How Should Christians Respond to the Transgender Phenomenon?
In June, Christianity Today published an article by Mark Yarhouse, a professor of psychology at Regent University in Virginia, on “gender dysphoria.” Gender dysphoria is the APA’s current description of the condition whereby someone perceives one’s “gender” to be other than one’s birth or biological sex. The previous designation in the APA’s diagnostic manual (and in my view still preferable) is “gender identity disorder” (GID).
1. Church members should address a man who thinks he is a woman by her chosen female name and use feminine pronouns, and a woman who thinks she is a man by her chosen male name and use masculine pronouns.
2. The church should not “treat as synonymous management of gender dysphoria and faithfulness” to Christ. The church should allow those with transgender desires “to identify with aspects of the opposite sex, as a way to manage extreme discomfort.”
3. For the most part, the church should give up on the “culture war” battle on this and other issues. “The church is called to rise above [culture] wars and present a witness to redemption.”
Yarhouse refers to three different lenses for interpreting the issue: Integrity (Yarhouse cites me as a proponent; go here for an online discussion), Disability, and Diversity (full affirmation of transgenderism). Although Yarhouse states that he believes “there are strengths in all three lenses,” he clearly operates with a descending scale with Disability at the top and Diversity at the bottom: “Because I am a psychologist…, I see value in a disability lens.”
Yarhouse doesn’t dump the Integrity lens entirely. “Even as Christians affirm the disability lens, we should also let the integrity lens inform our pastoral care.” He rather sees the disability lens as embracing the Integrity lens but going beyond it and even correcting it, at least at two points. First, “the disability lens also makes room for supportive care and interventions that allow for cross-gender identification in a way the integrity lens does not” (it is this allowance that is the main problem in my view). Second, it “rejects the teaching that gender identity conflicts are the result of willful disobedience or sinful choice.”
This last claim is curious. I for one do not view the mere experience of gender dysphoria as necessarily resulting from active efforts to rebel against God. My approach is not far from Yarhouse on this score: “A person may have choices to make in response to the condition, and those choices have moral and ethical dimensions. But the person is not culpable for having the condition as such.” Where I would qualify Yarhouse is in noting a more complex interplay of nature, nurture, environment, and choices. Incremental choices made in response to impulses may strengthen the same impulses.
Another problem with his “Disability” view is that for the most part people don’t associate a disability with sinful conduct. When people think of disabilities they typically think of such things as physical impairments of mobility, hearing, or sight; intellectual disability or other learning impairments; or health impairments like asthma, epilepsy, or attention deficit disorder. Such non-moral disabilities can be accommodated in all sorts of ways without violating any divine standards.
Even depression and anxiety (cited as parallels to gender dysphoria by Yarhouse) are not as directly or severely related to the desire to sin as a desire to pursue a gender identity at odds with one’s biological sex (and in what sense do we accommodate to depression and anxiety?). My concern is that Yarhouse’s use of the disability label might have the unintended effect of accommodating sinful choices.
Yarhouse further argues that “it is an act of respect, even if we disagree, to let the person determine what they want to be called.” He adds that “redemption is not found by measuring how well a person’s gender identity aligns with their biological sex, but by drawing them to the person and work of Jesus Christ, and to the power of the Holy Spirit to transform us into his image.” While I believe Yarhouse’s advice is well intentioned, I respectfully disagree.
First, is this not rather distant from the biblical language on these matters? Cross-dressing is called an “abomination” to God in Deut 22:5. Paul includes “soft men” (malakoi) in the offender list in 1 Cor 6:9-10, which in context designates men who attempt to become women (through dress, mannerisms, makeup, and sometimes castration), often to attract male sex partners. The fact that Paul includes such persons among those who “shall not inherit the kingdom of God” suggests that acting on a desire to become the opposite sex can in fact affect one’s redemption.
Further, what will be the effect of encouraging church members to address persons with GID as the sex that they are not? What will be the result of requiring them to accept whatever manner of transgender display of appearance offenders deem essential to their well-being? For some it will mean silencing a conscience correctly informed by Scripture and science. For others it will further confusion about sex and gender already promoted in the world, undermining the church’s resistance to the bonds of sin.
I have no doubt that Yarhouse is aiming for the redemption of those with gender dysphoria. Yet it may be instructive to reflect on Paul’s concern in 1 Corinthians 5 not only for the sexual offender but also for the offender’s impact on the local church: “a little leaven leavens the whole lump of dough” (v. 6). Although Yarhouse refers obliquely to wise counsel from church leaders, he allows the offender to call the shots. Paul rather recommends temporary remedial discipline for the persistently impenitent in order to minimize the harm done both to the offender and to the church (vv. 4-5, 9-13). The church’s complicity in sexual delusion benefits no one, least of all the offender.
How far should Christians following Yarhouse’s suggestions go? For example, can a man who feels that he is a woman use the church’s restroom for females? Can he expect the church to respect his choice of romantic partner, whether a woman (in a pretend lesbian relationship) or a man (in an actual homosexual relationship)? Can he even compel the pastor’s performance of his marriage ceremony to either sex, claiming that otherwise he will feel estranged from the church? And what if the offender has children distressed and confused by his wrong choices? Denise Schick, director of Help 4 Families Ministry, writes courageously about the added stresses put on her adolescent development by a father obsessed with becoming a woman:
As an adolescent, I had to be careful about how I dressed. I always had to ask myself how he would react to my outfit. Would it make him so envious that he’d “borrow” it (without my consent, of course)? I began to hate my body. It was a constant reminder of what my father wanted to become. When I began to wear makeup, I had to block out the images I had of him applying makeup or eye shadow or lipstick. He was destroying my desire to become a woman.
In allowing those with transgender desires “to identify with aspects of the opposite sex,” even at a church service, won’t the church be contributing to the distress and confusion of their children?
Yarhouse would certainly prefer that persons with gender dysphoria make peace with their biological sex. He thinks counseling should be directed to “how best to manage gender dysphoria in light of the integrity lens” and advising persons with GID to explore their other-sex desires “in the least invasive way possible.” I have no doubt that his desire is to be loving to persons experiencing this distress. Yet it is possible to be sensitive, gentle, and loving without forcing the church to act as if the lie is the truth.
Lastly, should the church abandon the “culture wars”? Should we stop combatting society’s efforts to persuade vulnerable children in the schools that one’s perceived “gender” need not correlate with one’s biological sex? Is it wrong to try to prevent the state from punishing believers who can’t support a transsexual agenda? Is it a societal good to require schools and businesses to permit males who think they are females to use female restrooms? I submit that the church still has a role to play in terms of being salt and light for the culture at large in matters of sexual ethics.
Robert A. J. Gagnon, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of New Testament at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and author of The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics.