Christians & Caitlyn

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.

Good news for the Good News?

Good news for the Good News?

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?

Leave a comment


  1. This is, I think, what John Shore is referring to as the “mushy middle.” I long for a day when a person is seen simply as a person, with inherent dignity. No labels. I’m an idealist, I know, but another person’s orientation or gender identity don’t matter much to me.

  2. 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.

    Yes, this is very much a problem.

    I grew up in an evangelical church. I was naturally somewhat conservative. But, as I read the teachings of Jesus, they led me in a more socially liberal direction. That’s the contradiction of evangelical Christianity. They want to celebrate both Jesus and their conservatism. But Jesus was a liberal (socially liberal).

    Their more immediate problem, is that sexual repression is a core feature of evangelical Christianity. Raise kids to be sexually repressed. But the biological sex drive is strong. That allows the religion to induce a strong sense of guilt, and that is used to manipulate people. So what they are struggling with, is that their program of sexual repression isn’t working the way that it used to.

    • That’s true and not true. Christianity and other religious traditions have historically had a lot of repressive attitudes and even very disordered, corrupt notions about gender and sexuality. BUT: It is not simply about guilt and manipulation — it can be much better or even much worse. It can vary greatly in different times and places. In our current time and place the dominant religious conservatisms have been fighting a losing battle to maintain a repressive culture for over a century. In the mid/later 20th century this really changed drastically, even for conservatives, and not because it was forced on them. There is a sense of that, but they have also come to terms with a lot of facts and reality too.

      Conservatives are all liberals with respect to their parents and grandparents on many issues, especially sexual ones. You can’t really speak of a united front — just a near universal sense of loss and confusion over old certainties that were largely idealized and mythical. Internet porn on top of war and economic uncertainty has affected everyone, and people primed to see these as apocalyptic portents or indicators of spiritual and cultural death are very affected — especially the older folks who grew up in a segregated and highly sexist society. The rules and goalposts have changed again and again for them. If they think a non-native Afro-communist terrorist stooge has been president for eight years they are not simply crazy or stupid although they are terrifyingly wrong. Old WASPy nativisms are having their recrudescence, and no one really wants to look into that abyss. Our older generations have numbers, money, emotion, and your younger, poorer generations will carry the burden of their material and emotional needs. Those needs are often expressed as demands and entitlements by people who denounce anyone else who might claim them. In this picture many things aren’t working “the way they used to.” If the choice is to change or die, some will choose the latter and make it an ugly process for themselves and others.

  3. Agreed, as a transgender person, I do not find Yarhouse’s three lenses compelling. First, let me give credit where credit is due: he does make an attempt to explain gender dysphoria in a semi-accurate manner, and he does encourage churches not to attempt to “fix” transgender people and to use the names and pronouns that they request. That’s actually a pretty big deal and something I strongly support. On the other hand, he does say that he would refuse to use a teenager’s requested name or pronouns if their parents didn’t like it, which, considering the epidemic of transgender youth suicide, seems horrific.

    But his discussion of embracing somewhat of all three lenses is nothing new or revolutionary at all. In my experience, most evangelicals do this to some extent and the result is not pretty. Most of the people who have mistreated me accepted that my sexuality/gender is a “disability” that requires “compassion” rather than a moral failing. But if you also believing in gender integrity, then dysphoria may not be a moral failing, but relieving it by medical means IS. It’s the same old song and dance of “being gay is not a sin, but marrying the love of your life is.” This form of compassion allows toxic Christians to dress up their attempts to “fix” you as a loving obligation, allowing them to wield the weapons of guilt and emotional manipulation against their victims. I would rather my church and family have said “we hate you; we don’t want you” and cut ties quickly, rather than drawing out the abuse for years with the words “we’re doing this because we love you” and “we’re doing this because you need it” and “we are doing this because god demands it”.

    So I appreciate that he encourages churches not to try to change transgender individuals. But the reasoning that he uses to get there is the same reasoning that my family and church used to abuse me for years and finally disown me. It’s nothing new and revolutionary and, as a counselor who works with transgender individuals, I can’t understand why he hasn’t realized that. Even if he chooses to still hold onto the “integrity” and “disability” lens (I am not so arrogant as to insist that he must change his personal beliefs), it would have done transgender people a much greater service if he had more strongly downplayed the role that these two lenses should have in the church’s interactions with transgender people. Suffice to say, he’s on the right track, but he has a looong ways further to go before he fully understands or addresses the problem.

    • How can being transgender be viewed as some kind of mental illness? I know it’s a struggle. It must be terrible to be in a body which is the opposite of your real gender. I’ve been an advocate for transgender people for a long time. Sexuality is a continuum, in my opinion, and being gay or straight or bi is no big deal to me. Transgender is different b/c somehow something goes wrong during gestation, and the wrong reproductive system is assigned. Gender is in the brain, not the body. When I say something goes wrong during gestation, I am NOT suggesting that the person affected is a mistake. The person has full human dignity and is inherently just fine, but sometimes nature messes up. I have a friend whose little boy was born profoundly deaf. No one would think less of her if her son qualifies for, and gets a cochlear implant. Why is sex reassignment surgery so abhorrent to people? I just don’t get it. In the end, we are all brothers and sisters.

      • Yeah, understanding and explaining even my own transgender experience is sort of hard. I agree that “something went wrong” is generally how I look at it, although I know a lot of transgender folks shy away from those words. That’s fine, but as it feels to me, my body got messed up. I guess I view it for myself as a sort of disorder, but one that is easily managed by therapy. I don’t necessarily need to be “fixed” just given the right therapies to ease the discomfort. I’ve lived 27 years in the wrong body and I’m finally seeing it slowly begin to look like me. I sure get impatient, sometimes, but it’s amazing how much more whole I feel. I never realized that other people feel like their bodies are a part of themselves. The concept of connecting myself to a body was completely foreign to me until just recently. My physical form was always like a stranger… what happened to it, what it looked like, what it was, was so far removed from me that it might as well not have existed. Now it’s so wonderful to be able to look in a mirror and say “hey… that’s me!” I really don’t think I can even find words for how strange but awesome that feels.

      • Well, I;m glad that you’ve been able to find some kind of peace of mine. I always enjoy conversing with you, or reading your comments here.

      • 🙂 Thank you, and then same!

  4. Agellius

     /  June 11, 2015

    Christians traditionally have believed that our bodies constitute our identity just as much as our souls. We’re a composite of body and soul, and not ghosts in machines. Just as the acceptance of gay marriage would require the abandonment of our doctrines on sexual morality, so also acceptance of transgenderism would require adoption of the idea that our bodies are like our cars, that is, ours to do with as we please; that we have no obligation to maintain them in their integrity. In which case there is no ground upon which to forbid drunkenness and gluttony, in other words no obligation to maintain the health of our bodies and therefore no need to avoid ingesting substances that are harmful to them, or to avoid mistreating them in any way.

    Yet the Bible says that our bodies are “a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God … You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body” (1 Cor. 6:19-20). And, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (Rom. 12:1). Our bodies are not our own but are given by God, to be used as he dictates. Using our bodies in accord with the commandments amounts to a sacrifice or a sacred offering to God, in other words it’s a form of worship.

    Naturally those who believe that our bodies are ours to dispose of as we please, will feel uncomfortable at being told they must submit to the opposite point of view, under pain of sin. That’s life and it can’t be helped. But it’s no different from any other thing which people are attached to, but are told they must give up in order to follow Christ. Hardly anyone who is serious about conforming his life to Christian morality, is able to do so without years of difficult struggle, frustration and sorrow. This is what is meant by taking up our cross daily and following in his steps (Lk. 9:23). (Yet people remain Christian because the rewards, even in this life, are far greater than the cost.)

    • “Christians traditionally have believed that our bodies constitute our identity just as much as our souls. We’re a composite of body and soul, and not ghosts in machines” Right. What happens when the soul is female and the body is male? Christians need to educate themselves about transgender people. Should we stop using eyeglasses or hearing aids or limb braces or other means to improve the functioning of our bodies? Are violating some arbitrary rules when we dye our hair or shave our legs or pluck our eyebrows? And, in my example above–is a cochlear implant a sin for a deaf person? Your line of reasoning makes no sense to me.

  5. Agellius

     /  June 15, 2015

    “What happens when the soul is female and the body is male?”

    You’re still talking about the body and soul as if they were separate things that can each go their own way. This reflects the “ghost in the machine” understanding of the interaction of body and soul introduced by Descartes, but not traditionally held by the Christian Church. Thus, you apparently think of the soul in the body as if it were the driver of a car, with the right to customize and modify it to his heart’s content. Whereas in the traditional Christian understanding, the soul is the form and animating principle of the body; the soul and body form one composite being. An analogy would be if the driver and the car were a single unit, not one being occupying another. Therefore, there can’t be a divide between body and soul, without abandoning the traditional Christian understanding of those things and adopting Descartes’ understanding instead.

    “Christians need to educate themselves about transgender people.”

    I hear this constantly from transgender advocates. I find it presumptuous. It’s as if to say that once the pertinent facts are known, only one opinion is possible. I could just as easily say (but I wouldn’t) that since your opinion on Christian anthropology differs from mine, you must need to “educate yourself” on Christian anthropology.

    “Should we stop using eyeglasses or hearing aids or limb braces or other means to improve the functioning of our bodies? Are violating some arbitrary rules when we dye our hair or shave our legs or pluck our eyebrows? And, in my example above–is a cochlear implant a sin for a deaf person?”

    I’m saying that since God made us and we are his, therefore there are limits to what we may do with our bodies. Do you disagree that there are limits?

    • I have personal limits. For example, it is not my choice to get a tattoo, but I dye my hair. And, who sets the limits? I guess prosthetics are okay after an amputation, but changing one’s genitalia is not? Where is the list? Christian tradition varies within different denominations. “Tradition” is also based on cherry picking one “founding father” from another. I just read a book about the early Christians, written by an evangelical, who used quotes from such folks as Augustine, Origen, and Justin Martyr. Some of the men he referenced he qualified by saying that, in some cases, those men wandered into areas that he found troubling. So, he just picked from what he considered the “good” things. I believe our bodies are temporary tents, compared to the OT Tabernacle by St Paul. These earthly tents, while being the temporary temples of the Holy Spirit, are destined to be torn down at the final resurrection. The soul is the animator of the body, but not its form. I would never dare to make a judgment call about what one does with one’s own body, unless what is done puts the life of the person at risk, such as drug abuse or alcoholism.

  6. Agellius

     /  June 16, 2015

    So it seems that you do accept limits on what we may do with our bodies, even if you restrict them to life-threatening practices like drug abuse or alcoholism; but you deny that anyone is qualified or authorized to set such limits for everyone. In the Catholic context, the Church is qualified and authorized to set the limits, using criteria based on principles contained in divine revelation and refined over two millennia (which is what we call tradition). My basic point is that it can’t change those limits at will, without repudiating those principles and its tradition. But the whole point of the tradition is to have stable criteria by which to judge the new things that arise in every age. If the tradition must rather conform to every age, then it’s no tradition at all.

    (As an aside, I find it odd that you say our bodies are to be “torn down” at the resurrection. Won’t they in fact be raised up?)

    • St Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthians, chapter 15, says that we will be changed, in the flash of an eye. He does not elaborate on whether or not our bodies will be the same ones. Will resurrected children still be kids when they are raised? What about people with amputations? Sometimes there is no answer. I know that Tradition is considered infallible, passed down via the Holy Spirit. But there are other denominations that also believe that is how their theology works. Fallible men started the Church, gaining knowledge bit by bit. Even Catholic doctrine is taught as being evolving over time, as the Church obtains knowledge. The doctrine of Mary’s Assumption wasn’t pronounced until 1950. The old way of seeing limbo for unbaptized infants has disappeared. The Church itself has not been consistent on some teachings over the years. I appreciate your deep love of and acceptance of the Teaching Magesterium. I remember those days when I was dazzled by the incredible wisdom of the Church. Those days are gone for me. It’s why I am not a Catholic. I do not advocate that you abandon your faith in the RCC. I merely explain why I myself am now an ex-Catholic.

      • @Sheila — You haven’t dropped your residual Catholic metaphysics — you’re agreeing with @Agelius on the fundamental idea that there is a thing called a “soul” that is immortal and distinct from the body. You’re just disagreeing on how they relate.

        You see the problems arising from Agellius using his normative and essentialist model of human wholeness to insist no other model should be possible, desired, or permitted. But do you equally appreciate the difficulty you have in making consistent ethical judgments at all? You almost seem to be saying people inevitably just “make stuff up,” and fairly arbitrary, inconsistent beliefs are normal and inescapable. Does “do no harm” really serve well as the basis for personal and collective ethical constraints? Defining unhealthy and hazardous behavior is difficult enough relative to drugs and alcohol. What about food and nutrition, abortion, cosmetic surgery, extreme body modification, psychotropic pharmaceuticals, and transhumanist ideals realized through genetic engineering or eugenics?

  7. Agellius

     /  June 23, 2015

    “You see the problems arising from Agellius using his normative and essentialist model of human wholeness to insist no other model should be possible, desired, or permitted.”

    I’m not insisting, merely explaining why a serious Catholic can’t simply change his mind in order to bring his views into line with the current consensus.

    • “Can’t” sounds like “insisting” to me. 🙂 And why not insist? The point of logical consistency is to say “if we start here and work out the implications to various conclusions, then you are compelled to accept them or reject the whole thing.” That’s fair, but I think it does fail. It proves inadequate. So Sheila is justified in her open inconsistency, yet that causes problems for her too. You’re on different ends of the same problem.

      I’d rather say a “serious Catholic” takes the idea of tradition and orthodoxy seriously, strives to understand what that is and remain within it, yet this doesn’t preclude questions and changes that may seem to you as merely conforming to a larger cultural “peer pressure.” I think that’s a hasty judgment to make and rather insulting. Nobody complains about conformity to pressures they consider good, so that in itself is not necessarily a bad thing. You really are saying you think they are being overly influenced by an alien and incompatible orthodoxy, yet it is impossible to look at even the most conservative religious traditions and not observe that the world changes them even as they change the world. Does a rigid and adversarial model really help us think well about these relationships and transactions?

  8. Agellius

     /  June 23, 2015


    You write, ‘“Can’t” sounds like “insisting” to me.’

    I don’t mean can’t full-stop, I mean can’t without repudiating certain principles and elements of tradition, as I said previously. Obviously people who don’t subscribe to those principles won’t reach the same conclusions, and I don’t insist that they must.

    I don’t see what’s insulting about me feeling pressure to conform to the consensus, and explaining why I can’t. I agree that cultural peer pressure can be good. It depends on whether the thing people feel pressured to do is a good thing or a bad thing.

    I said nothing about what other people are being “overly influenced” by. It’s possible that everyone who endorses transgenderism today would also have endorsed it 50 years ago, despite there being no cultural consensus at the time … but then again, probably not.

    I agree that religious traditions are sometimes changed by the world, and it’s sometimes good, depending on whether the thing they are changing to is good or bad. But I would not agree that a true principle can become false.


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