“Daddy—that man is dressed like a woman! Why is he dressed like that?”
My son’s question—asked, of course, in his loudest possible volume—hung in the air while we stood along the walkway. We were waiting for my wife and daughters to exit a ride at Disneyland that afternoon when the individual passed by, catching my son’s attention. My mind raced for answers as two or three understanding parents listened in, smiling with gratefulness that they were not me at that moment.
I managed a wholly unsatisfactory and only somewhat sensical response about choices and identity before directing his attention to his mother and sisters plunging down the ride’s log flume drop in the distance. A few minutes later, the rest of the family, all smiles and soaking wet, rounded the corner. As we moved on in search of a churro stand, I began to think about how I could have answered the question more adequately, and I came up with no answers. How could I explain such a complicated concept to someone so young? Furthermore, how would I communicate God’s tremendous love for that person whose life appeared to be lived in a way out of alignment with the teachings of the Bible? I was at a loss.
How would I communicate God’s tremendous love for that person whose life appeared to be lived in a way out of alignment with the teachings of the Bible?
Can you identify with that sense of helplessness? The gender discussion has become far more complicated in recent years, and parents, grandparents, pastors, teachers, and others who raise and influence children often find themselves behind the curve. The issue is critical, however, and when questions related to sex, gender, gender identity, and transgenderism come up, we must be ready to provide well-thought-out, biblically-informed answers. Additionally, our responses must be given in grace with compassion for those whose struggles with sin differ from our own.
Defining the Terms
Understanding a few key terms may prove helpful in our search for answers that both affirm the value of all people and accurately reflect the truths about humanity and sexuality contained in the Bible. Please note that these terms are defined as they are understood in Gender Theory today.
- Gender Theory: gender theory is the study of masculinity and femininity as well as the social constructs that define them. The typical end conclusion of gender theory is that expressions of gender are not tied to biological sex and must be understood as characteristics devised by societies rather than by nature or by God.
- Sex: the biological categories of male or female which are tied to chromosomes, gonads, reproductive organs, and function in reproduction.
- Gender: the characteristics of women, men, girls, and boys that are created by societies, including the normal behaviors and roles associated with being of a specific gender.
- Gender Identity: how one experiences herself or himself as male or female, including how feminine or masculine one feels.
- Gender Dysphoria: “The feeling of discomfort or distress that might occur in people whose gender identity differs from their sex assigned at birth or sex-related physical characteristics.”1
- Transgender: a broad term referring to those who experience any level of gender dysphoria and may present and live out their gender identity in opposition to their body.
- Transexual: a transgender person who has undergone gender reassignment procedures, either hormone suppression treatment or surgical alteration, and who chooses to live as someone of the opposite sex than the one he or she was assigned at birth.
Understanding the Issue
In summary, transgenderism’s acceptance is rooted in modern gender theory’s assertion that one’s biological sex and gender identity are not naturally linked. Rather, it is suggested that one’s gender identity is a social construct and thus can be selected based on one’s subjective identity, feelings, and preferences. Although this distinction between biological sex and gender identity is a relatively recent one, it has impacted the way those experiencing gender dysphoria may live and how those who do not are expected to respond to and interact with those who do.
Bluntly telling my son that the person he saw is confused, sinful, and wrong when he next raises the question is not the right approach, as it is too simplistic and lacks Christian charity. Conversely, capitulating to societal pressure and avoiding the question or giving a culturally-approved response cannot be the answer either, as many of gender theory’s assertions are not in line with the teachings of the Bible.
What Does the Bible Teach about Sex, Gender, and Transgenderism?
While the Bible does not address transgenderism and gender dysphoria by name, we find multiple references to the goodness of God’s binary design for sex and the call to live in alignment with one’s body. Additionally, there are warnings regarding the sin of living in defiance of God’s design. A few passages are especially helpful in understanding the biblical case for the traditional view of human sexuality.
- God created humanity with inherent value, and his design included a purposeful link between sex and gender identity (Genesis 1:23–24; 26-27; and 18-24).
- Transgender activity, surgeries, and lifestyles are sinful as they mutilate healthy bodies and are not in line with God’s original design for humanity (Leviticus 18:22; Deuteronomy 22:5; Romans 1:18–32; 1 Corinthians 6:9–10).
- We are to honor God with our bodies and how we represent his good design to the world (1 Corinthians 6:19–20).
How Do We Discuss Transgenderism with Truth and Grace?
Christians living in an increasingly complicated world should be ready to give a defense for a biblical approach to any contemporary issue. Because we seek to engage culture in a gracious, truth-centered manner, we need to carefully consider our approach to those discussions. The following scenarios and suggestions may give some helpful guidance:
- My young son has expressed that he is a girl and wants to wear girl clothes, etc. First, understand that there are many reasons why a child may desire to experiment with transgender behavior. Perhaps he is seeking attention or doing so out of amusement. Whatever the case, you are the parent who has been given the responsibility to raise your child, and you do not need to bow to the perspectives of anyone else. Take the opportunity to discuss with your child God’s original design for men and women and the importance of honoring one’s functioning body. Teach him that God made him a boy and that being a boy or being a girl is a beautiful thing, but one cannot be both. If you have not yet done so, share the gospel with your son and point out that, while we all desire to think and act in rebellion to God’s instructions, Jesus died so that we could be delivered from attachment to sins.
- My unbelieving adult daughter recently told me she plans to transition to a male. When your child is no longer under your authority, you cannot rely on the same level of influence. In the case where your child is not a Christian and you are, your best option is to take them to the Bible and share God’s intention for human sexuality as well as his plan for salvation. After that, you prepare to love your child and support her however you can, without affirming her in her sin. Continue praying for God to save her, knowing that, while salvation guarantees deliverance from the consequences of sin, it does not promise freedom from temptation or an easy path forward for those struggling with gender dysphoria.
- How do I address my Christian child who claims to suffer from gender dysphoria? Sharon James makes a helpful distinction between those who have gender dysphoria and those who are “gender-nonconformists,” or people who “may not necessarily be deeply conflicted about their identity . . . [but] may claim the right to be gender fluid.”2 Because the fundamentals of gender theory are widely accepted, those who are not subject to gender dysphoria may still claim the right to live as whatever gender or sex they choose because all options are now available to anyone. In this situation, a parent must ask difficult questions to know how to help. Actual gender dysphoria is accompanied by pervasive sadness and even despair and may be the result of undisclosed past sexual trauma, so attempt to discover the root cause of the condition. If the child simply desires to explore his or her sexuality and gender, the absence of gender dysphoria does not make the experimentation any less dangerous, spiritually speaking. In either case, healing, hope, and restoration are found in the gospel.
God’s original design for human sexuality and gender remains unchanged, and conflicting perspectives are sinful and must be resisted. That said, those who express a transgender identity should not be simply vilified and cast aside as broken, unredeemable, and unwilling to change. They, like all of us, are simply subject to the consequences of sin, enslaved to it if they are not saved and still attracted to it in the flesh if they are Christians.
That said, those who express a transgender identity should not be simply vilified and cast aside as broken, unredeemable, and unwilling to change.
So what do we do? Owen Strachan and Gavin Peacock note, “Come what may, we must not lose sight of the fact that we are called to speak the truth in love. There is no new mission for Christians today.”3 The gospel remains the answer for issues of the sinful human heart, and we remain the ones to share it, in love, with those who need it most.
Dr. Jason Barker (MDiv, DMin) has served as a pastor and educator for twenty years. He is the Dean of Academics at Oak Valley College in Rialto, California, and serves as an adjunct faculty member at four other colleges and seminaries. He, his wife, and their four children live in Southern California.