Transgenderism and Christianity: What to do with the body?

In 2015, most Americans had never had a conversation about transgender issues. By later that year, the topic had become cause célèbre in America and on the world stage, one “claiming the mantle of civil rights.”[1] Now, as both a hot-button political issue and a common topic of discussion among the general populace, transgenderism is unavoidable. To that, the church should say, “good.” It seems that perhaps now more than ever society is beckoning for open discussion on gender and sexuality, and the discussion is not only happening outside the church but also within. This is an opportunity for the church to speak.

As such, this paper will endeavor to contribute to the early discussion of transgender issues in a distinctly theological way. Transgender issues touch a variety of social and scientific fields including biology, anatomy, philosophy, sociology, child-rearing, and so on. For this paper, it is necessary to focus our research primarily to theology and to specifically ask the question: in what way(s) does transgenderism reject or distort God’s good design and purpose for the human body? Drawing from Scripture and seeking to understand the arguments transgenderism makes, this paper will aim to prove that transgenderism as a rejection of the body stands as an affront to God’s ownership and desire to preserve and glorify our bodies. Likewise, it will seek to prove that for those experiencing gender dysphoria, the Christian worldview offers both a better explanation and a better hope for their bodies.

Claims that transgenderism makes

First, we must define the terms.[2] Generally, transgenderism is the belief that one’s biological sex is not necessarily determinative of one’s gender concept or expression and subsequently that one can be born with a biological sex that does not match their gender. Stated negatively, and perhaps more accurately, transgenderism is the rejection of the traditional belief that one’s biological sex is determinative of one’s gender concept and expression.

While one’s sex is generally understood as scientific reality—males have XX chromosomes and females have XY chromosomes—one’s gender can be defined as the collection of culturally appropriate attitudes, feelings, and behaviors associated with one’s sex.[3] For most of human history, societies have viewed the relationship between sex and gender as mimetic. That is to say, as Andrew Walker puts it, “gender has been attached to sex. It’s the culturally appropriate expression of your sex. So if your sex is ‘female,’ your gender is ‘female.’”[4] While gender has been expressed with some variety across cultures (e.g. the masculine kilt in Gaelic society might be considered feminine in contemporary American society), the idea that gender is attached to sex was maintained.

Transgenderism’s claims, then, go much further in several areas. Fundamentally, transgenderism suggests that one’s gender is unattached to one’s biological sex. It argues that one’s gender is based on their own psychological and emotional understanding of themselves, or their gender concept.[5] It is easy to see how if gender is unattached from biological sex, gender expressions can exist in infinite number.[6] Or as is popularly stated by proponents of transgenderism; that gender exists on a spectrum. Moreover, whereas before gender followed sex[7], with scientific advance many have begun attempting to make sex follow gender through sex reassignment surgery; combining hormone treatment and physical operation to alter one’s body and sexual function to match their gender concept. What is reported far too little is the fact that people who undergo sex reassignment surgery do not, statistically, report higher levels of happiness after the surgery. What’s more, according to psychologist Paul McHugh, is that “their suicide mortality [rises] almost 20-fold above the comparable nontransgender population” beginning 10 years after the surgery.[8]

Finally, we must acknowledge intersex, androgen sensitivity syndrome (AIS), and gender dysphoria. Intersex people—born with bodily sex characteristics that do not match the typical male and female biological sexes—and people with AIS—genetically male but resistant to male hormones resulting in female physical traits—will not be lumped into the ideological discussion of transgenderism in this paper. It is the position of this paper that the biological conditions of intersex and AIS are distinctive from the psychological condition of gender dysphoria though all are best explained by the fall (see below). In the cases of intersex and AIS, a separate discussion is needed.[9] Gender dysphoria is a psychological condition defined by Mark Yarhouse as “the experience of distress associated with the incongruence wherein one’s psychological and emotional gender identity does not match one’s biological sex.”[10] Given the fact that many individuals experience gender dysphoria, society must come to a conclusion on the best explanation for it and the best course of action to take to address it.

The ideological underpinnings of transgenderism

Building upon the general overview offered above, we will take a closer look at transgenderism’s claims and attempt to understand what proponents of transgenderism are really arguing at an ideological level. In his book, Walker suggests two streams of thought that, coupled with the steady decrease of Christian influence in the western world, have led to modern thinking on transgenderism: Gnosticism and radical individualism. His section on modern Gnosticism is worth quoting at length:

Gnosticism says that there is an inherent tension between our true selves and the bodies we inhabit. The idea that our true self is different than the body we live in communicates that our body is something less than us, and can be used, shaped, and changed to match how we feel. The concept that our gender can be different than our biological sex is a modern form of the old Gnostic idea. What this means, practically, is that a man can identify as a woman, even if they have male chromosomes and the body of a man.[11]

Walker is arguing that this modern Gnostic thinking not only separates sex and gender, but puts the body in opposition to the “true self.” Ancient Gnostics did indeed espouse radical views on gender identity. Hippolytus of Rome catalogues the Gnostic Naassene sect’s goal for humanity as an ungendered state. He writes that the Naassenes believed humanity ought to strive for the “eternal substance on high, where … there is neither male nor female, but a new creature, a new Human, who is masculo-feminine.”[12] In the Gnostic tract Trimorphic Protennoia 45:2-8, the highest divine entity Barbelo says of itself, “I am androgynous.” It is a divine tragedy, according to the Gnostics, that the hyper-masculine Hebrew God created the world and entrapped humans in biological sex.[13] To the Gnostics, the body was a lesser form, even a constraint, keeping humans from experiencing their true self.

Modern proponents of transgenderism may scoff if labeled as Gnostics, but their ideology is much the same. Take American philosopher and gender theorist Judith Butler as an example. In her popular book, Gender Trouble, Butler also describes gender identities as “oppressive” and even maintains that sex and gender are social constructs that constrains humanity.[14] Jonathan Cahana writes that for Butler, “gender is something that is continuously ‘done,’ as if to conform to an ‘original.'” Speaking on the implications of such a fluid view of sex and gender, Nancy Pearcey asserts that transgenderism is the latest, most extreme version of the body/mind dichotomy—one that “treats the body itself as infinitely malleable, with no definite nature of its own.”[15] These examples suffice to bolster Walker’s claim that transgenderism, like a form of Gnosticism, views the “true self” as separate from the body and that subsequently the body can be “used, shaped, and changed to match how we feel.”

Radical individualism, Walker says, teaches that “what an individual wills or wants is the highest good, and it is wrong to tell someone that his or her choices or beliefs are wrong or immoral.”[16] And so it goes that what one believes about themselves becomes reality. Ryan T. Anderson sheds light on this concept arguing that transgender activists promote an “alternative metaphysics,” in which “people are who they claim to be, regardless of contrary evidence. A transgender boy is a boy, not merely a girl who identifies as a boy.”[17] His observation highlights an important thread of radical individualistic thought: ownership. A popular refrain of many modern social movements such as the abortion movement and the sexual revolution goes as follows: “it’s my body, I can do what I want with it.”

Based on the arguments above, what can be ascertained about transgenderism’s view of the body? Here are several suggestions to juxtapose against the Christian view of the body in the next section. Transgenderism views the body as 1) unattached to one’s gender concept, or “true self,” 2) often in opposition to one’s gender concept, 3) a lesser form, 4) under the ownership and autonomy of the person who inhabits it and 5) therefore is able to be and ought to be altered to match one’s gender concept.

What does Scripture say?

 In Romans 8, Paul concludes that those set free by Christ from the struggle with their sinful flesh, “groan inwardly as [they] wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (Rom. 8:24). May this serve as a unique starting point for our Scriptural study; God has a plan for our bodies. Working from the beginning, we will explore Scripture’s message about embracing one’s biological sex and given body through four major event-categories: Creation, The Fall, Christ’s Incarnation and Resurrection, and Redemption.

Creation

Scripture is extremely clear about God’s design for humanity in the Creation account. Creation declares humans as embodied creatures. The first sentences about humanity in Scripture use spiritual and physical terms in cohesion. Man was formed in the image of God (spiritual in some sense because God is a spirit) and out of the dust of the ground. Likewise woman was formed from man’s flesh. After God created us bodily, He delighted in it. God affirmed all of His creation as “good,” but only after the creation of man did He call it “very good.” Of our bodily creation, Walker asserts: “This means matter matters. Our bodies matter. Your body is not arbitrary; it is intentional. While you are more than your body, you are not less.” God’s intent in creation demonstrates that we are not merely souls trapped in material bodies, but we are by nature, embodied.[18]

What about biological sex? Genesis 1:27 states: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” The binary is an intentional plan with purposes, namely, marriage and procreation.[19] God calls on man and woman to cleave to each other forming a one-flesh-union (Gen. 2:24), and be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth (Gen. 1:28).[20] Human biological sex was not purposeless or a form of oppression, but teleological. As a part of this, sexuality, physicality, and emotion were integrated into the total person at creation. When physical sexual intimacy is practiced, an emotional bond of love is formed. Emotions and the body cannot be disassociated.[21] Just as one’s body is purposeful, one’s biological sex is purposeful. Lastly, it is implied from humanity’s having been created that we do not possess full autonomy in the purest sense. We do not have ownership of ourselves, but are owned by God.

The Fall

At the heart of transgender debate, however, lies a brokenness. Scripture acknowledges this brokenness as a result of the fall. When Adam and Eve rebelled against God, they brought death upon humanity and distorted God’s good creation. Potential sex-gender related effects of the fall could include intersex people, conditions such as Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome, congenital adrenal hyperplasia, humans being born with extra sex chromosomes, and any amount of other biological abnormalities.[22] Yet, blame of sin must be tempered by respect for God’s continued purpose for those with afflictions (Ex. 4:11). Yarhouse suggests the fall carried psychological consequences as well, one of which is gender dysphoria.[23]

It is compelling that in Gen. 3:7, after they had sinned, Adam and Eve immediately realized “that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths.” Walker ruminates, “the first result of the first rejection of God is that people feel ashamed of, and awkward about, their bodies.”[24] This is an extremely relevant reflection for a contemporary society that obsesses over image and body identity.

Christ’s Incarnation and Resurrection

There is hope for a diseased and disordered creation, however. In a sermon at Bob Jones University, Dr. Brent Cook observed that the central Christian doctrine, though often overlooked, was that God took on a human body, and kept it. Drawing from Acts 17:31, Cook notes that “in the resurrection, God became permanently incarnated. Jesus is human today.”[25] The incarnation is an act of significance for every walk of life, but for the purposes of this paper it is the greatest proof that God cares about the human body. Likewise, the resurrection is the greatest proof that God has eternal purposes for the body. While transgenderism teaches that bodies are lesser and may point to an escape from the oppression of the body, Scripture teaches that God took on a human body forever. Pearcey contrasts the postmodernist transgender movement’s low view of the body with Christianity’s high view:

Christianity assigns the human body a much richer dignity and value. Humans do not need freedom from the body to discover their true, authentic self. Rather we can celebrate our embodied existence as a good gift from God. Instead of escaping from the body, the goal is to live in harmony with it.[26]

The true self, according to Pearcey, is not found apart from the body. Rather, living in harmony with your body is part of what it means to be fully human as Christ is.

Regarding gender in particular, Jesus himself came in the form of a man with all the weaknesses of the flesh, and as Cook states, “The Creator of endless galaxies [was] confined within the uterine walls of a young Palestinian girl.”[27] Jesus affirmed the gender binary (Matt. 19:4). He was not “androgyne”; he was a male.[28] Accordingly, while marriage may cease to exist in heaven (Matt. 22:30), genders will persist.[29]

Redemption

First Corinthians 6:19-20 states: “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, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.” Here we see that ownership of our bodies is not only attributed to God via creation, but is affirmed by one’s redemption in Christ—we are not our own but bought with a price. Frankly speaking, that means no one possesses complete rights over their own body, and especially not the Christian. Likewise the Christian, retaining control over their bodies, are not to reject or alter their body but use their members to glorify God as instruments for righteousness (Rom. 6:13), even as a holy living sacrifice in worship to God (Rom. 12:1).

Moreover, what will the ultimate redemption of our bodies look like? First, Paul characterizes it as a future glory incomparably better than our present sufferings (Rom. 8:18). Secondly, our bodies will be rid of disease, deformity, and every ailment.[30] Thirdly, in imitation of Christ’s resurrection body, our bodies will be similar to how they are now, but transformed.[31] While it is not guaranteed that in this earthly life one can be entirely freed from struggle with gender dysphoria, the redemption of our bodies promises that for the life to come. Trusting in Christ is being persuaded that Scripture’s promises, including these, are true. Christians struggling with gender dysphoria “groan inwardly” along with all believers “wait[ing] eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (Rom. 8:13).

Kevin DeYoung provides a helpful explanation of what redemption might mean for those struggling with gender dysphoria: “No matter how we think we might have been born one way, Christ insists that we must be born again a different way.”[32] It is not that our sins and struggles are unimportant, it is that they are superseded by our rebirth in Christ. The fall resulted in brokenness to the degree that we might expect to see disorder and confusion within us, and even within our bodies, but to follow Christ in this area is to pursue his created purpose for sex and gender.[33]

In contrast to the five assumptions transgenderism makes about the body, Scripture views the body as 1) attached to one’s gender—the “true self” is the embodied self—2) consistent with one’s gender, 3) a “very good” form created and taken on by Christ, 4) under the ownership and autonomy of God, and 5) therefore ought not to be altered to match one’s gender concept.[34] It is clear that transgenderism and Christianity hold two very distinctive views of the body. Someone experiencing gender dysphoria can only agree with one of those views.


[1]Ryan T. Anderson, When Harry became Sally: responding to the transgender moment, (New York: Encounter Books, 2018), 1

[2]It is important to keep in mind that transgender thought is still in formation and concrete definitions are difficult to arrive at.

[3]The American Psychological Association, “Definitions Related to Sexual Orientation and Gender Diversity in APA Documents,” http://www.apa.org/pi/lgbt/resources/sexuality-definitions.pdf

[4]Andrew Walker, God and the Transgender Debate: What does the Bible actually say about gender identity?(The Good Book Company, Kindle Edition), 31

[5]The American Psychological Association

[6]Judith Butler, Gender trouble: feminism and the subversion of identity, (New York: Routledge, 2015), 7

[7]It should be noted that the statement, “gender followed sex,” comes with outliers. Practicing homosexuals, for example, often do not follow gender norms. This is one of the many ways the LGBTQ+ movement demonstrates unity in its rejection of traditional views on sexuality.

[8]Paul McHugh, “Transgender Surgery Isn’t the Solution,” Wall Street Journal, May 13, 2016, https://www.wsj.com/articles/paul-mchugh-transgender-surgery-isnt-the-solution-1402615120

[9]Denny Burk, What is the meaning of sex?(Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013), 180-82, Burk suggests that the Intersex phenomenon should not lead to a revision of the binary ideal of Scripture and though he permits medical treatments he advises reluctance.

[10]Mark A. Yarhouse, Understanding gender dysphoria: navigating transgender issues in a changing culture. (InterVarsity Press: Downers Grove, Illinois), 20

[11]Walker, 26

[12]Jonathan Cahana, 2011, “Gnostically queer: gender trouble in Gnosticism,” Biblical Theology Bulletin 41, no. 1: 24-35

[13]Jonathan Cahana, 2012, “Dismantling gender: between ancient gnostic ritual and modern queer BDSM,” Theology & Sexuality 18, no. 1, 60-75

[14]Butler, 7

[15]Nancy R. Pearcey, Love Thy Body: Answering Hard Questions about Life and Sexuality(Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition), 210-211

[16]Walker, 23

[17]Anderson, 29

[18]Walker, 50

[19]Pearcey, 29

[20]Burk, 34-35

[21]Pearcey, 23, 28

[22]Yarhouse, 39

[23]Ibid., 41

[24]Walker, 63

[25]Brent Cook, “Christian Education.” Sermon, Bob Jones University, March 18, 2015, tinysa.com/sermon/318151721455

[26]Pearcey, 211

[27]Cook, “Christian Education”

[28]“The Gender of Jesus,” Transgender Christians, accessed March 11, 2018, http://www.transchristians.org/book/hijra-to-christ/the-gender-of-jesus

[29]Matt. 22:30 compares humans in the resurrection to angels, who are consistently referred to with the masculine, not neuter, pronoun indicating that angels are gendered beings.

[30]Matt Perman, “Do we receive the same body we had on earth at the resurrection?” Desiring God, January 23, 2006, https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/do-we-receive-the-same-body-we-had-on-earth-at-the-resurrection

[31]Perman, Desiring God

[32]Kevin DeYoung, What does the Bible really teach about homosexuality?(Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2015), 111-112

[33]Andrew T. Walker, “‘Born that way’ and transgenderism: How should Christians respond?” ERLC. August 11, 2017, Accessed February 21, 2018, https://erlc.com/resource-library/articles/born-that-way-and-transgenderism-how-should-christians-respond

[34]A separate discussion is needed on the rare phenomenon of Intersex and Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome (AIS).

Phil Shiver

A seminary student living in Greenville, SC.

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