Several weeks ago I posted my final exam question for students in my Christian ethics class at Southern Seminary. Read the full question here. The short version is that Joan was born John, but has lived as Joan for thirty years. She has a daughter. She now is convicted of sin and wants to follow Christ. She’ll do whatever Jesus would have her to do, but she needs some direction from you, her pastor.
Now, before you start posting complaints, let me say that I’m using the name “Joan” and the female pronouns here simply as a literary device, to postpone the debate a bit as to whether this person is really male or female.
In class, I let my students bat around and debate one another about how this situation should best be handled, and then I weighed in. Here’s what I think’s at stake in this situation, and how a Christian ought to look at it.
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 (this isn’t an extent of the atonement debate, so save that one for later), 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 what we need the gospel for.
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). I think the account of our Lord’s interaction with the rich young ruler (Luke 18:18-29) is in order here, as well as his confrontation by the Syro-Phoenocian woman (Mark 7:24-30). In both cases, Jesus probed in order to bring forth, in the first case, a visible lack of repentance, or, in the second, a visible manifestation of faith. 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. Her daughter will either grow up with a “mother” who has deceived her all life long about the most basic aspect of who she is, and what their relationship is, or she will go through the trauma of discovering her Mom is actually her Dad.
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’s creation is good, and he 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 createdness. Part of the freedom that comes in Christ is his recognition that he is a creature, not a god, not a machine, not a freak.
This means that the pastor should, in his role as an undershepherd of Christ, start speaking to Joan as “John,” and identifying him as “him.” This will seem strange and discordant to Joan. Of course it will. What is going on in this person’s life, however, is what goes on in every Christian’s life. We’ve put on a “new man,” crucifying the old way (Eph 4:21-24). We are a “new creation” with the past done away with (2 Cor 5:17). We have a “new name” (Rev 2:17) that seems strange and mystifying, with an extended family we have to learn to love and walk with.
Joan is not going to “feel” like John, and that’s okay. But the pastor must start ministering to him by helping him identify what peace looks like, what the destination is to which he’s headed. And that’s as a man.
Furthermore, the pastor cannot deceive his congregation. He doesn’t need to elaborate on every aspect of this person’s past (any more than he would with any other repentant sinner). But the church baptizes, not an individual, and the church must know the person being baptized. To baptize one created a man as “my sister in Christ” (whatever the baptismal formula used) isn’t doing justice to a God who speaks the truth.
That’s only the start of the ethical and pastoral dilemmas erupting here. In the days to come, I’ll address what I think about what “Joan” should do with “her” daughter, about whether John should seek to undo the sex reassignment surgery, and how the church should be the presence to Christ to him in the aftermath of all of this.