Christian Theology & Transgenderism
The campaign for transgender rights has left many small-o orthodox Christians reeling, desperate for guidance in how to think about it and act faithfully in the face of this challenge. Fortunately, Andrew T. Walker, director of policy studies for the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, has just published a book designed to help the ordinary Christian do just that: God And The Transgender Debate, in bookstores today. I spoke to him recently about the book. Here’s the transcript:
RD: After gays and lesbians won the right to marry, transgender rights became their movement’s main cause. Is there a way in which the transgender movement is different than the debate over homosexuality?
AW: Yes, definitely. But first, let me note that they demonstrate some similarity because underlying both issues is the question of teleology. In the case of sexual desire, the question becomes: How are sexual desires to be directed and for what purpose? In the case of the transgender phenomenon, the question is: Does human embodiment have an objective and discernible nature? Both assume some degree of plasticity to human nature that I think violates both Scripture and natural law.
Transgenderism, though, is actually an antecedent to homosexuality, because transgenderism is seeking to discern who or what man is before answering the question of how desire and reproduction function in light of man’s nature. I don’t want to sever the two, though, for fear that sexual desire becomes irrelevant to human embodiment. The two are intertwined (obviously). Seen in this light, transgenderism is a far more foundational and consequential issue because it makes us unable to direct the totality of the person toward any concrete goal of personhood, not just their sexual desires.
RD: The Bible’s teaching on homosexuality is clear, but there’s nothing there that’s explicit about transgenderism. Are Christianity and transgenderism compatible?
AW: Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 6 v 9-11 offer a helpful way to answer this question:
Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.
Paul’s words show that there are practices and lifestyles that, if left unrepented of, can prevent someone from inheriting—that is, having a place in—the kingdom of God. To live as a Christian is to accept God’s authority over our own.
Transgender identities fall into that category — they are not compatible with following Christ. A person’s gender identity reflects how they define what it means to be a human being. That self-definition will either correspond to God’s revelation in his word or it will not. God has created human beings in his own image as male and female. Our identity, therefore, is defined by God in his purposes for his creation and in his new creation in Christ. The design of humanity is purposeful and good, and part of our design is that we are men and women. To deny or overturn that distinction is to nullify God’s revelation both in nature and in Scripture. The Bible calls it suppressing the truth in unrighteousness (Romans 1 v 18).
That doesn’t mean that someone who struggles with gender identity conflicts is not a Christian. All Christians wrestle with life in this fallen world in one way or another. Let me underline that experiencing gender dysphoria does not mean you are not a Christian.
But it does mean that a settled rejection of God’s purposes for us as male or female cannot be reconciled with following Christ. Someone can embrace a transgender identity or find their identity in Christ, but not both.
Having said that, it is possible to sin in all kinds of ways in ignorance, rather than willfully and knowingly. A new Christian might not know that they are called to honor their parents, or that lust is sinful. The key is that when they read in Scripture that obedience to God means changing in these areas, they will work to do so, with God’s help. Likewise, it would be possible to identify as transgender and also be trusting Christ as Lord because they have not yet realized the implications of the lordship of Christ in this area of their life and identity. As and when they do realize it, a Christian person would change their behavior in this area, with God’s help.
RD: I talked to a small-town pastor not long ago, who told me that a man walked into Sunday services wearing a dress. Nobody knew how to react. The pastor told me that people who think transgenderism is not something they’re going to have to deal with sooner or later are deceiving themselves. What steps should the church take to shore up its its teaching and witness in this area?
AW: While this should be obvious, I fear it’s not: Pastors ought to see their pulpit as a vehicle for the proclamation of the gospel, but also for moral formation (the two, I should add, are not in tension). When you stop to consider the teaching function of the pastor, it’s mesmerizing. Where else in America do people voluntarily gather for moral formation? Sure, Americans are formed by any one of their habits, but most aren’t seeking out intentional formation. This means that the pastor has an obligation to speak to this issue as he would on any other issue pressing in on the culture. The pastor-shepherd can cultivate the instincts of his people.
We live in an age of anthropological heresies, so we need voices willing to teach, correct, and heal. As I told you when you interviewed me for The Benedict Option, I grew up in a wonderful church, but I cannot recall any message that centered upon the goodness of the human body or why, in God’s economy, the idea of maleness and femaleness are integral to human flourishing and social stability. A theology of the body is missing in most churches, and if there is one, it’s usually done through kitsch euphemism or sermons series that tout “See, we Christians are having sex, too.” We must do better than that. Youth pastors and parents must work in tandem to catechize their children on this issue, or else the culture will do so quite enthusiastically.
No one wants to focus on these issues because they are controversial, but I can envision few things more pressing than the local church making intentional effort to study this issue.
RD: A prominent religious liberty activist told me that after Obergefell, he and his fellow activists thought they might have a year or two before they would face the trans tsunami. Turns out it started right away, and has been startlingly successful. How do you explain that?
AW: Anthony Kennedy. (laughs)
But seriously, progressive judicial philosophy means picking a desired outcome and reasoning backwards until the Constitution can justify it. I imagine this issue will make its way to the Supreme Court sooner rather than later. We see this similarly happening where bureaucrats re-interpret statutes to include sexual orientation and gender identity, enshrining into law contested categories upon citizens.
All the other expected answers apply, though: It’s a cause célèbre for those who see trans liberation as the next frontier of human progress. That’s backed up by aggressive organizations like the Human Rights Campaign who work in entertainment and corporate spheres to bully legislatures into compliance.
RD: Is there any sense in which the transgender movement is overreaching in what it is asking society to affirm?
AW: Yes, its impact on children and adolescents.
Children who express gender confusion are now encouraged to explore it. Think about that for a second: We are putting decisions that have a lifetime of consequence into the hands of children unable to do algebra let alone understand the ramifications of their gender. Most kids grow out of their confusion, but society’s affirmation makes it more likely that children will go down this path. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.
An article recently highlighted a transgender day camp. One of the paragraphs reads, “Some change their name or pronouns daily, to see what feels right.” That sounds polite, tolerant, and very social justice-y. But that’s unbridled radicalism dressed up as effete 21st century parenting.
There’s also the impact of puberty suppression in adolescents that has untold consequences — consequences that go ignored because medicine must now operate under the guise of political correctness. We are doing damage to children under the rubric of tolerance. It’s awful, but there’s a growing number of voices that are talking about transgender skepticism and some who regret transitioning and who have transitioned back — what’s called “Desisting.”
Perhaps the most outlandish example of transgender overreach is the attempt to brandish “genital preference” as some form of transphobia. What is that, you ask? Without getting too graphic, if a person has a revulsion against having attempted intercourse with someone of the same anatomy, but who has a different “gender identity” — that’s transphobic. So, for example, imagine a scenario where a man dates a transgender woman (a biological male). If the man objects to having intimate relations with the transgender woman because the transgender “woman” has a penis, that’s now bigoted, because anatomy is irrelevant to gender identity.
As a friend described it to me, this is the Left’s version of conversion therapy.
RD: The issue of “harm” is paramount in this discussion. We often hear that if someone refuses to wholeheartedly affirm transgenderism, you’re accused of denying people’s lived experiences and inflicting harm on a person who is identifying as transgender. What do you say to that?
AW: If I can be honest, this is the most absurd element to the cultural discussion. Reason and moral debate gets held hostage to emotivism: “Affirm me, or else you’re harming me.” How can conversation and debate ever occur when such zero-sum inanities are thrown about? When did it become acceptable in public discourse to reduce disagreement down to the level of personal harm? People who hate Christianity do not do me any harm. In fact, the Scriptures portend a future where that’s to be expected. Now, if there’s actual harm, or threatened harm, that’s a different situation. But a mature society recognizes that moral debate is the sum and substance of free societies. We can’t quarantine moral debate just because someone’s feelings get hurt. Where a society shuts down debate, it forsakes opportunities for prophetic reform, and it’s my conviction that history is going to look back poorly on how our society handled transgenderism. We can’t, as a society, run in the opposite direction of human nature without human nature eventually striking back at some point.
The harm argument is the problematic conclusion that comes from “dignitary harm” arguments taking hold: A subjective “experience” — often wholly psychological in nature — becomes normative and insulated against any type of moral critique, and where critique does occur, we’re told it is tantamount to violence. If I can be so blunt, this has the seeds of totalitarianism in it. If you can get society to believe that men can become women, and women can become men, what can’t you get society to believe? The language of “dignitary harm” is ever-expansive in its use today, and it may be the most weaponized asset used against religious conservatives in the years ahead.
“Harm” arguments rely on the underlying assumption that social affirmation is what is at the bottom of transgender people’s distress. Studies don’t show that — transgender persons demonstrate great instability even after transitioning. Affirmation isn’t enough, which means there are deeper issues at stake than just cultural acceptance. Personal insecurity does not get to be the last, and most authoritative word in this debate.
Additionally, though, ending debate about transgenderism assumes that everyone has reached the same conclusion, which neither psychology, philosophy, or science have. My friend Ryan Anderson’s book is going to tackle that angle, and I recommend it.
But let’s state the argument in the reverse: Why must I affirm their understanding of the issue but them not affirm mine? Why must I assent to the belief that suppressing one’s innate biology and nature is healthy? I will never subscribe to the idea that psychological impairment which incites troubled souls to take irreversible action is ever loving, kind, or compassionate. Conservatives and Christians can play the affirmation card, too. So use progressives’ language and arguments against progressives. Make them play by their own rules. Tolerance and inclusion are two-way street.
RD: The “bathroom debate” appears toxic politically. Is it important to draw a line in the sand politically there? If so, how should proponents of bathroom laws talk about them?
AW: First, as a general principle, parents ought to have the right to send their children to a school that does not teach contrary to what the parents believe — especially on a subject like this. Parental rights are at stake because a child is being exposed to conversations and situations that some parents are wholly opposed.
Second, student privacy is a legitimate concern. Who wins in a battle of pitting one child’s privacy right versus another? That means win-win scenarios ought to be strived after. Installing single-stall restrooms seems like one effective policy strategy that brokers compromise. It’s wrong, especially in public school settings, to subject one sex to the presence of another sex in such places as locker rooms.
Restroom policies separate men and women based on privacy concerns. Individuals of the same biological sex share the same anatomy. Sharing the restroom with those who are of the same sex and who have the same anatomy prevents the embarrassment or vulnerability that comes from the possibility of viewing the opposite sex in a state of undress. For the sake of protecting women from sexual assault or the fear of it and to prevent men from viewing, or being in close proximity to, women in a private situation, restroom policies are wise to base access upon biological sex distinction. Please be clear: I am not calling transgender persons predators; but there are documented instances of predators using lax bathroom laws to their advantage.
All that to say, it isn’t unreasonable to make privacy concerns based on anatomical distinctions and for law to recognize the difference between males and females. So, yes, of course, it’s necessary to draw a line in the sand and stand up for good public policy.
The book is God And The Transgender Debate, by Andrew T. Walker. If you are a pastor, youth minister, teacher in a Christian school, or a parent, you need to read this book. This discussion cannot be avoided. If you don’t catechize your children, or those under your spiritual care, the culture certainly will.