Addressing the Transgender Phenomenon: a Christian Response

Introduction

gay_marriage_81102178In light of the recent “bathroom bills” and debates over teaching the acceptance of transgenderism in public schools (if you have questions about what I am talking about, please look at FWISD’s recent policy; it mandates that teachers undermine gender binaries by using non-gendered language and it mandates that teachers “celebrate diversity”), I have decided to pen some thoughts on sex and gender that, I hope, offers people that I know and love a bit of clarity. I am not writing this article in defense of “bathroom bills” (I am doubtful that they are a good idea; my gut says that they are a solution in search of a problem and are needlessly cruel) or to discuss public policy or cultural trends. Rather, I want to defend, for Christians, the orthodox position on gender and sexuality. I am only writing about this now because it is in the cultural air.

Less than a year ago, the Supreme Court mandated same-sex marriage in all 50 States having found, lurking in the Constitution, a “right” to marriage. Aside from the fact that marriage is not a “right” (since that would imply a corresponding duty for someone else to marry you), the American people were treated to a paean on love and liberty by Justice Kennedy who noted:

At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.

This definition of liberty is at the heart of the problem. Debates over bathrooms, marriage, sexuality, and all the rest are, ultimately, symptoms of this view of liberty and the “right” to the self-creation of reality inherent in Kennedy’s definition.

I do not think that orthodox Christians will, any time soon, be able to persuade secular culture of the orthodox Christian position on sexuality since secular culture long-ago imbibed Kennedy’s definition of liberty. I think the best we can do is hope to be left alone under the protection of robust religious-liberty laws. So, ultimately, this article is for Christians who are either agnostic on the question of God’s blessing of non-heterosexual sexuality or who are LGBT-affirming. I want to call such Christians to fidelity to the biblical witness and the ecumenical consensus of the church.

At the outset, I want to say that I fully recognize and affirm many people as brothers and sisters in Christ who disagree with me on this issue. Out of an abundance of love and compassion and a Gospel that proclaims freedom to the captives, many people I know instinctively affirm homosexuality and transsexuality as legitimate sexual expressions. While I think that Christians can disagree on this issue in good faith, I think that as our culture increasingly demands the anything-you-want sexuality be enshrined in law and our cultural practices, Christians who support monogamous, long-term, committed homosexual relationships or who support some kind of sex-change for people struggling with gender dysphoria, will find that anything other than the traditional definition of marriage and sexuality leads down the path of idolatry and results in a denial of objective truths like the Imago Dei (masculine and feminine as cosmic categories reflecting the Divinity) and the salvation of the church (the bride) by Christ (her husband). I suspect that the next great civil rights crusade will be for polygamous marriage.

What I intend to do here is set out a series of arguments in favor of fidelity to the orthodox Christian position on this issue. I will not advance each argument exhaustively, but will only suggest various categories of argument that seem persuasive to me. By “orthodox” I mean the clear stream of Christian theological agreement that has its roots in the Bible and moves forward all the way to the present; this stream includes Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants together. A good example of what I am referring too is Thomas Oden’s Classic Christianity.

Before I get into the arguments, I would like to give this caveat: I assume that the Bible is inspired and authoritative about all to which it intends to speak. If you think the Bible itself is in error on sexuality–as opposed to thinking that it teaches something other than the traditional understanding (the difference between John Shelby Spong, say, and Justin Lee)–then I don’t think you will find my argument from scripture or Christian history very compelling, but I also think your belief about the Bible is probably outside of Christian orthodoxy.

Category One: Argument from History

If you are a Christian, then you owe your fidelity to Jesus Christ alone. You also trust that the faith once and for all delivered to the saints has, in some way, been preserved. When you come up to an issue like transgenderism in the culture, then you ought to ask yourself not only what the Bible teaches, but also what Christians throughout time have said. Absent some kind of clear reason to depart from a traditional interpretation of the Bible, you ought to trust what those that have come before you in the faith have said. If you can’t imagine the first century church getting on board with a new idea, and that idea has important theological implications (as detailed below), then you should presume against the innovation.

Most of Christian theology, at least the major pieces that developed early, did so as a response to crises of their time. Theological truths only really ever get clarified and defended when those truths, which have simply been assumed all along, are challenged. The early ecumenical councils were terribly concerned with working out the doctrine of the Trinity because Arianism, Modalism, Monophysitism, Nestorianism, Eutychianism, and other christological and trinitarian heresies were in the room. The Nicene Creed is heavy on the doctrine of the Trinity but does not at all concern itself with nuancing justification or sanctification. Which is not to say, of course, that the ancient church didn’t have a theology of justification or sanctification, just that there wasn’t any kind of widespread disagreement that challenged the assumptions of the day. We would need to wait until the Reformation for that.

The church has historically, then, regarded heresy as primarily being composed of innovation. Anything new, anything added to the apostolic witness, was understood to be heretical. The word heresy, etymologically, has to do with the act of choosing. That is, with choosing what one wishes to believe over and against the teaching of the apostles. The primary charge against the Arians, the Gnostics, and other heretics was that their teachings were new and were not part of the oldest received tradition of the church.

One weakness of Evangelicalism is that it seeks to go to the Bible apart from the history of the church’s historical teachings in order to understand what we ought to do and believe today, as if there is a direct bridge from the Bible to your neighborhood church. While that has been a boon at times in increasing biblical literacy, it also tacitly denies the working of the Spirit in guiding the church, throughout history, into the truth. So, while folks like Justin Lee and others may make a biblical case (as in, use Bible verses and solid exegesis to make their case) in support of same-sex marriage or of God’s blessing for those who desire to transition, they do so at variance with the way that the church has always understood gender and sexuality. In making a case at variance with the church on something as basic as gender and sex, such proponents affirm a novelty that should not, prima facie, carry much weight.

And, beyond the argument from the Church Triumphant, what Chesterton called the democracy of the dead ought to be given due consideration. If the vast majority of societies throughout time have rejected a viewpoint, then, while not definitive, such a viewpoint has the burden of proof and should not enjoy presumption. It is a clear manifestation of chronological snobbery to insist that almost everyone who has ever come before us was wrong on a question of such importance as gender and sex. Again, this isn’t a definitive argument in favor of my position, but it is an argument against viewing the traditional understanding of sex and gender and this novelty from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries as equally probable.

Category Two: Argument from Common Sense

This second argument, like the previous one, is not so much an argument in favor of my position so much as it is a reason to presume against the truth of a novelty like transgenderism. Philosophers talk about things called properly basic beliefs. That is, beliefs that are totally rational apart from any justifying reason. The belief, for instance, that you are a human who has a body rather than a brain in a vat of chemicals in a scientific lab somewhere is a properly basic belief. You can’t prove that you are not just a brain in a vat of chemicals being stimulated by scientists, but it would be absurd to doubt your perception of reality just because you do not have the ability to prove that you are, in fact, perceiving reality. Basic beliefs can be refuted, of course, but they absolutely should enjoy presumption unless disproven. One way in which this argument is frequently used is by apologists who assert that religious experience is a good reason to believe in God. If you have religious experiences, you should believe in God (it is the most rational thing to do) until your experience is disproven.

If someone believed that she was a dog, we would call that belief delusional no matter how sincerely she held her belief. If someone who was 27 believed that he was really 70, we would also classify that person as delusional. Or, more seriously, someone who believed she was overweight when, in reality, she was very skinny would be considered to have some kind of eating disorder. We classify these people as suffering from delusions or mistaken beliefs (despite their sincerity) because our experience clearly affirms that their beliefs do not correspond to reality. Similarly, all of us experience male and female as hard categories. Anatomy almost always corresponds with people’s perception of their gender. It is therefore reasonable to conclude that those whose perceived gender does not correspond with their anatomy are in error, that they suffer from mistaken beliefs. Psychologists have named this mistaken belief gender dysphoria (previously gender identity disorder). While psychologists have, in the DSM-5, noted that the diagnosis only relates to the discomfort one feels rather than the fact that one is actually gender non-conforming, a great many people that that this reclassification is a mistake. It is more reasonable to think that anatomical men who believe that they are really women are mistaken than to concede that they are, in fact, women.

Category Three: Argument from Nature

The traditional four ways in which we might get at understanding an object is by 1) Asking about the material cause, or what the object is made of, 2) Asking about the formal cause, or the shape of the object, 3) Asking about the efficient cause, or the power or force behind creating the object, and 4) Asking about the final cause, or the purpose of the object. The material cause of a chair might be wood, its formal cause being four legs, a seat, and a back, its efficient cause being a carpenter, and its final cause being sitting down.

The primary way in which humans make sense of the world around them is through investigating final causes. In evolutionary biology and evolutionary psychology, we tend to think of final causes as things our bodies did in order to survive early in our evolution. Science does this all of the time. For instance, the final cause of shivering is to raise our body temperatures in order become warmer in a cold environment or, if we are sick, so that we can more effectively fight off germs. Both purposes, of course, are aimed at survival (of course, science cannot and does not explain why surviving is a good purpose; you need philosophy and religion to tell you that).

When we look at a knife, we understand the purpose of the knife instantly: it is intended for cutting things. One can use a knife for other purposes, but those other purposes (I use a knife to press the button on my coffee grinder because the switch fell off long ago, for instance) were obviously not intended. In the case of the knife, we primarily consider its form and material in order to give us a sense of its purpose (it is made of metal, can easily be held, and has a sharp blade on one side). We would say, for instance, using a knife to comb one’s hair would be using the knife against its nature.

Likewise, humans, and human bodies, have material, efficient, formal, and final causes. Biochemists can tell us what material we are made of, evolutionary biologists (and, I believe, theologians) can tell us how we were made, lots of disciplines focus on what makes humans different from non humans but, at a basic level, biologists can tell us about our form, and philosophers, theologians, and others debate and discuss our final cause, or the purpose for which we were made. Like the knife, we can look at our formal causes (what makes us human; what basic things humans do) and our material causes (what stuff we are made of) in order to begin extrapolating toward final causes.

Some of the most basic things that humans do is form societies and pair up for the procreation and raising of children. This pairing up, intercourse itself, is only possible between one man and one woman (at a time, obviously). This pairing up, which is obviously biologically ordered toward procreation, is affirmed and protected by even the most basic of human societies since those societies recognize, at the most basic level, the importance of self-perpetuation. And since, formally, the primary difference between men and women is anatomical, and since by considering formal causes we can work toward deducing the final cause of an object (remember the knife), then it can be concluded that one of the purposes of women is to bear children and one of the purposes of men is to impregnate women. Further, the strength of the male body in contrast to the female body, suggests the role of men in protecting those who would bear children and the children themselves (this strength, incidentally, does not then give license for men to rule over women), while a woman’s breasts suggest her role in nurturing the children who are born. As I’ve written about elsewhere, this protection/nurture dynamic in written deep into the fabric of what it means to be human.

It is therefore unnatural, a violation of our forms as men and women, to seek to alter our sexual identity. A man seeking to become a woman denies his nature as one who was intended to help procreate children and protect both women and children. Similarly, a woman seeking to become a man denies her nature as one who was intended to bear children and to nurture them after their birth. For the extrememly rare cases of those who are intersexed, there are obviously other considerations, but the overwhelming majority of people are clearly either male or female. Sex is a biological fact and to attempt to change one’s sex is unnatural.

The most obvious objection to my argument is why we should care about what is natural or not. Why should what is natural constrain our actions? What if I feel differently? I have two (brief) responses. First, because violating one’s nature means missing one’s intended purpose. Remember, we know that a knife is intended for cutting because we are familiar with how and in what shape and with what material a knife is made. It follows, then, that we know what a man or a woman is intended for because we know how and in what shape and with what material men and women are made. Other attempts to circumvent human nature (by trying to fly; by trying to be an animal; by trying to live without language) clearly fail and have disastrous results for humans and for human society. I am confident that the same will become obvious as regards this issue. Second, one’s feelings can’t be normative. While they obviously contribute to our identity, it is a gross misunderstanding of our nature to insist that our feelings ought to override our biology. We are not disembodied minds. That is the gnostic error. Any account of human nature is going to have to account for the materiality of our bodies, and I find it ironic that a culture that insists on material reductionism would deny the importance of the body when it comes to sexual identity. Furthermore, as I will detail below, for the Christian, feelings, like everything else, are fallen.

A second, and perhaps more persuasive, objection to my argument is the “what if science finds a natural cause for those who experience gender dysphoria?” argument. While I know of some preliminary studies that show that those who experience gender dysphoria have brains that more closely align in structure with the other sex, I do not think anything is conclusive yet. And, even if it were conclusive, such differences do not unseat the argument from nature. We expect physical malformations and deviations (like intersexed individuals, for instance). Doctors routinely remove the webbing or tail that some children are born with. People who are depressed alter their brain chemistry to comport with what is normal. People who have have brain tumors that affect their moral reasoning are not seen as simply expressing a difference, but as tragically harmed by something beyond their control. When one’s sense of gender does not align with one’s biology, we ought to consider that an anomaly and a disorder just like we do for any number of other people who experience other kinds of disorder in their minds or bodies. The argument from nature is not so much about individuals but about the aggregate. And, as is frequent, the exceptions prove the rule.

Category Four: Argument From God’s Design

This fourth argument is, I think, the most persuasive for Christians as it relies on understanding how God has revealed himself in the Bible. In the Genesis account of creation, we are told that God made a good world. And this good world was good, in large part, because it was rightly ordered. God’s creation of light to separate the darkness or his creation of the expanse between the waters above and the waters above or his creation of habitats and then of animals and plants to populate those habitats all speak to a grand-orderer, one who organized the universe to work according to his design. Furthermore, the predictability of nature through science (particularly in physics) and the laws of logic and of math all point to a designer God who is interested in organizing all things according to his purposes. Things work in Genesis before the Fall because they comply with God’s good design.

When God creates humanity, he does so by creating (like in almost every species) physical complementarity. Humanity, properly understood, is both male and female. And, according to the Bible, male and female both project the image of God. God is pictured as both a conquering king and a nursing mother. In equal measure, the image of God sits on men and women. And, in particular, it is in marriage that men and women best project the image of God. This mutual complementarity of marriage was the original design, but this design was marred by the Fall. This idea is prevalent throughout the scriptures. God uses the metaphor of marriage to describe his relationship to Israel, and he understands Israel’s sins as infidelity.

When Adam and Eve fell in Genesis 3, one aspect of the curse that they were stuck with was that men would rule over their wives. This ruling over, this hierarchal claim to essential authority, is based on the differences between men and women (men in general are stronger than women in general) and is our first example of the philosophical claim that Might makes Right. It is the woman’s dependency on protection while she is vulnerable (giving birth, nurturing children) that allows the man to take advantage of her and rule over her. All of human history has seen this cursed patriarchal system play out.

Not only was male domination of women one aspect of the Fall (a domination that marred the beautiful design of God by unbalancing it), but so were other aspects of sexuality that also contribute to marring God’s beautiful design. In a fallen world, we expect men to try to dominate women. It shouldn’t surprise us, then, to see men wanting to have more than one wife or men and women both wanting to participate in sex with more than just one person at a time or men and women who do not remain sexually faithful to their spouses or men and women who have sex before marriage or men and women who have sex with animals or with family members or just by themselves. If we expect the above deviations, we should also expect men to begin to desire other men instead of desiring women, and we would expect women to desire other women instead of men (Paul discusses this in Romans 1). We should also expect men who do not desire to remain men but want to be women and vice versa. In all of these cases, we see a destabilizing of God’s good design.

But, in Jesus Christ, this curse is reversed. In Ephesians 5, husbands and wives are enjoined to submit to one another. No longer will men rule over their wives, but they will sacrifice themselves for them. No longer will women cling to their husbands out of necessity, but now they will respect them. Paul’s teachings on marriage make it clear that in the Kingdom of God, the curse is reversed. There is nothing in the order of creation that requires a hierarchal marriage. In fact, such a hierarchical marriage is a product of sin. In Jesus Christ, women and men will remain faithful to their spouses and will not seek out animals or family members or orgies or people of the same sex, and neither will they seek to transcend the male or female natures that God gave them. While in all of these cases people may truly feel a sexual attraction to things they should not be attracted to or, in the case of gender dysphoria the severe sense that one is in the wrong body, such feelings are fallen and must be given over to Christ. He does not promise to take them away now–not in this fallen world. But in the world to come, all things will be restored. Paul says that the real purpose of marriage is to showcase the mystery of Christ’s relationship with the Church. Marriage between one man and one woman, with male and female being ontological categories, is essential to Paul’s picture of how Christ saves us; it is essential to understand the restoration that comes in Christ.

Part of living in the already but not yet is experiencing the tragedy of a suffering world. Cancer, natural disaster, and deviant desires are all part of the human condition. The overwhelming truth of the human experience is that things don’t work the way that they are supposed to work. The answer is not blessing people who pursue what ought not be pursued. The answer is the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Conclusion

So, what should we do as Christians if we hold to the orthodox view on sexuality and gender? I don’t have all of the answers, but I have a couple of suggestions:

1) Christians should be the first people to stand in the way of bullies who would harm those who experience gender dysphoria. People have a right to be protected from those who would harm them. Hospitality should be extended to transgendered people. Christians should be the first people to eat meals with people who are frequently considered social pariahs. Whatever you disagree about with someone, you have an obligation to love them as a child of God made in his image. You must listen to those whose experience is different than yours. You must weep with those who weep.

2) If we believe that people experience these feelings as a result of the fall (much like they would experience a disease), then we have every obligation to help them cope with their feelings. The church is a hospital, not a country club. While I think that therapy that seeks to make a transgendered person conform to normal gender expectations probably does more harm than good, surely the church can, aided by what is best in psychology and psychiatry, help those who experience gender dysphoria manage their disorder. And, of course, the church should proclaim the Gospel that promises a future glory where all that is wrong will be made right.

Ultimately, I hope and pray that Christians will stand firm on the Permanent things and, as an outgrowth of their love for Jesus Christ and neighbor, will self-sacrificially love their transgendered neighbors. In this, Christians can be filled, like Jesus, with grace and truth.

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