I met Ella when she was 16 years old. She is a biological female. She looks athletic and was involved in several sports at her high school in a small, rural town in South Carolina. She and her parents came for an extended consultation. All identified themselves as Christians.
As a family, they were longtime members of a local church. Ella’s mother was a hairstylist and exuded warmth and Southern charm. Ella’s father was reserved and polite. Both expressed dismay at their daughter’s claim that she was born the wrong sex. They did not know what to make of her statements that she was a boy.
In a private meeting with Ella, I was talking to her about theories about the etiology of gender incongruence. At one point I shared, “I don’t think you chose to experience your gender incongruence. It sounds like you found yourself with these experiences of incongruence at a fairly young age, and that your experience of dysphoria has increased in recent years.”
The creation story points to an experience of alignment between sex and gender that she does not experience.
She was stunned. I asked her about her blank expression.
Ella shared, “My mom and dad have taken me to three pastors: our pastor and two other pastors he asked us to talk to. All of them said that I chose this — that I was sinning. All three said that this gender thing was a sign of my disobedience. You are the first person I’ve talked to who said I didn’t choose to feel this way.”
How do we take our theological understanding and apply it to pastoral care, ministry, and/or the provision of services to someone like Ella? How are we to understand her gender incongruence? I think a more accurate theological consideration is that her incongruence is one particularly complex expression of the fallen world in which we all live.
The creation story points to an experience of alignment between sex and gender that she does not experience — and may not experience this side of heaven. That alignment I am referring to would not be a fixed and rigid stereotype that few could live into, but I tend to think of that alignment as quite broad and flexible with significant diversity that the world has seen within any number of cultural contexts and varied definitions for gender roles and expression.
It is hard to fully understand the nature of the fall and how it has affected Ella. It has been suggested that there are separate dimensions of sexuality, such as the physical anatomy, hormones/endocrine system, social role, sexuality, and gender identity. We may have to discuss Ella’s gender incongruence with some humility about how the fall has touched some of these dimensions, as well as what it means for her to respond to gender incongruence in a way that decreases her dysphoria. Further, we will have to think about how the church will be a redemptive community and resource to her.
A third way is to name meaning and purpose in all of our reality (including suffering) that is in need of redemption.
As we think together about redemptive themes for Ella, should one of these dimensions of sexuality and gender be considered more “important” or weighted more in our discussions about gender dysphoria? Those who struggle the most to understand the strong psychological sense of being the opposite sex often give more weight to what seems to be happening deep within their mind than to other facets of sexuality and gender.
Also, our understanding of redemption is very much tied to our understanding of the fall. What we do not want to do is suggest that because experiences of gender dysphoria are not as God intended from creation that Ella has a forced choice between celebrating a diversity paradigm at the expense of integrity of creation (the integrity framework) or embrace the integrity paradigm at the risk of gender diversity being rendered meaningless — as merely an unfortunate form of suffering that will ultimately be erased in eternity. A third way is to name meaning and purpose in all of our reality (including suffering) that is in need of redemption.
What is true about the integrity paradigm and what is true about the diversity paradigm is brought together for the Christian in the redemption of Christ. Identity is found in brokenness, as a friend of mine who has experienced, and continues to experience, gender dysphoria has shared:
Suffering in Christianity is not only not meaningless, it is ultimately one of the most powerful media for the transmission of meaning. We can stand in adoration between the cross, and kneel and kiss the wood that bore the body of our Saviour, because this is the means by which the ugly meaningless atheistic suffering of the world (the problem of evil) was transmuted into the living water, the blood of Christ, the wellspring of Creation. The great paradox here is that the Tree of Death and Suffering is the Tree of Life.
This central paradox in Christianity allows us to love our own brokenness precisely because it is through that brokenness that we image the broken body of our God — and the highest expression of divine love. That God in some sense wills it to be so seems evident in Gethsemane: Christ prays “Not my will, but thine be done,” and when God’s will is done it involves the scourge and the nails. It’s also always struck me as particularly fitting and beautiful that when Christ is resurrected His body is not returned to a state of perfection, as the body of Adam in Eden, but rather it still bears the marks of His suffering and death — indeed that it is precisely through these marks that He is known by Thomas.
Ella’s experience of gender dysphoria is not a reflection of things not being as they were originally intended to be but also not a surprise to God in terms of God’s omniscience and sovereignty. Is it too much to say that it is in this context of suffering that both meaning and identity are found?
As we think about how redemptive themes are being written in and through each of our lives, we have to demonstrate great pastoral sensitivity in these encounters. Also, to become a redemptive community, the local church will have to be a place of grace and maturity.
Taken from Understanding Gender Dysphoria by Mark A. Yarhouse. Copyright (c) 2015 by Mark A. Yarhouse. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515-1426. www.ivpress.com
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