This question takes place sometime in the future—or the present—in your ministry.

Joan is a 50-year-old woman who has been visiting your church for a little more than a year. She sits on the third row from the back, and usually exits during the closing hymn, often with tears in her eyes. Joan approaches you after the service on Sunday to tell you that she wants to follow Jesus as her Lord.

You ask Joan a series of diagnostic questions about her faith, and it’s clear she understands the gospel. She still seems distressed, though. When you ask if she’s repented of her sin, she starts to cry and grit her teeth.

“I don’t know,” she says. “I don’t know how . . . I don’t know where to start. . . . Can I meet with you privately?”

You, Joan, and a godly Titus 2-type women’s ministry leader in your church meet in your office right away, and Joan tells her story.

She wasn’t born Joan. She was born John. From early on in John’s life, though, he felt as though he was “a woman trapped in a man’s body.” “I don’t mean to repeat that old shopworn cliché,” Joan says, “but it really is what I felt like.”

Joan tells you that when she was 20 she began the process of “transitioning” from life as a man to life as a woman. She underwent extensive hormone therapy, followed by extensive plastic surgery—including so-called “gender reassignment surgery.” She’s lived for the past 30 years—physically and socially—as a woman.

“I want to do whatever it takes to follow Jesus,” Joan tells you. “I want to repent . . . I just, I don’t know how to do it.”

“I am surgically now a woman. I’ve taken hormones that give me the appearance and physical makeup of a woman,” she says. “Even if I were to put on a suit and tie right now, I’d just look like a woman with a suit and tie. Not to mention the fact that, well, I am physically . . . a woman.” 

“To complicate matters further,” Joan says through tears, “I adopted my daughter, Clarissa, when she was eight months old, and she’s ten years old now. She doesn’t know about my past life as a man. She just knows me as Mom.”

“I know the sex change surgery was wrong. I know my life is twisted. I’m willing to do whatever Jesus would have me to do to make it right,” she says. “But what would Jesus have me to do? Am I too messed up to repent and be saved? If not, what does it mean for me to repent and live my life as a follower of Jesus? What is right for me to do?”

This is a complicated situation for which there are no easy answers. But just because the answers are difficult doesn’t mean they’re impossible. Here’s what I think is at stake in this situation, and how a Christian pastor ought to look at it.

We’re All Perverted

The first issue is the gospel. Christ Jesus came to save sinners. He offered up his life as a sacrifice, and his bloody cross and empty tomb are enough to reconcile any broken person, including this one, to God. We should abandon any sense of revulsion because Joan’s situation is “weird” or “perverted.” All sin is weird and perverted. The fact any of it (especially our own) seems “normal” to us is part of why we need the gospel.

The second issue is repentance. Turning from sin to Christ is necessary for salvation, as is articulated in the gospel message throughout the Scripture (Mark 1:15; Acts 3:19, 17:30, 20:21). The account of our Lord’s interaction with the rich young ruler (Luke 18:18–29) is in order here, as well as his encounter with the Syrophoenician woman (Mark 7:24–30). In both cases Jesus probed in order to bring forth (in the first) a visible lack of repentance or (in the second) a visible manifestation of faith. The message Joan has heard is the same message every Christian has heard: “Come, follow me.” The pastor wishes to know, as he would with any sinner, whether she’s counted the cost of doing so.

Next Steps

At the same time, the pastor ought to know there’s no simple solution here. Whatever Joan does will leave havoc in its wake. Her daughter will either grow up with a “mother” who has deceived her all life long about a basic aspect of who she is, and what their relationship is, or she will go through the trauma of discovering her Mom is actually her Dad.

After discerning that Joan is truly trusting in Christ (and it certainly appears that she is), my counsel would be to make sure she understands that part of the sin she’s walking away from is a root-level rejection of the Creator. God’s creation is good, and he does not create generic persons but “male and female,” in his own image (Gen. 1:27). In seeking to “become” a woman, John has established himself as a god, determining the very structure of his createdness. Part of the freedom that comes in Christ is John’s recognition that he is a creature, not a god, not a machine, not a freak.

This means the pastor should, in his role as an undershepherd of Christ, start speaking to Joan as “John” and identifying him as “him.” This will seem strange and discordant to Joan. Of course it will. What is going on in this person’s life, however, is what goes on in every Christian’s life. We’ve put on a “new man,” crucifying the old way (Eph. 4:21–24). We’re a “new creation” with the past done away with (2 Cor. 5:17). We have a “new name” (Rev. 2:17) that seems strange and mystifying, with an extended family we have to learn to love and walk with through life. In this case, of course, John’s “new” life as a Christian involves returning to his “old” identity as a man.

Joan is not going to “feel” like John, and that’s okay. But the pastor must start ministering to him by helping him identify what peace looks like, where he’s headed as a man.

Further, the pastor cannot deceive his congregation. He doesn’t need to elaborate on every aspect of this person’s past (any more than he would with any other repenting sinner). But the church, not an individual, baptizes, and the church must know the person being baptized. To baptize one created a man as “my sister in Christ” (whatever the baptismal formula used) isn’t doing justice to a God who speaks the truth.

Reverse the Surgery?

On the question of whether “Joan” should go reverse her “gender reassignment” surgery, I’m inclined to say no in this case. After all, no surgery can reassign gender. The surgery mangled John and sought to create an illusion of a biological reality. There’s no way this surgery can be “reversed,” only another cosmetic illusion created on top of the old one.

In other words, additional surgery would, I think, only compound the problem in this case. John should view himself similar to a biblical eunuch, someone wounded physically by his past sin but awaiting wholeness in the resurrection from the dead. He should, though, stop taking the female hormones, allowing his body to revert to its (relatively) natural state.

The issue for John is honesty, it seems to me. This means he should present himself as what he is, a man created by God as a man. This means he should identify himself as a man, and should start dressing in male clothing. This is going to be very, very difficult for him, and he’ll need his pastors and congregation to bear with him through all the massive challenges—chief among which involves his daughter.

What About Her Child?

Assuming John is willing to forsake his life as a woman, and embrace his identity as the man God created him to be, what does he do about the fact his young daughter has known him only as Mom?

This is, admittedly, the most difficult part of this puzzle. Compassion for this daughter, having her entire spectrum of reality turned over, is a mark of a Christian, and certainly a necessary trait for a sheep-herder of God’s flock.

First, let me say I’m aware that “Joan” becoming “John” will wreak havoc on her daughter’s life and psyche. I think such havoc will be unleashed either way, and that honesty at this point is less destructive than continuing the illusion. The question, at this point, is not whether the daughter will have a normal life or a traumatic one. The question is whether the people of Christ will be with her through the trauma. I’d counsel Joan to tell her daughter at an appropriate (but not unduly delayed) time.

This will be difficult, and John will need his pastor there, along with many godly women willing to spend hours with this young girl. John should tell her that years before she was born, he was confused, and felt he was a girl instead of a boy, and that he’d spent the last 30 years trying to be a girl. He should tell his daughter, though, that something has changed: he was born again in Christ Jesus, and that means he gets a new start. He should tell her he loves her just the same, and he’ll always be here, but he wants her to know Jesus is putting his life back together as it was designed to be, as a man.

This will be confusing and disruptive but, with the wise counsel of his congregation and its pastors, John can visibly demonstrate before his daughter what regeneration and sanctification actually looks like: slow, painful, but, in the end, worth it for the sake of the gospel.

Church Must Step Up

In saying I don’t think Joan can continue living as a “woman” I’m not saying regeneration will mean he suddenly “feels” like a man. John is telling you the truth when he says he’s felt all his growing-up life like a woman trapped in a man’s body. He will not suddenly turn into a lumberjack. He will probably grapple with this issue for the rest of his life.

I was saved from, among many other things, covetousness. Coveting seems natural to me. Not coveting is unnatural to me. Not a day goes by in which coveting isn’t the easier, more natural thing for me. But I fight against covetousness because God is conforming me into the image of Christ (Rom. 8:29; 2 Cor. 3:18). He does this through suffering, through discipline, and through the warlike struggle of the Spirit against the flesh, the new creation against the satanic powers (Rom. 5:3–5; Heb. 12:5–11; 2 Cor. 2:11). If you’re in Christ, your testimony is the same, with any number of sinful patterns and weak points in your life. The same will be true for John. Don’t give up on him if he suffers setbacks, and don’t give up on him if he still “feels” like a woman for the rest of his life. Keep pointing him to the gospel, and to the faith that hears and acts.

John’s presence in your congregation will probably mean some Pharisaism will emerge. Some will find John “freakish.” Some men will be revolted by the whole idea, and will think they’re asserting their masculinity by mocking or marginalizing him (even if just in subtle, eye-rolling sorts of ways). The responsibility of the pastor is to lead his people away from this destructiveness. John’s life in the congregation can be a visible signal of the mercies of God. The church should, immediately upon receiving John as a repenting sinner, announce that his sin (not in part but the whole) is nailed to the cross of Christ, buried with Jesus, and obliterated by his resurrection power. Any ongoing gossip or judgment of John’s sin or John’s past is itself violence against the gospel, as well as divisiveness in the congregation, and will be disciplined as such.

The shepherds must lead people to receive John, as they were received by Christ (Rom. 15:5–7). The pastors and leaders of the church can help people bear their brother’s burdens (Gal. 6:2). This means, first of all, that women in the congregation will be needed to help show his daughter what it means to be a godly woman. Some of them will want to take her into their homes and lives, being mothers and grandmothers in Christ for her (Titus 2:3–5). This also means men in the congregation should make a concerted effort to disciple John, receiving him into their circle of friendship and showing him what it means to follow Christ, and what it means to be a man. For some of them, it will be awkward. So what? It seems awkward for the Lord Jesus to spend time with drunkards, prostitutes, and Gentiles like us, but he did it, and does it even now.

Our Response

We’re going to have more and more “transgendered” persons as the culture around us changes. A woman in my congregation told me the other day she was asked when giving blood, “What gender were you at birth?”

We could bemoan this trend and always talk about how American culture is slouching toward Gomorrah. But we should hope, if there are transgendered persons in the neighborhoods around us, that we’ll see them in our church pews. And we should pray, fervently, that they’ll hear the gospel we’re preaching as good news for them. A gospel church says whatever you’re running from or running to, Jesus offers you life. As long as you’re alive, it isn’t too late for you to find new life in Christ. Jesus loves sinners, and we do too.

The scenario about “Joan” isn’t really all that hypothetical. Chances are, wherever you live, someone near you is in that situation. Why don’t they show up in our churches? Is it because they doubt if our gospel is really addressed to them? Is it because we doubt it too?

If Joan comes to your church this Sunday and hears the gospel, if “she” decides to throw away everything “she” knows and follow Christ, will your church love him and then show him how to stop pretending and to fight his way toward what he was created to be? Maybe it would take such a conversion to make us question whether we really believe what we say and what we sing. Is there really power, wonder-working power, in the blood of the Lamb? Is our gospel really good news for prodigal sons, even for sons so lost they once thought they were daughters?