What would a Christian conversation about transgender look like?

(Photo: Pexels/FrancescoUngaro)

I am treading on eggshells, I realise. To talk about transgender issues is to touch upon a hugely sensitive matter.

And yet the invitation of Jesus Christ to repent, believe the gospel, take up our cross and follow him is a call which touches on every area of life, including this one.

As a society we find transgender issues difficult to discuss. A combination of ignorance, prejudice, dogma and hysteria from some quarters and on all sides of the debate, mixed with social media, is a toxic brew. But as Christians we should be able to do better.

For if discipleship touches on issues such as transgender, it also affects how we talk about such things. And yet we, too, struggle: ongoing controversies in the Church of England demonstrate this only too clearly.

So what would a distinctively Christian conversation about transgender be like? How would it be markedly different from the Twitter and Facebook sideswipes, the shouting down of opposing views, and the retreat into online echo chambers of the like-minded that seems to characterise much of the way our culture debates this issue?

1. A different way of speaking

You've heard it before, of course, but familiarity does not lessen its importance. It's the words of James in the New Testament: 'Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desire,' (James 1v20).

How many of our comments on Facebook, Twitter or in person during discussions would be held back if we all remembered these words?

I was one of those who recently attended a meeting with bishops to talk about some of the issues arising from their recent guidance on transgender matters. One of the things we were keen to raise was the nature of the debate – and, in particular, how public discussion is often highly emotive in tone, and fails to engage with the points being made. Name-calling doesn't help advance anyone's views. We were pleased the bishops at a recent meeting shared our concerns about this.

2. A different understanding of identity

In much contemporary debate, 'identity politics' trumps almost anything else. We define ourselves by our sexuality, or our bodily desires – or, in other contexts, by our race, or our views on Brexit. But for Christians, our identity is different. As one of those walking in Washington in the recent 'Freedom March' of Christians speaking from personal experience on issues such as transgender put it: 'Our identity is not in our sexuality; it is in Jesus Christ.'

John Wyatt, a Professor of Ethics at University College London, describes the Christian view of self as an 'art restoration view' – we are masterpieces made in the image of God, yet battered and marred by the primeval fall of humanity. As redeemed Christians, we are in the process of being re-made and restored. We were not what we were, and yet not what we shall be.

This means, then, that our personal experience, although relevant, cannot be accorded a decisive role in discussions about this or any other ethical issue. All our experience is marred by human sin in some way, shape or form. This should lead to a certain humility in discussion, and in the presentation of our own experience as part of it.

3. A different worldview

All the differentials that should mark out a Christian discussion about transgender are, of course, products of a completely different worldview to that of our prevailing western culture. The shocking EllaOne advert for a 'morning after' tablet now on UK television exemplifies a non-Christian view of ethics: 'This body is mine,' the narrator says. 'What I'm doing right now is the right thing for me, because it's my future: I am my own master. It's my life. My rules.'

But for Christians, of course, it's completely different: 'Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honour God with your bodies,' (1 Corinthians 6v19-20).

That's because we are not our own master, and life is not lived by our own rules. Christ is our Lord and master, and we live by his rules and under his authority, not our own.

And, as the influential church leader John Stott said: 'Scripture is the royal sceptre by which King Jesus rules his church.'

This means that a Christian conversation about transgender is shaped first and foremost not by our own experience, or prejudice, but by the Bible.

Of course, the great history of church thinkers and leaders can and should help inform our understanding of the Bible, as indeed can contemporary scientific research. St Augustine rebuked those who interpret Scripture while ignoring science, declaring: 'We should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn.'

And that brings us back to the first point. Because apart from anything else it seems to me that in failing to be 'slow to speak and quick to listen' on transgender issues, the Church of England, among other bodies, has rushed into an ethical minefield and embraced a particular strand of contemporary transgender ideology without proper consideration of Scripture, tradition, and, indeed contemporary science, which is far from settled on this issue.

A paper by the secular Swedish National Council on Medical Ethics (SMER) just a few weeks ago highlighted how much scientific work remains to be done, for example in relation to children and transgender issues: 'When SMER have discussed ethical questions around gender dysphoria, gaps and uncertainties in the knowledge we have on the subject has been a central theme.'

And it concludes: 'A prerequisite for ethical analyses is that the knowledge about and experience of gender dysphoria care are gathered and collated in a systematic fashion.' There needs to be more rigorous questioning about some of the 'scientific' claims being touted in public, as a recent detailed analysis of such set of claims highlights.

So what does a Christian conversation about transgender look like? It is slow, thoughtful, Biblical, conducted under the Lordship of Christ rather than the authority of our own opinions, and it is informed by contemporary science – which is still at a relatively early stage as it continues to gather research on this subject.

The conversation is not over. There is much more to be said. We need to keep talking. In a Godly way.

David Baker is a former daily newspaper journalist now working as an Anglican minister in Sussex, England. Find him on Twitter @Baker_David_A

CORRECTION: The original article referred to EllaOne as a pregnancy termination tablet.  EllaOne does not terminate pregnancy but works by delaying ovulation, preventing an egg from being released so it will not come into contact with sperm.