Gender fluidity is confusing and challenging to churches. How should we respond?
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Jaimie first arrived at our ministry in Grade 9. I engaged her in conversation during our registration night and she began to tell me her story, including how her last youth group experience had been really difficult. She was looking for a safe place to belong. I immediately introduced her to some of our leaders and other students, and after an awkward start, Jaimie ended up in a small group with my wife and another fantastic leader.
Like all of us Jaimie was on a journey, but hers had a complexity we hadn’t been aware of in our ministry before. Jaimie was wrestling with her gender identity. Back then, we were just waking up to the idea that students in our midst might have been struggling with sexual orientation – gender identity or gender dysphoria was not even in our vocabulary.
As with all our students, our leaders (and many of our students) committed themselves to loving Jaimie right where she was. Jaimie’s journey was difficult in many ways, but she stayed with us through high school. Our leaders and her friends continued to journey with her both during and beyond high school.
After high school Jaimie began gender reassignment therapy. I remember the first time she entered our home as a man. I’m not sure I was completely prepared, but I was thankful Jaimie felt he was still welcome in our home.
A few years ago, we received a very sad phone call telling us Jaimie had died. The pain was great for Jaimie’s family and community, and for my wife and I as well.
Since that time I’ve reflected on how I journeyed with Jaimie. There are elements of the journey about which I am thankful, and many parts I wish I could have a "do over." It has forced me to think about what it looks like for churches to be a place of redemption for all people, including sexual minorities.
Specifically, it has me thinking about how we can be communities where people experience redemption, even in churches where we believe God’s design for gender is male and female, and believe sex is to be experienced within the context of a heterosexual marriage. My thoughts on this are by no means the final word on the issue, but they might be a starting point for an important conversation we need to have, and that I am sure is happening in churches across Canada.
Remember, we don’t just want to speak the truth. We want people to hear the truth.
Certainly we need to be people who are clear on our beliefs and theology. We need to do our homework, and we need to have convictions. But when it comes to declaring or sharing our convictions, we need to do it in such a way that we could be heard redemptively, which means we need to watch what we say and how we say it.
Perhaps Galatians 6:1–2 is helpful for us. "Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ."
- We need to be spiritual, not "holier than thou." There is a difference. By spiritual I mean people whose character reflects the fruit of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. The more we enter the conversation (and relationships) with this disposition, the better we will be heard.
- We need to seek restoration with gentleness. This means we do what we can to help people see we are for them, not against them.
- We need to be humble. We all have our own issues to work through, and none of us have arrived. We are all marred by sin and in desperate need of the gospel.
- And we need to persevere. The journey of truth is a long one. We need to fight to "bear one another’s burdens." At the very least that means staying available for the long haul.
I remember when one of our leaders gently asked Jaimie the question, "Do you need me to affirm the decisions you are making to know that I love you?" Jaimie said no. Jaimie experienced no tension between truth and love with that particular leader because the truth had been lovingly and clearly communicated over a long period of time.
Seek first to understand before being understood
For those of us who believe God’s design for gender identity is binary (male and female), and God’s design for sex is in the context of a heterosexual marriage, and especially if we are enjoying a healthy marriage relationship ourselves, we need to accept the fact that we are in a privileged position.
Things might be easier for us. We probably don’t fully understand how our position is heard and experienced by those not in our position. So we need to listen. We need to fight for understanding. We need to acknowledge where God’s design, His plan – while a good plan – is at times a very hard plan to pursue. We need to be emotionally present and engaged with the people in our care.
Jaimie heard me speak a fair amount about God’s design for sex and sexuality. I wish I had spent more time hearing Jaimie speak about his experience and how he perceived God’s design. I wish I would have done a better job of mourning with those who mourn.
Quit making an idol out of sex and marriage
I love sex. And I love marriage. Both have been created for good, and both are a gift from the Father. But neither sex nor marriage is ultimate.
Sometimes the way we talk about it and the amount of time we spend talking about it in Canadian churches says to our people that the only hope for intimacy and wholeness is a vibrant sex life in the context of marriage.
If we are going to acknowledge God’s call for some to live without sex, we also need to acknowledge His call for the Body of Christ to be a community of intimacy. And we need to work hard to create that community. After all, we can actually live without sex, but we can’t live without intimacy.
When was the last time we did a series on the holiness of being single? Or a series on family intimacy as the Body of Christ? As I look in the New Testament, it seems to me Jesus might have valued family intimacy within the Body even more than intimacy within the nuclear family (think Matthew 12:50: "For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother").
In Matthew 19:29 Christ said, "Everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life." This passage is convicting for me.
I know my theological position on sex and sexuality means many people will be asked to "leave" houses, brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers, children. But I’m afraid that because of my selfishness, because I don’t like being inconvenienced – because I don’t know what it actually looks like to function as the Body and am unwilling to sacrifice for it – I will not provide a community to others, the kind of community that allows others (and me) to experience that depth of intimacy we all need.
While I know we could have done better, I think Jaimie had a taste of community in our ministry. I’ll never forget the day I received a phone call from his principal after a particularly rough day for Jaimie. The principal asked Jaimie if he had a safe place to go and his answer was his small group. I love Jaimie’s small group. I love the community they fought to be. I love that Jaimie experienced his small group as community.
Embrace biblical Christianity in all areas of faith and life
Sociologist Christian Smith coined the phrase "moralistic therapeutic deism" in his 2005 book Soul Searching. He says it defines the current understanding of Christianity among American adolescents. At the very foundation of this mistaken way of seeing Christianity, God’s responsibility in the life of His followers is to make them feel good and be happy.
We have a tendency within the Western Church to propagate this disposition, except when it comes to gender and sexuality. Then we suddenly become about "deny yourself and take up your cross." This is unfair and discriminatory.
If we are going to be communities where all people can experience the grace and redemption of the gospel, we need to be communities defined by the gospel in at least three areas (and many more).
- Identity must be seen and pursued in Christ alone. We need to model and help our people understand the very foundation of who they are is Christ, not sex, not sexuality, and not anything else that can get in the way. We are a people "in Christ" above and beyond all else. This is our identity. And at the core it means we have all been created in His image; we have all been marred by sin; Christ restores our image in His sight by His work on the cross; our experiences do not define who we are, but we respond to them by knowing who and whose we are; and Christ can redeem all our experiences for His glory. He gives us purpose in the midst of all of them.
- Yes, discipleship must be defined by the call to "deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow Jesus," but this disposition is more than an issue. It needs to be an ethos. We are a people who regularly say no to self and yes to Christ. Suffering is not something to be avoided (nor pursued), but rather accepted as part of the journey on this side of heaven. Our battle is to see Jesus as so beautiful that though we lose everything, still, along with Job, in the midst of our grieving, we can worship.
- We constantly proclaim the hope of heaven. We live in the "now and not yet" reality of the Kingdom. Paul said the church in Colossae was able to love others well because of "the hope laid up for [them] in heaven" (Colossians 1:5). If our time on earth is all we have, as Paul said, we are to be pitied for believing what we believe and living as we live. But our time on earth is not all we have. The new heaven and the new earth is yet to come, and this hope renews us in the midst of our brokenness. Romans 8:23 says, "And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies."
I miss Jaimie. I wish I could sit with him and hear his story. I wish I could go back and listen better. I wish I could be a better conduit of God’s grace in his life. I’m thankful for the people who loved Jaimie well. I’m thankful I was part of a church that was fighting, struggling to love Jaimie well. I want all churches to be places where people like Jaimie can come see and experience the truth of Jesus Christ. I want every church to be a redemptive community. We have been called to a time such as this.
Sid Koop is executive director of Truth Matters Ministries and Canadian Youth Workers Conference Regional Training.