A preliminary word is in order as to what could possibly motivate me to write three articles on the subject of transgenderism in the span of two weeks time. Primarily the fact that the South Dakota Legislature is making news on this subject all the way over here on this side of the pond (I’m living in Scotland) and until recently I was a member of that legislative body. Additionally, my difficult and surprising votes last year on this issue put me in some serious hot water with Christian friends, church members and pro-family values groups whom I’ve worked alongside for years. Then comes the year of Caitlyn Jenner and I sat quiet as I sorted through my discomfort and sadness at the course joking by Christian friends on social media. Finally, dealing with hot potatoes is something I’ve never shied away from and I typically have little restraint in firing away a prophetic challenge if I discern the Church needs a wake up call or a course correction. So here goes it.
This won’t be the place where I discuss inner healing and the power of Christ to mend the broken, including broken identities. Also I won’t take time to defend that statement but will simply refer to the three frameworks– integrity, disability and diversity – outlined in Dr. Mark A. Yarhouse of Wheaton and Regent Universities new book called Understanding Gender Dysphoria. Or, read my recent op-ed on this topic here: Empathy and Accommodation for the transgendered in South Dakota. What follows in this article is about the Church and its witness and welcome of transgenders and the matter of Christian Hope.
From my vantage point the Church, myself included, has utterly failed homosexuals in our communities. And now we have our chance at stewarding a message of hope and being a community of hope for the transgendered and those struggling with gender dysphoria. TIME magazine called 2014 the year of the transgendered. It is my opinion that though well-intentioned, the path we’ve chosen on this issue in the South Dakota legislature in the 2015-2016 Sessions, a path that the Christian contingency in the House and Senate have forged, is a path that has now done irreparable harm to our witness.
In an earlier post I wrote: Is there any hope of a transgender kid going to any of our churches? 41 percent of transgender and gender non-conforming people have attempted suicide, compared to a national average of just 4.6 percent. When kids kill themselves because we reject them with vehemence are we complicit and how could Jesus possibly say to us “Well done”? This is from my earlier article on this subject:
I’ve been on the scene of a number of teen suicides as a police chaplain, one in particular where the teenage boy hung himself from the ironwork around his parent’s back patio. He looked just like my son Thomas. It messed me up for a couple weeks. When you see that stuff you wish there was a way to turn back the clock and you’d do anything to make sure you weren’t a part of the rejection and despair in his life. The SD legislature and particularly the Christians are sending a loud message of vehement rejection to human beings in our state who have a far harder plight than even homosexuals.
Do you suppose our world will ever come to the place again where we have to hide Jews and Gays? (I’m aware there are differences between homosexuality and gender dysphoria.) If the days ever come again where we must hide the despised of this world, will they come to us and consider God’s House a safe house?
No. As long as Deuteronomy 22:5 is the only text the Church reads, our witness and welcome will continue to be disastrous. In no way am I advocating being selective or ignoring any text. I remain theologically conservative holding a high view of Scripture. The fact of the matter is Deuteronomy 22:5 can hardly be construed to be God’s view on gender dysphoria today. The situation behind the text was the matter of pagan swapping of sex roles and rituals in temple prostitution. That is what is abhorrent to God– not a seven year old boy who sneaks off to wear his sisters dress and feels crushing shame afterward. There are however other texts that more directly apply which I will illustrate shortly. Some of my friends will be again disappointed in me for the position I am taking on this issue but there is too much at stake to leave our present course unchallenged.
There is nearly a total breakdown in our society of traditional gender norms. But let’s be honest, this started long before the 1960’s. A few generations ago a young woman who wore pants was a matter of gossip and scandal among good churchgoing people. Today any female of any age could wear exactly what men wear – mens jeans, sweatshirt – and minimise any femininity and even don even some masculinity and really, does any one care? We view it as completely amoral. Boy hair cuts, girls on the football team and others who wear camo and hunt – the Church somehow found a way to successfully navigate it. Yet there is no grace or wiggle room for a male who dons femininity in hairstyle and dress – such a person is a pariah to us, a freak. A question I’ve been asking lately is: What makes us think someone else’s brokenness is a bigger deal to God than our own?
The following is a brief rereading of 1 Corinthians 12:12-27 particularly in light of the challenge the Church is having welcoming the transgendered. I’ll start by presenting the text itself, a text which I suggest vitally important text relating to our welcome and inclusion of various members of the Body of Christ.
12 Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. 13 For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. 14 Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many. 15 Now if the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. 16 And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. 17 If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? 18 But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. 19 If they were all one part, where would the body be? 20 As it is, there are many parts, but one body. 21 The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” 22 On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23 and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, 24 while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, 25 so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. 26 If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it. 27 Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.
The working title of this rereading I’ll phrase as follows. I’ll try to be brief.
The Body, it’s Members and the Body of Christ:
What Does Christian Hope Look Like For The Transgendered?
This text offers much for a theology of the body and a theology of disability within the broader framework of the Body of Christ as a community of inclusion– not severing disabled or unsightly members or members that are hard to look at or be around – all the while living in a fantasy or illusion of uniformity where everyone should just blend in.
In a variety of areas today, radical surgical and bio-enhancements including prosthetics are commonly encouraged strategies to help people find some measure of normalisation, functioning and sanity. Whether that is right or wrong, judgments about them have become a criteria for inclusion and welcome into Christian community. What I’m challenging here is the fact that those judgments are keeping people from the very place they most need to be.
My hope is we realise we have failed to figure out how to love the sinner and hate the sin and that we rethink what is amoral and what is actually immoral when it comes to the DSM-5 psychological designation of gender dysphoria.
The admonition in the text is to extend a special measure of grace toward the member that is hurting: “When one part hurts….” The Christian community is to be a fellowship of the suffering. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it. We aren’t to leave people to hurt in isolation from the other members, or cut them off. Severing results in death of the member (think here of the 41% transgender suicide attempt rate). Attachment to the body is vital to the life flow. The life flow, and structural things like bones and ligaments, aren’t effected by anything superficial or cosmetic. If it is true that God looks at the heart, maybe we ought to look deeper. If it is true that nothing can separate us from the love of God, why have we been severing away the less presentable members?
On a number of occasions over the years I’ve told homosexuals who visit our church they are welcome on one condition – that they remain open to God touching any area of their lives, including that area. And I made a promise in return, to not press the timing of God dealing with whatever He wants to deal with in their life.
Parents may retort; But Pastor Steve, there are children in the fellowship too, doesn’t this sow confusion? No. It sows no more confusion than any other disability in our midst. How hard is it to explain to our children that some people struggle and that we ought to love those people all the more? A little loving explanation and our kids go… Oh, okay– and head back out to play.
On several occasions over the years this issue has presented itself to me in the pastoral context. The Christian people struggling with this confide deep remorse and conflict at giving God the impression they are rejecting his handiwork, or insinutating that he made a mistake when he made them. My response has been God understands entirely, in fact better than we do. He’s not offended or mad about their ingratitude. The Father is a father.
When my son Thomas was a teenager I bought him a light blue electric guitar for his birthday. He was thankful but I could immediately tell he was disappointed. He didn’t like the color and I could tell by the look on his face. It bothered me for a few weeks and one day when he was at school I swapped it out for the red guitar he really wanted. I wasn’t offended in the least. My heart was for his happiness. My suggestion here is not that God says to the transgendered, “Oops, my bad. By all means get the red guitar.” My suggestion is that God is a Father and he understands this far better than we ever will. People who have gender reassignment surgeries haven’t cut themselves off from the Father’s love. This article is a plea that the Church would reconsider whether this community should be treated as a severed member.
The Christian Hope for the transgendered is right up front in verses 12-13… Christ’s bringing together of separated parts (Jew/gentile, Male/Female), offering humanity wholeness and congruence again, and his Body being a community of inclusion where people are valued, indeed indispensable.
Could this mean the transgendered person has much to contribute and teach us? Isn’t the text saying the entire body becomes disabled if we cut them off? The Christian hope for the transgendered is not in a series of procedures that fixes all their problems. It is Christ and his new Body.