Jesus taught an alternative to the dominant ways of the world, not a supplement to them. It is sad how often we see the world—in fact, even fellow believers—unquestionably embrace the habits of high-profile men and women who lead large corporations, conglomerates, universities, nations, and causes; people who show us how to make money, win wars, manage people, sell products, manipulate behavior, and instruct our young. We take absolutely no time to contemplate how many of these “ways” violate the way of Jesus. What is the Jesus way?
The Heart of Jesus
The heart of Jesus was pure, but what is a “pure-hearted” person? Dictionary.com says to have a pure heart is to be without malice, treachery, or evil intent. This person would be honest, sincere, without guile. Jesus, of course, was without guile. He had no evil thoughts or intent and was without sin. Peter, who traveled with Jesus for over three years, described Him as a “lamb unblemished and spotless” (1 Pet. 1:19). Jesus was purposeful, tenacious, and dedicated to serving the will of the Father. He was so focused on His task that He knew when to say, “My time has not yet come” (John 2:4) and when to say, “It is finished” (John 19:30).
Jesus saw the good in everyone and everything. His very thoughts were pleasant. Children flocked to Him. He could find beauty in the butterflies and the lilies of the valley, joy in worship, and possibilities in the midst of even the worst of circumstances. He would spend days surrounded by multitudes of sick people and yet remain compassionate in every instance. It is phenomenal that He spent more than three decades wading through the muck and mire—the horrible consequences of man’s sin and fall from grace—yet still saw enough beauty in us to die for our mistakes.
His Teachings and Miracles
During the three years between His baptism and His death and resurrection, Jesus traveled throughout the land of the Hebrews ministering to the people. His ministry can be divided into two key aspects. First were His teachings. Looking to Scripture, we see that Christ taught from a position of authority (Matt. 7:29) and wisdom (Matt. 13:54). The crowds were astonished and amazed by His lessons. Even those who doubted Jesus was the Messiah were stirred by His words.
The second aspect of Jesus’ ministry revolved around His miracles. The Bible records 35 such incidents during His three years of public ministry. These amazing events range from walking on water (Matt. 14:25) to raising people from the dead (Matt. 11:38-44). It’s worth noting that these are only the miracles that were written in Scripture. In fact, if every one of them were written down even the whole world would not have enough room for the books that would be written (John 21:25).
THIS WEEK’S TOPIC:
Gender has become a matter of uncertainty. Rather than male or female, many see gender as a “relative” matter—on a continuum. They consider gender or sexual identity to be less a reality given at conception than a matter of personal discovery. Transgender questions today carry an urgency unimaginable five years ago. The debate has become all-encompassing. Issues such as civil rights, protection from persecution and discrimination, culture, education, acceptance, spiritual ramifications, and counseling are complex. One main question is whether it is appropriate for parents of so-called transgendered children to allow their kids – who have not yet reached the end of puberty – to define their own gender and establish their goals and life values relative to gender identity and sexuality.
Most churches and Christians find themselves exposed due their lack of knowledge and understanding—about gender issues and grace. What does the Bible have to say about living life in a gender-nonconforming way? What can faithfulness to Christ look like for a person who desires—who might even say needs—to live such a life?
A biblical perspective on what makes us human emphasizes the role of community. Individuals are “active agents” rather than merely passive objects impacted by genetic and environmental factors. Balswick and Balswick (2014) believe the search for authentic sexuality appropriately starts with an attempt to understand how we are to behave as sexual persons. Achieving authentic sexuality, however, depends more on understanding who God created us to be as a sexual person. Sexuality includes such factors as biology, gender, emotions, thoughts, behaviors, attitudes, and values.
According to Scripture, when God created human beings He created them male and female and blessed their marital union (Gen. 1:26-28; 2:20-25). Moses, Jesus, and the apostle Paul are united in their approach to the moral norms that govern male-female sexual behavior. The God-ordained roles assigned to men and women are clearly laid out in Scripture. How does this help understand gender identity confusion? If the Bible succinctly describes our sexuality as an intended component of God’s intelligent design, perhaps gender dysphoria, along with homosexuality, is an adulteration of that design, which is clearly predicated on our “fallen nature.” Because of Original Sin, nothing is as God intended it to be. The entire universe has been adversely impacted by the Fall.
It could be said that dismissing the legitimacy of a person’s experiences is to dismiss the person. Certainly, we shouldn’t dismiss, but feel compassion for, anyone experiencing mental distress regarding conflict between their gender identity and their body. It is important for Christians to realize that people who experience distress, anguish, and conflict over their perceived gender identity really do exist. They’re not freaks. They’re not merely “cross-dressers” or people desiring to “gender-bend.” Their experience cannot be reduced to simply “living a lie” since most don’t feel they are lying to themselves. Actually, the opposite is true. People with genuine cases of gender dysphoria believe they’re being lied to by their body. Such an individual typically becomes convinced he or she is actually a member of the opposite sex.
Psychology Doesn’t Change Ontology
So what is the best approach to this issue?
First, Christians welcome all into the grace of the Gospel because the Gospel is applicable and available to all (1 Tim. 2:4; 2 Pet. 3:9). Accordingly, our priority must be to offer genuine love to those struggling with gender or sexual identity. We are, however, required to confront such issues with biblical truth. Fact: God made men and women different (Gen. 1:27). Sexual differences are not graded on a continuum where some men are more like women or vice versa. Men and women are different at the deepest levels of their being. Our chromosomes are different. Our brains are different. Our voices are different. Our body shapes and sizes are different. Our reproductive systems are different. Our body strengths are different. Because men and women are different, it’s philosophical impossible for a man to become a woman, or a woman to become a man.
If God made man and woman fundamentally and comprehensively different, then the idea that a man could ever become a woman is simply impossible. The differences between men and women can’t be overcome simply because one person believes they are a member of the opposite sex. Your psychology—your cognition and emotions—cannot change your ontology.
“Truth is not first produced by a method but inhabits experience itself prior to any cognitive labor.” – Andrew Feenberg
Scripture does not specifically address a contemporary understanding of gender as a socially constructed concept different different from biological sex. A Christian response to gender dysphoria is better established through a biblical theology of the body rather than by combing the Scriptures for proof texts in light of specific behaviors.
At the crux of the transgender experience is gender incongruence, an internal sense of a gender identity that is at odds with one’s birth gender. Lately, a common way to deal with that incongruence is to show a preference for one’s internal “sense” of gender as representing one’s true self in opposition to physical identity. A biblical theology of the body, however, argues that it is essential to reference the physical body when determining gender identity. The biblical definition of man and woman remains regardless of the cultural understanding of gender.
Christianity Today on Transgender Christians
On June 22, 2018, Christianity Today published an article called “Embracing Our Transgender Neighbors on God’s Terms.” The article referenced a book written by Austen Hartke titled Transforming: The Bible and the Lives of Transgender Christians. Hartke’s identity is as important to the book as the subject matter he covers. Hartke was born female. He experienced gender dysphoria in his youth. His decision to transition from female to male was not made lightly. Naturally, he wondered if there was a place in mainline Christianity for someone like him who didn’t agree with every iota of Christian doctrine, who was gender-nonconforming, and who considered himself bisexual. Certainly, not all believers are on the same page on this sensitive issue.
Hartke decided there was a place for him in Christianity. He was baptized in 2008, and went on to graduate from Luther Seminary’s master’s program in Old Testament/Hebrew Bible Studies. He hosts a YouTube series called “Transgender and Christian” and is increasingly sought after at conferences and events. Hartke says his ministry is “to help other trans and gender-nonconforming people to see themselves in Scripture.” His main tenet is that transgender people must be embraced by the church on their own terms. He believes that if transgender feelings are real, they are therefore good and blessed by God.
In Understanding Gender Dysphoria, Mark Yarhouse sets forth three main frameworks for understanding the origins and morality of transgender phenomena and then offers an integrated framework he supports. His position is popular among conservatives who sympathize with transgender individuals while at the same time affirming the goodness of sex and gender as God designed them. He argues that gender dysphoria is a result of the Fall—a view I personally maintain—and thus an example of brokenness that deserves deep compassion rather than moral blame. Hartke’s answer to this position is that gender dysphoria “is not original sin manifesting within us. It’s the effects of the Fall showing up in the way human being treat each other.” To me, suggesting that this abuse and persecution is the true fallen condition of mankind, rather than such abuse and gender incongruence being distinct results of the Fall, seems to miss the point. I believe the Fall tends to warp and twist our world.
In order to counter this argument, Hartke agrees that the incongruence between internalized gender and biological gender “might possibly” be a result of the Fall, but quickly asserts that “this does not mean that the person’s movement away from suffering toward affirmation of their perceived gender identity is sinful.” He compares “gender affirmation” to getting eyeglasses. To me, the glasses metaphor doesn’t hold: No one contends that there is a moral component to correcting poor vision. Obviously, choosing to express one’s gender in a way that obfuscates one’s God-given sex invariably makes a moral statement—that we are free to reject God’s design when our own desires point elsewhere. How can one hold this position without systematically rejecting Genesis 1?
Christian theology has consistently sought to distinguish desires and feelings from behavior. Greed, rage, jealousy, resentment, arrogance, depression, and the many shapes that lust can take are but a few examples of feelings or desires that every human experiences to various degrees and at various times. I believe such desires are part of fallen human nature itself (Gal. 5:17 or 1 John 2:16). Regardless, this is no excuse. Such desire is to be opposed and curbed, rather than to be given free reign (Rom. 13:14). The
Christian theological tradition has therefore sought always to distinguish between desires and acting out on desires, and between specific behavioral sins and the sinner. It recognizes that in our fallen humanity, behavior can be disciplined to some degree, while inner feelings are far less subject to human control.
Christianity understands homosexuality, bisexuality, or transgendered identity and desire within such an overall moral framework. It seeks to follow natural law (the objective truth of our bodies) and the revealed truth of Scripture, even if the truth conflicts with societal or professional opinions, such as that of psychology or psychiatry. One response to such reflection is that, while there is biblical direction which clearly forbids homosexual activity, there is no explicit scriptural reference to transgendered individuals. There are only references that hint at implications for the individual who feels discomfort with his or her identity as male or female.
THE JESUS WAY
Jesus was the most forceful, demanding teacher who ever lived. He taught that even one’s closest family members must give way to loyalty to Him (Luke 14:26). Several words in the Greek New Testament reveal insight into the amazing compassion of the Lord, even in the face of sinful behavior. He wished that no one would suffer. That none would perish for all of eternity. Consider Hebrews 4:15: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weakness, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin” (NIV). Bromiley (1985) notes that the term tempted (as noted in the above Scripture) is touched in the Greek, stating the word “does not signify a sympathetic understanding that is ready to condone [behavior], but a fellow feeling that derives from full acquaintance with the seriousness of the situation as a result of successfully withstanding the temptation” [Emphasis mine].
We are told in John 14:6 that Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” We simply cannot proclaim the Jesus truth then act any way we want. Nor can we follow the Jesus way without speaking the Jesus truth. Those two positions are diametrically opposed. But Jesus as the truth gets far more attention than Jesus as the way. We can’t skip the way of Jesus in a hurry to get to the truth of Jesus as He is worshiped and proclaimed. Frankly, I don’t see how we can even hope to get to the truth of Jesus without deciding to follow the way of Jesus. The way of Jesus is the way that we practice and come to understand the truth of Jesus, living Jesus in our homes and workplaces.
We know that Jesus associated with the outcasts of His day. Please note I am not suggesting transgender or gay individuals should be considered “outcasts.” However, the example Jesus showed during His lifetime for those who were outcasts demonstrated compassion and concern while they were yet sinners. Granted, countless numbers of transgendered or gay individuals do not necessarily buy into the “sin” concept regarding their choices. Jesus reserved His condemnation for religious zealots who lived a hypocritical and highly judgmental lifestyle. So it is worth asking if Jesus came today, would He associate with transgendered and gay people? Would He visit them in their homes or go to their parties? Or would He only associate with “good” churchgoers?
The Jesus way is a way of sacrifice. A way of freedom. A way of holiness. But it is also a way of compassion and unconditional love. Do we emulate Him in our churches today? Do we make transgendered and gay individuals feel welcome? Do we treat them as our equals? Can they see the love of Christ in us? Would we invite a gay couple to our home for dinner? If we find ourselves answering No to these questions, how can we expect such individuals to trust God enough to consider surrendering their sexuality to Him? How can we expect them to see God as loving and compassionate if we make Him appear to be unloving and judgmental? They already know the “abomination” texts in the Bible.We should not throw Scripture at these individuals.
The last rays of merciful light, the last message of mercy to be given to the world, is a revelation of God’s character of love. The children of God are to manifest His glory. In their own life and character they are to reveal what the grace of God has done for them. (Ellen G. White)
Not only does the male/female relationship reflect the image of God, but their coming together in marriage to bring forth new life reflects the deepest and most intimate analogy of God’s relationship with His people. Throughout Scripture, God and His people are portrayed as husband and wife or as a groom and bride. The creation account found in Genesis lays out this gender-based, matrimonial picture and sets the stage for the eternal union of God and His people—of Christ and His bride—described in Revelation.
Gender matters. In recent years, a revisionist transgender theology has been put forth in some theological circles that violates God’s clearly articulated and intentional design for the sexes—thereby distorting His image and His plan for sexuality, marriage, family and the just and proper ordering of society. Unfortunately, the discussion regarding this issue often becomes convoluted, incoherent, or angry, degenerating into a shouting match. Regardless, we must come to grips with the fact that God isn’t silent about human sexuality. The key to this issue must be grounded in Scripture; however, we simply cannot dismiss transgendered or gay people out of hand.
In his presentation on Christians and homosexuality, Joe Dallas (2014) says, “The voice that must go out from the Christian community is one that is absolutely unsparing in truth and will not compromise under the worst conditions, yet also equally unsparing in love, saying ‘Hate us and we will love you. We will be to you what you need us to be.’ For we will all stand before the judgment seat of Christ, just as Paul said, and we’ll be asked what we did in this life. Surely, that interrogation will include how we responded to the responsibilities and issues of our time. May God help us on that day when we are asked to give an account of how we responded to the difficult issue [of gender fluidity and homosexuality] so that we might hear Him say, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant.”
Please join me next week for The Jesus Way (Part Two): Marriage and Divorce.
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-5). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Association.
Bromiley, G. (1985). Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, abridged. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
Balswick, J. and Balswick, J. (2014). The Family: A Christian Perspective on the Contemporary Home, 4th Edition. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic Press.
Dallas, J. (2014). How Should We Respond? An Exortation to the Church on Loving the Homosexual. Colorado Springs, CO: Focus on the Family.
Gilson, R. (June 22, 2018). Embracing Our Transgender Neighbors on God’s Terms. Psychology Today. Retrieved from: https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2018/june-web-only/austen-hartke-transforming-transgender-neighbors.html