First evangelical conference on transgenderism responds to unprecedented challenge
The transgender movement presents an unprecedented theological and cultural crisis for the church, said Southern Baptist scholars at the Oct. 5 ACBC preconference, “Transgender: Transgender confusion and transformational Christianity” at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
The preconference preceded the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC) annual conference, which is being held at the seminary Oct. 5-7. The preconference, co-sponsored by ACBC and the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW), is the first time evangelicals have held such an event to discuss the transgender movement.
“We have underestimated the challenge that we’re facing, and we have underestimated it in ways that betray the fact that the lessons of church history are so quickly forgotten,” said Southern Seminary president R. Albert Mohler Jr. “The challenge that is now presented us by this comprehensive moral revolution taking place around us is tantamount for the kind of theological challenge that the church faced in the Trinitarian and Christological controversies of the first [few] centuries.”
The preconference featured Mohler, Owen Strachan, president of the CBMW and professor at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Denny Burk, professor of biblical studies at Boyce College. Burk and Heath Lambert, executive director of ACBC and associate professor of biblical counseling at Southern Seminary and Boyce College, recently wrote Transforming Homosexuality, and Burk is author of What is the Meaning of Sex?
In his plenary session, Mohler — whose new book about the sexual revolution, We Cannot Be Silent, addresses the moral revolution facing Christianity — argued that the transgender movement represents the cultural dilemma about gender and sexuality even more clearly than homosexuality. The moral revolution has expanded so rapidly as to put the “very existence of biblical Christianity” into question, he said.
“The transgender revolution presents a more acute and more comprehensive challenge than merely the issue of homosexuality. Because of the identity questions rooted in creation, the transgender revolution represents a challenge on an altogether different scale.”
Strachan presented two competing worldviews on gender during his address, juxtaposing the constructionist perspective — that all gender differences are socially cultivated and not inherent to each person — with the essentialist perspective — that gender differences are part of God’s creation design and that men and women are essentially different. One’s God-given sex, Strachan argued, does define and determine how one should live.
“We cannot be whatever we want; we cannot make ourselves whatever we would wish to be,” he said. “Our body is not supposed to be whatever we make of it. Our frame is intricately woven. How different a perspective is that than a transgenderist perspective? Our bodies are woven by God, as with a beautiful loom of creation.”
Reading the creation story in Genesis 1 as formative for gender identity, Strachan argued that manhood and womanhood are both unique and intentional. The differences are not incidental, he argued, but part of God’s purposes in creation. Therefore, girls should be encouraged to be girls, and boys should be encouraged to be boys, he said.
“We, unlike the culture, are not asking our little boys to change,” he said. “Many boys simply need a father who takes notice of them, who throws his iPhone against the wall and gets on the floor and plays with his boy and doesn’t abandon his son. That’s what the church needs more of, I think, and that’s what the culture needs more of.”
Strachan strongly opposed claims that Paul’s theology of manhood and womanhood emerge from the apostle’s confusion regarding sexual orientation. Far from being bound by his time and culture, Paul was witnessing the very creation order of God, Strachan said.
“The apostle Paul isn’t behind the times. The Apostle Paul doesn’t need education. The Apostle Paul was a living apostle of Jesus Christ who died in the name of Christ. And I will trust a slain apostle before I will trust a blogger anytime.”
Strachan encouraged the conference attendees to hold firm to their convictions, leaning on their confidence in the provision and power of God himself.
“Know that God has not messed things up. The church is not a crisis PR firm, cleaning up the messes Jesus has made. That is not our role,” he said. “God does not need new PR; God needs people who will preach the truth in love.”
During his talk, Burk emphasized the human side of the transgender debate, urging that Christians should have a posture of compassion and love toward transgender people who suffer the effects of the Fall.
“How are we going to respond in the face of this kind of conflict? This is a very real challenge,” Burk said. “Our first response should not be outrage; our first response should be heartbreak.”
Christians should be sensitive to the pain and confusion transgender people feel when they experience a conflict between their perceived gender and their biological sex. Christians should long for their redemption, recognizing that surrendering biblical truth doesn’t lead to genuine wholeness, he said.
“We aren’t being loving, we aren’t being compassionate, we’re not leading them to Christ when we in any way diminish the authority of Scripture,” he said. “This is the Word of Life. When this Word speaks, God speaks. … We are not loving people if we lead them to a perspective on Scripture that goes that way.”
While popular opinion about gender continues to swing away from biblical teaching, Burk said Christians will continue to be reviled and mocked publicly by those who oppose a distinctly Christian worldview, which appears more strange and unusual at each stage of the moral revolution. The church’s faithfulness to Christ and his Word will be tested in unprecedented ways in the coming years, he said.
“For Christians to oppose those dogmas with the Word of God doesn’t just make us wrong, in the eyes of many it renders us haters and bigots and people who should be banished to the margins of polite society,” Burk said. “This is a real test for us because the stakes are so high.”
Following the three plenary sessions, Mohler, Burk, Strachan and James M. Hamilton Jr. professor of biblical theology at Southern Seminary, participated in a panel moderated by Lambert.
Using the oft-debated passage about women and head coverings in 1 Corinthians 11, Strachan argued Paul had strong categories for manhood and womanhood rooted in creation. Christians should encourage and cultivate God-given gender differences in their communities, Strachan said.
“We want to be very clear to transgender people that we love them, that we share common humanity with them, and every single person in here — the most conservative person in here — has to own being a man or a being a woman,” he said. “We all must choose that regularly by the Spirit.”
During the panel, Mohler suggested that even without Christian theologians speaking out against the transgender movement during a conference, the revolution would not continue unopposed.
“If we did not have this conference, if we just shut up,” Mohler said, “I don’t believe that those who are pushing the revolution would be at peace, because I don’t think it’s just us. I believe that the conscience in them is crying out, a knowledge that they cannot deny.”
ACBC is an evangelical organization that has certified biblical counselors for 40 years. The live stream for the ACBC annual conference on homosexuality is available at sbts.edu/live.