John Pouchot has been in the pastorate 16 years. But it was only within the past three years that he first encountered a family dealing with transgenderism.
Pouchot, pastor of Petsworth Baptist Church in Gloucester, Va., led a man to Christ, and his extended family began attending the church Pouchot pastored at the time. As Pouchot got to know them, he learned the man’s high school-aged niece didn’t feel at home in her body and wanted to be a boy. Despite his counsel to the girl’s parents, she underwent hormone therapy, changed her name to a traditionally male name and began presenting herself as a boy.
The girl continues to live as a male, and the parents remain committed to supporting their daughter’s transition. Pouchot continues to have a relationship with them, and he’s convinced churches must prepare for ministry to transgendered individuals and their families.
“When we know an individual or family is dealing with this and comes into the body of Christ,” Pouchot said, “they don’t need to be shunned or talked about. They need to be loved on. That doesn’t mean we’re going to allow them to join the church [without being saved and repenting of their sin]. That doesn’t mean we’re going to embrace the sin. But we must embrace the individual in the same way God embraced us in our sinfulness.”
Estimates of the U.S. transgender population vary. The Williams Institute’s estimate that .3 percent of the population identifies as transgender suggests at least 950,000 Americans perceive their gender identity as not matching their biological sex. While public policy challenges surrounding this reality may have drawn more focus, pastors and Christian mental health care professionals feel the transgender population is also a mission field.
That call for ministry is in keeping with a 2014 Southern Baptist Convention resolution on transgenderism which “affirm[ed] God’s good design that gender identity is determined by biological sex and not by one’s self-perception” and expressed a commitment to “love our transgender neighbors [and] seek their good always.”
Gender dysphoria is the technical term for the condition of not feeling at home in one’s God-given body in terms of gender. Evangelical pastors and counselors generally agree that sin occurs when people with gender dysphoria act on or fantasize about their urges to identify with the opposite gender and thereby rebel against the gender identity God has given them.
Brad Hambrick, pastor of counseling at The Summit Church in Raleigh-Durham, N.C., said that gender dysphoria is analogous to same-sex attraction in that both generally involve unwanted feelings. But he said the two conditions are “more dissimilar than similar” even though they are grouped together in the acronym LGBT, short for “lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender.”
“Homosexuality is more about attraction and romance,” Hambrick said. “Transgenderism is about self-perception and identity.” He added that many homosexuals argue, “I was born this way,” while individuals with gender dysphoria tend to argue, “I was born wrong.”
Churches and pastors should assume, Hambrick said, that people who are “humble,” “open-handed” and struggling against gender dysphoria are “suffering, not sinning.” While never encouraging a person to embrace a gender identity other than the one God has given, he said, pastors should work with Christian mental health care professionals to help people with gender dysphoria “alleviate the stress of the dysphoria they experience.”
Often, simply talking with a struggling person and listening to their story will provide relief, Hambrick said.
“Not having an immediate next answer may feel a little frail and helpless to the pastor,” he said. But “that is the kind of [response] that [can lead a struggling person to] say, ‘You get me.’“ People struggling with gender dysphoria tend to think, “If at the end of me talking you had an answer, it would be harder for me to believe that you really understood what I was going through.’“
Psychologist and author Mark Yarhouse said that when talking is not enough to relieve gender dysphoria, a Christian minister’s goal should be to help the struggling person avoid sin while managing their dysphoria “in the least invasive way possible.”
One of the most invasive options, gender-reassignment surgery, is viewed even by some secular researchers as an ineffective way of relieving gender dysphoria.
Psychiatrist Paul McHugh wrote in the Wall Street Journal in 2014 that 70-80 percent of children reporting “transgender feelings” “spontaneously lost those feelings.” A Swedish study cited by McHugh found that a decade following gender-reassignment surgery, “the transgendered began to experience increasing mental difficulties,” including an increase in suicide mortality rate 20 times higher than the comparable non-transgender population.
How to repent
In cases where feelings of dysphoria lead to the sin of embracing a transgender identity, repentance of the transgenderism does not necessarily coincide with cessation of the feelings, Yarhouse said in written comments.
“For most people who identify as Christian and who believe the gospel and wish to follow Christ, salvation has not meant deliverance from gender dysphoria. For most people for whom the dysphoria has persisted into adulthood, this is an enduring condition, so I don’t think it is helpful to equate salvation or sanctification with the removal of conflict in this area,” said Yarhouse, director of the Institute for the Study of Sexual Identity at Regent University and author of the book Understanding Gender Dysphoria.
Denise Schick, founder or Help 4 Families Ministries in Ashland, Ky., a ministry focused on helping those battling gender dysphoria, noted Christians should never think transformation is impossible for people living a transgender lifestyle. She has seen hundreds of transgender people saved and has walked with many of them through the journey of learning what their faith in Christ requires.
God’s grace “is sufficient,” Schick said. “The answer to anybody and everybody, whatever they struggle with, is Jesus Christ.”
The first step to biblical restoration is to admit sin and ask God for forgiveness, Schick said. After that, there should be an effort by transgender individuals to transition back to embracing their God-given genders “as much as they possibly can,” including appropriate dress and cessation of hormone therapy.
When cost is not prohibitive, some repentant males who have undergone gender-reassignment surgery choose to have some surgical alterations reversed, Schick said. Others attempt to conceal them in non-surgical ways. Females may not have the same medical issues but still need “healing of the root issues.”
Hambrick said a person turning from transgenderism should be “as willing to take bold steps in following Christ as they were in taking steps to come to peace with their dysphoria. But if there are not viable options that have a reasonable probability of success, I would not want them to feel compelled to do something that is medically foolish.”
Formerly transgendered individuals who have chosen to embrace their birth gender, Hambrick said, should engage in “candid conversations” with their pastors and doctors about medical options to mitigate the effects of gender reassignment surgeries or hormone therapies.
Some repentant transgender individuals enter biblical marriages, Schick said, though previous surgical body alternations at times limit the sexual aspect of the marriage. Others who have repented of transgenderism opt not to marry.
Hope for healing
Professional counseling may be necessary for some people repenting of transgenderism, but not all, Schick said. She urged believers struggling with gender dysphoria – and all believers in general – to seek accountability and healthy relationships within a local church.
Above all, Schick counseled pastors and churches not to give up on evangelism to transgendered people or discipleship to Christians who wrestle with gender dysphoria.
Many formerly transgender men and women have experienced “healing in their lives because of their willingness to give up self and come to” Jesus, she said. “Nobody on this earth could tell me there’s no hope and no healing for transgenderism.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – David Roach is chief national correspondent for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention’s news service.)