God and the Transgender Debate (Book Review)
What does the Bible actually say about gender identity? And how can we be truthful and sensitive as we pastor and teach?
There aren’t many areas of Christian theology where you might say “We don’t have enough books about that.” For a while now, though, we’ve been crying out for resources to help us reflect on and respond to the transgender movement. We are still far from having enough, but Andrew T. Walker’s book has plugged an important gap.
Essentially it is a bigger brother to Vaughan Robert’s booklet Transgender (also published by The Good Book Company), covering much the same ground but with 100 extra pages to play with. That is to say, like Vaughan, Andrew sets the transgender movement in some context and defines terms (chapters 1-3), before offering a biblical theology of gender, taking in creation, fall, redemption, and consummation (chapters 4-7). The remainder of the book (chapters 8-13) address the pastoral implications of that biblical theology for the church and those who identify in some way as transgender or gender dysphoric.
In outline, then, quite similar. Significantly, though, as you can see, the extra space allows nearly half the book to be given over to the pastoral implications and it is in these later chapters that the book makes its most significant contribution:
Chapter 8, “Love your neighbour,” is a wonderful exploration of love’s qualities (empathy, truthfulness, patience etc.), which has implications far beyond the gender issue alone, but are crucial to it.
Chapter 9 introduces a helpful framework for every Christian’s experience: Life is “harder (but not forever)”, life is “better (now as well as forever),” and then applies that to a hypothetical situation in which someone who underwent sex reassignment surgery 25 years ago has now started following Christ. What Andrew offers is, I think, the fullest, clearest and most theologically-informed suggestion of how to handle such a case that I have read, closing with a powerful paraphrase of Jesus’ words:
I say to you, there is no one who has left the gender identity that they felt more comfortable with, or the community they identified with, or the life they had expected and dreamed of, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not receive many more times – identity and community and life – in this time, and in the age to come eternal life. (p119)
Chapter 10 has echoes of Ed Shaw’s excellent The Plausibility Problem, challenging the church to be a compassionate, listening, convictional, steadfast, and gracious community.
Chapter 11 picks up the question of how we speak to children about these issues and runs through two scenarios, one where children have picked up on them from the media or playground and are confused, and one where a child is expressing to a parent their own sense of gender confusion. Again, the space devoted to this issue sets this book apart from the rest. With reference to the first scenario, there is a helpful transcript of how one might speak to a ten year old about what they’ve heard or seen. In relation to the second, there is a passionate and sustained argument for a gentle, measured, and patient response. “The first thing to say has to be ‘I love you. I am your mom/dad, and I love you and I always will’” (138). I suspect that many of us parents will do well to memorise that phrase for this and many other future conversations!
Chapter 12 addresses tough questions that haven’t yet come up:
- Can someone be transgender and Christian?
- Should parents keep kids in a state-run school if those schools promote transgenderism?
- What should church elders/leaders do if a congregation member asks for their child to be identified as the opposite gender (or neither gender)?
- Should I mind if people who are biologically the other sex are in my restroom? What if it's my kids in the restroom?
- If a church is told to provide restrooms for transgendered people in its buildings, should it do so in submission to the authorities, or should it refuse to do so?
- Is taking hormones to manage gender dysphoria ever appropriate?
- Shouldn't we just focus on sins that are actually harming people (murder, adultery, etc.)? Transgenderism is harmless isn't it?
- Is it true that Christian teaching is harmful because not affirming a person’s transgender identity leads to depression and higher rates of suicide?
- How should we think about pronouns?
- What about people born intersex?
In several cases, Andrew rightly acknowledges that Christians will differ on these (and in a couple of places the answers would need nuancing in a UK context). It is also inevitable that many responses will need to be calibrated to the specific situation, but there is pastoral wisdom by the bucket load here.
The final chapter, ‘Open hands,’ is nothing short of beautiful. It’s worth the price of the book alone and reflects a pastor’s warm heart, something I was delighted to find beating in the chest of a Director of Policy Studies for a religious liberties commission in the US!
So this is definitely a book to buy and make use of. It is accessible enough for church members and would do them much good. In places, Andrew addresses non-Christians or those struggling with gender dysphoria, but most of the book is aimed at equipping the church and her pastors to respond well. For that reason I think the book is best used ‘in-house.’ That said, the places where he has a more apologetic or evangelistic edge are so well done that they provide an excellent template for our own outreach. For example, chapter 4 prepares the way for the Bible overview by encouraging the reader to acknowledge they need someone who possesses authority, knowledge and trustworthiness to shape their life around. The chapter does a great job of arguing that, contrary to our culture, that person is not ‘me’ by any of those criteria.
For those reasons, preachers and church leaders will also benefit from it enormously. If you do pick it up (and you should!), a few things to bear in mind:
- The account of where the transgender movement came from and its presuppositions is helpful but very brief. This is an area we need more on. For now, you should try Ed Shaw’s and Peter Sanlon’s articles in Primer issue 03, and this recent blog post is a helpful and complementary analysis.
- Throughout the book, the emphasis falls on responding to people who still accept a gender binary; that is, men who think they are women and vice versa. There is, therefore, little recognition of or engagement with a more ideological wing of the LGBTQ movement that wants to emphasise fluidity and reject the gender binary (and much more) as an oppressive social construct.
- One debate that rumbles on beneath this and other debates is the question of whether our feelings or desires are themselves sinful or whether sin is only committed when the desire is acted upon. That debate is reflected here. For example, Andrew argues that it is vital “to make a very clear distinction between experiencing a feeling and acting on that feeling,” (67), and cites Eve as an example: she didn’t sin when she experienced the serpent’s temptation, only when she acted upon it. I think the instinct here is right because many people experiencing psychological disorders will wrongly assume it is somehow their fault, and the parallels to anorexia or depression are significant. That said, we need to recognise that it is possible both to experience temptation without sinning (witness Jesus’ own temptations), and that the Bible’s account of sin includes our thoughts, desires, lusts and so on. Andrew says as much on page 66, with a fine discussion of the nature of the human heart. When that is taken into account, though, we should be wary of using the feeling/acting distinction without some nuance. [For more on this, and its significance to the issue of homosexuality, see Sam Allberry’s article in Primer issue 03.]
We are nonetheless in the author’s debt. For any pastor or interested reader it should take its place alongside Yarhouse’s Understanding Gender Dysphoria. If Yarhouse opens our eyes to the psychological damage that many people experience, and to the medical research that explores its causes, it is Andrew who provides a more developed and biblical model of response.