Why the Christian argument for a ban on transgender conversion therapy fails.

I very much regret having to disagree with Archbishop Rowan Williams. He is someone whom I deeply respect and from whose writings I have learned an enormous amount. However, as part of my responsibility as a theologian, I feel that I need to say publicly that I disagree with the Christian argument for a ban on transgender conversion therapy put forward by Archbishop Williams and thirteen other Christian writers in their recent open letter to the Prime Minister. What they say in the letter is deeply misleading and they completely fail to make a convincing Christian case for such a ban.[1]

The letter to the Prime Minister

The letter runs as follows:

‘Dear Prime Minister.

On the Ban on Conversion Therapy Excluding Trans People

Conversion to Christianity is the event or process by which a person responds joyfully to the glorious embrace of the eternally loving and ever merciful God. It has nothing to do with so called ‘conversion therapy’ – pressure put by one person on another to fit their expectations; the attempt to induce vulnerable and isolated people to deny who they truly are.

To be trans is to enter a sacred journey of becoming whole: precious, honoured and loved, by yourself, by others and by God.

To allow those discerning this journey to be subjected to coercive or undermining practises is to make prayer a means of one person manipulating another. It is a wrong-hearted notion of care and a wrong-headed understanding of conversion. Every church should be a safe space that affirms people in being who they are, without fear of judgement.

We see no justification for the ban on so called ‘conversion therapy’ excluding trans people.

Yours respectfully….’

The problem with what is said in this letter, and why it fails to make a convincing Christian case for a ban on transgender conversion therapy, is that it involves a faulty anthropology that in turn leads to a faulty understanding of what conversion needs to involve in the case of those people who identify as transgender.

A faulty anthropology

Transgender (or ‘trans’) people are those people who have a gender identity that is different from their biological sex. This can mean someone who is biologically male identifying as female, someone who is biologically female identifying as male, or someone adopting a ‘non-binary’ identity that is neither male nor female. Under the terms of the Gender Recognition Act of 2004, in the case of those biological males who identify as female and those biological females who identify as females, how they identify themselves becomes their legal identity once they have acquired a Gender Recognition Certificate. There is, however, no legal recognition of the transgender identity of children or young people or of those who see themselves as having some form of non-binary identity.

The underlying premise in the letter is that how transgender people identify themselves is ‘who they truly are’ and that for transgender people to become whole they need to learn to love themselves in that identity and to discover that they are ‘precious, honoured and loved’ in that identity by both other people and God.

From an orthodox Christian perspective, the problem with this argument is that it makes no sense to say that the identities adopted by transgender people is ‘who they truly are.’

To understand why this is the case, a good place to start is with Paul’s exhortation to the Christians in Corinth to ‘glorify God in your body’ (1 Corinthians 6:20). What Paul says in this verse tells us that as human beings we are creatures  with bodies. There would be no point in the Corinthians being told to glorify God in their bodies if they had no bodies in which they could do this. It would be like telling someone with no legs that they should walk.

What this verse also tells us, however, is that as human beings we are not just bodies. Paul does not write to the Corinthians ‘bodies glorify God.’ What he writes is ‘glorify God in your bodies,’  a command that only makes sense if there is a self, a ‘you,’ that possesses a body, but is not identical with it. This self is clearly not a material entity, because then it would itself be a body, whereas Paul distinguishes it from the body. It must therefore be an incorporeal or spiritual entity, and for Paul’s injunction to make sense it must also be an entity that is capable of hearing (assuming Paul’s letter was originally read out loud), understanding, and then acting on that understanding. It follows that what we are talking about is a conscious, rational, spiritual entity that is capable of directing the body, what in Christian theology and Western philosophy has traditionally been called a soul.

In summary, what we learn from thinking about what Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 6:20 is what has been taught down the centuries by the Christian tradition, namely, that human beings are what is known as a ‘psychosomatic unity’ of a material body and an immaterial soul.

This anthropology is based on what the Bible teaches in passages such as 1 Corinthians 6, and on the insights of the Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle. It was taught by the Early Church Fathers and by the theologians of the Middle Ages, and it continued to be taught by mainstream Protestant theologians during the Reformation.

 Martin Luther, for example, in his Small Catechism of 1529, explains that the Creedal statement ‘I believe in God, the Father almighty, Maker of heaven and earth’ means ‘I believe that God has created me and all that exists, that he has given me and still sustains my body and soul.’ [2]

The Anglican tradition agrees with the wider Christian tradition that human beings consist of bodies and souls.

We can see this, for example, in the words of the Holy Communion service in The Book of Common Prayer. The Minister gives people the bread and wine so that Christ’s body and blood may ‘preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life.’ The people ‘offer and present unto thee, O Lord, ourselves, our souls and bodies’ and pray ‘that through thy most mighty protection, both here and ever, we may be preserved in both body and soul.’

Likewise, in the Burial Service a distinction is made between the soul of the departed ‘which it hath pleased Almighty God of his great mercy to take unto himself ’ and their body which is committed to the ground, ‘earth to earth, ashes, dust to dust.’

So, ‘who am I?’  Paul, and the Christian tradition following Paul, says that ‘I’ am a single self, a psychosomatic unity consisting of a body and a soul. I am a material body, including a material brain, but that is not all I am. I am also an immaterial, conscious, rational, soul that is aware of God, other people, and the world in general, a mind that acts in and through my body in the light of this awareness.

As Nancy Pearcey notes in her book Love Thy Body there is a tendency in contemporary Western thought to regard the soul, the conscious part of our existence, as the ‘authentic self’ with the body ‘demoted to a nothing but a ‘meat skeleton’’ extraneous to who we truly are.[3] This is not the Christian view. The Christian view is that while I am not simply my body, nevertheless, I am my body and my body is me (as when I say, ‘I am going to sit down,’  or ‘I fell off my bicycle,’ both acts directly involving only my body but nonetheless involving me as a whole). 

One day my material body will die (unless Jesus returns first), but my soul will survive that death, and because disembodiment is not its proper state God will re-unite my soul with my resurrected body in the general resurrection of the dead at the end of time.  Just as the human body that Jesus assumed at the incarnation is an integral part of who Jesus is and will be for all eternity, so also the bodies which we have are going to be an integral part of who we will eternally be. Even if we would like it to be the case, there is no escape from our bodies.

Furthermore, in accordance with God’s creation of human beings as male and female (Genesis 1:26-28, 2:18-25, 5:1-2, Matthew 19:4-5, 1 Corinthians 11:2-16) a central part of what it means to be created by God in his image and likeness is to be male or female.

Contrary to what is often suggested today, being male or female is something that is determined not by our feelings but by our biology. Regardless of how we feel, it is our biology that matters in this regard. As Christopher Tollefsen explains, being male or female means having a body that is configured to play a particular part in obeying God’s command to his human creatures to ‘be fruitful and multiply’ (Genesis 1:28). To quote Tollefsen:

‘… our identity as animal organisms is the foundation of our existence as selves. But fundamental to our existence as this animal is our sex. We are male or female organisms in virtue of having a root capacity for reproductive function, even when that capacity is immature or damaged. In human beings, as is the case with many other organisms, that function is one to be performed jointly with another human being; unlike the digestive function, no individual human being suffices for its performance.

Accordingly, reproductive function in human beings is distributed across the two sexes, which are identified by their having the root capacity for one or the other of the two general structural and behavioural patterns involved in human reproduction. In male humans, this capacity is constituted by the structures necessary for the production of male gametes and the performance of the male sex act, insemination. In females, the capacity is constituted by the structures necessary for the production of oocytes and the performance of the female sex act, the reception of semen in a manner disposed to conception.’[4]

There are various other physical and psychological differences between men and women,[5] but these are all characteristics of human beings who are fundamentally differentiated by the fact that their bodies are ordered towards the performance of different roles in sexual reproduction and in the nurture of children once they have been born.

There is a very small percentage of people, some 0.018% of live births (approximately 1:500), who are genuinely ‘intersex’ in the sense that they combine both male and female elements in their physiology. However, the existence of such people still points to the fundamentally dimorphic, male or female, nature of human sexuality. If they are able to have children, they do so either as male or female. Their condition is a developmental disorder rather than the existence of a third type of human being and is the exception that proves the rule. [6]

What all this means is that the claim made in the letter to the Prime Minister that who transgender people ‘really are’ is determined by the identity they have adopted for themselves is incorrect. People are who God made them to be, and except in the rare cases of those who are genuinely intersex and whose sex is therefore both male and female, this means that they are either male or female depending on their biology, and no amount of self-identification, hormone treatment, or plastic surgery can change this fact. 

It is often argued, and, shockingly, often taught to school children, that transgender people are who they believe they are because they have a brain that belongs to a different sex from the rest of their body.  Like the idea of a ‘gay gene’ this idea of a ‘transgender brain’ (‘a pink brain in a blue body’ as children are taught to see it) is not supported by the evidence. What we know about the matter is helpfully summarised by the website Transgender Trend as follows:

‘Although we often hear that transgender people are trapped in the wrong body this is a myth and not based on any credible scientific evidence. There is virtually no clear or reliable difference between male and female brains structurally, let alone evidence that transgender people have a brain that does not match up with their natal sex.’[7]

A faulty view of conversion

Furthermore, not only it is impossible for someone to escape their biological identity. From a Christian perspective it is wrong to attempt do so. 

Except in the case of those who are genuinely intersex, believing rightly in ‘God the Father who hath made me and all the world’ in the words of the Prayer Book Catechism, means accepting with gratitude that I am the male or female human being that God has created me to be and living accordingly.

As Oliver O’ Donovan writes in his book Begotten or Made?:

‘When God made mankind male and female, to exist alongside each other and for each other, he gave a form that human sexuality should take and a good to which it should aspire. None of us can, or should, regard our difficulties with that form, or with achieving that good, as the norm of what our sexuality is to be. None of us should see our sexuality as mere self-expression, and forget that we can express ourselves sexually only because we participate in this generic form and aspire to this generic good. We do not have to make a sexual form, or posit a sexual good. We have to exist as well as we can within that sexual form, and in relation to that sexual good, which has been given to us because it has been given to humankind.’ [8]

In the Bible, our obligation to live in accordance with the sexual form we have been given is explicitly laid down in Deuteronomy 22:5 which prohibits cross-dressing on the grounds that, as Peter Harland puts it: ‘to dress after the manner of the opposite sex was to infringe the normal order of creation which divided humanity into male and female.’[9] It is also laid down by Paul in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 where he tells the Corinthians that men should follow the dress and hair codes which proclaim them to be male and women the codes which proclaim them to be female because, in the words of Tom Wright in his commentary on this verse: ‘God’s creation needs humans to be fully, gloriously and truly human, which means fully and truly male and female’.[10]

This biblical teaching does not mean that Christians should uncritically embrace the gender stereotypes of any given society. Christian missionaries in China, for example, were right to reject the idea that woman should have tiny feet and that it was right to bind the feet of young girls in order to achieve this, and Christians today are right to challenge the restrictions on women’s education that still exist in various parts of the world

What it does mean is that we should glorify God through our bodies by living in a way that proclaims to our society the truth of our creation by God as male or female. We should be saying through our actions in our bodies, God has made me male, or God has made me female.

However difficult it may be for us to accept the sexual form that God has given us, to deny it would be sinful because it would involve refusing to say to God ‘thy will be done’ by refusing to love  the self who God has made us to be. Contrary to the argument in the letter, becoming transgender  is in fact the very opposite of the ‘sacred journey’ of learning to love and accept who we truly are. It is in fact refusing to accept who we truly are.

Refusing in this way to say to God ‘thy will be done,’ in either our thinking or our behaviour, is a very serious matter because it brings with it the inescapable risk of eternal separation from God. As C S Lewis writes in his book The Great Divorce, there is an inescapable binary choice facing all human beings. ‘There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’’[11]

Lewis’ point is that God allows human beings the freedom to shape their own destinies. We can choose to say to God ‘Thy will be done’ and be happy with God for ever in the world to come, or we can choose to turn our back on God. If we do this God will respect our decision, but the inevitable consequence will be that in the world to come we will be cut off from God and all good for ever.

In summary, the fundamental problem with the adoption of a transgender identity is, therefore,  that doing so means a sinful refusal to say to God ‘Thy will be done.’ Being transgender involves refusing to accept and live out the male or female identity that God has given to us and deliberately adopting an artificially created alternate identity instead. To acknowledge this point is not to minimise the acute distress experienced by people with gender dysphoria. It is, rather, to give a theological account of what using gender transition to relieve this distress entails.

The argument is often made that people who engage in gender transition cannot be said to be sinning since they are not deliberately choosing to go against God’s will. They see the identity they are seeking to live out as their true God given identity, their ‘authentic self,’  and they simply desire to live according to this true identity.

This argument is true as an account of how the people involved view their situation. However, two further points need to be noted.

First, we have to distinguish between how an individual subjectively views their identity and what is objectively true. As we have seen, to be male or female is a matter of biology, it is a matter of the body someone has been given by God and for which, and in which, they are called to glorify him, and this truth is unaffected by how someone views him or herself. This means that someone who is biologically male or female, and who rejects this identity, is in fact rejecting the sex that God has given them, regardless of how they themselves view the matter.

Secondly, the fact that people with gender dysphoria have a distorted view of who they truly are which they then make the basis of sinful actions is not something which makes them unique. As a result of the Fall human beings have lost the ability to always see things as they truly are (see Romans 1:21). Acts of sin (of whatever kind) occur when a distorted view of reality resulting from the Fall leads to wrong desires which in turn give birth to wrong actions. As Augustine argues in Book XIV of The City of God, ‘our will is for our welfare’ and this results in acts of sin because, misled in our thinking because of the Fall, ‘we commit sin to promote our welfare.’ [12]This is what is involved in gender transition just as in all other forms of sin. Eve wanted the apple because she thought it would be for her good. People desire gender transition for the same reason.

As the stories of transgender people make clear, there are a whole range of secondary reasons why people may desire gender transition, which may be biological, psychological, familial, or cultural in nature.  However, identifying such causes and saying that the existence of transgender identities is a result of sin are complementary rather than alternative explanations of what is taking place. If we say that transgender identities are a result of sin, we are making a theological statement about how a particular set of feelings and a particular course of action go against the good that God wills for his human creatures. If we say they are a result of, say, familial experiences, or psychological problems, or are exacerbated by cultural influences, we are describing the mechanisms by which sin wields power in someone’s life.

Because transgender identities are sinful for the reasons that have just been described, this means that the open letter also offers a faulty account of what conversion needs to involve in the case of transgender people.

As we have seen, the letter defines conversion as a ‘the event or process by which a person responds joyfully to the glorious embrace of the eternally loving and ever merciful God.’ This definition is fine as far as it goes. Where it falls short is in failing to say that this joyful response must issue in holiness of life. 

According to the teaching of the Bible, responding joyfully to God means accepting God’s offer of new life in Christ by believing and being baptised (or in the case of those baptised as infants, being baptised and then believing).  However, whichever way round it happens, because we have been given new life through faith and baptism we are then summoned to live accordingly.

Thus, Paul writes in Romans 6:11-14 that because the Christians in Rome have believed and been baptised they must consider themselves:

‘…. dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions. Do not yield your members to sin as instruments of wickedness, but yield yourselves to God as men who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments of righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.’

 In similar fashion he writes in Ephesians 4:17-24

‘Now this I affirm and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds; they are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart; they have become callous and have given themselves up to licentiousness, greedy to practice every kind of uncleanness. You did not so learn Christ! – assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus. Put off your old nature which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful lusts, and be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and put on the new nature, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.’

We are not left to live in this way in our own strength. As those who believe and are baptised we have the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38) who is given to us to enable us to begin to become the people God has created and re-created us to be. However, the Spirit’s work in our life is not automatic. We have a choice about whether we will receive the new life that the Spirit has to give or whether we will continue to live according to the pattern of our old nature (‘the flesh’). Paul highlights this choice in Romans 8:13 when he writes ‘if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body you will live.’

The ‘works of the flesh’ which we are called to turn away from in the power of the Spirit take multiple forms, but for the reasons set out above, among them is the rejection by transgender people of the sexual identity which God has given to them, and which is determined by the sex of their body. This means that in the case of transgender people conversion must mean not only believing and being baptised, but also becoming willing to accept and live out their true, God given, sexual identity.

As the testimonies of those who have de-transitioned make very clear,  this will not be an easy path for people to walk.

As the Evangelical Alliance report Transsexuality correctly notes: ‘The pathway of growth, sanctification and change can be expected to be slow and painful. Struggle and relapse can be anticipated.’[13] The desire to live as a member of the other sex may never go away in this life, even if it lessens or can be controlled, and the psychological, emotional and practical issues involved in giving up a legal public identity as a member of one sex and reverting to another sex will be immense and will take time to resolve (this is particularly the case if people have a family life in their transgender identity).

Those who have undergone hormone treatment, or sex reassignment surgery, may have to learn to live with the fact that some aspects of what have happened to them are irreversible and that they will have mutilated bodies and be infertile for the rest of their lives.

Furthermore, in a culture which is increasingly supportive of gender transition there will be constant cultural influences suggesting that it would be desirable to continue to live in their assumed identity and in addition, as the Evangelical Alliance report explains: ‘Fellow transsexuals will usually be convinced that change is not possible and sometimes seek to dissuade someone seeking in this way to be obedient to Christ.’[14]

All these issues need to be taken with the utmost seriousness and it is obligatory for Christians to support their transgender (or former transgender) brothers and sisters in any way they can as they wrestle with them.   

What Christians are not free to do, is to follow the example of the writers of the open letter by suggesting that these issues can be avoided because conversion to Christianity and adopting, or remaining in, a transgender identity can go together. For the reasons outlined in the paper this is not the case. As Paul asks rhetorically  in Romans 6:2 ‘How can we who died to sin still live  in it?’

Any form of pastoral care that involves coercion or manipulation of one person by another is, of course, wrong because it involves a failure to respect the God given right of all human beings to make free and responsible choices about how they should live. However, it is also wrong to do what the writers of the letter call for, which is to simply affirm transgender people in their self-chosen identity. That would mean leaving them trapped in sin rather than offering them the liberation from the power of sin which Jesus died and rose to make possible

What is also wrong is for the writers of the letter to suggest that it would be right for the government to effectively force Christians to take an affirmative approach or face criminal sanctions. That is what a ban on ‘conversion therapy’ for transgender people would involve and we have to ask the writers of the letter if that is what they really want. 

Do they truly want Christians to face fines or imprisonment for seeking to help people to say ‘Yes’ to God and live as God made them to be?

[1] The letter was made public by Paul Brand from ITV who posted it on Twitter on 4 April. The link is: https://twitter.com/PaulBrandITV/status/1510959904386859009 .

[2] Martin Luther, Small Catechism in Mark Noll, Confessions and Catechisms of the Reformation (Vancouver: Regent College Publishing, 1991), p.68.

[3] Nancy Pearcey, Love Thy Body ( Zondervan: Baker Books, 2018), p.197.  

[4] Christopher Tollefsen, ‘Sex identity,’ Public Discourse, 12 July 2015, text at http://www.thepublicdiscourse.com/2015/07/15306/.

[5] See for example, Richard A Lippa, Gender, Nature and Nurture, 2ed  (London: Routledge, 2005).

[6] It should be noted that although intersex people are often placed in the category of transgender people, they are not transgender. They are not people who are seeking to inhabit a sexual identity different from that of their body.

[7] Transgender Trend, ‘The ‘Pink and Blue Brain’ Myth’ at https://www.transgendertrend.com/brain-research/.

[8] Oliver O’Donovan, Begotten or Made? (Oxford: OUP, 1984), pp. 29-30.

[9] P.J. Harland ‘Menswear and Womenswear: A Study of Deuteronomy 22:5,’ (Expository Times, 110, No.3,1988), p.76

[10] Tom Wright, Paul for Everyone – I Corinthians (London: SPCK, 2003), p.143

[11] C S Lewis, The Great Divorce (Glasgow: Fontana, 1972), pp. 66-67.

[12] Augustine, The City of God, Book XIV.4, text in David Knowles (ed), Augustine, City of God (Harmondsworth: Penguin 1972), p. 553.

[13] The Evangelical Alliance, Transsexuality (Carlisle: Paternoster Press, 2000), p. 82.

[14] Evangelical Alliance, p.83.