I wanted to be encouraged by the chapters on gay and transgender issues in Sean McDowell’s A New Kind of Apologist (Harvest House, 2016) in which McDowell acted in the role as editor over 27 authors with “a new approach to apologetics.” (Apologetics is reasoned arguments used to establish and defend the Christian faith.)
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I have personally met and spoken with McDowell and two of the contributors to his book whose chapters I will be discussing here: Alan Shlemon, author of the “Transgender: Truth and Compassion” chapter, and Glenn Stanton, author of the “Being Authentically Christian on the LGBT Issue” chapter.
I had hoped each of these three men would indeed reject the myth-filled rhetoric on LGBT issues inside the evangelical bubble and instead address their respective topics well, as McDowell tells the readers the “new apologist” must. Along with being humble, relational, and living out their advice to readers, McDowell informs us, the new apologist must also be “studious.”
“Studious” as defined by McDowell:
“Apologists today must do their homework. We must critically examine our arguments and read both sides of every issue. We must know what we are talking about and do proper research to backup our claims.
This younger generation has been raised with endless information in the palm of their hands, and they frequently check the veracity of what they hear. If we make a claim that is not true, our credibility will go out the window. Apologists today must do the hard work of learning a discipline and presenting the truth fairly and accurately.”
Well, that sounds quite encouraging, doesn’t it? But I do not think fact-checking is a “younger generation” thing. I am about to turn 60 and began seeking answers for myself when I entered into a friendship with a fellow hiker who is a lesbian.
I regularly bemoan the fact that many conservative Christians lack a wide range of expert input in their commentaries on human sexuality or gender identity, and I am dismayed at how often they fail to make good use of academic sources when doing their research to construct theological stances on the intersection of faith with these topics.
Having met McDowell, Shlemon, and Stanton, I trusted their writings might indeed lean generously toward the “truth and compassion” (to borrow Shlemon’s phrase) that so many of their contemporary current evangelicals are coming to understand is necessary in engaging in LGBT issues.
I was encouraged to read McDowell say that “truth,” especially for the new apologist, seeks to find a balance of both an accurate translation of Scripture and well-researched science and academics.
Sadly, that is not what I found.
Alan Shlemon’s Chapter on Transgender Issues
First, I met Alan Shlemon when he and McDowell attended the 2014 conference hosted by The Reformation
Project (TRP) in DC. I applaud McDowell and Shlemon for coming to the conference. I know how potentially uncomfortable it might be to go amongst the “other side.” I had attended the 2014 conference hosted by the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberties Commission (ERLC). Just as was the case for McDowell and Shlemon, I was likewise welcomed at ERLC. On the opening night of TRP, McDowell, Shlemon, and I shared a long, delightful conversation, and for the two follow-up days, I was the facilitator for a group of about 30 people, including Shlemon.
I had hoped attending TRP could become be a catalyst for Shlemon’s information on, relationships with, and compassion and empathy toward LGBT Christians. But none of this is reflected in his chapter.
Unfortunately, “Transgender: Truth and Compassion” is appalling and will only add to the misinformation about transgender people, including transgender Christians, increasing their pain and furthering rejection of them by some of their Christian communities, which will only make the disconnect between them and the wider Christian community stronger.
When I first read the chapter, I challenged Shlemon on Twitter about his dishonest tackling of this topic by using only two academic studies: one discussing male birth defects, and the other a study on sex reassignment from 1977 (published in 1979). I also challenged Shlemon for quoting the work of a highly disregarded doctor in the sex reassignment field while ignoring the testimony of transgender Christians themselves. Shlemon called on me to “retract the charge” of dishonesty.
However, I have no intention of letting Shlemon’s sloppy work stand uncontested; therefore, I will detail some of the more egregious errors in his chapter.
“Transgender: Truth and Compassion” opens with a challenge to the reader: If a transman (born a biological
female and transitioned to a man) were to introduce himself with a male-gendered name, should the reader call him by his male-gendered name?
Let’s get this clear from the onset: Gender identity is what a person self-identifies as, not what others choose to call that person, or how others see that person.
If the “new apologist” is indeed one who is relational, he/she should know it is the height of disrespectful treatment toward transgender people to call them by a name or gender they do not identify as.
When I changed my name from Kathy Verbiest to Kathy Baldock, no one argued or insisted they had only known me as Verbiest for almost three decades, and therefore it was uncomfortable for them to use my new name. My name change was my choice, and without exception, people respected my desire. Calling transgender people by their chosen name is a sign of respect, and relationally, it is a smart move.
Shlemon continues by attempting to build a case that gender should be fixed to biological sex. In an attempt to shine light on what he thinks is the absurdity of gender not matching anatomy, Shlemon mockingly quotes Simone de Beauvoir, “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” This citation deceptively suggests it was said in 2011.
Some background concerning de Beauvoir. She was an mid-1900s existential feminist, meaning she was concerned about the power of a woman to be able to determine her own destiny. The quote Shlemon cited is from a book (The Second Sex), written in 1949, almost a decade before the term “gender” as we now know it was ever used. De Beauvoir’s statement bemoans the fact that the destiny of women in society was predetermined by the dominant patriarchal structure and under social expectations. She did not like this outcome. She was writing about gender roles, not gender identity, a concept that was still about 50 years out on the horizon.
Shlemon certainly used the quote out of context and misused it.
One of the few stories Shlemon relates in his chapter is the well-publicized case of a Planet Fitness gym customer encountering a masculine-looking transwoman in the locker room. Planet Fitness corporate had a policy in place of allowing members to use the locker room associated with their gender identity. When a member encountered a masculine-looking transwoman, a complaint was filed. The complaining member subsequently had her membership revoked. She sued.
Incidentally, the suit brought by Yvette Cormier, the woman whose membership was revoked, has since been dismissed. The judge in the case found the gym’s policy on transgender members allowable, and further noted Cormier’s behavior in her aggressive warning of other members. The court also dismissed Cormier’s request for emotional damages of $25,000. After all, the transwoman simply went into the locker room in her baggy tee shirt and leggings and hung up her purse before going to work out.
Shlemon predictably used the scary-man-in-the-ladies-bathroom trope, which is sadly all too frequently employed to marginalize the trans community. Absent in the chapter is any story representative of 1.5 million Americans who are only trying to live, survive, thrive, pee, and change their clothes, just like the rest of us.
Next the focus shifts to Christians who “face another great challenge. The culture thinks they’re backward-
thinking on moral issues, bigoted about homosexuality, and probably biased against transgender people.”
Shlemon adds, “Apologists need to be savvy enough to know the truth revealed in Scripture (special revelation) and in science (general revelation). Both sources of knowledge come from God and, as a result, conform to each other.” If you want the culture to move from labeling conservative Christians as bigoted and biased, an excellent antidote might be education about and relationship with LGBT people. Perhaps then the constant stream of harmful and dishonest statements, ideology, and theology about gay and transgender people might be stemmed.
Back to gender roles—Shlemon tells readers there is “biblical grounding for the gender roles we intuitively know to be true.” We often forget that the Bible was written within the context of a time dominated by extreme patriarchy. It was even shameful for a man to carry a jug of water. That simple task was considered “women’s work.”
Ancient gender roles are just that—ancient. I do not live in their confinement. I know I am fully equal to a man in the roles and tasks I am gifted to do. I like science. I like to fix things. I have an engineering degree. Those are intuitive to me and not restricted and hampered by biblical dictums about gender roles.
Shlemon writes that, from the beginning, God has followed a pattern of separating in creation—heaven and earth, day and night, male and female. Yes, but that is simplistic, as we clearly see. He also created dawn and evening, fishes that live in sea and land, and intersex people.
Shlemon does make a casual nod to those who are intersex. He writes that intersex people are those with “malformed or sexually ambiguous genitals.” Actually, external genitals and internal reproductive systems and sex markers on the 23rd pair of chromosomes indicate sex. So being intersex is far more complicated than the presence of ambiguous genitals. There are 31 known conditions of intersex, and most of them are not visible to the eye.
The section on complementarity is sloppy. Shlemon says complementarity (a concept echoing the way of reading of Scripture called complementarianism) is taught in Scripture. That is not true.
The word complementarian was coined in 1987 to stem biblical feminism, which had made its way from cultural feminism into the church. Women wanted to be pastors, leaders, and teachers. Patriarchy, during the height of cultural feminism, was becoming an offensive word. Complementarianism was created, and it codified patriarchy and gender hierarchy as biblical tenets. Same pig, new pearls.
Complementarity between the genders as a concept is used in three ways: the reuniting of the male Adam with woman Eve to recreate the whole original, or two genders coming uniquely together, or anatomical body parts fitting together.
No matter which variation of complementarianism you pick, you’d be hard pressed to find a Bible verse stating that it is required in marriage. So no, it is not true that “gender complementarity is explicitly taught in the Bible.” It is true that complementarianism is explicitly taught in conservative Christianity, and only since 1987.
Shlemon writes, “Anatomy is intended to denote gender identity.” Where is that in the Bible?
What do we do with Deborah from the Book of Judges? Was she really a man, or out of God’s will, or just being who God created her to be—a strong woman leader?
Anatomy may be in alignment with gender identity, and maybe not. When not in alignment, the person is transgender.
On to Shlemon’s idea that body parts fit together with the imperative to create a baby: Shlemon states as evidence that humans were made for heterosexual sex because “the sex organ is the only body part that requires another human being of the opposite sex (his italics) to fulfill its ultimate function.” That function being the creation of a baby.
But procreation is never stated in the Bible as a requirement of marriage. In fact, there are far more infertile and sterile heterosexual couples and people than there are gay people. Far more. Baby-making was essential to God’s plan to grow His tribe of children, the Israelite, in the Old Testament. In the New Testament, however, Jesus redefines how God expands His family: God’s family is expanded by spiritual growth (Mark 3:31-35).
Sex is also a sort of glue that hold couples in intimate relationship. Sex organs are used in same-sex relationships. After all, if men don’t fit sexually with men, and women don’t fit sexually with women, there seems to be a whole lot of satisfying sex going on regardless. After all, if the parts didn’t fit together, people wouldn’t be putting them together.
Next, Shlemon asks, “What is Transgender?”
He defines biological sex as a physical trait determined at conception, and gender identity as a non-physical trait that develops after birth. Well, that is not what the overwhelming body of medical and health care professionals assert. Though we do not yet fully understand the workings of the brain as it relates to gender, it is agreed that gender is established in the brain by about the fourth month in utero.
Shlemon supports his gender identity theories by citing the views of a highly discredited physician who once worked in the sex change field, Dr. Paul McHugh. McHugh, despite overwhelming disfavor amongst members of his profession and the transgender community, has become the go-to man for quotes used by those who disregard the medical, psychological, and social needs of transgender people. In his chapter, Shlemon doesn’t cite any academic sources from McHugh; he cites a blog post also lacking peer reviewed academic sources. A blog post is not of equivalence in credibility to peer reviewed academic studies. McHugh is not representative of consensus.
Shlemon reiterates that conservative thought holds that gender identity should follow biological sex. Incredulously, Shlemon follows with, “When gender identity matches biology, this results in heterosexuality.” Read that again. “When gender identity matches biology, this results in heterosexuality.”
Every human has a biological sex (male to female along a spectrum with intersex), a gender identity (self-identification from woman to man along a spectrum), a gender expression (how they present to the outside world from feminine to masculine along a spectrum), and a sexual orientation (from heterosexual to homosexual along a spectrum.)
So, following Shlemon’s reasoning, one who identifies as a woman (gender identity) and has a female sex (biology), must therefore be heterosexual. This is absolute nonsense, and lacks even rudimentary understanding of human sexuality.
Digging himself further into a hole of promoting junk science, Shlemon writes “a transgender, similar to a homosexual, has a female subconscious gender identity.” Ugh! The therapists of the early 1900s already cycled through this bad psychological model about what creates homosexuality on the way to eventually finding truth. Again, if today’s apologist seeks to be relevant to those who can can check their work and findings and easily research the truth, one should not attempt to pass off junk science or outdated ideology as truth.
Perpetuating outdated myths or using severely out-of-date studies to support one’s narrative is dishonest.
Shlemon does this. He uses a 2004 study of the effects of incorrect medical decisions and subsequent misgendering made on babies with male birth defects. The doctors thought it easier to make these babies into social females. The results, unsurprisingly, were disastrous. One would not know at the birth of a child if the child is transgender. This male birth defect study is misused to support Shlemon’s narrative.
Next, Shlemon, cites a 1977 (!) study in which he says the outcome shows “most (transgender people) still have the same emotional and psychological problems they had prior to the surgery.” (When the study was complete, it was read before a meeting of the American Psychiatric Association in 1977, and it was accepted for publication in 1978 before being published in 1979 in the journal Shlemon cites.)
Deceptively, Shlemon is only quoting one part of a final concluding sentence, which in full states, “Sex reassignment surgery confers no objective advantage in terms of social rehabilitation, although it remains subjectively satisfying to those who have rigorously pursued a trial period and who have undergone it” (reported on p. 1015 in Arch Gen Psychiatry Vol. 36, August 1979).
Social rehabilitation was used as the determination of successful transitioning. Social rehabilitation factors included: job, education, living arrangement stability, and marriage. Considering the study was conducted in the 1970s, Table 3 of the study shows improvement in most these categories for those who transition. Keep in mind that in the 1970s, transgender people were far less understood or culturally visible than today. It would be expected that social transition would have been less successful than transitioning now.
Transitioning today has dramatically improved due to hormonal and surgical advancements over the past four decades, and there have been increased cultural awareness and social acceptance of those who are transgender.
Rather than resorting to a 1977 study to represent how transgender people fare in transitioning, there are far more current studies on sex reassignment that show overwhelming satisfaction with surgery.
Using a severely out-of-date study from 1977 and misrepresenting the results is not acceptable academics and
should never be acceptable in a discussion and creation of Christian ethics or apologetics.
Finally, we come to the more pastoral, relational, and compassionate recommendations at end of the chapter. The author encourages readers to focus on establishing a relationship with a transgender person as a top priority over telling them “a transgender identity rejects a God-given identity.”
Considering the many distortions and untruths in the chapter to this point, one really must wonder how many transgender people Mr. Shlemon knows or consulted in writing his chapter.
Let’s look back at McDowell’s call for integrity in modern apologists in the introduction of the book: “If we make a claim that is not true, our credibility will go out the window. Apologists today must do the hard work of learning a discipline and presenting the truth fairly and accurately.”
Shlemon, in his own words, is a professional apologist. He tells the reader transgender people “are beguiled by a false belief” and “[f]ew people are willing to tell them the truth.” Shlemon, though, is not afraid to tell his version of truth.
As shown, Shlemon’s credibility on the issue of transgender identity is “out the window.” His chapter in A New Kind of Apologist is appalling.
Glenn Stanton’s chapter on LGBT issues
As a person, I very much like Glenn Stanton. I find him to be warm and compassionate and willing to listen. Still, we are at distant odds on many of his statements about homosexuality and about those who are gay.
Stanton opens his chapter “Being Authentically Christian on the LGBT Issue” by calling homosexuality a “sexual ethic completely contrary to what Christ taught.”
I have a far longer explanation of why this is an inaccurate statement. I deal with it over a span of ten chapters in my book Walking the Bridgeless Canyon. Simply put, the same-sex behavior we read about in the Bible is presented as man on boy sex, sexual excess, and/or lust, or in the case of Sodom, rape—basically, in those passages, we read about men doing whatever they wanted to do sexually with their bodies with whomever they wanted to do it with (women, boys, slaves, prostitutes or rape victims). We always see either an age or power differential between the men and the sex partner.
Two people of the same-sex, of equal social status, in mutually loving, consensual, monogamous relationships were not culturally visible until the early 20th century. Such attractions were not even noticed until the end of the 1800s, and then, only in small medical environments. Culturally, same sex, equal-status couples were more visible by about the 1920s.
The six passages of biblical texts referencing same-sex behavior were written to particular audiences in a particular context of time (14th century BC and 1st century AD).
No one in the 1st century could have understood the concept of same-sex relationships that would not culturally emerge out of stigma and shame for another 1900 years. Jesus, though certainly the Son of God, operated as a person within His culture and time. And He spoke as such to the people of His time. It would not be expected that He would have said anything, either for or against same-sex couples. Our next best thing to do is to apply the sexual ethics expected of heterosexual couples to homosexual couples. Marriage is covenantal, self-sacrificial and to be long-term and monogamous. Can same-sex couples operate within those terms? Of course they can.
Dismissing Christians in same-sex marriages or mutually exclusive relationships as “completely contrary to what Jesus taught” is to widely overreach the texts and with it, condemn an entire class of people, and tragically, our LGBT brothers and sisters in Christ.
Next, Stanton does strike a characteristically gracious tone when he calls fellow Christians to treat the LGBT community more kindly. Good. This is a necessary first step.
But then, like Shlemon, Stanton misses the mark on the call of the “new apologists” to studious integrity in his section entitled “Don’t Accept the ‘Born That Way’ Falsehood.”
Stanton’s rejection of a natural homosexual orientation is similar to Shlemon’s rejection of a transgender person’s self-understanding. Every professional medical and mental health care organization in the U.S. says that homosexuality is a normal variation of human sexuality. You cannot both reject this truth and state you are “do[ing] the hard work of learning a discipline and presenting the truth fairly and accurately.”
Stanton also falls into the trap of citing a convenient quote to support his narrative. He quotes Camille Paglia, who says, “No one is ‘born gay.’”
If you do the simple work finding out some information about Paglia, you will see that almost exclusively, the only people that quote this statement are conservative and/or anti-gay. Paglia is known for her blunt extremism. Her 1994 quote has had significant play because it supports the “not born gay” narrative.
I find this disingenuous to offer Paglia as the voice of lesbians, or gay people, or the medical community, or academia.
Conservatives need to stop using this 1994 quote by Paglia. They are the only ones who see value in her blunt, extremist falsehood.
Stanton somberly encourages conservative Christians to reject the “Jim Crow accusation.” He writes that he does not like that those who object to same-sex marriage being likened to those who objected to civil rights for African Americans. As uncomfortable as it may feel to be labeled as anti-civil rights, rejection of the opportunity for those who wish to enter into same-sex marriages is a rejection of civil rights. The Supreme Court of the United States already decided marriage equality is a civil right.
Stanton believes the effects of same-sex marriage “will not be small and should not be tolerated.” With such a statement and the desire to deny fellow Americans equal protection and equal rights, one might expect to be viewed as discriminatory. If one does not want to be seen as discriminatory, the resolution is simple—don’t discriminate and attempt to withhold equal rights from people groups in our democratic republic governed by the Constitution and interpreted by the Supreme Court.
Stanton also asserts that having a father and mother raise a child is “a universal social good.” If one is intent on this belief, the places to bring such research and testimony are in courts of law. Not only is no such proof about same-sex parents being detrimental to family and children cited in Stanton’s chapter, no such proof has been given in a court of law. While it is true that children fare best with two parents, those parents need not be opposite sex.
Stanton, like Shlemon, does not seem to acknowledge the existence of gay Christians in his chapter. The gay people he refers to are not Christians. The group he focuses on need “the hope and transformation of Jesus.”
To include gay Christians would mess up the chapter narrative. I know Mr. Stanton has interacted at length with many gay Christians and would challenge him to, with integrity, deny that these people are indeed gay from birth and that they are Christians who place their faith and eternity in Jesus Christ.
I am not impressed with these “new apologists.”
They seem less acerbic in tone than their siblings of the 1980s to the early 2000s, but they need to come to a more authentic translation and understanding of the truth of Scripture (not merely convenient sloppy interpretation), truth from science and experts in medical and human sexuality fields, and truth from the verbal and visible witness so clear in the lives of millions of LGBT Christians.
Truth and compassion. I read that combination consistently from this new breed of often younger evangelicals and religious conservatives. It is a nice aspiration, but it’s hard to extend authentic compassion when it is packaged in a “truth” so deeply flawed.
I am utterly disgusted with the lack of academic, relational, pastoral, and biblical integrity religious conservatives have used to construct an ideology wrapped up in misused Scriptures. I am also appalled that this ideology, often unintentionally, is used as a destructive weapon pushing LGBT people and those who love and support them from God.
These leaders, theologians, pastors, authors, and apologists often rob LGBT people of richness, health, and spiritual growth in their physical lives, but even worse, they all too often rob LGBT people of the hope of eternal life.
When I see such misuses and distortions posing as truth, I will continue to speak up. Yes, and sometimes in very long posts and reviews. I intend to expose the lies and misrepresentations and shame the authors in the hope that they research, think, do relationship, and seek the Spirit before they continue damaging LGBT people.
I encourage others to do so as well. Only then can we recenter our theology and ethics on truth, compassion, and grace, but this time, the authentic variety of truth, compassion, and grace.
(I did not read the rest of A New Kind of Apologist. In the chapters on topics of interest to me that I did read, too many claims were made that were not true. The credibility level of this book went “out the window.”)