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.