After my last post Transgender 101 (for conservative Christians) a good friend of mine, who is also a pastor, forwarded a link to an article by Mark Yarhouse asking if I had read it.
Mark Yarhouse is a chaired professor of psychology at Regent University, where he directs the Institute for the Study of Sexual Identity. His most recent book is Understanding Gender Dysphoria: Navigating Transgender Issues in a Changing Culture (IVP Academic) which he helpfully summarizes in this article in Christianity Today.
I have great respect for Dr. Yarhouse. I have learned much from reading a number of his books and had the privilege of hearing him speak at Gordon College during my time as a Theology professor there. Yarhouse is a gracious, humble, and careful scholar. He is meticulous in his research and overflowing with compassion for those clients who come to him for therapy—persons with same-sex attraction and gender dysphoria or gender identity questions.
What I appreciate most about Yarhouse is that he wants Christians to be faithful witnesses to the redemptive work of God in our lives but doesn’t see our work as needing to win the culture war. Rather, he encourages Christians to be compassionate, welcoming, prayerful, and considerate when interacting with transgender persons at work and in our churches.
Consider the following recommendations he gives to in his article:
“Let’s say Sara walks into your church. She looks like a man dressed as a woman. One question she will be asking is, ‘Am I welcome here?’
Most centrally, the Christian community is a witness to the message of redemption. We are witnesses to redemption through Jesus’ presence in our lives. Redemption is not found by measuring how well a person’s gender identity aligns with their biological sex, but by drawing them to the person and work of Jesus Christ, and to the power of the Holy Spirit to transform us into his image.
As Christians speak to this redemption, we will be tempted to join in the culture wars about sex and gender that fall closely on the heels of the wars about sexual behavior and marriage. But in most cases, the church is called to rise above those wars and present a witness to redemption.
In the spirit of a redemptive witness, I hope to communicate to her through my actions: ‘Yes, you are in the right place. We want you here.’
If I am drawn to a conversation or relationship with her, I hope to approach her not as a project, but as a person seeking real and sustained relationship, which is characterized by empathy as well as encouragement to walk faithfully with Christ. But I should not try to “fix” her, because unless I’m her professional therapist, I’m not privy to the best way to resolve her gender dysphoria. Rather, Christians are to foster the kinds of relationships that will help us know and love and obey Jesus better than we did yesterday. That is redemption.
If Sara shares her name with me, as a clinician and Christian, I use it. I do not use this moment to shout “Integrity!” by using her male name or pronoun, which clearly goes against that person’s wishes. It is an act of respect, even if we disagree, to let the person determine what they want to be called. If we can’t grant them that, it’s going to be next to impossible to establish any sort of relationship with them.
The exception is that, as a counselor, I defer to a parent’s preference for their teenager’s name and gender pronoun. Even here I talk with the parent about the benefits and drawbacks of what they want and what their teenager wants if the goal is to establish a sustained, meaningful relationship with their child.
Also, we can avoid gossip about Sara and her family. Gossip fuels the shame that drives people away from the church; gossip prevents whole families from receiving support.”
Conservative Christians could move a long way toward a better response to transgender if they adopted Mark Yarhouse’s counsel above.
As I said, I have tremendous respect for Yarhouse. He is a professional therapist with hundreds of hours of on the ground work—with individuals struggling to make sense of their sexual and gender identities—and hundreds more hours in research. I do not critique him on those fronts.
However, as a theologian and biblical scholar, my concerns—and invitation to dialogue—come from the interpretation of the Bible which shapes aspects of his therapeutic approach.
In this article, Yarhouse presents three lenses (approaches) which Christians have taken toward transgender or gender dysphoria: Integrity (which he defines below),Disability (a compassionate response to brokenness), or Diversity (a welcoming celebration of difference). His own approach is a mix of the first two, while trying to welcome without celebrating diversity.
It is his definition of integrity—his theological lens—which deserves attention. He defines it as follows.
“The integrity lens views sex and gender and, therefore, gender identity in terms of what theologian Robert Gagnon refers to as ‘the sacred integrity of maleness or femaleness stamped on one’s body.’ Cross-gender identification is a concern because it threatens to dishonor the creational order of male and female.
The theological foundation of the integrity lens raises the same kind of concerns about cross-gender identification as it raises about homosexuality. Same-sex sexual behavior is sin in part because it doesn’t ‘merge or join two persons into an integrated sexual whole,’ writes Gagnon. ‘Essential maleness’ and ‘essential femaleness’ are not brought together as intended from creation. When extended to transsexuality and cross-gender identification, the theological concerns rest in what Gagnon calls the ‘denial of the integrity of one’s own sex and an overt attempt at marring the sacred image of maleness or femaleness formed by God.’
Several of these claims require consideration:
- “the sacred integrity of maleness or femaleness stamped on one’s body.” The “denial of the integrity of one’s own sex and an overt attempt at marring the sacred image of maleness or femaleness formed by God.”
- Cross-gender identification is a concern because it threatens to dishonor the creational order of male and female.
- Same-sex sexual behavior is sin in part because it doesn’t “merge or join two persons into an integrated sexual whole,” writes Gagnon. “Essential maleness” and “essential femaleness” are not brought together as intended from creation.
I’ll respond to these one at a time in future posts.
In the mean time, let’s focus on the good work Yarhouse is doing and heed his counsel:
- Calling us out of the culture war toward compassionate relationships with transpersons.
- Respecting the integrity of transgender persons by using their names/pronouns of choice.
- Welcoming without trying to fix.
- Avoiding gossip.
This is a good beginning.
(originally published 6/10/15)