Christianity,  Theology/Bible

A theological earthquake with evangelicals caught flat-footed

Jonathan Merritt111215_1739_Atheologica1.png has published an interview that evangelicals would do well to take note of. In this piece for Religion News Service, Merritt talks to Mark Yarhouse and Megan DeFranza about their new books dealing with transgender and intersex respectively. Why is this interview important?

The interview highlights two books that represent a massive revision of biblical anthropology. I finished reading Yarhouse’s book about a month ago, and I am reading DeFranza’s book now. And their revisions are not benign. They represent a theological earthquake that for some reason has yet to register on the evangelical Richter Scale. The ideas aren’t new, but I think their mainstreaming within the evangelical movement is. What is the earthquake?

These two books are laying the groundwork for evangelicals to abandon the male/female binary that is taught in scripture. Defranza’s book challenges the idea that Genesis 1 defines a binary norm for human beings—that God’s creation of “male and female” is God’s paradigm for humanity. Yarhouse’s book is challenging the notion that male/female biological differences define normative role distinctions between men and women.

There is much more to their arguments than this, and I hope to review these books in greater detail in the very near future. But for now, I just want to highlight that this interview distills some of the observations that I have made in reading their actual books. Yarhouse, for instance, does not rule out sex-reassignment surgery as one way for transgender persons to manage their gender dysphoria. Yarhouse prefers less “invasive” management strategies like cross-dressing or wearing the underwear of the opposite sex, but he nevertheless finds no theological grounds for ruling out sex-reassignment surgery.

Most evangelicals will recognize this as a massive anthropological revision that deserves a serious response. But somehow, it has not been received that way. Earlier this year, a reviewer at The Gospel Coalition said that Yarhouse’s book “marks a step forward in Christian engagement with gender issues.” I couldn’t disagree more.

The great theological challenge facing the church today is anthropological, and the challenge is a direct consequence of late modernity in the aftermath of the sexual revolution. Basic ideas about what it means to be created in the image of God as male and female are now up for grabs. And what is perhaps most surprising about this development is the fact that evangelicals seem to have been caught flat-footed—so much so that these two books have barely registered a blip on the evangelical radar screen. I think that is about to change.


  • Aaron

    Denny, I’m not sure if you’re familiar with the very public transition of a lutheran pastor, Gina (Greg) Eilers? I spent a few months dialoguing with him on facebook (and others) about his dysphoria and his transition. There’s another “cause” here that you didn’t mention, namely hormonal change in-utero due to certain drugs taken by the mother. It was an interesting, and yet, frustrating conversation.

    Without going to the OT, I would think that cross-dressing or surgical solutions violate the man/woman worship commands of Paul in 1 Corinthians. Taking into account the cultural issues at play in those passages, it’s clear that Paul wants men to worship as men and women as women. I think we have to view dysphoria, even if caused by genetic or other factors, as a result of the fall. It is something we need to walk people through, and help them fight with. . . not help them give in to. I hope we hold to that.

    • Daniel Wright

      And by “fight with” you should realize the devastation that will bring to individual lives. That said, I’m glad you cared enough to engage in the conversation and actually think about causes other than “choice.”

  • Aaron

    Also, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the Eunic issue that was brought up in that interview. Do you think Jesus was saying what Yarhouse and DeFranza were claiming?

  • Christiane Smith

    There is a place somewhere in the house of God for all who are imperfect, because the house of God is a place of healing . . .

    I suggest we all need healing, especially if we are blind to the sufferings of others, or we have felt that we needed to contribute to the burden of others instead of helping them carry what must already seem unbearable to them

    God have mercy on all of us together. We do not, we cannot, live as human persons in isolation from each others’ pain.

    • Gus Nelson


      You appear to believe words matter since you regularly contribute comments to this site. It seems to me much of this discussion revolves around what the words of the Bible mean. Maybe you think Denny’s understanding of Scripture is misguided. Fine. However, if Denny’s understanding is correct, then how is it “healing” in any sense of the word to allow people to wallow in beliefs that drive them away from God? And how is it reasonable to suggest it is a “burden” to direct people toward God’s view of what we are as human beings?

      • Christiane Smith

        Hi GUS NELSON,
        I can tell you that I wrote that comment while thinking about a quote from St. Ambrose, this:
        ““For he who endeavours to amend the faults of human weakness ought to bear this very weakness on his own shoulders, let it weigh upon himself, not cast it off. For we read that the Shepherd in the Gospel (St. Luke 15:5) carried the weary sheep, and did not cast it off. And Solomon says: “Be not overmuch righteous;” (Ecclesiastes 7:17) for restraint should temper righteousness. For how shall he offer himself to you for healing whom you despise, who thinks that he will be an object of contempt, not of compassion, to his physician?
        Therefore had the Lord Jesus compassion upon us in order to call us to Himself, not frighten us away. He came in meekness, He came in humility, and so He said: “Come unto Me, all you that labour and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you.” (St. Matthew 11:28) So, then, the Lord Jesus refreshes, and does not shut out nor cast off, and fitly chose such disciples as should be interpreters of the Lord’s will, as should gather together and not drive away the people of God. Whence it is clear that they are not to be counted among the disciples of Christ, who think that harsh and proud opinions should be followed rather than such as are gentle and meek; persons who, while they themselves seek God’s mercy, deny it to others “

        • Gus Nelson

          Compassion begins with honesty. If Denny’s understanding of the Bible is correct, then isn’t it dishonest to communicate to people they can deny God’s design and do their own thing yet remain a true child of God? As we continue to redefine what it means to be male and female are we not redefining what it means to be human and redefining God’s action in creation? (Genesis 1:27 and Matthew 19:4). If these words matter in the way Denny seems to think they do, then how is it compassionate to help someone remain in denial about what God’s word says?

      • brettcody76

        I think there is a sincere frustration when it comes to the “discussion” about any sexual ethic. Gus proposes that the discussion revolves around “what the words of the Bible mean” and Christiane’s redirection to St. Ambrose is unfulfilling at best. It is frustrating because when you ask about the Bible, they give you the words of the early church. When you ask for the precedent set by the early church, they pretend the precedent of the early church is irrelevant or uninformed.

        • Christiane Smith

          Hi BRETT,
          better there is some ‘discussion’, even if it is ‘unfulfilling’ or ‘frustrating’, then not to engage in dialogue at all . . . at least points of difficulty can then be identified and worked on . . . or not . . .

          I am Christiane, a Catholic woman, who is very much a product of a family that goes back into the Church for over a thousand years, so the words of the Doctors of the Church have meaning for me, and it doesn’t hurt that St. Ambrose in his appeal, has mentioned parts of sacred Scripture. I do not know Gus NELSON’s theological background, but he is hopeful of understanding and so has asked important questions. I do suspect that Gus NELSON and I do not completely share the same thoughts about ‘the dignity of the human person’ and that this diversity of thought may center around just how much a human person IS defined by their genetic coding for XX or XY sex chromosomes . . . I may tend to think of the human person more in terms of one who has a God-given immortal soul and, if so gifted, an ability to reason. . . . also a ‘heart’ upon which God has written His moral law, and a ‘conscience’ which is capable of enabling the person to make moral decisions that are his or her OWN after consulting the teachings of the Church, one’s own reasonable situation, and after praying to God for guidance . . .

          in short, we both have painted with wide brushes, but where the painting over-laps may not be enough to clarify all concerns . . . still, there is an over-lapping area, and it is there that provides a base for further understanding, yes.

          Complicated? Maybe if ‘easy answers’ are required. But the Body of Christ has been there for two thousand years . . . if I bring some words from a member of that Body who lived long, long ago that I think may shed some light on our present difficulties, then I call forth a voice that lived on this Earth and praised Our Lord as we do today . . . meaningful? to me, yes . . . very. But I do understand ‘frustration’ and how it is that ‘honesty’ and ‘compassion’ have affected those that Christian people wish to help . . . and we have been too much the judges and not enough the people of Christ who embrace all that is broken with love. I am grateful to you and to GUS for the interaction. God Bless!

  • Alistair Robertson

    Very disturbing, but the fist of a cloud (1 Kings 18:44) has been on the horizon for quite some time. I agree with Aaron that 1 Corinthians is a relevant place to go for this issue, and I wonder where the majority of Christian leaders and scholars in the West will say about 1 Cor 11:2-16 when there are no longer any commonly accepted cultural signs of gender to replace the head covering.

    The argument that the Church’s theological struggles at this stage in history have to do with anthropology has never seemed so true.

    • Christiane Smith

      Hi Alistair,
      as to our ‘anthropology’, we also have this to think about:

      ““The primary paradox of Christianity is that the ordinary condition of man is not his sane or sensible condition; that the normal itself is an abnormality. That is the inmost philosophy of the Fall… That whatever I am, I am not myself.”
      (G.K. Chesterton)

  • Don Johnson

    My take is that the more one investigates the various intersex conditions, the more this explodes the idea of a gender binary and that the Christian response should be one of love and certainly NOT proscribing how each intersex individual should try to handle their challenges.

  • Sandra Stewart

    As an anthropologist and with training in linguistics with SIL. There are over 50 references to eunuchs in the bible most not translated that way. The Genesis reference that Denny mentions, the “and” is an inserted word and does not appear in the Hebrew.
    I am one of the transgender Christians that Mark consulted when he was writing the book.

  • Curt Day

    Quite simply, we religiously conservative Christians have to ask ourselves if how we opposed homosexuality has contributed to the motivation in the writing of these books mentioned above. For many of us strongly paired calling homosexuality a sin with opposing same-sex marriage in society. And it seems to me that for as long as we keep that association, people who see the results of that association as being unjust will feel a post-modern compulsion to engage in revisionism.

    • Sandra Stewart

      Or quite simply, for those of us who study outside of a conservative theological paradigm came to a different conclusion. You can not remove a verse from its historical, cultural and linguistic context and have it still be true, nor can you ignore ambiguities in the bible i.e. the bible tells us that life starts with the first breath but also says I knew you before conception.
      I have witnessed first hand the damage done by judge-mental christians ignoring their own sin all the while. It is very convenient to point to some one else and say I am not that. This is what those that are LGBT see, the hypocrisy.

      • Bill Smith

        “I have witnessed first hand the damage done by judge-mental christians ignoring their own sin all the while. It is very convenient to point to some one else and say I am not that. This is what those that are LGBT see, the hypocrisy.”

        Indeed. Then let us repent of our sins and no longer be such hypocrites. Of course if we’re redefining sin to not include homosexuality that might be a bit tough.

        • Christiane Smith

          I think the ‘hypocrisy’ may always be in the sinner who is pointing a finger at ‘that other sinner’ . . .

          something I have noticed is this:
          that some feel ‘ministry’ is the same as ‘pointing the finger’, which it is NOT, nor ever could be, if the ministry follows the way of Our Lord when He was among us . . .
          that ‘finger-pointing’ is not respected by God, which we know from the story of the Pharisee in the temple

          what Christian people know is that they are sinners upon whom God has looked, and this knowledge is a sign that they experienced the humility of the Publican in the temple and received God’s grace in return . . . they prayed the REAL ‘sinner’s prayer’, the biblical one: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” (St. Luke 18)

          And what Christian people know is that it is the Holy Spirit Who points to Christ always. So ministry, real ministry, is not pointing the finger at ‘that other sinner’, but pointing instead to Christ, the Great Physician . . .

          following the way of Our Lord can mean the difference between life and death for people . . . the way of the Pharisee has done far too much harm to people already suffering painful lives, and therefore the hypocrisy is glaring and cannot be hidden.

          My best friend’s step-daughter once wrote these powerful words:
          ” Let me stop being that thing against which anything, everything can break”

  • buddyglass

    It’s interesting to me that TGC and Preston Sprinkle would give Yarhouse’s book such a thumbs-up if it really is that dangerous and contrabiblical. Sprinkle is the guy who co-authored (with Francis Chan) the “rebuttal” book to Rob Bell. He has elsewhere rebutted those who argue that the Bible doesn’t prohibit consensual, monogamous homosexual relationships. For its part, TGC is hardly a bastion of liberalism and permissive Christianity. Denny himself recommended another of Yarhouse’s books (“Homosexuality and the Christian”) in 2012.

    So has he just gone off the rails since then?

  • Daniel Moody

    It is a real worry that Yarhouse is touted as being the ‘go-to’ guy for Christians who wish to understand Transgenderism. Gender theorists do not understand what Transgenderism is. Yarhouse takes his definitions (of ‘gender identity’ and ‘gender dysphoria’) from independent sources (all of which are compromised) instead of trying to understand the concepts themselves. The most basic challenge to Yarhouse (and gender theorists) is this: if sex and Gender are different, and if Transgender means that a person’s sexual identity and ‘gender identity’ are ‘incongruent’, the incongruence can be negative only if there is a conceptual link between sex and Gender: if my shoes are black and my socks are white, they are ‘incongruent’ in terms of colour. And yet there is nothing wrong because there is no conceptual link between shoe and sock colours.

    So what is it about Gender that makes it ‘wrong’? The answer has to be either sex or nothing. If it is sex, the incongruence can be alleviated only by aligning the ‘gender identity’ to the sex. If it is nothing, there is no link between ‘gender identity’ and medicine. The right answer is nothing. Transgenderism is not the state of having a (negative) difference between ones sexual identity and ones ‘gender identity’. Transgender simply means ones legal identity does not correspond with ones sexual identity. But, given that the two identities have no conceptual link, the lack of correspondence has no negative value. Meaning those whose ‘gender identity’ does correspond with their sexual identity (Cisgender) are not ‘normal’.

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