What are conservative evangelical Christians to do? Mainstream American culture seems to be celebrating our newfound openness about sexuality and gender identity. Caitlyn Jenner is feted and adored, not stigmatized and isolated. Should evangelicals join in the celebration? In the pages of Christianity Today, evangelical psychologist Mark Yarhouse lays out his vision of the proper Christian response to transgender issues. Will it work? Can it lift evangelical churches above the culture-war fray?
First, the usual caveat: I’m no evangelical. I’m just a mild-mannered historian interested in culture-war issues. Today’s article by Professor Yarhouse will help outsiders like me understand one way conservative evangelicals might understand those issues.
Yarhouse works at Regent University in Virginia, where he directs the Institute for the Study of Sexual Identity. For evangelicals, Yarhouse argues, there are three common reactions to today’s discussions about gender dysphoria.
First, some Christians think of it as a question of “integrity.” God created us male and female, some think, and we need to respect that.
Or, Christians might think of gender dysphoria as a “disability.” Like depression or schizophrenia, gender dysphoria is a mental-health issue. It is not a moral question, Yarhouse argues, though the decisions people make as a result of their mental-health issues can certainly have moral consequences.
Finally, Yarhouse notes, many mainstream Americans see gender dysphoria through the lens of “diversity.” Seen this way, transgender persons should be celebrated for their bravery and moral courage.
In language that some conservative folks might find disconcerting, Yarhouse thinks there is value in all three of these approaches. Churches must continue to value ideas about gender integrity, he believes. Understanding maleness and femaleness must be part of any attempt to live Christian lives. But he thinks evangelicals should also approach transgender people with “empathy and compassion.” Not least, Yarhouse values the notion that transgender people should be welcomed and celebrated, just as every person who comes to every church should be welcomed and celebrated.
As he puts it,
When it comes to support, many evangelical communities may be tempted to respond to transgender persons by shouting “Integrity!” The integrity lens is important, but simply urging persons with gender dysphoria to act in accordance with their biological sex and ignore their extreme discomfort won’t constitute pastoral care or a meaningful cultural witness.
The disability lens may lead us to shout, “Compassion!” and the diversity lens may lead us to shout “Celebrate!” But both of these lenses suggest that the creational goodness of maleness and femaleness can be discarded—or that no meaning is to be found in the marks of our suffering.
Most centrally, the Christian community is a witness to the message of redemption. We are witnesses to redemption through Jesus’ presence in our lives. Redemption is not found by measuring how well a person’s gender identity aligns with their biological sex, but by drawing them to the person and work of Jesus Christ, and to the power of the Holy Spirit to transform us into his image.
Churches, Yarhouse argues, must rise above “culture wars about sex and gender that fall closely on the heels of the wars about sexual behavior and marriage.”
Now, I’m not an evangelical and I’m not a transgender person, so I’m probably getting this wrong. But as an outsider, I can’t help but feel underwhelmed by Yarhouse’s prescription. I can’t help but notice that many conservative evangelical communities are influenced at least as much by their conservative identity as by their evangelical one. For many thoughtful conservatives, the rush to embrace transgender people as part of a “new normal” seems pusillanimous. Even if they recognize the Christian weight of Yarhouse’s arguments, they still feel bound to defend traditional gender rules and norms.
And from the other side, if I were a transgender individual, I don’t think I’d feel fully welcomed into a church that still insisted on maintaining a respect for the “integrity” of male-female gender duality. That is, even in the best-case scenario, if a Yarhouse-ite church allowed me to become a member, but maintained a strong sense that I was suffering from a disability and that I was somehow going against the integrity of God’s gender plan, I don’t think I’d rush to join.
Am I off base? Do conservative Christian readers find Yarhouse’s ideas compelling? Do transgender folks?