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This writing refers to two pieces of legislation recently supported and signed into law by Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds. Senate File 538 prohibits medical personnel from providing gender-altering treatment for minors even if they have their parents’ permission. Senate File 482 requires transgender youth to use bathrooms and locker rooms at school that align with their gender assigned at birth, providing separate facilities only with parents’ permission.
It seems that a lot of people in Iowa and around the U.S. are asking a question these days: “What if…?”
What if my child has to share a locker room with a transgender student? What if we let the people who identify as LGBTQ+ and their allies have a voice in public policy? What if we let parents of a transgender child do what they think is best to help that child be their whole self through affirmation and body-altering surgery?
I asked my own “what if” questions some years ago. I was wrestling with the fact that Christians whose theology I respected were on different sides of the debate about homosexuality and faith. Since I was already familiar with the “it’s a sin” perspective, I asked myself, “What if those who affirm LGBTQ+ persons, and whose scholarship about the Bible is just as considered and conscientious as the ‘conservative’ view, are right?” I had to ask whether their perspective was plausible.
When I studied the arguments, they did seem plausible. Their views simply reflected a different way of looking at the Bible than I had been familiar with, but it was no less valid. These people took the Bible seriously. They did not treat it as a constitution but rather as a library of inspired and diverse writings about God, the world, and ourselves. If their perspective was plausible, I could not dismiss it. Instead, I had to admit that I did not know everything.
I certainly did not know what it was like to be gay. But I knew gay people whose faith in God was deep and life-giving, and whose behavior reflected the kind of love Jesus invites us to express. I began to let go of any certainty about my views. It was scary at first, but eventually it led to a new way of life that was not bound by anxiety over who’s right and who’s not, who’s sinning and who isn’t. I was freed to focus on the love of God for all people.
For those who, for religious reasons, want to limit the options for transgender and other people who identify as LGBTQ+, I suggest setting aside your certainty for a moment and considering the plausibility of a few ideas. These ideas are limited to the Christian scriptures, and I do not presume to advise adherents of other faiths.
What if, when Jesus spoke to the woman caught in adultery, he was not only telling the woman to “go and sin no more,” but also including those men who wanted to stone her? I suspect he intervened to rescue her from their certainty that she was shameful and that they were righteous.
What if the apostle Paul was never intended to have the last word about what is sin and what is not? What if he is simply a good model for wrestling with the gospel of Jesus Christ and applying it to the understandings of one’s historical context? Jesus said that the Holy Spirit will lead us into all truth. He also said that he himself is the truth. These statements compel me to think that my faith is an ongoing experience of wrestling with what it means to follow Jesus, not a rigid dogma by which I dictate how others should act when their identity has no material impact on anyone else’s wellbeing.
What if the story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8 is told so that we will not be quick to judge other people’s sexuality, and to take seriously the Ethiopian’s question, “What is to keep me from being baptized?” Philip’s answer was “nothing.” That word resounds with grace. The man’s altered body was considered deviant, but it did not place him outside of God’s family whatsoever. (There is no indication that he was commanded to repent or to start living like a “real” man.)
What if Jesus were asked about what it means to be born out of kilter with the “norms” of society? There is a story about this too. A man born blind was assumed to be a sinner—or his parents were—because he was outside the “norm.” Jesus refused to engage in a debate about sin. The story of the “righteous” men’s condemnation is both sobering and comical in its uncovering of their faulty perspective about God.
What if I were born in a body that feels out of sync with who I consistently sense I ought to be? If my abnormality were a faulty heart or myopia, nobody would object to measures being taken to correct it. Nobody would condemn me to live my life according to my biology at birth. Yet Senate File 538 signed by Governor Reynolds accomplishes just that for transgender youth.
I contend that her comment that “It’s not easy” to make this decision should have given her enough pause to refrain from such sweeping and discriminatory legislation. The law denies parents the opportunity to act in their children’s best interests, even though this contradicts another law Reynolds pushed that enables public funds to be used for private school tuition because parents “know what is best for their children” in that case.
I know more than one transgender person. The one closest to me is a woman, a beautiful human being. I hate to ask “what if” she had been denied the right to become who she knows herself to be. I wonder whether she would still be alive today after the agony she went through for so many years in a male body.
What if our sexuality is not something we can turn off and on for the sake of the comfort of other people? If it is not binary but is instead a field of possibilities just as are some of our other traits? Sexuality is about far more than anatomy or intimate interactions. It involves the way we experience our bodies and our selves as they relate to the world and people around us.
Despite the fact that sharing locker rooms or bathrooms with transgender people has not been a problem for Iowa students, legislators in support of Senate File 482 have singled them out for exclusion.
So, what if your child is asked to share a locker room or bathroom with someone who makes them feel uncomfortable? What if you taught them that their own comfort is not the standard for living in harmony with other people in this world? What if you taught them that love is the standard, as Jesus taught when asked what is most important in pleasing the God who made us all? He replied, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. All the law and the prophets depend on these two commands.”
Jesus demonstrated that love in literally breaking the laws of ancient scriptures by associating with, affirming, and taking seriously people who were Gentiles, women, “unclean” and “sinners” of every sort. He lived by religious moral code only when it aligned with his innate love and compassion that superseded that code by divine authority. What if we all chose to do the same?
Thank you for this. It is very thought provoking. I always appreciate being provoked into thinking.
Blessing to you.
Thank you for this beautifully-stated alternative to self-righteous certainty. What if we could approach every social issue with such thoughtful humility? And what if the church would set the example? One can only wonder.
Speculating with “what if” scenarios is a very dangerous way to exegete Scripture.
What if God said “to hell with every thing” after Adam and Eve disobeyed His command.
You’re right that exegesis needs to be conscientious and faithful to the text. Frankly, it made me nervous to offer this piece where many fine exegetes would read it. But my intent was to ask us to take the texts seriously, not to dismiss them or skew their meaning. If I failed to do so, I hope to do better in the future.
It is dangerous to ask questions and equally dangerous not to do so. What if Galileo and Copernicus had exegeted science the way the church had exegeted scripture? What if Paul had not questioned Peter? What if the church’s teachings on slavery and treatment of women had gone unquestioned? Dangerous indeed.
I think you did take the texts – and the Gospel – seriously, and this reader is blessed by that.
Engaging with scripture to understand it, live according to it, and then teach it, is dangerous. James tells us, “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will face stricter judgment.” I think your question is a worthy one to ask. It might help us engage with Deists, who are still very much with us. Asking a question does not demand that you necessarily affirm or deny it. You asked a question, what if God abandoned us? I would suggest you study God’s Word to find the answer and do so with an open and curious mind. I would argue what you’ll find is that God, in fact, didn’t abandon their creation. When we label questions as an unfaithful form of studying scripture or a way to exegete scripture, I wonder what we have left. Romans 9-11 is Paul wrestling with the question, “Why have my Jewish siblings rejected Jesus as the Messiah?” He spends a lot of time in Deuteronomy 30:11-14 reimagining it through a Christological lens. “What if Jesus’ death and resurrection changes everything about how we read scripture?” After all, Deuteronomy 30:11-14 is Moses’ argument that the Law is in our heart and not too hard to keep. He says, we can keep it and follow God’s Law. Paul’s theology says the exact opposite, and yet he uses this text, even modifying it, to prove his point. He uses a text that says the exact opposite (justification through following the Law) of the very point is trying to make (justification through faith).
It seems to me that we have two paths, and I’m not advocating for either, but I’ve made my choice.
1. We read the text and do what it says. This is fine enough, but I would suggest it is dangerous and a bit scary.
2. We read the text, but learn from it how people of faith engage with the Word and try to follow their example. This is fine I think, but I would suggest it is dangerous and a bit scary
Well said, Rodney. Curiosity has been my greatest tool for faith and study. Just last night I copied this from Mary Oliver’s poem “Yes! No!”: “Imagination is better than a sharp instrument.” Again, dangerous, but God does not seem threatened by it as far as I can tell.
Deb, you say your intent was to “take the texts seriously, not to dismiss them or skew their meaning” but I think the point is very fairly made what asking a bunch of “what ifs” is not a very good way to do that. You ask, “What if you taught them that love is the standard?” And point to the command “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength..” But since we’re using a bunch of “what ifs” here, what if loving the Lord your God means following his commandments? What if, when Sodom was burned to the ground, it really was because of “deviant” sexual activities? What if the scholars who claim it was because they did so outside a covenantal marriage are wrong? What if God still condemns that activity today? What if failing to do his commands means one is not loving God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength? To turn it toward your premises, what if gender affirming surgeries are a failure to train up a child in the way he should go? What if those whose might have a “plausible” view of Scripture contrary to this are wrong?
Thank you for engaging in this conversation, Theo. Yes, we could carry this too far. But the question is, who decides that, and what are the parameters each of us has accepted? We all have biases, both conscious and subconscious. All the more reason to look deeply into these matters out of reverence for God, and to talk about them with fellow believers.
I am not sure where the rest of my post went (which went on for four more paragraphs), but I want to be clear I was not saying your “what ifs” are necessarily inaccurate. My point was merely that using “what ifs” to reach even a potential conclusion on issues of such substance is dangerous. Here, it appears to lead to a conclusion that Scripture may somehow support gender affirming surgeries for minors (or, to be frank about it, sterilization–modern eunuchs) and exposure of minor boys and girls to the “parts” of those having bodies of the opposite gender (albeit transgender individuals). That’s pretty heavy stuff.
Even as a somewhat theologically liberal individual, it seems this leap needs more substance. We’ve gone from championing equal treatment of gays, to gay marriage, and now to being opposed to banning surgeries for _kids_ which would forever proscribe their ability to have their own kids? What if loving your child means surgically altering them because this relates to the innate love and compassion of Christ? I don’t think we should even attempt an exegesis of this that relies in the slightest on “what if”.
Good points, Theo. Your comments are helpful in my consideration of these issues.
Of course the “What If?” approach can become an infinite regress and is easily caricatured into a kind of reductio ad absurdum. However, this blog was by no means suggesting we only ask “What If?” but include this in a range of other exegetical and hermeneutical approaches. As such and as a nuance on other wholly legitimate interpretive moves, Deb’s suggestion to at least countenance a range of “What If” kinds of questions could be seen as a call to humility. As in many things, both and/or all sides of debates surrounding LGBTQ+ issues could do with a few doses of humility now and again. As Duane Keldermann said at the end of a 90-minute presentation on his views on LGBTQ+ and Scripture recently, “I could be wrong.” I don’t hear that much from a lot of folks. So what if we all held and presented our views with some humility and see how that might steer us in more helpful directions than where all of this too often tends to go?
Thank you, Scott. That is precisely my intention. Instead of dismissing other views, it costs me nothing but a little pride–of which I have plenty to spare–to ask, “What if they are right?” Or does their story help me understand the text or issue in a way that is helpful? The history of hermeneutics indicates to me that refusing to give ground on a particular interpretation will eventually lose any meaningful effect. My other point that I could have stated more clearly is this. Jesus seems to say that the question is not about who’s right and who’s wrong, but how do we love. The answers to that aren’t clear either, but at least it gets to the heart of the matter and does keep us humble (hopefully) at the same time.
First of all, thank you for challenging me with “what if statements” which helped me be willing to see situations from a different perspective. I was tracking pretty good with you until the sharing the locker room or bathroom “what if.” When my sexuality was emerging at the tender ages of 12-18, I had a hard time being in the locker room with a bunch of girls let alone someone different than me. Times were different 60 years ago. Part of it was my upbringing. Not much was revealed and privacy was important —to me.
(Side note)I wonder how soon you know your gender orientation is different from your birth record?
You began that paragraph —I didn’t notice it at first—by using the general words “someone who makes them feel uncomfortable”. That could be almost anything. Today, in any given locker room or bathroom, I wonder how many children—adults—are prepared to experience the uncomfortable?
We have to start somewhere to change how we “view” these beautiful bodies and the orientation that God gave us. Teaching children —and adults—-that love is the standard God asks of us is a great place to start …soon!
PS my website, if I had one, would be sinnerseekersaint🙂
Thank you, Joyce. Yes, “uncomfortable” and “threatening” are on a similar spectrum, and wisdom would have us err on the side of caution for our kids. And I appreciate your reminder of what it’s like to be an adolescent! As for my blog handle, I chose to put “saint” first because that is how God sees me (2 Cor 5.21) in Christ, and I am painfully, gratefully conscious of my sinful self! Or I could just say I chose to make it in the same order as simul justus et peccator! (Lutheran influence)
As someone on the outside who got shoved there I commend your intelligent courage. I ain’t gonna enter the “discussion” other than to sit with Jesus and celebrate your grace in the midst of stones.
Thanks, Jack. Grace and peace to you.