God and the Transgender Debate–What Does the Bible Actually Say About Gender Identity?
“God and the Transgender Debate–What Does the Bible Actually Say About Gender Identity?” authored by Andrew T. Walker, Director of Policy Studies with the Ethics and Religious Liberties Commission (ERLC) of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), has been positioned as a book that will help readers “learn more, (and) love better” (p 16) as he takes “a careful look at what the Bible really says about gender identity.” (p15)
Settle in for one of my epic reviews. I will be challenging the author’s premises and conclusions in three sections.
Walker begins his book, “At its heart, this debate isn’t about a debate. It’s about people; precious people made in the image of God who are hurting.” (p 14)
In light of the “transgender revolution” that is “flipping over the table of centuries-old norms,” (p15) Walker wrote the book for busy people “who want to consider what the Bible says about transgenderism.” (p 16)
Because transgenderism is “The most fashionable social-justice issue of our day,” (p 20) Walker believes “it’s important that God’s voice is heard in this debate.” (p 16) Further, Walker promises to tell his readers “what Jesus says to those who experience gender dysphoria or who identify as transgender.” (p 17)
Should we use a literal reading of Genesis 1 to inform us about human sexuality in general, and gender roles in particular?
In 1982, the SBC published a Resolution on Scientific Creationism which has been marginally clarified publically by Mohler. The resolution states that evolution is not a scientific fact, but goes no further in establishing denominational uniformity in belief of old earth creation (OEC) (dating the earth as much as billions of years old with the creation of Adam and Eve around 12,000 years ago), or young earth creation (YEC) (God spoke the world and creation into existence between 6,000 and 50,000 years ago). I’ll include both OEC and YEC views in my challenge of Walker’s view of “God’s blueprint.”
SBC holds firmly to a story with the creation order depicted in Genesis 1. (Genesis 2 has a different order of creation than Genesis 1. In Genesis 2, the order is man, plants, animals then woman, rather than plants, animals, and man and woman depicted in Genesis 1.)
For this purpose of this review, the order doesn’t really matter. But, for the emphasis widely placed on the creation story as a “blueprint” and to be taken literally, I would expect such a “blueprint” set by God to be the same in both chapters.
Haven’t you ever wondered how day and night came to be without the sun, moon and the stars? Have you considered that the creation in Genesis should not be read and understood literally? Perhaps it is an account of how ancient peoples understood the natural world?
Such considerations however would be contrary to SBC’s view of Scripture as “without any mix of error.” Christians, it seems, are forced to choose between two alternatives — either choose faith and literal reading of the Bible in intellectual exile, or be intellectually curious and honest and abandon your faith.
A majority of those with religious affiliations, and a majority of mainline Protestants and Catholics do not read the traditional creation story literally. For them, the tandem of Scripture and science is the most logical and compelling approach to understand the beginnings of humankind. Inherent in honoring science and other earth sciences with Scripture, a strict view “God’s blueprint,” such as the one espoused by Walker and the SBC, supportive of the dominant/submissive complementary structure of male and female relationships and gender binaries begins to crumble.
Staying within the belief structure of the SBC and the author and using a literal reading of Genesis 1, let’s see if their interpretation can be accurately used as a “blueprint” for human sexuality and gender.
In both OEC and YEC, it is agreed that Adam and Eve would have been placed in/created in the garden no sooner than 6,000 years ago. This leaves little time for complex societies to develop, as archeologists indicate that about 5,000 years ago, the first kingdoms started popping up, and along with them, a crude form of writing and a way of keeping records was developed. The first records were more administrative in nature, along the lines of — how many wives, sheep, bushels of barley and olive trees does Kushim have? Drama, storytelling, and poetry eventually came along as languages and writing developed.
In line with the evangelical view that Moses wrote Genesis 1 and most of the Torah, this would have occurred about 3,400 years ago, which is at least 2,600 years after the events of the creation story (or at least 3,000 years after the events if we accept the archeological biblical scholar view that Hebrew did not become a written language until less than 3,000 years ago.)
Things get a bit more dodgy when we begin to wonder which god talked to Adam and Eve and which god was the Yahwist/Moses listening to? It is clear with careful reading of the texts, we know the people of God were polytheistic. God’s people did not become monotheistic for about another four centuries ( Deuteronomy).
Science, in particular archeology and anthropology, substantially challenges the timeline of a young earth 6,000 year old creation story.
According to science, modern humans began living in permanent villages eat the time of the agricultural revolution, about 12,000 years ago. This is the most likely timeframe for a creation story. This means another nine thousand years passed until Genesis was written down. During seven thousand of those years, there was no ability to make written accounts. Seven thousand years of accurate “blueprint” telling is hard to imagine.
Walker cautions his readers to make sure their understanding of gender and human sexuality is centered in a literal interpretation of Genesis 1. He cautions, “The Christian worldview is where we locate authority, knowledge and trustworthiness.” (p 45) Walker evaluates a person’s spiritual integrity and worthiness of their worldview based on affirming “do I hold the Bible as my spiritual authority?”
Unfortunately, literal reading of the creation story and the Bible is the barometer by which they measure one’s spiritual integrity and authority under which they live. If one does not adhere to the creation story, and “blueprint” for human sexuality and gender depicted in Genesis 1, then we are judged as not spiritually centered in God.
Obviously, I don’t agree. Incorporating Scripture and science does not diminish my respect for and submission to God’s authority. I can both value the creation story as a different style and intention in writing than say, the New Testament letters and gospels.
I remain safe from a threatened slippery slope toward unbelief in Jesus while using my intellect alongside the Genesis 1 texts to establish a more realistic yet still God-honoring view of human sexuality and gender identity that also is reflective of what I witness in people before me with whom I have relationship.
Knowledge of human sexuality and biology are quite new and was certainly unknown to biblical writers.
I find it shortsighted that Walker believes he understands and knows “God’s blueprint” for marriage, human sexuality and gender identity based on literal reading and interpretation of Genesis 1. Our God is capable of creation far beyond our imaginings and limitations.
A challenge to Walker’s reasons the “transgender revolution” has happened, and a brief look at the history of understanding transgenderism in the culture and in medicine
Beginning in Chapter 2, Walker, via telling the story of Caitlyn Jenner (without using female pronouns), explains how “gender identity became the most fashionable social-justice issue of our day.” He asks then answers “how did we get here?” (p 21)
Walker posits on the “many streams (that) flow into the transgender debate” (p 21) and have caused the “transgender revolution.”
Included in his list is relativism, a belief that truth and meaning are relative, and not absolute. Of course, the “right” way to think about gender agrees with “God’s blueprint” laid out in Genesis 1. Understanding human sexuality and gender outside the literal reading of Genesis 1 is therefore cultural, anti-Bible and has fallen into relativism.
Next, Walker rightly states that we are in a post-Christendom period in the West. Christianity as the prime worldview has declined.
Next, there is radical individualism which “flows downstream from relativism” (p 23) and allows people to decide what is right or wrong, moral or immoral.
Walker sees the sexual revolution as another contributing factor toward acceptance of trans people. He actually gets this right, in part. While Walker centers on the impact of the birth control pill which “sever(ed) the connection between sex and procreation” (p 25), more widely, feminism brought additional freedom in reproductive rights and decisions, along with a slew of social, employment, academic, economic, and marital options.
Patriarchal structures (social and sexual male dominance) had been solidly entrenched since the agricultural revolution — 12,000 years past. Within that structure, strict binary lines between male and female roles and limitations existed. Feminism, or the sexual revolution, vigorously challenged patriarchy.
Another contribution to the “transgender revolution” Walker says is Gnosticism. This ideology connecting gnosticism to transgender people has been floating around in conservative communities for about a decade. Frankly, when you pick it apart, it makes no sense.
Gnosticism was a heretical movement in the second century that espoused the need for a special knowledge from God that released a person from their material earthly body seen to be evil. Gnosticism believed in a tension between evil body and good spirit.
Calling transpeople Gnostic, according to the 2nd century model, assumes those who are transgender see their spirit (soul, psyche, inner sense of gender) as pure, but their material bodies as evil. Second century Gnostics kept the two realms (good spirit and evil body) apart so that they might greater spiritual and emotional well-being.
It is actually quite the opposite for transgender people. When they do transition and align gender (spirit/soul) and biological sex (body), they feel more integrated, not less.
Though Walker states his book is not a medical or psychological study and that “Christians must never fail to obey all that God says about gender; but equally, Christians should never go beyond what he says” (p 56), Walker clearly goes way beyond what “God says.”
Walker strongly objects to hormonal therapy or sex reassignment surgery. “To misunderstand, blur, or reject the Creator’s categories for humanity doesn’t just put us in rebelling against the Creator and creation — it puts us at odds with how each of us was made.” (p 54) “The impulse to live out an identity at odds with our biological sex is to indulge fallen desires that our heart believes will bring peace.” (p 67)
With this thought, we see a frequently used excuse/default that helps account for anything falling outside the perfect picture “blueprint” of creation in Adam and Eve. Because transgenderism is not part of “God’s blueprint,” it came after “the fall.”
Intersex conditions also came “after the fall.” “Intersex conditions do not disprove the sexual binary,” Walker assures us “because they are a deviation from the binary norm, not the establishment of a new norm.” (p 158)
I sure would like to see a categorized list of what is good and what is bad that came “after the fall.” Intersex people are “after the fall.” Homosexuality is “after the fall.” But, then again, so are children and races.
In order to comply with “God’s blueprint,” after a transgender person becomes a believer in Jesus, or falls under the conviction of “God’s blueprint” teaching, he or she needs to revert back to the clothing of their biological sex, their old name or a gendered name in alignment with their biological sex, stop taking hormones, and, if they can, even surgically revert as closely as possible to original physiology of their biological sex (though “Personally, I (Walker) don’t think repentance demands this.”). (p 117)
Though “gender dysphoria is the cross that some are called to bear,” (p 113) and that “ . . . your life will be very, very hard” (p 109), Walker says transitioning will not bring happiness.
“(T)o strive to become different than or even the opposite of how God made us can never result in happiness, flourishing, and joy, whatever it promises.” (p 55) Hoping to convince the reader of this truth, Walker cites Dr. Paul McHugh, “one of the most esteemed psychiatrists of our time“ (p 75): “It is a little reported fact that people who undergo sex reassignment surgery do not, statistically, report higher levels of happiness after the surgery.” (p 67)
Even McHugh, an 85-year-old Johns Hopkins University psychologist who believes transgender medicine is a “craze,” admits his oft-cited opinions are not peer reviewed. In a completely dishonest manner, McHugh bases his ideology and ideas entirely on one particular 2011 study from the Karolinska Institute in Sweden. Using this study, McHugh claims that trans people had high rates of suicide years after undergoing surgery.
However, McHugh’s assertions do not reflect the findings of the author of the study, Cecilia Dhejne. Dhejne has repeatedly asked people (including McHugh) to stop misusing her research “to support ridiculous claims.” Dhejne has written articles and spoken at conferences about McHugh and others distorting her research.
These accusations of abuse, misrepresentation of data, and truth of Dhejne’s findings are easy to locate, yet, those on the conservative right, including Walker, continue to misrepresent Dhejne’s study to support their anti-trans narrative.
What is true, as stated by Dhejne and others, is that transgender people do benefit from transitioning. The typical result of transitioning is that most people flourish.
Maybe you are curious along with me as to why it is that our spiritual relationship with our spiritual God is limited or impeded by whatever state or status our physical body is in? After all, I don’t seek God with a penis or a vagina; I seek him with my soul and spirit.
Shockingly, Walker believes that “When someone rejects this blueprint (of Genesis 1), they are not merely rejecting a thousands-of-years-old text. They are rejecting Jesus.” (p 59)
Because our “God-given task in the world to be fruitful and multiply. (Gen. 1:28)” and “humanity’s design is tied to humanity’s mission. To bring more children into the world, and man and a woman need each other,” anatomical body parts fitting together and creating children is part of “God’s blueprint.” (p 57)
It is worth noting that “Be fruitful and multiply” is a blessing, not a command.
Walker writes, “Christianity doesn’t sever gender from sex, because according to the Bible, the unique ways that God made our bodies are tied to our gender roles.” (p 57) Again, biblical writers would have never linked social roles or gender to anatomical body parts. It’s just a silly statement.
Continuing on, Walker states, “We are made quite literally, to fit together.” (p 58) Yet, even in Christian marriages, sex is not just for baby-making; it is a pleasurable glue that enhances relationship.
People fit together in all kinds of ways for sexual pleasure. A 2010 Indiana University study defined forty ways in which people regularly engage in sexual practice. If you only know of one way of having sex, you’re not trying hard enough.
Well, there you have Walker’s list of “a confluence of powerful cultural influences” (p 26) including what he believes the Bible “actually says about gender identity,” and by default, what God, and even Jesus think about gender identity.
But, we progress, we learn, we advance socially, medically, scientifically and, more often than not, conservative denominations are “constantly playing catch-up in the culture.” (p 17)
Unsurprisingly, I have different insights as to why transgender people are more visible in our culture. A researched and accurate brief history follows.
A breakthrough in understanding human sexuality began in the late 19th century. Research and studies, geographically isolated and relatively small in number, began with Magnus Hirschfeld who founded the Scientific Humanitarian Committee in Germany in 1897, and the Institute for Sexual Science in 1919. Hirschfeld collected interviews from over thirty thousand people who operated outside male/female normative roles in orientation or gender identity (though they would not have used those terms). His research was wiped out in the Nazi burning of his institute and records.
Christine Jorgensen, an American GI turned female in 1952, was the first widely publicized transgender transition. Until this time period, synthetic hormones were not available. Also, trauma surgery skills learned in WWII allowed for surgical transitions to be successfully attempted and more accessible for people who felt that their biological sex was not in accordance with their internal sense of identity.
One of the early doctors working in gender reassignment, Dr. John Money, wanted terminology other than “sex roles” to distinguish erotic and genital sexual activities from typical male or female nonsexual activities. In 1955, he appropriated the word “gender” to distinguish social roles from sexual roles. This was the first time “gender” was used in this way. It also marked greater understanding that people may not be in biological sex and gender alignment. (The concept of gender would have never been considered by biblical writers and certainly not transmitted in stories, legends, and oral histories from over 6,000 years ago. To believe so is to participate in outrageous biblical reconstructionism.)
Groups and publications supportive of transgender people began along with some visibility in pop culture. Misunderstanding what “transgender” meant was rampant. In one of the top selling books of the sexual revolution, “Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid to Ask,” (1968) transgender (gender identity) and homosexuality (sexual orientation) are conflated. Though bodies of information were growing, it was still slow moving.
Beginning in 1966, transgender people began fighting back against legal oppression by police officers. In 1980, transgenderism was officially classified in the Diagnostics and Statistical Manual (DSM) as gender identity disorder. PFLAG added the Transgender Network in 2002 which supported parents with transchildren. Visibility of transpeople increased both in the culture and online on the internet. In 2013, the DSM recategorized those who are transgender with gender dysphoria to reflect their feelings of stress. Experts who work on brain science and chemistry say we are likely several decades away from understanding why 0.25 to 1.0% of the population is transgender.
Reflection upon Walker’s pastoral and relational suggestion for engaging with those who are transgender.
I commend that Walker intentionally tries be loving. If you listen to his speaking, he very much comes across with a gracious and compassionate tone. The problem with bad theology, worse ideology, and unsafe suggestions, even when they are spoken and written kindly, is that they are still destructive and untrue.
Walker makes several suggestions about how one might live out a loving attitude towards transgender people in their Christian lives.
He suggests, we are to view transgender people with dignity, and patiently treat them with empathy. We are to “take time and make the effort to listen and seek to understand,” (p 97) “to get to know people (and) bear their burdens.” (p 98) After establishing relationship, “the Bible says that love requires the truth” and we should “never assess (the truth) by the world’s response to our message of love.” (p 98)
Though Walker writes, “Humility dictates that we are willing to acknowledge we have been wrong,” (p 126) there is no space in Walker’s version of truth, where he considers that he may be wrong.
Despite the many suggestions Walker has for engaging transgender people and telling them God’s best for their lives, it appears rather questionable if Walker has actually ever engaged in relationship with a transperson himself. He uses created scenarios (except in one instance upcoming) for his examples. Readers may find that odd, but unfortunately, I find it typical.
Unfortunately, it appears that Walker and those in his camp forego relationship and education by transgender people right in front of them. Worse, they ignore the Christian transgender people in churches, the witness of their lives and stories, and they ignore professional medical input, while enshrining words from a far distant culture, interpreted to their own narrative to construct exclusionary doctrines.
Walker does write of a single incident where he met a transgender person. He successfully navigates the telling by never using gendered pronouns; he astutely defaults to the usage of “they” and “this person.”
Walker tells of a meeting when “some Christian friends were involved in a prolonged and emotionally fraught conversation with members of the LGBTQ community.” (p 103)
Interestingly, I too was in the room for that meeting that took place on the first night of the ERLC conference in 2014. As I recall, there were about eighteen men from the “SBC side” and ten members (half men, half women) “of the LGBTQ community.”
Reflective of the old tale of the blind men and the elephant, Walker and I have different views of that meeting. Allow me to accentuate the points I made in the first part of this (epic) review.
Both Walker and I follow God, believe in Jesus, have the ability to write down our thoughts and think clearly. Yet we each have different insights and views of this incident that happened only three years ago. How much more should we intellectually question the written “blueprint” account of Adam and Eve penned 2,600 after the event? I feel this is an important point, so I keep returning to it.
Of the ERLC meeting, Walker writes, “It looked like a set-up predisposed to conflict and civil war” where “in the back of everyone’s mind there was hope that people from both sides would change their minds.” (p 103) I did not see a civil war set up. I saw a room of people whose books, speeches, and sermons I had listened to, many of whom I had interacted with online, and now looked forward to meeting face-to-face. A room of chairs and couches with a table of brownies, cookies, soda and sweet tea that set a hospitable scene.
Earlier in the evening, the group I was a part of had reiterated our intention for the meeting that night — that the SBC leaders in the room might see that we too, despite our affirming and inclusive theology, possessed the spirit of Christ in us.
“At one point a transgender woman (a biological man who self-identifies as a woman) stood up and pleaded, with great emotion, that all they wanted was to be able to go to the bathroom without fear of abuse or mockery in the restroom that aligned with their new identity.” (p 104)
First, some insights about the woman Walker wrote about. Her name is Allyson Robinson. Allyson attended West Point before gender reassignment and graduated with a degree in physics before being commissioned as an officer in the Army. Also, before transitioning, she became an ordained Baptist minister earning an M.Div. from Baylor University. Allyson has worked for the Human Rights campaign, was the director of OutServe, and a pastor at Calvary Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. She has been married to her wife for twenty-three years and is the parent of four children.
I don’t believe most of the SBC people in the room knew who Allyson was, or that she was even transgender. When a theological question was asked of the whole group, Allyson responded as a follow up to Justin Lee’s response. The topic was not bathrooms.
Allyson spoke for about 7 or 8 minutes and then personalized the topic when she “outed” herself. I intentionally watched people to monitor their reactions; Allyson is a strikingly beautiful woman. It was hard for several of the men to maintain a poker face. They seemed to have had no idea that Allyson was a transwoman.
There were numerous positive, empathetic, relational, conceding comments Walker could have made about Allyson’s incredibly accomplished life, Christlike behavior and demeanor, as well as the attitudes of other LGBTQ and affirming people in the room. I would have seen that as a humble move toward questioning his own beliefs, or giving space to the possibility that we too were part of the Body of Christ. Sadly, as the book reveals, he resolutely believes that one cannot be trans (nor gay or lesbian for that matter) and Christian.
In the final chapter, “Tough Questions,” Walker offers answers “in a spirit of humility and unity.” (p145).
Can someone be transgender and Christian? Response: if you limited your self-identification to a person suffering from gender dysphoria, then yes. “The feeling or experience of it is not sinful, but it is broken; and acting upon one’s dysphoria is sinful.” (p 74)
However, if you self-identify as transgender, you “nullify God’s revelation both in nature and in Scripture. The Bible calls it suppressing the truth in unrighteousness. . . a settled rejection of God’s purposes for us as male or female cannot be reconciled with following Christ.” (p 146) So, no, you cannot identify as trans and Christian.
Is taking hormones to manage dysphoria okay? Response: No, “any effort or action taken to suppress the truth of our natural biology, or to reverse our natural biology, runs contrary to God’s word.” (p 152)
Is it true that Christian teaching is harmful in not affirming a transperson’s identity leads to depression and higher rates of suicide? Response: “(this) raises an important counter-question: is the emotional distress caused from identifying as transgender the result of not being affirmed, or is it a feature of the underlying emotional and mental difficulties that come with gender dysphoria, which are not solved by embracing a transgender identity?” (p 155) Walker continues, “It seems far more likely (albeit that it’s unpopular to say) that emotional and psychological distress stem from gender dysphoria, not from the failure to feel affirmed by one’s community.”(p 156)
Walker’s response does not cite proof or studies which support his ideology. So, I will offer the statistical research which is easily accessible to Walker and any conservative faith leader.
For over thirty years, Dr. Caitlyn Ryan of the Family Acceptance Project in San Francisco has been doing research on the effects of acceptance and non-acceptance of LGBTQ youth.
If you reject your LGBTQ youth, they:
Are EIGHT times more apt to attempt suicide than those who are accepted;
May suffer depression SIX times more often than those who are accepted;
Are THREE times more likely to get involved in drug abuse than those LGBT that are accepted; and
Are THREE times more likely to contract HIV and/or STD’s than accepted LGBT youth.
Fortunately, I can both hold onto my faith and submit to the authority of God while following the teachings of Jesus. Admittedly, I question the notion of “God’s blueprint” for human sexuality in Genesis.
I do not however, question the historical texts, the songs and beautiful poetry, the important directives and lessons, and the letters and gospels. I carefully study the writings in context. Not only is there plenty of historical records and support for much of the biblical writings, more importantly, the truth therein resonates and speaks to my spirit.
I am a Christian. A Christian who will not abuse Scripture and unsubstantiated interpretations created by others to marginalize groups of people that are not like me.
It is unfortunate that Mr. Walker has apparently not taken the opportunity to befriend transgender Christians and learn from them. Walker says, “If I affirm transgenderism, I am actually doing and unloving thing. I am withholding truth because I value my own reputation or my own friendships or my own comforts more than I value the eternal happiness of the person made in God’s image who stands in front of me.” (p 99) But, there is no need to fear loss of reputation in the comfy bubble. If Walker and others really did value the eternal happiness of another person over his own reputation, friendships and comfort, they might consider, with humility, the many objections I have raised in this review.
I imagine I am not the first to point out extensive problematic aspects of Mr. Walker’s theology. The echo chamber of SBC demands that he refrain from intellectually engaging what is known about human sexuality and gender from science, biology, psychology. Likewise, their exclusionary theology demands they ignore anthropology, archeology and other earth sciences.
“God and the Transgender Debate–What Does the Bible Actually Say About Gender Identity?” continues this downward destructive spiral of scripture abuse negatively affecting people, the witness and message of Christ, & the SBC itself.