The issue of transgenderism is not something that one Christian author even considered a decade or two ago. But now it has come to a point where Christians need to better understand the issue and know how to best approach someone who might be experiencing gender dysphoria.
Currently in U.S. culture, what many tend to believe is that there are only two ways to respond: tolerate and accept as equal and valid what some argue is a spectrum of genders, or don’t, Gary Barnes, a licensed psychologist and professor of biblical counseling at Dallas Theological Seminary, indicated in a recent podcast.
Christians, who believe God created male and female, tend to fall in the latter camp. But many, he said, “especially our younger generations, now look at this ‘intolerance’ as totally unacceptable and are actually driven away from that, and their solution to that is tolerance.”
“It’s like I don’t want that and so the answer has got to be this. It’s a two-model choice,” he added.
Darrell Bock, executive director of Cultural Engagement and senior research professor of New Testament Studies at DTS, noted that those who fall in the “tolerance” camp might have a “laissez-faire attitude toward life that allows the brokenness to continue as brokenness without being examined.”
While there are problems with the “tolerance” stance, the stance that conservative Christians tend to take also has its flaws, Barnes noted.
Citing clinical psychologist Mark Yarhouse, Barnes referred to the “integrity lens” through which Christians usually look at the issue of human sexuality. This lens is “rooted in God creating male and creating female to both be image bearers of God,” Barnes explained.
It’s a “sacred” model that not only helps “me to understand how to think about the world and about each other, and about God, but it’s helping me to know how to move in my world,” he said. “So I would want to be a good steward of the binary model.”
But the integrity model forces people into two boxes and might ignore the person who is struggling. It also doesn’t allow room for anomalies, Barnes noted.
There’s a third model that Barnes suggests Christians use — the anomaly lens.
“What the anomaly position does is it holds true to the binary understanding of the sacredness, theologically speaking, significance of male and female as image bearers of God. At the same time, though, it’s saying because we do now have a broken, fallen world where the whole world groans under sin, there are things that are outside of the design. There’s things that don’t match up. There’s inconsistencies. There’s incongruences,” he explained.
Barnes emphasized that one does not have to compromise theological truths to make room for exception.
“What the anomaly lens allows us to do is to be Gospel people. We are changed by Christ who is full of grace and truth, which compels us to respond out of grace and truth, not one without the other, which frees us up to move toward someone who’s different, who doesn’t fit the model, who doesn’t support the integrity model, who is in deep pain, and hurt, and struggle.”
Practically speaking, how should Christians respond if someone approaches them expressing feelings of gender dysphoria?
Firstly, while affirming God’s creation of male and female, do not force the person to fit into that model, Barnes advised.
“You’re not going to get your best outcome with a control strategy,” he noted.
Next, recognize that this is a person made in God’s image who is not of lesser value than any other human being.
Third, “journey with” this person.
“We don’t even know how the journey’s going to end up in terms of maleness, femaleness, but what we do know is regardless of anything, we can make the focus about journeying in our identity in Christ,” he added.
What Barnes is increasingly seeing in society is that when children show signs of gender dysphoria, they are automatically put on a path toward transitioning, which can include cross-dressing, hormones and later surgery.
“That’s all based on ‘because you’re experiencing this now, your outcome is determined and we need to facilitate,’” he noted.
But neither facilitating nor preventing transition is the answer.
What Yarhouse advises is the watchful and waiting approach, Barnes cited.
“This is about being with, in the journey; you’re not jumping to conclusions. You might make some adjustments. So you’re not trying to force it in one box or the other,” Barnes said. “You might allow for some changes that aren’t radical but kinda help in the process, while we’re in this watchful, waiting time period, but you’re trying to go with the least radical adjustments possible as long as you can.”
“And you’re putting your emphasis on the identity in Christ that no matter where it’s going to go, that’s what you’re going to need anyway.”
And for most people, he noted, the feelings of gender dysphoria do not persist into later years.
Timothy Yoder, associate professor of theological studies at DTS, said in the podcast that he hopes the church can be a place where people who experience gender dysphoria can feel safe rather than judged.
Rather than treating them as or “making them the symbol for all that’s gone wrong in our society,” Christians should interact with them as individuals who are suffering, he noted.
“Christian ethics, I think, compels us to interact with people as individuals, a person for whom Jesus died.”