How Not to Interpret the Bible – Part III

By Rev. Thomas Lambrecht

Bible

In this series of blog posts, I am addressing the approaches taken by Dr. Donald Haynes in his recent article A Biblical Analysis of Homosexuality. The previous posts are HERE and HERE. It is important for us to critique one another’s approaches to Scripture, in that it is our primary determinant for our beliefs and our practices as Christians. In this concluding post, I am continuing to address a few of Haynes’ approaches that I consider problematic in gaining a proper understanding of Scripture.

  1. Comparing one set of biblical interpretations to other sets, without recognizing their differences.

Haynes employs the tired comparison of the Bible’s teachings on same-sex behavior with the supposed justification of slavery and the subordination of women in Scripture. He argues that, since the church has changed its mind on slavery and the role of women, it can change its mind on homosexuality. It is important when interpreting Scripture to look at the whole, as well as individual teachings. Regarding both slavery and the role of women, the Bible shows a trajectory leading toward the understanding we have today.

While the Bible recognizes slavery as existing in the society of the time, it never commands people to be enslaved, and in fact it regulates slavery among the Israelites in such a way as to make it less onerous. I Timothy 1:10 condemns slave traders as ungodly and sinful. In Philemon, Paul asks Philemon to receive Onesimus back, not as a slave, but as a brother in Christ. Paul’s teaching that in Christ there is neither slave nor free was revolutionary. There is a trajectory that would lead the church to condemn slavery.

The Bible consistently raises the level of women’s value and treatment above the heavily patriarchal society in which most of the Bible was written. Jesus spoke to women as equals and welcomed them as disciples. There were female leaders in the New Testament church. Paul’s teaching that in Christ there is no male or female was revolutionary. There is a trajectory that would lead the church to elevate the place of women and recognize women as equally capable of leadership and ministry.

In the case of both slavery and the treatment of women, the position we have evolved to today is based on the clear teaching and trajectory of the Bible. Regarding homosexuality, however, there is no such trajectory. All references in Scripture to same-sex practices are negative, both in the Old and New Testaments. We embrace the truth that all persons are created by God and bear his image, and are therefore to be treated with love, dignity, and respect. But there is no warrant in any scriptural teaching for evolving into the approval or affirmation of same-sex behavior.

  1. Two wrongs don’t make a right.

Haynes says, “Adultery is condemned fifty-two times in the Bible, self-righteousness seventy-nine times, covetousness forty times, and idolatry 169 times! Are we seeking to bar all these behavioral sinners from marriage, ordination, and membership?” Haynes seems to be saying that, since we don’t enforce behavioral standards with regard to other sins, we should not do so with regard to same-sex behavior.

First, the church’s laxity on issues like divorce, greed, and pride is lamentable. Preaching and teaching against these sins and others, as well as a ministry of redemption and restoration, is much needed. (I would note that the Bible does permit some instances of divorce, so that is not a black-and-white situation. UM News Service recently reported that the Liberia Annual Conference has a standing rule against divorced clergy being nominated to serve as bishop.) However, laxity in working against some sins does not excuse laxity in working against other sins.

Second, there is no lobby or organization working to change the church’s teaching that adultery and idolatry are sinful. Most everyone acknowledges that the things Haynes lists are indeed sinful and ought to be avoided. We may be imperfect in our ability to avoid those sins, but we strive to avoid them. On the other hand, Haynes has joined others represented by Reconciling Ministries Network, Affirmation, Love Prevails, and the Love Your Neighbor Coalition who are organized specifically to say that same-sex conduct is not a sin. That is a far different matter than acknowledging our imperfection at living up to biblical standards—it is changing, or rather overturning, those standards altogether.

As Haynes is quite aware, no one is saying that persons living a sinful lifestyle ought to be barred from attending church or even getting married, whether that lifestyle is unmarried heterosexuality, greed, pride, or any other sin. But to allow for same-sex marriage is to completely change the definition of marriage and explicitly place the church’s blessing on same-sex relationships, which would be contrary to Scripture. Further, we expect ordained clergy to live to a higher behavioral standard, not just in terms of our sex lives, but in terms of our personal habits and interpersonal relationships (see Book of Discipline, ¶ 304.2-3). In fact, some clergy persons have tragically lost their credentials and been fired because of heterosexual sin or infidelity.

  1. Choose one truth of Scripture and read everything else in the Bible in light of that one truth.

Martin Luther is famous for this error, when he disparaged the book of James because it did not sufficiently reinforce Luther’s pet doctrine of salvation by grace and faith alone. (James talks about the need for works, as well, as an outgrowth or demonstration of our faith.)

Haynes resorts to the tried and true commandment to “love your neighbor.” Anything that does not exhibit love for neighbor (in Haynes’ view) is not to be accepted as biblical teaching.

Taking this approach, however, closes out the possibility that each book of the Bible—indeed, even each passage—has its own voice and its own point to make. Much of biblical interpretation consists in balancing truths that are held in tension. God is three, and yet one. Jesus is God, and yet fully human. God is love, and yet holy. Doctrinal error creeps in when we lose our balance—when we emphasize one side or the other of the equation too much. Too much “three-ness” in God yields three gods. Too much oneness in God omits Jesus and the Holy Spirit from divinity. We need to give each biblical author his/her own voice and let that author teach us, before we then integrate and balance that teaching with the rest of Scripture.

If one is to pick a particular scriptural truth to emphasize, “love your neighbor” would be a good candidate. Haynes’ problem is that he defines loving our gay and lesbian friends and relatives as affirming and approving of their relationships and behavior. But that is a faulty definition of love. Jesus loves each one of us infinitely, so much that he willingly came to earth as a human being and gave his life for us. Yet, Jesus does not approve of all of our behavior. When we sin, he confronts us lovingly (and sometimes sternly) through the Holy Spirit. We don’t perceive that discipline as a lack of love (see Hebrews 12:4-11). There is no contradiction between loving our homosexual neighbor and maintaining the church’s teaching that homosexual behavior is wrong in God’s eyes. Just as there is no contradiction between loving our neighbor and believing that their pride, greed, or idolatry is wrong.

Dr. Haynes concludes his article with a quote from John the Elder:

“Beloved, let us love one another because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.” (I John 4:7-8)

The same John the Elder also says:

“This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. If we claim to have fellowship with him yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live by the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.” (I John 1:5-7)

As we address difficult and emotional subjects in the church, may we seek to balance God’s love and God’s light, aspiring as did Timothy to be one “who correctly handles the word of truth” (II Timothy 2:15). To have the Bible as our authority means to hold it “as the true rule and guide for faith and practice. Whatever is not revealed in or established by the Holy Scriptures is not to be made an article of faith nor is it to be taught as essential to salvation” (The Confession of Faith, Article IV).

I hope this series of posts will help us gain clarity on how we approach Scripture to understand and apply its message to our lives today. May we learn from each other, “as iron sharpens iron,” and come to a unified understanding in the church that will form the basis for moving forward together in unity.

How Not to Interpret the Bible – Part II

By Rev. Thomas Lambrecht

Bible

In this series of blog posts, I am addressing the approaches taken by Dr. Donald Haynes in his recent article A Biblical Analysis of Homosexuality. The previous post is HERE. This discussion on the proper understanding and application of scriptural teaching to the church’s ministry with LGBTQ persons is the most important discussion we can have, in that Scripture is our primary determinant for our beliefs and our practices as Christians. Here I am continuing to address a few of Haynes’ approaches that I consider problematic in gaining a proper understanding of Scripture.

  1. Using the results of scientific inquiry to overturn the teachings of Scripture.

Haynes says, “While the Bible makes seven references to homosexual conduct, it never mentions homosexuality as a genetic sexual orientation.” But there is no such thing as “genetic sexual orientation.” Scientists have identified no “gay gene.” The American Psychological Association states: “There is no consensus among scientists about the exact reasons that an individual develops a heterosexual, bisexual, gay or lesbian orientation … no findings have emerged that permit scientists to conclude that sexual orientation is determined by any particular factor or factors. Many think that nature and nurture both play complex roles.” So Haynes’ appeal to science is undercut from the beginning by that very science.

Haynes goes on, “What if a genetically homosexual person cannot wish or pray or choose one’s way out of their same sex attraction? Would it not be cruel of God to bring someone into the human family only for the purpose of condemning them?” Here, I believe Haynes is engaging in theological exaggeration to support his point. He characterizes the argument in a way that no orthodox Wesleyan would agree with.

First, we must be clear that God does not condemn anyone for their attractions or desires. Otherwise, all of us would be condemned! It is only when those attractions or desires lead to behavior that is contrary to God’s will that it becomes a sin (James 1:13-15). Alternatively, if we entertain and nurture desires or attractions that lead to sin, we may be guilty of sin (Matthew 5:22, 28). But even when we sin, we have the possibility of forgiveness and restoration through the grace of Jesus Christ. God’s goal is to reshape both our actions and our desires in the image of Jesus.

Second, Haynes overlooks the fact that we all have a “sin orientation” – that each of us has an inborn tendency to have desires and attractions toward sin. The attraction could be toward anger, greed, revenge, lying, or promiscuity. These attractions toward sin are not the result of how God made us, but of humanity’s fall into sin and rebellion (Genesis 3). We all battle sinful desires and seek God’s grace to withstand and overcome them. Just as we will not be free of all sinful desires until we get to heaven, we should not expect that persons with same-sex attraction will be free of all instances of that attraction until they get to heaven.

But while we cannot “wish or pray or choose” our way out of attractions toward sin, we can indeed pray and choose not to succumb to those attractions and engage in the sin itself. Haynes is not asking us to have grace toward persons who have fallen into same-sex sin, so that they may receive forgiveness and restoration. He is asking us to redefine a sin as not-sin. He is asking the church to teach that homosexual conduct is not sinful, but to be affirmed in the same ways as heterosexual conduct. That is quite a different matter.

While we welcome the insights of science (which are often tentative and incomplete), we ground our understanding about morality, right and wrong, in the timeless truths of Scripture. Otherwise, we have given up the authority of Scripture as our primary guide to faith and life.

  1. Arguing from silence.

Haynes says, “Holy Scripture never refers to homosexuality in the context of a loving relationship between two consenting adults whose sexual orientation might be naturally homosexual, and who have a committed, monogamous relationship or marriage.” Leaving aside the point that science does not support that persons “might be naturally homosexual,” what does Haynes’ statement mean?

It could mean that the biblical authors were unaware of the possibility of a loving, committed same-sex relationship. However, historical research has demonstrated that such relationships did exist in the ancient Greek and Roman worlds (see Plato’s Symposium and Philo of Alexandria’s Contemplative Life, cited in Gagnon, page 137, note 33-34). Certainly, Paul would have been aware of such relationships in the context of the much more libertine sexual climate of the Mediterranean world of his time. And if we believe that God is the ultimate author of Scripture, he is certainly not unaware of the possible lifestyles that could exist.

It could mean that the biblical authors meant to condemn only abusive or idolatrous same-sex relationships, while allowing loving, committed ones. Given that every reference in Scripture to homosexual behavior is negative, one would think that the authors would mention the exception that merited acceptance, in order to clarify what the Bible really teaches.

It could mean that the biblical authors did not mention loving, committed same-sex relationships because they believed that the existing references adequately covered the issue. If the prohibition in Leviticus is taken to be of all same-sex behavior, then there would be no point in the authors reinforcing that this also applied to loving, committed relationships. The bottom line is that there is no approving reference to same-sex relationships, even though the Bible spans over 2,000 years of human history and encompasses a wide variety of cultures, including Assyria, Egypt, Babylon, Greece, and Rome.

Arguments from silence are always fraught with uncertainty and not something one can build one’s theology on.

  1. Ignoring Scriptures that don’t support your viewpoint.

One of the most significant shortcomings in Haynes’ article is that he ignores the consistent and complimentary heterosexual thread through Scripture based on Genesis 1 and 2, reaffirmed by Jesus in Matthew 19:1-12 and Mark 10:1-12. When asked about the possible circumstances of divorce, Jesus pointed his listeners back to God’s original intention for marriage and human sexuality, quoting Genesis 1:27 and 2:24. God created us male and female, as complementary and equal persons who jointly exhibit the full-orbed image of God (1:27). Out of this gender difference and complementarity, God forges a one-flesh unity in the commitment of heterosexual marriage (2:24). Throughout Scripture, the expression of our sexuality is envisioned to lie only within this God-sanctioned relationship.

It is to heterosexual marriage that Paul turns to picture the relationship of Christ and the Church (Ephesians 5). Here the difference is as important as the complementarity. Christ and the Church are different in many ways, yet the Church aspires to a Christ-like life, and the two find unity in their relationship as Bride and Groom, culminating in the great marriage feast of the Lamb in Revelation.

Haynes does not explain how the constant thread of heterosexual marriage from Genesis to Revelation supports the affirmation of same-sex relationships. He also does not explain how such affirmation would affect the theological significance given to marriage as a symbol of the union between Christ and the Church.

Haynes also glosses over the list of ten different behavioral sins in I Corinthians 6:9 that are condemned by Paul, with the note that some of the Corinthians were each of these things, but had been redeemed by Jesus Christ. NLT translates one of those words as “those practicing homosexuality”. The important point here is that the Greek word Paul uses, arsenokoitai, is a direct transcription of the two words used in the Greek version of Leviticus 18:22. It constitutes a direct allusion and restatement of the Levitical prohibition by Paul as binding on Christians (indeed, all people). To ignore this connection is to miss a significant verification that this Old Testament law holds true for New Testament Christians.

I hope these blog posts are helpful in thinking through how we as the church interpret the Bible on this sensitive issue. My next post will look at ways we improperly compare one biblical teaching with another and how we can distort the teaching of Scripture by focusing too much on one biblical truth.

How Not to Interpret the Bible – Part I

By Rev. Thomas Lambrecht

Bible

Understanding and applying the teachings of Scripture to our daily lives is not rocket science, but it is also not kindergarten. Thankfully, many of the most important teachings of Scripture are straightforward and understood from a plain reading of the biblical words. Other teachings, however, are more difficult to glean from Scripture without a basic knowledge of the historical background and the rules of interpretation that have been developed over the centuries to aid such understanding.

Unfortunately, a teaching of Scripture that was once considered clear and easily understood has now been obscured and complicated by many efforts to rationalize a change in the church’s position. I am speaking of the church’s understanding of homosexuality. A recent article by Dr. Donald Haynes illustrates some of the pitfalls of improper biblical interpretation. While I have great respect for Dr. Haynes and his teaching and writing over the decades, I was disappointed by the approach he took toward Scripture in this article.

Because we believe in the authority of Scripture as “the true rule and guide for faith and practice,” it is important that we discuss and critique one another’s interpretations of Scripture. Biblical interpretation is done not solely as an isolated individual, but in community with brothers and sisters in Christ, and particularly in community with Christian leaders down through the centuries. Therefore, our approaches to Scripture ought to be open to discussion with one another, that we might learn from each other. In that vein, I would like to take several blog posts to engage Haynes’ approach to interpreting biblical teaching.

My overarching critique of Haynes’ approach is the same one I have of many others who engage the Bible on the subject of human sexuality. Namely, they often seem to have a conclusion in mind (the affirmation of same-sex practice) and then seek to find ways to explain away or disregard the teaching of Scripture in order to bring it into harmony with that conclusion.  I would like to use Haynes’ article as a way to point out some ways that Scripture is often misunderstood and misapplied.

  1. Misclassifying certain verses and/or lumping unlike verses together into a category that can be disregarded.

Dr. Haynes places the foundational verses relating to homosexuality (Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13) into the category of “Mosaic cultic laws, most of which we ignore.” He then goes on to cite various laws from Leviticus that we no longer observe, such as prohibitions against eating blood, crossbreeding animals, and blending fabrics. He could have also cited the prohibitions against eating certain foods, like pork. “By what logic do we insist that God still wills that homosexual conduct be punished if we merely wink at the others? In Christ’s death on the cross, I believe we are saved by grace through faith, ‘not of works lest anyone should boast.’”

Haynes has a theological problem here, in that he seems to discount the need for Christian disciples to maintain our conduct within biblical boundaries of behavior. Yes, we are saved by grace and not by works. Our success or failure in living by God’s standards is not what determines our salvation. But God saves us to live a godly life. We are saved for a life of holiness, not just from a life of sin. The New Testament is replete with instructions on how Christians are to live (more on that in a moment). Our acknowledgement that we are saved by grace through faith does not relieve us of the responsibility to determine as best we can how God wants us to live, and then by God’s grace to do our best to live that way.

Haynes’ interpretive problem here is that he classifies the prohibitions against homosexual conduct as “cultic laws”—laws relating to the Old Testament system of sacrifice and worship that included a heavy emphasis on ritual. But if Haynes wants to classify all of Leviticus’ “Holiness Code” as cultic and no longer applicable today, he has to throw out the laws against incest, adultery, bestiality (all in Leviticus 18), stealing, lying, idolatry, fraud, mistreating the blind, slander, hatred, revenge, sorcery, prostitution, and cheating in business (all in Leviticus 19). Nearly all Christians would agree that these laws still apply today. There is no indication that they are connected exclusively to Old Testament ritual.

United Methodist doctrinal standards helpfully distinguish between “the law given from God by Moses as touching ceremonies and rites” and “civil precepts” on the one hand, versus “the commandments which are called moral.” “No Christian whatsoever is free from the obedience” to this latter type of commandment (Articles of Religion, Article VI). It is plain that laws relating to sexuality are not ceremonial or governmental in nature, but moral (in contrast to the other examples Haynes points out). That is how we can distinguish the Old Testament commandments that still bind us today. These distinctions, by the way, are based on the teachings of Jesus and the apostles, not dreamed up by later church leaders (for example, Mark 7:14-18, Acts 10, Hebrews 8-10).

Haynes seems also to want to say that only the Old Testament commandments that are quoted in the New Testament are still applicable today. But it hurts his case that prohibitions against homosexuality are repeated in the New Testament, as well, which leads to our next point.

  1. Misinterpreting and misapplying the biblical and cultural context to nullify the teaching in question.

Haynes turns to Romans 1:24-27 and limits Paul to “raging against the Roman culture of idolatry.” Haynes goes on, “Given that he’s writing from Corinth – a city known as the ‘sin city’ of the Mediterranean world – Paul was likely referring to both the male and female prostitutes that were the norm in pagan temples.”

It is important to note that not all pagan religions of the time involved temple prostitution; only a few did. It would be a mistake to read idolatry into all the prohibitions against homosexual conduct, as idolatry is not the basis of the prohibitions in I Corinthians 6 or I Timothy 1. More importantly in Romans, Paul sees homosexual conduct as a result of idolatry, rather than an expression of idolatry. Of course, there is an element of idolatry in the “worship” of the “perfect body” that is sometimes found in particularly the male gay community. But that same idolatry of the human body can be found even more frequently in the heterosexual community, so it is not distinctive to homosexuality. Therefore, it would again be a mistake to say that Paul is only concerned about homosexual conduct that is found in pagan temples or that is related to idolatry.

My next blog post will address the proper use of science in interpreting Scripture, as well as other interpretive shortcomings in Haynes’ approach to biblical teachings on homosexuality.

Ministry Board Shirks Responsibility

By Rev. Thomas Lambrecht

Book of Discipline

The Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference board of ordained ministry recently decided to recommend a woman married to another woman for commissioning as a deacon. BWAC communicator Erik Alsgaard and Good News’ Walter Fenton reported that the board recommended Tara “T.C.” Morrow for commissioning as a Provisional Deacon. If that recommendation is endorsed by the clergy session of the annual conference on June 1, she would be commissioned by Bishop Marcus Matthews.

Paragraph 304.3 of The United Methodist Book of Discipline states that “self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church.” Morrow’s commissioning would be a clear violation of that provision.

This recommendation marks a failure of the vetting process for clergy candidates in Baltimore-Washington Conference from top to bottom. Morrow would have had to receive an annual recommendation from her local church charge conference, which clearly would have known she was living in a relationship not affirmed by the church. She would also have had to receive a recommendation from her district committee on ordained ministry, which should have known she was married to another woman. (The recommendation of another self-avowed practicing lesbian for ordained ministry in the Rio Texas Conference in 2013 gained a lot of notoriety in the church press.) And the recommendation of the conference board of ordained ministry requires a 75 percent majority vote in order to pass. That means at least three-fourths of the board approved recommending her for commissioning, despite knowing of her situation.

At every level, the vetting process failed. If Morrow had been living with a man without being married to him, there would have been no excuse for these three bodies to certify her candidacy or recommend her for commissioning. But because she is married to a woman, all three bodies failed to do their due diligence and/or deliberately decided to disregard the requirements of the church.

As Alsgaard reported, “’Two people of the same gender being married or living together is a basis for investigation,’ [board of ordained ministry chair Rev. Charles] Parker said, ‘not a basis for a decision,’ citing ruling 1263 of the Judicial Council – the church’s version of the United States Supreme Court. ‘Self-avowed’ is defined by the Book of Discipline (footnote 1 for ¶304.3) where a person has ‘openly acknowledged to a bishop, district superintendent, district committee on ordained ministry, Board of Ordained Ministry, or clergy session that the person is a practicing homosexual.’ ‘Practicing,’ Parker said, according to Judicial Council rulings 1027 and 980, is understood to mean ‘genital sex’ with a person of the same gender.”

“Parker, who serves as senior pastor at Metropolitan Memorial UMC in Washington, D.C., said that the Board engaged in a process with and for Morrow that sought to rid itself of the denomination’s ‘unhealthy “don’t ask, don’t tell” model,’ and create a spirit of openness and honesty in the Board’s deliberations.” Ironically, according to the article, “In the case of Morrow, he said, ‘we all know that she is married. We can make assumptions, but we don’t tend to question candidates on their specific sexual practices whether they are hetero or homosexual.’”

While creating “a spirit of openness and honesty in the Board’s deliberations” is laudable, it is no substitute for fulfilling the responsibilities assigned to the board by the Book of Discipline. The board is required to ask candidates for provisional membership this question: “You have agreed as a candidate for the sake of the mission of Jesus Christ in the world and the most effective witness of the gospel, and in consideration of their influence as ministers, to make a complete dedication of yourself to the highest ideals of the Christian life, and to this end agree to exercise responsible self-control by personal habits conducive to bodily health, mental and emotional maturity, integrity in all personal relationships, fidelity in marriage and celibacy in singleness, social responsibility, and growth in grace and the knowledge and love of God. What is your understanding of this agreement?” (Discipline, ¶ 324.9o)

Knowing that Morrow was living in a relationship not affirmed by the church should have provoked further questions from the board. But they “don’t tend to question candidates on their specific sexual practices.” That is simply irresponsible. And it is the “don’t ask” part of the “don’t ask, don’t tell.” In other words, the board, in seeking to “rid itself of the denomination’s ‘unhealthy “don’t ask, don’t tell” model,’” actually persisted in it. The opposite of “don’t ask” is to ask—and the board failed to do so.

If a candidate came before the board with indications they had been in treatment for alcoholism or drug abuse, it would be incumbent upon the board to inquire further about the candidate’s treatment, recovery, and suitability for ordained ministry. The board had to examine dozens of pages of material submitted by the candidate, including a psychological exam, a physical exam, and a theological exam. Any or all of these might indicate further questions to be asked in order to clarify a candidate’s suitability. Yet in this one instance, knowing what it knew, the board failed to inquire.

The board of ordained ministry is assigned the responsibility on behalf of the church to examine in detail every candidate for ordained ministry in order to ensure that the persons are qualified and suitable to serve. This is a fiduciary responsibility they exercise on behalf of all of us. It is impossible for all the clergy members of an annual conference to get to know each of the candidates and make their own assessment of the candidates’ qualifications. We entrust the board with this responsibility. When the board fails in its responsibility, it erodes the trust that we all have in the church and its processes.

The blatant disregard of the requirements of the Discipline exhibited by the board is one reason that many evangelicals are frustrated at the church and angry with their more progressive colleagues. If church leaders cannot be trusted to follow our agreed-upon covenant, then there is little hope for a healthy future for the church.

That is why the Renewal and Reform Coalition is promoting legislation at the 2016 General Conference that would close loopholes and enhance accountability to our covenant. In the absence of voluntary compliance and trust, more forthright rules are required. One of the proposals is to broaden the definition of a “self-avowed practicing homosexual” to include persons living in a same-sex union or marriage with a person of the same gender. By the public act of such a marriage service, the person is acknowledging that they are living as a homosexual person. Such determination should be automatic, not requiring a trial or other forms of verbal gymnastics to demonstrate an obvious reality.

The bottom line is that many progressives want to make it impossible for the church to maintain its scriptural teachings and requirements. But that would be a church without integrity. And a church without integrity can have no unity. It would be an unhealthy body that would collapse in upon itself.

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Change on Marriage and Homosexuality Could Cost UM Church Millions of Members

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By Rev. Thomas Lambrecht

 

As the 2016 General Conference approaches, progressive United Methodists are pulling out all the stops to push for a change in the denomination’s position that would allow same-sex marriage and the ordination of practicing homosexuals. They seem to be taking this course in total disregard of any possible negative consequences for the future of United Methodism.

The United Methodist Church is already facing a projected drop in membership of about 130,000 members per year in the next few years. That is the equivalent of eliminating the Arkansas Annual Conference or the Illinois Great Rivers Annual Conference every year! What would be the impact on U.S. membership of a shift in the denomination’s positions on marriage and sexuality?

The Presbyterian Church (USA) provides a cautionary example that continues to unfold. According to a recent article in Charisma based on analysis in the Presbyterian Layman, the PCUSA has lost  nearly 285,000 members in the three years since they granted denominational approval for same-sex marriage and the ordination of non-celibate homosexuals. This represents the loss of 100,000 more members than the previous three-year period. Over the past three years, the denomination has lost nearly 15 percent of its membership.

In the wake of the radical PCUSA decision, hundreds of PCUSA congregations have withdrawn to unite with a more evangelical Presbyterian denomination. Additionally, thousands of more conservative members have left the PCUSA to join the independent church down the street.

The picture is not getting any brighter for the PCUSA. Denominational officials project membership losses for 2015 and 2016 of 100,000 per year, with losses of 75,000 per year in 2017-2020. Carmen Fowler LaBerge, President of the Presbyterian Lay Committee observed that “year over year losses of more than 90,000 members per year is institutionally unsustainable. To put it into perspective, that’s the equivalent of closing an average of 1,000 PCUSA churches a year.” Since 2005, the PCUSA has lost over 645,000 members. Projected losses of 500,000 over the next five years will bring the total loss to 1.15 million members, cutting the denomination’s 2005 membership nearly in half.

Predictably, it is not the loss of members that is stirring the Presbyterian pot, but the loss of revenue from per capita assessments (their equivalent of UM apportionments). Revenue to the national PCUSA is projected to drop from $13.5 million in 2012 to $11 million in 2020. Under proposed budgets, the national PCUS will run a half-million-dollar deficit in 2016, with deficits exceeding $1 million starting in 2018. In the absence of drastic budget cuts, the unrestricted reserves are projected to run out in 2021. In the meantime, denominational askings are proposed to rise 23 percent by 2018 from their 2010 level. By 2020, the askings will be 30 percent higher than 2010. Where there are fewer members, they will need to pay proportionately more to keep the denominational machinery going—or the machinery will begin to be dismantled.

What if this took place in The United Methodist Church? What if the UM Church adopted the Connectional Table proposal to permit same-sex marriage and ordination? What if the same fallout happened to U.S. membership in our denomination that took place in the PCUSA?

Can you imagine being down to 3.5 million members in the year 2030 from the current 7 million? Can you imagine losing or closing over 10,000 congregations (one-third of the current total) over the next ten years? Can you imagine the need to raise apportionments by one-third over the next 15 years, even with yearly budget cuts? By 2030, U.S. membership would be less than one-third of the global United Methodist makeup (unless the more conservative churches in Africa, Eastern Europe, and parts of the Philippines also withdrew from the denomination). The ministries of our denomination would be left at only a shell of their former strength.

Is this picture of precipitous decline the preferred future of progressive United Methodists? Despite the cautionary example of not only the PCUSA, but also The Episcopal Church, the United Church of Christ, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, progressive UM’s insist that “it won’t happen to us.” The idea that “we’re different” is only a whistling in the dark denial of reality. The United Methodist Church consistently polls as more conservative at the grass-roots level than any other mainline denomination. If other mainline churches suffered such grievous turmoil and membership loss in the wake of adopting gay-affirming stances, what basis is there to think that the UM Church would react any differently?

One hopes that progressives and sympathetic moderates will take another look at the damage done to other denominations before persisting in trying to inflict the same on our own UM Church.

NOTE: for a previous blog on the PCUSA membership situation, see “Changes in PC(USA) Bode Ill for Methodism”

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UM Agencies Broaden Agenda to Promote Homosexuality and Transgenderism

By Rev. Thomas Lambrecht

therefore-go-umc-gc2016Evangelicals have often predicted that the effort by progressives to radically change United Methodism’s view of marriage, ordination, and sexuality is only the first part of a much broader agenda to overturn traditional Christian social ethics. The latest efforts by our denomination’s advocacy agencies (General Commission on Religion and Race, General Commission on the Status and Role of Women, and Young People’s Ministries) to promote the acceptance of homosexuality and transgenderism represent an expansion of the advocacy agenda in ways that most United Methodists would find troubling.

This advocacy is found in the handbook for delegates of General Conference (called the Advance Daily Christian Advocate—ADCA). Just released at the end of last week, this handbook has a section on “intercultural competence.” The agencies want “to support each delegate’s ability to build relationships across our diverse cultures.” Much of the information presented in this section is basic to understanding how to cope with personality and cultural differences.

But there is one page (whose authorship is not given) that outlines “Sensitivity on Holding Conversations Around Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity.” It offers guidelines for conversation that delegates are expected to follow (although the guidelines were never voted on or approved by the delegates).

The first admonition states, “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and/or Queer (LGBTQ) persons are our siblings in Christ and should be treated with kindness, dignity, and respect.” With that principle, everyone can agree.

Beginning with the second admonition, the guidelines begin to go off the rails. It encourages us to be aware of the presence of persons with different sexual orientations. “Many may identify as bisexual, queer, lesbian, gay, or other identities.” This guideline assumes that there are multiple (“other”) sexual orientations that exist and are part of the normal human experience. It further assumes that “many” persons exhibit these various identities. Evangelicals believe that our identity is found in our relationship to Jesus Christ, not in our sexual attractions. We also believe that some sexual attractions are not good or positive and are to be resisted, not celebrated. Studies have consistently shown that less than five percent of the population exhibit one or another of these various attractions at some point in their lives. That hardly constitutes “many” (fewer than 43 out of the 864 delegates). Yet it seems to be part of the agencies’ drive to normalize homosexual and bisexual practices, portraying these as common and normal in hopes of convincing delegates to affirm these attractions and practices.

The third admonition stipulates, “Do not assume anyone’s gender identity, even if you have met them in the past. Ask someone their pronouns before using gendered words to describe them.” Ten days in Portland with this kind of recommended protocol before every conversation will make General Conference a perfectly dreadful experience for everyone involved.

One assumes that the recommendation is offered in the event that a person who looks and dresses like a woman may want to “identify” as a man (and vice versa). One assumes that there may be a few instances of this taking place. But the underlying message is that gender is a fluid, changeable concept that is subject to the feelings and desires of the individual. For the most part, however, our gender is part of our God-given personhood bestowed at birth and unchangeable. It is not desirable for a person to attempt to change his/her gender. This third admonition buys into the current fashion that gender is self-determined, rather than God-determined. And it represents an escalation of the LGBTQ advocacy into the arena of transgenderism.

The fourth and fifth admonitions posit that LGBTQ persons ought not to be referred to as “prostitutes, adulterers, pedophiles, murderers, confused, unchristian, an issue, etc.” and that their marriages, covenants, or relationships ought not to be compared to bestiality. Evangelicals agree that inflammatory language ought not to be used in describing any person, including LGBTQ persons.

At the same time, we need to be very sensitive to allowing legitimate debate and discussion about the rightness of certain sexual and gender practices. The question of how the church ought to regard marriage and sexuality is an issue that merits prayerful biblical study, theological reflection, and conversation. Placing artificial limits on language is just a clumsy attempt to make it impossible to discuss these questions and potentially intimidate people who are unwilling to affirm homosexuality and transgenderism.

Unfortunately, these guidelines on conversation are all one-sided. There is nothing in these guidelines to delineate how evangelicals and traditionalists are to be talked about. In the past, those who have embraced a traditional perspective have been called bigots, homophobes, unenlightened, uninformed, narrow, or a “child of the devil.” The name calling can go both ways. In either case, it needs to be avoided. The one-sided character of these guidelines calls into question their objectivity and poses the possibility of an underlying agenda.

The guidelines’ draconian nature appears in the final admonitions, which expect that facilitators (presiding bishops, committee chairs) should rule such “behavior” (using improper language) out of order. And if facilitators do not do so, delegates are expected to interrupt and challenge the improper language, making everyone responsible for being the “political correctness police.” A more calculating strategy for silencing the voice of those attempting to uphold biblical teaching cannot be imagined. If I don’t like what you are saying, I can shut you down by accusing you of using improper language.

I want to emphasize again that evangelicals oppose all violence against individuals for any reason, including LGBTQ persons, and oppose the use of disrespectful and inflammatory language in all debate, including debate about LGBTQ persons. However, these guidelines go beyond encouraging respectful debate and seek to engender thought control—or at least debate control—in a way designed to tilt the playing field. The agencies involved ought to withdraw the guidelines. If not, delegates should not feel bound by guidelines that have not been approved by the General Conference and let their conscience be their guide.

A Matter of Perception

By Rev. Thomas Lambrecht

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How one acts depends upon what one sees.

My wife and I sometimes disagree about what clothes I am able to wear. This is because we sometimes see clothes as having different colors. She will see black, while I see dark blue. She will see gray, while I will see green. No matter how hard we try, we cannot convince the other that they are wrong. We are each certain that we are seeing the correct color. And of course, that influences what clothes we believe can go together.

There is a deep difference of perception within The United Methodist Church today. (Actually, there are several differences of perception.) One group perceives that the Bible (and by extension, God) mandates that sexual relationships be maintained only within a marriage between one man and one woman. Another group perceives that the Bible is not clear about that issue and leaves room for same-sex marriages. Some even go so far as to perceive that the Bible is really outmoded when it comes to issues of sexuality and gender, and that it is perfectly acceptable for people to engage in sexual relationships whether or not they are married (and no matter which gender people are), as long as those relationships are consensual and life-affirming.

How one acts depends upon what one sees. Those in the first group believe the church must set a clear boundary prohibiting sexual relationships outside of a monogamous, heterosexual marriage. Many in this group believe that it is a matter of fundamental obedience and faithfulness to God to maintain this boundary. Those in the second group believe the church must enlarge its boundaries to encompass same-sex relationships. Many in this group believe it is a matter of fundamental human rights (and obedience and faithfulness to God) to ensure that same-sex relationships are not only allowed, but affirmed and supported. Those in the third group believe that the church shouldn’t be in the business of setting boundaries in the first place. Many in this group believe that the church’s role is to allow people the freedom to determine for themselves (in conversation with God) what is right or wrong for them.

Just as in my disagreement with my wife about what color we see, it is nearly impossible to convince people in the other groups that they are seeing incorrectly. Because each group has such a vastly different perspective, the groups are pulling the church in different (often opposite) directions. This is a recipe not only for stalemate and “gridlock,” but it is harming the church’s ability to minister in this world. Because we perceive differently, we cannot agree on what the church stands for and what ministry the church should and should not provide.

How can we decide?

The church in Laodicea (Revelation 3:14-22) had a problem of perception. “You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked” (vs. 17). What the church perceived was different from what Jesus perceived in them. I think it would be best to agree with Jesus’ perception, don’t you? He offered the remedy of true wealth (gold refined in the fire) and white clothes to wear to “cover your shameful nakedness.” But before they could get these things, they needed “salve to put on your eyes, so you can see” (vs. 18).

Jesus alone can change our perceptions. It is essential to be in relationship with him. He knocks at the door of our lives and desires to have fellowship with us, which will transform our perceptions (vs. 20).

According to my perception, the current United Methodist teaching defining marriage as between one man and one woman and limiting sexual relationships to heterosexual marriage has many advantages. It is consistent with the univocal message of Scripture, with 2,000 years of near-unanimous Christian teaching, and is supported by the vast majority of Christians around the world. Those who perceive things differently have to fudge the teachings of Scripture and go against centuries of Christian tradition, as well as disregard the perception of the vast majority of the worldwide Body of Christ.

But all three groups maintain that they are being led by the authentic Spirit of Christ and that they are being faithful and obedient to what God wants. Since United Methodists don’t have a pope to make the final decision, we turn to General Conference. However, many who disagree with General Conference no longer feel bound to honor what the General Conference decides. Their way of perceiving things causes them to believe that they must follow a “higher law” than to submit to the church. We are not talking here about disagreements over what shirt goes with what pair of pants. We are dealing with foundational matters of the inspiration of Scripture, our theology of marriage and sexuality, and our theology of the church.

How one acts depends upon what one sees. When we see so differently, how can we act together or in concert? How long can we live in a church where some groups see other groups as unfaithful, and where some groups have determined to act according to their perception, no matter what the church says?

Health Care Justice

By Rev. Thomas Lambrecht

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Our country is having difficulty getting it right when it comes to providing health care for all its citizens. This is an area of great controversy and much political disagreement. Despite the enactment of the fairly comprehensive Affordable Care Act, also known as “Obamacare,” both the controversy and the problems with health care access and cost continue.

Recently our home area of Houston suffered a major shift in availability of health care. All the insurance companies that have been offering plans on the open market have shifted from PPO plans, which provide a wider range of available doctors and hospitals, to HMO plans, which provide a much narrower range of available doctors and hospitals. (As a point of comparison, our current PPO lists 15 rheumatologists within ten miles of our home, while our new HMO lists four.) The reason for shifting from PPO’s to HMO’s is that the insurance companies lost $400 million dollars last year on their PPO plans.

Not only is there going to be a much narrower range of doctors and hospitals available, some of the top-rated doctors and hospitals in the country are now excluded from all local insurance plans. It was front-page news in our paper that M.D. Anderson, the nation’s #1 rated cancer treatment facility, is not going to be covered in network by ANY local insurance plans on the open market. People travel from all over the world to get the best treatment at M.D. Anderson, but that treatment will be unavailable to many Houston residents. Not only that, but patients who are in treatment at M.D. Anderson locally will have to switch to a different doctor and hospital in the midst of dealing with a life-threatening disease. Moreover, these patients may no longer have access to cutting-edge treatment trials being run at M.D. Anderson.

The Houston situation is not an isolated event. United Healthcare, one of the largest health insurance companies in the country, has announced its plan to cut back participation in the open market in 2016 and possibly withdraw from it altogether in 2017. This is due to anticipated losses of $200 million on those plans in 2015.

After several years of slower healthcare cost inflation, the pressure to raise insurance premiums will be very strong. There is also the move to shift more of the costs to the individual and family through higher deductibles and co-pays. Out-of-pocket costs for many plans are in the range of $6,000 to $7,000 per year per person, in addition to insurance premiums of $10,000 to $17,000 per year (for those not receiving insurance subsidies from the government).

The effect of these changes is to reestablish the two-tier system in health care that existed prior to Obamacare. Those who are in the top ten percent of earners or who have a good job with robust health insurance benefits will be able to afford good quality health care, and even get the best care in case of a life-threatening illness. Those who don’t have health insurance benefits through their jobs will be unable to afford good health care, and many will be unable to afford any health care at all. Lower middle class folks are putting off getting treatment or filling prescriptions because they have to pay for it out of pocket, and they are unable to pay the bill.

This was exactly the problem that Obamacare was designed to address, namely, that there was a whole segment of society that could not receive health care because they were priced out of the market (or were excluded because of pre-existing conditions). Now, our health care system is evolving right back into that same situation.

I think part of the problem is a fundamental philosophical question: Is health care a right or a commodity? Many on the right view health care as a commodity that should be purchased by users, and that the market system can bring about the most equitable distribution of resources in the most efficient manner. Many on the left view health care as a basic right of people that should be assured by the government, which leads them to propose government-run health care. (The U.S. is the only Western country that does not have government-run health care.)

If health care is a commodity, then how do we make the health care system operate in an open-market way? The prices for doctors and procedures and prescriptions are normally not available for everyone to see prior to making a decision on what health care to receive. It is nearly impossible to compare prices between one provider and another. Even if “list prices” were fully available, the price negotiated by each insurance company is different and normally not available for comparison. So the “shopper” for health care has to buy a product for which he/she does not know the cost.

Furthermore, people often make health care decisions under duress. The patient has a difficult or painful condition that needs to be resolved ASAP. Even if it were possible to compare prices, taking time in midst of the pain often makes it unrealistic to “shop around.” It is one thing to compare prices for routine physicals or planned elective procedures. It is quite a different thing to be lying in a hospital bed being told you need an emergency heart bypass operation and then to look at three different hospitals and three different doctors to get the best price on the operation.

Finally, if health care is a commodity, how do we ensure that everyone can get treatment? How do we prevent a situation where people who can afford health care receive it, and those who cannot afford it either receive substandard care or no care at all—leading to chronic loss of health or even death? It’s not like we’re looking at the difference between a Chevrolet and a Cadillac. Both cars will get you around, one with more comfort and luxury than the other. But cancer treatment is not a luxury—it is an essential. And some cancer treatments are better than others. If I can’t afford the best treatments, does that mean I have to be resigned to an earlier death?

Some people are afraid of the idea of “rationing” health care. This is usually framed as government bureaucrats determining which health treatments will be covered and which will not, and which patients are eligible to receive which treatments. But “rationing” is already going on. It is not the government bureaucrats, but the health insurance bureaucrats who are determining which treatments will be covered and who will receive them. And health care is now being rationed by income, in the sense that the rich or those with good jobs can receive whatever care they want, while the rest of the population are excluded from certain treatments because they cost too much.

I don’t know the answer to solving the health care crisis. I have read some good ideas that could make things better. But until we decide whether health care is a commodity or a right, we will be at loggerheads in trying to fashion a solution. As Christians, I think we need to apply the lens of justice and fairness to proposed solutions. I’m not sure I would want to face the Lord on judgment day after telling a couple, “I’m sorry, we cannot give your seven-year-old daughter treatment for her leukemia because you didn’t come up with the $70,000 it will cost.”

What do you think? How should our Christian values influence our opinion on resolving the health care crisis?

Acknowledging Flawed Heroes

By Rev. Thomas Lambrecht

Students at Princeton University made news recently with their demand that Woodrow Wilson’s name be removed from campus buildings and from the School of Public and International Affairs due to Wilson’s racist views and discriminatory actions. He apparently supported the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, refused to hire blacks in his administration as New Jersey governor, and believed that black students did not belong at Princeton, among other transgressions.

Woodrow-Wilson_Health-Crisis_HD_768x432-16x9Wilson was honored by the university as a former university president who went on to become governor of New Jersey and President of the United States. He was also honored for his work toward creating the League of Nations as an attempt to prevent future wars after World War I. He received the Nobel Peace Prize. He was well known for his progressive political views, even as his racist views have been hidden from public view.

Princeton has decided to agree to the students’ demand and remove Wilson’s name. Whether one supports that decision or not, it has implications for how we acknowledge our history as a nation. Two of our greatest founders, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, owned slaves, and Jefferson may have even fathered six children with a slave. To be consistent, do we demolish or rename the Washington and Jefferson memorials? Does slaveholding (reprehensible as it is) disqualify someone from being a national hero or having their accomplishments recognized?

As Christians, we have a different way of looking at our heroes of faith. Reading the “hall of faith” in Hebrews 11 points out that many biblical heroes were deeply flawed persons. Abraham took matters into his own hands to fulfill God’s promise and also allowed his wife to be taken as a concubine by Egyptian and Canaanite rulers. Jacob deceived his father, stole his brother’s birthright, and parented his sons with favoritism. Samson was sexually promiscuous. Jephthah made a rash oath and sacrificed his own daughter. Barak was a coward who refused to lead Israel’s armies unless the prophet Deborah came along. David, an adulterer and a murderer, was considered “a man after God’s own heart.” Solomon had hundreds of wives and concubines and turned away from following God, yet is renowned for his godly wisdom.

When it comes to the New Testament, Peter denied Jesus three times, and after the church was formed and began admitting Gentiles, he reneged on welcoming Gentiles and began separating from them. All the apostles (except perhaps John) deserted Jesus in his hour of trial. Paul persecuted the church and killed Christians.

We realize that every one of us is flawed and guilty of sin. Were it not for the grace and mercy of God, we would be totally lost. And it is only God’s grace that is able to use flawed people to extend his love and accomplish his Kingdom work. As Paul said, “We have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.”

We American Christians tend to idolize certain leaders of the faith and gloss over any imperfections they might have. But the Bible treats heroes of faith with wide-eyed realism. Their sins are not glossed over, but recorded for everyone to see. That takes the focus off of the person and puts it on the Lord, who is the reason why we are able to do anything worthwhile.

And yet, we do not repudiate our flawed heroes, we celebrate and learn from them—from their successes and faith, as well as their failures and flaws. The good news of the Gospel is that God does use “cracked pots” (or is it “crackpots”?) to do his work in the world. God is able and eager to forgive our sins and redeem our flaws for the sake of his Kingdom. He wants us to grow into maturity, which means leaving behind flawed thinking and behavior, overcoming failure, and taking advantage of the Lord’s “second chances” that we are given.

I don’t know whether Woodrow Wilson’s name should remain on any Princeton buildings. But I do know that we will be better off as a nation if we are able to acknowledge the great accomplishments of our leaders, while at the same time being aware and learning from their faults and failures. There is no such thing as a perfect hero, only persons who are redeemed by God’s grace and used in his service.

Thoughts on Transgenderism

By Rev. Thomas Lambrecht

 

Photo from Flicker

There have not been many statements by churches and theologians regarding the issue of transgenderism, mostly because it is a relatively somewhat newly accepted phenomenon and because there are not a lot of clear teachings in Scripture directed at transgenderism. Recent public controversies, however, mean that we as Christians need to start thinking theologically about the implications of transgenderism as viewed by (and increasingly mandated by) our society. The Houston Equal Rights Amendment that would have required equal civil rights protection for transgendered persons was recently voted down by a 2-1 margin. Another recent dispute involved a Palatine, IL school district that barred a teenage boy who identifies as a girl from unrestricted use of the girls’ locker room.

Here are some beginning thoughts about how to think theologically about transgenderism.

1) There is a tiny minority of persons who are born with genital anomalies that make it difficult to determine which gender the infant is. This condition, typically referred to as “intersex”, afflicts about 0.02 percent of the population, or about one in every 4,500 births. In the past, these infants have been almost universally altered to be girls and raised as females. More research needs to be done to determine whether this is the right approach, as it is being questioned by some in the medical community today. My remarks below do not apply to this group of people.

2) Some persons experience gender dysphoria, a condition where they believe they were born with the wrong gendered body. In other words, a woman or girl believes they should have been born a boy, or vice-versa. Until recently, this belief was treated as a psychological disorder, with talk therapy and sometimes medication. Now, however, the government in some states is moving toward banning therapy designed to overcome gender dysphoria (particularly for youth). Instead, these persons are encouraged to explore the possibility of identifying as the gender they believe themselves to be, rather than the gender indicated by their physical body. Increasingly, this identification as the other gender includes physically transitioning the person’s body through hormone treatments and plastic surgery, as depicted in the case of Olympic athlete Bruce Jenner becoming Vanity cover girl “Caitlyn.”

From a scientific viewpoint, there seems to be no good evidence that transgendered persons who change their gender identification are ultimately happy doing so, particularly if that involves surgically altering their bodies. John Hopkins Hospital was one of the early adopters of gender reassignment surgery, but stopped the practice in the 1970s because they determined “the practice brought no important benefits.” In fact, Dr. Paul McHugh, Distinguished Service Professor of Psychiatry at Johns Hopkins Medical School and former psychiatrist in chief at Johns Hopkins Hospital, cites a 30-year study in Sweden of persons who had sex reassignment, showing that “ten to fifteen years after surgical reassignment, the suicide rate of those who had undergone sex-reassignment surgery rose to twenty times that of comparable peers.” It seems that gender reassignment is not the best way to deal with gender dysphoria. Dr. McHugh recommends the use of established psychotherapeutic approaches involving talk therapy and medication.

As Christians, we can also help dismantle gender stereotypes that sometimes cause gender dysphoria. Most ideas about how to “act like a man” or “act like a woman” are culturally determined and not inherent in our gender. Men can be sensitive, artistic, and discerning of beauty, just as women can be strong, independent, and love the outdoors. I once spoke with a girl who was angry she couldn’t join the Boy Scouts because she would rather do the things Boy Scouts do than the things Girl Scouts do! When we put artificial categories on what is male behavior and what is female behavior, we set people up to feel like they have to identify with the other gender in order to explore the gifts and passions that make up their unique personal identity.

3) From a scriptural perspective, the Bible talks a lot about setting clear boundaries. The creation story in Genesis is not only about God creating new things, but about God differentiating one thing from another: light from dark, waters above from waters below, water from land, each plant and tree producing seed “according to their various kinds,” and so on.

When God created humanity, he created them “male and female.” Even though plants and animals have gender, the first mention of gender in the Bible has to do with human gender. According to Genesis 1:27, it is male and female together who reflect the image of God. They are alike, yet different from each other.

To adopt the idea that one can change from one gender to the other or even be “non-gendered” (as some radicals claim to be) is to call into question the goodness of God’s creation. God has given each one of us a body in which to live our lives. It is a rejection of God and his sovereignty to say that “God gave me the wrong body.” To change our gender identity or even alter our physical bodies is to embrace self-determination, rather than submitting to God’s determination. It is to deny that God formed us in the womb (Jeremiah 1:5) and that we are “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:13-16).

To choose another gender identity than the one God gave us in our physical bodies is to blur the boundaries that God has established. The prohibition against cross-dressing in Deuteronomy 22:5 probably relates to preserving the boundaries between the genders. It is significant that, when Satan tempts us to sin, he often tries to blur the boundaries between right and wrong (“Did God really say?” Genesis 3:1). In terms of sexual relationships, God lays out very clear and detailed boundaries (for example, Leviticus 18).

We disrespect God’s boundaries at our peril. They were established for our good, to protect us because those boundaries reflect the reality of the way the world is. Transgressing God’s boundaries finds us fighting against reality, trying to shape a new contrary reality based on our own ideas—a new tower of Babel. In the end, it is to make ourselves God. We believe we can determine our own boundaries (the result of eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil) and even recreate ourselves as different people in different bodies. In the end, it runs the risk of becoming Idolatry of the supreme self.

Finally, it is simply insane that we consider allowing children as young as five years old to determine they were born the wrong gender. We don’t allow children to drive a car or get married or drink alcohol, yet we think they are able to make the potentially life-changing and often irreversible decision to change their gender identity? This capitulation to “the spirit of the age” is simply an abandonment of our God-given responsibility to be good stewards of our bodies and of our children. In the words of the prophet, we “sow the wind and [will] reap the whirlwind” (Hosea 8:7).

4) So how can Christians minister to transgendered persons and those experiencing gender dysphoria? We should treat these children of God with kindness, sensitivity, and respect. They are hurting persons who need to experience the love of God through us in tangible ways. We can affirm their infinite value in the eyes of God and our own, and reinforce their “sacred worth” as individuals created in God’s image. We can first and foremost point them to the loving Savior who came to redeem our bodies by giving his body on the cross, receiving his body again transformed through resurrection, and whose goal is to bring healing and flourishing to all people. We can help them understand that maleness and femaleness are not narrow categories with tightly defined expectations, but broad pathways to live out our God-given identity and potential. We can pray for them and with them for all aspects of life, and particularly that they would find their true identity in relationship to Jesus Christ. We can help them find godly counsel to work through the thoughts and feelings that are causing the dysphoria, offering personal support in the process. In short, we can be church and family to people in pain, like many others suffering from different forms of brokenness (including us).

What do you think?