The Church and Bioethics: Gender Identity and Transgenderism

Below is a brief summary of a sermon I preached on May 15, 2016 at Graefenburg Baptist Church concerning gender identity and transgenderism.

This sermon will attempt to graciously and biblically answer four questions concerning gender identity:

1. What is gender identity and transgenderism?
2. What does science say about gender identity?
3. What does the gospel say about gender identity?
4. How should the church respond?

What is gender identity and transgenderism?
This is an essential place to begin because before we can properly address a concern, we must first understand the concern. Gender identity refers to a person’s internal sense or connection of gender. A person’s gender identity – their inward feeling of their gender – might be the same or different as their birth sex. A transgender person, then, is a person who identifies with a different gender than what is on their birth certificate. So, a person who was biologically born a male and was listed as such on their birth certificate might come to identify their gender as female later in life and live out that female identity instead of a male identity.

Now it is important to make some clarifications. Being a transgendered person is not the same as being a transvestite. A transvestite is a person, usually a male, who finds pleasure in dressing up as a female. The man does not wish to change genders, but enjoys dressing up as a fetish. In contrast, a transgendered person understands themselves to be different and desires to be different than their biological sex. Much of the social media memes and other unhelpful characterizations of this issue often come across as transvestitism, which is not a fair assessment of what the Obama administration is trying to protect. The issues related to the letter issued by the Department of Justice and Education are to protect transgendered people. Now obviously, this new policy opens the door wide open for potential abuse by those who are not actually transgendered and would be seeking  to experience an inappropriate erotic or sexual encounter. But for President Obama, civil rights protection for transgendered people outweighs the potential for abuse of the policy.

Transgenderism is also not sexual orientation. A transgendered person might identify as heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, and so forth. So although we typically think of gender identity and transgendered people through a lens of sexuality, they are two different, but obviously closely connected things.

This first question is important because we need to have Christian compassion for those who are genuinely struggling and suffering through gender dysphoria. It might be easy for us to roll our eyes and turn our face away in disgust at the thought of a male fulfilling a sexual impulse by wearing make-up and a dress to walk into a women’s restroom. But if we begin to consider how a person might be confused, embarrassed, bullied, and emotionally scarred through their gender dysphoria, then our Christian mandate is to show a gracious spirit of love and concern, even as we push back against policies that are harmful, especially to our children.

What does science say about gender identity?
Sometimes the phrase used to describe the feeling of a transgendered person is that they are a “female trapped in a mans’ body” or vice versa. What does science say about this phenomenon? Is it biological? Or is it psychological? Or is it both? First, let me say that the Obama administration doesn’t really seem to care. They understand a trangendered person to identify their gender through an ongoing process of changing ideas that may weave in and out of various genders, including male, female, a “third gender”, “gender fluid (which means you are both), etc. But to help clarify for our purposes, is there an internal biological factor that makes this unavoidable for some people?

The truth is we just don’t know. We will hear scientific language used to establish the internal biological reality of transgendered people, such as XY Chromosomes and the chemistry of the brain, but this is still work that exists in the land of the unknown. JM Bailey, Professor in the Department of Psychology at Northwestern University, has an article on the National Center for Biotechnology Information website where he simply concludes that, “Currently the predominant cultural understanding of male-to-female transsexualism is that all male-to-female (MtF) transsexuals are, essentially, women trapped in men’s bodies. This understanding has little scientific basis, however, and is inconsistent with clinical observations…. The persistence of the predominant cultural understanding, while explicable, is damaging to science and to many transsexuals.” So, on the one hand, I think we have to avoid the extreme of thinking transgendered people are such because of biological science alone.

On the other hand, we should avoid the extreme of insisting that trangendered people are just perverts who want to live out an erotic desire. We don’t yet know the answer to the nature vs. nurture question. It may very well be that there is a biological component to their dysphoria. So, we just really don’t know what is happening. Which is another reason why making such a strong move as Obama has done is problematic. North Carolina Governor Pat Mcrory I think summarized this concept very well. He said the “federal government is searching for a solution to a problem that has yet to be defined.”

Let me mention one last thing concerning science. For Christians, we want to know the full story. We want to know the causes. We want to know all we can so we can better relate and engage. But from a biblical truth standpoint, nothing changes. Whether transgendered persons are a product of biology or by nurture or a combination of both, the truth of God’s word and His design still stands. Therefore…

What does the gospel say about gender identity?
If science doesn’t have much to say at this point on this issue, the gospel can speak all day. Let me mention a couple of things.

1. The gospel teaches that the male/female binary is a purposeful picture of the gospel of Jesus Christ. (Genesis 2, Ephesians 5).

2. The gospel teaches us that God is both Creator and King, ruling over our lives for His glory and our good. Humanity does not determine or assign gender to ourselves, that is the act of God alone. When men and women desire to create for themselves their own reality and their own direction and their own desires, we make ourselves false gods, which is always sin against the one King.

3. The gospel teaches us that suffering is an important part of the Christian’s life. I would never deny that those who genuinely feel an internal conflict between their birth gender and their perceived gender are tormented by that reality. But I would deny that alleviating that suffering by changing genders is a solution. Only the gospel can help here. For the gospel places us in Christ and in his sufferings, where we begin – over a long life journey – to find contentment and even joy in our sufferings. The very thing transgendered people desire by changing genders is the very thing they will miss. But they can find it by learning about the sufferings of Christ.

4. The gospel teaches that forgiveness and reconciliation with God is available through Jesus Christ. There is a story of a person who was born a man, switched genders, had sex reassignment surgery, and felt even more despair. On top of all of this, the person had a daughter who only knew them as “mom.” After coming under conviction, this person approached a pastor and asked, “is there any hope for someone like me who has made such a mess of things?” The answer is yes. There is always hope in Jesus Christ.

How should the church respond?
1. By being quick to repent and slow to judge. Whenever we are confronted with a unbiblical lifestyle or cultural shift that we find morally reprehensible, the church should first remember that we are a people redeemed from our own state of filth and wretchedness. Before we should begin discussing the speck in another’s eye, lets make certain we are removing the log in our own.

2. Have conversations. Both with individuals and in a corporate setting. When people who are struggling with issues such as sexual orientation and gender identity see that the church is quick to repent and slow to judge, it will open doors to real, meaningful conversations about life and faith. Would you be able to have such a conversation with a transgenered person without turning away from the individual in scorn?

3. Never, ever deny truth. If we are quick to repent, slow to judge, and then engage in conversation, we must never compromise the word of God. In other words, we must speak with grace and with conviction. And frankly, people appreciate conviction. People are not repulsed by conviction, but are deeply repulsed by condemnation. And there is no room for condemnation in the church of Jesus Christ. There is, however, plenty of room for gracious conversation marked by Godly conviction. The former will turn people away from the cross, the latter will draw them near.

4. Pray for God’s mercy on our country and our schools. We might consider America the greatest country on earth, and I believe she is, but if God was willing to send the nation Israel into exile for their idolatry, he will not hesitate to do the same to the USA. The political process involves the people of the United States making their voice known to their representatives and members of congress. We need Christians speaking up. We need Christians running for office. So do that. In love, do that.

5. Parents will have to determine the line of the Rubicon. The idiomatic expression “crossing the Rubicon” means the point of no return. Although I do not believe parents should panic and pull their children from public schools, I do believe parents should establish the point of no return. Here is why that’s important. If you never set that bar, then you will always think the next difficult issue for public education is just one more thing and not enough to take action. But if you know in advance that this particular line is where your family can no longer allow your children to attend public schools, then you will be prepared when the line is crossed to pursue other options. I know that is challenging. This is an issue that I think the church will need to be forward thinking on, and begin brainstorming now on we can help parents who are church members discover and fund other options if that time should come. *After preaching this sermon, two gracious church members also suggested the desperate need for Christians to plug into public education in a variety of ways, including holding positions of influence, in order to make a difference in the spiritual direction of our schools. I couldn’t agree more.