Published: 18 August 2020 (GMT+10)
A new resource to help Christians answer transgenderism
A review of Affirming God’s Image: Addressing the Transgender Question with Science and Scripture by J. Allen Branch
Lexham Press, 2019
The conversation about sex, gender, and morality is changing so rapidly that Christians today need to be able to explain and defend ideas that would have been a given not even ten years ago. For a point of reference, in 2008, former US President Barack Obama was elected as a ‘liberal’ being against gay marriage. Yet before the end of his tenure as president we saw the White House decorated in rainbow lights celebrating ‘gay marriage’. In 2016, Donald Trump, his ‘conservative’ successor, was openly pro-gay marriage! This is indicative of a rapid cultural shift, and we can no longer take for granted a broad cultural consensus of cultural Christianity.
Affirming God’s Image is a book to help Christians become informed and think about transgenderism from a sound medical, scientific, and theological basis. Branch states:
Since the vast majority of us have never experienced gender dysphoria, it can be challenging to understand someone’s subjective experience of this condition. We are called to show the love of Jesus Christ to the world, but how do we accomplish this when the culture is upending fundamental categories of gender? Love for the lost certainly means we should speak with mercy and kindness, but fidelity to God also means we must speak the truth, even if it is painful or unpopular (p. 4).
Helpful background to the topic
Branch begins by explaining the origins of transgenderism. While ancient cults sometimes mutilated men and engaged in cross-dressing for religious purposes in ways that are transgender-like, the idea that a man could be a woman and vice versa is more modern. Branch traces the beginning of modern transgenderism to German physician Magnus Hirschfeld (1868–1935) and German-American endocrinologist Harry Benjamin (1885–1986), but shows how the sexual revolution of the 1960s set the stage for broader acceptance of transgender ideology.
Transgenderism, like many ideological movements, uses a set of terms that may be confusing for people unfamiliar with the debate, and new terms seem to be created every day. Branch explains terms like ‘cisgender’, ‘bigender’, ‘genderqueer’, and more.
The biblical answer to transgenderism starts in Genesis!
It should not surprise anyone familiar with CMI’s materials that to answer transgender arguments from the Bible, we have to start in Genesis. While the Bible does not address transgenderism as such because the idea did not exist in biblical times, the Bible gives us principles that allow us to answer transgenderism and any other form of sexual confusion. Branch begins with the biblical teaching that humans are created in the image of God, that humans are created as “a body-soul unity, the body and soul being connected at all points” (p. 41), and that God created human beings as male and female. Distortions of this very good design are the result of sin in the world.
Branch shows how Scripture responds to attempts to blur gender distinctions. “Deuteronomy 22:5 affirms that men and women should participate in gender-appropriate behavior and abstain from behavior that intends to deceive others concerning one’s gender” (p. 44). While men would mutilate themselves to participate in ancient goddess cults, men who were mutilated were barred from temple worship (Deuteronomy 23:1). The New Testament also affirms clear distinction between male and female (Mark 10:6, Ephesians 5:21–33, Colossians 3:18–21, 1 Peter 3:1–7).
Genetics, neurology, and medicine
There are a lot of claims made about genetic and neurological arguments for transgenderism, and Christians should do our best to be informed. Branch examines the most cited genetic and neurological bases for transgenderism and helps Christians to understand and respond to these arguments. He concludes that no one really knows what causes transgenderism, and we should show compassion to struggling people who clearly did not choose to feel this way, without compromising biblical truth.
The most difficult to read chapters are those that cover the hormonal and surgical ‘treatments’ for people experiencing gender dysphoria. Children experiencing gender dysphoria are often put on puberty blockers. These drugs were developed to treat children who start puberty far too early, to delay it until a more typical age. However, these are often a precursor to cross-sex hormone therapy in children. The idea is that if a child changes his or her mind, stopping the hormone blockers will allow normal puberty to resume. However, taking hormone blockers permanently stunts a child’s growth, affects his or her future fertility, and may have an impact on brain development. So much is unknown about the effects of using hormone blockers to prevent normal puberty that it is effectively human experimentation.
Cross-sex hormones come with their own risks; as one might imagine, there are risks to men taking massive doses of female hormones, and vice versa. These hormones have permanent effects on the appearance of the individual, such as breast growth in men taking female hormones, and the growth of facial hair and possible balding in women taking male hormones. These changes in appearance are permanent, which is unfortunate for people who later regret the ‘treatments’.
After hormones, ‘top’ surgery is common, and involves breast implants for men wanting to appear more like women, and double mastectomies for women wanting a more masculine appearance. “Bottom” surgery is less common and more risky, and involves removing the healthy organs of the man or woman and fashioning what is meant to look like the organs of the opposite sex. These surgeries are complicated, have risks, and the resultant structures created by surgery do not always look like and never function like the actual organs of a biological male or female. The removal of the person’s organs is, of course, permanent.
While “gender reassignment surgery” (GRS) can make someone look more like the opposite sex, actually changing sex is impossible. The castrated man with breast implants still has XY chromosomes throughout his body, and if he went through male puberty (i.e. if it wasn’t suppressed with blockers), he retains many masculine traits. The woman who gets a double mastectomy and grows a beard because of testosterone still retains her genetic female identity (XX chromosomes in every cell), and some ‘trans-men’ are even able to conceive and carry children, bearing witness that they are still truly women.
Most transgender people hope that gender reassignment surgery will resolve their problems by making them look more like the sex they want to be. However, sadly, “the most important and robust research regarding GRS strongly indicates that GRS [gender reassignment surgery] in fact does not resolve underlying issues for many people and the surgery does not bring the hoped-for peace” (p. 105).
Transgenderism, the family, and the church
We would like to think of issues like transgenderism as something that is “out there” that affects other people’s families and churches. However, we should want to be prepared in case it affects our own family or church.
Branch reassures parents that most children who have transgender thoughts will ‘grow out of it’ by adolescence or adulthood. He says, “First and foremost, love your child while affirming biblical parameters. Never underestimate the power of a parent’s unconditional love to help a child navigate the most difficult moral waters” (p. 117). He also encourages parents to “teach and affirm the biblical worldview about gender from a young age” to counteract the messages from the wider culture (p. 118). He also notes the sad reality that transgender teens have a much higher suicide rate, so he counsels that parents should make it especially clear that they value and love their gender-dysphoric child unconditionally while gently affirming their biological sex.
Branch suggests that if we are faithful to the Great Commission to share the Gospel with all people, we very well may see transgender people converted in our churches. Helping someone who has mutilated themselves in an attempt to resemble the opposite sex as they grow in holiness and conformity to Christ is a unique pastoral challenge, and Branch advises Christians to distinguish between people who experience unwanted gender dysphoria and people who embrace a transgender identity, often along with a particular anti-Christian worldview. He also encourages us: “Christians can trust God to show them the best way to interact with transgender coworkers and friends” (p. 144).
A great resource on a challenging topic
Affirming God’s Image is a thoroughly biblical resource that will help anyone with questions about transgenderism or how to respond to current transgender arguments. It is thoroughly loving and pastoral without compromising on essential biblical truths about sex and gender.
Readers should be aware that medical procedures and various realities of sex and gender are discussed in a frank, but not prurient, way. This means it is not appropriate for children, but parents may want to study this book with their more mature teens to help them be ready to ‘give an answer’ to a topic they are sure to be challenged with.