Denny Burk leads a workshop at the 2016 Conference of the Center for Pastor Theologians (Photo: John Lomperis / IRD)

November 29, 2016

How Should Evangelicals Think About Transgenderism?

How should evangelical Christians think about transgenderism – people feeling out of sync with their biological gender and consequently deciding to identify with, dress as, or even undergoing dramatic surgeries for the sake of conforming to the opposite sex?

Discussions of transgenderism typically get lumped in with discussions of homosexuality. After all, one of the recent major victories of LGBT activism was the 2012 success of years of political pressure on the American Psychiatric Association (APA) to stop including “gender identity disorder” among its list of recognized mental disorders.

However, the Bible does not really say as much directly about transgenderism, or the modern invention of sex reassignment surgery, as it does about homosexuality.

So how are Christians to think about transgenderism, and how should our churches minister with grace and truth to individuals who struggle with their gender identity?

This was one of the major topics addressed at the Center for Pastor Theologians’ recent conference in suburban Chicago on “Beauty, Order, and Mystery: The Christian Vision of Sexuality.”

A recurrent theme of the conference was that the importance of honoring how God had created us with male or female bodies, and it is with these identities that He has given us that we each of the calling of bearing the image of God, and that Christians’ ultimate hope is in a bodily resurrection in which our sexed identities will continue.

One of the speakers to most directly address transgenderism was the Rev. Dr. Jeremy Treat, senior pastor of the Reality LA mega-church and Adjunct Professor of Theology at Biola University.

Treat highlighted Bruce Jenner’s high-profile transformation into Caitlyn Jenner as an illustrative “cultural tipping point.”

Jenner “was such a man’s man as defined by our culture” but now presents and identifies as a woman. In an interview with Diane Sawyer, he had explained his choice to transition by citing Kanye West: “Look, I can be married to the most beautiful woman in the world, and I am. I can have the most beautiful little daughter in the world, and I have that. But I’m nothing if I can’t be me. If I can’t be true to myself, they don’t mean anything.” Treat observed that “you could almost feel America nodding along” as if these words pointed to obvious, shared truths.

But such an argument “only makes sense within a hyper-individualistic culture” that seeks fulfillment “in unfettered personal choice” rather than in relationship. Such an ethic elevates, above all, the authority of what Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor has termed “the sovereign self,” who unilaterally decides what is right for itself and then runs after it, with personal happiness as the ultimate goal.

While the old definition of freedom was being “able to live as you should,” our culture’s new definition of freedom is being “completely unfettered in doing whatever you want.” Within our culture’s individualistic worldview, “sex is about self-expression, not relating to another person deeply,” and “covenant is replaced with consent.”

But ultimately, “this coronation of self is a rebellion against God.” Allowing a biological male to enter a female bathroom or changing room on the sole basis of him saying he identifies as female amounts to an ethos of “I speak and it becomes reality.” Treat noted that this is “not just a rejection of deity, but a deification of self.”

The mega-church pastor urged three broad practices by church leaders:

  1. Listening. Since all people, “especially those of us who have been marginalized,” have a deep longing to be known, we need to meet this need.
  2. Apologizing. We need to not be afraid “to acknowledge our own failures and hypocrisies.” Treat stressed this as especially important for ministry with self-identified members of the LGBTQ community.
  3. Living out a different ethos. “It has taken the culture’s big shifts to remind the church that we have a distinctive sexual ethic,” Treat said, noting that this ironically offers the church the opportunity to find and proclaim its unique voice. While our culture’s new ethic is that “you cannot deny yourself,” Christian ethics “is the exact opposite of that.”

The pastor observed that people in our culture are ultimately not convinced by data and science but by “a more compelling narrative,” which is exactly what the church needs to offer.

Later, the Rev. Dr. Denny Burk, Professor of Biblical Studies at Boyce College, the undergraduate school of the Southern Baptist Theological, led a break-out workshop on how to think about transgenderism.

Burk began by urging sympathy and compassion, reading extensively from an emotional letter he received from the mother of a transgendered, male-to-female adult child in protest of a 2014 Southern Baptist Convention resolution on transgenderism that Burk authored (and which is worth reading in full here).

He noted, however, that many children experience some gender confusion growing up, and in most cases it gets resolved without extraordinary interventions by the time of puberty.  But now many parents are instead giving young children dramatic, long-term hormonal treatments for emotional confusions that may have simply gone away with a little time.

Burk observed that ministry with individuals struggling with transgenderism is a topic of some uncertainty and debate within American evangelicalism. While encouraging people to read Understanding Gender Dysphoria by Regent University Professor Mark Yarhouse, who Burk called “the go-to guy” for evangelical scholarship on transgenderism, Burk critiqued the book for remaining open to cross-dressing or even sex-reassignment surgery as acceptable even if not ideal options.

Burk noted that in recently reclassifying “gender identity disorder” as “gender dysphoria,” the APA had declared that the problem was not feeling out of sync with one’s biological sex, but rather the “dysphoria” (opposite of euphoria) that some feel about this out-of-syncness.

Burk offered three tests for evaluating transgenderism and relevant ministry recommendations: “biblical authority,” “biblical message,” and “biblical relevance.”

As for biblical authority, Burk took issue with Yarhouse’s argument that the “integrity” framework through which evangelicals tend to view transgenderism (emphasizing biblical authority and God’s creational intent) needed to be balanced against the frameworks of “disability” (viewing transgenderism as an unchosen and therefore morally neutral disability people experience as a result of our world’s fallenness) and “diversity” (seeing transgenderism as “something to be celebrated, honored, and revered”).

While crediting Yarhouse in many ways, Burk suggested that Yarhouse would not have been as open to the “management options” of people identifying and/or dressing as a sex different from their biological one if Scriptural authority was given an over-arching place to frame the disability and diversity frameworks.

Burk cited Deuteronomy 22:5’s prohibition of cross-dressing as well as the “long history of interpretation connecting it to Genesis 1-2 and the importance of not confounded God-given gender distinctions.” (Other relevant biblical passages were cited in his aforementioned denominational resolution.)

“We are not being loving, compassionate, and leading people to Christ if we are not teaching the norms of Scripture to shape other lenses, rather than other way around,” Burk said, “even when those [biblical] teachings are counter cultural.”

As for the test of biblical message, Burk cited 1 Timothy 4:1-5, particularly highlighting the teaching that “everything God created is good.” And of course, “part of what God created at beginning was sexual difference.”

Burk asked us to think through the logic of transgender advocates arguing that when one’s mental feelings of gender do not match one’s body, that the latter should be changed to conform to the former, rather than the other way around, so that one no longer feels like a man trapped in a woman’s body (or vice-versa).

He noted that most people would disapprove of a woman with what doctors call “bodily integrity dysphoria,” who “she really felt like a blind person trapped in a sighted person’s body,” deciding to find a psychologist to destroy her perfectly healthy eyes. He also cited other cases of medically unnecessary leg amputations being ordered by guys who felt like one-legged men trapped in the bodies of two-legged men.

As a matter of logical consistency, Burk asked why Christians should endorse destroying God-given sex organs when we don’t do that for other body parts.

For the test of biblical relevance, “It’s not like Christians have not had any resources before DSM-V came along,” Burk said, in reference to the APA’s latest, more transgender-friendly edition of its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

In response to a question from me, however, he did admit that there was a dearth of resources written from within a traditionalist moral framework that really delved into addressing recent science of the psychological and biological realities faced by individuals facing such gender confusion.

He did have a few recommendations, though: Yarhouse’s aforementioned book (despite some questionable conclusions), Vaughan Roberts’s brief book simply entitled Transgender, and a recent landmark scientific study on “Sexuality and Gender” published in The New Atlantis.

In the days ahead it will be increasingly important for theologically orthodox churches to study these difficult challenges, and not let theologically liberal environments devoted to harmful and ultimately unloving agendas be the only churches in which some of our neighbors for whom Christ died feel welcome.