Two Christian Obligations
Breaking the nation out of its so-called “gender straitjacket” will involve making a fundamentally moral claim: “Transgender is good.” To oppose that claim will be seen as backward and irrational.
What is the proper response to this rising challenge? A number of things can and should be said, but I want to focus on two obligations that we have as Christians: (1) truth-telling and (2) gender discipling.
We must tell the truth about what the Bible teaches about gender. Among other things, the Bible is clear that there is a normative connection between biological sex and gender identity. The “normative connection” that I am speaking of is not defined by the sociological observation that a certain percentage of the population experiences their own gender in a way that conflicts with their biological sex.4 That sociological norm knows nothing of the fall and confuses what is with what ought to be. The norm that we must insist on is the norm that is not normed by any other norm: Scripture.
In 2013, Slate.com published an article about a youth camp for gender-nonconforming boys. It’s a retreat for prepubescent young men who behave in ways that are feminine. The camp provides a place for parents and children to feel “protected” as these young boys act out in ways that they wouldn’t normally in public. In the Slate article, there are full-color pictures of young boys wearing dresses, parading down runways, dressing up like princesses, painting their toenails, and putting on makeup—all of it with their smiling parents looking on in approval.
The Bible puts solid ground beneath our feet so that we don’t have to guess at what it means to be male and female.
One particular line from the report stands out to me as uniquely revealing. It says, “Although it is unknown if the kids at the camp will eventually identify as gay or transgender—or even if the way gender and sexuality are defined throughout society will evolve— the camp allows the kids to look at themselves in a completely different way.”5 Now think about the utter moral confusion of that statement. According to this author, it’s not just these boys’ gender that is yet unknown. It’s also the very definition of “gender and sexuality” that is still up for grabs. The author admits that the sexual revolutionaries and gender revisionists don’t really know where they are trying to lead us. Yet they confidently call us and our children forward to follow them over the cliff.
Parents are already being chastised for not letting their children act out in gender-bending kinds of ways. Why? Because now researchers are saying that gender identity and gender expression are relatively fixed by age five. By eleven or twelve, if a child is still insisting on a transgender identity, that identity is almost certainly going to persist. On this view, trying to undo a transgender identity is as brutal and damaging to a child as trying to undo sexual orientation, and it results in increased risks of drug and alcohol abuse, depression, and suicide attempts.6 That is why there are a rising number of reports about parents who are letting gender-confused children undergo hormone therapy to delay puberty indefinitely until a decision can be made about gender reassignment surgery.7 Why? Because the moral claim that “transgender is good” is so intense that it is permissible to surgically alter a child’s body to match his sense of self, but it is bigoted to try and change his sense of self to match his body.8 Yet we have to ask the obvious question: If it is wrong to attempt to change a child’s gender identity (because it is fixed, and meddling with it is harmful), then why is it morally acceptable to alter something as fixed as a biological body of a minor?9 The moral inconsistency here is plain.
This is exactly where the Christian vision of humanity has so much to offer us. The Bible puts solid ground beneath our feet so that we don’t have to guess at what it means to be male and female, and so that parents don’t have to sow even more confusion into their child’s bewilderment. The spirit of the age tells us that raising a little boy to be a little boy can be cruel and abusive if that little boy wishes to behave like a girl. Gender is a choose-your-own-adventure story, and the parent’s job is to get out of the way and let it happen.
The Christian vision is so very different from this and so very freeing and affirming of what we were really meant to be before God. In the biblical view, every single person is created in the image of God. God did not make us into undifferentiated genderless automatons. On the contrary, he made us male and female (Gen.1:26–27), and that fundamental biological distinction defines us. Gender norms, therefore, have their roots in God’s good creation and are revealed in nature and Scripture. The task of parenting requires understanding those norms and inculcating them into our children—even those children who have deep conflicts about their “gender identity.” This is a truth-telling discipline that rests on the Bible’s normative connection between biological sex and gender identity. But this assumes that we know what the Bible teaches about manhood and womanhood.
And that brings us to our second obligation. We are not only to be truth-telling but also to be gender discipling.
If it is true that God reveals gender norms according to biological sex, then making disciples and raising children necessarily involves teaching them to live within biblical norms of manhood and womanhood. Christian, this necessarily puts us in a countercultural posture. But it also raises a question for us. What are we to do with culturally encoded definitions of gender? Does manhood equal machismo? Must all men like sports, the outdoors, grunting, and leaving the seat up? Do such stereotypes equal masculinity or is there something else? Does womanhood equal opinionless passivity? Must all women be focused on their appearance, shopping, and cute shoes? Or is there more?
The response to these questions from some has been to rebuke those who equate cultural norms with biblical norms. “How dare you say that a man cannot wear skinny jeans! There is no biblical prohibition on skinny jeans. That’s just your cultural prejudice coming out.” To which someone else responds: “So is it okay for a man to wear a dress and lipstick? Is that just a cultural prejudice coming out too?” In other words, the transgender challenge forces us to define the relationship between biblical gender identity and culturally encoded expressions of that identity. The transgender challenge, however, does not allow us to declare culturally encoded gender expressions as matters of indifference.
This means that we will be called upon to bring our consciences into line with biblical gender norms. No, the essence of manhood isn’t culturally defined. The biblical norms are what they have always been: the fruit of the Spirit expressed in sacrificial servant leadership, protection, and provision. Discipling men and raising boys will mean shaping men to define their masculinity by these ideals. Likewise, the essence of womanhood must not be culturally defined. It must be marked by the fruit of the Spirit expressed in the biblical norms of helping, subduing creation, and a primary responsibility to home and childrearing.
1. Ronald Bayer, Homosexuality and American Psychiatry: The Politics of Diagnosis (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1987), 3.
2. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th ed., has reclassified “Gender Identity Disorder” as “Gender Dysphoria.” An information sheet about the new edition of DSM explains: “Part of removing stigma is about choosing the right words. Replacing ‘disorder’ with ‘dysphoria’ in the diagnostic label is not only more appropriate and consistent with familiar clinical sexology terminology, it also removes the connotation that the patient is ‘disordered.’” See “Gender Dysphoria” at http://www.dsm5.org/documents/gender%20dysphoria%20fact%20sheet.pdf.
3. E. J. Graff, “What’s Next?,” Newsweek, September 27, 2013, http://www.newsweek.com/2013/09 /27/whats-next-gay-rights-movement-238040.html.
4. According to the Williams Institute, about 0.3 percent of the population, or about seven hundred thousand Americans, are transgender (see ibid.).
5. David Rosenberg, “A Boys’ Camp to Redefine Gender,” Slate, July 15, 2013, http://www.slate .com/blogs/behold/2013/07/15/_you_are_you_looks_at_a_gender_nonconforming_camp_for_boys _photos.html.
6. Graff, “What’s Next?”
7. Denny Burk, “The Little Boy Who Wanted to Be a Girl,” Denny Burk (blog), http://www.dennyburk .com/the-little-boy-who-wanted-to-be-a-girl.
8. See chapter 1 of Strachan, Owen and Parnell, Jonathan, Designed for Joy: How the Gospel Impacts Men and Women, Identity and Practice (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2015), “[Transgender] individuals grant [their existential perspective] the ultimate authority and attempt to manipulate the other perspectives [of biology and societal witness] through the use of hormones and surgical procedures. Ironically, the goal of becoming transgender is to have all three perspectives saying the same thing, even if by inauthentic, superficial means” (pp. 29–30).
9. I got this question from James M. Kushiner, “Why Is Reparative Therapy Illegal for Boys but Gender Surgery for Girls Not?,” Mere Comments, August 30, 2013, http://touchstonemag.com /merecomments/2013/08/reparative-therapy-illegal-boys-gender-surgery-girls.
This article is adapted from Designed for Joy: How the Gospel Impacts Men and Women, Identity and Practice edited by Owen Strachan and Jonathan Parnell.
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