Over the last year, transgender issues have been at the forefront of national news. Last year President Barack Obama issued a directive to public schools on how to accomodate transgender students in school restrooms. The debate over this action was reignited a few months ago when President Trump rescinded the directive, and the Supreme Court declined to hear a case regarding transgender students and restrooms.
Yet while these and other policy questions are important, the cultural conversation on gender identity issues requires more than good policy. It demands a gospel-centered response from the church.
Ultimately, the transgender question is about more than just sex. It’s about what it means to be human. Poet Wendell Berry responded to techno-utopian scientism with the observation that civilization must decide whether we see persons as creatures or as machines. If we are creatures, then we have purpose and meaning, but also limits. But if we see ourselves—and the world around us—as machines, then we believe the Faustian myth of our own limitless power to recreate ourselves.
This, it seems to me, is the question at the heart of the transgender controversy. Are we created, as both the Hebrew Scriptures and Jesus put it, “male and female” from the beginning, or are these categories arbitrary and self-willed? Do our bodies, and our sexes, represent something of who we were designed to be—and thus impose limits on our ability to recreate ourselves?
Revolution in Self-Autonomy
The sexual revolution has always whispered promises of this kind of godlike self-autonomy. After a generation of no-fault divorce, cohabitation, ubiquitous pornography, and the cultural unhinging of sex from marriage and marriage from childbearing, it seems inevitable that Western culture is now decoupling sexuality from even its most basic reality: gender. If human sexuality exists solely for our self-actualization and satisfaction, then it makes no sense to impose restrictions based on something as seemingly arbitrary as gender.
Yet ultimately, this approach will not work. There are good reasons to put boys and girls in different bathrooms and locker rooms and sometimes sports teams—reasons that don’t impugn the dignity of people but uphold it. Sex-differentiated bathrooms and sports teams and dormitories for men and women aren’t the equivalent of, say, a terrorist Jim Crow state unnaturally forcing people apart based on a fiction, useful to the powerful, that skin color is about superiority and inferiority. Every human being knows there are important, and necessary, differences between men and women. Without such recognition, women are harmed and men are coarsened.
Moreover, the move toward severing self-identity from biological reality will hardly stop at “gender.” If anything, there’s much more of a case to be made that one can feel to be a different age than one’s doctor’s exam or birth certificate shows. Now, that’s relatively indifferent if all it means is “You’re only as old as you feel” or “I’m a millennial trapped in a Gen X body.” But it’s something else entirely if chronological self-identity is mandated for military service or the drinking age or the age of consent. People and neighborhoods and nations and cultures cannot live this way.
Faithful to Our Transgender Neighbors
So how should we as Christians respond?
First, we should never mock or belittle those suffering gender identity disorders. These are neighbors to be respected and served, not freaks to be despised. They feel alienated from their identities as men or women and seek a solution in self-display or in surgery or in pumping their bodies with the other sex’s hormones. In a fallen universe, all of us are alienated, in some way, from who we were designed to be. That alienation manifests itself in different ways in different people.
Those suffering gender identity disorders are neighbors to be respected and served, not freaks to be despised. . . . In a fallen universe, all of us are alienated, in some way, from who we were designed to be.
Churches who seek to be faithful to the gospel must teach what’s been handed down to us—that our maleness and femaleness point to an even deeper reality, to the unity and complementarity of Christ and the church. A rejection of the goodness of these creational realities, then, is a revolt against God’s lordship, and against the picture of the gospel he has embedded in his creation.
But this also means we will love and be patient with those who feel alienated from their created identities. We must recognize that some in our churches face a long road of learning what it means to live as God created them to be, as male or female. That sort of long, slow, plodding and sometimes painful obedience is part of what Jesus said would be true of every believer: the bearing of a cross. Such cross-bearing reminds us that God doesn’t receive us because of our own effort, but because he reconciled us to himself through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
Second, we must bear witness to the goodness of what it means to live as creatures, not as self-defining gods and goddesses. God created us as human, and within humanity as male and female (Gen. 1:27). Since we’re all sinners, we chafe against having ourselves defined by a Creator—and not by ourselves or our ideologies. Our nakedness shames us, for our physical difference reminds us that we’re not self-contained. Man needs woman, and woman needs man.
Mission Field, Not Battlefield
We must also resist the temptation to buy into the sexual revolution’s narrative. I don’t just mean accomodating to the sins and heresies of the movement, though that’s always a danger too. I mean the danger of assuming the sexual revolution will always be triumphant, progressing upward and onward. To assume this is to assume the sexual revolution will be able to keep its promises. It can’t. It never has. If we see ourselves as “losing” a culture rather than being sent on mission to a culture, we will be outraged and hopeless instead of compassionate and convictional. If we do not love our mission field, we will have nothing to say to it.
If we do not love our mission field, we will have nothing to say to it.
We should stand against any bullying of kids who are different from other children, for whatever reason. Children with gender-identity issues are often harassed and marginalized. They should be loved and protected. Schools can do this without upending all gender categories. More importantly, churches and Christians can do this. We should hate the bullying of our neighbors, especially children, even more than the outside world hates it.
We Christians believe that all of us are sinners, and that none of us are freaks. We conclude that all of us are called to repentance, and part of what repentance means is to receive the gender God entrusted to us, even when that’s difficult. We affirm that God loves all persons, and that the gospel is good news for repentant prodigal sons and daughters—including those who have trouble figuring out which is which.