Navigating Transgender: A Review of Understanding Transgender Identities

October 27, 2022
Author: James K. Beilby and Paul Rhodes Eddy
Publisher: Baker Academic
Publishing Date: November 5, 2019
Pages: 272 (Paperback)
ISBN: 978-1540960306

Jesus teaches us to love our enemies, and he also says, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”1 With respect to current debates regarding human sexuality, in general and transgender identities in particular, followers of Jesus can wonder: How can we embody both the grace and the truth of Christ Jesus? How do we practice love and seek unity while wielding what the Apostle Paul calls “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God,”2 in relation to people who find our biblical views hurtful? As we wrestle with such questions, we can find illumination in Understanding Transgender Identities: Four Views, edited by James K. Beilby and Paul Rhodes Eddy. We can experience this book as an expression of our Lord’s teaching about wisdom: “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.”3

Beilby and Eddy begin their multi-view book with an extensive and helpful introduction. They offer historical background for current controversies; they summarize various theories regarding transgender identities, and they express hope regarding “the possibility of a fruitful engagement between differing Christian perspectives on transgender experience.”4 They describe seeking contributors “who can engage this difficult and polarizing issue in clear and respectful dialogue,” and they assert that, for Christians, such respectful dialogue “should be nonnegotiable.”5 They conclude their introduction with the hope that their book “serves both to clarify this important topic and to provide a model of substantive engagement of difficult issues.”6

“…I can note that, as the authors engage with one another respectfully, they also express substantive disagreements.”

Regarding the book providing a “model of substantive engagement,” I can note that, as the authors engage with one another respectfully, they also express substantive disagreements. For example, in response to what Owen Strachan describes as his “historical view of the millennia-old Christian church, … that the sexes are binary—man and woman,”7 Justin Sabia-Tanis, who “transitioned from female to male,”8 writes, 

“In the not too distant future, people will read accounts like (Strachan’s) and think of them the way we now think of Christian treatises in favor of slavery or against interracial marriage. Those future readers will wonder then what we ask now: Why do people, in the name of Christ, try to limit the human potential and flourishing of others—in this case, particularly women and transgender people?”9

In Strachan’s response to Sabia-Tanis’ chapter, Strachan describes “transitioning” practices such as “surgical and chemical alteration” as ways in which “we are dishonoring the Lord and willfully sinning against him.”10 Earlier in the book, in his own essay regarding transgender identities, Strachan writes of “hell-bound men and women” who need “the whole counsel of God.”11 Also, in his response to Sabia-Tanis’ chapter, after speaking of “the real threat of divine judgment,” Strachan states, “It is terrible to type these words, but the Bible offers the straying sinner, the one rejecting God’s promises, no comfort.”12

In relation to the disagreement between Strachan and Sabia-Tanis, readers can ask: Does Strachan view Sabia-Tanis as “hell-bound”? Does Sabia-Tanis view Strachan’s traditional views regarding gender as equivalent to racist and sexist views? In response to such questions, readers can also seek additional engagement in the essays by Mark Yarhouse and Julia Sadusky, who together emphasize “The Complexities of Gender Identity,” and Megan K. DeFranza, who seeks to offer “Good News for Gender Minorities.”

“… (Yarhouse and Sadusky) distinguish between their view and Strachan’s view by reflecting on transgender identities in terms of ‘Three Interpretive Lenses.'”

In some ways, Yarhouse and Sadusky stand closer to Strachan’s view than to Sabia-Tanis’ view. Yarhouse and Sadusky write, “We think of sex as binary, meaning that, generally speaking, people are born either male or female.”13 However, in the same essay, they distinguish between their view and Strachan’s view by reflecting on transgender identities in terms of “Three Interpretive Lenses.”14 Their first lens or framework comes under the title “integrity,” and they view Strachan and others with his perspective as seeking to promote integrity by upholding Scriptural teachings regarding “the male/female binary” as taught in Genesis 1 and 2.15 Yarhouse and Sadusky go on to describe the “disability” lens, in which they put more emphasis on how we all share in “the reality of the fall” as portrayed in Genesis 3.16 In their view, the disability lens sheds light on people experiencing gender “along a continuum,” and it helps Christians respond “with empathy.”17 Yarhouse and Sadusky offer also a third lens under the title “diversity” and, after describing the claims of people holding this view, which affirms transgender identity and transition, they conclude, “Although we see these claims as lacking biblical support, we can appreciate how they address concerns for identity and community in a way that is quite compelling to many people navigating gender identity concerns.”18

In terms of the lenses that Yarhouse and Sadusky describe, DeFranza sides mostly with Sabia-Tanis by operating with the “diversity” lens. However, she writes less militantly than Sabia-Tanis, and her chapter includes a description of how she shifted from the traditional view to a view in which she states, “There is no single path for transgender Christians.”19 The catalyst for her change in perspective came primarily from getting to know transgender people and feeling “honored to be able to call some of them my friends.”20 As DeFranza stopped viewing people in terms of “some secular philosophy” (i.e., ‘transgenderism’)”21 and came to know them as particular persons, her experiences and emotions, along with inquiries into the realms of science and moral reasoning, led her to view Scriptural teachings with new eyes. She reflects for several pages regarding what we can learn from Genesis 1-2 and Matthew 19—a Gospel scene in which Jesus teaches about marriage based on the former. From there, she passes on historical research regarding eunuchs in the Christian tradition and, in what Strachan describes as “an engaging and theologically literate chapter,”22 calls fellow Christians to “stop demonizing transgender people as rebellious against God and nature”23 and, instead, “to walk with one another as siblings in Christ, thinking, talking, and praying together for God’s guidance as to how we can most healthfully live out our calling as children of God being conformed to the image of Christ.”24

“The catalyst for (DeFranza’s) change in perspective came primarily from getting to know transgender people and feeling ‘honored to be able to call some of them my friends.’”

In seeking to receive health from God’s guidance, DeFranza overlaps with the disability lens that Yarhouse and Sadusky also recommend to the body of Christ. In my view, which is closest to that of latter, the disability lens does offer us the most hope for listening to Christ humbly and together, even when we have passionately different views. For example, in Matthew 19, Jesus describes us all as “hard-hearted.”25 As a family of faith, all afflicted by the sickness of sin and all needing Jesus as our Great Physician, we can thank God together for sending a Savior who heals “those who are sick.”26 In seeking to follow Jesus, we can pray and listen together to our Lord saying, “I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance.”27

About the Author

  1. See Matthew 5:44 and 10:34  

  2. Ephesians 6:17  

  3. Proverbs 27:17  

  4. pg. 45  

  5. pg. 53  

  6. pg. 54  

  7. pg. 57  

  8. pg. 53  

  9. pg. 99  

  10. pg. 227  

  11. pg. 79  

  12. pg. 227  

  13. pg. 105  

  14. pg. 102  

  15. pg. 103  

  16. pg. 104  

  17. pg. 105  

  18. pg. 105  

  19. pg. 177  

  20. pg. 148  

  21. pg. 148  

  22. pg. 179  

  23. pg. 177  

  24. pg. 178  

  25. Matthew 19:8  

  26. Luke 5:31  

  27. Luke 5:32  

What are your thoughts about this topic?
We welcome your ideas and questions about the topics considered here. If you would like to receive others' comments and respond by email, please check the box below the comment form when you submit your own comments.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

There are currently no comments. Why don't you kick things off?