A male student goes to a teacher and desires to use the girl’s restroom instead of the boy’s restroom. A husband divorces his wife and leaves his family because he has determined he no longer is a man. An elderly woman picks from fifty-one gender options on facebook as she is creating her profile. A college student marches for trans-rights on Washington, D.C. to guarantee every person is treated equally before the eyes of the law. Scenarios like these are becoming more prominent and common across the nation as the transgender movement becomes an almost daily reality. What is one to make of such movements and scenarios? How are thoughtful Christians to respond to people within these groups? How are we to best love other people who are part of the human family who possess transgender experiences?
Mark A. Yarhouse, professor of psychology and the Hughes Chair of Christian Thought in Mental Health Practice at Regent University in Virginia Beach, discusses the nature of gender dysphoria in his work Understanding Gender Dysphoria: Navigating Transgender Issues in a Changing Culture. Dr. Yarhouse is a licensed clinical psychologist whose area of expertise includes issues relating to human sexuality, marriage, ethics, and the integration of psychology and theology. He is a graduate of Calvin College, Wheaton College, and Regent University. His other books are Sexual Identity: A Guide to Living in the Time Between the Times and Sexuality, coauthored with Lori A. Burkett, and Sex Therapy: A Comprehensive Christian Appraisal, coauthored with Erica S. N. Tan. The author writes that a great need exists within the Christian community for a resource written from a Christian perspective that is informed by the best research of the day, which also has compassion for those who are experiencing some form of gender dysphoria. To such an end, Yarhouse wrote his book.
The work is comprised of seven chapters. Chapter 1 introduces the reader to the “language, categories, and key terms associated with the topics.” Such a chapter is vitally necessary as well as helpful. Without understanding the language of the current debate, Christians could never meaningfully interact within the discussion. After surveying such information, Yarhouse urges church leaders “to spend time in careful reflection as we think about the best way to engage the broader culture from more of a missional approach while simultaneously considering how to come alongside people within our own Christian communities who are navigating this terrain. (22).” One of the most helpful anecdotes the author gave was informing the reader that gender dysphoria is an umbrella term utilized for people who experience a wide and diverse array of issues relating to their experienced and biological sex. A one-size-fits-all solution is virtually impossible in light of the current research.
The second chapter gives a survey of relevant biblical passages that are occasionally utilized within the discussion. He thinks the best theological response is one that operates from the overall narrative sweep of Scripture: Creation, the Fall, Redemption, and Glorification. Yarhouse also introduces us to three, distinct categories from whence people work. The integrity framework recognizes the sacredness of our gender. The disability framework speaks about gender dysphoria in light of human brokenness, which is a result of living in a fallen world. Last, the diversity framework sees gender dysphoria as something to be celebrated that challenges the standard binary. Instead of adopting any of the three frameworks, the author instead seeks to integrate the best of all three to speak and minister to people who are affected by gender dysphoria. Chapter four seeks to provide the best research available to what causes the malady. After looking at the research, the author notes, “I am not optimistic that one unifying theory will explain the myriad presentations that exist under that particular canopy. (81)” What causes one to experience gender dysphoria? A simple answer simply eludes us at this stage of research.
Chapter five seeks to address what actually occurs within people who profess experiencing gender problems at various ages. The section of the book also tries to offer statistics concerning how many people are affected by transgender problems, a number that is not easily identifiable. Chapter six discusses how people are treated at various ages. The author offers his personal reservations about specific treatments, especially sex-reassignment surgery for children. He closes the chapter acknowledging how various treatments interact with the three frameworks he mentioned from an earlier part of the book. In the last two chapters, Yarhouse explains how Christians ought to respond to people both on an individual and institutional level. He emphasizes pastoral sensitivity, listening to others’ stories, the value of a loving community, and humility. Our communication also needs to become more sensitive and informed in this area.
As someone who teaches middle and high school students at a local Christian school who have immense amounts of questions about this issue, I found this book to be of tremendous value. I now have the vocabulary to speak thoughtfully about this debate within our society. The author’s constant call to listen thoughtfully to others who experience gender dysphoria, to express the utmost pastoral concern, and to resist simple answers was refreshing to me. His honesty about what we know and do not know also impressed me. Christians do not win points with our culture when we oversell what we know in light of the current research. In regards to how Christians respond to those who experience some form of gender dysphoria, I agree that approaching people utilizing the metanarrative of Scripture is likely a better plan of action than cherry-picking a few verses here and there. While the Bible does not speak directly to this current debate, the metanarrative of Scripture provides a general paradigm or framework that we can use to make sense of the data.
I was challenged as I read the book to not view this as a simple black and white, moral debate. It is complex because there are people who have complex, multifaceted problems within this fallen world. As the author noted, “If you know one transgender person, you know one transgender person! (81)” There aren’t easy answers. Any future discussions relating to gender issues must be nuanced and honest with what we know and do not know. This is difficult within our current culture because I think most people have tacitly bought the message of those who have politicized this discussion. The author helped me to understand that even many who are preeminently using the diversity framework are not seeking to completely remove all authoritative, gender differences that exist. There is a weak and strong stance that exists within the diversity paradigm.
I think if churches are to be missional in the 21st century and truly affect the greater culture around them, books like this ought to be read, discussed, and disseminated among the clergy and laity. We need a greater awareness of the actual experiences of people who are affected by this condition so the Church as a whole can avoid being used in the culture wars of the day. While churches should give opinions in highly publicized occurrences of gender dysphoria in our time (e.g. Bruce Jenner’s transition), focusing on those within our own spheres of influences and reach seems wisest. Expressing an opinion about a celebrity you will never meet is one thing; helping a congregant or community member navigate their own gender confusion is another. Churches also need to decide how to protect themselves when it comes to issues of religious liberty and trans-rights. Our culture as well as our government have adopted the diversity framework and appear to be moving rapidly in a direction that the Church is not going and, to be quite frank, should not go. Much prayer and reflection are required in order to determine how best to minister to those within and without while also protecting ourselves if necessary from government intrusion.
The book possesses many strengths. First, it interacted with the best research of the day and modeled how to integrate it with other disciplines. The author sought to bring theology, psychology, and science together so Christians could be equipped in discussing this topic. We need other works that do this for other areas too. Second, the author’s compassion and humility were on display throughout the work. As you read the work, you could tell this was not an arcane discussion for the author. He knows people personally who have been affected by this which, in turn, softens how he treats and speaks about the debate. Third, he was very personal throughout. His inclusion of personal anecdotes and stories made the book more readable. Despite how politicized the debate has become, it is not merely a political question. There are real people who need help. Fourth, the author sought to explain complex ideas in a simple fashion. I am not trained in the area of psychology so his inclusion of word banks and constant clarifications truly helped me to better understand what he was communicating. The illustrations and graphs were also beneficial. Fifth, his honesty about what we know and do not know was helpful. I found myself devouring even the footnotes and noticing his candor throughout. Because this is the first book on this subject I’ve read, I have nothing to compare it to. In light of this, I perceive no weaknesses that stood out. It was an engaging read that I immediately used in the classroom. I would highly recommend this work to anyone who desires knowledge and insight about this hotly, debated issue within our culture. If Christians are to truly minister to the broken within our midst, works like this are absolutely necessary and timely.