Jun 20, 2017

Transgender Children...A Christian Leader's Response

The front cover of a recent National Geographic Magazine issue was titled "Gender Revolution" and featured a picture of nine-year-old Avery Jackson of Kansas City.  Avery has lived as an openly transgender girl since the age of five.

"I am Jazz" is a a reality show on TLC about Jazz Jennings.  Jazz was born a boy, but at age 4, was diagnosed with gender dysphoria.  By Jazz's 5th birthday, the parents decided to support the child's female gender identity.  The show gives you an inside look at the child's journey and family dynamics.

Discussions and debates about transgender issues have escalated.  Much of this has been sparked by bathroom policies, which is a lightning rod.  Gavin Grimm, a 17-year-old who was born female, but now identifies as a male, went to court to have the right to use the boy's bathroom at Gloucester High School.  In April of 2016, Target publicized a bathroom policy that stated customers were welcome to use the bathroom of the gender they identify with.  “Inclusivity is a core belief at Target,” the company wrote. “Everyone deserves to feel like they belong.  And you’ll always be accepted, respected and welcomed at Target."  This sparked a protest and national boycott.

As Christian leaders that minister to kids and families, we can't ignore the transgender revolution, hoping that we will never have to be personally involved.  But as we look at Scripture, we see that Jesus didn't walk away from the messiness of a world broken by sin.  He walked right into the middle of it and met people where they were...offering hope, help and healing.

The quick thing to do is paint a broad stroke with cries of "sinful" or "against nature" or "perversion."  It's especially easy when you're simply typing words on a computer or posting on social media.  But when you interact face-to-face with families who are trying to navigate with their child who says he or she is transgender, it becomes very real and your words of condemnation slow down very quickly.  

So, how should we respond?  As I began to personally journey with families whose children are struggling with being transgender, I went searching for answers.  One of the best resources that I found was the book "Understanding Gender Dysphoria: Navigating Transgender Issues in a Changing Culture" by Dr. Mark Yarhouse.  Mark is the Hughes Endowed Chair and Professor of Psychology at Regent University and is one of the leading Christian voices in transgender issues.

In the book, Mark helps define terms, which is where we must start.

Transgender - an umbrella term for the many ways people experience a mismatch between their gender identity and their biological sex.

Gender identity - how people experience themselves as male or female, including how masculine or feminine they feel.

Gender dysphoria - deep or abiding discomfort over the incongruence between one’s biological sex and one’s psychological and emotional experience of gender.  In simpler terms, a boy feels like a girl trapped in a boy's body and visa versa.   A prior previous version of the American Psychiatric Association’s diagnostic manual included the diagnosis “gender identity disorder.”  It highlighted cross-gender identity as the point of concern.  The newest version refers instead to “gender dysphoria,” moving the discussion away from identity and toward the experience of distress. 

Transgender and homosexuality -  gender dysphoria and transgender issues are not about having sex or attraction to the same sex; they are about an experiential mismatch between one’s psychology and one’s biology.  People often confuse the two, likely due to transgender being a part of the larger lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) discussion.  

What causes gender dysphoria?  The most popular theory among those who publish on this topic is the brain-sex theory.  It proposes that the brain maps toward male or female, which in nearly all cases corresponds with various biological indicators of sex: chromosomes, gonads, and sex hormones.  In rare instances, the normal sex differentiation that occurs in utero occurs in one direction (differentiating toward male, for example), while the brain maps in the other direction (toward female).  Several gaps remain in the research behind this theory, but it nonetheless compels many professionals.

What normally happens as a child with transgender leanings grows up?  In 3 out of 4 cases, the gender identity conflict resolves on its own.  However, about three-fourths of children who experience lessening or resolution grow up to identify as gay, lesbian or bisexual.

So how should we respond as Christian leaders who minister to children and families?  Mark identifies three lens we can look through when it comes to transgender identity.

Lens #1 - The Integrity Lens
This lens draws a hard line based on Biblical passages.  It approaches the issue emphatically using passages such as Genesis 2:21-24.

So the Lord God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep. While the man slept, the Lord God took out one of the man’s ribs and closed up the opening.  Then the Lord God made a woman from the rib, and he brought her to the man.  “At last!” the man exclaimed.  “This one is bone from my bone, and flesh from my flesh!  She will be called ‘woman,’ because she was taken from ‘man'.”  This explains why a man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife, and the two are united into one.

It sees transgender as one theologian put it, "the denial of the integrity of one’s own sex and an overt attempt at marring the sacred image of maleness or femaleness formed by God." 

This lens does reflect the truth of God's Word.  Scripture is clear about male and female distinction.  And as Christian leaders, we must have the integrity to uphold God's Word.  Truth does not change just because the culture changes.  Truth does not change to be "politically correct."  If we totally abandon the truth lens, we pull away the foundation that our faith rests upon.   

But the temptation when looking through the truth lens is to shove scripture at the family and tell them to align with God's Word...no questions asked.  To tell them to "repent" and "get their act together as a parent."  To give them hard rules and ultimatums.  It looks like...

"Your child cannot attend the children's ministry at church if they are dressed as the opposite sex."

"We do not want your child sitting in the group of kids they identify with as a transgender child."

"You are failing as parents."

"Your family is being immoral for allowing this to happen." 

"You must get your child in line and make them stop."

"We refuse to call your child by their transgender name."
  
To be honest, when I was first faced with a family going through this with their child, this is where my thoughts first tracked. I think this would probably be true for most Christian leaders.  We simply don't know, so we immediately look through the integrity lens first.

Lens #2 - The Disability Lens
This lens upholds the integrity lens, but it also understands that we live in a fallen, broken world.  It views gender dysphoria as a result of living in this broken world and not as a direct result of a moral choice.  Simply put...it is condition that comes from the Fall.  The person may make choices in response to their condition which have moral and ethical implications, but the person is not culpable for having the condition.  Think about it, with a  5, 6, 7, 8-year-old child, it is not a case of a child who is deliberately "rebelling against God" and choosing a certain lifestyle.  

When you sit down with a family whose child is struggling with transgender issues and talk with them rather than just dismissing them, this comes to light.  I am reminded of one family I journeyed with.  Their child had never been exposed to any outside transgender influences, had not been abused nor been encouraged in any way to be transgender.  None of the child's older brothers or sisters identified as transgender.  From an early age, the child began to identify as transgender.  At first the parents, who are believers, took the "integrity lens" approach with their child.  They drew a hard line and pushed their child toward the birth gender.  But as the child grew, it became more difficult to maintain the "integrity lens only" approach.  When your child is crying, struggling emotionally and seems to be going downhill fast, you begin to search for answers.  First and foremost, you are seeking to protect your child and keep them healthy.  You are haunted by the fact that 41% of transgender people attempt suicide sometime in their life.  

It's easy to cast judgment on families who have a transgender child.  It's easy to say "if it were my child, I would take care of it in one day" or "I wouldn't put up with it."  In my personal observtions, I have found the opposite is true.  It's a scary, heart-breaking journey for families who have to walk through this with their child.  If you've never walked a mile in their shoes, you really can't understand or truthfully say what you would or would not do.  

The disability lens helps you understand this and fills your heart with compassion for the child and family.  The disability lens helps you see parents who love their child deeply and are just trying to help them navigate through what they are facing.  The disability lens doesn't abandon truth, but it balances the truth with love.  The disability lens listens to the family with empathy.  The disability lens blends Scripture, the latest medical research and the personal story of the family.  The disability lens makes room for support and care.  

I believe this lens most accurately reflects the heart of Jesus.  It listens to the child and family facing gender identity with empathy and compassion.  It sits and cries with them rather than just denouncing them.  It provides pastoral care. 

Whereas just using the integrity lens most often will shut the door on any opportunity to minister to the family, the disability lens opens the door to walking with them.  

An example of this is honoring the family's request to use the child's preferred name and pronouns when you are talking with them.  If the child is a transgender male who's birth name was Joseph and the parents ask you to address the child as Jo Anne instead and use the pronoun "her" rather than "him," you should honor their request.  This is not the time to pull up the integrity lens exclusively.  Doing so will push the family away and forfeit the opportunity to establish a relationship with them.

I also want you to consider this.  The transgender child will remember how you responded for the rest of their life.  At the time when he or she needed you the most, what will the child remember?  A church that turned their back on him or her?  A church that refused to listen with compassion?  A church that walk away from the struggle rather than to the struggle?  Or will the child remember the church was a safe place where they could find help?  A place that cared and loved them unconditionally?  A church that pointed them to God's grace and redemption? 

Lens #3  - The Diversity Lens
This lens celebrates, honors and revers transgender persons.  This is a much more liberal alternative than the integrity or disability lens.  This lens promotes transgender with the desire to help people with gender dysphoria find acceptance and purpose in life.  This lens leans toward disregarding Scripture.

What should we do as a Christian leaders?

Avoid gossip.  In my experience, most families whose child is transgender will come to you in confidentiality.  The last thing they need is for you to "spread the word" to other parents.  This will only fuel the shame that drives these families away from church.  This does not mean you try to cover it up, but you should only talk about it with other families on a need-to-know basis.

Don't try to be a professional Christian counselor if you are not one.  You can minister to the family as a pastor, but for professional help, point them toward a licensed Christian counselor.

Embrace the messiness of ministry.  We must remember that ministry is messy.  As I stated earlier, that's what Jesus has called us to.  We are to enter the messiness of a broken world and help people wherever they are in their journey.  At the same time, we must remember that we can't "fix" people.  Our role is to point people to Jesus and help them grow in their relationship with Him.  It is the Holy Spirit that transforms people into the image of Christ.

Only using the integrity lens will cause us to join the culture wars and become known for what we are against rather than what we are for.  But if we are going to minister to children and families effectively, we must rise above this and be a witness to the grace and redemption offered through Christ.  We must remember that the church is a hospital for those who are struggling, not a museum where perfect Christians are on display.

As our culture continues to shift, many of you reading this will be called upon to walk through this with families.  I know of several churches right now who are.  These churches are working through the same questions you will be faced with from parents.
 
Can my child use the bathroom of their gender identity?

Can my child wear the clothes style of their gender identity?

Can my child be part of the small group that is their gender identity?

Can my child sleep in the dorm of their gender identity at camp?

Will you address my child by the name and pronoun of their choice?

What are you going to tell other parents who become aware of our situation and ask you about it?

Will you accept my child and treat him or her as the other children?

Do you have a counselor you can recommend?
  
Don't try to do this alone.  This is definitely something you should bring to your pastor, elders, senior leaders, etc.  The senior church leadership must help navigate this.  Many times, they will want to meet with the family with you.

As we navigate with transgender children and their families, I encourage you to consider Mark's concluding thought. 

"We can remind ourselves that the book of redemption in a person's life has many chapters.  You may be witness to an early chapter of this person's life or a later chapter.  But Christians believe that God holds that person and each and every chapter in his hands, until that person arrives at their true end—when gender and soul are made well in the presence of God."

I invite your thoughts and insight in the comment section below.

11 comments:

Thanks for addressing this issue. I believe the church does need to step up without using the integrity lense (for that is what is driving families away from church, including those who have family who identify LGBTQ as well.) Jesus draws people in and develops a relationship with them. People need to know they are loved and accepted as they are - no judgements. Though I don't totally agree, I do see it as a stepping stone in a better direction. Just like we will never understand grief unless we go through it as well; we will never fully understand what it's like to be LGBTQ unless, in fact we are. I understand. The church needs to step up. There are families who need support - if only it's a hug. It would be great to see PFLAG (parent and family of Lesbian & Gays) meetings in every church facility, and GSA's (Gay- Straight Alliance) in youth groups. Everyone is welcome to the cross. Together we can make a difference in the world.

Thank you Dale for your thoughtful perspective. You are right when you say many of us are going to be facing this issue. I, too, have read Mark Yarhouse's resources. He's very good. Another very good resource is Denise Shick. She has written several books. She is director of the Help4Families.com and can be found on FaceBook Help4Families. It is going to be tricky loving these children and their families without judgement. Again thank you for your perspective and wise words.

Thank you for this article. I have just recently become a director in our children's ministry and have had this question in the back of my mind. I definitely agree that the disability lens is the most Christ-like. He never compromised on Truth, but people were always the top priority. I still don't have the answers to many of those questions; especially bathroom and overnight scenarios, but I do know that should those questions come up they will be approached with grace and love.

I was prepared for an article which fell towards a rigid description of this issue. Thank you for a well balanced approach to a difficult issue. I especially appreciate the care and concern you took to develop a basis for the reader to understand the basic definitions of the terms and basic research behind the subject. Having supported several families with young children working through this signicant issue the response of a spiritual community can build up and support a family as they are given the gift of grace, love and support leading to a deeper exprrience of God; or create a spiritual trauma which can carry on into adult years and result not only is a child's distrust in religion/spirituality but the whole family's as well.

I would provide another perspective when describing the 3rd option for acceptance is only a "disregard" of principles for those who hold a more literal/traditional interpretation of scripture. Those ministries, churchrs, and ministers who respond from this 3rd perspective also come from a place of high respect and belief in the their faith and practice. The way in which they view the lens of scripture, and its impact in a rapidly changing culture and world shapes their response. There is not a disregard rather their is an inclusion of a fuller recognition of new umderstandings and information which provides us with more opportunities to respond from a place of grace and mercy.

Again, thank you for a well presented piece.

Dale - You did such a great job with this article. Well researched, well thought out, multiple view points, full of compassion. I really enjoyed reading it and we are sharing this with the directors on our team. Thank you!
- Kendra

Thanks Kendra. Thankful for you and your team. I know you are on the front lines of ministering to kids and families each week.

I would like to offer a different look on your third "lens", that if these kids are indeed made this way (which they consistently tell us they are) then are we not to accept the diversity of gender and the entire spectrum as God has made it? However kind we are if we continue to believe and insist that transgender people are somehow against God's will, then how can we also promote a living God? What kind of God would create His child to be against His truth? How cruel would it be to set these kids up to fail Him? Same with LGB folks. Perhaps God has created a diverse spectrum of everything from race to body types to gender to orientation so that we might be challenged to love all His children, not just the ones like us or the ones whose experience we understand. Who are we to say the He made these kids wrong? I prefer to do as Jesus asked, to love each other and let God sort out sin. Seems to me that should be the mission of the church in these things as well.

Thank you for sharing your thoughts JSWhitr. I appreciate your heart for kids.

Thanks for looking at this subject with compassion. One note, in your example you refer to a transgender male, who now wishes to be called Jo Anne. This would make her a transgender (or trans) girl. A transgender male would be someone assigned female at birth (AFAB) but now living as a male.

Interesting article. Tks for sharing. At the same time being a children's minister...the transgender child and family do need compassion yet we have a responsibility to our other families and their children. This could turn into a major mess. How far do u go with acceptance and change. For ex. We had a teenager who was coming to our youth group who was gay. She was accepted until she started hitting on some of the other girls. Our youth and children need some type of a SAFE haven and their patents r looking for just that. Not easy for sure for where do u draw the line?

Thanks for sharing. The story you shared about the girl at your church is and example of the tension we all feel - the tension between reaching people while making sure our children have good influences around them at the same time. I would say in the day we live in, we must be proactive in having these conversations with our kids and preparing them to live for Christ in the culture they are in now and will grow up in.

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