Joan or John? A Dilemma in Christian Ethics
Christian theology is about cleaning up after a suicide.
What I mean by that is that biblical doctrine exists not simply as a set of abstract, propositional truths, but as a war plan. What we learn from Scripture is that the entire created order exists in the midst of a vast conspiracy – one where the “god of this age has blinded the minds of the unbelievers” (2 Cor 4:4). The task of theology, and by extension pastoral ministry, then, is to show how the gospel itself peels back the veil of this conspiracy and calls people into the life of the One who rights every wrong and conquers the tyrannical regime of this age.
With each new generation, though, the wreckage of sin manifests itself in the lives of the people to whom we minister in new and different ways. And pastors must be prepared to apply the gospel to new and different situations. Take the scenario following as an example.
A 50-year-old woman named Joan has been visiting your church for a little more than a year. She approaches you after the service on Sunday to tell you that she wants to follow Jesus as her Lord. As you meet with her and ask if she’s repented of her sin, she starts to cry, “I don’t know,” she says. “I don’t know how. I don’t know where to start.”
Joan doesn’t know where to start because Joan wasn’t born as Joan. She was born as John.
Early in life, Joan felt like “a woman trapped in a man’s body.” At age 20 she began the process of “transitioning” from life as a man to life as a woman, undergoing extensive hormone therapy and plastic surgery – including so-called “gender reassignment surgery.” For the past 30 years now, Joan has lived – physically and socially – as a woman. To complicate matters, 10 years previous to this Joan adopted a little girl named Clarissa, who only knows her as “Mom.”
“I want to do whatever it takes to follow Jesus,” Joan tells you. “I know the sex change surgery was wrong. I know that my life is twisted. I’m willing to do whatever Jesus would have me to do to make it right,” she says. “But what would Jesus have me to do? I want to repent. I just, I don’t know how to do it.”
This is the type of question to which pastors must be prepared to give a gospel response. We know, of course, that no sinner is “too messed up to repent and be saved.” But what does repentance look like in this situation?
The first issue is the gospel. Christ Jesus came to save sinners. The Lord Jesus offered up his life as a sacrifice for this person, and his bloody cross and empty tomb are enough to reconcile any sinner, including this one, to God. The pastor should abandon any sense of revulsion because Joan’s situation is “weird” or “perverted.” All sin is weird and perverted. The fact that any of it (especially our own) seems “normal” to us is part of why we need the gospel.
The second issue is repentance. Repentance is necessary for salvation, as is articulated in the gospel message throughout the Scripture (Mark 1:15; Acts 3:19; 17:30). The message Joan has heard is the same message every Christian has heard, “Come, follow me.” The pastor wishes to know, as he would with any sinner, whether she’s counted the cost of doing so. At the same time, the pastor ought to know there is no simple solution here. Whatever Joan does will leave havoc in its wake.
My counsel would be, after discerning that Joan is truly trusting in Christ (and it certainly appears that she is), to make sure she understands that part of the sin she’s walking away from is a root-level rebellion against the Creator. God does not create generic persons but “male and female,” in his own image (Gen 1:27). In seeking to “become” a woman, John has established himself as a god, determining the very structure of his created-ness. Even though Joan is not going to “feel” like John, the pastor must start ministering to him by helping him identify what life and peace looks like for him – as a man.
To respond to the question as to whether “Joan” should go reverse her so-called “gender reassignment” surgery, my answer is no. First of all, no surgery can reassign gender. The surgery mangled John and sought to create an illusion of a biological reality that isn’t there. There is no way that this surgery can be “reversed.” Additional surgery would only compound the problem. He should see himself as the equivalent of a biblical eunuch, someone wounded physically by his past sin, but awaiting wholeness in the resurrection from the dead. He should, though, stop taking the female hormones, allowing his body to revert to its (relatively) natural state. The issue for John is one of honesty: presenting himself as a man.
The issue of how to deal with Clarissa is, admittedly, the most difficult part of this puzzle.
First, let me say that I’m aware that “Joan” becoming “John” will wreak havoc on her daughter’s life and psyche. I think such havoc will be unleashed either way, and honesty at this point is less destructive than continuing an illusion. The question, at this point, is not whether the daughter will have a normal life or a traumatic one. The question is whether the people of Christ will be with her through the trauma.
I would counsel Joan to tell her daughter at an appropriate (but not unduly delayed) time, which will be difficult and will call for much time and involvement from the congregation, particularly from John’s pastor and many godly women who are willing to spend hours with Clarissa. This will be a slow, painful process, but, in the end, worth it for the sake of the gospel.
Even though John’s presence in your congregation will probably mean that some Pharisaism will emerge, his life in the congregation can be a visible signal of the mercies of God. This means the church should, immediately upon receiving John as a repentant sinner, announce that his sin (not in part but the whole!) is nailed to the cross of Christ, buried with Jesus, and obliterated by his resurrection power. This means any ongoing gossip or judgment of John’s sin or John’s past is itself violence against the gospel and will be disciplined as such.
When I have mentioned to people that I have asked this same hypothetical Joan/John question to my classes, I’ve typically had two kinds of responses. Some Christians have said things along the lines of, “I’m glad I’m not in your ethics class! That question is hard!” Others though have said, “You know, that very situation happened in my church.” We’re going to have more and more so-called “transgendered” persons in American society, as the culture around us changes.
If Joan comes to your church this Sunday and hears the gospel, if “she” decides to throw away everything “she” knows and follow Christ, will your church be there to love him, and to show him how to stop pretending and to fight his way toward what he was created to be? Maybe it would take a Joan at the altar call to make us question whether we really believe what we say and what we sing. Is there really power, wonder-working power, in the blood of the Lamb? Is our gospel really good news for prodigal sons, even for sons so lost they once thought they were daughters?