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Embracing Our Transgender Neighbors on God’s Terms

We should seek their well-being—but also prepare for strong disagreement on what that entails.
Embracing Our Transgender Neighbors on God’s Terms
Image: nito100 / iStock / Getty Images
Transforming: The Bible and the Lives of Transgender Christians
Our Rating
2½ Stars - Fair
Book Title
Transforming: The Bible and the Lives of Transgender Christians
Author
Publisher
Westminster John Knox Press
Release Date
March 13, 2018
Pages
225
Price
$12.34
Buy Transforming: The Bible and the Lives of Transgender Christians from Amazon

Transgender questions today carry an urgency unimaginable even five years ago. Most churches and Christians find themselves exposed due to their lack of theological and pastoral preparation. 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?

Into this infant conversation comes Transforming: The Bible and the Lives of Transgender Christians, by Austen Hartke. Coming from a mainline Lutheran perspective, this volume stakes its ground in predictable places hermeneutically. But this does not negate the importance of the work, which clarifies the theological and pastoral fault lines on this topic.

Hartke’s identity is as important to the book as his arguments. Hartke was “assigned female at birth,” which is how trans people and their allies describe a person’s biological sex. He experienced gender dysphoria in youth, and the decision to transition from a tomboyish girl to a transman came slowly. Hartke wondered if there was place in the church for someone like him who didn’t agree with every piece of Christian doctrine, who was gender-nonconforming, and who identified as bisexual.

He eventually answered yes to these questions and found his place in the mainline church, being baptized in 2008. He went on to graduate from Luther Seminary’s master’s program in Old Testament/Hebrew Bible Studies, winning that institution’s 2014 John Milton Prize in Old Testament Writing. Hartke runs a successful YouTube series called “Transgender and Christian” and is increasingly sought after at conferences and events. He seeks to help “other trans and gender-non-conforming people see themselves in scripture.” Hartke has experiential, institutional, and ministry credibility that positions him as a reliable spokesman for his viewpoint. This book isn’t a side project of an amateur but a serious entry into the field.

Biblical and Pastoral Clarity

Hartke’s main proposition is that transgender people must be fully embraced on their own terms by the church. Part One of the book lays the groundwork for his assumptions, arguments, and language choices, specifically on the premise that if transgender feelings are real, then they are therefore also good and blessed by God. This sets the stage for Part Two, which explores the stories of various people who identify as transgender Christians, weaving biblical interpretation and implications throughout.

Those interested in cultural war will be tempted to mine this book for flawed arguments and logical inconsistencies, and this book does contain those elements, which could be deployed as ammunition. But for those who want to approach this topic with theological acumen and pastoral sensitivity, can there be another way forward?

Minimally, we must take the pain of these pages seriously, even while refusing to treat trans people merely as a persecuted community. They are full and complex persons, broken image-bearers—like all of us—and equally capable of bringing God glory as any other human. The pain trans people have experienced is real, and some of it has come from the church, which Hartke believes “has been dominated by the voices of those who speak out against the existence, the well-being, and the humanity of transgender people.” These attitudes are unworthy of our allegiance to our Lord.

However, it would be naïve to assume there is agreement on what seeking the well-being of transgender people means. Desiring to care for this community does not prevent people from reaching very different conclusions about what that care should look like. The problems of Transforming, biblically and theologically, are too immense to address in the space allowed here. However, double-clicking on its foundational claims can help us understand how to respond to transgender people with biblical and pastoral clarity, confessing that there is much work to be done.

The multifaceted questions of origin and morality are central to Hartke’s book. Hartke recognizes this, as he spends chapter three interacting with a prominent public voice representing Christian engagement with transgender topics, Wheaton College’s Mark Yarhouse. In Understanding Gender Dysphoria, Yarhouse sets forth three main frameworks for understanding the origins and morality of transgender phenomena and then offers an integrated framework that he prefers. His position is popular among conservatives who sympathize with transgender people yet wish to affirm the goodness of sex and gender as God designed them. It argues that gender dysphoria is a result of the Fall and thus an experience of brokenness that deserves deep compassion rather than moral blame. The choices of what to do with that incongruence are where questions of morality come in. Importantly, this framework places the small number of people (around one percent) born with a disorder of sex development—also known as intersex—in a different category.

Hartke’s interaction with this position demonstrates his confusion about it. He argues that the suffering transgender people experience “is not original sin manifesting within us. It’s the effects of the fall manifesting in the way human beings treat each other.” Yet surely Yarhouse’s position doesn’t deny that humans abusing each other is a scourge of the Fall, which transgender people experience in an outsized way. To suggest that this abuse is the true fallen condition, rather than abuse and incongruence being separate results of the Fall, seems to miss the point.

Hartke then suddenly allows that the incongruence between internal gender-sense and biological sex “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 gender identity is sinful.” This suggests that he has no place for the body being a compass for sex. Instead he compares “gender affirmation” procedures to getting glasses: a strange metaphor, given that glasses help weak or damaged eyes do what they were designed to do, whereas a movement to affirm a gender identity separate from biological sex impacts a (usually) healthy, fully functioning body. The glasses metaphor misfires: No one contends that there is a moral component to correcting weak eyesight. But 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.

Hartke’s muddled understanding derives from confusion about how the reality of the fallen world relates to God’s will. Whereas Yarhouse’s conception states that gender dysphoria is real but also not how God intended humans to live, Hartke contends that because the transgender phenomenon exists, it must be what God wanted—and therefore good. At one point, he rejects the notion that the male and female of Genesis 1 could be God’s only intention, because today we see so much more variety. But we cannot use today’s realities to interpret Eden’s ideals, because Eden was good in a way that our fallen world is not. God created in a certain way, but the Fall will warp and twist our world until the new creation sets things right.

A Safer Path and a Thriving Home

The use of biblical ideas in unbiblical ways accounts for why some of what Hartke writes sounds good at first blush only to spoil later. For example, Hartke quotes a transwoman Nicole declaring, “Inclusion is not up to us. It’s up to Christ.” Yes and amen! Jesus’ work means that all who repent and trust in him as their Savior and Lord will be saved.

But then Hartke uses that logic of radical inclusion in the discussion of the salvation of the Ethiopian eunuch, who Hartke claims “did not change his physical body or anything about his gender” upon his baptism. Of course the eunuch couldn’t change his physical body—there was nothing to be done. And this doubtless continued to affect how he wore his gender in the world. But the gender dysphoric person doesn’t necessarily find herself in this category; rather she finds herself with a healthy, able body and a sense of incongruity with it. Hartke is ready to functionally equate the eunuch and the transgender person, whereas the more realistic (though still imperfect) analogy to the castrated male eunuch would seem to be the intersex person.

Hartke states that he wants to see Christians “help instill resilience by making sure trans folks can take the time to figure out and define their own gender identity; by reminding them that they are worthy of love and belonging as human beings and children of God; by actively dismantling the transphobia that undergirds their oppression; by inviting trans folks into our communities and making them feel welcome; and by walking with them and supporting them in their spiritual journey.”

In response, I note that I came to the church as a woman secure in my female identity but equally sure of my sexual attraction to other women, with a history to prove it. I now recognize that God alone owns the final right to a person’s identity, including gender, sexuality, and everything else, because Jesus shed his own blood to purchase us. We do not belong to ourselves. Nor should we bear the burden of defining ourselves, for we are not God.

However, this should not stop us from seeking the other goods that Hartke speaks of, because the transgender person is our neighbor. For all its theological weaknesses, Hartke’s work should sound a rallying cry for us to mine the riches of the Bible and orthodox theology on sex, gender, and the image of God in all people, so that we offer the transgender person a safer path in the world and a thriving home in Jesus Christ.

Rachel Gilson is director of theological development at Cru Northeast. She blogs at rachelgilson.com.

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Embracing Our Transgender Neighbors on God’s Terms