God and the Transgender Debate

I've been reading about and processing what the Bible says about homosexuality for all 13 years of my Christian life.  Coming to Christ with a full-blown experience of same-sex sexuality and recognizing that the gospel demanded sacrifices of me, I've had to know what I was talking about.  It is only in the last year that I’ve turned my attention to issues around transgenderism. In this respect, I’m like Evangelicalism in general: we are woefully behind on the T in LGBT, and I regret it.

As a starting point, I read Mark Yarhouse’s Understanding Gender Dysphoria and Vaughan Roberts’s Transgender.  These books were good introductions and formed much of the background I brought with me when I picked up Andrew Walker’s new entry into the field, God and the Transgender Debate.

There are some things I really like about Walker’s book. For one, he begins and ends with Jesus, who is the only hope we have in any of this. Jesus is smarter and kinder and better than all of us, and available to help. Second, Walker doesn’t downplay that experiencing gender dysphoria is hard, and that this issue is thick and heavy. What I especially appreciated was his insistence that experiencing GD is not sinful, but a pastoral issue requiring our support and help. Third, I appreciated that Walker didn’t lean into jargon, but created a book that was in fact quite easy to read. And finally, I appreciated his pattern of grounding his thoughts and statements in the Scriptures.

However, there are also places where I felt let down by this book. The least important was that it didn’t really break new ground; it felt like Roberts’s book, just longer. If I needed to recommend a helpful primer to a friend, I would choose Roberts book right now, as it is shorter and achieves a very similar end.

But I also noticed two other weaknesses which I believe handicap this book. The first is that, in the heart of Walker’s defense of God’s design for humanity being gendered as male and female, he wanders from Scripture and resorts to generalizations. On page 54, he asserts that “femaleness isn’t only anatomy, but anatomy shows that there is femaleness.” Fine, but, naturally one asks then, what is maleness and femaleness apart from anatomy?

He starts with general physical trends, noting the broader shoulders of men and the wider hips of women. These things are provable and known, but don’t truly give us more information than genitalia on some level. So in the same paragraph, as if it is the same level of truthful as secondary sex characteristics, he writes “the protective instinct that men are often able to harness at a moment’s notice…issues from the way that God made men. Much in the same way, women tend to enjoy what we sometimes call ‘motherly’ instincts, such as nurturing.”

I found this statement simplistic and general to the point of distraction. Are mothers not famous for their protective instinct? Does not St. Paul, a man, talk of nurturing the Thessalonians like he was a nursing mother among them (1 Thess 2:7)? This is not the time or place to be sloppy with what gender means, it damages our whole appeal to the goodness and complementarity of gender. It also undermines his corrective appeal on the next page that the church has often over-played Western gender roles.

The problems continue on page 56 when Walker generalizes again, saying “A man’s calling to lead and protect is…no more important than a woman’s design to nurture and mother. In both instances, men and women are called to joyfully submit to the unique callings that God has made for men and women.” He says all of this without appealing to the Bible once. Not anywhere. What in the world does he mean by callings? Does he mean marriage roles a la Ephesians 5? Does he mean qualified male eldership in the church? If so, he should say so. If he believes that unmarried men and women, as well as men not serving as elders, also have specific callings related to their gender, he needs to make that case Biblically—in this of all books he must do so. To elide that, to assume it, is to shoot the project in the foot.

The second weakness is Walker's confusion around chosen vocabulary. Some conservatives reject the idea that sex and gender are different realities, which is unhelpful. So I was heartened to see that Walker follows the APA in recognizing that gender is related to “attitudes, feelings, and behaviors that a given culture associates with a person’s biological sex” (APA, quoted by Walker on page 31). He insists, as I do, that our gender should follow our sex as God designed, and resists the Gnosticism which celebrates an idea of the mind as the truer self than the body, such that sex would follow gender.

But then on 74, Walker seems to muddy this distinction. He writes, “In truth, there is no such thing as ‘transgender,’ because you cannot change your gender. The word exists, but not the reality that it seeks to describe.” Here he seems to very unhelpfully conflate sex and gender. If gender is about attitudes, feelings and behavior, of course a person can experience these things apart from their sex, or experience them change over time. What I believe Walker means to say is that there is no way that embracing or rejecting a particular gender can truly change your sex. By losing his clear vocabulary here, he confuses where he could convict.

These weaknesses, particularly the first, are not incidental. They damage the structure and heart of the book itself, and its argument. We as evangelicals can and must do better in articulating God’s design and purpose for gender and sex, for the sake of our transgendered neighbors, for the sake of representing Jesus well and clearly to the watching world.