This week we are talking about transgender, a topic of frequent inquiry from our listeners, and to help us, we welcome to the podcast Rob Smith, a pastor and theologian who lectures in systematic theology and ethics at Sydney Missionary and Bible College in Australia. He approaches the topic of the transgender revolution as a biblical theologian, as a historian of the movement, and as a pastor whose own family has been touched by the realities and the tensions of gender dysphoria.
Rob, we hear it all the time. Transgender is an issue of what someone wants to do with his or her own body. It’s not abortion. It’s not murder. It is a choice of a person who wants to change his or her own body. So what would you say to the transgender community that says to Christians: “Leave us alone. If you think we are hurting ourselves, we are only hurting ourselves. So be it. What I do with my body is none of your business.” What’s the proper Christian response to that?
This is a great question that I guess is a challenging one for many. We have already been told to “back off.” Even non-Christian friends of mine who, for example, just to jump over to the issue of same-sex marriage, would say, “I don’t understand same-sex attraction and I am not in favor of same-sex marriage, but who am I to impose my view or stand in the way of what others would like, too?”
Similarly here. Why not just let people do what they want to do?
Now, one way of answering that is to say, “We care about you, and part of our love of our neighbor is to desire their good.” And if you think somebody is acting against their own self-interest, then we have a duty or responsibility to say something, just as we have a duty or a responsibility to do what we can to stop people self-harming, committing suicide, or damaging themselves in some way. Of course, we do it with all kinds of other things. I was looking at a big advertisement on the side of a bus saying, smoking causes cancer and smoking kills. And there, we are warning people not to engage in an activity, even though it doesn’t seem to stop some. So, it is part of loving our neighbor to speak up.
But I think the other thing to ponder is that when a person hurts themselves, it hurts others. It hurts those who love them. It affects their relationships and, again, and I have certainly seen this with people who have tried to resolve their gender dysphoria by transitioning. It puts enormous strain on relationships and, even in some cases, destroys them and tears families apart. And what is at the heart of that is watching someone you love go through basically self-mutilation in an attempt to destroy the person that they were and replace that person with someone else, with another name and that has a profound impact on relationships.
“When a person hurts themselves, it does hurt others.”
Now, it doesn’t have to destroy them and there are certainly many cases where Christian people have hung in there and walked alongside those who have made some of these choices and said, “We don’t agree, but we are not going anywhere. We are going to keep loving you and reaching out to you, and we want to be there to care for you. But we still think what you are doing to yourself is actually tragic and may well be something you come to later regret.”
And that is something we ought to be aware of. The instance of regret is astronomically highly and for those who take the radical steps of sex reassignment surgery, there is so much that cannot then be undone. Once things have been cut off, they can’t be put back on again. And it is heartbreaking to see.
So that is how I would respond. Obviously there is certain “freedoms” people have and we can’t stop people who are of age making use of these sorts of treatments that are available to them. Which, of course, raises another question that they should be available to them, but that is a harder question to answer and perhaps that genie is out of the bottle, sadly.
Yeah, we’ve sped right past the ethical medical questions about breaking healthy bodies. I’m thinking of my next question . . . this is certainly not true of you. But what do you say to critics of Christians who imply that if you don’t have a personal network of close transgender friends, you have no basis on which to oppose the transgender revolution? Does that question make sense?
Yes, that makes sense to me and it is a challenge put to Christians on a range of fronts, on a range of issues. And, of course, not all of us do or can have transgender friends. You don’t just go out and decide, “I am going to get some transgender friends now.” Those of us who do know transgender people, that is something that happened under God’s providence in life.
Now obviously, if you do know those who are either suffering gender dysphoria or sought to transition from one gender to another, then that will perhaps give you a certain insight into, again, the distress that is at the heart of gender dysphoria and why some people feel driven to resolve that distress this way. But even if you don’t have those relationships, we all have the capacity to read and understand and to develop insight and compassion and have enough of a grasp of issues to speak to them and to raise our questions about them and to, in an appropriate way, oppose them. So, under God, I think it is a way of trying to silence any objection to come at these this way.
“Christians should get as good a grasp on question about transgender as we can, whether or not we have transgender friends.”
But it does put the onus on Christians to at least get as good a grasp on things as we can, whether or not we actually have personal contact or connection with transgender friends. And one of the things it is good to do if a person really wants to understand these issues better and they have never ever spoken to a transgender person is to make contact with people or ask a friend of a friend and say, “I would just like to sit down and hear your story and understand what it is like to be you and how you go to where you got to and just to listen.” That itself can be a useful thing to do, not as a way of changing your view.
Sadly this is one of the ways that, again, Christians can be silenced or have our sort of views muzzled is by people asking, “Who are you to deny my story?” Or, “If you would listen to my story, then you will back off.” Well, no, we need to listen to the stories, but we need to make sense of those stories in the light of Scripture and, where appropriate, respond.
Tough love. And with tough love, you bring a very warm pastoral tone whenever you talk about this issue, as listeners can tell in this conversation. This is true in your lectures, too. I want to commend you for that.
Well, thank you.
Certainly. Tone is huge because Christians engage in, what seems to be, two directions. So keep talking about this. How do we Christians winsomely confront the prophets of transgender revolution in our culture (in the political realm), while not alienating those who are more quietly wrestling with transgender impulses and loving them pastorally? How do we pull it off?
Yes, this is one of the challenges. Because we are not dealing with a sort of one-size-fits-all situation. We have on the one hand advocates, activists, ideologues, experimenters who are really determined to reconstruct society and deconstruct gender and destroy the concept of a gender binary, and that is a dangerous ideology. It is already reaping havoc in western society. And so, that does need to be challenged. It does need to be opposed.
Of course, anything we challenge or oppose we need to do that, as Paul says, with graciousness and seasoned with salt (Colossians 4:6) and, as Peter says, with gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:15). And so, we need to engage with civility and we need to know what we are talking about. We need to be careful we don’t overstate and overreach. We need to be on top of facts and figures, if we are going to engage meaningfully and helpfully. So, there is a whole manner of engagement there. But we need to engage.
“Anything we challenge or oppose we need to do so with graciousness, gentleness, and respect.”
On the other hand, of course, you have the pastoral context that you mentioned — people who are genuine sufferers with whom we are trying to build relationships and provide love and care and support and what have you. And so, yes, juggling those two things is not always easy.
This perhaps will give you a little personal insight. But sometimes when my wife and I have spoken publicly on these issues in a certain forum and we have wondered whether people we are talking to personally might become aware of that lecture or even listen to it, we have sort of given them a heads up on that and said, “Look, we just want you to know we are going to be speaking about these issues,” just so there is no surprise there.
Suppose a pastor decides to preach on this. If he has got somebody he knows in the congregation with him who he is already in conversation and who is struggling with gender dysphoria, it would be very right and appropriate to go to him beforehand and say, “Listen, I am going to be preaching about this on Sunday. This is not a way of getting at you. It is not my way of trying to say things to you that I am too afraid to say to you face-to-face. This is for the benefit of the congregation. And so, I just want you to know that up front.”
“Our political engagement and our pastoral practice can’t be two completely separate things.”
Again, there are ways of managing that tension between what some maybe see as harder things in a public sphere and softer things in a private context. But at the end of the day the truth is the truth and our message is the same. Our political engagement and our pastoral practice can’t be two completely separate things. It is the same understanding that is generating both. It is the common love of neighbor that is generating both. It is a concern for individuals and society that is generating that. So, I think you can juggle those but, yes, I think we have just got to work with that tension.