imagesThe challenge with the transgender debate is that Christians must say two very different things at the same time.

To those pushing an agenda that says your bathroom is my bathroom and your gender is whatever you want it to be, we want to say:

This is absurd. Patently absurd. There is no scientific reason, no justice reason, no internally consistent reason to think we can be boys or girls just by declaring it so. In our saner moments we know this to be true. No one would allow me to “become” Asian or African American even if I thought that’s who I was deep down. There are facts about my biology that cannot be denied. Why is gender open to self-definition while race and ethnicity are not?

As many others have pointed out, the logic of our transgender moment simply does not hold together. Are male and female distinct categories so that we should we be pushing “equal work for equal pay” and celebrating every “first woman to do X” achievement? Or are the categories completely malleable so that even the talk of binary gender norms is offensive? Two nights ago I watched a few minutes of the Oscars and then flipped to watch some of the SEC Indoor Track and Field Championships on ESPN. It struck me that many of the people attending the Oscars and many of the universities represented on the track would fully applaud the transgender agenda. And yet, here they are with their antiquated categories of Best Supporting Actor and Best Supporting Actress and their old-fashioned ideas of men and women running the mile in totally separate races.

I live in East Lansing, Michigan. I love my city. It’s a great place to live. It’s also a university town that tries to be at the cutting edge of progressive cultural trends. Which is why the local school board has pushed for students to be able to use the bathroom of the gender they identify with. At the same time, when I go to the community center—operated by the city of East Lansing—there is a sign on the men’s locker room stating clearly that girls should not be brought into the locker room (but can accompany their parents in the family bathroom). So does biology matter or not? Is it a matter of safety to keep boys and girls separate, or is it matter of safe space to let boys use the girls facilities if they think they are girls? The idea that the whole world must accommodate my declared sense of self is soul-destroying, culture-poisoning folly and deserves to be treated as such.

That’s what’s must be said about the arguments and the agenda.

But that’s not all that must be said. There are people—men and women made in God’s image—who feel all sorts of confusion about who they are and what they want to be.

To those struggling with feelings they don’t understand and a sense of self that feels horribly unsettled, we want to say:

This happens. All the time. Not necessarily with gender, but human identity. We all struggle to figure out who we are, especially in our growing-up years. Sometimes that means we don’t know how to makes sense of our own bodies and our own sexuality. We don’t want anyone to feel unsafe in a bathroom. So let’s figure out how to have more unisex single stalls. Let’s provide well-trained, warmhearted counselors. Let’s make sure kids are not made fun of for being tomboys or for being sensitive or for being immigrants or for being Muslim or for being Christian or for being whatever.

And let’s make sure we aren’t constantly in full-on culture warrior mode. We should empathize with those who genuinely feel threatened, scared, or all alone. Standing up for the truth doesn’t mean we have to say everything we think in every situation. It’s okay to be tactful, respectful, and even keep our mouths shut at times. Charging ahead with zeal is not an excuse for trampling over people.

The Christian response to the transgender debate depends on whether we are talking about the debate or about a transgender person. I understand the two cannot be completely divorced, but they are not the same thing either. The ideas bandied about in the public square are often ridiculous. The people struggling with gender identity are not. This is what makes the controversy especially difficult for Christians. As a pastor, I need to shepherd a flock that faces pressures from a world that is trying every day to remake them in its image (Rom. 12:2). But I also need to shepherd a flock that likely has sheep in it who wonder how they can live a holy and acceptable life to God when they don’t feel like (or simply don’t like) the person they see in the mirror (Rom 12:1).

That means while we do not have patience for secular agendas, we must have patience for struggling people. We may be quick with rebuttals in the public square, but we must be quick with a listening ear in the neighbor’s kitchen. It means we must show private care in a way that is not confused with public indifference, and make known our public concern in a way that is not confused with private disdain. We have two different things to say depending on the context—not contradictory things, but complementary things the world is eager to confuse.

The agenda ought to be lampooned. The people ought to be loved.