God and the Transgender Debate
Andrew T. Walker, God and the Transgender Debate: What Does the Bible Actually Say About Gender Identity?, The Good Book Company, 2017. 174pp. Paperback., $14.99
It seems that hardly a week passes without a new gender related story making headlines. Is it a magazine's cover story as a man transitions to a woman? Or is it public outcry over who is allowed to use what bathroom? How about the way sex and gender are taught in public schools? The transgender debate is real and it is coming to a neighborhood near you - if it has not already. The Southern Baptist Convention's public policy organization, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission is intimately familiar with the changing tides of our culture and, as the Director of Policy Studies, Andrew T. Walker has waded into the debate with his new book. Can Walker help Christians make sense of it all?
Walker opens the book with a chapter entitled, "Compassionate Jesus." Here he makes an appeal for making the abstract personal. When we talk about gender identity issues, we are always talking about people - with names, faces, and loved ones. This attitude seasons Walker's arguments throughout the book and he approaches the issue with a strong pastoral bent. This refreshing tone - the good balance of grace and truth - is perhaps the greatest strength of the book and offers a good model for having these difficult conversations.
The book breaks down into three clear parts. Chapters 2 through 4 is a toolkit with all the background information one needs to get started. Chapters 5 through 7 aim to develop a clear sense of the relevant biblical teaching. Finally, Walker offers some practical guidance in Chapters 8 through 12.
Part I - Where Do We Start?
These chapters could prove a bit like drinking water from the firehouse to some readers. Chapter 2 is a survey of the cultural and philosophical underpinnings of the debate. Chapter 3 sorts out the essential vocabulary: sex, gender, gender identity, gender dysphoria, and transgender. Finally, Chapter 4 offers some epistemology - how do we know what we know and make decisions? It is an incredible amount of ground to cover, but Walker does it well and manages to make technical topics readable.
Chapter 2 is the standout piece in this section. Walker is able to identify the major cultural trends, define them, and demonstrate how they intertwine and build on each other. That is no small task but it is crucial if we want to understand how we live in a world where transgenderism is openly celebrated. Walker shows wisdom by not rushing into the debate without exploring these unstated presuppositions first and his readers are well served by it.
Part II - What Does the Bible Say?
With some of these fundamentals in place, Walker sets out the biblical foundations for Christians to think about. He follows a standard redemptive-historical structure: creation, fall, redemption, and consummation. Chapter 5 considers how man's creation in the image of God informs the way we think about gender. Chapter 6 expands on that, describing the ways that sin distorts our perception and experience of God's design. Chapter 7 and 8 mesh redemption and consummation together. We are set free in Christ now, but the fullness of that freedom awaits the new heavens and the new earth.
Walker offers a valuable insight on the Bible and gender stereotypes. Just because the Bible says God created male and female does not mean the church is immune to gender stereotypes. We too can be influenced by culture more than Scripture. If a man does not like sports, we should not assume he is violating the biblical standards of masculinity. If a woman likes to work on cars, we should not accuse her of rejecting biblical femininity. Those expectations come from culture, not God. The transgender debate requires us to be thoughtful and consider what the Bible really says about gender roles. We must be careful not to confuse cultural expectations with biblical doctrine. Walker explains how God made man and woman equal in dignity and different in role but, given how much ground the book is trying to cover, there is still much more to say. Readers looking for more detail on biblical masculinity and femininity will need to look elsewhere.
Chapter 7 offers realistic expectations of gender dysphoria and sanctification. Christians are set free in Christ, though the fullness of that freedom will not be realized until the new heavens and the new earth. Some believers who experience gender dysphoria may be totally free of it their lifetime. Others may wrestle with the desire to be the opposite gender until glory. In either case, Christians must remember that our hope is not of this world. Whether we receive relief in this life or not, every believer will receive relief from our groanings in the age to come. This is fantastic guidance. Churches should guard against offering a cheap view of sanctification. We must be honest with struggling people. The Christian life can be hard, but the destination is worth it. Discipleship for someone with gender dysphoria is about more than just getting better. It is about getting God.
Part III - What Do I Do with This?
The rest of the book is devoted to practical application. This is probably the part of the book that most readers are looking for - but resist the urge to jump right to the end! Walker's application builds on the foundations he laid out previously.
Some of his suggestions are unsurprising. For example, Chapter 8 is a call to love our neighbor. Love requires us to be empathetic and patient with those who struggle, but it also requires us to speak the truth winsomely and without compromise. Chapter 10 challenges churches to be communities that are characterized by grace and listen compassionately to people who suffer. These are right and good, but not especially novel.
Chapter 9 presents a difficult situation and Walker handles it well. What does Christian discipleship look like for someone who experiences gender dysphoria? To boil it down: following Jesus means bearing our cross. That means maintaining a gender identity in keeping with our created biological sex. Walker knows that is appeal will be difficult for some people to hear but, appealing to 2 Corinthians 12:9-10, he promises that Christ will draw near to the sufferer. "It is often in times of pain that we discover how powerful God is; how full of kindness he is; how strong he is able to make us even when in ourselves we are only weak" (110). Following Jesus while struggling with gender dysphoria is trying, but God is faithful. It is a hard needle to thread, but Walker does a fine job of showing humble empathy and holding to Christian truth.
I am grateful that Walker included the contents of Chapter 11 is in this book. This chapter offers guidance for parents in talking to their children. Parents should talk about gender with their children. Discussions about gender identity are increasing in prominence and children are not exempt. Sex education classes and school bathroom policies alone are enough reason to take this up. If the church does not instruct our children, others certainly will and Walker offers some good advice in teaching our children what the Bible says.
The book closes with a list of common questions. This is a good way to wrap up loose ends, such as how we should approach pronoun use and people who are born intersex. The answers are brief, so some readers will undoubtedly want more, but the answers are helpful in rounding out the edges.
Andrew Walker offers a great introduction for Christians who are seeking to navigate the waters of the gender debates. He covers a lot of ground and he does it quite well. In some ways this book is a Jack of All Trades: cultural/philosophical history, biblical theology, and pastoral application. Covering all that ground in less than two-hundred pages means that there is always room to go deeper. For example, Walker touches lightly on research about the possible causes for gender dysphoria. Trying to say everything Walker wants to say in a book this size inevitable means leaving out something valuable. However, I think Walker manages to balance it well. There is enough depth to satisfy someone who is curious but it is brief enough to avoid being overwhelming. As an added strength, the style is relaxed and conversational which makes it an ease to read. This book is a wonderful choice for a pastor's bookshelf and a strong addition to any church library.
Tom Breeden is the Assistant Pastor at Grace Community Church, a PCA church in Charlottesville, VA. Tom is co-author of Can I Smoke Pot? Marijuana in Light of Scripture.