So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.
-Galatians 3:26-29 (NIV)
Bruce Jenner was the first sports icon I remember. I was 8 in 1976, when he won gold in the decathlon at the Montreal Olympics, and set a world record in the process. His face was everywhere. For a few years, he was probably the most recognizable man in the world. Certainly the most recognizable athlete.
People who are a little younger than me probably only knew him (sadly, in my opinion) from Keeping Up With the Kardashians. They don’t remember the summer of 1976, when every girl wanted to be Dorothy Hamill or Nadia Comanici, and every boy wanted to be Bruce Jenner.
Everyone knows Bruce again now. Or, rather, everyone knows Caitlyn Jenner.
In the process, transgender has become a term that all of us are much more familiar with.
In case you’re unclear, a person who is transgender feels strongly that their biological gender does not match their internal gender identity. It doesn’t appear to be a lifestyle these people choose. When Bruce Jenner appeared on the cover of Vanity Fair under the caption “Call me Caitlyn,” he didn’t seem to be saying he wanted to be a woman. She seemed to be saying she had always been a woman, and now wanted to be known by others as the gender she truly was.
For the vast majority of us, whose understanding of our own gender identity matches the parts we were born with, that seems, let’s admit it, weird. It might do us some good to try to figure out why some of us react so strongly to Caitlyn Jenner’s revelation.1
For believers, part of the struggle surely is the idea that God would allow anyone to be born with such gender confusion. We read Genesis 1, that God created human beings male and female, and think that must settle the matter. But, of course, God allows human beings to be born with all sorts of disorders and complications, and the world as we experience it is no longer exactly congruent with the world as he created it. Surely we understand that, even if sometimes it’s hard for us to accept.
But I think even more basic than that is our feeling that sexual and gender identity are such a central part of who we are. We borrow this from our world, in which individual identity drives everything: politics, advertising, education, law-making, and even religion. For a person’s internal gender identity to be mismatched to her biological gender is just hard for us to understand.
In the biblical world, though, individual identity was just not the important matter it is in our world. Collective identity was much more important: “Who are we together?” People seemed to think of themselves more as part of a society than they thought of how society should conform to their individual understandings of who they were.
Sexual morality in the Bible is treated not as a matter of identity, but as a matter of behavior. For example, it’s fairly well-established that the writers of Scripture don’t address homosexual orientation. They have something to say about homosexual activity, of course, but they don’t address a person’s sexual orientation. A person’s identity as a homosexual or a heterosexual just doesn’t really seem to come up. Homosexual activity is one kind of sexual immorality that the Bible prohibits. Whether a person is attracted toward the opposite sex or the same sex seems to be of no consequence.2
That’s not to say that issues of gender identity and sexual orientation are the same thing: they aren’t. It does suggest, though, that we believers might need to change our vocabulary. We may need to be careful of painting matters of identity as sinful. To say to a man or a woman struggling with gender identity that their struggle is between good (living as the gender you’re born as) or bad (living as the gender you feel you truly are) is to put them in an impossible place that creates bitterness, anger, and depression. It tells them that God only loves them if they live as one gender and not the other. Suicide is not infrequently a result.
The Bible does have something to say about individual identity: it’s simply that, in Christ, individual identity gets lost in Jesus. In our baptism we “put on Christ,” and that means we’re all people in the process of becoming. We’re becoming him, and we’re becoming him together, and that’s now the identity that matters. Paul didn’t think Gentiles had to become Jews and then could be united with him in Jesus, or that slaves couldn’t attain the same status as free people in Christ. He embraced the fact that people who were as different from him as they could possibly be were now one because all of their identities were in the process of being remade in the image of Jesus.
The church is the one place in the world where people who couldn’t possibly have understood and accepted each other before can be united, because the church has something defining who we are that no one else has.
Caitlyn Jenner looks female, at least in her cover photo. She would “pass” in most of our churches. Of course, she has the benefit of make-up artists and surgery and probably some airbrushing. I’m thinking, though of a guy who used to live down the street, who I used to see wearing women’s clothes and a wig as he walked his dog. I don’t know what gender he felt he was in his heart of hearts. But I know you could tell right away that this was a man wearing a dress. And, I wonder: who would be treated better in our churches? Caitlyn Jenner, or the guy down the street? And, most importantly, why?
May we be a community where everyone can hear the proclamation of a gospel that remakes us in the image of Jesus. May we be a community that helps each other to stretch ourselves to live the life of righteousness, love, and sacrifice that being like Jesus demands of us. May we embody together the new reality that we’re all God’s children through faith in Christ, and may we all see the ways our understanding of who we are needs to change.
1 I choose to use the name “Caitlyn,” and female pronouns, because that’s what she has chosen to use to refer to herself. That’s a basic courtesy that we give to any human being.
2 I’m aware that some would say that Romans 1:26-27 prohibits same-sex attraction, and not just homosexual activity. I would point out that the “unnatural lusts” mentioned in that text lead to sexual immorality. The point of the passage is still behavior, not identity.