I’ve been reflecting recently on how Christians should view trans activists. The catalyst for this thinking has been Sharon James’ short book, Gender Ideology: What Do Christian Need to Know? 1 I had high hopes for the book after reading several glowing reviews, but as I actually read it, I found myself feeling rather torn.
There is lots of good in James’ book. The very fact that it exists is good; I’m not aware of any other popular-level treatments of the topic. We have a number of books offering a general Christian response to transgender, but there has always been a need to take a closer look at the underlying philosophy. This is what James does admirably, in less than 130 pages of clear, accessible, thoroughly researched, and well-referenced text – quite an impressive achievement.
Leaving aside a few quibbles on specific details, I think I would agree with almost everything James writes. And yet, I found myself feeling quite uncomfortable as I read.
My most significant concern was with James’ approach to the activists who promote gender ideology. The book portrays the activists as if they are a group of evil masterminds who are scheming to do as much damage and harm to vulnerable children as possible.
Many Christians speak as if we’re engaged in a battle with evil human enemies who are deliberately trying to wreak havoc and destruction.
It strikes me that this attitude is quite common among Christians. We’ve learned to show love, compassion, and welcome to those who identify as gay or transgender, and yet when it comes to the promotion of the ‘LGBT agenda’ many Christians speak as if we’re engaged in a battle with evil human enemies who are deliberately trying to wreak havoc and destruction. Love, compassion, and welcome seem to go out of the window and our primary concern suddenly becomes our freedoms, our children, and even, our rainbow.
But I’m just not sure that the activists are such an evil group or that this is the way we should respond to them.
Understanding the activists
In Gender Ideology, James suggests that to understand gender theory and the activists who support it, we have to look to the Yogyakarta Principles. The Yogyakarta Principles seek to apply human rights to the areas of sexual orientation and gender identity. James asks of the principles' publication, ‘Was this simply an effort to make sure that minority groups should not be badly treated?’ To which she offers a strong answer: ‘No. The Yogyakarta Principles presented a radical LGBT charter.’ She also notes that the principles would class several elements of biblical teaching as ‘discriminatory’.
In a sense, it is true that these principles are ‘a radical LGBT charter’, but that doesn’t necessarily disprove the idea that the authors created them to protect minority groups from bad treatment. We might think they have gone about it in the wrong way, but we have no reason to assume that wasn’t their aim. The preamble of the principles states clearly that they are a response to the fact that ‘violence, harassment, discrimination, exclusion, stigmatisation and prejudice are directed against persons in all regions of the world because of their sexual orientation or gender identity’.2 The authors of the principles may be mistaken, their ideas may even be dangerous, but they sound like they are trying to do a good thing. They don’t sound like evil masterminds plotting to harm our children.
I don’t question the conclusions that James and others reach about the falsity and danger of gender ideology. I do, however, question whether this common attitude towards trans activists is helpful or Christian.
Is it helpful?
Arguably, the attitude is not helpful. Portraying your opponent as having evil motives when you have not provided evidence for this fact creates an inevitable sense of ‘us and them’ and can easily breed self-righteousness.
It also isn’t an attitude that is likely to foster fruitful dialogue. While books such as Gender Ideology probably aren’t aimed at trans activists, they are also not teaching their readers a good posture from which to engage with activists if the opportunity arises.
Is it Christian?
I also feel the attitude is decidedly un-Christian. Christians who take this position often place an admirable emphasis on the importance of truth, and yet sadly that doesn’t tend to extend to exploring the truth as to why activists promote their ideology. The assumption seems usually to be that there’s something malignant in their motives, but isn’t it equally possible that they really believe it to be true and believe it will help people? Even if they are wrong (which I think they are) and a strong case can be made to show that they are wrong (which I think it can), isn’t it possible that their motives are still good? Is it right for us to accuse them of evil intentions before this has been proved?
And even if the activists are working from evil motives, aren’t we meant to love our enemies and to pray for them? Sadly, adherence to Jesus’ commands about our interactions with others is often not very evident in Christian engagement with activists. On the topic of gender ideology, Christians are not the only people speaking up in opposition, and yet our response can often be largely the same as that of non-Christian opponents. Shouldn’t we be showing a different way? Even while opposing wrong and harmful ideas, even if there is evidence of malicious motives, we must respect the dignity of activists as bearers of the image of God and we must pray for God to break into their hearts and their thinking. For those of us who engage with activists and their ideas – whether in writing, public speaking or personal conversation – we must do so in a way that fosters love and prayer rather than animosity.
But one thought more than any other dominated as I read James’ book and as I reflected on Christian attitudes towards trans activists. It was the famous phrase, ‘There but for the grace of God go I’. That is true for every one of us, but perhaps on his topic I feel it a little more keenly than some. As a person whom some would describe as a sexual minority and who experienced a level of gender dysphoria as a child and then ongoing discomfort with my gender into adulthood, and as someone who loves to read and think and wrestle with big ideas, I am probably a prime candidate to hear and absorb and embrace gender ideology. It is the grace of God to me, that he has called me away from the ways of the world and into the true freedom of his ways and his gift to me of my identity as a man.
Our attitude towards the activists has to be impacted by the fact that we could easily have been one of them.
Our attitude towards the activists has to be impacted by the fact that we could easily have been one of them. We have no claim to superiority or self-righteousness on this score. As we read about such confused and damaging ideas, we should grieve over the brokenness of the world, we should act and pray for the protection of the vulnerable, we should pray for the rescue of those who believe and propagate such untruths, and we should give thanks to God for his grace to us, recognising that ‘there but for the grace of God go I’.
- Sharon James, Gender Ideology: What Do Christian Need to Know? (Christian Focus, 2019).
- ‘Preamble’, The Yogyakarta Principles. Accessed 18 December 2020.
This article has been adapted from a blog original posted on thinktheology.co.uk.