In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Lia Thomas recently became the first transgender athlete to win an NCAA Division I title: first place in the women’s 500-yard freestyle. Public response is sharply divided; issues of fairness, equity, personal freedom and self-expression are hotly debated on social media platforms. Many of the positions are expressed with great vitriol: attacks and not arguments at all. Such is unbecoming of a Christian. Jesus commanded us — not suggested to us — to love; I do not recall that he had much, if anything at all, to say about fairness or equity or self-expression.
I think about the issue of transgenderism not as a sociologist and certainly not as a psychologist. I am a Christian — an Anglican priest — and a rather ordinary one at that. I do not think that transgenderism is as much a problem as it is a symptom of a much more deadly disease that has infected our culture: delusion. For those who want a description of that disease, you can find no better than St. Paul’s letter to the Romans (Rom 1:16-32). Our cultural “mind” has become darkened regarding some fundamental truths, not least regarding human anthropology and personhood. I labor under no false illusion that I will dispel any of that cultural darkness. Instead, I write for Christians who are struggling to understand and articulate the Christian perspective on this issue. I write to promulgate both Christian truth — which is simply truth itself — with compassion.
It is important to be right about these matters, but it is equally important to be right in the right way — the way of loving our neighbors as ourselves, a way which requires speaking the truth in love. This is an argument not merely about orthodoxy, but about human flourishing under God. It is neither solely academic nor irrelevant to “real people.” The issue is not simply right doctrine and instruction, but also right pastoral care for confused and hurting people and for those who know and love them. These are difficult and costly truths that partake fully of Jesus’ commandment to take up the cross daily. But they also share in his promise that his yoke is easy and his burden is light — at least easier and lighter than the yoke of falsehood and the burden of sin. We are — all of us — called to follow in the way of the cross, and we are — all of us — promised that we will find it none other than the way of life and peace.
Engaging this issue requires much prayer and prudential discernment in conversation with the Church. It requires much listening to people’s stories and to the Holy Spirit. It requires much humility.
O God, by whom the meek are guided in judgment, and light rises up in darkness for the godly: Grant us, in all our doubts and uncertainties, the grace to ask what you would have us do, that the Spirit of wisdom may save us from all false choices; that in your light we may see light, and in your straight path we may not stumble; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Genesis 2:7 (ESV): 7 then the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature.
In speaking of those who experience gender dysphoria or who are transgendered, we are speaking of persons. I say this not primarily to evoke empathy or compassion — though both are expected of Christians — but rather to express a theological conviction about personhood. A person is a unique, particularized expression of our common human nature. So, because we are always necessarily dealing with persons, Christian anthropology is the essential context for any meaningful discussion of these issues.
To understand the importance of an anthropological context, one need only consider a recent commercial by the pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly (https://youtu.be/DZjcLJWg5zo, accessed 6/9/2021). Midway in the commercial the narrator says, “the body you are randomly assigned at birth shouldn’t determine how you are cared for.” In the midst of this hopelessly muddled statement, one notion is particularly germane: that there exists a “you” somehow independent of the physical body, a “you” which is randomly, and thus arbitrarily, assigned to a body. This expresses a heretical, Gnostic notion: that the real “you” is merely housed — or imprisoned — in a physical body, i.e., that there exists a distinction or dichotomy between being and body. The Gnostics hoped to escape the bodily prison; some today hope to renovate the prison to make it more homely. Either approach represents a fundamental misunderstanding of personhood.
This misunderstanding of personhood serves implicitly as the foundation for cultural acceptance of transgenderism. If being is independent of embodiment — as is wrongly asserted — and if the body is merely the randomly assigned container for the self — the real you — then assignment error is possible, and it becomes quite reasonable to conform one’s body to one’s true being to alleviate gender dysphoria. It is only such being-body distinction/dichotomy that gives any meaning or imperative to such a confused statement as, “I feel that I am a man trapped in a woman’s body.” It assumes there is a noncorporeal, gendered I — Eli Lilly’s “you” — who finds itself assigned to a body of opposite gender, so that one’s true gender is determined by the “I” and not by the body. Of course, for a naturalist “I” need have no spiritual connotation; it may refer only to self-awareness. No matter: in this erroneous anthropology the “I” is still in some real sense distinguished from the body, and it — not the body — determines gender.
But, Christian anthropology offers a different understanding of personhood. A person is the unique instantiation of human nature in a body; a person is the essential unity of rational soul and physical body. This precludes any notion of the random assignment — and thus any erroneous assignment — of the real you to a body. The real you — the person — is precisely the unity of soul and body, neither independent of the other. There is no true, full human being apart from the body. I am not assigned to or contained in this body; I am this body in its union with this soul.
So, personhood assumes the givenness of the body, i.e., the body as a defining characteristic of the person. Thus, a person with a male body, for example, is a male person. There is no female being — nor female self-awareness — erroneously residing in that male body. The union of soul and body that defines the person as person also defines the person as male through the biology of the body. Any attempt to fundamentally alter that body — chemically or surgically — or to conclude and act as if that body is in error is an assault upon the person. Such attempts do not make the person more female, but rather less authentically male; they do not enhance, but rather damage the person.
The body is never denigrated in Christian anthropology; rather, it is elevated, as St. Paul writes:
1 Corinthians 6:19–20 (ESV): 19 Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, 20 for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.
This truth refutes another foundational assumption of transgenderism, and indeed of postmodern philosophy: the autonomous self and the absolute freedom to create — or re-create — that self. To the contrary, one’s person is not one’s own but instead belongs to God. The proper response is not to disfigure the body, but to glorify God in and through the body.
Mind and Body
A person is the essential union of soul and body. It is to the soul — and the mind — that we now turn.
The soul is that noncorporeal aspect of a person responsible for biological life itself, e.g., metabolism, growth, reproduction; for affective response, e.g., perceptions of pain or pleasure, imagination, desire, emotion, will; and for the exercise of reason, e.g., rational thought, language, choice/decision. The highest capacity of the soul, νους (nous), denotes the human capacity to know God directly — not mediated by other capacities of the soul — as person-to-person. The nous is also the aspect of the soul that, when healthy and acting under the power of grace, rightly orders all other powers of the soul. A renewed nous rightly governs the soul; an ordered soul rightly governs the body. Nous is often rendered as “mind” in English translations of Scripture, as in this text from Romans 12:
Romans 12:1–2 (ESV): 1 I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 2 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind [nous], that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.
Paul instructs us — by the mercies of God — to present our bodies to God and to be transformed by the renewal of our minds. This applies always and to all, but it perhaps has special significance in the present context. Those experiencing gender dysphoria are to present their bodies — their bodies as they are — to God as living sacrifices. That is the holy response, the action well-pleasing to God. But it is also a very real sacrifice, an offering up of all lesser functions of the soul: desire, emotion, will, pleasure and pain. It is a sacrifice that is made possible by the renewal of the mind (nous) which then orders the soul toward discernment and obedience. In the Christian Tradition, our minds are changed, and our bodies are presented. To the contrary, in transgenderism, the mind is confirmed in its (erroneous) self-assessment, and the body is changed to conform to the mind. That, too, is a sacrifice — a costly sacrifice of true personhood — but not one that promotes human flourishing and not one that is well-pleasing to God.
If presenting our bodies to God — as they are — is a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, then what of refusing to do so? What of altering and defacing those bodies? Such action refuses an acceptable sacrifice and offers a blemished sacrifice instead. Such action misses the mark of that which is well-pleasing to God and so constitutes sin. To radically alter the given sex of one’s body either chemically or surgically or to deny one’s biological gender in word or action is a sin against one’s person and thus against God who created the person.
In our naming of transgenderism as sin, St. Paul’s commentary on the archetypal first sin of Eve offers helpful insight:
2 Corinthians 11:3 (ESV): 3 But I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ.
Eve sinned under the deception of the serpent. And the deception was, in part, an issue of identity.
Genesis 3:4–5 (ESV): 4 But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. 5 For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.
The serpent stirred up in Eve an identity dysphoria: a creature longing to be Creator, a human longing to be like God. Eve was deceived and enticed into sin.
In a similar way, our culture acts as an agent of deception by stirring up and exacerbating gender dysphoria. And, it falsely offers the opportunity for a creature to become Creator through an act of self-creation, the determination of one’s own identity/gender. Just as Eve was a victim of the serpent’s deception and sinned, so too the transgendered person is a victim of cultural deception and sins. It seems important to recognize that, in dealing with transgendered persons, we are dealing with those under delusion. Mercy, pastoral care, and godly counsel — and not judgment — are the proper responses to such persons.
HELP AND HOPE
The Church must not add to the burden of the particular cross of gender dysphoria or transgenderism, but rather must offer Christian help and hope in the carrying of that cross: help in the form of Christian community and koinonia, and hope in the final restoration of all things. Here the whole of Romans 8 is instructive, but this portion speaks powerfully to the real burden that fallen and redeemed persons bear and to the hope that enables us to do so:
Romans 8:18–25 (ESV): 18 For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. 19 For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. 20 For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22 For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. 23 And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
We, all of us, share in the groaning of creation under the burden of sin, in the recognition that all is not as it should be. But we, all of us, also share in the hope that all is not as it yet will be when there is a new heaven and a new earth, when the holy city, new Jerusalem, descends from heaven, when the dwelling place of God is with man, when all sorrow and pain — all the former things — shall be no more (cf Rev 21:1 ff). Such hope is essential to the proclamation of good news and to the pastoral care of those struggling in the present with issues of identity.
Transgenderism presents a real and growing challenge to the Church, not just in its potential to lead people astray, but also in its difficult call to balance compassion and truth, i.e., in its challenge to speak the truth in love. Truth, rightly understood and rightly spoken, always promotes human flourishing even in its call to bear the cross. What is the truth that we must speak?
God loves those who are confused about gender, no less than he loves those who do not struggle in this way.
Contrary to prevailing cultural norms, transgenderism does not promote freedom, but bondage. It does not lead to human flourishing, but to human diminishment.
While unrepentant transgenderism is sin, it is most often a sin of delusion. It is not unforgivable. While it is different in kind, there is no reason to believe it is different in degree from such sins as pride, envy, anger, sloth, avarice, gluttony, and lust. Perhaps the greatest difference in these sins is that noted by St. Paul:
1 Timothy 5:24 (ESV): 24 The sins of some people are conspicuous, going before them to judgment, but the sins of others appear later.
Transgenderism is perhaps conspicuous in a way that pride is not. That does not make it more serious.
The Church welcomes into its fellowship those bearing the cross of gender dysphoria and those transgendered persons engaged in repentance and amendment of life.
There is hope, and hope does not fail.
God’s grace is sufficient — and abundant — for us all.
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit;
as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.