Editor’s Note: The following book review appears in the Spring 2020 issue of Eikon.
Edited by James K. Beilby and Paul Rhodes Eddy. Understanding Transgender Identities: Four Views. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2019.
A Christian’s engagement in the world appears more complex with each generation. In the area of transgenderism, questions are being raised that require careful thought for evangelicals. While the question of how to define and converse about transgenderism as a believer is not new, it is perhaps a conversation that needs to be engaged in a new way. Understanding Transgender Identities (Baker Academic, 2019), edited by James K. Beilby and Paul Rhodes Eddy, highlights the conversation on transgenderism within Christianity using a four-views model by inviting five scholars with varying views on transgenderism to engage with one another’s ideas.
The book begins with an editorial introduction describing the history of transgenderism in America and defining associated terms. The editors acknowledge transgenderism’s complexity as it deals with multiple facets of theology and culture. They also helpfully point out the lack of clarity surrounding the science of transgenderism, a fact seen throughout the rest of the book as scholars point to studies to substantiate their varied conclusions. Beilby and Eddy conclude the introduction by highlighting biblical and theological, scientific, and practical and pastoral differences that come up throughout the four views.
Owen Strachan’s chapter, “Transition or Transformation?”, voices a traditional biblical evangelical perspective. He begins asserting those who experience gender dysphoria are created in God’s image, laying the foundation for their dignity. Strachan approaches transgenderism from a biblical and theological lens which frames gender dysphoria within the understanding that God’s creation of humanity was male and female and any deviation is a result of the Fall. In light of this, Strachan views expressions of transgenderism to be sinful, and his pastoral advice is to “take steps to own once more the body, and bodily identity, that God has given” (76). Strachan takes the strongest stance in the book against transgenderism with his assertion that the Bible is clear on matters of gender and sexuality.
Mark A. Yarhouse and Julia Sadusky write “The Complexities of Gender Identity” from a psychological lens founded upon traditional biblical values regarding gender. They state, “gender dysphoria” exists “along a continuum” (102). Yarhouse and Sadusky also outline frameworks within which they classify transgenderism perspectives: the integrity, disability, and diversity lenses. The integrity lens sees transgenderism as a moral issue, caused by the Fall, and holds male and female as the ideal. The disability lens sees transgenderism as a hardship thrust upon someone and responds with “compassion” (104–5). The diversity lens celebrates “differences in gender identity,” arguing that God did not intend gender limitations in creation (105). Focusing on discipleship, they propose an integration of these three frameworks that encourages those experiencing gender dysphoria to journey with God toward “spiritual restoration” (115), an individually focused ministry model that seeks to listen before it seeks to save.
“Good News for Gender Minorities” by Megan K. DeFranza emphasizes a primarily practical/pastoral approach. She describes her journey from a traditional evangelical view of gender towards an accepting stance. She emphasizes that transgenderism is often seen by Christians as “more about sexuality” than gender (148) and how negative feelings regarding transgenderism can inform how one thinks about its morality. DeFranza also asserts that gender “falls on a continuum” (152). She follows a discussion of scientific research with an extensive theology of eunuchs in Scripture, stating God’s heart is to include those outside the sexual norm. Finally, she says the goal of Christianity is not to conform to one’s gender, but to Christ, which “can challenge gendered cultural ideals” (175).
“Holy Creation, Wholly Creative” by Justin Sabia-Tanis also advocates a primarily practical/pastoral approach. Writing from his own perspective, having transitioned from female to male, Sabia-Tanis agrees with the continuum view of gender. He argues that God names extremes in creation that have a myriad of modes in between which lack clear distinctions. After describing animal sexual ambiguity, he says likewise some persons are called to “change [their] gender” (204). Sabia-Tanis argues Christians must respond to transgenderism with compassion and focus on the alleviation of suffering by allowing gender transition “healing” and celebrating God’s “imagination” that allows for gender diversity (222).
The introduction and glossary of Understanding Transgender Identities are extremely helpful. As a term is introduced within the book, it is given in bold and then defined within the glossary. Any believer who wishes to be better equipped in cultural conversations regarding transgenderism would benefit greatly from these careful definitions of often ambiguous terms.
Each of the four views shows its strengths and weaknesses particularly when seen against the other three in the writers’ responses to each chapter. Strachan’s chapter provides the most biblically sound exegesis of passages related to transgenderism. He states clearly the Bible’s call for women to be women and men to be men. Yet, his critics point out that his application of what this should look like in our modern-day culture could be viewed as lacking a compassionate tone, which can hinder the reception of its crucial message, especially to those it affects most.
Approaching from a psychological perspective, Yarhouse and Sadusky provide clear definitions of terms and explanations of significant studies done regarding transgenderism. At first glance, their chapter seems to be a helpful bridge between the biblically saturated Strachan and the socially minded DeFranza and Sabia-Tanis as they discuss their frameworks for the transgenderism conversation. While these frameworks are helpful in defining varied approaches to transgenderism, their chapter lacks the biblical foundation needed in order to pastorally navigate the ambiguity inherent in such diverse approaches. In response, Strachan rightly commends their desire to hold creation and fall in tension as they approach this issue and yet critiques their conclusion that there is no clear telos to the issue of sexuality.
DeFranza challenges the traditional biblical stance on transgenderism with probing theological and practical points. She fails, however, to account for many passages which clearly teach distinctions regarding gender, as Strachan points out in his critique. Her chapter ultimately becomes decidedly opposed to the traditional evangelical view of transgenderism, particularly the Nashville Statement, a theological perspective she once held herself. Instead, she advocates for an accepting stance towards transgenderism, which seems to be largely influenced by her positive experiences with people who are transgender and identify as Christian.
Sabia-Tanis’s perspective as a transgender individual certainly furthers the conversation and provides a helpful perspective for conservative Christians to hear and be aware of. His narratival approach draws in the reader, showing how crucial compassion is in the conversation. However, his stance seems founded on vague biblical principles rather than clear biblical doctrine. Strachan critiques this chapter by pointing out the reality of our sinful nature which affects all aspects of life, something which Sabia-Tanis does not acknowledge in his discussion regarding gender identity and how pastors should approach the issue.
Each scholar enters into this dialogue well. In such a complex conversation, these scholars model how to affirm a person’s worth while disagreeing with their work. However, the main critique of the book is the model of a four-view book itself. While these books are helpful for overviews of disagreements regarding a topic, they do have limitations because of the form. With Justin Sabia-Tanis, I wonder “What if we were…authors wrestling together with the meaning of these texts and concepts?” (190). In that vein, the limitation of the model of this book becomes the invitation for the reader. Armed with a biblical foundation of gender and knowledge of these varied perspectives, the careful reader can enter into conversations more equipped apologetically and pastorally.
Beilby and Eddy’s stated purpose “to further the Christian conversation on transgender experience and identity by bringing a range of perspectives into dialogue” (2) was met. These five scholars will no doubt challenge many readers with their varied and opposing perspectives. For those seeking clear discussion on the Bible’s teaching regarding transgenderism, this is not the book to read. However, for those with an already established biblical doctrine of gender seeking to approach the cultural conversation well, this book, read with an open Bible and prayerful heart, can helpfully introduce differing viewpoints and their emphases. After doing so, the reader will be further equipped to enter into this conversation as Christ calls us to, “speaking the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15) “with gentleness and respect” (1 Pet. 3:15).
Brianna Smith received two MA degrees in Old and New Testament from Talbot School of Theology. She serves as an adjunct professor at Biola University.
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