Thinking Biblically and Acting Compassionately
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J Alan BranchJ. Alan Branch is Professor of Christian Ethics at Midwestern Seminary, where he has served since 2001. Since coming to MBTS, Dr. Branch has served in a variety of roles, including Vice President of Student Development (2001-2008). He is a regular presenter at the Evangelical Theological Society, and frequently contributes to both Baptist Press and the Missouri Baptist Pathway. In addition, he served as a chaplain in the United States Army Reserves from 2009 to 2013 and served a tour in the Midd...more
Transgenderism is a real-world, right now topic in need of God’s navigation! J. Alan Branch shares about his book, “Affirming God’s Image,” with the heart of being able to think biblically and act compassionately.
Thinking Biblically and Acting Compassionately
Bob: This is Bob Lepine from FamilyLife Today with a heads-up: we’re going to be talking about a sensitive subject today—the subject of transgenderism. There’s an epidemic today of gender confusion that J. Alan Branch says is leaving a lot of adolescents confused.
Alan: If you’re already at an age in life, where you’re worried about your body and what your body looks like—and “Do other people like what I look like?” and “How am I being accepted by the people?”—and then, suddenly, to have this experience of, “Well, I feel like I’m in the wrong body,” piled on top of that—you can imagine the chaos that can be, especially, in a young person’s mind. It should cause us to have mercy.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Wednesday, December 2nd. Our hosts are Dave and Ann Wilson; I'm Bob Lepine. You can find us online at FamilyLifeToday.com. What should we think about gender confusion and gender dysphoria? What does the Bible say? How can we respond with compassion to those who are experiencing challenges in this area? We’ll talk more about that today. Stay with us.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. We’re talking today about something that—two decades ago, this would have been a fringe topic, something that’s out on the edges; today, it’s a mainstream topic.
Ann: It’s a mainstream topic that a lot of people want answers and help.
Bob: Yes; I think there is confusion about what’s going on, and the subject is transgenderism.
Dave: I was just going to say—the listener’s like, “What are we tackling today?”
Bob: There’s confusion. People want to know how to think biblically and how to act compassionately with people you know, who may be experiencing gender dysphoria, or people who are advocating that this should be normalized and should be a regular part of how you care for people in your life and in your world.
Ann: —and how to talk to our kids about this—
Bob: Yes; right.
Ann: —and even, what is a biblical worldview about this?
Dave: —and who’s writing about it? Who’s talking about it?
Bob: Well, J. Alan Branch is writing about it, and he’s joining us.
Dave: I know; that’s why he’s here.
Bob: He’s joining us on FamilyLife Today; Alan, welcome.
Alan: Thank you. I’m so glad to be here, Bob.
Bob: Dr. Branch is a professor of Christian Ethics at Midwestern Seminary in Kansas City, Missouri. He’s written a book called Affirming God’s Image, where he takes a look at addressing the transgender question with both science and Scripture.
Help our listeners understand the term, gender dysphoria; because they may have heard that and not understood what that means. What is that?
Alan: Gender dysphoria is a clinical diagnosis; it’s in the DSM-5 [Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition]. It used to be called gender identity disorder, but they changed it to gender dysphoria. To be clear: if you’re going to follow the clinical diagnosis, someone could hypothetically be transgender but not be clinically diagnosed as gender dysphoric.
Here’s the difference: someone, who’s gender dysphoric, is experiencing a disconnect between their biological sex and their gender identity that they feel subjectively, and it’s causing them great distress and problems in their life. That person would be clinically described as gender dysphoric. It’s possible for someone, hypothetically, to be transgender and have reconciled all these issues; and thus they wouldn’t clinically be diagnosed as gender dysphoric.
But on the street, transgender and gender dysphoric get used as synonyms, on the street, all the time.
Bob: Somebody, who is transgender, is somebody who has taken action to deal with their dysphoria; right?
Alan: Well, not necessarily. Let’s clarify a few things. I think the first idea that needs to be clarified in the mind of the listeners is this: we typically use sex and gender—as Christians, we use those as synonyms—and rightly so. The statement of faith for my school and for our denomination refers to the gift of gender as part of the goodness of God’s creation. I affirm that wholeheartedly; but we are using the word, “gender,” as a synonym for “sex.”
If you want to understand modern transgenderism, the basic principle is this: that sex and gender are two different things. Sex is your body; it’s the body that God has given you, and the genitalia that one might have, and reproductive organs that one has. Your gender, however, is a subjective sense of your being, either male or female. Separating those two concepts allows the idea of transgenderism to really take place. If you don’t understand that our culture has separated the ideas of sex and gender, then it’s going to be really hard to understand what they’re saying.
Dave: Now, is that a recent separation; or has that been—
Alan: Right; it emerged from the ’50s and ’60s. There was a lot of chatter about this in the 1950s and ’60s, among people doing research. We’re dealing with ideas that have really emerged in the last 100 years. Now, there are concepts like transgender that are in antiquity; they just didn’t call it that.
I think, if I could just give a bit of historical perspective, I think sometimes Christians today, when we hear about all these things happening—we were chatting before about sports, and athletics, and transgenderism—a famous case out of Connecticut, where these two boys self-identified as girls and then set the state record for “girls”—and I have to put that in scare quotes—and they outran all the other girls. Now, the state of Connecticut’s athletic association’s being sued by these parents of these actual biological females, who are losing these races. It’s interesting; they’re suing them under Title IX, which is really fascinating. But when we see things like that—boys pretending to be girls and outrunning all the girls and setting a female state record in Connecticut—you say, “What in the world? We’ve never seen anything like this!”
To give a bit of perspective, in the first century in Rome, there was a cult that was the cult of Cybele; she’d been around for a couple of hundred years as a pagan goddess. You guys know in Acts, where it talks about Artemis—the image that fell from heaven—right?
Alan: —probably a meteorite. Something like that was going on with Cybele; apparently, had a meteorite or something that they were venerating related to her.
This is rather grotesque, but I’ll tell you what happened. March 24th was called the “Day of Blood” every year in Rome. Men, who wanted to dedicate themselves to be priests of Cybele, would go through the streets; and they worked themselves into a frenzy; and at the height of the frenzy, they would emasculate themselves. Then, after that, would begin dressing as women. Augustine even talks about seeing these folks in North Africa, three and four hundred years later, so this is a longstanding cult. He talked about how they dressed themselves up and painted themselves up, and they would grow their hair long and dress like women.
Now, the degree to which those guys doing that, back in the first century—for, really, several centuries there in the Roman Empire—the degree to that they were experiencing what we might call modern-day gender dysphoria or transgenderism, as opposed to just veneration to a pagan goddess, I don’t know. But at the end of the day, it’s the same thing; I think it does help us get some perspective.
If we could travel in a time machine, and meet our brothers and sisters in Christ in Rome in 65 A.D.—say: “Hey, guys, we have this thing going on in our country; it’s called transgender,” and “Here’s what these men and women are doing…” I think our brothers and sisters in Christ from 65 A.D. would have said, “Well, we don’t have the word, ‘transgender’; but we’ve seen something like what you’re talking about.”
If you take a deep breath, and you realize we’re not the first generation of Christians to deal with something like this, then it does give us a sense of perspective about the ability of the gospel to persevere through all sorts of challenges.
Dave: You say in your book, that in the 1960s, the sexual revolution then had a big part in what’s going on currently.
Alan: Yes; the sexual revolution was this radical transition. It really started with Kinsey’s work, I think, in ’48: “Sexual Behavior and the Human Male”—that’s the opening salvo. But what comes out of the sexual revolution is a radical rejection of Judeo-Christian ethics, specifically sexual ethics: “We’re going to throw all this aside and abandon sexual restraint.” It is the height of Romans 1:18-32; it’s radical moral autonomy. They’re saying, “This is all about freedom.”
It’s not about freedom; this is exploitation. It is out of the ’60s that you get this explosion of pornography, which the Web has accelerated, exponentially, to levels we couldn’t imagine; and it’s all in the name of sexual freedom. It’s no coincidence that you have The Summer of Love in ’67, the sexual revolution; you get Stonewall just a couple of years after The Summer of Love, in the late ’60s. Then, in 1973, you get Roe v. Wade. Well, abortion is a brutal coping mechanism for abandoning sexual restraint; there’s no coincidence you get that. All these things are coming, and the latest—if you want to know what’s going on in 2020 with transgenderism—it is the latest and most expansive expression of the sexual revolution. That’s what you’re looking at.
Bob: You know, what we’re describing here is a cultural phenomenon; but I want to zoom in on the personal experience.
Bob: I have a friend who, many years ago in another city, opened up to me about his personal experience of gender dysphoria.
Bob: It was, for him, something that he never invited. He’s a follower of Christ; he was actively involved in the work of his local church at the time. It was something that he did not seek to indulge. It was something that was just this overwhelming sensation for him that he didn’t know how to wrestle with.
Dave: How old was he when he experienced that?
Bob: He had begun the experience after he was married, as a young man, and it had continued for years. When he opened up about it—I mean, he was opening the door to what was the most personally shameful part of his life. It was a huge door to pry open; and yet, prying it open, and the liberation that comes from grace and the gospel applied to that in his life has been so freeing for him.
Talk about people, who are experiencing this drive, that they never invited and don’t want.
Alan: Well, first of all, God bless you—that means this man trusts you, so that’s really a great honor.
Alan: No one knows what causes transgenderism or childhood gender nonconformity; no one knows. There’s not one story that explains everyone’s; everyone’s story is unique.
Let me divide it into two big categories, if I will. Some people experience childhood gender nonconformity and then, later on, gender dysphoria, if we want to call it that—and transgender feelings for reasons we have no idea; right?—it starts young, and they don’t know why—much like your friend.
Alan: Maybe he had it repressed and didn’t know how to talk to people about it/didn’t know who he could talk to about it. It sounds like your friend’s a Christian, and wanted to go the Lord’s way, and so is fighting this; but still has these feelings.
There is another group, that it emerges older; and frequently, it comes from a fetish behavior—a fetish behavior of cross-dressing for sexual arousal turns into an identity over time.
Ann: That’s not something that started earlier or younger?
Alan: No; this can happen later.
But even more, a couple of years ago, there were some guys, who did some research. They ran into what they thought was something new; and it was teenagers, who had no previous experience of gender nonconformity, suddenly identifying as transgender. I’m going to oversimplify; but basically what they said was, “This looks like old-fashioned peer pressure.”
Alan: These ideas of transgenderism frequently emerge around puberty; that shouldn’t surprise you. The hormones fire off; it’s just the way the Lord made us. And puberty is such a hard time for any of us, anyway; I mean, it’s brutal. This has to be part of the fall. At the very point in life, where we suddenly get very concerned about what other people think about how we look, we get acne; right? I mean, it’s miserable! [Laughter]
You’re worried about your body; then, if you’re already at an age in life, where you’re worried about your body and what your body looks like—and “Do other people like what I look like?” and “How am I being accepted by other people?”—then suddenly, to have this experience of, “Well, I feel like I’m in the wrong body,” piled on top of that—you can imagine the chaos that can be, especially, in a young person’s mind. It should cause us to have mercy; it should cause us to have mercy and be very patient.
None of that is helped in a culture now that says: “Oh yes, sure; just adjust your body to your subjective feelings. We can do all these things: we can puberty suppress, and we can give you cross-sex hormones, and we can do surgery,”—all these enormous steps—instead of saying, “Let’s work through how you’re feeling; let’s try to talk about that.”
God bless your friend. It sounds like this is someone that just determined he was going to go the Lord’s way and bore a silent pain. I don’t know how many Christians are just like your friend.
Bob: I think we have to be aware that some people are experiencing this battle. They’re fighting it, in part because of shame; but in part because they know, “This is not what God wants for me,” and yet it kind of comes on them and overtakes them.
Dave: What did you say? I mean, part of me wants to go: “Bob, what did you say?” and “Dr. Branch, what would you say?”—[Laughter]—not that there’s right or wrong—but I’d love to know: “How did the conversation go?” I’m sure it wasn’t just one conversation.
Bob: Oh, it was a long series of conversations. I asked a lot of questions. I did a lot of listening and tried to understand something that I’ve never experienced, personally, but tried to hear the pain that was a part of that/the struggle that’s a part of that, and how my friend battled and coped, and what his sense of this was, and where it had led him. It was just a long series of conversations.
By God’s grace—I didn’t do anything to fix him or cure him—I think just having somebody that he could be open with and talk about it was—we have said on this program, many times, that when sin comes out in the open/when it’s confessed, half of the power of it is drained out of it at that point.
Alan: That’s right.
Bob: I remember the first time we sat down he said something to me—we were talking about issues in his life—and he said, “There’s a part of my life that nobody will ever know about.” I just left that alone.
Well, within a couple of years, he was being open about what “…nobody would ever know about.” That openness was liberating. Think of James 5: “Confess your sins one to another, so that”—what?
Dave: “…you can be healed.”
Bob: Yes; “…you can be healed.” I think, in the opening up and confessing, God brought healing and hope. He would say that what was a powerful force in his life is no longer a powerful force.
Bob: God has brought freedom and healing in that area.
Ann: I love that he was that open with you.
Ann: We’re hearing stories of kids coming to their parents, maybe as a teenager or even younger, saying, “I have these desires,” “I have these feelings,” and then we hear of parents putting their children on hormonal therapy.
Coach us, as parents, biblically speaking, if we are being raised in a household that honors Christ, what should that conversation look like?
Alan: Well, I think what Bob did was very wise. First of all, he’s listening and trying to understand. The worst thing we can do, either as a friend or as a parent, is to overreact when someone says that. That’s not what we want to do. What we want to do is to try to stay on an even keel; show them unconditional love; and say, “Listen; I love you. You’re in a safe place. The home you’re in is safe; you’re not in danger. Now, God has made you a boy” or “…God has made you a girl, and that’s good.” The best thing parents can do is, from a very early age, to start affirming to their children: “I’m so glad God made you a boy,” “I’m so glad God made you a girl,” and that they hear that message from their parents.
Bob: —and the goodness of that: “Here’s why that’s so great that you’re a boy,” or “…a girl.”
Alan: Yes; that leads to some interesting conversations. When our children were younger, we were trying to explain to them: “We’re so glad God made you a girl”; and we explained to them the basic difference between boys and girls.
I remember one day when one of my daughters—I won’t name which one, because they’re grown women now; I don’t want to embarrass them—my mother never had a conversation like that with me when I was growing up, and one of my daughters was about three years old. I heard her in my mother’s kitchen, saying, “God made me a girl!” I thought, “Uh-oh, I have to go in there now!”
My mom said, “Yes; that’s good.” “It’s good to be a girl!” “That’s right.” She [daughter] started naming the body parts for girls, and my mother was just mortified. [Laughter] I said [to his mother], “Well, no; this is what you do. You try to teach your children that their body is a good thing—not to be afraid—it’s not a dirty thing.”
Ann: I have to say—we have a one-and-a-half-year-old grandson that is right in that stage, where he’s telling everyone that he’s a boy and why he’s a boy— [Laughter]
Dave: —and what he has!
Ann: —and what his grandmother and mom have. [Laughter] He’s very excited about telling everyone. [Laughter]
But keep going.
Alan: Right; I think, at the end of the day, children have to be children. Listen; that’s age-appropriate behavior. Now, if you have a 21-year-old talking like that, we have a problem; right? [Laughter] But age-appropriate behavior; we understand that.
Beyond that, if a child starts demonstrating these things—I’m not a parenting expert; I teach ethics; that’s what I do. I’m not a psychologist; I’m not a psychiatrist; I’m not an endocrinologist, I’m not an M.D.—but based on the Bible, what I know is we don’t want to exasperate our children; the Word tells us that.
Alan: What we need to do is stay firm, and stay loving, and stay calm, and realize that we’re probably in for a really long fight. But so often children gauge their reactions off of our reaction. We have to think very carefully about, if our child demonstrates gender nonconformity, what are we going to do with that?
Now, when they get older—
Ann: What would they be doing that’s demonstrating that?
Alan: Well, they’ll tell you, “I’m not a boy; I’m a girl.”
Ann: Will they dress such as that?
Alan: Yes; sometimes they’ll want to do that; right? You can’t freak out, because sometimes kids are just going to do dumb things; right? You know, a boy’s going to see his sister’s tutu and put it on, and run through the yard, or whatever—I don’t know—they’re just going to be silly, so that’s why you don’t want to overreact.
But sometimes they’ll say that, and you just want to—you don’t want to overreact—but you want to firmly: “Well, no; you’re a boy”, and “God made you a boy, and that’s good.” These things can emerge at early ages, and sometimes they can be quite defiant about it.
Now, the challenge we’re dealing with when children get older—especially teenagers—and they start saying, “Well, I really think I’m in the wrong…”—and I want to preface this by saying my children went to public school. Both my girls graduated from North Kansas City High School, and they got a good education—but we are in a situation, now, where in many school districts there are sexually-enlightened adults that think it is their responsibility to rescue children like that from Christian parents.
Alan: They think it’s their job to do that, and they think they’re being beneficent by doing it, and they have no moral qualms about telling that child, “Oh, no, don’t you listen to your parents; that’s really who you are.” You can’t lump all school districts into one, but you just have to be aware that’s the environment; and you really, really have to be aware.
The other thing is—if I could do one thing different as a parent—this is especially true if you’re dealing with a child with transgender issues or gender dysphoria—one mistake I made is I got my children one of these—I’m holding up my smartphone—I got my children one of these at too early an age. I mean, if I had to do it over again, I’d make them use a flip phone until they’re 18, and they’d have to deal with the social stigma; right?
Dave: You’re not alone in that. The inventors of these phones and these apps are saying, “We don’t give them to our kids until they’re at a mature age and can handle it.”
Alan: I wish I’d done that. I have good girls; they’re fine Christian young women, living for the Lord; but I’m just saying; right?
This is true with transgenders as well, because what you have to understand is—you’re giving a 12-year-old, going through puberty, who suddenly feels this, “Well, maybe, I’m in the wrong body,” two clicks on this phone and one search, and you have all sorts of people telling them, “Oh, no…”
Bob: There are YouTube videos that go on and on of testimonies—recruiting videos—
Ann: —that are educating our children in this area.
Bob: That’s right. I think, with our kids—you’re going to handle it, with a six-year-old, who is/we used to call a girl a tomboy, who wants to go play football with the boys—you’re going to handle that differently than you’re going to handle it with a fourteen-year-old, who is saying, “I think I’m a girl in a boy’s body.”
I think the principles that you’ve talked about here, Alan—the principles of patience, not freaking out; compassion; understanding; asking a lot of questions; and then protecting your kids from a culture that is going to be aggressively trying to change the way they think about what they’re feeling and move them away from a biblical approach to this—your book, I think, is helpful. The book is called Affirming God’s Image: Addressing the Transgender Question with Science and Scripture. It’s a good book for any of us to go through.
Go to FamilyLifeToday.com to get a copy of J. Alan Branch’s book; Affirming God’s Image. Order it from us, online, at FamilyLifeToday.com; or call if you prefer to order by phone—the number is 1-800-FL-TODAY—1-800-358-6329—that’s 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.” Again, the book is called Affirming God’s Image: Addressing the Transgender Question with Science and Scripture.
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Now, tomorrow, we’re going to talk more about how parents can be prepared for and navigate the challenges if their children or friends of their children are experiencing gender confusion. What do you do in that moment? J. Alan Branch joins us again tomorrow. I hope you can join us as well.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, along with our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our hosts, Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Bob Lepine. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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