Pastoral care for transgender people: does it require acceptance of LGBT ideology?

Apr 17, 2018 by

by Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream:

Mark Yarhouse has built a reputation as a sound and trustworthy guide in the field of gender confusion. As a Professor of Psychology at a respected American University with a strong evangelical heritage he is frequently quoted with approval by evangelical commentators as someone who combines Christian faith, scientific expertise, pastoral compassion and winsomeness. In 2015 he published a book ‘Understanding gender dysphoria: navigating transgender issues in a changing culture’. Now a much more concise treatment of the subject has arrived. Written in collaboration with one of his doctoral students, Julia Sadusky, ‘Approaching Gender Dysphoria’ has been published by Grove booklets. This received publicity recently in the Church of England Newspaper, who chose to use a direct quotation from the booklet in their headline: Transgender people ‘reflect God in a unique way’.

Really? I had just read an article by another eminent medical doctor, Michael Laidlaw, detailing the terrible consequences of hormone therapy and surgical ‘transition’ treatments, and warning about the lies of the new gender ideology now being overtly preached to children in schools. For Laidlaw, gender dysphoria is a potentially life-threatening mental illness, not something to be celebrated because it helps us understand and experience the divine. Can these two Christians, both experts in a similar field, be talking about the same thing? I ordered Yarhouse’s Grove booklet to find out.

Some children and adults experience gender dysphoria (GD). Yarhouse/Sadusky and Laidlaw agree that this is a distressing psychological condition for which those individuals who suffer deserve to be treated with compassion and respect. But while Laidlaw sees the condition as harmful, requiring therapy for alleviation and recovery of alignment between biological sex and self-perceived gender, Yarhouse is careful not to pass such value judgments.

The first chapter clarifies terms that are used. The second summarises the main approaches to GD in children. The solution advocated by Laidlaw (helping the child accept his or her biological sex) has now “come under fire”, Yarhouse says, because some transgender adults complain that this was tried on them when they were young; it failed and was ‘harmful’. So today, professionals either advocate “watchful waiting”, or are keen to intervene in medically facilitating cross-gender identity. The booklet gives examples of these interventions briefly, again without offering any value judgment.

The booklet’s third chapter attempts to clarify the complicated world of gender identity, by separating out three main strands: personal identity (those struggling with gender dysphoria, sometimes in a painful and private way), those happily adopting a public gender-fluid identity which may or may not combine with alternative sexualities or involve physical transition, and those whose transgender identity becomes more explicitly public and political. These three groups of people need “their own unique response from a thoughtful and engaged Christian community”, say Yarhouse and his co-author.

As they unpack this with a series of examples, the authors emphasise the need for Christians to show empathy, and practice listening and journeying with the transgender person, avoiding expressing shock, disapproval or rejection. In one example, a wife discovers her husband trying on her dresses, and the impression given is that somehow the wife is at fault for not being more understanding. In another case, the focus is entirely on the “angst and confusion” felt by 13 year old Kevin who wants to be a girl, and on an insensitive comment by a Bible study group leader, not on the pain felt by his mother.

In terms of Christian ministry responses, Yarhouse and Sadusky distinguish between a ‘posture’ taken up by the minister (for example, a bible-based conviction about gender), and a ‘gesture’ (practical ways of relating). Yarhouse says that having too inflexible a posture can limit ministry. Not calling someone by their preferred name or pronoun out of principle will be interpreted as hostility. The aim must be to journey with an individual, honouring and validating them, not to tell them they’re wrong. Transgender young people are watching to see if they will be accepted and loved by Christians. Jesus reached out to the “marginalized and forgotten” and so should we.

But then, according to Yarhouse, Christians should be open to the idea that even ministry to trans people with compassion and understanding is not enough – in fact it is patronizing. Rather, it may be that God is being glorified in the story of the trans person, so the cisgendered Christian is actually the person being ministered to. “Wisdom and spiritual fruit” can emerge from such journeying alongside a trans person.


Overall, it has to be said, this booklet is strong on the need for Christians to be compassionate towards people with gender dysphoria and willing to learn from the phenomenon of transgender, but is unreliable in terms of helping Christians navigate the issue from a biblical perspective.

Briefly, here are some serious problems with this booklet from a conservative Christian perspective:

a) The authors appear to be saying that the problem with GD is not the misalignment of physical reality with inner psyche, or the potential mental and physical damage that come from transitioning. Rather it is the pain that trans people feel from not being accepted. Nowhere in the booklet does it say that there is anything inherently wrong with transition medication and surgery.

b) There is no mention of the possibility or desirability of change or cure for people with GD, for example through counselling, except in the negative way that this is what the trans person’s parents or Christian interlocutors would want.

c) There is a brief mention of the huge cultural push to persuade us all that gender is not related to physical sex but is in the mind, and to celebrate trans identities and ideology, but no critique is offered.

d) There is no mention of how increasingly, in certain environments (eg schools), pressure is being applied for all to accept trans dogma. The booklet ends up hinting that the conservative biblical perspective is the problem, and needs to be changed in order to allow trans people to feel comfortable with people of faith. In this, the booklet appears to align with LGBT activists.

e) The authors accept that Jesus was able to balance a conservative bible-based posture with compassionate pastoral gesture, but they don’t go on to apply this to us today. Rather, they say, taking a firm position against gender ideology is inherently inflexible and prevents empathetic journeying.

f) The conclusion strongly suggests the idea that truth is to be found, not in biblical principles, but in humbly walking alongside someone with a very different perspective to me. God is at work, according to the authors, not as Christians resist the transgender ideology and graciously help people suffering with GD back to gender wholeness, but as they listen to and learn from trans people.

Of course, all authentic Christian ministry needs sensitivity and care, but the aim is alignment with God’s purposes for the one who has (even unintentionally) departed from them. In saying that it’s conservative Christians who need to change not the gender-fluid, Yarhouse and Sadusky are echoing familiar LGBT rhetoric.

I was very interested to see, on exploring the Regent University website, that their qualifications in psychology are accredited by the liberal American Psychological Association. That explains the line that the authors take. Hopefully those who trust Professor Yarhouse as the most authoritative and reliable guide in this area will use more discernment in future.


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