“When you wish upon a star,
Makes no difference who you are;
Anything your heart desires
Will come to you.”
In the 1940 film Pinocchio, Jiminy Cricket sang those famous lyrics to a woeful little wooden boy who wanted to become something different. The tale is touching. In our day, however, people no longer apply such inspirational messages in traditional ways. “Anything your heart desires” has been hijacked.
In ways that Walt Disney could not imagine, such slogans now inspire people to surgically remake themselves. Witness the spread of “transgender” identity, in which men seek to become women and women seek to become men. In 2015, this is no extraordinary occurrence. It is an increasing trend and a major worldview challenge to the Christian church.
How Should We View the Body as Christians?
The creators of Pinocchio, of course, did not have “transgender” individuals in view when they made their famous movie. They simply wanted boys and girls to dream big. As the West has lost its Judeo-Christian moral constraints and its traditional vision of manhood and womanhood, we have embraced a radical individualism. This mindset has created what theologian R. Albert Mohler Jr. has called a “culture shift.”
Radical individualism casts off all moral restraints in order to achieve maximum personal happiness. In my book Risky Gospel, I call this mindset Narcissistic Optimistic Deism.1 “I can do whatever I want,” many people think, “and God exists to make all my dreams come true.” This perspective has influenced how many people view their body. The body is not made by God for His glory. It is a blank slate upon which we may draw any identity, any self-expression, we choose. Use it, abuse it, do whatever you want with it. This is a neo-pagan idea.
We see the profound tension between God’s design and Satan’s attacks on this design.
The Bible teaches a very different perspective. Our manhood or womanhood is not incidental; it has been given us by God as a gift. We inhabit our God-created bodies as vessels of delight, temples of the Holy Spirit, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 6:19. Our sexuality points to what theologians call “complementarity.” Men and women are one “kind” (1 Corinthians 15:39), but we are not the same. This is true in several respects. As Scripture indicates and common sense shows, men and women are different anatomically. Adam named his wife “woman” because she was distinct from him, a man (Genesis 2:23). Only a man can provide the raw material by which to procreate; only a woman can bear children and nurse them.
Non-Christian scientists have recognized the bodily differences of the sexes. Anne and Bill Moir, for example, note that men have on average ten times more testosterone than women.2 Studies show that women use a vocabulary that is different enough from men’s to be “statistically significant.”3 We are distinct emotionally, too. The Scripture gives voice to this reality when it calls godly husbands to treat their wives as the “weaker vessel” and challenges fathers to not “provoke” their children (1 Peter 3:7; Colossians 3:19). These and other patterns constitute the markers of our manhood and womanhood. Our differences, as is clear, are considerable. They are also God given.
We complement one another. This owes to God’s original design. He created Adam, but there was not a “helper” fit for him (Genesis 2:18). So the Lord in His kindness and wisdom made Eve. She instantly delighted Adam when brought to him. “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh!” he cried (Genesis 2:23). Her womanhood did not escape Adam; it captivated him.
Satan has always tried to usurp the created order. He took the form of a serpent to entice the man and woman (Genesis 3:1–7). Adam was called to exercise dominion over animals, and yet an animal mastered him in the Fall. Adam was the head of his wife, but he relinquished his headship when he allowed Satan to tempt his wife, and when he let his wife lead him to eat the forbidden fruit. While she was duped about the consequences of her rebellion, she knowingly led her husband into this sin of disobedience. This is a portrait of her rejection of God. The Lord indicted Adam for his failure to lead Eve by asking him, “Where are you?” indicating that Adam had responsibility to spiritually protect his wife. He failed in this holy task, however, paving the way for Eve to disobey God. Adam’s failure led to Eve’s, and both of them were held guilty by the Lord.
The just curse he pronounced on their humanity had spiritual and physical consequences. Both of them lost eternal life and brought the judgment of eternal death on the human race. Their bodies, given to them to glorify the Lord, would now bear the marks of fallenness in gender-specific ways. Adam’s work of provision was cursed, as the ground would now fight him as he worked it. Eve’s childbearing was cursed, as what was meant to be a beautiful process became a painful, even life-threatening, one.
The sexes were also put in competition, and Eve, the Lord said, would now have a desire for her husband. This word is also used in Genesis 4:7, where God tells Cain that sin’s desire is for him, which means that evil is seeking to master and rule over him. So the woman will now seek to lead and dominate her husband. When we listen to Satan, pain and brokenness follow, and the gender roles laid out for us in Scripture are undermined and attacked.
We see the profound tension between God’s design and Satan’s attacks on this design.
We see the profound tension between God’s design and Satan’s attacks on this design. The Lord created man and woman and gives them specific roles to play for His glory; Satan targets man and woman and induces them to upend God’s design. God orders and structures; Satan tears down. God brings life; Satan destroys it. These tragic patterns are as old as the earth. They are not new, but they do morph with the times.
Western culture is making good on this rebellion. It denies the distinctness of divine creation; it tears down the uniqueness of the sexes; and it rebels against the lordship of Jesus Christ. The wisdom and design of God is rejected, and the Word of God, in sum, is reviled.
How Does Our Culture Now Think of the Body?
Over the last 50 years, American Christians have watched as our society has fashioned a brave new order for itself. Feminism and the sexual revolution have transformed the American home. Many men have lost any sense of responsibility for their family. They’re tuned out, passive, and self-focused. Many women feel great tension between their career and home. They are told by secular lifestyle magazines to pursue perfect “work-life” balance, but it’s hard to find. Increasingly, the sexes are in competition. These troubling developments represent phase one of the transformation of men and women.
Phase two is the spread of the homosexual movement. Led by celebrities in the 1980s, the homosexual movement built off of the momentum of the feminist push and the sexual revolution. It sought to mainstream homosexual behavior. Men and women, it assumed, were not different in any meaningful way. The moral constraints of the biblical worldview had already been cast off. Romantic love was not subject to any shape or design. It was just a feeling. As such, it had no duties, no covenantal dimensions, and no enduring commitment. If it persisted, great. If the feeling of love died out, then the relationship died with it.
In phase one, gender roles were recast. In phase two, romantic love was recast. In phase three, the body itself is recast. “Transgender” ideology is grounded in the idea that the body isn’t an essential part of our being (a viewpoint known as essentialism). Our “gender identity” is fluid, a social construct that can change. We may well be a man trapped in a woman’s body, for example; our identity does not necessarily match our body. In such instances, many “transgender” people opt for reconstructive surgery so their identity fits with their body (an essentialist view, ironically).
This trend is building momentum today. The show Transparent has received prominent placement on Amazon Prime, with a lead character embracing a transgender identity. Minnesota high schools took action at the end of 2014 to allow transgender children to play on either boys’ or girls’ sports teams—whichever they choose. In Maine and California, students identifying as transgender can use whichever restroom they desire. Celebrities promote this viewpoint in their own homes, with leading film stars Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie publicly encouraging their daughter Shiloh to call herself “John” and dress up in boy’s clothes. The new way to approach the body is to see it as an art project, a means of self-expression, rather than as the creation of the divine mind and a means of God-glorification.
It should be clear to Christians that this latest phase of our culture’s shift away from the Judeo-Christian worldview is a major one. We are witnessing the undoing of the most basic realities of God’s created order. In such a climate, what should we do? Let me suggest four responses on the part of Christians.
What Christians Can Do Today: Four Suggestions
First, we should recognize that we are witnessing moral anarchy, as Western nations abandon all semblance of biblical authority. There is nothing more essential to our lives than our manhood or womanhood. Our culture is embracing transgender identity and is thus uprooting the very structure of our bodily existence. To reject this reality is to embrace chaos. Untold numbers of boys and girls will be harmed by doing so. Most significantly, God is not honored or obeyed.
The rates of suicide among transgender people show the brokenness this choice causes. Paul McHugh, former Johns Hopkins University psychiatrist in chief, has noted in the Wall Street Journal that the suicide rate among transgender individuals is 20 times higher than in the normal population.4 Embracing transgender identity at the cultural level does not produce happiness and wholeness. It goes hand in hand with personal confusion and disorder.
Second, we should celebrate the beauty of God’s creative design. The Christian church and the godly family should be a festival of happiness. We should rejoice that God in His sovereign wisdom has opened our eyes to see that He has made us according to His perfect design. Manhood and womanhood aren’t Plan B. God Himself has made us as we are. We are the pinnacle of His creation.
A visceral response to sin must never quiet our instinct to show mercy to lost people.
God’s creative work is undermined across the board today. Even in evangelical settings, it is increasingly acceptable to teach that humanity isn’t really that special. Adam and Eve weren’t literally the first man and woman, but merely selected from a group of hominids to represent humanity. The Bible speaks a “better word” than this (see Hebrews 12:24). A secularizing, darkening world seeks to demystify the human body. God and His Word dignify it, showing us that our bodies were made not only for utility, but for worship. Christians celebrate the beauty of the body, and of manhood and womanhood, for we see that we owe our form to divine design.5
Third, we should recommit ourselves to training our children. The bodily differences between men and women are real. They speak to differences in our makeup, specifically designed by our Creator. In practical form, we must teach these differences to our children. They must see that being a boy or a girl is a matter of God’s glory. There should be no shame in boys liking boyish things or in girls adopting girlish behaviors. Christians should encourage this kind of awareness. Many parents will find that their children genuinely enjoy being a boy or a girl, a future man or a future woman. We should regularly remind our kids that it was God who made them as they are. We should encourage them to embrace and assume manhood or womanhood.
When we do so, we’re imitating the pattern of wise biblical parents. “Be strong,” David said to his son Solomon, “and prove yourself a man” (1 Kings 2:2). Parents cannot guarantee the godliness of their children, of course. Solomon clearly chose to exhibit his manhood in sinful ways. But we can shepherd our children and exalt the goodness of manhood and womanhood.
If we do not teach our kids about gender and sexuality, we can be assured that our unbiblical culture will. The culture-makers who disobey the Scripture are persuasive, forceful, and eager to indoctrinate our children. Fathers and mothers must recommit themselves to training their children in the scriptural worldview so that children do not embrace the cultural one.
Fourth, we should reach out in compassion and call for repentance. We must reach out to those cursed by Adam’s Fall just as we were. We may feel a visceral response to sin and its effects, but this response must never quiet our instinct to show mercy to lost people. Transgender individuals will be increasingly common in our neighborhoods and communities. We have a choice: we can sinfully avoid them, or we can seek to reach out to them in kindness and conviction and evangelize them (see Matthew 9:10–13).
Conversion for transgender individuals will not be neat and clean. It will be messy. It will involve the recognition that sin has corrupted us in every fiber of our being (Isaiah 64:6). But the gospel is stronger than sin. Christ’s death washes us clean, and Christ’s Resurrection gives us life. The Resurrection raised Christ’s spirit even as it renewed His body.
Pastors should preach on the implications of the Resurrection for all people, including transgender ones. Coming to faith has profound implications for our bodies. For people who have embraced a transgender identity, repentance will mean embracing their God-given gender and rejecting whatever sinful identity they have chosen.6
The talking animals of Walt Disney films and pop culture have charmed many of us. But a Disneyfied concept of narcissistic self-determination has not done us any favors. The culture has offered us a false gospel, one that approves of all we do, leaving us to pursue anything we desire.
The scriptural gospel is far better. It makes sense of our humanity. It restores our dignity. It calls us to be men and women who see our body as a gift, a vessel by which we may give glory to our Maker and Redeemer. This may sound too good to be true, but the church exists to make one thing clear: this is no fairy tale.
It is the message of Scripture, and the hope of us all.