population… “although Dhejne and colleagues state that it is possible that ‘things might have been even worse without sex reassignment.’”
That claim, however, might be a bit far-fetched. According to Anne Hendershott (director of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio), summing up a UCLA study, transgender persons in general – not taking into account transitioning vis surgery – have suicide rates that are only roughly 8-9 times that of the regular population: “In her suicide attempt, [whistleblower Chelsea] Manning joins the more than 41 percent of those identifying as “transgender” or gender nonconforming who have attempted suicide, compared with 4.6 percent of the overall U.S. population who report a lifetime suicide attempt.”
[iii] Gagnon also writes, for example:
“How far should Christians following Yarhouse’s suggestions go? For example, can a man who feels that he is a woman use the church’s restroom for females? Can he expect the church to respect his choice of romantic partner, whether a woman (in a pretend lesbian relationship) or a man (in an actual homosexual relationship)? Can he even compel the pastor’s performance of his marriage ceremony to either sex, claiming that otherwise he will feel estranged from the church? And what if the offender has children distressed and confused by his wrong choices?”
[iv] University of Toronto researcher and therapist Kenneth Zucker used “talk therapy, parent-arranged play dates with same-sex peers, …parent counseling” and more to treat children with gender dysphoria. They found Gender Identity Disorder (old term) persisted in only three of the 25 children that they treated with the condition. Canada no longer allows him to practice.
[v] Quoted in Stiegelmeyer, Concordia Theological Quarterly, 2015:
“It may be that one reason for the reticence of the psychological community to establish BIID [Body Integrity Identity Disorder] as a disorder in the DSM-5 is the indirect effect this could have. “To use Ian Hacking’s term, psychiatric categories have a ‘looping’ effect: once in play, people use them to construct their identities, and this in turn reinforces their reality as medical conditions . . . . The very awareness of a disorder can contribute to its proliferation.” Tim Bayne and Neil Levy, “Amputees by Choice: Body Integrity Identity Disorder and the Ethics of Amputation,” Journal of Applied Philosophy 22, no. 1 (2005): 85.”
[vi] From a 2012 Guardian article, which notes at least one person who was in danger of committing suicide if not having the surgery he thought he needed:
“Most BIID sufferers….describe their feelings in terms in terms of identity…. “My left foot is not a part of me,” said one of Smith’s patients. “It feels right,” says another sufferer, “the way I should always have been and for some reason in line with what I think my body ought to have been like.” “I didn’t understand why,” says yet another, “but I knew I didn’t want my leg.”
…while there can be a sexual component to the condition, most BIID sufferers do not give sexual motives for wanting an amputation. This led Michael First, a psychiatrist at Columbia University in New York, to remane the condition. He initially considered calling it “amputee identity disorder,” but then settled with BIID.
To date, there have been approximately 300 documented cases of BIID.”
As an adolescent, I had to be careful about how I dressed. I always had to ask myself how he would react to my outfit. Would it make him so envious that he’d “borrow” it (without my consent, of course)? I began to hate my body. It was a constant reminder of what my father wanted to become. When I began to wear makeup, I had to block out the images I had of him applying makeup or eye shadow or lipstick. He was destroying my desire to become a woman….”
[viii] One of our fathers in the faith, Ambrose of Milan, puts it well: “if you consider it truly, there is an incongruity that nature itself abhors. For why, man, do you not want to appear to be what you were born as? Why do you put on a strange guise? Why do you ape a woman? Or why do you, woman, ape a man?” Commenting on Deuteronomy 22:5, he goes on to say: “Nature arrays each sex with its own garments. Men and women have different customs, different complexions, gestures and gaits, different sorts of strength, different voices.” (Letter 15 .2.) I looked at about 12 commentaries on Deuteronomy 22:5, particularly 7 released in the past 8 years or so, and while some think this may be addressing transvestite practices in Canaanite religion (even here note that this is not separated from, but goes hand in hand with, the concern for moral order – see Lundbom’s 2013 commentary, pp. 616-617), only one commentary I recall suggested this exclusively (Christensen, 2002). Block’s 2012 Zondervan commentary is typical when it says “this injunction seeks to preserve the order built into creation” (p. 512). Even the new commentaries published by more liberal publishers (Abingdon, WJK, and Smyth & Helwys), perhaps eager to point out the Old Testament’s backwardness, agree. Also, it is not only in this present age that persons deal with what we now call “gender dysphoria”.