The Transgender Moment and the Technological Imperative

If a believer, perhaps a pastor, has a conversation with someone who suspects they are transgender or experiences gender dysphoria, our first response should be compassion. Imagine waking up daily and thinking, “I have the wrong body.” If we are in a position to give counsel or advice, we should be “quick to listen, slow to speak” as James 1 says

     Indeed, we should listen carefully, since the statement “I am transgender” may mean different things. First, and least likely, the issue may be biological. According to U.S. government statistics, about 4 million babies are born annually; up to 1,000 babies may be “intersex.” Physically or medically speaking, they have chromosomal irregularities or irregularities in the development of the internal and external reproductive organs. Their development varies from a typical, healthy male or female body.

     A larger group experiences body dysphoria, a sense that their body is wrong or alien to them or does not match their sense of identity. Transgender feelings are a prominent form of body dysphoria. To be transgender is to believe that one’s gender identity and/or gender expression (e.g. clothes or hair) does not match their biological sex. This difficulty is psychological, not biological.

     Third, we will increasingly meet people who have suffered harm from the publicity and promotion of transgenderism. A parent may be distraught that a child – typically a girl - who previously expressed no confusion suddenly, around the onset of puberty, declares that she is in the wrong body and wants to start taking male hormones. She may also mention surgery. This “rapid-onset gender dysphoria” often comes in groups, when clusters of teens resolve to “come out” as transgender together. Further, adults who experience psychological distress may decide that their problem is gender dysphoria and seek counsel for that.

     Finally, pastors will increasingly meet people who followed the hormonal and surgical protocols for “sex change” and regret the consequences. The instance of “sex change regret” and attempts to “detransition” are very high (as are post transition suicide rates).

     The informative books, Gender Dysphoria by Mark Yarhouse and When Harry Became Sally, by Ryan T. Anderson show that the stories of gender dysphoria vary widely. Again, pastors need to listen before they speak.

     Pastors also need resources; I especially want to recommend two: The Bible and Begotten, not Made, by Oliver O’Donovan. Surely most readers know that Genesis 1 says: “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them… And God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth…’” (Gen. 1:27-28). Genesis 2:18-25, when Adam and Eve meet and marry, assumes this binary. Genesis 5:2 restates it: “Male and female he created them.” Jesus reaffirms it in Matthew 19:4, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female.” The law also declares, “A woman shall not wear a man’s garment, nor shall a man put on a woman’s cloak, for whoever does these things is an abomination to the LORD your God” (Deut. 22:5). Finally, most scholars agree that Paul’s teaching on hair and head coverings in 1 Corinthians 11 assumes that men and women should look like or present themselves according to their biological sex.

     Theologically speaking, Oliver O’Donovan offers a distinctively helpful analysis. Writing in 1984, O’Donovan noted that Western culture has a prejudice toward technological solutions to problems even if they are not essentially technical in nature. We can track this in the way the Hippocratic Oath has shifted. For many years, the Western version of the oath began, “First, do no harm.” This followed a key line in the original Greek vow, “I will abstain from all intentional wrong-doing and harm, especially from abusing the bodies of man or woman…” But the most recent version of the oath reads “I will apply, for the benefit of the sick, all measures [that] are required…” This “activist” version of the vow fits the tendency to prefer technical solutions to problems.

        O’Donovan begins elsewhere. In biblical language, he notes, parents beget children, they do not make them. Born of mother and father by God’s plan and grace, children are like their parents, but also unlike them in ways no human determines. We beget children, but, by contrast, when we “make,” human will and technique can control the result.  

     Transsexual surgery and hormones, O’Donovan continues, “make.” The transgender assumption is that we need not receive what God gives, we can remake ourselves, at will. This eradicates two biblical principles: “God made them male and female” and “Be fruitful and multiply,” since transsexuals cannot reproduce. In a sense, “gender reassignment surgery” (below) would most closely human cloning, in that in both humans intend to make, not to beget, humans.

     This obviously connects to the technological imperative, first labeled by Jacques Ellul: What can be done – whether surgery or gene editing - must be done. It is not enough for the medical community to heal diseases or wounds. As humans gain the power to remake – improve! - humanity, people increasingly argue or even assume that we should do so.

     An essential catalyst for the technological imperative is the current Western zeal for self-definition (see a forthcoming blog). If we can make ourselves, who needs a Creator? And if there is no Creator, there is no created order.

     O’Donovan argues that hormone therapy and “gender reassignment surgery” are extreme forms of self-definition. If we believe we can be whatever we want to be, why stop at any particular point? If we receive the necessary medical interventions, we need not even be male or female! Whereas one’s biological sex was once given, it can be graven, rewritten. With the right surgery, we can remake ourselves. Biology becomes temporary, even artificial. Thus transgender advocates speak of one’s “assigned” gender or the “gender assigned at birth” as if physicians flip coins or indulge pink or blue moods when babies enter the world. Language counts: If gender is assigned at birth – not recognized – then it can be re-assigned. Thus ideology fuels the technological imperative.

     Of course, "sex" reassignment surgery is essentially a misnomer, since sexual differences manifest themselves in numerous systems and organs, from bone structures and muscle mass down to cellular, even molecular processes. As Ryan Anderson says, surgery and hormones can change appearance, but they cannot change anyone from one sex to the other.

     O’Donovan fingers another problem. To approach gender dysphoria with hormones and surgery is to resolve to manage the problem technically. It is to say “We will remove the burden of counseling and instruction. We will manage the case with technology, not with the slow process of counsel that allows people, in their distress, to recognize reality and receive what is given.” This is especially dangerous since there is abundant reason to believe that many who report gender dysphoria have been swept along by a celebrated cultural wave. The duration of the wave may be brief; the results of surgery and hormones will last and last.

     Perhaps we can pause to regain the big picture. Problems in fetal development are a tragic result of the fall, but they are too rare to be the root of the transgender wave. Anguish about one’s gender is also a result of the fall. But feelings are not always reliable. People get anxious or angry when they should not, as Cain and Jonah demonstrate. The presence of physical and emotional disorder does not demonstrate that there is no order. By God’s grace, it is possible to recover order.

     Practically speaking, we can pray that the errors in the transgender movement will be manifest before too many people damage themselves through it. We can think through gender stereotypes – boys like collisions, girls like to stay indoors – that are more cultural than biblical and may therefore contribute to the secular impetus to break free from constraints and stereotypes. Finally, we can stand by counselors and physicians who resist the pressure to conform to professional environments that press them to act against their convictions.

Dan Doriani teaches Theology and Ethics at Covenant Seminary. He earned his M.Div. from Westminster and talked everyone into a joint Yale/Westminster Ph.D. He also pastored a very small church for five years and a very large one for eleven. He plays tennis, hikes mountains, wrangles grandchildren, speaks at conferences, and writes books. His most recent is Work: Its Purpose, Dignity, and Transformation.