Gender Dysphoria and "Practical Application":

A Rejoinder to Mark Yarhouse

 

by Robert A. J. Gagnon, Ph.D.

Aug. 28, 2016

 

I just recently realized that First Things had posted on Nov. 15 a response ("Understanding Gender Dysphoria: A Reply to Gagnon") by Mark Yarhouse, a professor of psychology at Regent University in Virginia, to my Oct. 16 critique ("How Should Christians Respond to the Transgender Phenomenon") of his Christianity Today article ("Understanding the Transgender Phenomenon"). Mark is a good man. I did not then, and do not now, make any character attack. As I stated in my article, "Yarhouse would certainly prefer that persons with gender dysphoria make peace with their biological sex. He thinks counseling should be directed to 'how best to manage gender dysphoria in light of the integrity lens' and advising persons with GID to explore their other-sex desires 'in the least invasive way possible.'"

 

However, having said that, I still disagree with his view that in church meetings (and elsewhere) we should address a man who thinks he is a woman by his chosen female name and use feminine pronouns, and a woman who thinks she is a man by her chosen male name and use masculine pronouns. According to Dr. Yarhouse, “it is an act of respect, even if we disagree, to let the person determine what they want to be called.” I view it as a scandal to the church, an accommodation to sin that God finds abhorrent, and a complicity in the offender's self-dishonoring behavior that does him no favor.

 

I also don't agree that the church should allow in church meetings those with transgender desires “to identify with aspects of the opposite sex, as a way to manage extreme discomfort." I cannot support Dr. Yarhouse's theological conclusion that "faithfulness" to Christ and how one manages "gender dysphoria" are two entirely distinct matters. Dr. Yarhouse contends that “redemption is not found by measuring how well a person’s gender identity aligns with their biological sex." I would rather say, based on my reading of Jesus and Paul (and Scripture generally), that while redemption is unmerited, an active pursuit of a "transgender" life would be at odds with minimal standards for repentance, faith, transformation, and a claim to "faithfulness" to Christ.

 

As I noted in my initial critique: The church’s complicity in sexual delusion benefits no one, least of all the offender. It is possible to be sensitive, gentle, and loving without forcing the church to act as if the lie is the truth.

 

Dr. Yarhouse attempts to deflect my main critique in three ways. First, he discredits my perspective by noting (correctly) that I don't have a ministry counseling persons with gender identity disorder. "While Gagnon is strong on exegesis, I wonder how much experience he has providing direct services like pastoral care and counseling to families of gender dysphoric persons. We need to combine exegetical clarity with practical application." I agree that we should "combine exegetical clarity with practical application." However, I don't agree that we should adopt a "practical application" that is fundamentally at odds with "exegetical clarity" and theology.

 

The problem with his retort is, based on what we know of the two greatest pastors in the Christian tradition, Jesus and Paul, it is historically unimaginable that either would have consented to using female names for men or accommodated to men dressing or styling themselves as females. The same could be said for the rest of the apostolic witness, the Church Fathers who followed, and the Great Reformers. With all due respect to Dr. Yarhouse, I just don't think his view of pastoral application trumps theirs.

 

When Paul dealt with the case of the incestuous man in 1 Cor 5, three practical concerns were paramount, none of which I thought Dr. Yarhouse gave adequate attention: the effect on the salvation of the incestuous man, the effect on the community as a whole, and the effect on the God who redeemed them (whose wrath the community now may incur). With regard to the second, hear what Paul says: “a little leaven leavens the whole lump of dough” (v. 6). Advising the church to call a birth male a female name and to accommodate to his cross-dressing is a scandal to the church as a whole. It advises people to violate conscience not just over matters that don't affect the truth of the gospel (abstaining from idol meat in 1 Cor 8-10) but over matters that do.

 

Paul undoubtedly would also warn the man (appropriately, in a spirit of love and not "shouting"; perhaps not immediately but soon), that "soft men" (men who actively feminize themselves to adopt a female persona) will not inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor 6:9). Dr. Yarhouse's complaint, it would seem, is not with me but with the Apostle to the Gentiles, Paul. Granted, Dr. Yarhouse, unlike the Corinthians, does not want the offender to continue in his offense. However, he accommodates to a degree that no early church leader of which I am aware would have ventured.

 

Second, Dr. Yarhouse tries to deflect my critique by attempting a reductio ad absurdum, claiming that my approach would require every "greeter for the church" to "somehow screen for and gather the names given at birth of those who are visitors and who may be gender dysphoric." That is emphatically not what my position requires at all. Obviously if a greeter doesn't recognize that a man attempting to pass as a woman is really a man there is no fault in the greeter addressing the man by a female name. A deception has taken place.

 

It is an entirely different case when a man (who still looks like a man) comes in wearing a dress and high-healed shoes, with female eye shadow and makeup, and hair styled like that of a woman. What Dr. Yarhouse must address (if he wants to avoid sidestepping my critique and to answer directly) is how the church should handle these clear-cut cases. It would seem, according to Dr. Yarhouse's own arguments, that he believes that "respect" and "graciousness and hospitality in our interpersonal exchanges" require that we both address this man by his chosen female name and accommodate to his continued coming to church in such female attire. It is this approach that I believe is counterproductive and an offense to the gospel.

 

Dr. Yarhouse's third means of sidestepping my critique is to pose this ambiguous example: A biological female who still uses a female name (Jenna) who manages her gender dysphoria "by how she dresses and wears her hair." Dr. Yarhouse asks:

 

"Is Jenna committing a moral offense though her acts by managing her dysphoria through her expression of gender within our cultural norms and expectations for gender roles and expression?"

 

Well, if she is managing "her expression of gender within our cultural norms" of what it means to be a female, why should that be a problem? I don't have a problem with that. As Mark himself notes, "Of course, as a woman, she has more latitude in how she dresses and wears her hair, whether she wears make-up, her leisure activities, and so on." Dr. Yarhouse also cites the example of "a biological male ... grows his hair out longer or wears light make-up." Since our culture doesn't perceive long hair as an attempt at feminization (not since the Beatles anyway) that would not be an issue; "light make-up," if noticeable, might be a different story. 

 

By using these ambiguous examples, Dr. Yarhouse deftly avoids responding to my critique, for he puts no limitations on addressing a person by a name that doesn't correspond to one's birth sex, nor on the degree to which the church should accommodate to cross-dressing and other aspects of cross-gender identification. How far does this "respect" and "graciousness and hospitality in our interpersonal exchanges" go before the "integrity lens" gets thrown out altogether?

 

In short, Dr. Yarhouse ignores in his response the obvious cases that are most inconvenient to his recommendations: circumstances of obvious scandalizing cross-genderism in the church. This amounts to sidestepping the main critique of my article. He also sidesteps the following questions that I raised:

 

"How far should Christians following Yarhouse’s suggestions go? For example, can a man who feels that he is a woman use the church’s restroom for females?

"Can he expect the church to respect his choice of romantic partner, whether a woman (in a pretend lesbian relationship) or a man (in an actual homosexual relationship)?

"Can he even compel the pastor’s performance of his marriage ceremony to either sex, claiming that otherwise he will feel estranged from the church?

"And what if the offender has children distressed and confused by his wrong choices? ... In allowing those with transgender desires 'to identify with aspects of the opposite sex,' even at a church service, won’t the church be contributing to the distress and confusion of [the offender's own] children?"

 

Dr. Yarhouse states: "Gagnon assumes that I am a proponent of the disability framework" and that I don't give him his due for drawing on a second category: Integrity (for which he cites me as a proponent; his third category is Diversity, full affirmation of transgenderism). That is inaccurate.

 

I stated clearly that he believes the Integrity lens should "inform our pastoral care." Yet he gives priority to the Disability lens when he insists (in his words) that we should "allow for cross-gender identification in a way the integrity lens does not," i.e. in using names and accommodating to dress and style fully incompatible with birth sex. He also encourages us not to connect dishonoring one's birth sex with matters of redemption and faithfulness. Thus I believe it accurate to say, as I did, that Dr. Yarhouse appears to "operate with a descending scale with Disability at the top and Diversity at the bottom."

 

Finally, I do not think it appropriate to attack so-called "culture warriors" who are courageously doing what they can in the political sphere to prevent the state from imposing its coercive affirmation of "transgenderism" on the rest of us, compelling us to allow men to use female restrooms, to permit men to participate in female sports, and to use names and pronouns inconsistent with birth sex. The problem in the church today is not too much political response to such coercion but too little. The church can and should do more even as it reaches out in love to those who actively pursue a gender identification at odds with their birth sex.

 

I am in agreement with Dr. Yarhouse's reformulation in his response that we should not "focus exclusively on politics" and ignore "adequate pastoral care." What I was concerned about was Dr. Yarhouse's original formulation in which he appeared to be dismissive of vigorous efforts at protecting our religious and civil liberties. Dr. Yarhouse says that he is for "cultural engagement" but does not provide any further specifics that would explain his previous dismissive comments.

Dr. Yarhouse is a wonderful Christian brother who has done fine work and helped the church in numerous ways. He is a psychologist. It is not unusual for psychologists, even Christian psychologists, to err sometimes in the direction of accommodation as a means of helping clients to manage stress levels. It is my personal opinion that in the area of "transgenderism" he takes the accommodation a bit farther than he should.

In saying this I recognize that those who experience intense gender dysphoria find it very difficult to manage cross-gender desires. The church should be sympathetic to the difficulty and grant forgiveness freely when the offender sins and repents, no matter how often the offense. That is the way of Jesus, the way of the cross.