The news and the Internet have been astir lately over the very public transitioning of the Olympian Bruce Jenner, who is now known as Caitlyn Jenner. There have been a number of responses written about this situation; sadly, not all of them were written with regard to how Jenner (or people like her) may feel upon reading them.
A few months ago I was asked to do a study into transgender issues, as our church acknowledged that at some point we will start to see transgender people coming to our Sunday gatherings. Since we collectively knew very little about what it means to be transgender, it seemed sensible to find out more. I spent a couple of days researching a wide variety of sources, from GLAAD and the Human Rights Campaign to anti-LGBT groups, to try and gain a balanced perspective on what’s at stake. I confess that I am fascinated by transgender people, because their experience of life is so very different from mine. As I read stories of people who have transitioned, or are in the process of transitioning, I felt deeply grieved for them over all the pain, confusion and rejection they have suffered. I learned three key lessons about trans people through all this:
- Transitioning isn’t about preference
- Those of us who aren’t trans can get the false impression that it’s a simple case of having some surgery because you feel like changing gender. This just isn’t the case! Transitioning is a long process, involving myriad treatments before surgery occurs (if it ever does); it is extremely difficult to reverse, so it is not a decision which is taken lightly. Here in the UK, the NHS provide counselling prior to transitioning, to make absolutely sure that it is the right thing for the individual.
- Many trans people lose key relationships due to transitioning
- Close family members and friends sometimes can’t accept the change they see, which can lead to them rejecting their trans relative/friend.
- I have no idea how it feels
- I have always been comfortable with my gender. My heart breaks for those who aren’t, and I know I can never fully understand the turmoil of gender dysphoria.
One of the questions I sought to answer in my study was whether or not being transgender – and particularly transitioning – is a sin. Theologically speaking, we know that all human beings are made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27). The Bible tells us that God knitted us together in our mothers’ womb, and he saw our unformed bodies (Psalm 139). The Bible does not clearly deal with the issue of gender dysphoria as we see it today, although there are references to similar things found in Scripture.
The question of whether a person who has transitioned has sinned is best answered through examining whether that person can still be considered to be made in the image of God. Within that question lies another; are we physically the image of God, or spiritually? For this, we need to look at two Hebrew words: selem and demût, meaning “image” and “likeness” respectively. These words are used in Genesis 1:26-27, which is a key verse for understanding imago Dei (image of God); they are also used in other key verses such as Genesis 5:1-2 and 9:6, among others. For the most part, where selem is used elsewhere in the Old Testament, it refers to a physical image; one which is abominable (i.e. idols). However, this is not always the case, as in Psalm 39:5-6, where it is translated as “phantom”. It seems that selem is used to denote both physical and abstract images. Demût is also used in both contexts, but is more often connected with a physical likeness. The use of the words selem and d emût would suggest that the author of Genesis was referring to man’s physical appearance. However, the writer also does not rule out the imago Dei going beyond the physical.
Throughout the Bible, God appears to be more concerned with our hearts than with our physical appearance (1 Samuel 16:7). Since that understanding seems to be integral to God’s interactions with mankind, it is fair to conclude that our being made in His image must go beyond the physical; we are holistically made in the image of God. We are creative because He is creative; we are morally responsible because He is moral, and so on. If it is the heart which is truly important, then it cannot follow that someone who has transitioned has forfeited their status as “made in the image of God”. If it were possible to lose that status through changing our appearance, how would it be decided what level of physical change is acceptable? Would cosmetic surgery remove the image of God? Ought makeup to be outlawed in Christian communities, as it covers up the image of God? Of course not!
The Bible does not contain a clear-cut statement as to whether being transgender is a sin. What is known is God’s love for mankind, expressed most perfectly in the person of Jesus and his sacrificial death on the cross. Romans 8 states clearly that if someone is a Christian, they are being conformed to the likeness of Christ, through grace. This is true for all Christians, regardless of past or present sin, imperfection and doubt. So too is it true of transgender Christians, whether they are just beginning to examine their feelings of confused gender identity, or they have completed transition. In the former case, there is opportunity for the Holy Spirit to minister to them out of the truth of who God has made them to be. In the latter case, it is not possible to reverse a transition, so condemning that choice (whether made before or after salvation) is not helpful. What is needed is affirmation through the Holy Spirit and Christian brothers and sisters, so that the person attains a healthy perspective on their identity in Christ.
If you, like me, have been confused about how to respond to transgender people in the past, I hope this has been helpful. I have two very important pieces of advice for you:
- Transgender people are people first and foremost. Love them, as Jesus asks you to.
- Do some research of your own. Don’t just read Christian sources; find out what transgender people are writing about themselves.
If you are transgender and you’ve been hurt by Christians, either directly or through what you’ve read online, please know that God doesn’t hate you; quite the opposite! God loves you in a way nobody else can. He knows you intimately, because He made you. He sees all the amazing things about you, and He sees all the bad things about you, and He loves you. You may have been given the impression in the past that God can’t accept you because you’re trans. In reality, it’s only in God that you will find true, lasting and meaningful acceptance, so I encourage you to find out more about Him.