A few days ago we received an e-mail. One of our readers wanted to know how to treat transgender people in a church context. Here is a part of their e-mail:
I am mentoring a young transman who came to church initially as a female, and left when he was not getting the affirmation he needed as a male. He is now denying any kind of faith interest at all. I find this situation incredibly sad. He needs all the support he can get as he faces this major life change. We and a trusted Christian counselor are trying to come to an agreement on what is the appropriate way to work these issues through. We want to keep our faith genuine and real and be a light in the darkness. Maybe your ministry can help?
If we want to talk about transgenderism and the bible we first have to agree on two things:
1. We admit that the Hebrew texts of the bible meant something different to Jewish readers thousands of years ago than the English text without the same cultural reference means to us today in 2016. Or in other words: “Scripture cannot mean now what it did not mean then.” (Rick Brentlinger, *1950, Independent Baptist preacher)
2. We must refrain from reading topics, word meanings, contexts and connotations into the bible that were not given when the texts were originally written down. Or again in other words: “Scripture only settles matters about which it speaks plainly.” (Richard Hooker, 1554-1600, Anglican theologian)
With these two aspects in mind, let’s look at what the bible says about transgender people.
Perhaps the most commonly used verse to identify transmen and transwomen as sinners is a verse in Deuteronomy 22:5.
A woman must not wear men’s clothing, nor a man wear women’s clothing, for the Lord your God detests anyone who does this.
It is often said that transgender people who dress according to their gender and not their sex are therefore “detested” by God. But this verse can hardly be a mere fashion statement. Especially when we keep in mind that 3500 years ago when this verse was written the clothes as men and women were rather similar. If the main focus of this verse were indeed clothes then every person who ever wore an item of clothing originally associated with the other sex would be detested by God. What about men who wear kilts, women who wear trousers? Does this verse apply to shoes, too? There is no real difference between hiking boots or sandals for men and women. Can men never wear pink again because it is a color so closely associated with women? Can women still wear blue? What about the changes that fashion underwent during the millennia? Must we all go back to pre-Christian fashion in order to keep this law?
No. Because this law does not address the way a person dresses on a daily basis. In fact these lines refer to the worship of other deities. How can this be? It always helps to look at the Hebrew texts for answers. The word “geber” is used in Deut 22:5 for “man” and not the far more common word “adam” which is normally used in the Old Testament. Now “geber” does not just mean “man”. It refers to a masculine man, a powerful warrior. The connotations of the word are about strength and fighting spirit and not just simply about being male. Therefore it is very well possible that the male clothing the verse talks about is actually armor. In the cultural context in which this verse was written the Israelites were often confronted with other religions, other deities and therefore also different forms of worship. It is for example well known that the Roman goddess Venus who was very similar to the Canaanites’ two fertility goddesses Astarte and Ashtaroth, required men to appear in women’s clothes before her altar. And more than that: Women were required to wear men’s clothes and/or armor when approaching the altar of the Roman god Mars or other fertility goddesses.
Therefore the point of Deut 22:5 is not simply to forbid people from wearing clothes that are assigned to the opposite sex. Wearing the clothes of the opposite sex was merely the most striking and visible aspect of worshiping some other deities. Therefore the law points out that God doesn’t agree with worshiping other gods besides Himself. No, I did not make this up. Jewish and Christian scholars have for many centuries understood Deuteronomy 22:5 as a law against practices associated with the worship of other deities. See also: Adam Clark Commentary, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary or John Gill’s Exposition of the Entire Bible.
While Deut 22:5 is the main verse that can be misread as a law against being transgender, there are other verses in the Scripture that are also used to do the same.
Deut 23:1 says:
“No one whose testicles are crushed or whose male organ is cut off shall enter the assembly of the Lord.”
I’ve heard of preachers and pastors who see this verse as evidence that sex-reassignment surgery for transwomen (who were born in male bodies) excludes them from the Body of Christ. However, if we accept this verse as a law as it is, would that not exclude any men who suffered severe injury to the lumbar region? This by the way would include hundreds, if not thousands of veterans. Are we willing to go this far just to exclude transwomen who had sex-reassignment surgery from the church, or are we willing to look at the context of when and for whom this law was written? Some people might say that this verse only refers to males who had their penis removed deliberately and not to those who had accidents, but then again “scripture only settles matters about which it speaks plainly”, right? By the way, Deut 23:2 excludes children who were born out of wedlock from the congregation of the Lord until the tenth generation. I do not believed that many people today have to show the marriage license of their parents and ancestors if they wish to become a member of a church. So why do we stick to one law so fiercely and forget about another?
Regardless, there is a verse in Matthew which seems to repeal Deut 23:1 anyway. In Matthew 19:12 Jesus says:
“For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it.”
An eunuch can be a man who has been castrated by others or himself or who was born without functioning male genitalia. However the Hebrew term for eunuch, “saris”, also refers to servants and officials in the Old Testament who were married to women and therefore highly unlikely to be unable to procreate. The word “eunuch” therefore also refers to any men (and possibly women) who are unable to procreate. This definition does not only include homosexuals who simply do not have sex with the opposite sex and therefore don’t procreate but also transgender people who cannot procreate according to their actual gender (a transwoman can never carry a child, nor can a transman impregnate a woman). So it is possible to argue that Jesus understood that both homosexuality and transgenderism are genetic traits, not a choice and therefore not sinful. Yes, one could even argue that Jesus says right here that transgender and homosexual people are purposefully created by God.
There is another verse that seems to state once and for all that transgender people are merely confused and need to be fixed.
In Genesis 1:27 it is written:
“So God created mankind in His own image, in the image of God He created them; male and female He created them.”
Today we understand that there is a difference between sex (a person’s genetic makeup) and gender (a person’s psychological identity as male or female). We understand that both, sex and gender, equally determine if the person in front of us is a man, or a woman. In biblical times this distinction was not made and therefore a person was seen as a man or a woman, if s/he had the matching genitalia. Today we know that appearance alone is not necessarily proof for either sex. So it is possible to argue that a transman does not violate this verse because he is simply a man, even although his body is female. The same applies of course to transwomen. But even if one doesn’t agree with this interpretation, this verse can be read in relation to Galatians 3:28 that speaks about the new covenant through Jesus:
“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
While some people might argue that here “no male and female” simply refers to the gender roles, social obligations and gender-specific laws of the Old Testament, others disagree. In Genesis 1:27 and Galatians 3:28 gender roles, biological features, or even just a clear description of what “female” and “male” really is, are never mentioned. Therefore all we know is that God created mankind in two different ways but these two different ways do not matter anymore because we are all one in Jesus Christ. So it seems that gender identity and transgenderism are not only not condemned in the bible but not even mentioned. I believe that if God for whatever reason wished to establish laws against transgender people, He would have done so. The fact that He didn’t is for me proof enough that He does not see them as sinful at all. If anything transgenderism is a scriptual gray area.
Today, 57% of transgender teenagers who are not supported by their families or churches attempt suicide. Can we really accept this risk based on a scriptual gray area?
(If you have questions, worries, or ideas about how gender identity and sexual orientation can coexist with being a Christian, never hesitate to write us. Our email address: firstname.lastname@example.org We are looking forward to hearing from you!)