First, let me start off with a personal story. I am a biological male who feels quite comfortable with being gendered as masculine. But it was not always that way.
I was never much of an athlete growing up. In elementary school, I was shorter and smaller than the other boys, and I was always the last one to get picked on a side for kickball. I especially dreaded it when girls played with us, and the girls got picked first over me. I was generally consoled when there was at least one or two girls left, after I got picked. But it still was not a great feeling.
That began to change as a 12-year old, when I discovered the sport of tennis. I learned from my coaches that I was actually pretty good at it, compared to a number of the other kids. I won match after match with other boys in a local municipal league, throughout an entire season. Having grown up thus far, playing in the dirt, building dams in the small creek behind our house, and being fascinated with dump trucks and bulldozers, I was finally beginning to feel comfortable with my “boy-ness.” My tennis experience with other boys seemed to confirm it.
Then, I was lined up to play a girl my same age in the girl’s league. It went like this: 6-0, 6-0, 6-1. I was completely devastated by the loss. At least I got one game in the victory column. But it cemented in my mind the same type of feeling I had being chosen for kickball in elementary school…. at the bottom of the list.
Well, as it turned out, this girl who destroyed me in tennis was the daughter of the president of the local university in my hometown. She probably started taking tennis lessons at age 5, for all I knew. For when she got to high school, she ended up being a Virginia State Champion in tennis, with an almost unbroken victory record. I do not know if she actually went to the Olympics or not, or played professionally, but she could have. She was definitely THAT good.
I put the tennis racket away after that.
I never touched it again until my years in college, and then only briefly. I was never able to fully enjoy the sport until I hit my 30s. I was completely sandwiched in by social expectations, formed by traditional stereotypes, that I was somehow “less than” a boy, because I was completely humiliated by a girl in sports. Sure, you could call it “sexist,” on my part (Though for being a kid just out of 6th grade, that seems like a heavy trip to lay on someone). As for me, a growing adolescent, I thought it was confusing. For if I was really a boy, why was I such a poor athlete compared to girls my age? What does it mean to be a “boy” after all?
What made the experience worse is that I hit puberty rather late. Plus, I received little to no sexual education, even in school. As an only child, who was rather shy to begin with, figuring out how I fitted in socially was difficult. I was a bookish nerd, intimidated by the athletic boys, and I generally felt less threatened around girls than with boys. It was not until probably late in my freshman year, that I finally settled on the answer: “Yes, I really was a boy.” The biggest factor was in realizing that I was attracted to girls, in a way that I never really felt before. Yep, that was DEFINITELY the game changer.
But it took a while. And I had more than a few doubts along the way. Without going into further detail in this online forum of a blog, let me just say that there was a period of time, perhaps a few months or so, where I was really confused about my gender status.
I look back on those experiences as a kid, as though they are part of a distant land and distant time, particularly the gender crisis I went through in my early high school years. Frankly, this has become one of those life stories that I would rather just forget about.
But the world has vastly changed since then. Vastly.
Today, I am a so-called “typical male,” in that I am a single-task operating system, who can not multitask as women generally do. I have a big love for sports and playing sports, my biggest love being for playing soccer. I still like playing in the dirt. I pretty much fit all of the culturally assumed norms being masculine. But back in those childhood and teenage years, I had no one to talk to about my gender insecurities.
Not friends…. (except for perhaps one awkward conversation with one girl I knew in my gym class, so I am not sure if that counts).
Not someone in my mainline Protestant church. No pastor. No Sunday School teacher. No youth group leader.
Fast forward decades later to 2021: The concept of transgender is now relatively commonplace in colloquial discussion. It is certainly freely talked about in social media, as there is less social stigma. There is a sense that this can be a good thing, as sweeping difficult conversations under the rug is never a good thing.
However, there is another side to this. The rise of what has been described by some as “Transgender-ISM” has become an extremely volatile and politically charged topic. In some alarming cases, government overreach has dictated to people what they can and can not say, a direct threat to free speech (Just ask Jordan Peterson).
We live in the age of Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner. We live in an era when a sitting U.S. President, on his first day in office, signed an executive order to ban discrimination against transgender athletes, a move that supporters say will offer “hope for young trans athletes” (Bryan Armen Graham, in The Guardian), and critics say will signal the end of women’s sports (Rod Dreher, in The American Conservative). On top of that, Rachel Levine, an openly transgender doctor, has been nominated to be the new assistant health secretary, a definite first for a top federal official position.
What was once such a personal matter has now triggered a whole culture, set on edge. Struggling people, who would rather not be left exposed in the middle of a culture war, are caught in the crossfire.
One of my nieces coaches girls soccer. Just a couple of years ago she was told to admit to her team a boy who was transitioning to becoming a girl, to play in the position of goalie. “She” became the best player on the team. Something like that would have been unthinkable, just a generation ago. The culture has changed so rapidly within the past decade.
The Transgender Conversation in Today’s Post-Modern, Post-Christian Culture
How do Christians today navigate the transgender conversation going on today? Is being male or female a fundamental characteristic of human identity, or is gender merely a social construct? How should one address another person transitioning from one gender to another? What type of pronoun should you use, without compromising your Christian beliefs? These type of questions dominate the minds of Christian believers who work with, go to school with, or who have family members who wrestle with some type of transgendered identity (whatever that really means)…. it also, quietly, keeps a lot of young people, who are confused about their gender, awake at night…. like it did me, back in 9th grade.
Thankfully, there are some very good theological resources for the transgender conversation today. Let me walk you through my journey with some of these resources.
But can you do me a favor here? Can we hold off just a bit on the whole Target’s bathroom policy-type stuff? I want to get back to that before the end of this post, but let me lay down some groundwork first.
I first read Andrew T. Walker’s 2017 God and the Transgender Debate: What does the Bible actually say about gender identity? a few years ago, as an introduction into the transgender conversation. It offers a good approach, from a conservative evangelical theological viewpoint, that offers nuanced wisdom in how to effectively love someone who is deeply impacted by confusion regarding their gendered experience, while maintaining a theological integrity in affirming that God created every human being in his image, male and female.
However, there is a weakness in Walker’s book in that it does not provide sufficient enough insight into the stories and experiences of persons who personally wrestle with such deep and disturbing questions. Furthermore, while Walker’s book does cover the general science outlook on gender dysphoria, it does not really dive into some of the more complex scientific issues surrounding gender. As wonderful a book God and the Transgender Debate: What does the Bible actually say about gender identity? is, I still was looking for something with more depth, and even more nuance, that would help me in my conversations with those who have anxiety about their gender…. along the lines of what I experienced as a kid, or way more intense than that.
This is why I was excited to read and review Preston Sprinkle’s new book, Embodied: Transgender Identities, The Church, & What the Bible Has to Say. In my view, Preston’s earlier book, People to Be Loved: Why Homosexuality Is Not Just an Issue, is the best book available on how to understand questions regarding same-sex attraction and same-sex marriage, from an evangelical and orthodox Christian perspective (I reviewed that book several years ago here on Veracity, with some deeper dive looks at the Bible, prompted by Preston’s book: including an examination of the sin of Sodom, the relationship between temptation and sin, the language of Christian “identity,” and the history of the word “homosexual” as it has appeared in modern Bible translations).
In Preston Sprinkle’s Embodied, the author sets up the book very well in that it emphasizes a variety of stories of persons whom Preston knows, who fall all over the spectrum of transgendered experiences. This is critically important to understand because there is simply no one, single category that defines transgendered experience. Psychologists will typically call transgendered experiences an expression of gender dysphoria, which the American Psychiatric Association defines as “psychological distress that results from an incongruence between one’s sex assigned at birth and one’s gender identity.”
The first step that Preston encourages every Christian to cultivate is an attitude of listening, and learning to know and better understand the experience of someone with gender dysphoria. The second step that Preston encourages is to realize that transgendered experiences are complex, they differ greatly from person to person, and the definition of terms is critically important in an effort to have good conversations with others.
The Problem with Words: How Do You Even Start a Conversation?
The problem of words, and their definitions, and how those definitions can change over time, can not be underestimated. What is the difference between male and female? What is the difference between sex and gender? The list goes on, but thankfully, Preston takes great care to define terms, acknowledging that not everyone even accepts his definitions. For example, Preston prefers the term “trans” over “transgender.” Who knew there was a difference? Though primarily a theologian, and not a scientist, Preston does a good job interacting with the science, and explaining different points of view, as expressed in the scientific literature, that is accessible to the general public. But the problem of words and their meanings remains…… And this is not just about pronouns.
Here is a good example of the problem. Preston has a chapter about “intersex,” which involves the problem of persons at birth possessing some of sort ambiguity regarding their sex identification. Doctors will put the “sex” of the child on the birth certificate. But what if there is some biological confusion, that makes it difficult to assign one’s “sex” with a high degree certainty?
When I was discussing this with my wife, I told her that this “intersex” condition is “rare.” It sometimes requires surgery to resolve, but not always. Different authoritative resources regarding intersex will agree that calculating the frequency of intersex conditions assumes that there is a spectrum of difficulties in making a clear determination of a person’s sex. I told my wife that one particular estimate of at least some possible condition on the intersex spectrum impacts roughly 1 out of 2000 babies (some of the more rarer conditions rank 1 out of 100,000 or more).
In my mind, that type of ratio, 1 out of 2000, means that intersex is “rare.” But my wife objected. In her mind, 1 out of 2000 is not some statistic that could be trusted in that it implies that intersex is rather “common.” As a result, she is suspicious of such statistics, as she believes that such “scientific” estimates are more informed by political concerns, and less by science. She believes that such “science” is being used to push an anti-Christian, anti-biblical agenda in the cultural sphere.
Well, 1 out of 2000 still sounds “rare” to me. I mean, compare that to the relatively much more “common” condition of someone on the autism spectrum, which in 2016 has been calculated to be 1 out of 54, by the American Center for Disease Control. But the debate I had with my wife just shows how difficult it can be to navigate such discussions about such a complex topic. How we define words in our conversations make a big difference.
Preston includes some thought provoking chapters on other topics, such as “what about the eunuch?,” as Scripture talks about; the ongoing debate about the “material” body versus “immaterial” soul, and how that all relates to gender identity; brain science and sexual differentiation; and the recent explosion of rapid onset gender dysphoria, that is producing intense anxiety for many teenagers today. The overriding theme is that Christians should become better informed about these topics, and when doing so, should exhibit some caution towards coming to premature conclusions.
For people in the workplace, or in school, surely the most difficult question, over the use of words, and their meanings, comes down to what pronoun you should use when talking with a transgendered person: “He?” “She?” “Surely not ‘it.’ “But what then?” “By using a certain pronoun, am I implicitly endorsing an alien belief system?” “How can I let someone know that I want to be their friend? “
This is a complex topic, with concerns about ideological dogmatism, when it comes to enforcing language codes, which is an affront to free speech, on the one side, versus concerns over offering hospitality to the other person, for the sake of maintaining a friendly relationship. Preston offers an excellent chapter in Embodied, dedicated primarily to this one issue, which is worth the price of the book, on its own.
What Does the Bible Say about Transgender?
The most important chapter in Preston’s book is regarding what the Bible says about how being male and female is related to God’s good creation. The footnotes alone for this chapter will stimulate the student of Scripture to dig deeper and deeper into God’s Word. The bottom line is that according to what is taught in the Bible in Genesis, we are all created in the image of God, male and female. Therefore, fundamentally, sex and ultimately gender are not social constructs. Biological sex plays the much larger definitive role in determining what is male versus female, as opposed to culturally defined expectations of gender characteristics. Someone’s gendered experience may not match up with social stereotypes, as it did for a relatively short period of time in my youth.
Large swathes of our society give us very culturally-bound ideas of gender, some that are uniquely Western. For example, American men typically do not hold hands with one another, though women holding hands together is a lot more common. Compare that with the fact that in many developing countries, men will often hold hands with other men. This does not mean that such men are gay, or that they are having some transgendered experience. This simply means that men holding hands with other men are but one cultural expression of gender, a sign of showing affection in male to male friendship. But these varying cultural stereotypes do not mean that being male and female are simply products of culture, in every respect. Instead, the fundamental Christian claim, according to the Bible, is that being created male and female matters to God, and that such differences in being male and female ultimately transcend culture.
Preston does interact with theological viewpoints that do not line up with historically, orthodox Christianity, making a good faith attempt to be as generous as possible with critics. I would probably give Embodied a fully deserved 5-star review, if it were not for the fact that Preston sometimes is overly cautious to a fault, when landing on a firm theological footing (I would give Embodied a 4.5, but Amazon does not allow for fractional reviews, so I decided for a more conservative evaluation and round down slightly). Now, let me be clear here, in case a potential reader might be nervous: Preston does eventually get to and affirm an historical, orthodox theological perspective. But in the process of getting there, through pages and pages of back and forth, yet rightly thorough analysis, Preston may leave some readers puzzled as to why he is as cautious as he is. He puzzled me in a couple of cases.
For example, Preston briefly addresses the question of whether or not intersex is a product of the fall. He has generally opted to say that intersex is indeed a product of the fall of humanity, but that in researching for the book, he has become more cautious in making such a conclusion.
I understand why Preston brings out some caution, and he clearly acknowledges that one of his intersex friends firmly acknowledges that the intersex condition is indeed part of “the fall,” and that this knowledge provides a form of comfort. But if that is the case (and I would agree with the viewpoint of Preston’s intersex friend), I am puzzled as to why Preston is so cautious as he is. Perhaps it comes down to one’s definition and understanding of what “the fall” entails.
How Our Theology of “The Fall” Can Guide Us Through the Transgender Conversation
Going back to my own experience, I grew up also with a significant speech impediment. I stuttered quite frequently during my elementary and middle school years. Thankfully, my stuttering eventually subsided somewhat, and I learned to gain more confidence when I speak with other people. One of my greatest joys in my college years was that I even became a disc jockey for about a year and half, hosting a jazz music program on my college’s radio station. I would never have been able to do anything like that, if I had continued stuttering as severely as I did in elementary school.
But I would definitely say that my speech impediment was (and still is) a product of the fall of humanity. I do not believe that God would intentionally create me with a speech impediment, as part of his good design for creation. I look forward to that Resurrection Day, when I will no longer have to worry about how my verbal speech with come out, and embarrass me in front of others.
Nevertheless, God has given me a type of gift, due to that experience of the fall. I am more hesitant to speak, because I am sometimes self-conscious about messing up with my words and syllables in public. As a result, I often find myself more inclined to listen. In a world where so many people want to be heard, I have realized the gift that God has given me to use my hesitancy towards speaking, in learning how to better effectively listen to others, thus gaining more empathy with them.
I would think that experiences of intersexed persons, and transgendered persons (otherwise known as simply “trans”), who go through periods of gender dysphoria, would best frame their experiences in such a theological framework. The experience of being “trans” for a follower of Jesus would lead to the realization that such consequences of the fall also provides opportunities for God to give good gifts to such a person, that most other people will never, ever have. Sin does have consequences, and can impact people through no obvious fault of their own. But God is a God of redemption, who can turn what the Evil One meant for evil into something good. In the process, God’s children are given gifts that bring God the most glory possible…. and that is Good News! I think Preston Sprinkle would still agree with me here. I just wish he had come out more firmly on this with less hesitation.
Listening with Compassion, with Theological Clarity
With that caveat in mind, please do not let that deter any reader from picking up Preston Sprinkle’s Embodied. The author does a fantastic job giving the reader encouragement, that having experiences of gender dysphoria does not disqualify anyone from being a genuine follower of Jesus. Preston is quite frank in admitting that he has friends, having a “trans” background, who are often some of the most loving and Christ-like persons he has ever met. One need not follow the secular culture, in order to be fully human. No one needs to be dismissive over what Scripture teaches regarding being created in the image of God, as male and female. Instead, we are all challenged to enter in the mystery of celebrating our differences as male and female.
My experience of gender dysphoria, as a young teenager, was pretty mild and short-lived. I rarely ever think about it any more. Others though, have had severe problems, that persist into adulthood, ultimately leading such persons to pursue transitioning into a gender identity contrary to their birth, sexual identity, through various types of medical procedures, such as hormonal treatments, or even surgery. An alarming, growing number of such transitions happen among children. Sadly, many have gone through such experiences, only to ultimately regret such decisions to go through with such hormonal treatments and/or surgery. Preston rightly points out that the mental health risks for those who transition to another gender identity, through surgery, are significantly higher than for those who do not transition. It is a lot more difficult to transition back, than it is to transition in the first place. Sometimes transitioning back is medically impossible. Those reasons alone are important enough, simply from a medical perspective, for those considering transitioning to not take that step of transitioning in the first place, or at least to delay it as much as possible. In many cases, such gender dysphoria disappears over time, assuming a person has a loving environment that supports them.
What about people who have already transitioned? Preston admits that this is a really difficult situation to deal with, for a Christian befriending someone else who has transitioned, whether that other person is a Christian or not. In such situations, it is really best to walk alongside those people who have taken that step, first and foremost as listeners and as a friends, and trust that God will intervene in such a way to bring about healing, according to God’s own timing and purposes.
More and more people who have transitioned to the opposite of their birth sex, have been transitioning back, and Preston observes that this number is continually growing, despite the social pressures against transitioning back. But in the final analysis, Prestron rightly affirms that it should be the truth of Scripture that should guide us, and not concerns over what is practical or not.
The Failure and Opportunity of the Church to Model Biblical Masculinity and Femininity
One big problem in many churches today, particularly Protestant evangelical ones, is that many have not figured out a way to model what Christian masculinity and Christian femininity look like. Some fall back on traditional cultural stereotypes. Some Christians are so freaked out by the rise of radical feminism, that women are almost completely marginalized in the use of their God-given gifts for ministry. Others go for the stereotype where the women pretty much do 90% of the “spiritual” work, and the men are just dragged kicking and screaming to church.
Other churches, on the less traditional side of things, have become too quick to show how men and women, particularly in church leadership, are simply interchangeable, whereby there is no real fundamental difference theologically between men and women. Sadly, the whole debate between complementarians and egalitarians, tends to narrowly focus on whether or not women can serve as church officials; particularly as elders, thus missing the more fundamental theological reality, of distinguishing between male and female, within the context of corporate worship (I have written extensively about this particular topic elsewhere on Veracity).
As a result, the sacramental expression of what it means to be a man, and what it means to be a woman, in the life of the church, gets cast aside. Children growing up into adulthood suffer the most, as few young people have an effective means to work through their anxiety, as to what it means to be male and female, in the sight of God, as opposed to simply following cultural imposed patterns of what masculinity and femininity look like.
Rapid changes in Western culture are only making the problem worse. Preston Sprinkle highlights the shocking statistic, just from one study in the United Kingdom, where the number of males questioning their gender has risen by 1460%, and the number of females questioning their gender has risen by 5337%, just in the last ten years.
1460%. 5337%. Those are real numbers. Experiences with gender confusion among American teenagers are not too far behind, as such startling statistics appear to be becoming part of the norm. Christian parents trying to raise their children in today’s anxiety ridden culture do not have the luxury of ignoring these massive cultural shifts.
Strangely, the silence of evangelical churches, when it comes to discussing this transgender identity crisis, has become deafening. And when it does get mentioned, if at all, such as in a sermon, it is typically either within the context of just how rotten the culture has become, or chiding less “enlightened” people for their “bigotry.”
The idea of men mentoring men (and boys) and women mentoring women (and girls) has become a lost art, in too many churches. How many churches still have men’s groups, where they talk about what it means to be a Christian man? How many churches still have women’s groups, where they talk about what it means to be a Christian woman? If we want to stem the tide against efforts by the culture to aggressively “normalize” ideologically driven concepts of “transgenderism” (a pejorative label, for some), churches need to do better in modeling what it means to be male and female, even in how we conduct worship services. No matter what churches do, cultivating the art of listening is essential, in figuring out ways to give young people permission to talk about their doubts and experiences.
Our Western culture today has made it socially acceptable to discuss issues related to “trans” people. That is a good thing. Evangelical churches tend to be behind the eight-ball on this, but at least, the secular world offers a variety of counseling, medical, and psychotherapy options for young people to process their anxieties.
On the other hand, the growing rate at which young people are considering themselves to be somewhere on the “trans” spectrum is particularly alarming. The drive to somehow “normalize” such “trans” experiences, even in psychological counseling, is particularly outrageous. We hear stories of concerned parents who want to immediately rush to give their child sex hormone therapy, if the child begins to experience even the mildest form of gender dysphoria. The shocking rise of rapid onset gender dysphoria, particularly among girls, over the past decade is horrifying….. and yes, there are legitimate concerns that Target’s bathroom policy might invite “fake” trans-people to take advantage of such policies and invade the private space of women. Who will speak out for the protection of women, who feel threatened by cultural shifts like this? Or will they experience the disdain of “cancel culture,” that the Harry Potter author, J.K. Rowling experienced?
But as Preston Sprinkle reminds the reader, fits of outrage and horror do not lead to healing and real change. Instead, it is through the expression of the love of Christ, through listening to others, that real change happens. We need less of our love for outrage and more outrageous love.
Take a deep breath.
Be a part of the conversation, instead of always rushing to pontificate on just how awful the culture has become…. or how closed-minded others on your Facebook page appear.
One simple (though perhaps still expensive) suggestion for churches, would be to offer single-person-use bathrooms in church facilities (what some might call “family restrooms”). That one act, of providing a restroom where a “trans” person can discreetly take care of business, is an excellent way to offer hospitality to someone who is new to your church, that might lower the anxiety and stress level of a visitor. Installing signage, that indicates that a single-person-use restroom is just down the hall, is a great way of saying to a “trans” person that they are welcome to visit your church.
Extending Outrageous Love to Trans-Persons
Preston tells one story that really stands out to me, that of Lesli, who was biologically born female, but who went through a confusing, difficult period of gender dysphoria. When she confided her struggles with her pastor, the pastor escorted her out the church back door, and told her never to come back again. She left the Christian faith at that point. She ended up becoming a lesbian, and married another woman. But when her same-sex marriage partner died, she wanted to find some way for her spouse to have a decent funeral. Lesli finally worked up the courage to call some church office, out of the blue, and ask if the pastor there could perform the funeral for her deceased partner. Instead of giving Lesli a knee-jerk theological justification for condemning homosexuality and the transgender “lifestyles”, the pastor simply said, “We would be honored to [help out, and perform the funeral service].” It was that loving expression by that Christian pastor that eventually led Lesli to return to the Christian faith.
That is a challenging message. Yet that is the challenging message that undergirds Preston Sprinkle’s excellent Embodied. We need to land somewhere between oversimplifying the growing transgender awareness in our culture, as merely a Satanically-inspired political conspiracy, and on the other side, a fear-based resolve that we must choose between transitioning and suicide, as the only alternatives for moving through transgender conversations.
Sadly, some of the folks I know who would probably benefit the most from reading Embodied are most likely those ones who will not read it. I am just as horrified, as are many other Christians, as to how aggressively “transgenderism”, as a negative ideological category, has become a forceful cultural, even an activist, political movement. Likewise, I am also deeply concerned about the connection between suicide rates and gender insecurities.
But what this is ultimately about is people. People who wrestle with some form a gender dysphoria are people whom Jesus sought to die for, that they might be reconciled to God and find healing. What is really needed is a way for Christians to trust Jesus enough to give them the wisdom necessary to know how to best extend the hand of Christian friendship, to someone who wrestles with transgendered experiences.
Beginning February 1, 2021, pick up the book at Amazon, Embodied: Transgender Identities, the Church, and What the Bible Has to Say, by Preston Sprinkle, or wherever you can find it. Try out the audiobook, if you prefer, as Preston reads his own book, which is a great experience. This has become my “go-to” resource for addressing this critical and deeply sensitive issue today.
In the following discussion between Preston Sprinkle and Christina Beardsley, an openly transgender person, who is also a priest in the Church of England, I found the conversation to be difficult to follow at times, but it just shows how complex the cultural conversation is. One of the best ways we can love a transgender person is to try to figure out how people define the words they use in conversations.