“There is one whose rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.” (Proverbs 12:18)
“Whoever guards his mouth preserves his life; he who opens wide his lips comes to ruin.” (Proverbs 13:3)
“Good sense is a fountain of life to him who has it, but the instruction of fools is folly. The heart of the wise makes his speech judicious and adds persuasiveness to his lips.” (Proverbs 16:22-23)
Though there are several approaches one could use to dissent from the lines of reasoning found in the Seventh-day Adventist Biblical Research Institute’s (BRI) statement regarding “transgenderism,” I will focus most of my argument on the faulty construction of its statement and the dangerous environment that any such statement creates. It would be possible to direct my critique from several directions, including those of modern science, biblical language, and translation of terms into modern English, as well as my personal knowledge of the lived-experience of a large number of trans individuals (something that seems quite obviously missing from the church statement). However, I have decided not to engage with the statement’s misappropriated reading of Genesis or the general misunderstanding of the basics of transition, genetics, or biology. Delving into all of the statement’s errors would require a great deal more space than is available here.
As noted, I have decided not to fully engage with the scriptural (mis)readings or the general lack of knowledge about the transitional experience, as expressed by the BRI statement, but I would like to make a few careful notes about some of the more fundamental errors. Firstly,as concerns the BRI’s scriptural grounds for its argument, while it is true that Scripture does not distinguish between sex and gender, this does not necessitate that transgender people be understood, as the statement has crudely worded it, “as being trapped in the wrong body.” This is widely understood as a misconception of the experience of gender dysphoria and does not accurately represent the segment of the population they pretend to be referencing.
Secondly, the choice of language regarding genital reassignment surgery (also referred to as “sex change” surgery and “sex reassignment” surgery) is important because it reflects what people think actually happens in such a procedure. Medically, it is not a reassignment or singular change of sex. It is a reassignment of genitalia. Human sex consists of far more than just genitals. It also is composed of chromosomes, hormones, neurological structures, and internal reproductive organs—things that vary even among people of the same gender.
Thirdly, it is impossible to ignore the incorrect description of intersex individuals which is lacking in the most basic facts. Intersex is a wide and diverse spectrum, rarely even diagnosed due to its often subtle or invisible symptom manifestations. To draw such a hard line between the experiences of intersex and trans individuals is unwise and shows a lack of education in this field of study. Furthermore, it is demonstrably false that most people born with ambiguous genitalia might “benefit from corrective surgical treatment.” Where such procedures are demonstrably beneficial to some transgender people, they are not for most intersex people. This fallacious flip combined with BRI’s choice to use “sex change” terminology over any other, more accurate, option, and its easily identifiable lack of information concerning the biological nuance of intersex and trans bodies, is a public display of the members' gross ignorance on these issues and should, in and of itself, be grounds to doubt their epistemic and theological authority on the matter. A basic Google search would easily provide updated, scholarly resources on this matter that could have corrected these essential errors. In addition, trans people of faith should have been consulted and/or should have been consulted better. This author knows, for a fact, that copious amounts of resources on this subject have been made available to the authors of the BRI statement, making the lack of research and respect for this subject matter wholly unacceptable.
A striking and revealing moment in the BRI statement says that “[w]hile the struggles and challenges of those identifying as transgender have some elements in common with the struggles of all human beings, we recognize the uniqueness of their existential situation and the limitation of our knowledge in such issues.” This admitted lack of knowledge on “such issues” should have been enough for the BRI to abstain from giving a public response, until it could demonstrate that members had at least an adequate understanding of both the wealth of scholarly work concerning trans and intersex bodies and gender dysphoria. Instead, the BRI felt that, even with an obvious lack of knowledge on the subject, a response was necessary.
This kind of bold decision, to speak decisively concerning members of your congregation whom they do not understand is a dangerous one. Ted Wilson was quoted in the BRI statement, saying, that “[t]he last thing we want to do is chase people away from Christ and the Church. We want them to come to the foot of the cross and His changing grace.” If this is truly the case, then there must be at least the slightest attempt to understand how this statement affects this already-marginalized segment of the church population. I agree that the church should be the safest place to have these kinds of conversations and should welcome believers into that space with open arms! But to believe that the BRI’s statement has paved the way for this kind of safety is misguided.
Let us consider our broader context first. A recent study reported that 21% of trans people identify as Christian. This is in drastic contrast with the 71% of the general U.S. population who identify as Christian. However, studies have shown that, within the wider LGBTQ+ community, trans individuals are more likely to call themselves spiritually engaged and interested. This drastic contrast should give us pause about just how cautious church leadership should be when approaching any kind of public statement about this segment of the congregation. Trans individuals have already been extensively abused by the Church (in particularly unchristian fashion), as is proven by copious historical documentation. Statements like the BRI’s only reiterate the same harmful tropes and misunderstandings to which trans people have already been excessively subjected. In short, it annihilates “peace and mutual upbuilding” as Paul exhorts us (Romans 14:19), not just because it fails to reach out and meet the intense needs of the trans population at-large or draw them into genuine conversation but also because it threatens to bring the world’s hostile opinion of trans people through the church doors and into the congregation. If the church proves itself no safer than the world outside, why would anyone wish to find sanctuary there?
At this point in our argument, it is important to address the actual work that is done by releasing any kind of statement like the one written by the BRI. It is unequivocally unwise to deconstruct and detail the “sinful” aspects of an individual’s gender identity (including the physical make-up and possible bodily “alterations” involved) in a situation which is arguably “in front” of a global audience. A trans individual’s dysphoric struggle and societal transition is one of the most difficult and personal experiences that a human being could ever be asked to experience. Thus, exposing and examining this intimate process leaves an already disenfranchised and neglected population, in a way, dissected and prone for the peering eyes of a curious congregational public.
When human beings are placed in these kinds of dehumanizing situations, the impulse is to “flee the scene” and find a safer space, an often wise solution to these scenarios. The church’s statement has exposed and sideline its trans church members in an inappropriate and painful way, a terrible idea if leadership’s true desire is to create a safe, welcoming, familial, and Christ-centered environment for all believers. It has proven itself an unsafe space in which to have this conversation as it is obviously unable to honor trans bodies, identities, and lived-experiences, let alone vocabulary or concepts. If the church is truly interested in engaging trans church members, displaying their personal struggles and publicly otheringtheir embodiment is not the way to do it.
What I find the most confusing about the church’s statement is how the church has, in effect, declared transitioned bodies inherently sinful. The logic and phrasing clearly communicates that any trans body having “undergone such a procedure” (here attempting to refer to genital reconstruction surgery) has acted inappropriately, even sinfully, and is in need of healing and/or repentance. To then follow this with a generic call to love everyone is an empty gesture because it has already set these transitioned bodies outside of the sphere of “accepted” engagement with the church. Growing up as a Seventh-day Adventist child and then through adulthood, I cannot count the number of times I heard (and even used myself) teachings about how “everyone sins, but continuing to sin after becoming aware of that sin is the real problem.” This rhetoric creates a church culture wherein a transitioned body is inescapably outcast: if the church knows that you are trans and have undergone any medical transition, then you will never be able to distance yourself from the body which it has deemed “sinful.” While certain aspects of transition can be “walked back” retroactively, most of them cannot, and none of them can do so well. Meaning that even if a transitioned body wished to “repent” of their trans identity and decided to medically transition back to their former gender identity, the marks of transition would remain on their body and relatively obvious to the observing public. This individual would never be able to be seen as a normative-bodied church member again, leaving the door open to gossip and inappropriate assumptions which would hinder their ability to work and abide peacefully in their church family. The church’s statement makes no attempt to bridge this gap in understanding or address the extremely dense layers of nuance surrounding bodies who have undergone any kind of transition. This bewildering oversight is unwise and, frankly, dangerous.
Even if we move this discussion of trans identity awy from the physically transitioned body and, instead, consider trans individuals who have not undergone any medical transition and are just beginning to deal with their dysphoria, the BRI statement continues to show negligence. For these individuals, the church’s argument makes “coming out” and admitting trans-ness to friends, family, or pastoral leadership a dangerous and highly scrutinized act. The fear associated with the potential community blow-back of this admission encourages trans believers to remain in denial, in “the closet.” This is a very dangerous position because history, psychology, and life experience has proven the fact that closets kill people. Setting up a structure in which “obvious” or “observable” sin (such as a body in transition or performing non-normatively for any number of reasons) is what limits a believer’s engagement with, and respect from, the church dangerously threatens to eventually put all of the congregation in the closet because hiding is easier than being judged. The BRI statement is one more step down the path to slowly closeting its congregation, and that is terrifying. I serve a God who came to earth to bring life and to bring it more abundantly. If the Adventist church wants to reflect Christ’s service and love in its congregations, then setting up a structure which makes closets the most attractive option is dangerous both spiritually and (for trans and other members of the LGBTQ+ community) existentially. I would like to see the church at least attempt to do better.
It is important for our discussion to mention the global increase of violence (both physical and otherwise) against the full spectrum of trans people. In broader society, framing trans bodies as outside the scope of normative human identity has placed them in a dehumanizing space which leaves them prone to violent acts and even a denial of their human rights. Every trans person I know has experienced some form of violence due solely to their trans identity, and a few have even died because of it. I am not meaning to suggest that the Adventist church is necessarily oblivious to the struggle of trans people, but to admit that trans lives are daily at stake in the world and then to create official church doctrine that makes them even slightly unsafe in their home (church) is an unwise move for a church which claims to do the work of Christ. I am also not suggesting that the Adventist church is a place where a trans individual is likely to be beaten or brutally hazed, but I think that it should carefully define some terms, specifically ones pertaining to othering and violence. Violence is not inherently physical and not always obvious to us. The Oxford English Dictionary states that having violence done to you simply means that you have been damaged or adversely affected, meaning that we can be violent to each other in the subtlest of ways. To make this point, let us examine a portion of the BRI statement:
The Bible commands followers of Christ to love everyone. Created in the image of God, they must be treated with dignity and respect. This includes transgender people. Acts of ridicule, abuse, or bullying towards transgender people are incompatible with the biblical commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31).
This comment is lacking multiple levels of proper interrogation, the most obviously significant being a proper definition of the following terms: “ridicule, abuse, or bullying.” At face value, we accept that these are unacceptable actions, and we would all encourage our children, friends, and church members not to ridicule, abuse, or bully anyone. This is not Christ-like, and we know it. But there is a subtlety with which all of these things can be regularly performed against trans and othered bodies in a church power system. For example, leadership positions, such as deacon/deaconess, Sabbath School teachers, or any roles that place one on the church platform, are commonly denied to LGBTQ+ church members. To deny these members the ability to serve and use their gifts—fulfilling their call and feeding their souls—is a violent and painful act. To be denied your role in a faith community for reasons that do not directly relate to your ability to serve or to your spiritual gifts is hurtful, not to mention illogical. This situation is compounded when the denial from positions of service is due to the appearance of your body which you cannot escape (as we discussed earlier).
Let us not pretend that involvement with church leadership and doctrine requires a perception of holiness which, due to the church’s declaration of the sinful state of a transitioned body, cannot be attained by any such body. This means that a transitioned body, regardless of education, gifting, or demonstration of ability, can never be seen to hold authority on matters of theology, faith, doctrine, or practice. This sets trans people aside from the general Christian or Adventist population, deeming them, in effect, illegitimate. The act of declaring a believer’s faith illegitimate is a bold and brazen act, whether it is done by leadership or lay individual. To make this kind of judgment call requires the firmest of beliefs in one’s own spiritual authority—arguably an ultimate authority which borders on blasphemy.
Please be sure that we have no delusion that transgender people (or anyone else other than Christ) are without sin. However, we, as a church family, cannot deal with our sin appropriately if those who are ordained to help us refuse to remove the log in their own eyes (Matthew 7:5, Luke 6:42). Even the smallest of children can understand that engaging in a conversation without the most basic levels of general knowledge or vocabulary on the subject is a pointless, even embarrassing, course of action which should be avoided whenever possible. If the leadership of the Seventh-day Adventist church or the Biblical Research Institute wants to gain an understanding of the lives of trans people across the globe and within their church, we are here and ready to engage in the conversation. But if the church wishes to remain in the dark about the lived-experiences and current studies on trans individuals, then it should also remain silent on the subject as it clearly does not comprehend the harm it is doing.
The use of the term “transgenderism” is inappropriate and uninformed. This is outdated terminology and makes it very hard to take the authors seriously, due to the obvious lack of education on the subject.
For simplicity and clarity’s sake, I will use the term “trans” to refer to any individual identifying on this spectrum and will use more specific terminology when necessary. For more information regarding the use of the term "trans," see the following resources:
“Transgender Terminology." National Center for Transgender Equality. National Center for Transgender Equality, 26 Feb. 2016. Web. 27 Mar. 2017.
"Why We Used Trans* and Why We Don’t Anymore." Trans Student Educational Resources . Trans Student Educational Resources , n.d. Web. 7 Apr. 2017.
"What does the asterisk in “trans*” stand for?" It's Pronounced Metrosexual. N.p., n.d. Web. 7 Apr. 2017.
James, S. E., Herman, J. L., Rankin, S., Keisling, M., Mottet, L., & Ana , M. (2016). The Report of the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey. Washington, DC: National Center for Transgender Equality.
I want to make clear that I, in no way, believe that this is a necessary action or that any transitioned body need repent for its actions. This example is being used only to make a point about the BRI’s grossly negligent statement about the bodies of trans people.
Campaign, Human Rights. "Violence Against the Transgender Community in 2017." Human Rights Campaign. N.p., 22 Mar. 2017. Web. 25 Mar. 2017.
Divan, Vivek et al. “Transgender Social Inclusion and Equality: A Pivotal Path to Development.” Journal of the International AIDS Society 19.3Suppl 2 (2016): 20803. PMC. Web. 25 Mar. 2017.
The author is currently a graduate student and published academic with extensive study in the areas of Biblical Studies, Theology, Gender Studies & Sexuality, Philosophy, History, Education, Cultural Studies, Critical Theory, Representation Theory, and Biblical Languages. In addition to these specific areas of academic study, the author is an avid consumer of the most current peer-reviewed and academic publications which pertain to transgender and intersex studies in the areas of Psychology, Theology, and Biology. The author has spent extensive portions of their life in various church service and leadership positions, including pastoral roles, local and overseas mission work, evangelical work, chaplaincy, worship ministry, Biblical Education, and counseling. The author is also a transgender individual on the biologically intersex spectrum and, therefore, speaks out of both personal experience and general knowledge of the wider LGBTQ+ community.
If you would like to contact the author to discuss this subject further, you are welcome to do so using this email: trans.SDA.firstname.lastname@example.org
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