I wonder what your reaction is when you hear the word 'transgender'? I know that for some the feeling that your biological sex doesn't align with your internal sense of gender identity will be something you personally identify with. Others may be living alongside children, other family members, friends or work colleagues for whom this is an issue. Still others may be involved in the worlds of education or health care where you are having to teach or give medical advice around transgender identity issues. Some of us will have very strong views, others will have no idea what to think. Given this range of reactions how should we as followers of Christ to engage with the conversation around transgender, or should we even engage with it at all?
My observation is that when we face issues like transgender (along with others like climate change, homosexuality or racism) there are three different ways Christians tend to respond:
- Cocoon - the first response is to fail to engage with the issue at all, hoping that if we keep our heads down nobody will notice that we are absent from the conversation. This is understandable, given both the complexity of this issue and the heat it generates (just take a look at the criticism of JK Rowling when she challenged the current orthodoxy on certain transgender issues). However, cocooning leaves us looking like we and the Bible have nothing to say, and that Jesus is not good news for transgender people. None of these are true - we have things to say and do which will make a positive difference in our world if we get them right.
- Confront - the second response is to act as culture warriors, becoming vocal and often belligerent advocates of a particular viewpoint without any real compassion for the people who are involved and without any real desire to engage with people who think differently to us. You will find these sorts of people all over YouTube and Twitter, often delighting in making those on the other side of the argument look ignorant or stupid. This may be a good way of gaining social media followers but it does little to help us be Christ to those for whom this is an issue. This isn't to say that there won't be times when we do need to confront, but the way we do this and the outcome we hope to achieve will look very different to the approach of the culture warriors.
- Conform - the third response is to simply conform to society, to go with whatever seems to be the prevailing view and take whichever approach is going to cause the minimum conflict or controversy. This may be done with a heart to be relevant, to be loving, or simply to have an easy life, but if conforming means that we miss out on declaring God's heart in either our words or our deeds then it is a mistake.
There may be times when it will be appropriate to cocoon, confront or conform, but if any of these becomes our primary response then we have almost certainly got it wrong. So how should we respond? I want to suggest three alternatives to the ones I have already mentioned, encouraging us to embrace all three. These are:
- Be Kind - if you get into a conversation with someone around the issue of transgender then please be kind. Seek to understand before you seek to be understood; be a good listener; don't make assumptions; be gentle; don't feel like you have to have all the answers; set out to love the person you are speaking to. Remember that it is the kindness of God which leads us to repentance. God is kind and we need to reflect that kindness to others.
- Be Knowledgeable - the whole world of transgender can seem incredibly confusing but we need to be people who are well informed and thought through. Informed as to the felt experiences of people who are transgender. Informed as to what the Bible has to say about how we think Biblically about gender. Informed as to what science has to teach us. As a first step I want to encourage all of us to read Preston Sprinkle's book Embodied which is the most helpful resource I have found in this area. I would really appreciate hearing the reflections of those who have read it. It would be great in September if someone started a small group to do a group discussion of Preston's book. Please share any other useful resources you come across.
- Be Courageous - Once we are equipped with both kindness and knowledge we are in a position to tentatively seek to help others. Kindness without knowledge can make us nice but ultimately unhelpful or even dangerous. Knowledge without kindness can make us right but hard and judgemental. Kindness and knowledge can make us look a lot like Jesus. Once we have these two things we then need courage. Courage to challenge wrong thinking in both the church and the world. Courage to speak up for those who may feel they don't have a voice. Courage to follow promptings of the Holy Spirit. Courage to be willing to be unpopular or misunderstood. Courage to admit where we've got things wrong or don't have all the answers.
So let's show up well church. Let's not cocoon, confront or conform as our primary response, but let us be Jesus to our world by being courageous channels of grace and truth.