Gender, Identity, and the Failure of Evangelical Theology

Chesterton once said, “The only right way to tell a story is to begin at the beginning–at the beginning of the world. Therefore all books have to be begun in the wrong way, for the sake of brevity.”  Though I am not writing a story (or a book), I find myself in a similar position here. Having recently recommended that various campus ministry leaders come hear Dr. Mark Yarhouse speak on Gender Dysphoria, I feel obligated to make some corrective remarks. But to do so effectively seems to require that I begin at the beginning…the beginning of Christian theology.  Furthermore, since many of those I invited actually share the basic Evangelical theological underpinnings held by Dr. Yarhouse, I now have the difficulty of explaining why his errors are not merely a liberalization on some single (or even several) point(s) of ethics, but actually the logical outcome of their shared theological construct. To put it succinctly, Dr. Yarhouse is plainly wrong in his unwillingness to rule out things such as medical transitioning and his willingness to accept practices of pronoun fluidity as  Christian options for addressing the difficulties of gender dysphoria because he has a skewed view of original sin rooted in the lack of sacramental theology, which has serious implications for our understanding of our human identity.

Personal Disclaimer: Respect and Gratitude

Before delving into the primary discussion, I want to note a few things about this discussion. I genuinely respect Dr. Yarhouse. The pressure of being an academic in psychology and psychiatry addressing sexuality in the current political climate can be immense. Dr. Yarhouse is not an ethical sell-out. I have listened to several lectures online and been present at two local lectures. Dr. Yarhouse was also generous enough to meet with campus ministers and Christian academics after a long day of travel and giving a lecture. In that context he was genuinely hospitable and gracious enough to respond to individual questions.  Having listened and questioned in that context I am thankful for his work and his time and have respect for him. I believe he is wrong, not evil. I have attempted, and hope I have succeeded, to write in such a way that what I have said could easily be turned into correspondence with Dr. Yarhouse. He strikes me as a man of genuine faith who wants to minister the love of God to hurting people. It is for that reason that I pray for him to consider some of these theological issues further and asked him the tough questions I asked while at the lectures and meeting. I would welcome the opportunity to pursue the discussion further. That said, I also feel the need to clarify my views for those who I minister alongside in the campus context; people to whom I recommended Dr. Yrahouse based on lectures I had watched previously. Some of his views (mentioned below), as I understood them in the course of these lectures were much more problematic than I had perceived in things I had heard previously. He is, as best I can tell, a genuinely Evangelical scholar. And I think his errors are actually rooted in certain tendencies native to Evangelicalism.

Original Sin: Absolutism and Contingency

Like most Evangelicals, Dr. Yarhouse takes seriously the idea of our fallen nature. At several points he noted that we live in a Genesis 3 world. In essence, since the fall in the garden we all continue to fall. We are all weak and do wrong things. That is what forgiveness is for…that is why Jesus died. There is this real sense in which salvation for Evangelicals is primarily about being comforted that we can go to heaven once we die because Jesus forgave us. As for what to do in life now, well perhaps we can find answers in the Bible on the best way to live, or help from faith in coping with life’s difficulties. Dr, Yarhouse clearly understands that things like prayer and meditation in a faith context can be useful coping strategies for helping people suffering from gender dysphoria. His views fit well within Rick Warren’s summation of the Christian life in the beginning of his Purpose Driven Life when he said, “Having this perspective [of God’s purposes for life] will reduce your stress, simplify your decisions, increase your satisfaction, and, most important, prepare you for eternity” (7).

In this Evangelical context, sin is about disobedience and doing wrong things, which leads to separation from God. Salvation is about forgiveness and heaven and (maybe) help towards a better life here and now.  It is about final judgment and going to heaven because Jesus took your punishment on the cross. We should do our best to not sin, but none of us are perfect. We all struggle and need forgiveness.

Dr. Yarhouse, as far as I could tell from the recent discussion, is an Evangelical who would agree with what is thus far stated. However, he caused clear discomfort to his fellow Evangelicals who were in attendance, first by expressing a willingness to use the chosen name and pronoun of transitioning individuals as well as in his stated willingness in some few instances to allow Christians to treat their dysphoria by choosing to “present” as the opposite sex or even medically transition. How could he possibly say that a person in such a difficult situation is not a Christian just because they have to do such things in order to cope.  Consider, one person has even told him that transitioning “saved their life,” which is an interestingly loaded statement from a theological perspective.

Still, before conservative Evangelicals who assume that statements above about sin and salvation are sufficient for understanding the gospel cast judgment on Dr. Yarhouse, they need to realize that his views can flow quite logically from their desacramentalized faith and a failed understanding of sin. In fact, if the Evangelical understanding of sin and salvation outlined above is fully accurate, then his approach is a commendable exercise in rejecting hypocrisy. After all, if a man can continue to “struggle” with porn and be a Christian and a woman can “struggle” with hoarding (read that faithless greed) and be a Christian, both with little to no genuine hope of ever being transformed and overcoming such matters, then certainly a gender dysphoric person can struggle with cross dressing and be a Christian. In fact, considering how much evangelical ink is spilled telling us how much God wants us to be happy and fulfilled, then there may be every reason to think that if someone has a male brain in a female body that there is grace to transition. After all, we live in a Genesis 3 world. Or do we?

Should our expectation of our faith be that of a continual trudge of personal defeat? Is being a Christian merely about being forgiven and eventually going to heaven? Is it sufficient to add the goal of self-realization and present personal happiness as the meaning and purpose in the Christian life? Or is there something more? Something to do with identity?

To begin, original sin is not merely about doing wrong things or disobeying God. Original sin is preferring something, especially self, to God. Jesus said if we do not deny self and take up our cross we cannot be his disciple. Jesus’ call was for us to follow. His was a command for absolute loyalty to Him, and disobedience is merely a symptom of the unwillingness to do so, which is idolatry.   As one theologian has put it:

In our perspective, however, the “original” sin is not primarily that man has “disobeyed” God; the sin is that he ceased to be hungry for Him and for Him alone, ceased to see his whole life depending on the whole world as a sacrament of communion with God. The sin was not that man neglected his religious duties. The sin was that he thought of God in terms of religion, i.e., opposing Him to life. (Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World, 18)

Paul makes this clear in Romans 1 when he speaks of “ungodliness” as the failure to recognize God as God. Ungodliness leads to wrong acts, not the other way round. This is why we struggle so much with our sin as Christians, because we spend our energy in defeatist struggles against individual sins instead of tackling the reality of our own idolatry.

What do I mean by idolatry? Idolatry is the failure to recognize God in Christ as the only absolute reality. “God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus” (Romans 2:16). Jesus Christ is “The Truth.” He is Absolute reality. God is the only one who can say, “I am who I am.”

We, on the other hand are contingent beings. We have no control over where, when, how, or to whom we are born. We did not choose our language or our name or our culture or our home. Of us it is said clearly, “Know that the LORD Himself is God; It is He who has made us, and not we ourselves; We are His people and the sheep of His pasture” (Psalm 100:3).

To claim to be self-made or to demand the right to define ourselves requires that we relativize the world around us. When we do that, we claim an absolute existence for ourselves by default because in order for something to be relative, it must be relative to something else, and that something takes on the place of the absolute. To claim the right to make and define myself is to reject dependence upon Christ as the very food we eat and the Spirit of God as the breath that gives us life. It is idolatry and therefore not simply a matter of a bad act, but the very root of sin.

Sacramental Theology: Integrity and Integration

Once we grasp the essence of sin as discussed above, we can begin to understand Sacramental theology. I realize that the word sacramental is difficult for many of Evangelical persuasion. However, consider the meaning before dismissing this essential Christian reality.

Schmemann is again helpful in capturing the essence of what is meant by sacramental:

All that exists is God’s gift to man, and it all exists to make God known to man, to make man’s life communion with God. It is divine love made food, made life for man. God blesses everything He creates, and, in biblical language, this means that He makes all creation the sign and means of His presence and wisdom, love and revelation: “O taste and see that the Lord is good.”

Human life, from the beginning, was to be a relationship of receiving from and giving back to God in worship. The garden itself was like a temple with humans, the image of God, set in the center of that temple for that purpose of offering all creation back to God. We receive life as a gift from God, and even our hardships are to be received in some sense as a gift (giving thanks in everything) because it is quite possibly our cross to bear. This does not rule out prayers that some instance of suffering be removed or healed. God is a God who heals and restores. But sometimes pain is the path to deeper relationship. The heavens declare the glory of God, but some of those glories only show up in the darkest night. (Hence the understanding of the dark night of the soul within communities of sacramental persuasion.)

To explain this point further, consider that Christ who is the fullness of God is also the second Adam, the image who fulfills that human vocation of offering creation back to God. Note this passage in Ephesians one:

  In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth…to the praise of his glory.

It is only partially true that we live in a Genesis 3 world. We also live in a John 20 world. The resurrection is a profound and transformative reality, right now. It is not yet the complete reality, but as Leslie Newbigin said, “I’m neither an optimist nor a pessimist. Jesus Christ is risen from the dead.” We are not bound. The stronger one has come and bound the strong man and claimed the whole world for God again. Therefore, we as His body, as the temple of the Holy Spirit, share in the call to fulfill that vocation. As such, it is imperative that we grasp the reality about God’s purposes for us in this sacramental vocation. And it is on this point that Dr. Yarhouse’s understanding  falls short in relation to gender dysphoria.

Yarhouse speaks of looking at transgender issues through three lenses: integrity, disability, and diversity. Integrity means looking for Biblical truth on the issue. He begins this search by noting that there is the need to grasp an overarching biblical narrative, but most of his discussion of Biblical matters took a fairly typical proof-text approach. Such approaches always leave one with interpretive questions about which it seems that the only answer is to pray and then make a choice.  By disability, he means to present a narrative of gender dysphoria that offers compassion for someone struggling with a “disability.” Yarhouse seeks to use these lenses to call the church to balance grace and truth. Herein lies the heart of the problem, because these are not two things to be balanced; love and truth are one reality within which we must live…even if that living feels like life in tension.

God is love, and the Spirit of God is the Spirit of Truth. The word of this God who is love (Christ) is “the Truth.” Paul tells us that love rejoices in the truth, and we must speak the truth in love…a call which implies that apart from love ‘truth’ isn’t really truth. Again, these are not two opposites to balance. If we are to have an integrity view, it must be an integrated view. (Otherwise we will be unstable like the double-minded man.)

Yarhouse does indeed call for an integrated view which also encompasses the value of celebrating personal identity that is central to his diversity lens. Here again, we bump up against the idolatry mentioned above. Any identity that is about self-discovery, self actualization, self realization, etc., simply is idolatrous. We are called to deny self.

The integrated view must be a view built on integrity. Contradictions cannot be integrated. To attempt such is only to increase confusion. So, if we are to speak of the importance of celebrating identity, there is only one identity which we must celebrate–the only true identity of our lives in Christ Jesus. He is the second Adam…the second and only constant instance of true human identity in all of human history. We can only truly be ourselves relative to Him–that is in relationship that bows before Him as the Absolute.

So, if we would have an integrated lens for looking at gender dysphoria it must be integrated by the life of the cross. Our identity is hidden in Christ with God, or else it is false and idolatrous…the worship of self.

Identity Implications: He and She

Ultimately, Christianity is not primarily about offering help or solutions to problems. No doubt we do in love minister and serve and at times offer help and comfort, but essentially our faith is about transformation through submission to the Truth Who is Jesus Christ, and the true offering of a gift that is joy in the Lord. It is not about personal fulfillment and present happiness or immediate comfort. As C S Lewis noted, “I didn’t go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that. If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.”

That said, I can admire Dr. Yarhouse for his concern for the suffering of those experiencing gender dysphoria. The church has not generally done well in ministry to those who face this struggle. But we cannot take the easy way of pretending to balance grace and truth in a way that simply means jettisoning one or the other side of that tension. As is noted above, these are not separate realities.

An integrated approach to this issue is one in which our sacramental identity of contingent beings who are essentially worshipers and who receive the world from God in order to offer it back  to Him in worship is central. But to be true worshipers, we must worship in Spirit and Truth…which are inseparable from love. Love requires that we take up our cross as community and do the hard self-denying work of walking honestly alongside those facing this challenge. However, in order for love to be love it demands that we not compromise the truth that only God is absolute, and we are contingent.

This would mean, for instance, that we cannot do something like call a man a woman or a woman a man if we know they were born as the other. Love rejoices in the truth, and no lie is of the truth. We cannot allow ourselves to corrupt our language by participating in lies…saying she for he or accepting some made up pronoun. This is falsehood, the relativization of language we have no right to relativize. When we relativize language in such a way as to enforce lies, we actually absolutize ourselves. We are claiming the possibility of being self-made. Those who think this matter of pronouns is trivial have not considered the implications of the fact that the ancient Hebrews never said of themselves, “I am.”

Certainly, too, we must reject that technological transitioning is not in line with the Christian self-understanding as contingent beings fully dependent upon God called to find our identity as “hidden in Christ with God.” We have perhaps become too accepting of technology and the ease of life it affords. We have often assumed that our following of Christ is directed primarily towards help or solutions to problems, when in reality it is about truth that is transformative and directed towards the total redemption of the whole world.

As Christians we are called to renounce the world, the flesh, and the devil.  We are called to honestly face and fight evil and release people from the hold it has on their lives, not simply smile and welcome and help people feel better about themselves. We have the keys of the kingdom, and if we do not share those keys to the door that is repentance, we mercilessly withhold forgiveness from those most in need.

Practical Considerations: Bruce and Kaitlyn

Such considerations do not, however, require us to behave with disrespect or unkindly. It may create some slight awkwardness, but we do not have to fight every point of potential contention in our efforts at ministry. For instance, while we cannot promote medical transitioning, we need not pressure people into socially constructed gender norms. (The Evangelical world needs to drop its commitment to gender stereotypes that assume lies like taking boys fishing would end sexual identity problems, or a real man must prefer baseball to ballet.)  Also, while we cannot cooperate in lies about gender and sex, we are free to avoid 3rd person pronouns all together. We may not participate in the relativization of gendered third person pronouns because of matters of truthful speech and the fact that the words mean something apart from the individual, but we may call someone by a preferred name. This is something we do all the time with nick-names, titles, and assumed names (such as someone taking a local language-friendly name instead of their actual name for the sake of ease of pronunciation).   This is not the same issue as calling a he a she, because it merely relativizes the already contingent individual, it does not absolutize an individual or small segment of the population by demanding a change to the language of the larger community.

In the end, this is not easy matter; that is certain. Still, it need not be overly confusing. Sadly, the lack of true integration in Yarhouse’s three lenses makes it appear so.

The real difficulty lies not in finding truth, but in walking things out truthfully and lovingly. We cannot simply call upon the gender dysphoric to take up their crosses while we sit comfortably by, self-actualizing in true American form. We must take up our own crosses…and help carry their burdens as well. This must always take place within the context of the acknowledged realities of sacramental life embodied in love for one another in the church, but how to do that is a matter for another time.




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