In the 1970s Bruce Jenner seemed to have it all—fame, wealth, admiration. He was an Olympic star, so popular in American culture that he was reputedly considered for both the roles of Superman and James Bond. That’s changed. Now, Jenner is best known as the step-father on reality television’s Keeping Up with the Kardashians. Jenner is now ready for one more change. He says he knows what he’s been missing: his identity as a woman.
Jenner has reportedly undergone surgery to make himself appear more like a woman and has been photographed wearing dresses. Now, in a highly publicized interview with with Diane Sawyer, he says that his “whole life has been leading up to this.”
Bruce Jenner, of course, is a symbol, a celebrity spokesperson for an entire mentality that sees gender as separate from biological identity. So is there a word from God to the transgender community? How should the church address the Bruce Jenner in your neighborhood, who doesn’t have the star power or the Malibu mansions but who has the same alienation of self?
First of all, we should avoid the temptation to laugh at these suffering souls. We do not see our transgendered neighbors as freaks to be despised. They feel alienated from their identities as men or women and are seeking a solution to that 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 were designed to be. That alienation manifests itself in different ways in different people.
But neither should we fall for the cultural narrative behind the transgender turn. This narrative is rooted in the ancient heresy of Gnosticism, with the idea that the “real” self is separate from who one is as an embodied, material being. Body parts and chromosomal patterns are dispensable since the self is radically disconnected from the body, the psychic from the material.
The old Gnostic heresy is joined with contemporary expressive individualism—the idea that I must be true to whomever I perceive my “real me” to be on the inside in order to be “authentic.” This is what leads, in other news of the week, some parents to “transition” the gender identity of their child at ages as early as four years old.
It is somewhat ironic that Jenner’s interview comes in the same week as Earth Day. Earth Day, of course, reminds us that human desires and human technologies ought to have limits. Just because a corporation has the technological power to raze a forest or level a mountain or to dump toxins into a water system is no sign that one should do so. The common good means human beings learning to live in balance and harmony with nature, not with a rapacious domination of it.
What is true of natural ecology is true of human ecology as well. Techno-utopian scientism tells us that we can transcend our limits, to become as gods. For some, that manifests itself in believing that humanity can pollute its own ecosystem with impunity. For others it manifests itself in believing that they can transcend the boundaries of the male/female polarity. A biblical view of our place in the universe is quite different. We are not machines, to be reprogrammed at will; we are creatures.
That vision includes a respect for God’s natural, creative order that reflects His wisdom and Lordship over the world. Our maleness and femaleness is very much part of that wisdom and Lordship. We are born not out of self-effort but in the pure providence of our creator. Our given gender points us to an even deeper reality—to the unity and complementarity of Christ and the church. A rejection of the goodness of those creational realities then is a revolt against God’s lordship, and against the picture of the gospel that God has embedded in the creation.
The hope for Bruce Jenner, and for others like him, is not to alter the body with surgery or to flood their system with hormones. The answer is to realize that all of us are born alienated from what we were created to be. We don’t need to fix what happened in our first birth; we need a new birth altogether.
For the church, this is going to mean both conviction and wisdom. Our transgender neighbors experience real suffering, and we should suffer with them. The answers the culture and the Sexual Revolution-Industrial Complex offer can’t relieve that suffering. We should stand for God’s good design, including around what Jesus says has been true “from the beginning”—that we are created male and female, not as self-willed designations but as part of God’s creative act (Mk. 10:6).
In so doing, what every previous civilization would have seen as obvious, that maleness and femaleness are part of our biological design, will be seen as out-of-kilter with the culture. So be it. We will stand with conviction, even as we offer mercy. We’ve been called to keep in step with the Spirit, even if we can’t always keep up with the Kardashians.
A pastor friend told me last week that he had church members enraged with him when he suggested from the pulpit that we ought to pray for the salvation of Islamic State terrorists. The people in his church told him that he ought to be calling for justice against them, given their brutal murder of Christians, not for mercy.
I thought about my friend a few days ago when these murderous fiends beheaded 21 of our brothers and sisters in Christ because they refused to renounce the name of Jesus. I was not just angry; I was furious. Can such fury co-exist, though, with the Sermon on the Mount (Mat. 5-7)? When we pray about such evil, how should we pray?
The complexity of the Christian calling in the world was seen even in social media. One friend of mine posted that the slaughter of Christians overseas calls for the world’s only remaining superpower to take action. Another said, quoting singer Toby Keith, that it was time to “light up their world like the Fourth of July.” To that, I say, “Amen.” Another friend, a former student of mine posted, “Oh, that there might be an ISIS Saul standing there now, holding the cloaks, whose salvation might turn the Arab world upside down with the gospel!” To that I say “Amen,” too.
These are not contradictory prayers.
Jesus says to love our enemies and to pray for those who persecute us (Mat. 5:44). The Spirit of Jesus in the prophets and in the apostles also tells us that those who turn a blind eye to the killing of others are wrong. The fact that we feel contradictory praying both for justice against the Islamic State and for salvation for Islamic State terrorists is partly because we fail to distinguish between the mission of the state in the use of the temporal sword against evildoers (Rom. 13:4) and the mission of the church in the use of the sword of the Spirit against sin and death and the devil (Eph. 6). But that’s not, I think, the main problem.
The main problem is that we sometimes forget that we are called to be a people of both justice and justification, and that these two are not contradictory.
It sounds awfully spiritual, at first blush, to say that we should not pray for the defeat of our enemies on the field of battle. But that’s only the case if these enemies are not actually doing anything. This terrorist group is raping, enslaving, beheading, crucifying our brothers and sisters in Christ, as well as other innocent people. To not pray for swift action against them is to not care about what Jesus said we should seek, what we should hunger and thirst for, for justice. A world in which murderous gangs commit genocide without penalty is not a “merciful” world but an unjust horror show.
As Christians, we ought to be, above all people, concerned with such justice. We not only have the common grace standing of caring about stopping murder and injustice, rooted in the image of God and the law written on the heart. We also have the personal implication here. It’s our household being wiped out in the Middle East, the very place where our church started. For us, this isn’t a matter of “they;” it’s a matter of “us.”
At the same time, praying for the salvation of our enemies, even those committing the most horrific of crimes, is not a call to stop praying for justice against them. The cross, after all, is not forgiveness in a contemporary therapeutic sense—in which one is merely absolved of wrongdoing as though it were all a misunderstanding. No, that’s precisely the Apostle Paul’s point in the Book of Romans.
The gospel does not say, “Don’t’ worry about it; it’s okay.” The gospel points us to the cross where sin is absorbed in a substitute. God’s righteous condemnation of sin is there. He does not, and cannot, enable wickedness. And God’s mercy is there in that he is the One who sends his Son as the propitiation for sin. He is both “just and the justifier of the One who has faith in Jesus” (Rom. 3:26). The gospel doesn’t leave sin unpunished. Every sin is punished, either a the Place of the Skull, in Christ, or in the judgment of hell, on one’s own.
The thief on the cross—a Middle Eastern terrorist by Rome’s standards—in his act of faith did not believe that his salvation exempted him from justice. He confessed that his sentence was justice, and that he was receiving “the due reward for our deeds” (Lk. 23:41) even as he cried out to Jesus for merciful entrance into the kingdom of Christ (Lk. 23:42).
We ought, indeed, to pray for the gospel to go forward, and that there might be a new Saul of Tarsus turned away from murdering to gospel witness. At the same time, we ought to pray, with the martyrs in heaven, for justice against those who do such wickedness. Praying for the military defeat of our enemies, and that they might turn to Christ, these are not contradictory prayers because salvation doesn’t mean turning an eye away from justice. We can pray for gospel rootedness in the Middle East, and we can pray to light up their world like the Fourth of July, at the same time.
We are, after all, the people of the cross.
Russell Moore is President of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. He formerly served as Dean of the School of Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and executive director of the Carl F. H. Henry Institute for Evangelical Engagement. Dr. Moore is the author of several books including Adopted for Life: The Priority of Adoption for Christian Families and Churches (Crossway).
Visit his website: RussellMoore.com
The Supreme Court announced today that they are taking cases on whether same-sex marriage is a constitutional right. Effectively, this means that the highest court in the land will decide, this year, whether marriage, as defined for thousands of years, will exist in our country any longer. Here’s what we should keep in mind.
First of all, this is not something we should shrug off. Marriage isn’t merely a matter of personal import or private behavior. States recognize marriage for a reason, and that reason is that sexuality between a man and a woman can, and often does, result in children. The state has an interest in seeing to it that, wherever possible, every child has both a mother and a father. The state doesn’t create this reality. It merely recognizes it, and attempts to hold husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, accountable to their vows and to their responsibilities. In every aspect of the Sexual Revolution, from the divorce culture to cohabitation to casual sex to the abortion revolution, children have borne the burden.
If the Court finds a constitutional right to same-sex marriage, we will have a generation of confusion about what marriage is, and why it matters. Beyond that, we have already seen that the Sexual Revolution isn’t content to move forward into bedrooms and dinner tables. The Sexual Revolution wants to silence dissent. The religious liberty concerns we are grappling with already will only accelerate.
We should pray that the Supreme Court does not take upon itself a power it doesn’t have: to redefine an institution that wasn’t created by government in the first place. But we shouldn’t wring our hands in fear, or clench our fists in outrage.
The worst-case scenario is that the Court hands down a Roe v. Wade style redefinition of marriage. Marriage in the minds of the public will change, but marriage as a creation reality won’t change at all. Jesus has taught us that marriage is essentially male and female, and that such is grounded not in government fiat but in God’s creation (Matt. 19:4; Mk. 10:6).
The Sexual Revolution, with or without the Supreme Court, cannot keep its promises. People will be disappointed, and, ultimately, in search of something more permanent, more ancient. We must be the people who can preserve the light to the old paths.
This will mean articulating a Christian vision of marriage. We will be forced to spell out things we could previously assume. That’s not a new situation. The New Testament epistles had to do the same thing, for the people of God within a sexually-lost Roman Empire. In the past, we’ve assumed that most people aspire to the same sorts of marriages and families we aspire to. We can no longer assume that. We must spell out why marriage matters, in light of who we are as men and women and in light of the gospel mystery of Christ and his church (Eph. 5).
Moreover, we must embody a Christian vision of marriage and sexuality. This will mean churches that reclaim marriage from the ambient culture in the seriousness with which we perform weddings and in the accountability local churches expect from couples to keep their vows. The undisciplined churches of the past generation acted as though the culture could keep marriages together, with just some preaching and encouragement from us. This led to the chaos we too often see in our own pews, with marital abandonment, unbiblical divorce, and more. Outsourcing marital expectations to the culture will now mean that our marriages preach a different gospel, one that upends the cosmic mystery of Christ. We cannot afford to dispense with the gospel.
Marriage is resilient. God created it to be so. The Supreme Court could make a decision that hurts a lot of people. I pray not. But if they do, let’s be a church that can carry the gospel to hurting people. Let’s articulate and embody a Christian vision of marriage. If we’re out of step with the culture, we should ask why we haven’t been so all along.
The Supreme Court may or may not do their job. We must make sure, no matter what, that we do ours.
Sometimes I learn a lot from conversations I was never intended to hear. This happened once as I was stopping by my local community bookstore. It’s a small, quiet store, so it was impossible not to eavesdrop as I heard a young man tell his friend how much he hated Christmas. And, you know what, the more he talked, the more I understood his point.
This man wasn’t talking about the hustle and bustle of the holidays, or about the stresses of family meals or all the things people tend to complain about. What he hated was the music.
This guy started by lampooning Sting’s Christmas album, and I found myself smiling as I browsed because he is so right; it’s awful. But then he went on to say that he hated Christmas music across the board. That’s when I started to feel as though I might be in the presence of the Grinch. You know, when every Who down in Who-ville, the tall and the small, would stand close together, with Christmas bells ringing; they’d stand hand-in-hand. And the Who’s would start singing. The sour old green villain didn’t like that.
But then this man explained why he found the music so bad. It wasn’t just that it was cloying. It’s that it was boring.
“Christmas is boring because there’s no narrative tension,” he said. “It’s like reading a book with no conflict.”
Now he had my attention.
I’m sure this man had thought this for a long time, but maybe he felt freer to say it because we were only hours out from hearing the horrifying news of a massacre of innocent children in Connecticut. For him, the tranquil lyrics of our Christmas songs couldn’t encompass such terror. Maybe we should think about that.
Of course, some of the blame is on our sentimentalized Christmas of the American civil religion. Simeon the prophet never wished anyone a “holly-jolly Christmas” or envisioned anything about chestnuts roasting on an open fire. But there’s our songs too, the songs of the church. We ought to make sure that what we sing measures up with the, as this fellow would put it, “narrative tension” of the Christmas story.
The first Christmas carol, after all, was a war hymn. Mary of Nazareth sings of God’s defeat of his enemies, about how in Christ he had demonstrated his power and “has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate” (Lk. 1:52). There are some villains in mind there.
Simeon’s song, likewise, speaks of the “fall and rising of many in Israel” and of a sword that would pierce the heart of Mary herself. Even the “light of the Gentiles” he speaks about is in the context of warfare. After all, the light, the Bible tells us, overcomes the darkness (Jn. 1:5), and frees us from the grip of the devil (2 Cor. 4).
In a time of obvious tragedy, the unbearable lightness of Christmas seems absurd to the watching world. But, even in the best of times, we all know that we live in a groaning universe, a world of divorce courts and cancer cells and concentration camps. Just as we sing with joy about the coming of the Promised One, we ought also to sing with groaning that he is not back yet (Rom. 8:23), sometimes with groanings too deep for lyrics.
The man in the bookstore knew that reality is complicated. There’s grit, and there’s tension. Without it, Christmas didn’t seem real to life. It’s hard to get more tense than being born under a king’s death sentence (Matt. 2:16), and with an ancient dragon crouching at the birth canal to devour you (Rev. 12:4). But this man didn’t hear any of that in Christmas. I’m glad I overheard him.
We have a rich and complicated and often appropriately dark Christmas hymnody. We can sing of blessings flowing “far as the curse is found,” of the one who came to “free us all from Satan’s power.”
Let’s sing that, every now and then, where we can be overheard.
Russell Moore is President of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. He formerly served as Dean of the School of Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and executive director of the Carl F. H. Henry Institute for Evangelical Engagement. Dr. Moore is the author of The Kingdom of Christ: The New Evangelical Perspective(Crossway, 2004) and Adopted for Life: The Priority of Adoption for Christian Families and Churches (Crossway, May 2009). For more information, visit his website at RussellMoore.com.