April 25, 2015
In light of the ABC Bruce Jenner interview, what questions can Christians ask to help formulate a grace-filled, Biblical theology on transgender identity?
Deuteronomy 22:5 does not make the church "unsafe" for people struggling with sexual identity. Indeed, it instructs all that the greatest happiness comes from accepting oneself as God created. There are also passages relating to bodily mutilation that please God when they are followed. Leviticus 19:28
One of the heartbreaking things about Jenner’s comments is that he seems to believe his transgender identity is something God did just to mess with him. (“Let’s see how he deals with that.”) This understanding, while a mischaracterization of God to my mind, does echo something most Christians agree with: the world, and we, are broken. Given that Jenner describes his gender dysphoria as part of that brokenness, I wonder if this is a helpful starting point for us in trying to offer a theological response.
As Christians, we try to meet the brokenness in the world in a way that will best allow for the sort of human flourishing that God originally intended. We won’t ever be able to perfect things – that’s what Christ is for – but we can work alongside Him toward restoration. Say, develop a prosthetic limb for someone born without an arm. Surely Jenner has not been in a state of flourishing for much of his life, considering he spoke of suffering from depression and suicidal thoughts. Could embracing who he feels he is “inside” – perhaps even going so far as gender reassignment surgery - be considered a path toward flourishing, a work of restoration?
This is a troubling article. As Christians we should be dedicated to truth, tempered by love. The truth is that Bruce Jenner is a man. He and others who are confused about their gender are harmed when Christian pastors encourage that dysphoria, describing it as "innate", thereby facilitating a sinful way of thinking and acting.
I wonder if a true pastoral response might hypothetically look something like this:
[Bruce Jenner confides in a Christian pastor and asks for advice]
"Bruce, God made you male, and He loves you more than you could ever grasp. In fact He gave His life for you on the Cross, to save you from His righteous wrath against your sins.
And as much as this may hurt, out of obedience to God and faithfulness to His Word, I must tell you the truth.
God's design for us as males is to flourish in masculinity.
But we live in a sin-soaked, broken, fallen world, and the created order of God is always being twisted, reversed and perverted. This brings strife and despair into our lives, and God hates it. Our sinfulness "crouches at the door" and desires to have us. But God would have us master it through the power of Christ.
Bruce, this desire you have to act, dress - to be - the gender opposite to the one our loving God created you to be, is a sinful desire. God gave prohibitions against men dressing like women, men laying with men as they would a woman, men being effeminate, etc. That's because God's good design in His created order was for men to be men and women to be women. To go against that, no matter how strong our feelings may be, is both irrational and sinful. And Jesus did not go to the Cross so that we could stay ensnared in sin. Instead, He wants to set us free from it so that we can be made whole and serve Him in His Kingdom.
So, Bruce, we want to do everything we can to help you be free of these sinful desires, obey the Word of God and walk in His blessing. It seems to me that you're a healthy man physically. Perhaps some counseling is needed to help you get to the root of this issue - to help you, through solid professional counseling and sound Biblical teaching, to be "transformed by the renewing of your mind". Because to be honest, since you seem physically fit, the problem must lie in wrong thinking.
The bottom line is God loves you. We love you. We want the best for you, Bruce, and since as Christians we believe the Word of God, we know that a path which is rooted in sin and rebellion against your Maker will not end in blessing for you. The road may be a tough one, but we will be with you every step of the way.
And by the way, do you know Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior? Let me pray with you..."
This response to the Bruce Jenners of our day would no doubt be risky. Unpopular. Downright politically incorrect. It might even provoke litigation.
But what other response can a Christian give? To encourage someone to pursue the biologically impossible - a transition from one gender to another? No. This is to participate in a lie. As Dr. Paul McHugh, former Psychiatrist in Chief, Johns Hopkins, points out:
""Sex change" is biologically impossible. People who undergo sex-reassignment surgery do not change from men to women or vice versa. Rather, they become feminized men or masculinized women...encouraging surgical intervention is in reality to collaborate with and promote a mental disorder."
Jesus Christ is the Way,
and the Life.
Let us be people of truth, expressed in love.
Thanks anon, Josh, and 2cortenfour for your comments. Here are some of my thoughts...
Anon, you are right - following God's direction in Scripture absolutely leads to a fulfilling life. My point by quoting it in the question above was simply this: if Deuteronomy 22:5 is the only passage (or one of the only passages) directly contradicting men dressing as women, we need to be careful before we make a one-to-one connection with what is happening here with Bruce Jenner. As one of my seminary professors was fond of saying, we should shout where the Bible shouts and speak quietly where the Bible speaks quietly.
The question around bodily mutation is an interesting aspect that all three of you touch on. We often assume that transgender individuals must have had sexual reassignment surgery - but there is no reason we need to or should assume this. In fact, as the Diane Sawyer interview pointed out, it's actually perceived as quite rude and insensitive to focus so heavily upon it.
Even if we say that sexual reassignment surgery does in fact fall under our purview and is something we need to know whether or not Bruce Jenner undergoes, I think the broader Scriptural model we see is one where those who are "sexually mutilated" (eunuchs) are brought into the presence of God. When Philip meets the Ethiopian eunuch and baptizes him (Acts 8) he is fulfilling the promises made in Isaiah 56: "For this is what the Lord says: 'To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose what pleases me and hold fast to my covenant - to them I will give with my temple and its walls a memorial and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that will not be cut off" (56:4-5). There are certainly differences between transgender individuals who undergo sexual reassignment surgery and eunuchs of the ancient world. My point is this - the movement of Scripture from the Old to the New Testaments is one in which those whose physical sexual identity previously prevented them from being a part of the Covenant are now welcomed in to the people of God.
2cortenfour, your challenges all begin from two assumptions: first, that gender dysphoria is not, in fact, innate; second, that there is a clear, Biblical definition of what constitutes the male gender and what does not.
I'll start with the second: gender is not so easily defined. There was a time when agricultural work was properly "female" - no man would engage in farming (he had to hunt!) - now the opposite is true. There have been cultures where men wore kilts and dresses (the Romans considered the Germans complete barbarians for wearing pants). Gender expression is culturally constructed and depends upon our time and upon our place. My wife and I have had to identify and divide duties around the house by our interests, our skills, and our own physical limitations. I love to cook, she loves to build things. When we finally accepted these facts and stopped trying to live into unrealistic gendered expectations, our life improved dramatically! And so I think it's important that we be careful before we tell someone, "God's design for us as males is to flourish in masculinity." Frankly, I believe that God's design for me as a man is to flourish as the human being God made me.
To your first assumption: a growing body of research is suggesting that there is a complex mix of genetic, epigenetic, and prenatal factors that cause individuals to experience transgender. To say that the problem lies in "wrong thinking" is erroneous and dangerous. Countless transgender stories include trying to "fix" their thinking. The pain and anguish at being unable to do so is a contributing factor in many of the stories of heartbreak as well, all too often ending in suicide.
All of this leads to your question, Josh. I too found Jenner's framing troubling yet helpful. If, in fact, the experience of transgender has a biological and physical basis, then we may carefully and graciously wonder whether it should be viewed in a way similar to the way we consider other physical conditions. While by no means attempting to belittle the experience of transgender individuals, I have poor eyesight by nature. Without the assistance of lenses or lasers (mutilating my eyeballs) I would be unable to see clearly, unable to drive, unable to flourish. If God designed me with such poor eyesight, shouldn't I simply live with it? We certainly have no theological difficulty with correcting my eyesight - and, in many places, see it as a moral imperative to help those without access to basic medical care gain such access. We flourish when we embrace the gifts God has given us and live as the people God calls us to be, sometimes needing medical intervention to be those people.
Laser surgery to correct eyesight improves the proper function of the eyes. Surgery to amputate sexual organs destroys those organs. Gender reassignment surgery is more comparable to people who wish they didn't have arms or legs, and get them amputated. There are such people, and there are surgeons who cut off healthy limbs because people "feel on the inside" that they would be happier as amputees. It is a dreadful disorder to desire the destruction of healthy organs and limbs, and preachers should not aid and abet such destruction.
It is backward to suggest that gender is socially constructed and that transgender has a biological and physical basis. Bruce Jenner was born with a biological, physical body that was undeniably male.
Thanks for your response.
A man in a kilt is still a man. A woman who likes to build things is still a woman. Neither are rejecting their God-given gender.
My point is that Jenner, by God's sovereign choice, was born male. He will always be male, no matter how much he believes he is a woman or what procedures he might undergo. Only gender itself is truly innate. Barring birth defects, each of us is born genetically, biologically, either male or female. As Christ our Lord pointed out to those confused about marriage and divorce: "Have you not read that in the beginning the Creator made them male and female...?" (Matt 19)
And so the complementarity and distinction of the genders is an overarching theme in Scripture, and prohibitions against cross dressing, homosexual intercourse, etc, are based on this standard.
The deliberate blurring of the line between the genders is therefore sinful - a rejection of God's good created order.
Even if gender dysphoria were inborn, it would be like any other sinful tendency common to Mankind - something to repent of, lay at the foot of the Cross, and struggle against by the power of the Spirit and the mind-renewing sanctification of the Word of God.
The real danger lies in our capitulation to the spirit of the age, our muddying of the waters regarding God's perfect standard revealed in Scripture, and our failure to call sin "sin", rendering the Gospel superfluous. No sin, no need for a Savior.
Should we as Christians applaud those who promote and glorify a distortion of God's original "very good" design? Of course not. We should instead shine the light of His Word, exposing sin for what it is, and offer lost, confused and broken people like Bruce (not Caitlyn) Jenner the hope and freedom of true salvation through faith in Jesus Christ.
[Also: Thanks David Feddes for pointing out the erroneous analogy between LASIK surgery and genital mutilation]
Before claiming that transgender is innate, consider this: "When children who reported transgender feelings were tracked without medical or surgical treatment at both Vanderbilt University and London's Portman Clinic, 70%-80% of them spontaneously lost those feelings." Before suggesting that gender reassignment surgery promotes human flourishing, consider this: "About 10 years after having the surgery, the transgendered began to experience increasing mental difficulties. Most shockingly, their suicide mortality rose almost 20-fold above the comparable nontransgender population." In light of such findings, a leading psychiatrist writes, "This intensely felt sense of being transgendered constitutes a mental disorder in two respects. The first is that the idea of sex misalignment is simply mistaken—it does not correspond with physical reality. The second is that it can lead to grim psychological outcomes." http://www.wsj.com/articles/paul-mchugh-transgender-surgery-isnt-the-solution-1402615120
Even if we accept (for a moment) that Bruce Jenner feels like a female soul trapped in a male body, the fact remains that God created him with a perfectly healthy male body. And the question Bruce Jenner need to be asked is why does he want to surgically change his body, which God, in His sovereign wisdom, decided for him. Isn't it going against God's will and plan for him? Instead of surgically changing his body Jenner should work on psychologically changing his mind and be transformed by the renewing of his mind with God's Word.
Add your comment to join the discussion!