This conference for pastors and other Christian workers was held on Tuesday 22 November 2016, at London Seminary. Several years ago, a Christian conference in the UK with such a title might never have been envisaged, but the issue of transgender has snowballed significantly, and Christians everywhere need to sit up and take note of what is going on.
It was one of the more sobering conferences I have attended, but at the same time extremely useful in terms of enabling pastors and churches to understand the present circumstances and think through a way forward.
There were 70 or so people attending, and five outstanding speakers: Sharon James (a popular author, who now works with the Christian Institute on social issues) speaking on social policy; Peter Saunders (chief executive officer of Christian Medical Fellowship) on medical issues; Simon Calvert (deputy director of the Christian Institute) on legal aspects; Alistair Roberts (Durham University) on biblical/theological principles, and David Magowan (pastor of Carey Baptist Church, Reading) on our pastoral response.
The level of expertise of the speakers and their different perspectives on this subject all combined to make it an excellent day. Here are a few of the most important points that were made, with my own reflections.
What’s it all about? There have been recent, high-profile cases of transgenderism in the news, such as Bruce Jenner, the 1976 Olympic decathlon champion, who in 2015 became Caitlin Jenner, a self-identifying woman. Then there was the box-office success of The Danish girl, starring Eddie Redmayne.
Less well known is the case of the Iranian women’s football team. It has been reported (see http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/iran/11903290/Eight-of-Irans-womens-football-team-are-men.html) that eight members of the squad are ‘transwomen’; that is, they were born as men, but now self-identify as women, having undergone hormone therapy, if not full-blown gender reassignment surgery. Homosexual practice is illegal in Iran, but gender reassignment is widespread. What will FIFA do about this?
But this issue is also close to home. In primary as well as secondary schools, there are children who choose to self-identify as the opposite gender to their birth sex, and this new gender identity is supported by head teachers and social workers.
Notice the vocabulary I’ve used in the previous paragraphs: ‘sex’, ‘gender’, ‘self-identify’. This is the jargon we need to get our heads round. In this way of thinking, ‘sex’ refers to male or female in terms of physical anatomy, but ‘gender’ is what you choose to be — your ‘self-identification’.
While it is medically true that a tiny proportion of children, certainly less than 0.1 per cent, are born with an intersex condition (chromosomal, gonadal or genital abnormality), what is now known as ‘gender fluidity’ is understood in very different terms.
Those at the forefront of the ongoing sexual revolution want to dispense with the idea of just two genders, male and female. ‘Binary’ gender has become an outdated concept, because gender fluidity means there are many more than two gender categories.
So how many categories are there? The answer is that new categories are continually being designated. At one stage there were 71 options to choose from on Facebook, though that has been revised down to about 50. But it seems unlikely this number will remain static; fluidity, by its nature, defies definition and structure.
So now, they say, you can choose to self-identify as male or female if you want, but, alternatively, you can pick from the following: agender, bigender, cisgender, queer, questioning, pangender, two-spirit, etc., etc.
How has all this happened? Sharon James helpfully set out the historical background. She spoke about the rise of ‘expressive individualism’, the desire to be free from being defined by God’s law, so that we can define ourselves, make our own rules and not judge anyone else.
This approach extends beyond gender. For example, a ‘trans-age’ middle-aged man might self-identify as a nine-year old girl; or a ‘trans-able’ able-bodied person might believe ‘the person inside’ is disabled, and so seek bodily mutilation or amputation to give expression to the inner self.
Then there is ‘trans-species’: some people even think they are cats or dragons. At what point do such horrifying delusions become clinical insanity?
As Dr Saunders explained, medical practitioners are under increasing pressure to respond positively when patients present signs of ‘gender dysphoria’ (another piece of jargon). This term has been defined by the Christian Medical Fellowship as ‘the experience of distress associated with incongruence between one’s biological sex and one’s psychological and emotional gender identity’.
If a patient has the physical characteristics of a man, but earnestly believes himself to be female, a GP may come under pressure to recommend treatment resulting in gender reassignment, which could even mean full-blown surgery. The doctor is presented with the option of affirming the patient is right, or believing it a great cruelty to acknowledge this self-identification as genuine (like agreeing to performing liposuction on a dangerously underweight, anorexic teenage girl).
Simon Calvert looked in detail at the relevant legal issues, and invited churches in need of advice to contact the Christian Institute. He also recommended churches to adopt clear ethical statements on marriage, sexuality and gender reassignment, that are firmly rooted in their statements of faith and confessional standards.
Alistair Roberts showed how intrinsic the creation of male and female in Genesis 2 and 3 is to many other themes and patterns in Scripture. David Magowan explained how transgenderism might be addressed pastorally.
He urged us to understand the culture; access Christian resources; teach a biblical understanding of gender; discuss transgenderism as church leaders; give advice to those welcoming visitors and those leading church ministries; and provide compassionate pastoral care and biblical counselling to people.
Now here are some of my own reflections on this whole subject. As Christians we must be compassionate, but our theocentric understanding of man as male and female and of the sacredness of this God-ordained distinction must take precedence over our pastoral approach.
Our language and speech must be sober and self-controlled; we must not sound like those who belong to the ‘alt-right’, who react violently against liberal political correctness by indulging in immoderate language and ribaldry, but we must remember that Scripture describes people who indulge sexual deviancy as those who ‘relying on their dreams, defile the flesh, reject authority, and blaspheme the glorious ones’ (see Jude 7-10). As the Westminster Divines rightly stated, ‘Some sins in themselves, and by reason of several aggravations, are more heinous in the sight of God than others’.
Does this justify treating a transgender person as less than human? Of course not. Does it justify preventing such people from entering our churches? It does not. But we should certainly expect the dynamics of a church fellowship to be affected by the presence of transgender people or same-sex couples. And this is where David Magowan’s points are so pastorally helpful.
Great pastoral wisdom, as well as compassion, is needed towards each transgender person. There is surely a difference between someone who outwardly broadcasts their transgenderism by the clothes they wear, and someone facing a desperate inner struggle over their sexual attraction or sexual identity.
This is where Jude’s letter again comes to our aid. In verses 22-23 we are given a two-verse pastoral master-class: ‘And have mercy on those who doubt; save others by snatching them out of the fire; to others show mercy with fear, hating even the garment stained by the flesh’.
In mercy, we seek to apply the Word of God to the lives of people in need. But that mercy must be combined with a fearful hatred of specific sins and their potential effects upon us and the rest of Christ’s church.
It is in Christ alone, the last Adam, that the image of God is renewed. That same Christ who showed such great mercy to the self-righteous Pharisee, Saul of Tarsus, (Acts 2) is the one who pardoned the woman caught in adultery (John 8). Let this be the same Christ that is preached by us all today.
This edited article is used with kind permission. The full article can be read at http://www.grovechapel.org/blog/43.html