In August 2013, Bradley Manning — the U.S. Army private convicted of espionage for leaking classified documents — announced that he wished to be known as Chelsea and to live the rest of his life as a woman. He also hoped to begin hormone therapy.
“I want everyone to know the real me,” Manning said in a statement.
Two months later, Azusa Pacific University, a 9,200-student Christian college outside Los Angeles, parted ways with the one-time chair of its theology department, Heather Clements, after she notified the university that she wished to be known as H. Adam Ackley. “This year has been a transition from being a mentally ill woman to being a sane, transgendered man,” Ackley said.
Stories like these grab headlines and often leave Christians scratching their heads, unable to fathom how and why a woman would feel confident that she was really a man, or vice versa. And since people who identify as transgender compose less than 1 percent of the American population, few Christians have ever met a transgendered person.
But as issues surrounding gender identity gain more traction in the public sphere, Christians need to be able to respond biblically, thoughtfully, and compassionately. As Andy Crouch wrote in Christianity Today, “Christians cannot simply accept or reject ‘same-sex marriage’ and think we have settled our sexual ethics.”
The job of the church is to learn what we can about these intricate situations and be prepared for the hard work of listening to and loving those struggling with sexual brokenness that might not be healed in this life.
Gender: Why All the Confusion?
Understanding transgenderism begins with understanding the terminology involved. According to the American Psychological Association, a person’s sex is determined by anatomy and develops in the womb. “Gender” refers to roles, behaviors, or attitudes that a culture considers appropriate for boys or girls, men or women.
“Gender identity” is then one’s internal sense of being a male or female. Psychologists also talk about “gender expression” as the way in which a person chooses to communicate one’s internal sense of gender.
And finally, “transgender” is a general descriptor for people who have an overwhelming sense that their gender identity and sex do not match. The factors that can affect this tension include psychology, physiology, environmental influences, and hormonal imbalances. In rare instances, a person’s sexual anatomy truly does not fit into male or female categories, and these conditions are known as intersex.
David Janvier is a Christian counselor and certified sex therapist who counsels individuals and couples dealing with an array of sexual issues. He said the research on gender identity is inconclusive as to what causes individuals to believe they have the wrong body.
Identifying as transgender is not the same as experiencing same-sex attraction. Transgendered men and woman fall along a continuum of ways they want to remedy their situation. Some cross dress, others take hormones, and some undergo sex-reassignment surgery. While it is hard to generalize about the feelings and experiences of transgendered individuals, they often experience an overwhelming feeling of not fitting in with others of their sex.
Referring to one’s sex as being “assigned” implies that it is purely arbitrary and irrelevant to one’s internal sense of identity. This view denies the goodness of a Creator who designed male and female bodies as part of the human identity.
Adding to the problem is the exceedingly narrow understanding of masculinity and femininity accepted in Western culture. As an example, Janvier notes that Western culture generally prizes athleticism, strength, and toughness as inherently masculine features, so a sensitive, nurturing, artistic boy might perceive that he does not fit in with other boys.
Complicating things still further is the way modern culture elevates feelings as the ultimate guide for one’s actions. When a child feels as though he does not fit in with his male peers, and the culture tells him that his feelings are the ultimate source of truth, the situation is ripe for a boy to feel as though he is a girl trapped in the wrong body.
Transgender Issues in the News
As the transgender community has joined with other groups in the ever-expanding gay and lesbian alliance that is commonly abbreviated with the initials LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender), transgender individuals have sought increasing protection from discrimination and stigma.
In 2012 the editors of the Diagnostic Statistical Manual 5 (DSM-5) voted to remove the entry for “gender identity disorder,” a disorder in which a person feels an overwhelming desire to be the opposite sex. The editors replaced it with “gender dysphoria,” which describes the anxiety and distress one feels over not being his or her desired sex.
Richard Winter, director of Covenant Theological Seminary’s counseling program, sees this change in diagnosis as similar to the change in 1973 when the DSM removed the entry for homosexuality. With homosexuality, it was only when an individual did not like his or her sexual orientation that there was a problem. Now, rather than labeling a desire to be a different sex as aberrant, the DSM-5 editors have decided that the only problem is if this desire causes a person “clinically significant distress” (or “dysphoria”).
Transgender status received further legitimization in November 2013 when the U.S. Senate voted to approve the Employee Non-Discrimination Act, which explicitly prohibits firing an employee on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. And on Jan. 1, 2014, California became the first state to require public schools to allow transgendered students to choose which sports teams they want to join and bathrooms or locker rooms to use. While several school districts in California already had such measures in place, the new law requires it of every school district.
These actions signify a shift in the way our culture views gender identity and transgendered individuals. Since the conversations regarding gender fluidity are taking place in the workplace and in schools, the church must be prepared to compassionately engage, too.
Culture’s View of the Body
As with many of the changes in sexual ethics, the culture’s widespread acceptance of transgenderism is another outworking of modernism and conflicting views of nature. Since the human body is part of nature, changes in the culture’s view of nature affect the culture’s view of the human body.
Nancy Pearcey is director of the Francis Schaeffer Center for Worldview and Culture at Houston Baptist University, and her book “Saving Leonardo” comprehensively explores the implications of modernism on our culture’s view of the body and sexuality.
According to Pearcey, while science is not inherently atheistic, modern science is often interpreted as supporting a materialistic worldview that reduces the world to that which can be seen and quantified. Darwin’s writings ushered in this reductionistic view of nature. Whereas before Darwin, people generally accepted that a divine Creator crafted the world and the human body with purpose, modern science has elevated the work of blind, irrational forces in place of God.
If one’s body was the work of chance rather than the handiwork of a Creator, then the body’s intrinsic value and purpose are lost. “If nature did not reveal God’s will, then it was a morally neutral realm where humans may impose their will,” Pearcey said. “Nature was merely raw material to be manipulated and controlled to serve human needs and preferences.”
This shift in thinking about the underlying purpose of nature has had colossal implications for many of today’s ethical issues. When it comes to sexuality, Pearcey believes this utilitarian view of the human body reduces sex to something done in the body that does not affect the person, a view contrary to the biblical view of sexuality that depicts sex as an expression of the entire person.
According to a Christian worldview, sex is the most complete and intimate union of a man and a woman, and it represents the deepest level of intimacy two people can have.
When proponents of transgenderism talk about a person’s body not matching their gender, the implicit worldview is that one’s biology does not matter. The implied belief is that one’s sense of self is not connected to one’s body. Referring to one’s sex as being “assigned” implies that it is purely arbitrary and irrelevant to one’s internal sense of identity. This view denies the goodness of a Creator who designed male and female bodies as part of the human identity.
“In both homosexuality and transgenderism, the supporting arguments suggest a worldview that denigrates the physical body as inconsequential to personal identity — a worldview that drives a wedge between one’s body and one’s sense of self. You cannot be a complete person if you are at war with a fundamental aspect of your identity,” Pearcey said.
If one’s body was the work of chance rather than the handiwork of a Creator, then the body’s intrinsic value and purpose are lost.
Arguments for legitimizing transgenderism also ignore the fact that external attempts to disguise one’s sex do not change one’s biology. A man might undergo hormone therapy and use plastic surgery to remove his male reproductive organs and replace them with the appearance of female body parts, but these changes have not fundamentally changed his biology. Beneath the hormones and the prosthetics, he is still a man.
Meeting Pain with Compassion
While the reasoning behind changing one’s gender degrades the human body and God’s design for gender, someone who identifies as transgender has often experienced deep, lifelong pain and alienation.
Often the transgendered person tried to fit in the gender role that accompanies his or her sex, but never felt accepted or comfortable. While it is not always the case, some transgendered individuals also have a history of suffering abuse or have experienced childhood traumas, Janvier said.
Generally, there are other comorbid issues that can arise for transgendered people such as anxiety, addiction, and depression. A 2013 study in the American Journal of Public Health found that more than 44 percent of adults who identify as transgender experience clinical depression.
As transgender issues gain more prominence, the percentage of the population struggling with these issues might grow. What do we do when people come to our churches in real distress because their bodies and their sense of gender do not match?
Both Janvier and Winter said the church must create an atmosphere where people do not have to have the right theology in order to be welcomed. While compromising the truth of God’s Word must not be an option, churches must demonstrate a Christ-like welcome toward sinners.
“When people are different, [Christians] tend to want to make room for people who are alike. We need to make room for people who do not fit into our categories,” Janvier said. “[Transgendered people] are living their whole lives feeling like they don’t fit in, like they are different.”
The church must also acknowledge that it historically has not dealt well with individuals struggling with sexual sin. This mentality is not helpful.
Transgendered men and women are feeling the effects of the fall in a way that nontransgendered individuals have never experienced. Simply exhorting them to try harder at fitting into traditional gender roles will not work.
Harvest USA works with people experiencing sexual brokenness and helps them experience healing through the Gospel. In December 2013 and January 2014, Harvest USA conducted its monthly in-services on transgenderism. Harvest USA executive director Tim Geiger said that while the idea that one’s gender and sex do not match is unbiblical, for some people it is a key part of their identity.
“The notion of a transgender person is not biblical, but that being said, it is what a lot of people experience as being true for them. Where does that come from? A lifetime of feeling and experiencing that they don’t fit in different relational categories,” Geiger said.
Winter believes if someone who identifies as transgender could simply stop feeling this tension, he or she certainly would have already done so. “From a Christian perspective, confusion about one’s gender arises from a deep level of dysfunction that is a result of living in a fallen world where our … biochemistry, brain pathways, family relationships, and society do not function as they were intended to,” he said. “As with same sex attraction, many factors are involved … and we cannot point to a clear reason. Therefore, there is no easy way to set things right.”
Christians believe in a Creator who designed humans to live a certain way and find fulfilling sexual expression in a certain way, as a man and woman in the covenant of marriage. This side of heaven, some aspects of sin and sexual dysfunction will not be completely healed. “Some results of the fall, like many diseases, can be significantly healed, others can’t — at least not yet,” Winter said.
And while sexuality is part of any person’s identity, people struggling with same-sex attraction or feeling transgendered can often put too much weight on this one aspect of their identity. In his counseling, Janvier said he encourages Christians to consider how much weight they have given their sexual identity versus their identity in Christ.
Geiger said Harvest USA sees just a few transgendered individuals each year, but the method for counseling these individuals is similar to that used counseling people with other sexual addictions. Christians must enter into the transgendered person’s story, sit with them in their brokenness, and through a loving relationship, point them toward the Gospel and healing.
“The church needs to realize it’s not just a matter of doctrine or quoting Genesis 1 to that person,” he said. “[A transgendered] person has believed something about themselves, God, and other people for their entire lives. You need to be compassionate in the way you enter into that person’s story and understand how they have come to believe what they have come to believe.”
Jim Weidenaar of Harvest USA said that, as with any counseling issue, Christians need to listen and ask questions to discern what is going on in the person’s heart. In doing so, Christians can gently help individuals struggling with transgenderism to see how they believe identifying with another gender will solve their problems.
When Christians speak out on these issues in the public sphere, the arguments are sometimes couched as a defense of “deeply held beliefs” or “cherished values.” Pearcey emphasized that Christians should not speak into these types of moral issues because one is offended by the culture. As with any kind of brokenness, Christians need to speak from a place of love and compassion.
“[Christians] offer a message that is truly inspiring and affirming — that respects and honors others as whole persons, as embodied beings, that offers hope for an integrated personality,” Pearcey said.
While there might not be full healing this side of heaven, churches can offer transgendered men and women a place where they are not projects to be fixed, but people whose stories — and bodies — matter.
Megan Fowler is a freelance writer in Grove City, Pa. She loves to tell the stories of faithful believers using their God-given talents for building the kingdom. Megan and her husband have three sons.