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18 June 2015

Redemptive relationships: How should Christians respond to Caitlyn Jenner?

"Christians are to foster the kinds of relationships that will help us know and love and obey Jesus better than we did yesterday. That is redemption." – Mark Yarhouse, Understanding Gender Dysphoria

The story of Bruce Jenner's journey to become Caitlin Jenner has recently dominated media headlines.

Strong reactions for and against have been expressed by groups as disparate as faith groups and feminists, however judging by the burgeoning number of social media followers, the overwhelming response has been supportive. 1

After being told by users that its 58 existing gender options were not inclusive enough, Facebook decided to give its US-based members a chance to fill in their own gender, saying: "We recognise that some people face challenges sharing their true gender identity with others, and this setting gives people the ability to express themselves in an authentic way." 2

But how should Christians respond to the increasing popularity of the view that it is possible, if not cool, to define one's own gender?

'Gender identity' is a term used to describe the extent to which people experience themselves as male or female, masculine or feminine. 'Gender dysphoria' or 'transsexuality' is a well-known psychological condition which refers to a person's deep and ongoing sense of incongruence between their biological sex and their cognitive and emotional experience of gender. This may result in significant levels of distress, often expressed, for example, as 'feeling like a woman trapped in a man's body'. The American Psychiatric Association estimates the number of transsexual adults to be extremely low – between 0.005 to 0.014 per cent of men and 0.002 to 0.003 per cent of women.

Psychologists do not know what causes gender dysphoria. The most popular current theory suggests that for unknown reasons the brain mapping process does not synchronise with biological sex differentiation as normal. However, the brain is known to be highly plastic in its responses to lived experience and there are major problems with this theory. Often gender dysphoria does not occur until much later in life and many experts believe that causation factors may well involve a combination of genetic, environmental and experiential aspects. Among those 50 per cent who proceed to seek a surgical solution to what is fundamentally a psychological condition there often remain ongoing issues relating to the underlying psychological condition and a high level of suicide is reported.

In his new book Understanding Gender Dysphoria,3 Christian psychologist Mark Yarhouse suggests that a sensitive Christian response to people suffering from gender dysphoria might ideally involve seeking to view such individuals through a balanced combination of cultural lenses. He rejects as unrealistic and uncompassionate a response which focuses on the assumption that gender identity conflicts are the result of wilful disobedience or sinful choice.

The first lens would view gender dysphoria as a disability resulting from living in a fallen world in which the underlying psychological condition is not a moral choice. Effectively this would involve treating individuals in a similar way to anyone who may suffer from a psychological handicap. Second, Yarhouse believes that it is appropriate to approach pastoral care through a lens in which sex, gender and gender identity are seen as comprising a "sacred integrity of maleness or femaleness implicit in the body" and which upholds the creational order. In this view, which is based on the biblical witness, the integrity of biological sex forms an essential part of personhood. Cross-gender identification would be regarded as denying or marring the givenness of male or female as designed and formed by God. This second lens is concerned for the essential integrity of sex and gender and the processes through which maleness and femaleness help us to understand the nature of human persons, the Church and the gospel.

A third lens through which Yarhouse suggests Christians might distinctively welcome transsexual people is by offering an answer to the deep-seated questions of identity and belonging. While the first two lenses should provoke responses based on compassion and integrity, the third lens for Yarhouse involves the message of redemption – namely rising above the sex and gender culture wars and drawing individuals to the transformative work and power of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. Yarhouse expresses this pastoral response to a transsexual person in the following way:

"I hope to approach her not as a project, but as a person seeking real and sustained relationship, which is characterized by empathy as well as encouragement to walk faithfully with Christ. But I should not try to "fix" her, because unless I'm her professional therapist, I'm not privy to the best way to resolve her gender dysphoria. Rather, Christians are to foster the kinds of relationships that will help us know and love and obey Jesus better than we did yesterday. That is redemption." 4

Regarding how to treat transsexual people in practice, Yarhouse affirms:

"If Sara shares her name with me, as a clinician and Christian, I use it. I do not use this moment to shout "Integrity!" by using her male name or pronoun, which clearly goes against that person's wishes. It is an act of respect, even if we disagree, to let the person determine what they want to be called. If we can't grant them that, it's going to be next to impossible to establish any sort of relationship with them."

Some Christian observers are nervous that Yarhouse may be making too many concessions towards colluding with illusion and deception. However, for Yarhouse, welcoming and pastorally managing transsexual people in the Church does not involve closing one's eyes to reality and playing a game, but it does involve what he refers to as pursuing a "redemptive relationship" by extending to transsexual people the grace and mercy we depend on ourselves and entrusting their care to the work of God "until that person arrives at their true end –when gender and soul are made well in the presence of God". Ideally, motivated transsexual people should be encouraged through a combination of holistic therapy and professional psychotherapy to accept their true selves as created by God. There is now increasing evidence of disillusioned transsexual people seeking to reverse the transgendered process and of Christian transsexual people seeking to be baptised in their original names and identities.

The stories of both Caitlyn Jenner and Rachel Doležal – the white woman who identifies herself as black who we have watched with incredulity this past week – perpetuate post-Enlightenment mythology regarding the alleged power of the individual to control and shape their own destiny, whether it be their gender or their race.

These contemporary forms of confusion obscure the stark realities of life in which first it is entirely not possible for a person to change their sex or their racial identity, and second technological fixes are not usually an answer to deep-seated unhappiness and personal identity issues. However, how the Church responds to those who suffer from gender dysphoria or indeed any of the contemporary forms of identity dysphoria is becoming an increasing challenge. But it is one which the Church should be supremely equipped to respond to by pointing to the transformative work of Jesus Christ who created each individual and knows them from the moment of conception and is able to lead them to acceptance rather than rejection of their true selves – body, soul and spirit. Indeed, for all of us, our only true identity is to be found in the person of Jesus Christ, to be born again and to be called by his name.

Dr Don Horrocks is head of public affairs at the Evangelical Alliance and oversaw the Alliance Policy Commission's 2000 publication: Transsexuality

1 This chimes with prevailing notions in the West today regarding the nature of the self. The 'controlling myth of our time' according to leading theologian Tom Wright (Creation, Power and Truth, 2013) may be seen as akin to that of ancient Gnosticism driven by a postmodern ideology informing what is known as 'queer theory'. Based on the deconstructionist philosophies of e.g. Michel Foucoult and Judith Butler, gender categories have come to be regarded as nothing more than social constructions which deny the existence of biological realities or organically given norms. In fact, they may be regarded as layers of social accretions needing to be discarded in order for individuals to attain personal authenticity. Early church gnostic heresies regarded the material world, including one's own corporeal existence, as unnecessary and deceptive cultural and traditional baggage which needed to be thrown off in the search for true enlightenment and liberation through discovering one's authentic inner self and finding self-actualisation. Such an approach usually involved despising of one's bodily existence in favour of so-called spiritual enlightenment.

2 http://rt.com/usa/236283-facebook-gender-custom-choice/

3 Mark Yarhouse, Understanding Gender Dysphoria: Navigating Transgender issues in a Changing Culture (Downers Grove: IVP, 2015)

4 Mark Yarhouse: Understanding the Transgender Phenomenon http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2015/july-august/understanding-transgender-gender-dysphoria.html?paging=off