Thinking Christianly about the trans revolution
Brave new world
Ten years ago, I took my finals at theological college. One of my exams was in biblical ethics, in which I was asked to reflect biblically on the topic of cross-dressing. It seemed like one of those ‘other-worldly’ ethical problems that theological students love to obsess over, but which have very little relevance to modern life.
Five years ago, while serving as an associate pastor, I received a letter from one of our students. Ellen was a regular at church, she served in the music group, and was plugged into the Christian Union (CU). She was writing to tell me that she experienced gender dysphoria, a term I’d never previously heard, which meant feelings of great discomfort with her biological sex. Ellen’s friends within the CU knew about this and had agreed to refer to Ellen as ‘they’ (the issue of pronouns being one of the biggest challenges pastorally). Would there still be welcome at our church if Ellen started living as a man?
Today, the issue of gender identity is everywhere. ‘Call me Caitlyn’ was the cover story on Vanity Fair magazine in July 2015, unveiling the coming out of former Olympic champion Bruce Jenner as Caitlyn Jenner, to rapturous public applause. This side of the pond, boxing promoter Frank Maloney transitioned to Kellie Maloney, BBC Radio Manchester DJ Simon Hirst became Stephanie Hirst, and the transgender tsunami shows little sign of slowing up. The BBC News website seems to profile a different transgender story most weeks.
Yet for all the media frenzy and political freight that lies behind the trans revolution, this is a deeply personal issue too. In my church in Cardiff, I know of at least four different church family members who have an uncle, a sibling, a child and a parent respectively who have undergone gender reassignment therapy. The days of abstract, hypothetical discussion are long gone. This is real for people in our churches, for family members and friends.
Getting under the skin (or how we got to where we are today)
We might be surprised at the scale and pace of the trans revolution before our eyes. We shouldn’t be. If only we’d had the eyes to see, we could have spotted it coming a mile off. Our cultural moment is the middle of perfect storm consisting of at least four cultural winds that conspire together.
Individualism (‘I’m free to do it’)
The Enlightenment in the eighteenth-century saw the great overthrowing of authority (particularly in the church), and the exalting of the self as the primary arbiter of truth and morality. Roll on the clock 150 years, and very quickly mantras like ‘you’re free to be who you want to be (as long as it’s between consenting adults)’ start becoming the norm.
Alienation (‘I need to do it’)
In every culture, there have been disenfranchised young people who feel dislocated and out of place with regards to the mainstream. Youth in the 1950s would have become beatniks, in the 1960s they’d join the hippy movement with mind-expanding drugs, whereas today they’re being encouraged to believe they were born in the wrong sex. Throw in growing family breakdown and the sense of existential homelessness has only increased.
Technology (‘I’m able to do it’)
Hormone therapy and advanced surgical intervention have brought the ability to transition to the mainstream. With gender reassignment therapy available on the NHS, ‘I can literally be the person I am inside.’
Education (‘Everyone else is doing it’)
Education and social media have increasingly normalised the abnormal. With ‘gender unicorns’ appearing in most primary schools, you’d be forgiven for thinking that every class had kids with gender dysphoria (whereas in reality studies have shown less than 0.1% of the population with the condition. There are around 30 times as many evangelicals.)
Taken in isolation, each cultural wind would cause more than a ripple. Combined, very quickly we feel lost at sea. Where do we turn?
False starts to avoid (or how not to respond)
We’re going to begin by considering ways not to respond.
That’s the classic Christian response to the big social issues of our day: totally ignore them and bury our heads in the sand. Evangelicals have been notoriously poor at thinking about such issues, and the secular liberals have stolen a march on us. But the revolution’s tidal wave is coming. Are you ready? Is your church ready?
Another false start to avoid is to just go with the flow. This might seem an unlikely option for some, but I’d suggest the younger you are, the greater this temptation will be. Hands up who enjoys being politically incorrect? If school and college and TV and friends all agree that someone born in the wrong body should be able to live as the opposite sex, who are we to stop them? And yet being ‘in the world’ doesn’t mean we’re to be ‘of the world’. God’s word needs to have the final say for us, and it’s the only hope for an aching world.
It’s possible to be so weirded out by things we read or see on TV, that in the absence of any other sensible response, the only thing we can do is laugh. Yet people suffering with gender dysphoria are dear people, made in the image of God, who need his compassion and hope in their lives. This isn’t a joke.
Or provocatively, the ‘Daily Mail’ approach. ‘What’s happened to this country? How dare they do this to us?’ It’s an understandable response, given how far and how fast we’ve travelled. But it’s striking to reflect on gay right’s campaigner, Peter Tatchell’s reply to a group of church leaders who asked how the LGBT lobby had won the cultural battle. ‘Lots of cups of tea,’ was his reply. Less placard waving, more polite, persuasive conversation with the opinion makers of the day. Evangelicals could learn a thing or two.
‘The world is about to change forever! Help!’ Things might be tougher for the next season of church life in our culture. But Jesus is still Lord. He saw the swinging sixties coming, and he let them happen. He saw the twenty-first century arrive with all the complexities and challenges we face but he still reigns, and we worship him. We can be confident he will lead us through these choppy waters. Besides, the Christian calling has always been to live wisely as an exile in a foreign land. Perhaps the time has come that we finally feel like one.
How to respond
So how should we respond? We need to put our thinking caps on and pull out our Bibles. Unlike some moral dilemmas where one or two dominant Bible verses seem to give us most of an answer, the complexities surrounding transgender issues demand a ‘whole Bible’ response. We need to trace a path through the well-trodden biblical-theological markers of creation, fall, redemption and restoration, to help us construct an appropriately biblical response to all things trans.
Creation: the perfect original
From the beginning, God’s word affirms that sex and gender are created, given and preserved by God. We were made perfectly in his image (Gen. 1:26-28). This is not just an interesting point of ancient history. While discussing divorce and remarriage with the disciples, Jesus took the teaching of Genesis 1 and 2 as the authoritative, final word of God on the topic.
Our God is one God in three different persons, each person equally and fully God. So we shouldn’t be surprised to find plurality in God’s design. He creates a complementarian humanity, which likewise exhibits unity and diversity, equality and difference (cf. 1 Cor. 11:3, Eph. 5:22-33).
And God’s concern for his creation isn’t merely ‘spiritual’. Matter matters because God made it. It all belongs to him: ‘You are not your own; you were bought a price. Therefore, honour God with your bodies’ (1 Cor. 6:19-20).
Fall: the disordered breakdown
Human rebellion against God has led to the marring of God’s image and the shattering of relationships—both vertical and horizontal—for us all (Gen. 3:12-19). In twenty-first century language, we all now have distorted identities. The impulse to define ourselves and our identities apart from God is as old as Babel (Gen. 11:4).
In a fallen world, such disordered-ness affects every part of us. Our bodies are fallen (Jesus’ language of ‘eunuchs by birth’ in Matt. 19:12 recognises the reality of rare anatomical divergences from genital norms), as are our minds (Col. 1:21) and our hearts (Rom. 1:21). We might illustrate this as follows:
Scripture teaches us that in matters of gender, we are not free to define or express ourselves however we like. Our outward displays of gender (albeit no doubt culturally shaped) are not irrelevant to God (‘A woman must not wear men’s clothing, nor a man wear women’s clothing, for the LORD your God detests anyone who does this.’ Deut. 22:5, cf. 1 Cor. 11:13-15).
Redemption: the transformed identity
The gospel of Jesus Christ transcends gender (Gal. 3:28) for we are all one in him. Only in Jesus are we free to be the people we were created to be (John 8:36). We can now know that our identity is guaranteed—whether we’re male or female. Our identity is ‘in Christ’, which means to be blessed unimaginably (Eph. 1:3-14)! Whatever our past, anyone who is in Christ is a new creation (2 Cor. 5:17), and party to his glorious transforming work, from the inside out (Rom. 12:1-2).
Let’s pause for a moment to apply what we’re seeing. While our culture tells us we’re to change reality (our outer life, which is seen as plastic and thus malleable) to align with how we feel (our inner life, which is seen as inviolable and immune to change), the gospel works the other way around. So, for example, a gender dysphoric man thinks, ‘Inside I am a woman.’ In their heart, they long to be their inner (female) gender. And so they commence gender reassignment therapy. But in another scenario, we might consider someone with an eating disorder. In their head, they think, ‘I am fat’ (despite the physical evidence to the contrary). In their heart, they long to be thin. And so, they make themselves thin through starvation. In this second scenario, we feel no qualms about seeking intervention, and psychological help, which gets to work on the inner life. But increasingly with gender dysphoria, the inner life is considered sacrosanct. And yet in these, and indeed in every scenario, the gospel of Jesus first gets to work on our hearts (i.e. our inner life).
The fact is, Christian discipleship has always meant ‘denying self, taking up our cross and following Jesus’ (Mark 8:34), but the challenges will lie in different places for each one of us. Christian living today does often feel like a fight, as so often ‘we do not do what we want’ (Gal. 5:17).
Restoration: the renewed masterpiece
But on one glorious day, all our crying and pain and heartache will be over. Our minds and hearts and bodies will be in perfect alignment as we worship the lamb who was slain for us (Rev. 21:4, 5:6). Jesus taught there’ll be no more marriage in heaven (Matt. 22:30), but it will be a paradise beyond our wildest dreams, with the Lord Jesus at the centre. Any and every sacrifice we’ve made for our saviour will prove totally worth it.
Breaking the ice: A call for wisdom
So, with our biblical survey complete, how do begin to piece together a Christian response to the trans revolution? As we conclude, I’m going to suggest four quick-fire principles that we’d do well to have in our minds.
- Whoever we’re talking to, or about, we’re to do so in love (1 John 4:19). Broken and confused people need to know that we care before they care what we know. Jesus was the friend of sinners, and so should we be (Matt. 9:11). How many trans people do you know?
- The Lord expects us to treat (professing) believers differently from how we treat unbelievers (1 Cor. 5:9-13). This is a vital principle which we don’t have the space to unpack. But suffice to say, Paul envisages the bar of expectation to be higher for those who call themselves Christians than not (cue church discipline for when things go wrong). Paul didn’t at all envisage our keeping an arm’s length from unbelievers in our holy huddles: we’re not to hide our lamp under a bushel.
- Arguably the most perplexing issue of all is knowing what pronouns to use in reference to our transgendered friends. On the one hand, using an individual’s preferred (i.e. new) gendered pronouns may feel like we’re compromising our convictions; on the other hand, refusing to use their preferred pronouns will be seen by many as our outright rejection of them. We’re called to be people of both grace and Different people land in different places here, but I tentatively wonder whether there might be scenarios when, having already made our position clear, that for the sake of that current relationship and conversation we might use someone’s preferred pronouns. In other words, it’s hard to build a bridge for the gospel when you’re simultaneously pulling it down (in the eyes of the person you’re talking with). The analogy of ‘gay marriage’ might be relevant here. We might deny the very concept of same-sex marriage, but does that mean that every time the topic comes up in conversation we feel obliged to refer to it as ‘so-called gay marriage’ or ‘quote unquote gay marriage’? Probably not, even though we disagree with the premise from the outset.
- Top priority is going to be helping our children and young people (and their parents and our youth workers). If you’re over forty and reading this, you’re a trans revolution immigrant; our children are natives. With Gender Unicorn or Genderbread Man posters increasingly cropping up in primary schools, you’re going to want to put that conversation with the kids in the diary soon. You might even want to ask some bigger questions about education more widely, regarding how to equip our young people to engage intellectually and apologetically with the torrent of post-Christian morality.