Dale M. Coulter
I want to return to the motion on gender identity affirmation. I have already argued against this motion because a) it adds to the 16 additional statements under the obligations for ministers thereby creating a new set of laws that outnumber our doctrinal and practical commitments, b) it unnecessarily uses culture-war language, and c) it makes life much more difficult for bi-vocational ministers and for chaplains.
In this article, I want to return to the final point. I have been surveying ministers in a number of ministry settings. A theme is that the prohibitions will make it extremely difficult to do ministry on the ground. Life is messy and we have to allow our ministers to operate in the mess even while we affirm the biblical position. I have written a statement in two parts that I think affirms a biblical stance (see here and here).
Let me sketch out some current scenarios among Pentecostal ministers (not all are Church of God). These are real-life scenarios based on what is happening right now on the ground. I have kept some details hidden and altered other details for the sake of privacy.
1. A military chaplain discovered after a year that the person he had been working with had transitioned from a woman to a man. The person had already undergone breast reduction surgery, hormone blockers, and was lifting weights. The chaplain had been introduced to the person with a male name and pronouns. The military chaplain used those regularly. After learning about this transition, the chaplain’s response was first to cultivate the relationship because he believes God calls us to be there in the trenches. The chaplain said that we should have a statement affirming the reality of male and female from a biblical perspective but that he needs to have the freedom to operate in the messiness of the situation in which this person is a fellow soldier who is entitled to all the rights of every soldier.
2. A hospital chaplain discovered that a colleague in the chaplaincy decided to transition. He was married but decided that he wanted to become a woman. His wife chose to walk the road with him for now. This chaplain is now faced with the situation of how to minister to the wife and to the husband who has decided to transition. What is key is a ministry of presence so that there can be a gospel-centered influence. The chaplain mentioned to me that the Church of God should have a clear stand, but there are realities like this that should be left to the minister. The work environment, the decision of the wife to support the husband during his transition, and the need to minister to both means that there are no easy decisions. You must meet people where they are and move from that point on.
3. A public school teacher who is bi-vocational has a student come to him who is already taking puberty blockers. The student is a biological female but wishes to transition. The student has chosen a new name to go along with this change and explicitly asks the school teacher to refer to her by the new name. The public school teacher thinks to himself that he has a number of students who choose nicknames or even other names. On this basis, he decides that for now it’s best to go with the student’s new name because he wants to develop a relationship with the student and walk through the steps. The goal is to help the student understand the dynamics of transitioning and the kind of harm it will do. Still, he must meet the student where she is. He wonders what the Church of God might do to him as a bi-vocational minister for taking these steps in a public school system. He thinks the denomination should spell out the biblical response, but should not force him into a situation where it is either minister to the student or walk away.
4. A Canadian Pentecostal pastor is told that the son of a couple in his church has elected to transition. The son continues to come to church with the family. Because the son’s name is gender neutral (say Blake or Alex), he continues to use it as part of his transition. The son’s parents have decided to go along with the son for now although they wrestle with this decision. The local school fully affirms the son’s decisions. The pastor wants to help the parents and the son work through this gender dysphoria knowing that most kids grow out of it. He needs to keep the parents and the son in church and yet also remind them of what the Church of God teaches. This is challenging in the Canadian context. He wants to avoid being needlessly combative knowing that language of judgment and condemnation could be interpreted as “hate language” and land his local church and the denomination in the Canadian courts. At the same time, he wants a denomination that has a clear articulation of the biblical reasoning behind the rejection of transgenderism with its embrace of gender fluidity rather than the biblical mandate of male and female. He needs a statement that offers solid reasoning of biblical truths.
These scenarios are a drop in the bucket of what is happening right now. The more I survey the landscape, the more it becomes apparent that the Church of God needs clear guidance on transgenderism. The problem with the resolution and the motion is that they are framed in the language of the culture war. One minister told me that both seemed “mean-spirited.” This minister agreed with the stance, but not the language.
They also make no distinction between the larger ideology that should be opposed and the person struggling with gender dysphoria who must be embraced. Gender dysphoria is a psychological disorder akin to anorexia or bulimia.
Many individuals struggle with psychological disorders. We don’t condemn people for their struggles. We must distinguish between affirming the dignity of the individual created in the image of God and affirming the position.
Jesus requires us to go to the least of these. We must welcome all. Yet, this welcoming of all does not mean we compromise our biblical ethic. It’s about how we articulate this ethic that matters, not just what we say. We need a much more robust statement on transgenderism than either the resolution or the motion makes.