What the Transgender Debate Means for the ChurchFriday, February 24, 2017
Last night news broke that the White House officially rescinded President Obama’s executive order regarding transgenderism in public schools. This is a good decision that corrects outrageous and coercive directives. Children should not be turned into pawns of culture war experimentation. As a conservative evangelical, I’m glad to see this action.
At the same time, 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, he argued, then we have purpose and meaning, but also limits. If we see ourselves, and the world around us, as a machine, then we believe the Faustian myth of our own limitless power to recreate ourselves.
This is, it seems to me, 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?
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 only 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.
This, ultimately, won’t 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 that there are important, and necessary, differences between men and women. Without such recognition, women are harmed and men are coarsened.
Moreover, the move here 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 would show. That’s relatively indifferent if all that this means is “You’re only as old as you feel” or “I’m a Millennial trapped in a Gen-X body.” 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.
So how should we as Christians respond?
First of all, we should never mock or belittle those suffering gender identity disorders. These are our neighbors to be respected and served, not 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 we were designed to be. That alienation manifests itself in different ways in different people.
Christian congregations that seek to be faithful to the gospel must teach what’s been handed down to us, that our maleness and femaleness 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 had embedded in the creation.
But this also means that we will love and be patient with those who feel alienated from their created identities. We must recognize that some in our churches will 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. That cross-bearing reminds us that God doesn’t receive us because of our own effort but because God 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). We are all sinners, so we chafe against having ourselves defined by a Creator, and not by ourselves or our ideologies. Our nakedness shames us, because our physical difference reminds us that we are not self-contained. Man needs woman, and woman needs man.
We must also resist the temptation to buy into the Sexual Revolution’s narrative. I don’t just mean that we accommodate ourselves to the sins and heresies of the movement, although that’s always a danger too. I mean the danger is that we assume that the Sexual Revolution will always be triumphant, progressing upward and onward. To assume such is to assume that the Sexual Revolution will be able to keep its promises. It can’t. It never has. If Christians see ourselves as people who are “losing” a culture rather than people who have been sent on a 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.
We should stand against any bullying of kids who 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 with which God created us, even when that’s difficult. We must affirm that God loves all persons, and that the gospel is good news for repentant prodigal sons and daughters, including for those who have trouble figuring out which is which.
Portions of this article were published previously.
Photo courtesy: Thinkstockphotos.com
Publication date: February 24, 2017