For better or for worse, when it comes to issues of gender and sexuality, evangelicals bear a reputation in the wider public square for a certain style of debate. We’ve been called belligerent, hard-hearted, even vindictive, and often with good reason. Given such perceptions, Andrew T. Walker finds it fitting in God and the Transgender Debate (The Good Book Company, 2017) to call for Christians to be guided by Scripture not only in our truth claims, but also in the tone and motivations with which we demonstrate them.
Walker is the Director of Policy Studies at the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission and author of numerous articles on marriage, gender and public policy. He opens his study with a simple observation: “Jesus debated issues. But much more than that, he loved people” (13). If one could learn to speak the truth in love—with competency and sincerity—even to the most ardent soldiers of the sexual revolution, then the hard part of Walker’s task would be over.
However, the mechanics of navigating biblical truth and demonstrating Christ-like compassion, especially concerning the mercurial waters of the transgender debate, are in no way self-evident. What Walker offers, therefore, is a guide to both sides of this equation, charting a course for how Christians and their churches should holistically engage the issue and love their neighbors.
A church should be the safest place to talk about, be open about, and struggle with gender dysphoria.
Walker begins by observing that God has provided a design for his creation, and this design includes norms for gender, which are communicated authoritatively through Scripture. At the Fall, sin enters God’s creation with destructive ferocity, finding its origin in humanity’s rejection of God’s authority. In relating wrongfully to God, individuals now experience the effects of sin in their relationships to God’s creation, including to each other and to oneself. Thus, for each person “the heart is both the victim and the culprit” (65). “Gender dysphoria,” the feeling that one is a different gender than their actual biological sex, is to be located here, at the intersection of rejecting God’s norms—a fault common to all humanity—and the experience of the brokenness sin brings to sexuality and gender. For this reason, a Christian’s response can be nothing less than the truth of Scripture and God’s authority, wrapped with compassion and the hope of the Gospel.
The biblical narrative therefore accounts for origins of the transgender debate in the grand scheme of things, yet Walker also explores more proximal reasons for the debate’s emergence. Several ideological movements account for its backstory, including relativism, the societal rejection of Christian moral values, a radical individualism which celebrates emancipation from all constraints on individual desire, and neo-Gnosticism, which holds that “a person’s self-awareness is different than and more important than [one’s] physical body” (25). According to this last ideology especially, a person is equipped with the ontological tools necessary to see a distinction between sex, which designates one’s biological makeup, and gender, which refers to the expression of one’s sex. If a person subscribes to a gnostic view of reality which draws a firm separation between body and mind, then one’s true self is unrelated to biology. The experience of gender dysphoria provides the motivation for the choosing of a gender identity not defined by one’s sex. Such self-identification is what is meant when somebody identifies as “transgender.”
In all this Walker desires for his readers to see the progression from perception and experience to acting on these feelings in embracing an identity. He argues that the actual experience of gender dysphoria is not sinful, and such feelings are indeed real and valid. They can be accounted for as physical or psychological effects of the Fall: “[t]his experience is a sign that all of our selves are as broken by sin as the creation around us” (68). Where one crosses the line into sin is in the rejection of God’s norms for gender, and in deciding to “feed” one’s feelings of dysphoria, letting them rule in embracing them as one’s identity (68).
Such an understanding of the transgender debate therefore provides the framework for how Christians can respond to and counsel individuals experiencing gender dysphoria. We can love someone who struggles with such feelings by demonstrating empathy, compassion and a resolution to recognize the dignity of every person made in God’s image. Additionally, loving people requires Christians to share the biblical truth that both accounts for their experiences and provides the hope of healing in Christ.
This type of love requires great patience, Walker argues, for the decision to turn and follow Jesus will not be an easy one, especially for someone who has already walked down the path of embracing a transgender identity and even begun to alter their physical reality to match this identity through surgery and hormone therapy. Yet this is all the more reason why “[a] church should be the safest place to talk about, be open about, and struggle with gender dysphoria” (121). It should also behoove churches to be communities in which unhelpful gender stereotypes are challenged, stereotypes which support hypermasculinity or hyperfemininity which skew a vision of what it means to be male or female according to Scripture. Ultimately, churches should be the very places where both God’s truth and God’s love are to be found, especially regarding the hope of the Gospel for gender.
The highlight of Walker’s work is certainly the balance he aims to strike between providing an introduction to what evangelicals should believe and proclaim regarding transgender issues and how they are to treat those suffering under the weight of gender dysphoria. Neither truth nor love must be neglected.
Additionally, Walker brings a simple clarity to the issue, regardless of how complex the exploration of the particulars of psychology and biology become: the experience of psychological brokenness itself is not the sin. Rather, culpability comes in refusing to bring one’s identity and brokenness to Christ for healing and truth, choosing rather to elevate one’s own perceived authority as ultimate. This is certainly no different than to realize that to experience temptation is qualitatively different from willfully giving in to temptation. The great comfort for Christians is that we have a Savior and High Priest who has been tempted like us, yet without sin (Heb. 4:15).
Walker’s point is that this should engender long-enduring compassion for those who feel the weight of the Fall and sin’s temptation in the very center of their personhood in what it means to be either man or woman. The truth of Scripture is certainly liberating, for it provides an account of why all are so broken and rebellious, and it brings hope in Christ’s work of salvation—but it cannot be good news without love.
God and the Transgender Debate is a timely resource for Christians and their churches who desire to stand firm in faithful witness to God’s design for gender, all the while loving their neighbors with compassion and empathy. Walker succeeds in his vision of bringing God’s truth to bear on a debate which will continue to upend Western societies. What results is a useful primer that provides a well-informed and practical framework that affords a way through the storm.