We don’t get to pick our times; God does that.

We also don’t get to pick the challenges that confront the church in any given era. The culture determines the issues that require the church’s truthful witness.

We don’t have the luxury of choosing a narrow sliver of cultural space for faithful thinking and action. Jesus is Lord of all. Discipleship is never timeless. We’re to train up believers in understanding and living according to the unchanging truths of the faith, yes, but always in a way that equips them to resist the most prevalent falsehoods spreading over the world right now. Faithful Christian formation requires us to expose and counter the distortions and deceptions of our time.

A pastor friend of mine in the U.K. recently expressed astonishment at how many pastors in America never (or rarely) speak publicly about sex, gender, and identity. How can we expect the next generation to be biblically grounded if we don’t explain and expound Christian conviction about the goodness and givenness of our bodies, if we fail to offer clear and coherent answers from Scripture about the nature of humanity and our gendered selves?

What will this kind of engagement look like? How can leaders be faithful in addressing these issues?

In a recent segment about transgender controversies in Christianity Today’s podcast The Bulletin, Mike Cosper talked with Nicole Martin (chief impact officer at CT) and Madeleine Kearns, a staff writer at National Review who hails from the U.K. Their conversation juxtaposed two approaches to questions of gender and identity in the church today.

Convictional and Candid

Kearns comes at the issue directly, delineating between those who think the transgender movement is a wonderful idea that should be fully embraced and those who think we’ve turned a corner toward cultural insanity. Kearns makes clear her position: “I think this stuff is pretty insane and difficult to justify,” she says, and she mentions the various angles of debate including free speech, the purpose of medicine and treatment, the welfare of children, the safety of women-only spaces, and the legitimacy of gender-specific sports.

For Kearns, what matters most is conviction expressed candidly. Convictions about the nature and reality of biological sex will lead us to oppose certain cultural trends. In pushing for equality and against gender stereotypes, Kearns notes, some feminists in the late 20th century began to erase the reality of male/female differences (physically and socially), setting the stage for today’s debates. A decade ago, a libertarian posture toward adult transitions (“Be whatever you want to be”) seemed most prominent nationwide. Even conservatives thought it courteous and generous to adopt someone’s preferred pronouns.

But as transgender activism has become ever more demanding and aggressive, it’s now clear the bending of language serves an ideological purpose. “Compassion isn’t compassion unless it’s truthful,” Kearns says. And we mustn’t surrender plainspoken language that serves our argument about biological reality. Compassionate conversations matter, but apart from clearly stated convictions, there can be no conversation (which seems to be the goal of some transgender ideologues—to shut down any debate and shout down any dissent).

Conversational and Compassionate

In contrast, Nicole Martin says the goal right now shouldn’t be persuasion (at least not initially) but to make space for the conversation itself. Issues of identity are thorny. Martin sees the complexity in relating to a person who may “wrestle with a God-given identity, a selected identity, an identity that they feel very protective of.”

Like Kearns, Martin recognizes God’s gift of distinction and the need to honor our differences. Yet she thinks the church’s energy would be better directed elsewhere. The realization that some of the Christians involved in transgender debates weren’t at the forefront of rallying for women’s rights in the past makes her uneasy. She prefers to move from the transgender issue back to the women’s rights question more generally. And rather than taking a confrontational approach, she begins with our failures in Christian witness over the years, how “the church has silenced the voices of women” in ways that require reconciliation and healing.

Regarding sexuality and gender, Martin believes the church in the past has been better at expressing conviction than showing compassion. She realizes it’s impossible for Christians to try “sit in the middle on all issues” but notes how especially “sticky” it is to figure out how to address someone or continue a relationship with someone on the other side. In the end, she doesn’t answer Cosper’s question of what faithful witness looks like, claiming instead that “the question itself is exactly where we need to be.”

This Is Our Time

There’s plenty of overlap between Kearns and Martin here, but I’m struck by the differences in their outlooks and temperaments. Kearns focuses on convictions first and how to be direct and candid about them in conversation. Martin focuses on conversations first and the importance of showing compassion in expressing one’s convictions. Church leaders who align with Martin will have different priorities and make different choices than the ones who align with Kearns.

When it comes to this subject, I’m with Kearns. I don’t think Martin’s approach will be tenable in five (or even two) years. As is often said, you will be made to care. We may wish to change the subject, but what’s the point in discussing the failures of the church to women in the past if we’re unable to even define what a woman is in the present? And as much as we might yearn for constructive dialogue about these matters, it should be clear by now that gender activists aren’t looking for conversation. Their goal is conquest, a world in which the basic realities of human nature and existence are denied and all dissenters are viewed like the “savages” of Brave New World.

But even if the cultural opposition weren’t so fierce, I still think Kearns is right. We have a positive case to make on this issue. “The gospel should meet people at the point of their deepest confusion and at the height of their loftiest ideals,” writes Chris Brooks. What better place for the rescue of amazing grace than a world drowning in confusion, a society unmoored from embodied reality? The church offers an alternative society to this cultural dystopia because we see creation as a gift to be received, not a constraint to be cast off. That’s why, nearly a century ago, G. K. Chesterton wrote,

Christianity does appeal to a solid truth outside itself; to something which is in that sense external as well as eternal. It does declare that things are really there; or in other words that things are really things. In this Christianity is at one with common sense; but all religious history shows that this common sense perishes except where there is Christianity to preserve it.

The Questions Are Coming

The new gender ideology has reached into all kinds of spaces and raised all sorts of questions. Just ask pastors what they’re facing. Here’s a smattering of situations I’ve heard from church leaders in just the last month.

  • What’s the appropriate response of an elementary school kid in your church when the class throws a party celebrating another student’s newfound gender identity?
  • How does your church support the distraught parents of a highly online teenage girl who is threatening suicide if not allowed to medically block her physical development?
  • What’s your decision regarding a minor who identifies as trans and who wants to attend church camp?
  • How do you instruct young people on the Bible’s teaching of sex and gender while simultaneously warning them against the dehumanizing and hateful rhetoric often deployed toward those who identify as transgender?
  • How do you counsel the realtor whose livelihood is threatened because she defied a corporate order to post the transgender flag on her Facebook page? Or the church member whose job is in jeopardy because he won’t sign a statement affirming all of his company’s diversity, equality, and inclusion policies?

If we’re to truly make space for a conversation on these matters, the starting place must be our convictions about reality. All our choices must flow from those convictions. Strong convictions are the prerequisite for true conversations. And convictions and compassion aren’t in opposition. When the world is falling en masse for a bold and terrible lie, the most important and compassionate thing the church can do is uphold the courageous and irrepressible truth.

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