In this series of blogs, we’re examining theology that impacts transgender people. Traditionalist interpretations typically forbid any gender identity that is different from person’s sexual organs at birth, or whatever is on their birth certificate. I don’t see much biblical support for this viewpoint.

For those whose internal sense of gender is out of line with their pysical appearance at birth, or for those who have a sense of gender that is somewhere in between male and female, traditionalist theology demands they live as the gender of their sexual organs and not what their brain is telling them. Trans people are often told that this is the only way to be in harmony with God’s will.

In the last blog we looked at Genesis 1:27, which is the seminal verse used by traditionalist theologians to refute trans and non-binary lives. For those for whom the entire subject might be new, I also wrote an introductory blog about trans lives. In this post we’ll look at a couple other verses and the accompanying reasoning used to support traditional, non-affirming theology.

But God Doesn’t Make Mistakes

Sometimes Psalm 139:13-14 is quoted, as it is in the document from the General Conference of SDAs Executive committee, and in the Biblical Research Institute’s statement from the Ethics Committee:

For you formed my inward parts;

you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.

I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.

Wonderful are your works;

my soul knows it very well.

Transgender people are often told that “God doesn’t make mistakes.” This means for the person speaking that are the gender of their anatomy. But it doesn’t take long to realize that there are lots of ways in which humans are born that are not typical. This may mean they are in need of medical intervention, or may simply be a matter of human variation.

No one would bat an eye at removing an extra finger or toe. No one would say in such a situation that “God doesn’t make mistakes.” Sometimes babies are born with cancer, did God knit that cancer into their bodies when they were in the womb? Of course not!

This does not mean that being transgender should be equated to a birth defect or cancer, because it most certainly is nothing of the sort. It’s simply to point out the inconsistency in saying “God doesn’t make mistakes” as an argument that anatomy is supreme, never to be altered, and always the best indication of who we are. That is manifestly false.

When the psalmist wrote Psalm 139, anatomy was not in mind at all. Psalm 139 is a poem about God’s intimate knowledge and guiding of the psalmist’s life. It’s not about the relationship between biology and psychology. The actual message of the psalmist is not negated by someone being transgender or non-binary.

There is the other rather obvious challenge to this view. Some people are born intersex, with some degree of both male and female sexual organs or DNA. The reality of human biology is not compatible with the teaching that God creates only male and female, doesn’t make mistakes (meaning that God doesn’t deviate from this typical pattern), and that the binary distinction of gender are ever-present.

If God’s will for someone’s gender is expressed clearly in their sexual organs, what is God’s will for intersex people? Sometimes, in their misplaced discomfort with anyone who isn’t typical, doctors have surgically altered newborn intersex babies to make them more typically male or more typically female. This has been disastrous for intersex people whose lives and sense of gender often don’t align with the doctor’s hasty decision.

Sometimes people are unwilling to test their particular theology or ideology against the physical world around us, the world God has given us. This is one such example. Only a steadfast refusal to engage with the implications of the truth of God’s creation as we know it can allow a traditionalist understanding to be maintained on this point.

Even though it might make cisgender people uncomfortable, sex organs don’t always fit the binary. And if sexual organs can refuse to fit the binary, why can’t the central nervous system also refuse to fit the binary? Of course it can and does.

Seeing Trans People as God Sees All People

I’m disturbed at how quickly theologians claim to know the will of God, based on so little scripture and with so little understanding of the lives of trans and intersex people.

I’m disturbed by how easy it is to judge intersex and transgender people.

I’m disturbed by how quickly religious people sometimes make decisions about what is best for others without paying attention to medical consensus, the reality of God’s creation, scripture itself, and the wisdom and insight of trans and intersex people.

I’m disturbed that making these judgments come so easily even though they result in severe danger to transgender lives.

Why these hasty decisions? Why this focus on exterior anatomy? Why this cavalier disregard for the psychological impact of our judgments?

And here’s a question you may not have considered, when talking about this issue, why do traditionalists always assume that God will change a person’s mind to match their anatomy? Why not the other way around?

The Bible gives us an answer to this question. It’s because people tend to focus on what they can understand themselves. They tend to focus on what they can see. We prefer to make judgement based on outward appearance, on what we can confirm. Human understanding hates trusting in what we may not see or understand. What do we understand? Externals.

But is this the way that God sees us? 1 Samuel 16:7 says,

“For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”

So why are cisgender people so confident to say they understand the will of God for transgender people despite the fact that nowhere in scripture is gender defined in terms of sexual organs? Is it possible that, as this verse suggests, this preference for exterior organs that we can understand over another person’s mind that we do not understand is only an expression our fallen nature? Is it our sin that leads us to focus on outward appearances and does not see the heart? Could it be that we have labeled trans people as sinners when we are the sinners?

God Made Us to Be Whole

What the Bible does teach is that we should be whole. The concept of wholeness is used by traditionalists to argue that transgender people should live as the gender of their sexual organs.

Is that a logical interpretations of scripture’s call to be whole? Here’s the statement made by the Executive Committee of the General Conference of SDAs:

From a biblical perspective, the human being is a psychosomatic unity. For example, Scripture repeatedly calls the entire human being a soul (Gen 2:7; Jer 13:17; 52:28-30; Ezek 18:4; Acts 2:41; 1 Cor 15:45), a body (Eph 5:28; Rom 12:1-2; Rev 18:13), flesh (1 Pet 1:24), and spirit (2 Tim 4:22; 1 John 4:1-3). Thus, the Bible does not endorse dualism in the sense of a separation between one’s body and one’s sense of sexuality.

This statement is problematic because it does not confirm, but ignores the “psychosomatic unity” of transgender people. It says that you can be whole by ignoring your own brain and what it is telling you about your gender, or it assumes despite no evidence or scripture to support them, that God will change a person’s brain. This reasoning works by preserving appearances over internal lives. It demands people to present themselves in a way that is consistent with their appearance without regard to their psychology, and paradoxically calls this wholeness.

Is this not a common problem in the church? Who of us has not had the frustrating experience of people wanting us to keep quiet about our ideas, our choices, or our values when they conflict with expectations? Being whole does not mean presenting an exterior appearance that is not a challenge to anyone. True wholeness is being genuine. It’s authenticity. It’s integrity. How I wish we would learn this lesson!

Wholeness is when what shows up on the outside is a true expression of the inside. It’s not the appearance of wholeness in the judgement of those who affirm only what they understand. Such a preoccupation with the exterior is in fact brokenness, dishonesty, and hypocrisy. Wholeness is not the person who makes big public gestures that make people admire them, it’s the person who is true and honest with God who sees the heart (Matthew 6:1-6).

So if transgender people threaten the external appearance too many are focused on, they are not expressing brokenness, but a level of integrity that is extreme. They are willing to defy social expectation for the sake of wholeness.

We who are cisgender must learn to stop focusing on outward appearance and be more like God, who sees the heart.

Instead of trying to make trans people change to be cisgender like us, we should appreciate them for who they are. When we do, we learn from them. We learn how to live with integrity, how to be brave, and how to be whole. Trans people can and should be fully embraced members of our communities. They can build up the church, enrich us, and teach us. They can be a corrective for our fallen tendency to focus on appearance and devalue integrity.

How like fallen humanity is it to vilify those who are most vulnerable in society? How like God is it to use those who are despised and rejected by man (Isaiah 53:3)? If we are not careful, we will fail to see Christ in transgender people. Such is the nature of our obsession with appearance.

In my faith tradition, which teaches that the Sabbath is on the seventh day of the week (Saturday) and that it was never changed to Sunday, it’s popular for evangelists to offer huge amounts of money to people if they can find the verse that says it was changed. The same challenge could be offered to find the verse that condemns transgender identities. It’s not there.

Once I was really open to asking the question, coming to affirm transgender and non-binary identities was easy. There isn’t any condemnation of trans people in the Bible. Yes. You read that right. There is no condemnation of trans people in the Bible.

There are a lot of misinformation or partial information about trans people in traditionalist settings, and I’ve written about those here. If this topic is new for you, or if you’ve only heard it from one side, you really should read it.

Today I want to talk about the main text of scripture that is offered as the reason trans people should be discouraged from affirming their gender when it differs from their exterior appearance, particularly sexual organs. There are a couple other minor texts to be addressed, but the lion’s share of the argument rests on one verse alone.

“God Created Them Male and Female”

The Biblical Research Institute (the official theological branch of the Seventh-day Adventist church) said that “in scripture, our gender identity is, to a significant extent, determined by our birth sex with God being the author of gender identity.” But does the Bible say this?

They provide Genesis 1:27 and a couple verses that quote Genesis 1:27 (Gen 5:1-2; Mark 10:6) as evidence, but where does this text teach “our gender identity is… determined by our birth sex”? Particularly since by “birth sex” they generally mean sexual organs? I don’t see anything at all about anatomy. Here’s the verse:

So God created man in his own image,

in the image of God he created him;

male and female he created them.

On these three lines rests nearly all non-trans-affirming theology. Yet this verse simply does not say what they say it does. They are looking for a passage to prove that gender is determined by the way a person’s exterior presents their gender, but this verse says literally nothing about that subject.

God created gender. Yes. Gender exists. But just because gender exists doesn’t mean it exists in a binary way. How might gender be expressed? What do we do when someone’s brain is at odds with their reproductive organs? What should we do when someone’s brain is telling them they are a different gender than what can be perceived on their exterior? What do we do when people are intersex? It certainly doesn’t offer clarity on these kinds of questions.

Deconstructing Gender

Sometimes trans affirmation is interpreted as a war on gender, or a denial of gender, and therefore out of harmony with this verse in which God created gender. But trans people are not destroying gender.

What transgender and gender non-binary people are doing as a way of exploring life as they live it is looking at gender in a ways that explore innate and culturally constructed understandings of gender. In my experience, trans and gender non-conforming people think with more depth and insight about gender than anyone else. They aren’t erasing it. They are delving into the meaning of gender for themselves and society.

In fact, if anyone confirms the innate nature of gender it’s trans people. They experience a deep innate sense of gender that goes against every experience of socialization they have. Because their exterior often presents as a different gender than their innate sense of gender, they are treated as boys their whole lives, for example, but gender is so innate psychologically that they still know themselves to be girls. Trans people don’t destroy gender, they testify to it. If gender is innate even for them, it must be for cisgender people as well.

Getting back to the text, trans people don’t deny the creation of male and female, not by any means. I see in them a beautiful expression of God’s good creation of gender.

Plain Meaning

If there is a more sophisticated way of understanding this text, I’m open to it, but I haven’t heard it yet. What I do hear from non-affirming people is that this text is clear in condemning trans and non-binary people, but it is not. The plain meaning is simply that men and women are both expressions of the nature of God. That’s what it says. Men and women. Both in God’s image. Simple.

I’ve always loved Genesis 1:27. Despite the history of Christianity, and it’s persistent struggles with misogyny, this verse unequivocally states that the image of God is not reserved only for men. It speaks to me of the power of scripture to challenge injustice, even in this most ancient text. What a beautiful testimony to inspiration.

The interpretation of this text that it means that gender must match genitalia only makes sense if you begin with that understanding of gender and read it into the text. It does not say that gender is based on genitalia. It does not say that minority gender presentations are an affront to God or to creation. It does not require people to live as the gender society perceives them as. It gives no advice or indication of what to do when the brain is out of odds with the sexual organs. Nor does it give advice on what to do when a person is intersex, presenting physiology that is neither distinctly male or female, and living the biological reality that not all people are created male and female in the sense of either/or, some are male and female in the sense of both/and.

People use this text to say other must be completely male or completely female. When some people don’t present that way, either because they are transgender or intersex, they want to force people into those boxes no matter what the consequences. But such a reading is imposed on the text. As we shall see, there are good reasons to see that this text itself illuminates the beauty of transgender identity.

God’s Gender

Here’s another part of Genesis 1:27 that is so simple yet easy to miss. If we, as male and female, are created in God’s image, what does that say about the gender of God?

God is both male and female. Not male one day and female the next, but always and eternally composing all it is to be male and all it is to be female.

Being more like God certainly does not require a harsh gender binary. Quite the opposite. Sin goes against the character of God and is not in harmony with it. To do something evil means to do something that is in violation of the character and nature of God. But God’s gender is neither male nor female, but both.

So how could a transgender or non-binary gender identity be out of step with God’s character? Why would we want to force non-binary or transgender people into an unbending standard that is out of harmony with the way God describes themselves?

There are people in the world who experience gender in non-binary ways, and those people can teach us something about the nature of God. We should not exclude them or force them to try and fit the mold of our own understanding. Such an attempt is out of harmony with Genesis 1:27 and not an affirmation of it.

Many people in the LGBT community celebrate such expressions. I’ve been taught by genderqueer people how to acknowledge and embrace my own more masculine characteristics that I never was able to change anyways. I’ve learned from my transgender friends how destructive it can be to deny this diversity, and how beautiful and life-affirming it is to celebrate gender diversity.

Hebrew Merism

The Hebrew language also offers a clue for why this texts should not be understood as describing gender in terms of a binary. Hebrew thinking and language in fact precludes such an understanding. Binary and dualistic thinking is a product of Greek thought, not Hebrew thought.

Genesis 1:27 could be a Hebrew merism, a statement which “combines two words to express a single idea; it expresses ‘totality’ by combining two contrasts or two extremes.” This definition is from an article published by the Biblical Research Institute, a conservative, Seventh-day Adventist theological entity.

An example of merism is saying “heavens and earth” to express all of creation, including the sun and moon which were understood to be between the heavens and earth. Another example is describing all of the Hebrew scriptures as the “Law” and the “Prophets,” when in fact they also include a third section described as the “Writings.” The intention is not to exclude the Writings, but to include them.

Is the statement “male and female” a merism? Maybe, maybe not, but to say the the verse is clearly and definitively a prohibition against anything but a strict binary in which all of humanity must fit fully on either one side or the other is to violate the way the Hebrew language functions. Such an interpretation cannot be supported by the text.

By now I hope you see that the primary text used to limit the treatment options of transgender people, to force them to live as if they were cisgender, simply does not hold up to scrutiny. There are a couple other texts to examine, but this is the main text offered as a clear statement against transgender people.

All transgender people want is the freedom to make their own decisions about how to best handle the difficult decisions they face. What they need from us is support for the lives they choose to live. What they can teach us about God and gender is profound. We need to extend the basic dignity of allowing them to define themselves, to choose their pronouns, and to choose their treatment options.

My wish for the church is that cisgender people would have more humility, more compassion, and more clear thinking on the reality of the biblical text and its teachings.

In the next blog, I look at a couple other texts used to condemn trans and non-binary identities and discuss the argument that a trans identity implies that God messed up: With Transgender People, God Doesn’t Make Mistakes, but We Do

“She says she’s a man, but you should watch her play with babies. Her motherly instinct just comes out.”

I was talking with a saccharine woman, all nicety and propriety, as she described her female-to-male trans relative to me.

“But she told all of us that she was changing to a man. She even got sex change therapy.” She said in a softer voice now, “she told me she regrets it, but you can’t go back, you know?” She gave me a long look. It was that look that says she’s made the ultimate point.

I felt sad for the poor man who has to deal with this woman, but didn’t know what to say. Her and I were coming from completely different understandings on some very basic issues.

There is a lot of fear on the part of cisgender people, particularly traditional people, when they think of transgender people. This fear is especially intensified when they think of surgery. They are afraid for the trans people themselves. They don’t want to see them hurt by making irreversible and tragic decisions. It’s difficult for any of us to step outside of our own experience, and to step so far outside as to have some level of understanding transgender people requires intention. I believe that this intention is necessary to alleviate the fear.

I want to suggest with this article that those who love trans people consider another risk, not the risk of their loved one making decisions that are scary and seem radical, but the risk that they themselves might not understand the reality of trans lives and may fail to provide the support and care their loved one needs. If that happens, they may lose the opportunity to see and love an exceptional person, someone courageous enough to do hard things for the sake of authenticity.

From the perspective of mental health professionals and transgender people, the woman I was speaking with and her traditional, non-affirming Christian family was likely contributing to their loved one’s difficulty adjusting to his transition. It may be that the trans relative felt regret because he underestimated the degree of rejection and questioning he would experience from his family and community.

In this first post, I had originally planned to address the biblical reasoning behind not affirming the gender of trans and non-binary people. But as I read the statements from theological institutions, and listened to the ideas that are present in traditionalist circles, I realized there are some more basic issues that need to be addressed first, issues about the nature of trans lives. So this post is going to talk about the basics, and about some misconceptions.

In the next blog I discuss common misconceptions about biblical teachings, particularly from the creation narrative. Then I look at biblical arguments around the idea that trans people should conform to the gender of their anatomy because God doesn’t make mistakes. For now, let’s look at some of the basics.

By the way, the terms “trans lives” or similar phrases are used rather than the term “transgenderism.” “Trans lives” focuses on the people who are living the reality we are speaking of, and “transgenderism” implies a philosophy or even a prejudice. If racism is prejudice towards race, what is transgenderism?

What is it to be Transgender?

I’m a woman. I’ve always known I was a woman. Being treated as a woman is something that always felt right to me.

The transgender people I know don’t experience life that way. The best way I can understand the experience of trans people is to imagine people treating me as a man based on their perception of my gender.

No matter how much people might treat me like a man, I would still be a woman. I would still know I was a woman. I would feel incredibly uncomfortable being forced to use a men’s restroom, being called male pronouns, and having women and men alike treat me like a man. No matter what, I wouldn’t stop knowing I’m a woman.

That’s something of the experience of being transgender or of a non-binary gender. Sometimes people know they are trans when they are very young, sometimes it takes years or even decades to unpack the meaning of a difference they’ve felt their whole lives, but it’s always there, unsought and unbidden.

Believing Transgender People

Transgender people don’t feel this way on a whim, it’s deeply ingrained. They aren’t changing their gender so they can have a relationship with someone of the same-sex as is sometimes suggested. They aren’t changing their gender to deal with other problems in their lives. They aren’t changing their gender because it’s a cultural trend or they admire Caitlyn Jenner.

They aren’t changing their gender at all. They are confirming their gender. They are confirming the gender they have always known themselves to be.

Many older transgender people haven’t even known the word transgender for most of their lives, they just knew something was different, and they had a consistent and persistent desire to live as a gender different than the gender they are assumed to have.

They know they are a different gender. They have this knowledge from that most important part of the body, the brain. It’s not something they would have chosen, given the difficulties of living as a trans person in our society, and not something they are able to talk or pray themselves out of.

It’s important to start here, because often people who speak theologically about transgender people misunderstand some key points as a result of not including trans people in the discussion.

Understanding doesn’t supply all the answers, but it does set the stage. Trans people are living a reality that is not typical, and they sometimes have difficult decisions to make about how they should live their lives in their reality. Failure to understand the reality of their lives is failure to pursue truth. It is these lives that we are speaking to when we speak of transgender identity.

What Are The Options?

Trans people have several options. Some trans and gender non-binary people are simply content expressing who they are, they live in families and communities who largely accept them as they are and as they present, and they experience few problems related to their gender identity. These people may never experience mental health problems such as Gender Dysphoria, a mood disorder related to gender identity, and they may never even have the desire for hormone or surgical intervention.

However, in an age where trans people are frequent victims of sexual assault, physical assault, harassment, and discriminator firing, leading to a suicide attempt rate of over 40%,  it can be hard to navigate the world as an openly transgender or gender non-binary person. Add non-affirmation by religious folks who prevent full inclusion of trans people in the life of the church, and it gets even harder. I never had this reality hit me so hard as when I saw a transgender child breakdown crying because she’d lost her best friend after coming out. It’s not easy, and that’s our fault, not theirs.

Transgender people have a few options for how they try and navigate this difficult world. This is probably over simplification, but I’ll start here.

1) They could continue to live as the gender society assigns them based on their physical appearance. In other words, they could stay in the closet.

2) They could present differently externally than what most of society expects and make no medical interventions, being content to live as a gender that is different than their biological sex without medical intervention.

3) If they can afford it, they could choose any one of many medical interventions such as taking hormones or having gender confirmation surgery. (By the way, there are many different types of gender confirmation surgery, many do not involve reproductive organs.)

Medical research, mental health organizations, and transgender people agree that leaving all these options open to transgender people results in their best life, reduced mental health problems, and people who are better adjusted and better able to contribute to society.

Most conservative Christian denominations disagree with this. They believe that only the first option, continuing to live as the gender society assigns to them, is morally correct. I will examine some of the biblical reasons that are offered for this belief.

Helping Not Hurting

One thing I know about conservative Christians is that they are not usually out to harm transgender people. They believe that denying two of these three options is the best thing for trans people. I see this when I read conservative explanations for their theology and when I speak to people who don’t affirm transgender identity.

The information they are given leads them to believe that non-affirmation of trans and non-binary identities is the best option. What if those reasons are not accurate? What if the church’s teachings are not helping people, but are hurting them? Wouldn’t you like to know?

When reading the two major documents offered by my denonination, one from the Biblical Research Institute (BRI), and one from the General Conference Executive Session (GCES), I found a good summary of many of the views of various conservative groups.

What I found difficult to accept was that most of these statements were made without biblical or medical citations. They were simply stated with no evidence. I don’t think that’s good enough. It’s not good enough to make assumptions without checking out those assumptions. It’s not kind, compassionate, or diligent. It’s not a desire to seek the truth.

I want to look at some of the key assumptions of those documents:

Does Surgery Harm Transgender People?

From the BRI:

It remains unclear, however, if this disturbance or brokenness can be overcome through sex-change surgery. Such treatment may disturb the patient even more.

First, I take exception with calling trans people disturbed and broken. It is pejorative and marginalizes trans people. It also makes it more difficult to understand the lives of trans people because it undermines their voices and opinions when in reality they are the best people, maybe the one people, who can help us understand their lives.

Second, the data does not support this. It’s the collective conclusion of the medical community that gender confirmation surgery should be one of the options available to transgender people. It’s also what trans people will tell you. If you have questions, this video does a great job of addressing the issues.

If conservatives don’t want to trust the medical community, where is their evidence? Don’t they owe it to the trans community to do more than make unsupported statements? Shouldn’t Christians take an objective and honest looks at the lives of trans people and try to present the most accurate information possible? Where did this information come from?

Do People Usually Regret Gender Confirmation Surgery?

Again, from the BRI:

So far, sex-change surgeries are irreversible. Persons undergoing these procedures have to use hormones for the rest of their lives, which indicates that an integrated sexual identity is not achieved through surgery. Surgery does not solve the problem completely. What aggravates the situation is that while surgery is irreversible, people may change psychologically as they grow and mature, seeking again a new identity.

Again, this statement is not supported. There is also a logical problem here. If surgery is problematic because it’s not changeable, therefore it is forbidden, it creates less opportunity for change and not more. By allowing the surgery, trans people can make decisions for themselves. I also don’t see the problem with people taking hormones long-term. There are many things we do everyday to care for ourselves. If it makes there lives better, what’s the problem?

Before people undergo these surgeries, extensive counseling is required. Hormones are also generally taken first and often are the only treatment people receive. Regret for the decision is rare, and usually a result of disapproval and lack of support. Those who have support generally do quite well.

Being Transgender Is Not A Disorder

From the GCEC:

On the mental-emotional level misalignment occurs with transgender people whose sexual anatomy is clearly male or female but who identify with the opposite gender of their biological sex. They may describe themselves as being trapped in the wrong body. Transgenderism, formerly clinically diagnosed as ‘gender identity disorder’ and now termed ‘gender dysphoria,’ may be understood as a general term to describe the variety of ways individuals interpret and express their gender identity differently from those who determine gender on the basis of biological sex.

This quote is inaccurate. The medical community didn’t just change the term, they changed the concept. Gender Identity Disorder (GID) labeled all transgender people as disordered. It focused on the identity. The new diagnosis focuses on people who experience psychological distress related to their identity, but the source could be societal pressures and not the identity itself.

New understandings are based on the growth of research and treatment in the psychological community after extensive effort to understand how best to improve the lives of trans people. I suspect that this inaccuracy is more than incidental, but intentional. It’s one thing to disagree with the psychological community, but they shouldn’t be misrepresented, especially in an official statement with lots of eyes on it. It gives me the feeling that I’ve had more trans people review this blog than the world church had review their statement.

I’ve also never heard a trans person describe themselves as “trapped in the wrong body,” though I hear cisgender people describe it this way regularly. What I hear transgender people describe is a society, family, and friends who refuse to accept their gender because of their exterior presentation. Some transgender people experience psychological distress about the sexual presentations of their bodies, and some do not. Even if they do, it doesn’t mean they feel trapped in someone else’s body. They may wish to modify their bodies, as cisgender people sometimes do with no exclusion or condemnation from the church or society, but they don’t often describe themselves as trapped in the wrong body.

Now We’re Grasping at Straws

From the BRI:

In some cases, sex-change surgery may be motivated by a sophisticated desire for homosexual activity.

Nope. That’s just not true. I date women. I would never want to be a man. I would never lie about my gender to be able to date women. No gay people I know would want to change their gender to date the gender they are attracted to. Who would ever want to do that? It’s harder to be transgender than to be gay or bisexual.

I’ve covered some of the myths and misunderstandings about transgender people, but there are many more. Here are some suggestions if you want to learn more:

In the next two (or more) blogs, I’ll be looking specifically at the biblical arguments. Genesis 1:27 will be in the next blog which will be out in one week. It’s written already and ready to go. I’m looking forward to sharing it.

**I consulted with several trans and non-binary people and had this blog reviewed by them as well as consulting sources which include experts and trans people. I myself am not trans nor am I an expert on the topic. Please let me know if you are and have feedback for me. I would welcome your input.**

Rosaria Champagne Butterfield, who describes herself as having been lesbian until converting to Christianity, had this to say: “Romans 1, especially verses 24-28, contains the most frightening lines in Scripture to anyone struggling in sexual sin.”

Many who teach that same-sex relationship are sinful believe that in Romans 1 they have found the smoking gun. Consider this statement by Robert Gagnon in The Bible and Homosexual Practice:

“With good reason, Rom 1:24-27 is commonly seen as the central test for the issue of homosexual conduct on which Christians must base their moral doctrine. This is true for several reasons. It is the most substantial and explicit discussion of the issue in the Bible. It is located in the New Testament. It makes an explicit statement not only about same sex intercourse among men but also about lesbianism. And it occurs within a substantial corpus of material from a single writer, which allows the interpreter to properly contextualize the writer’s stance on homosexuality” (p. 229).

I’ve had my own struggles with this passage of scripture, sometimes related to fear. Reading scriptures with openness to the leading of the Holy Spirit is the least talked about and most difficult part of discerning the will of God as expressed by any particular text. I’ve had to struggle through fear and defensiveness. Often, I wanted to believe Romans 1 does condemn same-sex relationships so that I wouldn’t lose everything I had as a pastor and respected part of the Seventh-day Adventist community. The reasons for fear are varied and personal.

Ultimately, Butterfield offers advice in a different part of her book that is probably more helpful. “When fear rules your theology, God is nowhere to be found in your paradigm, no matter how many Bible verses you tack onto it.”

Let us approach with passage with trust and not fear, curiosity and not defensiveness, humility and not self-righteousness. We just might learn something.

Because there is far too much for one blog post, I’m going to tackle this passage in three posts.

  1. Interpretations that are non-affirming of same-sex relationships

  2. Interpretations that are affirming

  3. The relevance to our lives today and what Paul might say if he were here

First Look at Romans 1:18-32

The first thing most people do, myself included, is to simply read the passage. I recommend that you take a couple minutes to do so now. Romans 1:18-32.

The most important section for our discussion is verses 26-27:

For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.

First, I want to recognize that simplicity of this passage. Taken on face value, it is describing sexual encounters between people of the same gender, and it is not complementary. These acts are a result of God giving them over. They are shameless, unnatural, and involve a penalty.

If all you need to know is what you know from your first reading of these two verses, you can stop reading now. If you have no curiosity about the context, and no openness to the thought that your understanding of words can change once you learn more about the circumstances and context in which they were spoken, then you won’t enjoy this post.

Paul’s epistle to the Romans, in which this verse is found, contains sixteen chapters and 433 verses. These are two of those verses. That these two verses are such a small part of this book does not mean they are insignificant or should be ignored. On the contrary, these are important verses for this discussion and that’s why I’m taking so much time on them. What it does mean is this: They need to be taken in context of the other 431 verses.

Think about the last time you wrote an email. I mean a long email about something important. You made it long because there was a lot you wanted to talk about. You made it long because you didn’t want to be misunderstood.

The worst thing someone could do would be to come along and pull out two sentences, say those two sentences were clear, and make an assumption about what you were saying. You would hate it. You would not think they were taking you seriously. You would not appreciate it at all.

Paul’s letter to the Romans was a long, important letter. He wouldn’t appreciate this approach of taking two sentences out any more than you would. He would want to be understood. And there is one other huge factor that gives us good reason to ask ourselves what he meant by what he said, rather than simply going on our first impression, and that’s that his words were written 2000 years ago when Rome was the capital of the world. A few things have changed since then. We shouldn’t assume too much.

Something all of us need to get over is the idea that our first impression of any verse of scripture upon reading the English translation is always correct. That’s just lazy.

I’m not talking about those desperate moments when you just need to hear from God and you open up your Bible for some inspiration. I’m not talking about that. I am not saying we can’t read our Bibles and have confidence that God has inspired scripture.

I am saying that when it comes to verses that have serious doctrinal and practical implications for our lives and the lives of others, we should never take the 15 second version of a Bible study. We should dig deep.

Romans 1 is About Honoring God’s Creation Pattern

Christians who do not affirm same-sex sexuality also believe that understanding the context of this passage is important. They generally argue that Romans 1 is a reference to the creation narrative in Genesis 1-2.1

They believe Paul is not only making an isolated statement, but that his argument roots sexual expression in the creation of man and woman. Any sexual expression that is not between a man and a woman is wrong. It’s important for their case to make this argument, because if unrestrained lust is the only reason these sexual encounters in Roman 1:26-27 are wrong, it leaves to door open for same-sex committed love that is about covenant and not objectification.

Romans 1:18-24 is certainly packed with references to creation. In the position paper on “homosexuality” published by the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, the following statement was made:

Paul begins by referencing the “creation of the world,” and the power and divinity of God seen through “what has been made,” but then reflects how the story has changed. Humans now remake the glory of God into an “image” and “likeness” of “corruptible man,” as well as of “birds,” “animals,” and “creeping” things. The human then ends up worshiping these very creatures that humans were meant to have dominion over, and abandons the natural use of the “male” and the “female.” The inversion is complete, instead of having dominion over the beasts, humans now worship and serve “the creature rather than the Creator.” They remake the image of God, in which both male and female were fashioned, into an intensification of either masculinity or femininity (Rom 1:20–25).

While this view certainly has much to commend it, the more I read Romans 1 in both Greek and English, the more apparent it became to me that this is a subtle shift away from Paul’s actual argument.

There are a few problems with this interpretation:

  • Paul doesn’t describe people exchanging dominion of animals for worship of animals. There is no mention of dominion or the responsibility of man to animals.
  • The list of things worshiped includes people as well as animals, so even the exchange of worship isn’t worship of animals, but worship of all created things, including humans.
  • There is no reference to the creation of man, the woman being from the man, or any of the ways Paul typically references the creation story. In terms of the creation of man and woman, the only words that connect are the word “man” and the word “woman.”
  • The only aspect of creation that Paul directly sites is that God is creator and people and animals are the creation. In doing so there is shared vocabulary, but not shared ideas.
  • The reference to images are better understood as relating to idolatry than creation.

Sometimes the implication is made that by using the word “nature” (Greek phusis) Paul is referring to the creation narrative, but that would be the only time in 11 uses of the word that Paul references creation. Furthermore, “nature” does not appear in the creation narrative of Genesis 1-2 in the Greek translation, the LXX. It’s much more natural (pardon the pun) to think that Paul was using the word the same way he always does, as a simple description of how things are.

It’s About God, Not God’s Creation

There is a much more simple way to understand what Paul’s talking about. Read the passage carefully. Paul isn’t talking about the order that should exist among the creatures, but the order that should take place between the creatures and their creator. I recommend a careful read of Romans 1:18-25. Here are some points worth noting:

  1. The foundational idea is that what is plainly known to anyone is the existence and power of God through creation, what is known as general revelation. Paul specifically points out that even Gentiles should know this. They don’t have Genesis. Paul makes plain what the content of their knowledge should be: that God is God and God is powerful. This is known through observing creation. It is not specific knowledge about the creation narrative (vs. 19).

  2. They knew God, but they chose to worship God’s creation instead of God, that worship of creation includes both animals and humans, not a changed relationship between animals and humans (vs. 20-21).

  3. They did this through idols (vs. 22-23).

  4. Closely tied with this idol worship is giving in to lustful hearts and dishonoring sexual behavior “among themselves.” Their sexual behavior did not involve the covenantal boundaries of marriage. This may refer to an orgy (vs. 24-25).

I’d also like to expand on the way Paul uses the word “image,” because the argument is made that it’s a reference to the creation of man and woman in Genesis 1:27, which reads: “So God created man in his own image/ in the image of God he created him/ male and female he created them.”

However, Paul’s use of the word better follows the Old Testament prophets who spoke of exchanging the glory of God for graven images. Paul said in vs. 23, “[they] exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.” Isaiah 42:8 says, “I am the LORD, that is My name; I will not give My glory to another, nor My praise to graven images” (NASB).

A close reading of the text shows that it’s about the connection between creation and creator, not how the creation relates to each other, and that idolatry leads naturally to God “giving them over” to all kinds of lust. Note that the first time Paul speaks of this lust (vs. 24) there is no mention of same-sex sexuality, so the assumption that that’s all he’s talking about is specious.

This linking of idolatry and lust is not a new concept in scripture. Both the Old and New Testaments are full of close connections between idolatry and sexual licentiousness (Exodus 32; 1 Kings 14:24; Isaiah 57; Hosea 4:12-14; 1 Corinthians 6:9-11: Galatians 5:19-21; Ephesians 5:5; Colossians 3:5; and Revelation 2:14, 20, 21:25). Sometimes those sexual behaviors involve same-sex sex, and sometimes they don’t. They always involve sexual encounters that are purely driven by lust and which have no relational or covenantal context.

What Does Same-Sex Sex Have to Do with Idolatry?

So it’s referring to idolatry and not the creation narrative, does that mean it’s not a legitimate restriction of all same-sex sex? We need to understand is how it’s connected to idolatry, and then we can answer that question.

Occasionally, I’ll read an argument about same-sex sexuality that connects it specifically to idolatry in a way that heterosexual sex doesn’t connect. John Piper makes the argument in this post:

When you exchange the glory of God for idols, the main one that you exchange the glory of God for is yourself. The idol that you have is yourself. Well, what sex is yourself? My sex is male… The deepest thing that I’ve ever hit upon for why God would disapprove of this is not just that the Bible says “Don’t do it,” and not just that God created male and female. Deep down there is a kind of idolatry involved in same-sex relationships that is very profound.

This is an argument that only sounds profound. It doesn’t translate to reality. A marriage relationships with someone of the same gender is about as much like a relationship with yourself as a friendship with someone of the same gender is a friendship with yourself. Just because someone is the same gender does not mean they aren’t an entirely different person. Each person who is not yourself is an entirely different human being. This should be obvious.

You aren’t kissing yourself when you kiss someone who also has lips. You aren’t having sex with yourself when you have sex with someone who shares your genitalia. You aren’t sharing thoughts with yourself when you share them with someone of the same gender and sharing them with someone else when they of a different gender.

Piper is using an allegorical argument that does not translate to human relationships. It certainly has nothing to do with the way scripture presents the connection between idolatry and sex. Scripture does not make this connection as a gender-based connection, rather it is connected with adultery.

Idolatry, Adultery, and Covenant

Idolatry in scripture is compared to adultery, prostitution, and sexual immorality in general (Jeremiah 2; 11; Ezekiel 16:20-34; 23). The entire book of Hosea is dedicated to this metaphor. That’s because God’s relationship with Israel is a covenantal relationship, just as marriage is a covenant (Isaiah 42:5-8).

Israelites who worshiped other Gods were like adulterous spouses because they violated the covenant Israel made with God in to book of Exodus (see chapters 19-20). It’s a failure in fidelity either for lust or security, either because they are drawn in by the allure of the worship of other gods or the promise of reward from foreign powers and gods.

That covenant that Israel made was not for Israel only, but for the whole world, as Isaiah references in the verse above. Paul has no problem applying it to Rome, because all of us are God’s creation. Paul is calling all people to covenant with their creator and specifically calling Romans out as “without excuse” (vs. 20) and bound to their creator-God.

Idolatry is understood as a betrayal of covenant as a result of being controlled by lust and fear. A biblical understanding of the relationship between sex and idolatry is that failure in covenant with God leads to failure in covenant in human relationships.

Those relationships begin with spousal relationships, but they don’t end there. The Prophets are full of descriptions of the failures in fidelity to all those in society who most need it, and of selfishness and lust for gain run wild (see Isaiah 1:15-18; 46:6-7; Jeremiah 7:5-7; 10:1-25; Amos 5:10-12; Revelation 18:2-3).

This is exactly what the later half of Romans 1 is about (vs. 28-32). So what Paul is doing is not referencing the two chapters at the beginning of the Old Testament, but the overarching cautionary message of the Old Testament and especially the prophets. God made a covenant, people broke that covenant, which lead to broken covenants in their primary familial relationships, followed by broken covenants with all of society, especially the most vulnerable.

The core motivation is selfishness, not in terms of bizarre metaphors about loving yourself when you love someone of the same gender, but the basic human impulse towards self-gratification at the expense of someone with whom we have made a covenant.

Scripture often connects idolatry and adultery, but only occasionally includes references to same-sex sex when it does so. That’s because it’s not by nature a gender issue, but an issue of fidelity versus selfishness.

Same-sex sex makes a particularly stark example precisely because it was never part of a covenant in ancient Rome or Israel. To say that this verse is specifically denying covenantal same-sex relationships would be to degrade the core of Paul’s argument. Paul isn’t forbidding covenant for certain genders, he’s pointing out violations of covenant. That is the whole point of the idolatry and adultery motif in scripture, and it is certainly not something that would be lost on Paul’s Jewish audience.

Blame Shifting

Perhaps the most insidious aspect of the non-affirming interpretation is the way in which it shifts blame. Rather than focusing on the ways in which humans objectify each other through sex, it puts the blame on gay marriage, as if Romans 1 is addressed to queer people and not straight people.

As with all minority groups, there is a long history of the LGBT community being scapegoated. You can see it today in calls to save marriage by denying it to same-sex couples. If I marry another woman someday, it poses no threat to any marriage between a man and a woman. In fact, it affirms that I see value in marriage.

The truth is that there are more straight divorces than there will ever be gay marriages, but no one wants to outlaw divorce. And there are more straight people in relationships who choose not to be married than there will ever be same-sex marriages, but again there is no desire to mandate marriage for straight people.

Traditional Christian churches have a tendency to focus on the small LGBT community. It’s funny how the things we do in our lives show up in our interpretation of scripture. Then those interpretations in turn justify further scapegoating of the LGBT community. Blaming the queer community is much easier than looking in the mirror, learning to be less selfish, and keeping your own covenants.

Romans 1:26-27 is often treated as if it applies only to the 5% or so of sexual minorities, not straight people. Yet the reality is that Paul was just talking about people. There are reasons why same-sex sexuality was a great example in Paul’s day for the failures of infidelity and selfishness of all people, and those will be discussed in the next blog post on Romans.

More to Come

I know this post doesn’t answer all the questions you might have about this passage, and I’d love to hear your questions in the comments. I’ll talk later about why same-sex sexuality is used to speak about lust. I’ll also talk about what this passage does mean for us today, and whether it permits same-sex relationships. All those questions and more need to be asked.

However, the foundational understanding espoused by those who do not affirm same-sex relationships is that this passage is about defying the creation of gender-based marriage in Genesis 1-2. That argument is not supported by the text, which is referencing the honor do to God who is the life-giver as opposed to Greek idolatry, and the desire to consume that can blind us to the truth, mar our connection to the creator, and bring selfishness into all our relationships.

Selfishness and broken relationships are not being singled out by Paul as a primary aspect of same-sex covenants and not straight covenants. The selfish desire to consume others is a human issue, not a gay issue. This verse is a challenge to all of us, not only to sexual minorities.

1 See Also, Gagnon, Robert. The Bible and Homosexual Practice, p. 289-297. Gagnon also argues that through referencing creation Paul is talking about the biological complimentary nature of male and female for procreation and pleasure. He further asserts that this is what Paul means by “nature.” These types of arguments are called ontological arguments, and will have to be left for a future post.

William J. Webb’s book, Slaves, Women & Homosexuals is a fantastic book for understanding how to interpret Biblical commands that will be especially satisfying for anyone who loves organization and precision. He outlines a precise rubric in a field of theological study that sometimes seems nebulous.

The hermeneutic he has developed and outlined in this book is a designed to reveal not only the intent of the scriptural teachings on various topics, but their movement. He argues that there is a “redemptive-movement hermeneutic” in scripture. Though the individual texts may at times seem unjust, within the framework of the overall teachings of the Bible and in comparison to surrounding cultures a picture emerges of God moving people closer to the ultimate goal: redemption.

Three specific topics are explored in order to demonstrate how Webb’s redemptive-movement hermeneutic works. They are of course the three groups in his title: slaves, women, and homosexuals. The title itself is an indication that Webb will not be sympathetic to LGBT people. The term “homosexuals” is almost exclusively used by those who have negative attitudes towards LGBT people or their sexuality.

On the topic of slaves and women Webb shows how the nation of Israel had greater permissiveness than the surrounding cultures, how there were moments of exception to the rules that devalued women and enslaved people, and how scripture would occasionally have “breakout” passages which undermined both slavery and the subjugation of women. He sees the topic of homosexuality, as he refers to it, as an unequivocal “no” in every instance, with Israel being more restrictive than surrounding cultures.

Reading though his book, it becomes quickly apparent that he spends very little time talking about same-sex sexuality in comparison to the other two topics. This underscores the reality that scripture speaks very little to the topic while there are scores of verses supporting slavery and the subjugation of women. Today, I imagine there would be a number of considerations brought up by James V. Brownson, Matthew Vines, and others which would demand Webb’s consideration. But since Webb’s book was published in 2001, those books hadn’t been written yet.

It’s also worth noting that Webb’s publisher was InterVarsity Press, the publishing wing of an organization that just last year (2016) decided to fire all people who believe that God affirms of same-sex relationships. In an environment with so little academic freedom, the conclusions are worth serious scrutiny.

I have the same problem with Webb’s work that I have with many books of non-affirming theology, they begin with modern questions about sexuality and read it back into the text to see if it affirms or condemns. The best approach to understanding scripture is to first be clear about what the text is talking about and why. Only then can we go about applying the meaning of that text to the modern situation. A flawed approach begins with the modern question instead of the ancient one.

Webb’s categories would also benefit from considering principles that can be drawn from the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew, in which Jesus described the Kingdom of God to which Webb’s redemptive hermeneutic is reaching. In his teachings, Jesus names love as the foundational concept scriptures. He reinterprets Old Testament laws in light of this principle.

Since Webb was addressing same-sex marriage, it would also have strengthened his book to look biblically at the concept of marriage. At some point, anyone who is engaged in the questions of the biblical morality of same-sex marriage must ask if such marriages are best informed by the many passages of scripture which speak at length to marriage, or the six which refer briefly to same-sex sexuality.

If we are to understand the biblical concept of marriage and the redemptive arc to which it is moving, would that arc be progressed or regressed by opening marriage up to couples of the same gender? That’s a question Webb never even feigned to ask.

Despite these limitations, I highly recommend this book. His underlying concepts are excellent, even if they aren’t always applied well to same-sex marriage. And it’s easy to see how these concepts can strengthen the case of those of us who believe in affirming theology.

Gender, Bible, Sexuality: Reframing the Church’s Debate on Same-Sex Relationships, by James V. Brownson

James V. Brownson is eminently qualified to write a book about. He is a professor of New Testament, has served as academic dean at Western Theological Seminary, and holds a Ph.D. from Princeton Theological Seminary. His book, The Bible, Gender, and Sexuality is the first affirming book someone with serious theological inclinations should read.

Brownson’s study began when his son revealed that he was gay. Believing in the authority of scripture and describing himself as in the reform tradition, Brownson wanted to understand the will on God on the matter. As often happens, when someone he loved was suffering, he could no longer ignore the questions. He went about his study to understand the truth whatever it may be.

Brownson sets out to examine the underlying moral logic of prohibitions against same-sex sexuality, arguing that such a step is essential when applying a text to one culture that originated in an entirely different culture. Without such work, religion would be incapable of progress.

Traditionalists have claimed two different themes of underlying moral logic to justify the absolute prohibition on same-sex relationships. The first is a social argument about complementarianism, that men and women have distinct roles to play and same-sex relationships are forbidden because these roles cannot be maintained. The second is biological complementarianism where men and women are biologically fitted to each other and capable of procreation.

Brownson deftly dispatches Robert Gagnon’s claim of biological fittedness in Genesis 1 & 2, pointing out that the “one flesh” statement is used of kinship ties and not the complimentary nature of male and female genitalia. He does so by pointing both to the simple meaning of the Hebrew vocabulary and a close exegetical analysis of the text. “One flesh” is also a term that God uses of his relationship with his people, it is a bond of kinship and not biological sex.

A careful examination of biblical understandings of marriage, sex, lust, celibacy, and family strengthen Brownson’s analysis and his critique of complimentarianism. His explanation of gender-based concepts of shame and honor in the New Testament and surrounding culture was easily the clearest, most helpful explanation of gender difference in sociological concepts of honor and shame that I have ever read.

Brownson’s treatment of Romans 1:26-27 is the high point of this work. His pedigree as a New Testament scholar shines clearly in this section. The exegetical, hermeneutical, and cultural material he brings into his analysis is superb.

One thing that could be challenging for some readers is that instead of making a single interpretation of Romans 1:26-27, he gives several compelling options. I agree with this approach. The text refers to something specific that the original audience would have immediately known. But from our viewpoint, there are many compelling ways to understand this passage that don’t involve universal prohibitions on same-sex sexuality.

The one critique I have is Brownson’s analysis of the levitical law. As a New Testament scholar, it isn’t surprising that this was his weakest point. In my experience, most books of affirming theology tend to take the Old Testament law less seriously than I would like. This is a reflection of Christianity at large which lacks a coherent understanding of the purpose, structure, and application of Old Testament laws and instead tends to dismiss them.

The logic of the book not only challenges traditional interpretations, Brownson builds to an underlying moral logical for sex and marriage that is cogent and compelling. Rather than simply allowing for same-sex marriage for the sake of compassion, Brownson clarifies the biblical ethic for sexuality and marriage. He summarizes, “People are not to say with their bodies what they cannot or will not say with the whole of their lives” (p. 109). That’s the foundation of biblical sexuality and marriage.

Brownson speaks to the true heart of biblical marriage, which is expressed in commitment and a sexual ethic defined by the giving of one’s self to another in a reciprocal and self-sacrificial kinship bond. He argues that such a bond is compatible with same-sex marriage, though it is not compatible with the sexual liaisons described in the bible’s six passages addressing same-sex sexual activity.

Bible, Gender, Sexuality is a true achievement. Brownson’s critiques and theological contributions make his book a must read for anyone interested in this topic.