About two weeks ago, a northern California pastor, Justin Hoke, posted a message to his church’s marquee. The Trinity Bible Presbyterian Church marquee reads “Bruce Jenner is still a man. Homosexuality is still sin. The culture may change. The Bible does not.”
I’m appalled that the pastor used the public sign to call out Jenner by name. The statements, while technically correct, alienate people who need the healing message of Jesus Christ. Pastor Hoke’s actions damaged the church’s message of redemption and restoration through Jesus Christ. The Bible says in Romans 3:23: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” As a fellow sinner, Pastor Hoke should apologize.
A similar thing happened to me when I was living as Laura Jensen, a female transgender, and looking for a church to attend. One pastor in southern California told me, “We don’t want your kind in our church.” Thankfully, however, not all pastors are ignorant in how to reach messy people, even the transgender-identified.
I had a life-changing experience with another pastor and his church in northern California, where parishioners were willing to love me through that very difficult time in my life. The pastor exhibited a refreshing perspective when I asked him if he was going to try to change me from Laura to Walt. He said, “It’s our job to love you; it’s God’s job to change you,” and that’s exactly what happened.
The leadership of that church now says that having me in their midst and getting to know my struggles was an amazing, once-in-a-lifetime spiritual growth experience for them, too. In that loving community of people, I found redemption and restoration of my male identity.
Pastors Need Information, Too
The church, as a complement to medical treatment, can play a vital role as a “spiritual hospital” where hurting trans people find a healing environment. But few pastors are equipped to understand the variety pack of difficult issues the trans-identified population brings to the church.
Some, like Pastor Hoke, see trans behavior as a sin issue and clearly signal that those people aren’t welcome. Others are open but need to learn how to approach transgender-identified people appropriately. Today’s church leadership could benefit from some information and education about the trans population.
For starters, “transgender” is an umbrella term that covers a variety of identities and behavioral motivations. The following list shows some of these for males (a comparable list exists for females):
- Crossdressers like to dress in women’s clothing in private, and are usually heterosexual.
- Drag queens are flamboyant cross-dressing men, often homosexual, who feature prominently in publicity photos of gay pride parades.
- Transvestites are crossdressers who get emotionally excited when wearing opposite-sex clothing in public. Some of these have a transvestic fetish disorder marked by excessive sexual arousal when crossdressing.
- Some people who identify as transgender are driven by an arousal-fueled behavior called autogynephilia, where men dress as women, stand in front of the mirror, and become sexually aroused at their own reflection.
None of these conditions benefit from social or surgical transition, yet I’ve heard from people in all these categories who were encouraged to transition. Afterward, often many years later, they ask me how they can get their lives back. That’s also the time when some will look for a church to get reacquainted with God.
The underlying issues can be complex. Often, the people who contact me have underlying coexisting mental disorders that should be properly diagnosed and treated, but usually aren’t. Many are suffering from childhood events such as sexual abuse, trauma, or being cross-dressed and affirmed. Some were bullied and beaten by classmates because they were different. Their gender distress is real, and these people deserve proper medical treatment, including psychological counseling to resolve childhood issues.
A resource for church leaders to better understand the reasons people fall into a transgender life and how they come to realize it doesn’t work for them is my new book, “Trans Life Survivors.” It contains emails from 30 people like me who left the transgender life, a section on trans children, the latest research, and resources for detransitioning.
It’s Hard to Be Trans, and the Church Can Help
The research that portrays presenting in a cross-gender identity, i.e., social and medical transition, as a positive and effective treatment is shaky and unsound, according to a 2004 review of more than 100 international medical studies regarding post-operative transsexuals by the British University of Birmingham’s aggressive research intelligence facility (Arif).
Arif warned “the results of many gender reassignment studies are unsound because researchers lost track of more than half of the participants. For example, in a five-year study of 727 post-operative transsexuals published last year, 495 people dropped out for unknown reasons.”
The Arif report points out the sad fact that, after assuming a cross-gender identity and surgically rearranging the genitals, “a large number of people who have the surgery…remain traumatized––often to the point of committing suicide.”
For those who remain traumatized after surgery, the church can provide a life preserver of hope. The church should be the place that takes hurting people in, encourages them to know God personally, and celebrates their stories of redemption and restoration. Instead, Pastor Hoke’s marquee message pointlessly pokes an accusing finger at Jenner.
A truth-telling, Bible-based church loved me back to wholeness as the man God created me to be. The leaders made a deliberate effort to get to know me and support me through all the ups and downs of the journey.
I don’t know if Pastor Hoke was suggesting Jenner is a homosexual man or if he wants to imply all transgender-identified people are homosexual, but I encounter this misconception often when I speak, so I want to take the opportunity to clear it up. Most of the men who transitioned to female and later wrote me for advice to detransition were attracted to women, i.e., heterosexual.
Gender dysphoria is about core identity: “Am I a man or woman?” Homosexuality is about sexual attraction: “Am I sexually attracted to men or to women?” Knowing that someone identifies as transgender reveals nothing about that person’s sexual preference. In my experience, a man who thinks he’s a woman is more likely to have the same sexual attraction as Pastor Hoke.
How To Minister To ‘Scary People’
My autobiography, “A Transgender’s Faith,” contains a chapter targeted to church leadership authored by Jeff Farrar, the pastor of the church that helped me. In it, Pastor Farrar shares how to minister to “scary people” in a way that is biblically sound and protects the church. He refers to them as “scary” not because they are scary, but because “their situations and experiences are so outside of ours that they scare us. We simply do not know what to do with them.”
Here is some of the wisdom Pastor Farrar shared from working with me, who presented as Laura in his church. The first step is to evaluate the person’s attitude toward God and the church—broken or defiant?
If the person who presents in a cross-gender identity is seeking a place of refuge from their broken transgender life and open to the Lord, then welcome them with open arms. The broken person, says Pastor Farrar, “needs to be encouraged, lifted up, gently pointed to the truth and urged to trust the Lord.”
In contrast, the defiant person “needs to be exhorted, confronted, even opposed by the weight of Scripture in the hope of pulling them back to obedience.” If they refuse and defiantly shake their clutched fist at God, claiming they have the right to do whatever they want in the church, the pastor has every right to take any and all necessary steps to remove the defiant person from the church, protecting other parishioners.
Determine What Kind of Church We Want to Be
Pastor Farrar shares honestly how having me—a man living and presenting as a woman—as part of the church was challenging to him and the other church leaders. Leaders like to be confident of having the answers. But a transgender person in their midst was uncharted territory, and they made mistakes.
Each leader had to find a deeper level of faith—seeking the Lord, depending on him, and obeying his direction. As a church, they had to put into action principles, such as love and grace, that until this point had simply been lofty-sounding words. The rubber hit the road. It was messy at times, and some members left.
Pastor Hoke’s tone in his marquee message seems harsh and condemning. In Scripture, Jesus gives an example of how the church is to treat people living in sin. The Jewish leaders brought a woman caught in adultery to Jesus. The Law of Moses said to stone her, and they wanted to see what Jesus would say.
The Bible says that Jesus wrote on the ground with his finger for a while and then said to them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” After a time, all her accusers walked away, leaving Jesus and the woman. He asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”
“No one, sir,” she said.
“Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.” (John 8:3-11 NIV). Pastor Hoke’s tone seems to mimic that of the Jewish leaders who approached Jesus, smug and self-righteous about catching the woman in her sin. Thank goodness my pastor didn’t project that attitude with me.
In retrospect, Pastor Farrar said the leaders had to decide what kind of church they wanted to be. They could have opted to play it “safe,” but instead they courageously chose to embark on a spiritual adventure that all now say was the greatest experience in their church’s life. It was also life-saving for me, the broken person needing refuge.
I pray that more churches let go of “safe” and choose to compassionately welcome those poor souls who mistook transition for treatment and need a supportive church family to show them God’s love, truth, and grace.