Question: Some transgendered persons are seeking and receiving re-baptism as a way of establishing their new gender identity. How do you respond to that?
This question could be answered briefly, but to add to it the further dimension of pastoral care of transgender persons requires a longer answer.
I know several transgender (the preferred designation) people, including a former confirmand who has changed her gender from male to female. I don’t believe the science on transgender (biology, psychology, anthropology, etc.) is completely settled because science is never completely settled. We continue to explore the mysteries of the universe and of the human body and mind. In any event, I’m not competent to deal with gender dysphoria. But the theology of the body and the practice of baptism is settled, and I think I’m competent to deal with that. And I must deal with these issues because the doctrine of creation and the theology of baptism is important to the faith of the church. But I believe the church must also have a way of pastorally accompanying transgender members.
To deal with the practice of baptism first (the question that has been asked): what gender the person was when he/she/they were baptized doesn’t matter because baptism is not about biology or gender, sexuality or cultural identity. It is about forgiveness of sins, eternal salvation, and membership in the body of Christ. A human being with a body and soul is baptized into Christ and “in Christ there is neither male nor female” (Galatians 3:28). Baptism is rebirth by water and the Spirit (John 3:5). Baptism is being incorporated into the life of the Holy Trinity. It makes one an adopted child of God the Father, a member of Christ’s body in the world, and a bodily temple of the Holy Spirit. It is performed once because God’s word of promise (“The one who believes and is baptized will be saved”, Mark 16:16) is reliable. Hence the ecumenical Nicene Creed states, “We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiven of sins”.
This is an answer to the question that has been asked. However, the church through pastoral teaching will want to affirm that God’s creation is good, and that includes our bodily selves. This is not unrelated to the question about baptism because the sacraments are applied to bodies. God created us as bodily creatures and relates to us bodily through means of grace. The highest expression of this is that God was incarnated in human flesh as a Jewish male in Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ of Israel, who was designated “my son, the beloved” by the God whom Jesus called Abba at his baptism. The Spirit who descended like a dove is the bond between the Father and the Son. This Jesus was crucified, buried, and raised from the dead. In Holy Baptism we are immersed (buried) into Christ’s death and resurrection (Romans 6:3-5). We shall be raised bodily, as Christ was, with a glorified body, as Christ has.
Given all this, we should have no reason to despise our bodies. It is an expression of the “fall” of humanity into sin that people (probably all people to some extent) are ashamed of or dissatisfied with their bodies (which means they are ashamed of or dissatisfied with themselves, since we are our bodies). They may be ashamed of or dissatisfied with their size or shape or particular body parts. What transgender people feel about their body differs from one person to another, so general statements cannot be made. They may, however, believe that they have been forced into the wrong gender by cisgender socialization.
We must acknowledge that the church has not always given a clear proclamation of a positive theology of the body and of human sexuality throughout its history. In the early Christian struggles with the gnostic devaluation of the material creation, the theological affirmations of Clement of Alexandria and Irenaeus of Lyons about the goodness of God’s creation did not always hold. If you want to read about the views of the ancient church fathers and the attitudes of Christians of antiquity when it comes to teachings and practices about the human body and human sexuality, admittedly over and against the pagan world, the best study is the classic work by Peter Brown, The Body and Society: Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity, Twentieth Anniversary Edition with a New Introduction (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988, 2008).
I recommend that we do study ancient Christian views of the body and sexuality, because the great bishops and teachers of the ancient church expressed views and attitudes that most Christians today could not wrap their heads around. Yet these sensibilities have lingered through the centuries. Many Christians of antiquity regarded the body as a frame that limits the Spirit for which it serves as a temple. Against the need to produce food for human survival, the desert fathers lived where no food could be produced and biologically changed their bodies by a life of fasting. They sought a spiritual paradise by resisting the temptation of food to which Adam succumbed. Against the social expectations in the ancient Roman world that young women would marry and bear children to replenish society, young Christian girls committed themselves to a life of virginity. Taking seriously Jesus’ words about being eunuchs for the kingdom of God, some young men had themselves castrated. Most famously, the great biblical scholar Origen of Alexandria went to a doctor at the age of twenty and had himself castrated. Castration creates gender fluidity (as, for example, in the castrati who took female roles in Italian Baroque operas because women weren’t allowed on the stage). Origen looked for a glorified spiritual body in the ages to come that would transcend the limited body of the present age. It was also taught that virginity helped to preserve the soul in its pure state. As Brown summarized the attitude of ancient Christian ascetics, “This body did not have to be defined by its sexual components, still less by the social roles that were conventionally derived from those components” (p. 169). In other words, sexuality and gender were irrelevant to this spiritual pursuit. These views influenced Christian attitudes for the next thousand years. Perpetual virginity and celibacy remained the ideal of medieval Christianity East and West.
A reaction came with the Reformation, which reaffirmed human sexuality as a gift of God. The reformers prized marriage above celibacy, even though they demoted marriage from its sacramental status. The Catholic Church after the Council of Trent also promoted marriage and large families even while defending clerical and religious celibacy.
The clearest contemporary statement of a positive biblical theology of the body was given in the Catecheses of Pope John Paul II, Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body, Translation, Introduction, and Index by Michael Waldstein (Boston: Pauline Books and Media, 2006). Embracing the philosophic view of phenomenology that we don’t just have a body, but are a body, he held that the body is the locus of divine revelation because “the Word became flesh.” Pope John Paul II regarded male and female married with children as a reflection of the image of God the Holy Trinity. He called this “the spousal meaning of the body”—three persons with unique souls (personalities) and bodies becoming one flesh.
I believe that we are created male and female and that this is a biological given. But intersexuality is also a biological reality and it is not easy to “assign” the sexuality of intersex babies at birth. This is because individuals now called intersexual are born with any of several variations in sex characteristics including chromosomes, gonads, sex hormones, or genitals. Some intersex people consider themselves sexually non-binary. Gender is a cultural construct and can be more fluid in terms of social roles and lifestyles. But it cannot stray too far from its biological given.
Having rejected Rene Descartes’ mind over matter philosophy (“I think, therefore I am”), phenomenology in the twentieth century proposed that the mind is part of the body. Philosophy and neuroscience embrace embodied mind theory today. But now we have those who would remake their bodies to conform with their minds. Ancient Christians sought to transcend the limitations of their physical bodies by conforming their bodies to a spiritual ideal by practicing abstinence from food and sex. Modern transgender persons may seek to remake their biological body with the help of medical technology and/or to transcend their culturally limiting gender. The very idea of changing one’s sex or expressing a different gender raises complicated philosophical and theological questions.
Nevertheless, pastors and congregations must deal with the situations that present themselves. Someone in the congregation might be contemplating making a gender and sexual change. Or transgender Christians or unchurched persons might come seeking a community of faith. We cannot reject those baptized into Christ or those who seek Christ in the fellowship of Christ’s church.
I believe pastoral care begins by realizing the utter certainty that those seeking to change gender or reassign sexuality have that they are of the wrong gender or sex. This certainty is evident in the tremendous act of will it takes for persons to go through biological or cultural changes, some of which are irreversible, while navigating the reactions of family and social relationships, including spouse and children, parents and siblings, friends and associates at work. At this moment in time there’s also a lot of progressive political support for transgender people, which means that this profoundly personal existential crisis has become politicized—also politicized in the reactions to the progressive agenda over policy issues that affect public schools such as which locker rooms and bathrooms a transgender person uses and which sport team a transgender male or female plays on.
The pastoral role is not to become a political partisan when dealing with transgender members of churches. Pastors and congregations need to “accompany” a person who is making life-changing decisions about this and welcome Christians who are already “trans.” Accompanying a person through life transitions doesn’t require suppressing one’s feelings or opinions about what they are doing. The pastor’s views and feelings should be honestly stated. But they will more likely be considered if the pastor has first listened to the feelings and experiences of the transgender member. There should also be prayer asking for wisdom in the face of what is difficult to understand.
Gender change is a powerful experience and it surely has a spiritual dimension. The transgender person might question his/her/their relationship with God…and with the church. The pastor’s role is not to judge the person making or who has made a transition but to affirm God’s love in Christ for this Christian. One positive spiritual outcome would be a public affirmation of one’s baptism and an affirmation of one’s membership in the congregation whether the person proceeds with the process of change or not, or in receiving a person into the congregation who has already gone through a change.
I realize that there is a lot more to be said about this complicated issue that even a longer article would not adequately cover. But perhaps this is a start for further conversion and insight.
Pastor Frank Senn