Thoughts on Gender Identity for the Church

Over 2 million viewers tuned in to watch episode 4 of NBC’s “Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist” on Sunday, March 1st, 2020. Season 1 began earlier this year and focused around Zoey Clarke, a young computer programmer who because of a freak accident could hear others’ innermost feelings through song without their knowledge (or willful participation). One of the supporting characters was Mo, Zoey’s vivacious, glamorous and talented neighbor played by Alex Newell of Glee fame. By the end of episode 3 we had known that Mo was likely born male but now dressed in a typically feminine way, while using both feminine and masculine pronouns interchangeably. Thus far Mo had been a vital asset to Zoey’s processing of her new abilities and a constant source of encouragement as she sought to help others around her upon hearing their ‘heartsong.’ This time, however, it appeared Mo was in need of Zoey’s assistance. Whilst going about her business Zoey heard Mo’s inner song, which was “The Great Pretender.” Curious as to what her friend was hiding, Zoey later followed Mo out of their apartment building and surprisingly arrived at a church choir rehearsal. However, Zoey did not recognize her friend at first because they were now dressed in traditionally masculine clothing, not donning any of their usual hair and makeup. 

Mo opened up to Zoey and shared that they have been struggling living a double life. Some days they lived their life as a churchgoing man, and other days as a boisterous, fashionable woman. They did not see a way to combine the two. They shared that as a child they were socially rejected by members of their former church for acting more feminine though they were born male, telling them they were “not right with God.” Though the church they belonged to now was led by an accepting, supportive pastor, Mo feared should they attend services dressed as they felt most comfortable that they would be rejected yet again. They simultaneously cried tears of fear and of strength; pain that they were not able to fully express their gender identity among their church family and strength in their gender identity. They expressed they could not handle the tension of living out these two identities and that it would take a miracle to get them to go back to church. 

Pew Research Center conducted a 2013 study that found in the United States 80% of those who identify as transgender feel they have little to no social acceptance within society. The UCLA School of Law’s Williams Institute found in 2016 that .6% of United States’ population identified as transgender, which comes out to 1.94 million Americans. If the members of the church enthusiastically offered fellowship to those who do not fit into the traditional gender identities or lifestyles, just imagine the hearts and lives that could be transformed by Christ. Christians nearly universally accept the value of the role of community to fully live out the Christian life. We know that Christ Himself models community through His presence among the Trinity and the calling of His 12 disciples. If the church socially rejects transgendered people who are seeking Jesus, we would interfere with their ability to live out the faith in Christian community and hinder them in their individual path to repentance. We would be their stumbling block on the way to Christ.

How often do we as the body of Christ make people choose between the thorn in their flesh and being a member of the church? As I grow and explore more and more viewpoints I see that there are varying degrees of faith and obedience. Someone may have a little faith but excel in obedience, whereas someone may have much faith but struggle in disobedience. It is good to struggle rather than submit to disobedience. Rejection by the Church can result in emboldened sin, while grace and truth are more likely to result in repentance.

In Acts, Chapter 10 we see after Peter’s vision that he was summoned to share the Good News with Cornelius, who was described as a “devout, God-fearing” man, but a non-Jew. Prior to Peter’s vision he would not have visited a Gentile due to Jewish law prohibiting fellowship of Jews with non-Jews. Peter said, “You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile. But God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean. So when I was sent for, I came without raising any objection. May I ask why you sent for me?” (Acts 10:28-29). As Christians, we know that when we accept Christ we become clean. This begins a never-ending process of sanctification and repentance. Peter’s vision and encounter with Cornelius illustrates that no one who believes or is open to belief should be hindered in receiving the Gospel. It is the Gospel that truly transforms lives, and it is best communicated through the gateway of grace rather than by criticism.

We can observe the Lord’s interaction with the Woman at the Well in John, Chapter 4 to see yet another example of how Jesus responds to people facing social isolation due to their lifestyle. Notice how after Jesus brought up the woman’s many relationships, He did not name it as sin or call her to repentance. He used His knowledge of this as a jumping off point to explain who He was and what He could offer to her, and she was able to identify He must have divine abilities to know personal details about her life. She ended up sharing who Jesus was with the people in her town. “Sinners” have always been a crucial part of sharing the Gospel, mostly because that is precisely what we all are. The Lord was more concerned with revealing himself than casting her down for her sin. He knew that we are not made clean by refraining from sin. We are made clean by acknowledging and accepting the identity of Christ as Savior and Lord. Then, and only then, can we begin to conform His heart to our own. May we be more like Him: Pointing toward the glory of God above the sinfulness of man. 

Mo from Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist eventually recognized a miracle and decided to attend their church service in what they owned as their true identity. For many transgendered people in the United States, that miracle never comes. Members of God’s Church will have to choose to be that miracle, and reach out in compassion to this community that feels rejected by society. 

We will have to wait and see the development of Mo’s faith in Season 2 of “Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist.” In the meantime we should be grateful that this show has helped contribute to diversifying the views of gender among people of faith, and the spiritual struggle that is caused when some of the flock impede those who are seeking the Good Shepherd. 

In Grace and Truth,

Christina

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