Gender identity is a trending topic today. There is actually a phrase for it: “trans trending.” But it is being discussed by many people in many circles, including Christian circles, where the focus is on identifying the best and most faithful response.
As I write about in my book, Understanding Gender Dysphoria: Navigating Transgender Issues in a Changing Culture, I do see Gender Dysphoria and the broader transgender discussion as quite complex. The complexity requires a thoughtful, naunced response from the Christian community.
A quick primer: Transgender is an umbrella term for the many ways people express gender identity when they have gender identity that is does not align with their biological sex as male or female. Some people who identify as transgender also experience distress over this lack of alignment between their identity and their biological sex. When that occurs, mental health professionals have called the distress “gender dysphoria.”
I am concerned that “transgender” as an umbrella term is becoming home to many other identity questions that naturally arise in adolescence and are being explored by younger teens, some of who request serious medical interventions. This is in part why we see a growing number of emerging gender identities (e.g., agender, bigender, genderfluid, gender creative).
In my book, I introduce the reader to three frameworks that function as “lenses” through which people “see” the research in this area, the broader topic, and the people who are navigating gender identity concerns. The three frameworks are integrity, disability, and diversity.
Let me review these three frameworks briefly.
The integrity lens emphasizes the importance of a biblical foundation for norms of sex and gender and sets a standard for the Christian who seeks to be faithful to what God has revealed in Scripture. It says that there are real, God-given differences between males and females that were intended by God from creation (Gen 1, 2). These differences lay the foundation for morally permissible sexual behavior. When a male and female come together in the context of a marriage covenant, sexual behavior is morally permissible. Outside of that foundation and covenant, sexual behavior is morally impermissible. This lens is concerned that the integrity of male/female distinctions is forfeited if a person were to adopt a cross-gender identity or pursue medical interventions, such as hormonal treatment or sex reassignment surgery.
The second lens through which people see this topic is called the disability lens. When people experience a lack of fit between gender identity and biological sex, it is thought of as an unfortunate departure from what typically happens—not everything is lining up properly—but is not considered a moral issue by people who think this way. They argue that transgender concerns should be addressed with compassion. Christians might be drawn to aspects of the disability lens because of the reality of the fall (Gen 3) which has resulted in all sorts of consequences for human life. A biblical Christian drawing from the disability lens would likely see “trans trending” as a misguided search for identity. But they would also still likely want to respond with compassion to the distress people with these concerns face, especially when people struggle with life-threatening dysphoria. Different strategies might be seen as permissible and might include more invasive steps, since a person could see it as a way of coping with something after the Fall that was not as it ought to be, as opposed to seeing it as a rejection of male/female sexual difference.
The third lens is the diversity lens. This is the lens that is captivating the culture today. Those who see through the diversity lens see differences in gender identity as signaling a group of people (transgender persons) who should be embraced and celebrated. To be transgender is to be part of the larger lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community. Adherents of the diversity lens help people adopt and celebrate a cross-gender identity (for example, a biological male who experiences himself as a woman) and would not be concerned with the morality of more invasive medical procedures, as they may see these as appropriate steps to accomplish greater self-realization. Diversity advocates may also see “trans trending” as an improvement over traditional views of male and female that they believe are hurtful to transgender persons.
In my role as a psychologist, I try to understand these different experiences of gender identity and the different lenses people may be drawn to, and find ways to work with clients who seek my help. This is not unlike how I would with other clients whose experiences and decisions may be similar or different from aspects of my own personal Christian beliefs.
But where does the Christian begin in ministry or pastoral care? There is a tendency among some Christians to see the three frameworks as competing in such a way that they have to choose one over the other, or that drawing on some of the frameworks or learning from some of the other frameworks means diluting the one they view as primary. I do see the three frameworks as each providing important insights, so let me unpack this a little further.
Integrating the three lenses has potential great value in ministry, and I think there are elements of all three that can be understood as biblical. The theological foundations that come from the integrity lens are a critical starting point. It addresses what is morally permissible sexual behavior, but it also reminds us of the significance of male/female differences. This gives Christians pause when they see the broader culture encouraging individuals to move towards strategies for managing dysphoria that manipulate the body in some way. Since gender identity concerns can vary in intensity, a number of people with these concerns will be open to a discussing how to cope with and respond to gender identity conflicts in light of one’s biological sex. For many (most?) people that is apparently what happens.
Can Christians who uphold the integrity lens find anything of value in the disability or diversity lenses, even if not prepared to adopt every application of them? While we have to be careful here to avoid sacrificing biblical authority in this effort, I think we can. I would say that, for example, from the disability lens, we can appreciate the compassion that is present. We can appreciate being reminded of the reality of Gen 3, which has clear implications throughout Scripture and thus important to apply, so that a Christian perspective is characterized by compassion and empathy as people explore ways to cope with more intense gender dysphoria when it is present, and as young people find themselves drawn to emerging gender identities about which Christians may voice concern.
Is there anything to be gained from the diversity lens? This is by far the most challenging lens for me as a Christian, since it is often applied by others in such a way that it dismisses male/female sexual difference as merely oppressive and negligible. However, what the diversity lens does is create a sense of identity and community for those who suffer from gender dysphoria and for those who are part of the “trans trending” group. While I disagree with the answers typically offered within the diversity lens, I have to admit that it is the only lens really attempting to specifically meet the longing for identity and community for those with gender dysphoria or are otherwise under the transgender umbrella.
Jesus says in Him we will have life and life to the full, and that means each person ought to find freedom and a capacity to be celebrated in a community where they have a sense of identity by living out Christian faith. Christianity can and has offered people renewed identity and purpose and meaning in life. Proponents of the diversity lens didn’t come up with that; they cast a different vision for what that can be, and they advertise it boldly.
A Christian ministry that wants to be effective will have to address identity and community from a distinctively Christian and biblical perspective. It will have to do this in a way that is emotionally and spiritually compelling to compete with the siren call available to people with transgender concerns arising from the diversity lens. Ministry could do this by communicating that life in Christ can offer identity, community, and purpose in the midst of complex experiences, including experiences of great distress and unwanted suffering. This requires taking into consideration the whole of Scripture, and the myriad of people who, despite their unique experiences and histories, are pursued by Christ to be made anew in His image.
Social media has been on fire in response to the Nashville Statement. As you’ve undoubtedly read by now, folks are lining up to either sign the statement or denounce it. I suspect that the hardening of these lines was the point for some of the authors of the statement. But rather than go that route, let’s take a step back for a moment.
I’ve written about my understanding of a traditional Christian sexual ethic in many places. No need to reiterate. So in terms of what you might call the underlying theology, I (along with many other conservative Christians) may agree with aspects of the Nashville Statement insofar as it attempts to reflect such an ethic.
However, the Nashville Statement does not simply reflect what we might call a traditional sexual ethic. It attempts to address several areas beyond the question of whether same-sex behavior is morally permissible or morally impermissible. Most notably, it takes on the question of language or the use of specific sexual identity labels. The use of various sexual identity labels, such as gay, lesbian, and bisexual, is actually a developmental process that has been fascinating to study, particularly among Christians who are sorting out sexual identity concerns. While the use of specific language (e.g., “gay”) has been a concern to a few outspoken conservatives, it has not been a litmus test for orthodoxy that carried the moral significance of behavior, where there is greater biblical clarity. In that way the Nashville Statement will be experienced by some as unnecessarily antagonistic toward some of the very people whose commitment to a biblical sexual ethic means they are living out costly obedience.
The language piece also fails to appreciate how younger people talk about their sexual orientation and ways in which “homosexuality” and “a homosexual orientation” has fallen out of the vernacular. Put differently, the word “gay” to the average 14-year-old is not synonymous with promiscuity the way it may have been for some of the authors of the Nashville Statement; rather, it is the way a teenager might reference his or her sexual orientation, which is important for youth ministers, for instance, to understand. Now I am not suggesting that there is never a pastoral concern about language; there may be, and I’ve discussed that topic at some length. But there isn’t always a pastoral concern about language, and there is a need to nuance this discussion for effective ministry and pastoral care.
Along these lines, I believe it was Andy Crouch who discussed the difference between postures and gestures. Postures are more fixed ways of positioning yourself in relation to a topic. Gestures are the many ways you express yourself in a specific ministry setting. He recommends Christians avoid rigid postures that limit their gestures. On the question of language, the Nashville Statement reflects a fairly rigid posture that, in places, is unnecessarily antagonistic toward other conservatives, particularly those who identity as celibate gay Christians.
Then there is “transgenderism.” It should be noted that “transgender” is an umbrella term for the many ways people experience, express, or live out a gender identity that is different than that of a person whose gender identity aligns with his or her biological sex. This is a complicated topic. There isn’t even consensus on who fits under the transgender umbrella, which is part of the problem when the word is used in such declarations. It can include people who report great distress, such as those who meet criteria for gender dysphoria, but to some the word transgender also captures those who cross-dress, drag queens and kings, transsexuals, those with intersex conditions, various non-binary gender identities, and so on. The diversity here is remarkable.
When I wrote Understanding Gender Dysphoria, which was published in 2015, I noted that transgender presentations were a wave that was going to crest on evangelicals and that the church was not prepared for it. I noted that we needed to think deeply and well about gender identity and to engage with some humility what we know and do not know from the best of science, as well as learn from mistakes made in how evangelicals engaged the topic of sexual identity and especially how evangelicals treated the actual people who were navigating sexual identity and faith. I was suggesting we could learn from that experience and make some adjustments as we encounter the topic of gender identity.
I’m afraid the Nashville Statement, perhaps out of a desire to establish the parameters for orthodoxy on gender identity concerns, gets ahead of evangelicals because it doesn’t reflect the careful, nuanced reflection needed to guide Christians toward critical engagement of gender theory, while also aiding in the development of more flexible postures needed in pastoral care.
The statement evangelicals need today is one that guides the church toward a flexible posture, grounded in Scripture, that allows for a range of gestures based on the needs associated with ministry and cultural engagement.
There are not many days that are as fulfilling to a writer as the day you send your book manuscript to your editor. Today I was able to send in the “completed” manuscript for Listening to Sexual Minorities: A Study of Faith and Sexual Identity on Christian College Campuses. I place quotation marks around “completed” because, inevitably, there are minor edits to be made after it is gone over with a fine-toothed comb by the editor, but it is off my desk for the time-being, and that is why I celebrate today.
What can the reader expect with this book? This is both an academic book and an accessible book. Let me unpack that apparent contradiction. This is a more academic book insofar as the primary focus is explaining a longitudinal study of the experiences of sexual minorities at Christian college campuses. We go over what we found in terms of the salience of their Christian faith, their experience of the campus climate, their response to campus policies, their psychological health and emotional well-being, recommendations they would make to administrators, advice they would give to incoming sexual minorities, and so much more. To do that, we had to show the data and explain it, so in that sense, it will read as more academic.
At the same time, we have many breakout boxes to explain the material and “take away” summary points at the end of each chapter. We draw on interviews we conducted with students, and we share their experiences in their own words. In that sense, it is accessible.
This is also a co-authored book. Janet Dean (Asbury University), Stephen Stratton (Asbury Seminary), and Michael Lastoria (Houghton College) collaborated with me on the longitudinal study these past three years and were instrumental in moving the material from a research study to a book-length manuscript.
The schedule for the release of the book is March/April of 2018. I’ll keep you posted!
In my most recent post, I cited a letter from Henri Nouwen to a person who wrote to him about his (Nouwen’s) celibacy. The letter is part of a book that was published in 2016 that is a complication of letters that Nouwen wrote to different people, many of whom where friends of his, but others were those who had been moved by his writings. The overall theme of this book is that these are letter on the theme of the spiritual life. It is a terrific book.
I’ve always been drawn to Henri Nouwen’s letters more so than his other books, as good as they are. I am embarrassed to admit that I saw myself in one of the letters he wrote to a person who criticized him for his more polished books often seeming repetitive and overly simplistic. I have sometimes had a similar reaction, but I suspect it’s because I tend to read academic books that are making an argument and that you scrutinize the book, etc. I probably haven’t approached his books in the right spirit.
My favorite book by Nouwen (until this current book of letters on the spiritual life) had been the Genesee Diary; I recall it read as more raw and just less polished over all. But I’ve enjoyed other books, especially his reflections on the prodigal son and his reflections on icons, which I have collected for a few years now, as well as The Wounded Healer, which we read in our graduate training in psychology. In fact, Nouwen was lovingly referred to by one of my professors as the “patron saint” of our graduate psychology program.
In any case, I don’t think it is a fair criticism of Nouwen’s other books, and Nouwen was gracious to the person who wrote and made that observation, and I think he would have been gracious to my own response.
Nouwen’s letters challenge me in so many ways. It felt strange to read them, like I was eavesdropping on a private conversation, which I suppose is how I should feel. How else should we feel when we read other people’s letters?
His letters have been a gift to me. I’m still digesting and making adjustments in response to reading his book. In fact, I’ve been ordering many of the books and resources that he recommended to other people. So this will be part of a larger journey, I’m sure.
Here are a few takeaways:
- It matters that we are good friends and mentors to one another. Nouwen takes the time to maintain correspondence with friends and with those who see him as a spiritual mentor of sorts. I was challenged to invest the time and energy and to ask God for His support in this.
- Stay practical. I was drawn to the concrete and specific aspects of discernment in a letter from Henri Nouwen to a friend: “Try to take little steps in the direction of your inner call (a regular hour of silent prayer, talks with people who can truly listen to you, reading books that help you sharpen your own inner vocation, visits to places and people where some of your dream is lived out). Be sure never to let your life go flat. Always know that God is calling you to ever greater things.”
- Live out “convicted civility.” This is a phrase made popular by Richard Mouw, but I was reminded of it when I read Nouwen’s letters. He would be so gracious and kind to critics. That would be a great quality to further cultivate.
- Attend to your interior life. This book came to my attention at a good time in my life. I was wrestling with spiritual questions and how to cultivate my interior life. Nouwen writes letter after letter to people like me, people who would benefit from leaning into God and the reality of the love and acceptance of Go, to spending time in prayer and reflection, to have time to develop a liturgy of spiritual life (or use the liturgy if that is part of your faith tradition), and so on.
In a collaborative project I’ve been working on with a colleague, we discuss the different approaches to the integration of psychology and Christianity. I won’t go into all of the various approaches here, but reading Nouwen reminds me of what we refer to as “personal integration,” which involves attending to your spiritual life as one aspect of what it means to bring your faith as a Christian into a meaningful dialogue with the field of psychology.
Personal integration rests on the foundation that your spiritual life and corresponding experience of vocation is a journey. Your walk with God orients you to everything else. Let me encourage you to take the next practical steps to attend to spirituality, to invite God into it, to ask God to help you set aside the time to cultivate your walk, to be increasingly aware of your journey.