What is Man? A response to “John, Joan, and Jesus”

by Bill Ballantyne and Jeffrey Hoffman

a symbol of hope for gender diverse people

In the fourth century BC, Aristotle argued that a woman was merely the fertile planting ground in which the male seed, containing all the ingredients needed to produce a human, grew. If the “heat” of a man’s semen could overcome the “coldness” of the woman’s body, a male child would form; in instances of failing male dominance, a female (of lesser value) would form.

Historically, a multitude of “abnormalities” in babies were thought to be the curse of God. In fact, in ancient Israel, those born with or acquiring defects, deformities, or illnesses were denied access to the temple area.  Babies born with both male and female genitals were thought to be mythical.

We don’t know much about “abnormal” births historically because medical records weren’t kept until the 1800s. The little we do know and can find in various documents informs us that when babies were born with genitalia neither fully male nor fully female, they were categorized as “monstrous births.” The “monsters,” it was believed, were sent by God as a divine warning and judgment on immoral behavior, such as a mother having “unclean and unnatural” sex during her menstruation. After all, God created only male and female, and the “monster” was surely God’s punishment. — Kathy Baldock, Walking the Bridgeless Canyon, Chapter 8 “The Myth of a Pink and Blue World” (the audio chapter is available for free online download)

On November 4, 2015, Dr. Sam Horn, Bob Jones University’s Vice President for Ministerial Advancement and Dean of the School of Religion and the Seminary, delivered a chapel sermon as part of the school’s chapel series on the topic “What is Man?”

Horn’s sermon, “John, Joan, and Jesus” attempts to address “the heart of who we are”, i.e., one’s identity, and more specifically, one’s gender and sexual identity.

Even at the outset, there are problems, as Dr. Horn appears to use the terms gender identity and sexual identity as synonyms. In contrast, the term sexual identity as it is commonly used in the biological, medical and social sciences refers to “how one thinks of oneself in terms of whom one is romantically or sexually attracted to” (Wikipedia) whereas the term gender identity is defined as a personal conception of oneself as male or female (or rarely, both or neither)” (Medscape). When entering a conversation about a topic surrounded by controversy, it’s important to use accepted terminology correctly. Dr. Horn does not.

Horn asks the students to imagine themselves a few years down the road, living their lives away from BJU. They’ve befriended a single mother, Joan, who has an adoptive daughter, and invited her to their church. He then has them imagine Joan’s heart opening up to the Gospel as she becomes more involved in church activities, and then in a private conversation, Joan reveals that she used to be John. Composing a response to Joan’s surprise revelation is the approach Horn takes in addressing those he describes as “trying to figure out what their God-assigned gender is.”

Is Horn speaking about everyone who has “gender issues?” No. He is quite clear that he is not referring to those “who really do have issues…that happen to them at birth…an abnormal development of tissue” or “a physical abnormality.” He is referring to those with “normal functioning biological bodies that are clearly identified in one gender or another.”

Where does one start with the inherent problems of Horn’s description of “gender issues”? And what do we make of those who experience them [in his mind] legitimately, versus those who make them an issue [because they want to, which is implied]? He never addresses the state of those with “tissue problems” or physical “abnormalities.” And why would he? They are far better at bolstering the argument that gender is not binary, and certainly more convincing than his own arguments used to reinforce his complementarian rhetoric (which occurs later in the sermon). Just as the fundamentalist’s favorite phrase “the Bible clearly says” is in reality fraught — there are many topics on which the ambiguity of the ancient texts is anything but clear — so also is “clearly identified gender” anything but clearly identified: “Intersex anatomy doesn’t always show up at birth. Sometimes a person isn’t found to have intersex anatomy until she or he reaches the age of puberty, or finds himself an infertile adult, or dies of old age and is autopsied. Some people live and die with intersex anatomy without anyone (including themselves) ever knowing” [ISNA.ORG]. Brain anatomy (something you definitely can’t see without expensive specialized equipment and which doesn’t necessarily affect how your body parts work or look), research has shown, is likewise involved in determining one’s gender quite apart from one’s genitalia.

Horn admits there is a “thorny question” that needs an answer: “Who gets to determine a person’s gender and sexual identity…do we decide or does God assign?”  He admits that Jesus will arrive and “fix everything”, but until that time comes, he insists that we need “guidance.”

“How do we proceed?” Horn asks. And for the remainder of the sermon he attempts to answer that question.

First he addressed the manner in which we proceed – how should we speak to Joan?

  • Speak lovingly and compassionately [is this even possible when you don’t understand the terminology, much less the biology, involved? How does a Bible professor who has no scientific qualifications to speak about the current and ongoing biological and medical research in the science of gender, no personal experience of gender dysphoria or living as a trans* person either pre- or post- transition, and no clinical experience as a medical practitioner in treating trans* patients enter such a conversation speaking instead of listening?]
  • Speak truthfully [this is not the “truthfully” most of us recognize, decoded, this of course means what “the Bible clearly says” followed by whatever you think (or BJU tells you) it says. Again, there is a presumption that the Christian who has no experience of someone else’s life or particular circumstances has both the duty and the right to make categorical judgments about it based on their cursory reading of Scripture.]
  • Speak redemptively [Jesus will make everything right. We just have to obey Him. It's the unreflective "Do Right" approach -- you just have to decide that your assigned gender isn't up for debate and "do right" -- remember, if the "equipment works", that's your "God-assigned" gender. But when Jesus spoke of gender variant people in Matthew 19, is this the rhetoric that he employed? Have we acknowledged that it isn't God who assigns gender at birth, but rather it is medical doctors, imperfect human beings, who make those determinations, usually based on a cursory examination of the newborn patient's external genitalia, and seldom based on chromosome analysis or a thorough examination of the patient's internal anatomy, and most certainly not based on a brain scan and brain mapping, a relatively new field of medical research?]

Now that we have the “correct” attitudes, Horn asks “What should we actually say?” 

“Remind them God created and designed the idea of gender.” Horn’s reasoning is that men and women are God’s “image bearers” and are of equal value to God. He mentions that Galatians 3:28 (“there is neither male nor female”) is showing us that God values both genders equally, even though they have different roles, of course. [It seems to us that Dr. Horn completely ignores and actually subverts the explicit ideas in this passage that everyone, regardless of whatever earthly (aka biological) or religious or social distinctions they might have, is equally in need of salvation, and, as the Rev. Darren McDonald has pointed out, “the effect of this is not to take away these categories but to eliminate the hierarchical divisions that privilege one over the other and offer only one group access to the innermost part of God’s temple,” and the promise that those who clothe themselves in Christ are heirs, through Christ, of God’s promise to Abraham. Moreover, Horn’s complementarian assumptions which prejudice everything else he says, while currently very popular among conservative evangelical theologians, are not a clear scriptural teaching. As Dr. James Brownson has observed “Contrasting streams regarding patriarchy appear already in the creation accounts of Genesis 1 and 2, especially when we view those texts in their wider canonical context… Genesis 3: 16 portrays patriarchy not as grounded in creation, but in the conflicted relationship between men and women resulting from the Fall… This tension between patriarchal and egalitarian streams continues throughout the canon.  (Bible, Gender, SexualityChapter 4 “Patriarchy”)]  Bob Arthur, former assistant dean of men at Bob Jones University, in his book The Sex Texts: Sexuality, Gender, and Relationships in the Bible, also explores the implicit Intersex depiction of God in the Hebrew texts of Genesis: God’s Image is “[male and female];” the brackets denoting the inseparability of those words in the original language.

There is a dangerous implication in Horn’s statement and interpretation of this verse from Galatians, and unless you are a trans* or intersex person, you might have missed it: if God values male and female identities equally but “assigns” them arbitrarily and solely through genital anatomy, what is the value of those whose experience of themselves doesn’t fit neatly into that gender binary? Horn doesn’t explicitly say transgender, intersex, or “abnormal” people are less valued, but that’s what a trans* student sitting in the audience might be compelled to think. “I am less than.” “God doesn’t value me.” “I have no place in God’s plan.” Is it any wonder than that trans* and gender variant people experience higher rates of self-harm and suicide? Lisa Maurel, a licensed therapist who specializes in counseling transgender patients, describes the life of transgender evangelicals, in this SafteyNet blog post, specifically:

 “the lifelong trauma that can result from religious based rejection and the impossible dissonance that it creates within the psyches of queer evangelicals. The result of this dissonance is an often lifelong process of reconciling the contradictions derived from rigid dogma with the lived experience of being.”

This is why BJUnity maintains that Bob Jones University is currently not a safe place for LGBTQ students, faculty, or staff. The chapel rhetoric (often violent, and frequently triggering) exacts a dangerous toll on the listener whose life is so categorically othered by idle and ill-informed words; and the mundane mendacity of forced compliance to idealized stereotypes wounds the soul when one’s survival is dependent on vapid and inauthentic presentation of self. Theological systems that do not engage science are ill-equipped to offer Biblical explanations for naturally-occurring biological phenomena that don’t meet misinformed preconceptions about how bodies and brains — a part of those bodies, after all — are formed in the womb.

BJUnity’s Rev. Sr. Elena Kelly addressed the science of gender variance from a scriptural perspective for us three years ago in her post “A Transgender Nun on Gender Non-Conforming Theology.” Sr. Elena was Bob Jones University’s first “preacher girl,” and she offers insights from within the standard hermeneutical practice at BJU — which is not the only scripturally-faithful hermeneutic, to be sure, but one which will be familiar to many of our readers.

Horn finishes the “talking points” for Joan, telling us that we need to say

  • that our gender “is assigned at conception” [he ignores that all fetuses are female in early pregnancy] , that the “theological purpose” of gender is “to fill up the earth” [via God's institution of holy matrimony and the children it produces] [again leaving intersex and trans* individuals with no hope of a fulfilling life of love and family]
  • that “God’s redemptive purpose” is that He intends to “fix everything”  [i.e. your "gender confusion"] through the work of the Messiah, which is why, in Deuteronomy for example, “God prohibits ‘misuse’ of our gender identity” calling it an “abomination” [he gives examples such as wearing clothes of the opposite gender, etc] [Again we have another statement that causes damage in the listener: “I am broken. I need to be fixed. Maybe I can’t be fixed? I am an abomination.”]
  • that God has a “future plan” and there is “hope for the struggle”, and that He will “restore everything that has been broken”. [“See? I am broken. The preacher just said so.”] [Never mind the false hope this gives. That if you follow the plan, if you wait long enough, everything will be OK. If it isn't "no doubt the problem is you."]

Horn ends the sermon with what he describes as what he would say to Joan:

“Joan, the Gospel…changes everything…and that includes things like our gender brokenness…and the Gospel frees you to live authentically…as God designed us to live”

This is a particularly dangerous statement — it mixes some truth (the Gospel changes everything) with lies (I am broken), and furthermore, it co-opts the words live authentically,  something you’ve probably heard (and read, even here in our stories)  as describing the new state of being one experiences after coming out. Living authentically is the last term many of us in BJUnity would use to describe our lives living in the closet in the bubble of BJU and fundamentalism. Living authentically is what happens when you stop pretending to be something or someone you are not. For gender variant people, this usually means shedding an uncomfortable conformity to externally-imposed gender stereotypes.

In conclusion: on the one hand, we’re glad to see Bible professors at BJU attempting to engage modern life and modern realities; but on the other hand, we have to point out that there are many trans* Christians whose lives and stories deserve to be acknowledged and engaged in conversations about gender variant people and the church’s response to them. Instead of viewing people who are gender divergent as “unsaved others,” which seems to be a reflexive, default stance at BJU toward anyone who is divergent from perceived norms, an honest discussion of these topics (gender dysphoria might correctly be termed an issue, but its medical resolution is gender transition for dysphoric people, so being transgender is not itself an issue) would engage actual gender variant people in discussing their lived experience of being. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Bob Jones University were to invite some of the numerous gender variant alumni and students to share their stories with the University family in a conversation that involved respectful listening to the experience of gender variant people, folks like Sister Elena or Blair Durkee? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if BJU were to invite a transgender Christian author like Lisa Salazar to discuss her book Transparently: Behind the Scenes of a Good Life with their ministerial students, instead of giving them a set of pat talking points that don’t even acknowledge trans* identities or the experiences of trans* people who follow Jesus?

Dr. Horn, if we befriended somebody named Joan who had a 10 year-old adopted daughter, and who felt comfortable enough around us to let down their guard, and reveal the very private and personal truth of being transgender [something you've completely missed in this little hypothetical mental exercise], this is what we would say:

“Joan, you are a brave person. You are perfectly and wonderfully made. You are not broken. I’m honored that you felt safe enough to come out to me. I’m glad that you are living the life you know you need to live, and that you are living it authentically. As a parent myself, I know you are going to experience so much. Enjoy it all, it goes by so quickly. And if you ever need help, let me know. I don’t have the all answers, but I can listen. I want to be a friend who supports you. I will be happy to help you find the resources and support that you need. Would it be okay for me to give you a hug?”

Postscript: Last week, Calvin College, another conservative Christian college, hosted a thoughtful discussion called “Male, Female and Intersex in the Image of God” with Lianne Simon an intersex woman, and Megan DeFranza, a theologian. We commend Calvin College for entering into this conversation in a way that included a gender diverse individual sharing her story and a theological approach that highlighted both humility and wonder in grappling with profound questions. You can view that conversation here, and we highly recommend watching it: