NOTE TO READERS: Subsequently to writing this I learned the interview is a re-editing of an interview actually done in December of 2018. There is some indication that Pastor Wurm may have altered his approach significantly since then. I have a friend checking on it. Nevertheless, what I wrote is accurate for the interview as done at that time.
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Rev Matthew Wurm was interviewed this last week on Issues Etc on an issue titled “Identity Politics and Transgenderism” (Issues Etc’s title, not mine). Now as I have said before, I am not any kind of expert on transgender issues. But a couple of things in the interview really bothered me. I wrote to Matthew, asking if we could have a conversation. But, they are important enough that I think I am going to mention my issues here where other pastors can see them and consider them should they have a need to discuss the transgender experience and our response in the congregation.
Firstly, throughout the interview Matthew seemed to trivialize the experience of transgender people. More than once he essentially said that being transgender is about feelings and that we need to shine the truth of God’s Word into the individual’s life. He also implied that gender dysphoria is not a real condition but is caused by some other kind of “disordered passions.” To support this he used examples of people who transitioned or began to transition and then reverted to their birth gender.
Why is it that people, especially in the LCMS, think that feelings are less traumatic than physical pain? The reality is quite the contrary. In fact, often “feelings” have physical sources. Certainly we are learning that many, if not most, “mental illnesses” have roots in physical problems, chemical imbalances. If a person says they feel as a woman inside but have a male body and that this is causing tremendous distress, why don’t we take them at their word and believe this is actually their experience and that the pain is real? Matthew himself pointed out that around 40% of people who experience this sense of difference between their identity and their physical body attempt suicide – that is actually attempt suicide, by the way, not just feel suicidal. Obviously the pain is quite quite real. And yet he dismissed that as “just feelings” and even fleeting.
We lose a lot of credibility and do great harm to the church when we don’t take people seriously and when we trivialize their experience. Original sin has corrupted the human experience all the way through. To say that it can not create a dysphoria between a person’s internal sense of self and the body is to minimize our own theology on the corruption of the world. To be blunt, this attitude that gender dysphoria is “just a mental illness” is far more Freudian than it is biblical. And it is little credit to us to follow psychological philosophy rather than the Bible. Given the Biblical view, yes, it is quite likely and even probable that people would be born with a disconnect between their identity and their body.
So the trivialization of the issue through out the interview was not only grating but wrong and harmful.
Harmful, also was the trivialization of the motives of those who support transitioning. The motives were portrayed as serving a political agenda and being a result of postmodernism. First, yes there was a movement called “postmodernism” which questioned objective reality. But, no, not everything the world does or says that we disagree with is a result of postmodernism. In fact, about 90% of the time when I hear pastors claim “postmodernism” as the root of whatever problem they are addressing it is really more of a bogeyman than reality. Postmodernism has become a favorite go-to villain to simplify issues and dismiss people we disagree with or do not understand.
The reality is that those who support transitioning are simply trying to do the best they can to relieve another human being’s suffering. If you are a parent of a 9 year old child who is trying to cut off their penis or is threatening suicide because they feel like a girl and their body is a boy, what are you going to do? Mark Yarhouse, a Christian who has studied this field extensively, says that few studies show any success of talk therapy to change their feelings. And, from my experience in interacting with other gay people and with transgender individuals, conversion therapy is not only useless but dangerous. (Don’t forget that the child who was the subject of the “sissy-boy” experiment that was hailed as such a success in helping a boy become masculine and to give up feminine traits killed himself 20 years later) So,when it becomes obvious their child can not find peace by altering their internal sense, of course parents are going to look to the option of altering the physical appearance of their child’s body. They want very much for their child to be at peace with the struggle between experience and physical presence. They are simply looking for a way to keep their child alive and as free from extreme distress as possible.
Is physical transitioning the answer? To be blunt, I have grave concerns, especially when transitioning children. Mark Yarhouse also mentions that 60-75% of cases of gender dysphoria in children will resolve in adolescents with the caveat, however, that around 75% of those who were gender dysphoric as children and whose dysphoria resolved at puberty will, nevertheless, identify as a sexual minority (gay, lesbian or bi). So do we disrupt the natural growth and development of kids with artificial hormones and hormone blockers? And, of course, research is still continuing with hormones adjustments to treat dysphoria short of transitioning. There is also Mark Yarhouse’s own version of talk therapy which, rather than seeking to resolve the conflict or make the feelings go away, helps the participant to figure out for themselves, essentially, how to live with the conflict between faith and sexual orientation. It might be that this would help some with sexual identity disconnects as well. So it may be that in the future there will be more than a greater variety of effective options. Yet, even if these do become realistic options for some, or many, there will still be those for whom they don’t “work.” That is the nature of the beast anytime we are dealing with human experience and pain.
Regardless of what might be possible in the future, the reality is that in the present there are few options for some gender dysphoric individuals to be at peace with themselves and we can not blame but, in fact, should respect the fact that a large segment of the US public feels compassion for these people and want to help. Dismissing this compassion as “postmodernism” not only shows an ignorance of current social and personal concerns but trivializes and even demonizes what is, in fact, a good aspect of American society, a general and committed desire to help people escape suffering, feel better and to be happy. Whether or not the method advocated is the best route, the motives are good.
Trivializing the motives of parents, friend and people who want to help a suffering loved one is not only stupid. It is also cruel.
I don’t know what the answer is. I have not faced gender dysphoria myself since early high school. So I don’t know what would help people. But I do know two things:
1) You do not apply the law to an already repentant individual. Matthew suggested was that we should encourage the individual to contemplate the light of God’s Word and His good gift of male and female. Cool. Let’s try that with someone who is dying. Shall we counsel them to contemplate God’s good gift of life and health? Or how about blind? Should such a person find peace in considering God’s good gift of eyes and light?
What Matthew was suggesting was, in fact, that we should apply the Law.
But a gender dysphoric congregant is not an unrepentant sinner. Quite the reverse. They hate the situation they find themselves in. They know they should not be experiencing a disconnect between themselves and their body. They know and feel, probably more keenly than any of us, that this is not the way God created them to be. In all likelihood they have been miserable and have spent a lot of time, money, energy and prayer in trying to feel like their biological sex, in trying to be “normal.” They have cried, prayed, begged, agonized and even considered suicide. THAT is REPENTANCE! And, according to our own theology WE DO NOT APPLY THE LAW TO A REPENTANT INDIVIDUAL!!! They are not ignorant either of natural law nor of God’s revealed law. The pastor is bringing nothing at all from the law they have not already experienced and known themselves. Such an approach is in direct violation of our own stated practical theology. That is NOT compassion on the part of the pastor but merely ignorance and stupidity.
2) They desperately need the Gospel and Christian friendship. They need the Gospel in all its aspects, not just the bare bones. They need that know that God really does love them in Christ. They need the gospel passages of the scripture fully and completely explored with them by their pastor, not just the sentence or two that stands in for Gospel in the typical sermon today. They need more than “God forgives you.” They need to know what the forgiveness means, that God loves them, wants them and even rejoices in them. They need Christian friendship and fellowship, not some brute whose idea of “compassion” is to dump law on an already despairing sheep. They need someone who will listen, who will talk, who will be there and whom they know will still be a friend regardless of which road they take in their decision to bear pain or transition.
That last is especially important. I don’t deal much with gender dysphoria. But I do deal extensively with gay people. And those I know who have chosen and maintain celibacy or mixed-orientation marriage over the long run have been those who knew they had friends and pastors who would remain with them and accept them no matter what decision they made regarding sex. In contrast, Those who committed to celibacy but knew their church and pastor would abandon them if they found a partner seldom were able to maintain that commitment. Their commitment was brittle and fell apart after a short time. Yes, it means that many will choose to transition. And it does mean if they do we will have to be ready to continue to welcome them and friends and brothers and sisters in Christ every bit as much as we did before they began to transition. (frankly, I am ashamed I feel I need to use “have to” there as it were a chore to remain a friend. It should be a joy) But being willing to commit to friendshp and fellowship regardless of the path chosen also opens the possibility that many will choose a harder and much darker road. The cost of “compassionately hitting people upside the head with the law” is that the harder road remains closed and few will attempt because no one can walk that road alone.
I hope and pray we can eventually find a better road for people than transitioning. (which seems unlikely since the Church seems pretty much dedicated to complaining about “identity politics” than exploring ways to help). But one thing is for sure: trivializing the pain people experience and belittling the motives of those who try to help is NOT that answer.