Given that transgenderism is such an important, unavoidable, and sensitive matter, I am grateful that Vaughan Roberts has taken the time and thought to write a helpful starting piece on the topic. Transgender is the first in The Good Book Company’s new Talking Points series, a collection of short reads designed to help Christians think, talk and relate to others with compassion, conviction and wisdom about today’s big issues. Vaughan is Rector of St Ebbe’s Church, Oxford, and he generously took the time to answer a few questions about the book and why he’s written it:
Vaughan, you’ve written many books over the last decade. Tell us what led you to choose this particular subject and to invest time and energy in writing Transgender?
It seems like transgender has become a huge issue in no time at all. There have always been people who struggle with gender identity—but now it’s become not simply private concern, but a massive public issue. We were finding lots of people at our church were grappling with it—how to relate to friends who are transitioning, how to talk to kids who are getting confusing messages at school. They just didn’t quite know what to think or how to respond. I saw a need to help people think biblically from a perspective of clear conviction but also biblical compassion and love.
It’s especially important for church leaders to be proactive on this issue. With any pastoral issue, if someone says, “Look, please could you help me on this?” You can’t really reply, “Actually, can you give me six months because I haven’t really thought about this issue before?” One of the reasons I wrote this book is to help people at least get a basic foundation of the Bible’s perspective. The book’s very simple, so there’s a long way to go beyond what’s in it—but I hope it might be a starting point. Then as leadership teams we can begin to discuss how we would respond if this situation occurred or that question was asked.
Of course this isn’t just a ‘topic’. This is about real people. As a pastor, how have you had to work through your own response to those experiencing gender dysphoria? And what might you begin to say to someone for whom this is a reality?
As you say, the first thing to remember is that this is a human being—so we’re not relating to someone with an issue, we’re relating to someone. So as I interact with them, most of the time we won’t be talking about gender. I’d try to relate to someone as normally as possible and just love them! That’s the starting point.
Beyond that, it would very much depend on my relationship with a person. If I hardly know them then it would be strange to talk about something so personal as their feelings about gender. If the relationship is much closer then it may well be something we talked about—and then again what I say will depend whether I’m talking with a Christian or a non-Christian.
If they’re not a Christian, their first need is to hear the gospel. I’d want to say that there is a God who made us and who loves us very, very much. But he takes seriously the fact that the world isn’t as it should be. The Bible is not saying there’s one group of people who’ve got issues—we’ve all turned away from God and the result is we’re all messed up. But God loves us so much that he sent his son to rescue us and put us back in relationship with him—and he’s promising a world in the future when everything is going to be put right. If we put our trust in Jesus and his death on the cross, the Holy Spirit will come into our lives and begin to change us. More and more we can know what it means to be truly human—alive in relationship with God.
I guess some people might say that transgenderism is something that the Bible writers didn’t really know anything about – and so the implication is that the Bible is out-of-date on this matter and has nothing relevant to say. What would your response to that be?
A lot of it comes down to identity. Identity is one of the huge issues in our culture at the moment: Who am I? Increasingly our culture has defined identity by what I feel and think about myself. But that leads to real identity confusion and anxiety, because if I am who I feel myself to be, that’s pretty fragile! And I’ll always be worried about whether that fits with what you think I should be. Transgender comes down to the question, Who’s the real me? What my body says I am, or what I feel myself to be?
But the Bible has got hugely significant things to say about identity. Identity is not something I’ve got to find for myself. It’s given by God—who made me and loves me. I’m created in his image. The Bible says I’m a bodily human being—our bodies matter, because God made the material world. And if we are Christians, our identity is as men and women in Christ. The Bible offers a wonderfully solid identity—but it’s one that we need to communicate with sensitivity.
Vaughan, thank you for your time. Finally, what are your hopes and concerns for the wider church as we minister amidst our culture in the years and decades to come?
I think that when we see huge cultural changes and what’s going on in the media, there’s a danger we respond to the issue—and forget that behind the issue are people, created by God, and who are often hurting very much.
The other danger is that we respond emotionally. I think the old traditional response was an instinctive “Yuck!” response—“we can’t cope with this, we don’t like what’s going on”—without really thinking it through. Our world has gone completely the other way and is instinctively saying, “Yes! Whatever people want or feel, we’ve got to affirm that.”
I’d like to see the church avoid both. We need to respond with clear conviction. The Bible says that biological sex is not a thin veneer that’s just being painted over us—we are human beings who are male or female. But equally we need to show real compassion to people created by God—our first response to transgender people should be one of warm, loving welcome.
Transgender is not intending to be a comprehensive perspective, but it is an excellent starting point. Given the paperback is currently retailing for £2.54, don’t let me stop you from picking it up from the publisher here right away! You can also download a free discussion guide, as well as watch the promo below: