A church should be the safest place to talk about, be open about, and struggle with gender dysphoria.
That’s because the place where Jesus expects people to experience the truth of His promises is in His community—the church.
Peter began to say to him, “See, we have left everything and followed you.” Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life.” (Mark 10:28-30)
Peter says, “We have left everything.” Peter and the disciples were following Jesus together. And this “we” had left everything. In response, Jesus promises it is this “we” that will gain the rewards of an eternal hope—and not just this, but also that right now anyone who has given up precious hopes, relationships or securities for His sake will find far more in following Him. Crucially, the place where He envisions people receiving a hundred times more in terms of open homes and loving family must be, and can only be … in the church.
“We” is one of the most important words in the Christian vocabulary for shaping our identity as Christians, and often we overlook the way that walking behind Christ requires fellowship with one another. We bear our crosses together in community, and community is what makes cross-bearing possible.
So a transgender person ought to feel more loved and safe visiting a Bible-believing church than in any other place in the world! A gender-dysphoric person should feel safer speaking about their identity and struggles in church than anywhere else. Church should be the place where people know they are loved, even if they disagree.
Too often, our churches have been anything but those places—and that is something Christians, including me, need to say we’re sorry for. If you’re struggling with gender dysphoria and have found church unwelcoming, judgmental or harsh when you have sought to open up, then there’s a huge problem—and it’s not yours; it’s the church’s. And I’m sorry.
In this article, I want to look at the Bible’s challenge to church communities who want to be the people Jesus wants them to be—and who therefore wish to embrace gender-dysphoric members, and reach out to gender-dysphoric and transgender neighbors, with love, loving truth, and truth-based hope.
What will that kind of church community be like?
If a popular local politician and a self-identified transgender individual walked into your church, who would be greeted first? Who would be warmly invited back the following Sunday?
If your honest answer is that the politician would be the highest priority and receive the warmest welcome, the hard truth is that the Bible says your church would be showing partiality—which is a sin:
My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “You sit here in a good place,” while you say to the poor man, “You stand over there,” or, “Sit down at my feet,” have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him? (James 2:1-5)
The church’s response to those who identify as transgender, and to those who struggle with gender dysphoria but who are not actively identifying as transgender, must be—immediately and with integrity—“You are welcome here. You are loved here.”
This requires us to be open about our own struggles and failings and worries. Too often our churches give the impression that the Son of Man came to seek and save good people, not the lost. Too quickly our churches create a list of sins that are more tolerated and excusable (these tend to be the ones we struggle with) than others (which, conveniently, tend to be those others struggle with).
The antidote to this is to understand that the compassion we need for others begins with appreciating the compassion the Lord extends to each of us. He is the Lord of Glory (James 2:1)—yet He came with words of welcome to those who had run from him. He is the Lord of Glory—yet He loves and cares for you and me. That is the compassion we must be willing to extend to others—all others.
Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger. (James 1:19)
Blog threads, sermons, and post-church interactions can bend toward the reverse of this, particularly when it comes to hot-button issues. I know that’s true of me! We feel angry, so we speak quickly, and we don’t really want to listen at all.
Very often, churches that are committed to the Bible as God’s Word, and that honestly want to love others as Christ loves them, fail to listen. Why? Because we know we have our theology perfectly zipped up and our apologetics perfectly charted, so we think we need simply to expound truths that heads in the pews will absorb. The problem, though, is that God made us with both heads and hearts: with thoughts, feelings, and desires. In order to impact someone’s heart, we need to listen to their heart too.
Real people live in our neighborhoods, sit in our church buildings, and talk with us after our services, and they have real struggles. And the question is: In our churches, do they hear their struggles spoken about kindly, carefully, by someone who has tried to understand them? Or quickly, dismissively, and angrily, by someone who has never stopped to think how they feel? Would someone secretly struggling with gender dysphoria hear it talked about in a way that invites them to open up, or which tells them never, ever to risk it—in a way that assumes “people like that” are not sitting in church that Sunday, or in a way that recognizes they may well be?
When it comes to gender identity, we need to listen to what it’s like to struggle in this area. And we need to be willing to hear hard truths about how we in the church have—either through lack of thought, or lack of love, or just with the best of intentions—hurt people who encounter gender-identity issues. We need to listen to the person in front of us, rather than assuming they conform to a stereotype in our head which is likely based on media stories, or social-media gossip.
If you don’t know much about gender-identity issues and don’t know what it’s like to struggle with them, learn to listen. Take time to listen. Be ready to learn. If someone says, “You don’t understand,” rather than telling them they’re wrong, answer, “Very possibly not. Please tell me.”
Listening opens us up to hearing that we’ve got something wrong. And that’s OK. It’s unlikely we have got our theology 100 percent correct. It’s certain we haven’t got our thinking and behavior 100 percent correct. Humility dictates that we are willing to acknowledge when we’ve been wrong.
Think about other communities with a cause. The cause may not be noble—in fact, it may be ignoble, stoking racism, promoting greed, or justifying immorality—but if a group has a cause, its members do not lack confidence in their convictions as they contend for people’s attention and hearts.
How sad it would be for the people of God not to have full confidence in our cause. How sad it would be if the people of God lost the conviction that relationship with the God who has revealed himself in the Bible is what each inhabitant of this world was made for and needs most.
Jesus says that to trust Him is to understand truth and experience freedom:
If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free. (John 8:31-32)
We do not have space here to set out the biblical underpinning for the truth that our gender is fundamentally linked to our biological sex, and that our feelings or self-perception should not be given greater authority than God’s Word. But we do need to underline that if a church community is to be a lifeline of hope to those who struggle with gender dysphoria, it must be one committed to biblical truth. Why? Not because it feels good to be right, but because it allows us to offer a word of hope and reconciliation. We can only offer this message if we believe the message is true!
We must not shy away from holding out truth. But equally, if we use truth as blunt force trauma against those who are coming to grips with what discipleship means, woe to us. Woe to us if we demand conformity from those who are struggling more than we are willing to walking alongside them while they are struggling.
It is only loving to hold to biblical truth if that truth comes wrapped in love. We are only firmly anchored, able to grow and to share the Gospel without being tossed about by every idea and argument from both the conservative and progressive ends of the spectrum, if we are “speaking the truth in love“(Ephesians 4:15). Neither love nor truth is an optional bolt-on to our Christianity.
Most of us, depending on our particular character, tend to bend toward one or the other: to love or to truth. The struggle is to showcase the one we bend away from. If you or your church tends to listen and love but bend the truth in your attempt to love, the challenge is: hold to the truth, even as you love—remember that loving someone is not the same as agreeing with them, and sometimes loving someone requires you to disagree. But for those of us who are tempted to teach truth without love, the challenge is: don’t neglect love. After all, it’s love that wins a hearing for the truth.
You may know Paul as the man who brought the Gospel to city after city around the Mediterranean. But the Gospel was not all he was committed to sharing with those he met:
We were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children. So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us. (1 Thessalonians 2:7-8)
If someone struggles with gender dysphoria, then life will be hard if they follow Christ. We need to love one another for the long haul and through the hard times. Love means sharing life with people and making ourselves vulnerable to hurt and heartbreak. Lots of us want to be friends in the abstract, but when it comes time to display radical commitment to a friend, we’d rather be left unbothered.
Notice the image Paul invokes here. His ministry was one of vulnerable gentleness. Like a mother who cares for her children, and whose heart is wrapped up with their fortunes—that is how Christians are to see the other members of their churches. To be the church means to work hard and spend much in the pursuit of being a community that walks through the mountains and the valleys together—including with those whose struggles are unlike our own. Let us not only be Gospel-sharing communities, but self-sharing communities.
It’s very easy to miss, but Paul’s letters to the churches he ministered to always begin and finish, one way or another, with the word “grace.” That’s because grace, God’s overwhelming kindness, is the first word and the last word of Christian hope, Christian community, and Christian life.
Local churches should point to God’s grace all the time—holding to our Creator’s standards because we know they are for the good of his creatures, but also celebrating his overwhelming forgiveness and extending our own forgiveness.
What does grace tell me? It tells me that I fall short, and so do you. Grace tells me I am still loved, and so are you. Grace is there for me in my repentance, and it’s there for you in yours. Grace says forgiveness is always available—for me, and for you. Grace never lets us be proud, for our salvation is not of our own doing; but grace also prevents us from despair, for by grace we have been saved and are being remade.
If our churches are marked by one thing, let it be grace—the grace that always welcomes in, always goes the extra mile, always forgives, and never says “enough.”
How wonderfully odd it is to consider that Jesus saves us not by removing us or our challenges from this world, but by giving us the strength to face those challenges together. Your church is to be a place of grace, a place where everyone, no matter what their background or struggles are, finds homes open and family offered; a place where the door is always open rather than the drawbridge drawn up; a place where people are listened to and loved rather than stereotyped and lectured at. If you are a church member, you are called to serve that end.
That makes your church harder and costlier to be a part of. That will involve you being willing to be challenged and to be changed, and resisting the temptation always to assume that it’s only others who get things wrong.
But that also makes your church the church that you need, and that those around you need—and the church that pleases your Lord, as you live with grace while you speak of grace.
This article is an edited excerpt from Andrew T. Walker’s new book, God and the Transgender Debate: What Does the Bible Actually Say About Gender Identity? (2017, The Good Book Company), available at https://store.focusonthefamily.com. Walker is director of policy studies with the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention.
Originally published in the October 2017 issue of Citizen magazine.