"The world is changing. Fast...Christians have often failed to discern the difference between our own cultural values, and those that are demanded by Scripture. We are as prone to bigotry as others. We have much to repent of in our attitudes towards the freedom and role of women in society, and in our lack of compassion and understanding towards, for example, those who have wrestled with same-sex attraction...Now, again, we find ourselves in unfamiliar territory and ill-equipped to deal with it. Sometimes it's easier to protest and rage against the tide of history than to go back to our Bibles and think carefully about what God is saying--holding up society's views, and our own, to the truth-revealing mirror that is God's word."
Tim Thornborough does well to introduce this series, and this volume by Vaughan Roberts (Rector of St. Ebbe's Church in Oxford, UK), Transgender. In just 70 pages, Roberts provides a helpful introduction to the terminology and underlying assumptions surrounding this complex topic, and a guide following a pattern that will prove familiar to Reformed Christians.
Rather than provide his own definitions--undermining (silencing) the voices of those identifying with one of a range of experiences under the umbrella of transgender--Roberts defers to those put together by the LGBT organization, Stonewall. If for no other reason, Christians should buy this book (just $4.99 at Amazon) for this handy summary alone.
From here, Roberts lays out his position, describing the two primary responses of people to those who identify as transgender--"Yuk!" or "Yes!"--and challenging Christians to refrain from either of these responses. Rather, he believes Christians have been called to "remember that they (transgender individuals) are made in God's image and deeply loved by him (p. 19)" and, therefore, should "share his compassion for them in their pain and confusion (p. 19)."
The rest of the book is an apologetic for his position, beginning with an analysis of the foundations of our contemporary culture's profound individualism and the exaltation of human reason: the Enlightenment. And from there, he traces the evolution of thought through to postmodernism, explaining:
The Enlightenment began with great confidence that reason could lead us to the truth, but that optimism gradually disappeared. Even the greatest human thinkers can't agree on fundamental issues. And so, having rejected revelation and lacking confidence in reason, our culture has now largely rejected the concept of objective truth, at least when it comes to big issues, such as meaning and morality. [This leaves us with] ourselves as individuals. If we think that truth is subjective, then we certainly won't let any external authority tell us what to think or how to behave--whether its the government, religion or family. Its up to us to draw our own conclusions and live our own lives.
Drawing on pop culture, John Stuart Mill, Jonathan Grant, and several feminist authors, Roberts argues that people living in such a self-expressive society will inevitably define their own identities on their own terms (casting off the outdated, constricting, binary, male-or-female understanding of gender). Thus, what it comes down to is a fundamental clash of worldviews. Both acknowledge the reality of gender dysphoria, but they disagree on how it should be understood and addressed.
The next three chapters are Roberts' attempt to lay out the pattern of the biblical story of Creation, Fall, and Redemption (Rescue). In the Creation chapter, he describes how humankind is God's masterpiece, embodied and sexual beings (male and female). He does well to succinctly describe these terms, as well as warning Christians not to go beyond what the Bible actually says about what it means to be a man or a woman. In the Fall, Roberts argues that sin has left us as "flawed masterpieces" marked by three things: disordered minds, disordered bodies, and disordered hearts. This has affected all of us (not just transgender individuals) and has a profound impact on all aspects of life. Finally, in the Redemption chapter (entitled Rescue), Roberts lays out the hope of the gospel, revealed in the person and work of Jesus Christ (not to mention the new creation to come):
We will always be insecure if our identity is based on something within us: our feelings, assertions or achievements. But this new identity in Christ that he offers us could not be more secure. We will often fail God, but our relationship with him remains unshakeable because it is founded not on anything we do but on what Christ has already done for us.
As well as the challenges that come with the Christian life:
The modern idea is that we have to affirm the feelings we have and that we can only be authentic as we fulfill our desires. But the Bible teaches that some of our desires should be resisted. We are to measure our desires and feelings against the will of God...That means that those who experience gender dysphoria should resist feelings that encourage them to see themselves as anything other than the sex of their birth. They will sometimes fail, whether in thought or deed, as we all do, but they are called to persevere. That may feel agonising at times--as if they are putting themselves to death. But that is the way of life to which Christ calls all of us...But when we kill the desires that lead away from God's will, it brings life, not death (2 Cor. 4:11).
And this is something Roberts is well acquainted with himself, as a celibate, same-sex attracted individual. In a couple of instances throughout the book, he references his own struggle, and, yet, commitment to pursuing obedience to God as revealed in Scripture.
Roberts closes with a short chapter entitled, "Wisdom," in which he tries to address various questions Christians may ask, pointing the reader numerous times to the example of Christ. Christians, writes Roberts, should be gracious, caring, compassionate, patient, loving people who warmly welcome transgender people into their homes and churches, and listen attentively to their stories, experiences and feelings. All the while, we should long for them to come to a saving trust, just as we did by the grace of God, in the Lord Jesus Christ, and journey along the way of faithfulness that leads to the Kingdom.
I believe this book is a wonderful, and necessary, resource for the church. It manages to be clear, concise, and compassionate, while also exalting the authority of God and the hope of the gospel. Because it is short, it does not get into the nitty-gritty details, but does give enough to provide a starting point for more in-depth conversation and research. I would have liked it if Roberts would have gone more in-depth about the created order, or addressed at least a few of the challenges that those who disagree with him may pose, but these are minor quibbles.
Overall, I would commend this book to individuals, churches, and ministries seeking to better understand and begin having, conversation about sex, gender, and contemporary issues surrounding them, as well as those who may disagree with Roberts perspective but would like to read a gracious, well-articulated argument from a well-respected, principled, and, yet, empathetic source. More info about the book can be found, here.
For those at Iowa State, we will be studying this book over the course of a three weeks in the spring semester.