How I Would Explain a Christian View of Transgenderism to a Non-Christian
We all know deeply held beliefs can be wrong. The question is which ones.
This was originally published in March as a subscriber-only post. For the first day of LGBT pride month, I’ve decided to republish it free to all.
Let’s begin with the observable facts of anatomy. Males have different reproductive organs than females. More than that, the reproductive organs of males appear to be designed to fit together with those of females. If you took a class on safe sex in high school, your teacher (or book, or video, or whatever) almost certainly assumed that female reproductive organs had to be treated differently than male ones. Thus, every boy in that class was expected to know how to put on a condom, and every girl in that class was expected to know what the birth control pill does. I doubt there was much confusion in the class over why girls weren’t expected to practice with condoms on themselves or the boys weren’t asking questions about the pill.
Now of course, this doesn’t prove that all the biological males in the class experienced male gender identity, or that the biological girls experienced the opposite. But the point is simply that sex education depends on a meaningful distinction between maleness and femaleness, and that this distinction is a given one, not simply an artifact of culture. No one was brainwashed into thinking they have the physical parts between their legs that they can plainly see. Boys see their boy parts, and girls see their girl parts, and from the moment boys and girls are born other people relate to them not simply as generic humans but as boys or girls, mostly because of these observable human parts.
Christianity begins with the teaching that God created a man and a woman, Adam and Eve. When Adam saw Eve for the first time, he was so excited that he broke out into song. Christians take “Bone of my bone, and flesh of my flesh” to mean that Eve was like Adam, yet unlike him. She was a human being, but she “completed” him in a very real way. In fact, in Genesis, we are told plainly how this completion was immediately expressed: through sex. “The man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed.” Adam and Eve’s natures as like yet unlike demanded sexual union. So in the Christian religion, men and women were created by God with bodies that are like yet unlike, and the expression of this mysterious, complementary creation is sexual union. There is no sex without bodies, and there are no bodies without maleness and femaleness.
Now here is where many critics of Christianity argue that this doctrine simply fails to describe the lived reality of many people. What about the intersex? What about those with gender dysphoria? What about those who say they know they are a different gender than their biological sex?
Two answers are in order here. First, while the existence of intersexed persons and persons with gender dysphoria is often treated like a golden gun against the Christian position, this is a gross oversimplification of what usually happens with these folks. We have research that suggests more than 90% of teens diagnosed with gender dysphoria will eventually grow out of it. Gender dysphoria should be understood as a psychological malady, not as a kind of person.
Second, the Christian position certainly anticipates the possibility of feeling alienated from one’s body. Christians believe that Adam disobeyed God and introduced sin into the world. Sin corrupted the Adam’s relationship with God, with Eve, with the earth, and even with himself. Adam and Eve’s recognition that they were naked and now ashamed is a sign of profound alienation between Adam and Eve and their bodies. Before sin, they accepted themselves and each other and rejoiced without shame. After sin, they cover their bodies and hide their persons from God.
Our broken, sinful world facilitates the deepest kind of frustration and shame toward our own bodies. They don’t do what we wish they would do, and they do what we wish they wouldn’t. I have heard older people talk about their aging bodies in a way that reminded me of the way we talk about gender dysphoria: a maddening, often heartbreaking inability to connect the will of the spirit to the abilities of the body. This splinter between our inner self and our outer self is not, Christians believe, a sign that we really are not the person our bodies tell us we are. It is a sign that our bodily life is in this world is one of futility, and that what we really need is a radical restoration and transformation of our entire selves.
There are two lingering problems yet to solve. First, at the end of the day this sure sounds like I’m merely pitting religious dogma against someone’s story and identity. Why should anyone believe the former instead of the latter? Second, even if perhaps there is no hard, objective scientific fact that can make biological men actually women, why should anyone care to police other people’s felt needs and decisions in life? Why not live and let live?
The answer to the first objection is that, of course, at the end of the day it really is about which side of the story you believe. By picking the Christian story you will admittedly be saying that many people’s heartfelt beliefs about themselves are mistaken in a very serious way. But I don’t think this is as radical and anti-social as you might think. We make such sweeping judgments all the time, and many of them are necessary to make any kind of progress in the area of justice or equality. For example, many racists genuinely believe in their hearts that the targets of their racism are inferior and unworthy. They believe themselves to be racially superior. This can be a very, very deeply held belief, but nevertheless we don’t think twice about telling the person holding it that, although they may feel this way, they are wrong. Dictating to their consciences is not an assault on their personhood, it’s simply a defense of truth.
Of course, many people would find this comparison extremely offensive. My point is not that racists and transgendered people are the same. My point is that it’s always been acceptable to correct people’s deeply held beliefs and sense of identity if in fact those beliefs are wrong. Christians have good reason to believe that transgenderism is wrong. Not everyone agrees, and that’s why we need civility and compassion and tolerance for each other. But we also need to be consistent. If “you can’t tell a person what they feel in their heart is wrong” is a good objection to critics of transgenderism, then it should also be a good objection to critics of Donald Trump, or the Republican Party, exploitative billionaires, etc.
What about the second objection—that we should just live and let live? Here is where the Christian message really becomes relevant. Christians don’t merely believe that the story of the gospel is one possibility among many. Christians believe that there really is a God, that he really did create Adam and Eve and everything else, and that God designed human beings with an incredibly dignified nature and a massively important job: to be image-bearers of God throughout the whole earth. The question of gender identity hits close to the heart of what it means to be an image-bearer. Why? Because it is not merely “mankind” that’s in the image of God. It is men and women together. “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created them. Male and female he created them.” Maleness and femaleness are not trivial details attached to image-bearers. They are intrinsic to what it means to be an image-bearer.
This is why Jesus Christ came. Christians believe that the Son of God was incarnated as a human male. He was also born of a woman. In his life, Jesus experienced gendered embodiment as human being made in the image of God. But he also accomplished a redemption for men and women. The Bible says that Jesus’s work of salvation created for God sons and daughters. Where the first Adam failed, Jesus, the second Adam, and second representative of humanity, succeeded. Jesus won for human beings who trust in him a destiny of renewed bodies and eternal brotherhood and sisterhood.
Christians believe that human flourishing occurs when people become and do what God created them to become and do. Therefore, there’s no “live and let live” to speak of. To miss God’s design is to not live as God intended. It’s to sell ourselves short, to make for us lives and identities and destinies that are far, far poorer than what God intends. That’s why Christians talk about this stuff: because the good life really is possible.