By Rev. Thomas Lambrecht
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?