What is transgender? And how can Christians think both biblically and compassionately about transgender people? Scott and Sean interview author Preston Sprinkle about this issue. Sprinkle provides clarification on some important terms, such as "intersex," and also offers some practical advice for how Christians can approach the transgender question both personally and publicly.
Sean McDowell: Welcome to the podcast, “Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture.” I'm your host, Sean McDowell, professor of apologetics at Talbot Theological Seminary, Biola University.
Scott Rae: I'm your co-host, Scott Rae, professor of Christian ethics, dean of the faculty, also at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University.
Sean McDowell: Today, we have a guest who you're probably familiar with if you followed a ton of cultural, social issues, in particular related to the LGBTQ question. You probably recognize the name Preston Sprinkle. He's written a wonderful book called People to Be Loved, and what we most appreciate about this book is that Preston brings a real commitment to Scripture and theology, but also to loving people. And you've said over and over again, Preston, this is not an issue, it’s about people. So thanks first for your ministry, but also for coming on the podcast.
Preston Sprinkle: Hey, it's great to be on. Thanks for having me on, you guys.
Sean McDowell: You bet. Well, we've got a lot of questions, and we're going to really focus on the transgender question, but let me just start with your personal story. What has motivated you really to care about LGBT people?
Preston Sprinkle: That's a great place to start. I kind of fell into it as a scholar doing scholarly research. I was just interested in the topic because I had a lot of students at the time that were asking about it. So I decided, hey, why don't I write a book about what the Bible says about homosexuality with the focus of the times. I just thought I'd look at a few verses and spin out a quick book and move onto something that was more complicated. I realized that — [crosstalk 00:01:43]
Sean McDowell: Classic professor mistake.
Scott Rae: Tell me how that worked out.
Preston Sprinkle: I found out a couple things. Number one, just on an academic, biblical, theological, applicable, psychological, historical level, it was a lot more complicated than I thought. I think when it comes to the definition of marriage, that's our first sexual expression; I think those answers are clear in Scripture, but there's all kinds of other complex threads that are woven throughout the conversation that I realized that, man, I need to really dig down deep and unearth a lot of material here.
So academically it's been a great journey, but on a more personal side, in the process early on, I got to know a lot of LGBT people. I just really wanted to humanize the conversation, and man, that really wrecked me. It didn't change what I believed, or what I believe. My ethics weren't transformed but they were shaped. There's a difference between what we believe and how we believe, and sometimes how we believe something — our tone, our posture, the language you use — is sometimes even more important than what we believe, and I found out that man, this conversation, people who maybe have quote, unquote, the "right answer" on these questions ethically, they go about it sometimes in a way that really dehumanizes people.
And after getting to know a lot of LGBT people, they were no longer just LGBT people, they were just my friends. They were Tom and Leslie and Matt, and to see the pain that they've gone through — sometimes intentionally and sometimes unintentionally — by other Christians in the way that they've handled the conversation, it really affected me. Now when I do talk about the academics, the theology, the Bible, the biblical passages that this discussion is ... that are germane to the discussion, I just can't do so without humanizing it, making sure that we understand that we're talking about real people.
Scott Rae: Preston, I think this is what we appreciate so much about both your writing on this and the speaking that you do on this. Our listeners may not be aware — you have a Ph.D. in New Testament, but you have a pastor's heart about this.
Preston Sprinkle: Yeah.
Scott Rae: I think that that desire to humanize the discussion is so positive, but I think our listeners should also be aware that you have the academic and the theological street cred in this to make a real contribution to the discussion of what the Bible teaches, but it's in the context of loving these real people that have real issues and struggles in their lives, that you're also helping us be in touch with.
Preston Sprinkle: I appreciate that. I see it in your own writing, you Scott, and you too, Sean. For me, growing up, I always wanted to be either a pastoral theologian or a theological pastor. I just never really liked the sometimes harsh distinction between either “you're an academic” or “you love people.” I'm like, wait a minute, if I'm going to study the Bible, hopefully that should drive me to love people more. If not, something's wrong. So, I appreciate that, and unfortunately it is more rare sometimes.
Scott Rae: So, Preston, tell us exactly what is meant by the term transgender?
Preston Sprinkle: Yeah, good question. Sometimes people don't even begin there, they just use the term without even defining it. So transgender is, the most important thing to understand is it's a large umbrella term. At its base, it simply means that somebody who identifies as transgender typically experiences some sort of incongruence between their, what I'll call their gender identity, and their biological sex; or, if I can say it in more layperson's terms, their internal sense of who they are and their external, their biological effects, their chromosomes, their genitalia, whatever. That can range all the way from somebody who simply doesn't fit into certain stereotypes of what it means to be masculine or feminine, all the way to somebody who experiences perhaps a severe psychological condition called gender dysphoria, which itself, there's a spectrum of what that looks like. All the way from some ongoing sense of feeling out of your skin. that you don't resonate with your body, all the way to some people, experience severe gender dysphoria where it's just gosh, I mean, they'll look at themselves in the mirror and literally throw up. They're so just revulsed ... revulsed, is that the word?
Sean McDowell: It is now.
Scott Rae: Yeah.
Preston Sprinkle: I said that, if you look at my podcast, I make up words on the fly. They're revolted by the thought of them in their whatever, their gendered body that they're living in. So yeah, it's this wide range of people, and the key, too, is some people who aren't transgender, they think that transgender means you've had a sex change or a sex reassignment surgery. According to one statistic, only three percent of people who identify as transgender are pursuing some sort of medical transitioning, so it's just a really, really broad term, which is why some people if you meet somebody who identifies as transgender, you get to know them, ask them what they mean by that before you assume you think you know what they mean.
Scott Rae: So, let me follow up on that just for clarity's sake. What ... what's the difference between someone who is transgender and someone who has what is called intersex?
Preston Sprinkle: That's a great question. Great question. I'm going to give you a crude kind of example, but it's going to be ... it is PG-13; actually it's not, it's fine. This comes from people who are transgender trying to explain it to other people that aren't experienced with these things. So, transgender is what's going on between your ears, intersex is what's going on between your legs.
Now, that's a very simplistic, crude, but the point is transgender — somebody who identifies as transgender — there's nothing biologically, there's nothing in their sexual anatomy that's any different than anybody else who is either male or female. They have male genitalia or female genitalia, they have ... their hormone levels are just like at least in the ballpark of another person who's male or female, whereas intersex, typically refers to some condition where there's some sort of atypicality. Now that isn't a word, but they have atypical features in their sexual anatomy. So this isn't just something going on in their mind or their self-identity, or their internal sense of self. It is an objective atypical condition.
It could be all the way to, a lot of intersex conditions lead to [inaudible 00:08:43] ambiguity in determining one's biological sex. This is the mistake some people make, they think intersex means neither male nor female, or intersex means, gosh, we can't even tell if a person's male or female. I would say, not me, but medically 99 percent of intersex conditions leave no ambiguity in terms of a biological sex. It may be Klinefelter Syndrome where somebody has an extra, I believe a Y chromosome. Somebody with Klinefelter's may go their entire life without realizing they have Klinefelter's because the symptoms may be like, some people who have Klinefelter's are infertile, or they may have different hormone levels where they may gather fat in different areas than your typical male would. Like they may gather fat around the hips rather than the belly, or something like that. Well, that's not a ... there's no ambiguity whether that person's male or female, they're male, but they do have a condition that's classified as intersex.
All that's to say is that intersex is some sort of atypical features in the actual biological sex of the person. Transgender has to do with one's self-identity or something going on in their mind.
Scott Rae: Okay, that, I think that's a really helpful distinction. Culturally, I think it's clear that there are lots of misconceptions about what it means to be transgender. What would you say among the Christian community that you've found, what are some of the main misconceptions that you've seen out there among the Christian community about what it means to be transgender?
Preston Sprinkle: You know, the first one would be just an overwhelming — and I don't mean this demeaning, like in a derogatory way — but there's just a ton of ignorance. Ignorance is just simply like they don't know. They hear the term and they just have all these assumptions about what it is.
I think that the first misconception is that transgender means somebody has had a sex change, which again, that's a very small percentage of people who actually pursue medical intervention. I also think maybe the lack of awareness that transgender as I said earlier, is a really broad umbrella term. So, [inaudible 00:10:58] one friend of mine, who experiences gender dysphoria, so some sort of incongruence between the biological sex and how they feel on the inside, but they still identify with their biological sex.
This person happens to be a biological male, they say, “No, I identify as a biological male, I experience this dysphoria,” but that person, they say, “I'm okay self-identifying as trans; when I say trans, I just mean it's like a pseudonym for the dysphoria that I feel,” but they're not claiming to actually be a sex or gender that's different from their biological sex. It's simply a term to describe their experience, not their ontological existence or identity, whereas other people will say, “No, I'm transgender. Sure, my biology says I'm male, but I …” they would say, “I actually believe I'm female.” So that's more of a strong sense of transgender.
Again, I think just going back as one of my friends says, if you've met one transgender person, you've met one transgender person. You've got to really get to know exactly what the person means by the term because it is so flexible and fluid.
Sean McDowell: Preston, I want to ask you for a biblical view of how we should think about transgender, but first let me ask you one other distinction, just to see what you make of this. Some people make a distinction between transgender as a psychological condition that individuals experience, and transgenderism, which would be more of a political agenda tied to say, bathroom bills or education. Do you accept this distinction? How do you process when you hear that?
Preston Sprinkle: I think that's a very helpful distinction. Obviously there's going to be overlap so that the individual person who has a psychological condition may also be more of an activist and pushing for wider acceptance of a particular ideology, so there's going to be some overlap there but man, yeah I often tell people there is what I would consider a very unhelpful, unChristian, and I would say even destructive ideology that is promoted and pushed by, I would ... I mean I don't have the stats on it, but I would say a minority, a loud minority of people who would identify as transgender; or even straight allies or cisgender allies who are also trying to promote a transgender ideology.
So that absolutely exists, and it is especially in public schools, especially in certain states like California and even, I mean, I live in Idaho, and even here my kids tell me what they're being taught, I'm like, you've got to be kidding me. So there is that, that absolutely, that exists, this sort of political, cultural, ideological push but man, I just, I do think it's helpful to realize that as we're sort of resisting, graciously, but doing so, resisting what I would consider really unhelpful, unChristian, destructive ideology.
We still need to be very sensitive the to 14-year-old kid in our church who is maybe wrestling with suicidal thoughts because they don't fit some masculine stereotypes they feel like they have to fit into, so, they don't have ... they're not trying to push this, they may be victims of an ideology, and maybe that's confusing them even more, but man there's a pastoral moment here where we need to be super sensitive to the real people who are suffering from what would be a real condition or even just confusion about what it means to be male or female. And yet at the same time we need to resist an ideology that I think is infiltrated both society and our church culture, that I think is incredibly unhelpful, and is confusing a lot of people.
Sean McDowell: That's a wonderful balance between the cultural issues and the pastoral approach Christians are called to take. So, let's take a step back. Give us some biblical principles or teachings that help us understand the issue of gender that would relate to transgender.
Preston Sprinkle: Good, good. Yeah, there's a lot of stuff we can talk about here. The main thing I want to say is the Bible does present humanity as what I would call a sexual binary. There are male and there are female, there are males and females. Of course, there's going to be, if you have any sort of view of the fall — or even if you don’t like the term fall, the fall — there's some sense that things aren't the way they're supposed to be as one writer puts it, and any human is going to say, yeah things are kind of messy and people are born with different abnormalities and there's ... people are born with missing limbs, desires that are out of whack, so yes, things are ... just because you're born, doesn't mean everything that you're born with is exactly the way God sort of intended you.
I got off track a little bit. So the Bible presents humanity in terms of male and female, there is no in-between. Whenever humanity is mentioned, it's male and female. You do have ... the closest example we'd have of somebody that maybe doesn't fit that binary, would be, there's a few references to eunuchs. There's two references in the New Testament, several in the Old Testament. The most famous is Jesus's reference in Matthew 19:12, where he talks about people who are born eunuchs or made eunuchs, or people who've made themselves eunuchs.
Now eunuch is a really broad term. Lots of different kinds of eunuchs in the ancient world. The one common denominator is that eunuchs were infertile men. Now, I stress men. They were not viewed as some other biological sex. Now, they were most ... oftentimes they were considered less masculine by a very masculine culture where if you weren't married and have lots of kids you were considered less masculine. But you were still considered a biological male. So, when Jesus speaks positively of eunuchs, and the Gospel even accepts eunuchs, he's not doing away with the sexual binary, he's just saying people who have been othered for various reasons are accepted in God's Kingdom. As Isaiah 56 says, if they live faithfully and follow God and everything.
Other than that, there's really, there's no positive example of somebody who lives between the male or female or crosses gender boundaries. That's another thing, whenever the Bible does mention people who present themselves or identify as a sex that's different than their biological sex, it's always condemned like in Deuteronomy 22, verse five, where cross-dressing is condemned. You have Romans one, the prohibitions regarding same-sex relationships, so really about crossing gender boundaries, and there's other passages where the distinction between male and female is really woven into the fabric of what the biblical writers are talking about.
So, as far as the Bible's concerned, you're born male, you're born female, and of course through the fall, maybe there would be some people who would have a mental disconnect or some incongruence between their psychological identity and their biological sex, and that's where the pastoral moment needs to come in. How do we walk with somebody who is experiencing that particular [inaudible 00:18:29] of the fall.
Scott Rae: Preston, if that's true, about what the Bible teaches, and I think that's pretty clear from Genesis 1 and 2 and about ... I like the point you make that there aren't really categories in Scripture for the kind of gender fluidity that is so popular in the culture today. What do you do pastorally with a high school or a college student who is wrestling with gender dysphoria and just feels out of place in their body?
Preston Sprinkle: That is the million dollar question, and I would say, this discussion is really new to society, and very new to the church, so we're really ... there's no proven right answer to that that has been widely accepted and tested. We're at the cusp of figuring that out. I would say this. Statistically, according to all of the scientific studies, there's 11 main ones that I've seen, that trace gender dysphoria in children into adulthood, anywhere from 50 to 85 percent of children who experience some level of cross gender behavior, cross gender identity, or interests, mannerisms, whatever, 60 to 85 percent end up identifying with their biological sex by the time they're 25. In fact, we now know from [inaudible 00:19:52], he can, hopefully he can change [inaudible 00:20:00] mind. Our brains aren't actually fully developed before we're 25, ’til then we're searching for identity, we're searching for who we are, there's a lot of fluidity from both preadolescent and adolescent state.
Number one pastoral moment, if you're dealing with somebody who is young, pre-pubescent, or into puberty, or even teenage, the teenage state, some of this stuff will often work itself out. So, I think not freaking out, like if the child or even teenager is exhibiting some cross gender behavior. If you jump in and say no, and really intervene too strongly, that can have a counter effect, or encouraging it, and saying, oh well you must be transgender, that's also scientifically unhealthy. I'm not even saying from a Christian perspective, I'm saying that can be confusing just from a sheer psychological perspective.
That would be one.
Another thing that I've seen that is often helpful, is oftentimes the dysphoria, or the disconnect or the incongruence can be shaped by cultural stereotypes of masculinity and femininity. This is where there's a really good psychologist, Leonard Sax. Leonard Sax has written a lot on this. His recent book called Why Gender Matters. He talks about these ... the pressures of these stereotypes, and how for instance if you have a teenager who just doesn't ... a teenage boy who doesn't, isn't interested in sports. Maybe they're interested in art or music or poetry and they're kind of, they're kind of being treated by other people as being less masculine, less of a boy, that can create a lot of confusion.
What Leonard Sax says, and I think he's right is if you can expose that person to different types of boys that don't all just flow from the stereotype, that can actually help him realize that there's different ways of being masculine, different ways of being a boy. Just because you don't match up to these cultural stereotypes doesn't meant that you're transgender, or that you're a gender different from your biological sex. So, breaking down stereotypes I think has been incredibly helpful for a lot of people.
Other than that, I don't want to simplify things, but having a really strong community where people are accepting you, but they're not putting pressure on you to be a certain kind of person, where you're cared for, where you're listened to, where you can wrestle out loud. I just talked to a mother the other day, who's actually a psychology professor. She has a son in his teenage years who wrestles with dysphoria and they came right up, both of them, and talked to me so openly about this, it was fascinating. He said, “Man, I feel like can talk to my mom about anything, if I'm feeling really out of my skin, I can just go to my mom, I've got friends I can talk with, and I don't have to wrestle alone, I don't have to hide in my closet, no pun intended, and try to do this by myself. I have a community that I can wrestle with out loud.”
Those would be some kind of basic things. I will say transitioning medically, from the Christian perspective, I can't justify that, but even from a scientific perspective, it has not been shown to sort of solve all the problems. People still experience depression, anxiety, they still can experience gender dysphoria, five, 10 years after they've medically transitioned, and there is a growing number of people who are now de-transitioning, because they're like, I just didn't, it didn't work like I thought it would work. Now, I'm not saying in every case, that happens, but it is not, that is not the sort of magic answer to gender dysphoria, even from a secular perspective.
Scott Rae: Preston, let me follow up on that, just briefly. One of the counselors, authors, that is popular in a lot of this discussion has suggested that when dealing with gender dysphoria, he recommends as the least invasive means possible, to alleviate the distress, so things like cross dressing, I think he would consider an acceptable option. I think he would ... he has the same cautions you do about sex changes, but I don't think he rules those out, but would take some different measures, some different applications than some of what you've suggested so far. What's your take on those?
Preston Sprinkle: Yeah, I know who you're talking about, he's a friend of mine, we've talked about this. I'm not [inaudible 00:25:14] on that. He's more of an expert than I am, and he's got a lot more case studies that he's drawing on, but for me there's ... let's take dress for example. Thankfully, we live in a culture where gosh, there's a lot of sort of androgynous type of clothing or even hair style, so for instance some of my female friends who wrestle gender dysphoria, they hate having long hair. They like having short hair. They like wearing jeans and not a dress. I'm like, well that's fine. Is that cross dressing? Well, no, those are acceptable forms of expressing your femaleness. In that case, I would say that's totally fine, but if you're saying, I'm going to cut my hair short and wear male clothes because I want to present myself, or even internally identify as a male, I think that's when you're crossing over a bit.
And I think just from an ethical standpoint — even if psychologically you experience, for instance, less suffering, and you feel more comfortable — just from an ethical standpoint, minimizing suffering and elevating comfort, those are not biblical categories of sanctification. In fact, sanctification may, and often does, and should include lament, hope in redemption and the resurrection, and suffering and, these things can cultivate a longing for Christ to return and holy living and even helping others to walk through this. So, for me, from a sanctification standpoint, elevating comfort and minimizing suffering, those are not my priorities.
I don't say that flippantly. I don't ... I can see the psychological attractiveness of that, but letting somebody actually crossdress or present as the opposite sex or different sex, perhaps if the dysphoria gets really bad, I just don't, from an ethical standpoint, I just don't see that that's the direction we should be heading in terms of becoming more like Christ, if that makes sense. But again, I say this with utmost respect for people that have worked extensively in this area.
Sean McDowell: That does make sense in terms of the content and the spirit in which you say it. Let me ask you a final question, which is kind of the elephant in the room. Should Christians use the proper pronoun for someone who is transgender? What principles or guidance would you give us even approaching that issue?
Preston Sprinkle: Oh, yeah, I'm looking into this a lot right now. I would say use the pronouns of somebody's choice. I would say that. Let me put it the other way. If you want to immediately cut off a relationship with somebody, which is ending all opportunity to embody and share Jesus with the person, then don't use the pronouns they want you to use. It is an immediate relational killer. And you know what, you have an interesting passage in Acts 16, where Paul refers to the gods of the Athenians, remember he's preaching on Mars Hill, and he talks about, hey you have this unknown God, and he's quoting these Greek pagan poets, and he actually uses pronouns to refer to gods that don't even exist. It's almost like he talks in such a way that almost gives the impression that these fake gods actually exist. Like, you worship that god, and this god, and the poet said talks about Zeus, and he does this and he does that.
He's not affirming the existence of those gods when he's using their pronouns, he's simply meeting them where they're at and attempts to build a bridge. I think that's the direction we should head pastorally. It's meeting somebody where they're at, so that we can build a relationship to hopefully help walk with them toward where God wants them to be.
I know for people that don't struggle with these things, it's like, ah, it's just a stupid pronoun, what does it matter. But for people that do wrestle with gender dysphoria or identify as transgender, these are huge, huge ... I cannot tell you how invested they are in maintaining the pronoun change and ... Again, you don't need to agree with it, it's just an act of just stepping into their world, stepping into their shoes and meeting them where they're at and building a relationship, and if you refuse to use the pronouns it's going to make that almost impossible. Yeah, the pushback's going to be well, if a biological male wants to be called she, that's, I'm lying if I say she because that's not who they really are, and that may, okay logically I can see that point. But I just think that pastorally it's not so simple. I think you can use that as a way of meeting them where they're at. It doesn't mean you're necessarily lying about it, anymore than Paul was lying when he referred to these unknown gods or these other gods that they're worshiping as seemingly real entities even though he knows they're not.
Sean McDowell: Thanks for your perspective on this, I know some of our audience is right there with you. Some might be a little hesitant, but that's okay. I think there's areas where Christians need to thoughtfully, graciously, biblically and pastorally look at this issue, look at different perspectives, and with their conscience before the Lord, proceed as they think God wants them to. I think you'd agree with me this is one of those areas where there's a little bit of room for Christians to respond differently.
Preston Sprinkle: Yes, absolutely. And one more thing. I don't ... I know in Canada and other places, there's a movement for compelled speech where it might actually be criminalized or punished if you don't use the pronouns of someone's choice. I think that that's a very wrong way to go. I don't think that it should be legally mandated. I think that's an infringement on free speech.
Sean McDowell: Great perspective, thanks for bringing it in. Preston, there are dozens more questions we would love to ask you, but that's why I'm going to send our listeners to your website, prestonsprinkle.com. You've got a blog, you come and speak, you have a podcast, your book People to Be Loved, which is wonderful. Thanks again for your balance of scriptural truth, but also a pastoral heart. Thanks for coming on, Preston.
Preston Sprinkle: It was my pleasure. Thanks for having me on.
Sean McDowell: This has been an episode of the podcast, “Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture.” To learn more about us and today's guest, Preston Sprinkle, and to find more episodes, go to biola.edu/thinkbiblically. That's biola.edu/thinkbiblically. If you enjoyed today's conversation, give us a rating on your podcast app and share it with a friend. Thanks for listening, and remember, think biblically about everything.