We live in a brave new world. I think this every time that, in discussing a friend’s career change, I use the phrase, “He is transitioning to something new.” That once-harmless word, transitioning, has of late acquired great psychosocial baggage. It now speaks of an individual’s claiming a new “gender identity,” which may well involve significant physical alteration.
The “transgender” phenomenon has become a national sensation, but we are shockingly ill-equipped for the conversation. The average genial man or woman—the type to follow traditional scripts and generally pursue normality—is unsettled by little boys entering the little girls’ room, perhaps deeply so. But they may still struggle to articulate why, precisely. Most people today do not traffic in the deep things of exegesis or metaphysics (in many cases, their religious community has actually helped to breed such instincts out of them), but they know something is amiss.
As usual, theology and philosophy can help us understand why. The transgender phenomenon represents not merely a new behaviorism or a new form of self-branding, to use a postmodern conceit. The transgender phenomenon signifies a new ontology. This new ontology has considerable resonance with ancient paganism, a worldview that deifies the natural order, removes the self from religious and spiritual constraints, and sexualizes humanity.
In such thinking, man bears the image of the gods, but not of God. We are sexual beings, made to embody a kind of cosmic lustful expressiveness. We are fulfilled when we deny all creational differences (and thus divine design) and embrace our raw, native, animal desires. Transgender ideology results in a deeply disordered anthropology.
A Needful New Book
Andrew Walker, Director of Policy Studies for the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, understands this essential truth; he spots the theological lie. In his important new book, God and the Transgender Debate: What Does the Bible Actually Say About Gender Identity?, Walker takes a deep and compassionate look at a very difficult subject, handling it with great sensitivity and biblical conviction.
Walker analyzes the philosophy behind the LGBTQ movement, rightly identifying it as fundamentally centered in the autonomous self. He straightforwardly lodges major concerns about a self-directed hermeneutic: “it turns out the self is not such a good place to look to for authority, knowledge, and trustworthiness.” He is surely right, and this is the broad-based point that must be made in debates over issues of this kind. Before we arraign the particulars, the personal physics, let us search out the first principles, the metaphysics.
Walker’s friendly, smoothly written text approaches transgender from a consistently pastoral perspective. The emphasis is on compassion toward those who experience “gender dysphoria” and thus feel dissonance between their body and their identity. Walker works hard to show that such experiences do not locate the “transgender” individual as a separate class of misfit humanity, but unveil the painful fallenness that we all encounter:
Gender dysphoria is a deep, painful struggle, causing pain, anguish, and tears. But it is not the only struggle. The whole world struggles. . . The good news of the gospel is that those groans have been heard and those groans need not last.
Walker urges Christians—the book is directed at his fellow evangelicals—to embrace and live out the doctrine of the imago dei: “A transgendered person is made in God’s image, and that means that respect and honor are due to them as people, regardless of whether we agree with their self-perception.” Yet Walker does not shy away from sober truth-telling: “Following Jesus makes life harder. As the seventeenth-century Scottish pastor Samuel Rutherford once wrote, ‘No man hath a velvet cross.’” So it is.
Good Words on Contested Matters
This text helps frame a properly evangelical approach to the matter of transgender identity. It is grounded in the design of the divine, the complementarity of the sexes, the power of the gospel, and the reality that sanctification—growth in godliness—is a lifelong fight.
Walker wisely cautions against embracing any bodily changes and drastic measures in handling gender dysphoria. This comes in contradistinction to Mark Yarhouse’s Understanding Gender Dysphoria (also directed to Christians), which counsels that wearing the clothing of the oppose sex may be best for individuals who experience gender dysphoria; he even allows for the possibility of transitional surgery. Walker handles these matters well; dealing with “Alex,” a person who has embraced the opposite-sex identity, Walker counsels a careful but intentional turning toward the person's God-given sex. This turning involves what steps can be reasonably taken: stopping hormone therapy, returning to one’s given name, and more.
We should not view such matters in neutral terms. We cannot do so if we follow Scripture, for the Bible addresses our personal presentation, and summons us to honor God by owning our God-given sex. In the old covenant, for example, cross-dressing was forbidden, and termed an “abomination” (Deuteronomy 22:5). Some might say, “Clothes are just clothes—they have no intrinsic meaning, right?” It seems that in the biblical mind—dare I say the divine mind—clothes carry more weight than this. It is not that a shirt is inherently male or female; but our self-presentation should reflect the reality that we are men or women.
This perspective is reinforced in new covenant teaching. 1 Corinthians 11:1-16 requires thoughtful engagement, to be sure, but one cannot miss that the apostle Paul calls men to present themselves as men and women to present themselves as women. The Scripture speaks with one voice: the reason we dress ourselves according to our culture as men and women is because we wish to honor and obey the Lord. The Lord made our bodies. The Lord created manhood and womanhood. The body is a gift, a gift to be treasured, stewarded, and understood aright. We do not fundamentally see ourselves as an art project; we see ourselves as living sculpture made by the hand and mind of almighty God.
How different this vision of humanity is from a designless cultural conception of mankind, in which the body is little more than a vehicle for “self-expression,” one of the organizing concepts of our age. In the cultural view, the body is little more than a blank canvas. You want tattoos? Get them by the bushel. You want to alter your very physiology? Go for it. You want to gender-bend and “push boundaries” by flirting with androgyny? Knock yourself out. You don’t like your narrow eyes, your bulbous nose, your out-turned ears, your less-than-razor-sharp jawline, your thin lips? A plastic surgeon will be glad to help.
In listing such concerns, I’m not suggesting that any change to our body is necessarily wrong; I am pointing out that, as we make all sorts of decisions related to our bodies, we need to keep in mind that our culture is feeding us a worldview of personal autonomy and self-creational identity that poses numerous challenges to the biblical vision of humanity. In the Christian worldview, we do not make ourselves up; we receive the body that God has given us. We are not our own ruler or lord; we are creatures, and creatures under authority. I am thankful that Walker understands the theology behind the physiology; again, see his comments on the question whether we are our own authority, or God is.
I find a great deal to commend in God and the Transgender Debate. Only in rare instances do I find a matter or two worth further attention. In places, Walker speaks fairly strongly against cultural “gender norms.” There surely are arbitrary matters we face—women liking football, men liking cooking. This is true. But while the Scripture clearly leaves us room to sort these matters out, we do want to avoid a decisional grid with only two categories: Bible-mandated or personal preference. There is something in between, something Scripture gives a great deal of attention to: wisdom. The book of Proverbs, like the book of James, commends a wise life. The wise life is the life that is shaped by biblical teaching and, specifically, the intentional application of biblical teaching to areas not directly handled in the Word of God.
What does this mean? It means that when we’re training our sons, for example, we want to do what we can to convey that manliness is a good thing, and that there are certain behaviors and practices and traits related to it. We want to mark out manhood as distinct from womanhood. Not every man will like, say, hunting and fishing (I’m not big on either, personally). But we do want our boys to be distinct from girls. We want them to dress like a man, to shake hands like a man, to talk like a man, to carry themselves like a man. All this proceeds from the biblical teaching that God made manhood, as one example (see 1 Cor. 16:13, for example, and its call to “act like men”). Walker’s text would benefit from more attention to the need for wisdom on matters of the sexes and the cultural gray areas that confront us.
Secondly, God and the Transgender Debate emphasizes the need for compassion in many places. Walker is right to emphasize the need for love in addressing fellow sinners who experience gender dysphoria; he is also right that experiencing gender dysphoria does not make a person a separate class of disordered humanity. We are all disordered and depraved thanks to Adam’s tumble. At the same time, the text could assert its moral authority in stronger terms. Embracing the appearance of the opposite sex is not morally neutral in biblical terms (see above). A crucial part of our pastoral counseling and care for individuals who are purposely taking on the look and identity of the opposite sex is to show them that they are, intentionally or unintentionally, obscuring the glory of God in their body and thus sinning against him.
We cannot help but approach transgenderism in fundamentally moral-theological terms. To go against God’s design of our bodies in any form, from whatever background or complex of motives, is not holy. It is ungodly. It is sinful, and we must say so. To say so is an act of love, in fact.
A few years ago, I was in Washington, DC, to interview Robby George for a book I wrote on Chuck Colson. It so happened that the eminent Princetonian was meeting with Dr. Paul McHugh of Johns Hopkins University. This was right when McHugh took his virtuous stand against fuzzy thinking—and harmful medical practice—in the pages of the Wall Street Journal. McHugh had plunged into the eye of the cultural storm surrounding transgenderism, but he was cheerful, and he and Professor George laughed a good deal as they caught up.
It was a lesson for me, one that my gifted friend Andrew Walker already knows well. In the midst of great debate, hold fast to your convictions. Do not give an inch to falsehood. But also: remember that the other side needs both truth and grace. They need something more than counseling, more than medication, more than any human can provide. They have fallen prey, as every sinner does, to deficient ontology and bad theology. They need wisdom; they especially need the Lord.
What God does for the ruined person, after all, goes far, far past transition. We may only call it transformation; and we may know that only God can affect it.
Owen Strachan is Associate Professor of Christian Theology at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and coauthor of The Grand Design: Male and Female He Made Them. The former president of the Council on Biblical Manhood & Womanhood, he is writing a theological anthropology entitled Reenchanting Humanity (B&H Academic, 2019).