What Does the Bible Say About Transgender People?

Introduction

For several decades, political and theological debates related to LGBTQ+ issues have centered around same-sex relationships for lesbian, gay and bisexual people. While an exploration of that topic is important, the volume of faith resources dedicated to it have often excluded reflection on the unique considerations related to gender identity. Mistakenly, some Christians have suggested that taking the Bible seriously requires people of faith to stand in opposition to the existence, health and humanity of transgender people. Consequently, gender-expansive people of all demographics and Christian traditions have been made to feel that they must choose between their faith and living a whole, healthy and authentic life. Whether you are a ministry leader, the family member of a transgender person or a trans person of faith yourself, this page seeks to serve as a brief overview of the Bible’s precedent for affirming the full inclusion of transgender, non-binary and other gender-expansive people in the full life of Christian community.

The language we use

Sometimes it can feel overwhelming to learn new terms and new concepts, especially if we see those terms change in meaning or use from one context to another. Whether we are talking about transgender issues or about faith, this seems to be true. This resource aims only to offer a starting place for a dialogue on both. For the purposes of our writing, when we use gender identity we are referring to one’s internal sense of being male, female, both or neither. When we use the phrase “sex assigned at birth,” what we mean is the sex that was assigned by a doctor at birth based on some combination of sex chromosomes, genes, gonads and internal and external genitalia, as well as physiological hormones. When we use the word transgender, we are describing a person whose gender identity is different than the sex they were assigned at birth. It is an adjective, a descriptive word, and can encompass any variety of non-binary and gender-expansive identities. For example, consider Josh, a transgender man who grew up with his parents assuming he was a girl. For as long as he could remember, he knew himself to be a boy. But he didn’t know about transgender people until he was older and could finally see himself in their stories and come out. Or consider Sam, a non-binary person who uses they/them pronouns. Sam grew up being told they were a boy but they never knew themselves to be a boy. They came out as non-binary to reflect their authentic experience with their gender identity.

When we use gender expression, we are talking about the way that a person may outwardly reflect their internal sense of gender through presentation, such as through clothing, hair, voice and body language. Sexual orientation, which describes whom a person is physically and/or emotionally attracted to, is a separate category, and doesn’t influence someone’s gender identity or gender expression. It’s important to understand that gender expression and sexual orientation are different from gender identity. In our examples above, Josh could be a transgender man who is gay, bisexual or straight. Sam could be a non-binary person who expresses their gender consistently in a more traditionally masculine or feminine way, or neither or both at the same time. If you’re looking to answer what the Bible has to say about same-sex relationships, you can find that on an additional resource page here.

When we use the term affirming, what we are referring to is the theological view that all expressions of gender are an integral part of God’s design for diversity within the created order. When we use non-affirming, we are referring to the theological view that transgender and other expressions of gender variance are either a) sinful within themselves or b) that they are morally neutral but nevertheless a kind of disorder, mental illness or other brokenness. Whether you already feel confident in your position or are searching for new possibilities, our hope is that researching, studying and wrestling with the Scriptures and questions most relevant to trans experiences are part and parcel of what it means for Christians to “love God with all of one’s heart, soul, and mind” (Deuteronomy 6:5, Matthew 22:37, Luke 10:7).

1 A part of the reason this seems to be so successful is the overwhelming number of people who say they do not have a personal close friend who is transgender. In a PRRI survey conducted in 2019, it was found that less than one-quarter (24%) of Americans report having a close friend or family member who is transgender, compared to 46% who report having a bisexual close friend or family member, and nearly seven in ten (68%) who report having a gay or lesbian close friend or family member.
2 The Human Rights Campaign’s Reporting Guide is another helpful tool developed so that reporters and media makers can begin to improve trans coverage. It provides insight for anyone seeking to use appropriate language, understand common shortcomings, and discover steps they can take to address trans communities more respectfully.

Wrestling with Scripture

Creation and the Gender Binary - Genesis 1:27; Genesis 2:18-24

When Christians think about gender, they tend to go back to the beginning. In Genesis, we find two stories about how things came to be, one of which says “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27, NRSV). If you grew up hearing these stories and living with people who seemed to fit inside these gender boxes, the existence of transgender people might seem to fly in the face of God’s created order. However, when we look just a little closer at each of these passages we find a much more complex and beautiful world. For instance, when God creates men and women in Genesis 1, it’s after creating opposites in every other corner of creation--day and night, land and sea, flying birds and swimming fish. Humans, then, are also created in an opposite pair--male and female. But the problem with a literal reading of this text that even though Genesis 1 sets up these binaries, God’s creation exists in spectrums.

In between day and night we have dawn and dusk; between land and sea we have coral reefs and estuaries and beaches; between flying birds and swimming fish we have penguins and high jumping dolphins, not to mention that uncategorizable favorite the platypus! No one would argue that a penguin is an abomination for not fitting the categories of Genesis 1, or that an estuary isn’t pleasing to God because it’s neither land nor sea. In the same way, God gives every human a self that is unique and may not always fit neatly into a box or binary. Among cisgender people -- that is those whose gender identities align with the sex they were assigned at birth, or non-transgender people -- there is a wide variety in height, strength, hair distribution, size and shape of reproductive organs, and nearly all other physical characteristics, which makes it hard for every single person on earth to fit neatly inside one culture’s categories of man or woman. There is, too, a diversity among transgender and non-binary people when it comes to bodies, personalities, beliefs and experiences. But rather than writing Genesis 1 off as fiction that doesn’t match reality, many affirming Christians recognize that the stories set down in this chapter were never meant to catalogue all of creation (in which case, it would just be an encyclopedia), but rather to point us towards God’s power and love. Not every microbe and constellation must be named in this chapter in order to have a purpose and a blessing.

Genesis 2 gives us a different perspective on the creation story, and here a non-gendered human is created first and then later a piece of the first person, Adam, is made into the second person, Eve. Based on the order of creation in this story, some theologians argue that this passage upholds a structure called gender complementarity. Gender complementarity asserts that God created two fundamentally different genders which have strict corresponding societal roles; in short, men were created to lead and women were created to follow. We don’t have the space here to explore the rich biblical scholarship that has demonstrated the theological and pastoral need for Christian Egalitarianism, but suffice to say these views, even when held with the best intentions, have a consistent history of leading to emotional, spiritual and physical violence against anyone, regardless of their assigned sex or their gender identity or presentation, who does not completely and unwaveringly conform to gendered expectations. Alternatively, moving away from gender complementarity frees Christians up to explore other biblical alternatives for identity, community and relationship--alternatives based on the example Jesus set and called for in his teachings, rather than on gender difference.

One of the ways that Christians have historically understood the existence of suffering in the world is to attribute it to the idea that things are not now as they were originally created before the sin of Adam and Eve later in Genesis. Since the Fall, humans have experienced and caused things that are out of sync with God’s plan, and some may question whether the existence of transgender people may be a result of the Fall, rather than something that God intended from the beginning. However, it’s important to know that transgender people have existed across cultures and times -- dating back thousands of years. We also know that when it comes to the suffering that transgender and non-binary people experience, most is linked to the stress and oppression caused by other people. Studies show that when transgender people are affirmed and loved, their well-being also benefits.. With this in mind, it would be more likely that sin is at play in the oppressive and damaging ways we treat each other, and not in the very fact of someone’s existence.

3 For more on the diversity of creation, especially when it comes to assigned sex, see Evolution's Rainbow: Diversity, Gender, and Sexuality in Nature and People by Joan Roughgarden (University of California Press, 2013)
4 To read more about gender complementarity and where this understanding falls short see Point #4 on The Reformation Project’s ‘The Brief Biblical Case for LGBTQ Inclusion’ and Bible, Gender, Sexuality: Reframing the Church’s Debate on Same-Sex Relationships by James V. Brownson (Eerdmans, 2013).
5 Many studies have been done on the effect of minority stress on transgender and gender non-conforming individuals, including Expecting Rejection: Understanding the Minority Stress Experiences of Transgender and Gender-Nonconforming Individuals by Brian A. Rood, Sari L. Reisner, et al, in Transgender Health (2016)
6 See Chosen Name Use Is Linked to Reduced Depressive Symptoms, Suicidal Ideation, and Suicidal Behavior Among Transgender Youth by Stephen T. Russell, Amanda M. Pollitt, et al in Journal of Adolescent Health (2018) and Mental Health of Transgender Children Who Are Supported in Their Identities by Kristina R. Olson, Lily Durwood, et al in Pediatrics (2016) and Intervenable Factors Associated with Suicide Risk in Transgender Persons: A Respondent Driven Sampling Study in Ontario, Canada by Greta R. Bauer, Ayden I. Scheim, et al in BMC Public Health (2015) among others.

Clothing and gender expression - Deuteronomy 22:5

Deuteronomy 22:5, “A woman shall not wear a man’s apparel, nor shall a man put on a woman’s garment; for whoever does such things is abhorrent to the LORD your God,” (NRSV) is the only verse in all of Scripture that directly references gender-based notions of clothing. While in many cases transgender people are not in fact “cross-dressing” (a term that implies one is crossing their gender identity rather than confirming it), but instead are affirming and reflecting their gender identity through the clothes they wear. This verse has still served as a stumbling block for enough Christians to warrant some exploration. Both affirming and non-affirming biblical scholars have a range of views on why this prohibition was written for its original audience. Some are convinced that forbidding the Hebrew people from dressing in clothes associated with a gender different than their own was a way to be set apart from Canaanite and Syrian religion where this phenomena was a part of certain worship rituals. Other scholars believe the prohibition was more of a way to reinforce previous instructions from the Torah that forbid “mixing” (for example, not blending fabrics, planting variations of seed or eating shellfish), given the way Israel’s national purity and their maintenance of rigid categorical differences were bound together. A third perspective is that Deuteronomy 22:5 was written to keep a gender-segregated society truly segregated. This would prevent things like men and women engaging in various forms of forbidden sexual contact, women from entering the temple, men evading military service, women signing up for military service and other behaviors perceived as contrary to the boundaries between the distinct parts of God’s created order.

Beyond understanding why this verse was originally penned, a more pressing question for Christians to ask is whether or not we are supposed to follow the prohibitions present throughout all of Deuteronomy. The answer for most Christians today would be no, on account of the theological conviction that Jesus, through his life and death, has fulfilled the requirements of the laws Moses presented at Mt. Sinai in the story of Exodus and because they do not believe that maintaining the integrity of God’s creation prohibits mixing. In fact, the incarnation of God as Jesus, the mixing of the fully divine and the fully human, is often viewed as the necessary context for humanity’s salvation altogether. Christians who maintain non-affirming perspectives on transgender and non-binary people must ask themselves why it is that this command is being upheld when they believe that most, if not all, of the other directives around it have been nullified.

7 Ian Cairns, Deuteronomy: Word and Presence. (William B. Eerdmans, 1992.)
8 Patrick D. Miller, Deuteronomy: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (John Knox Press, 1990)
9 Although the term ‘mixing’ to talk about Jesus can be associated with the heresy of Eutychianism (Jesus’ natures were so thoroughly combined that the result was that Jesus was not able to relate as a true human), the term used here is in keeping with the view that Jesus was truly God and truly man. Read more in ‘Constructing Hybridity and Heterogeneity: Asian American Biblical Interpretation from a Third-Generation Perspective’ by Frank M. Yamada in Ways of Being, Ways of Reading: Asian American Biblical Interpretation edited by Mary F. Foskett and Jeffrey Kah-Jin Kuan (Chalice Press, 2006)
10 Human Rights Campaign Glossary of Terms

Changing names - Genesis 32:28; Numbers 13:16; Matthew 16:17-18

Names are very important and in many cultures they are inseparable from how people connect with one another and establish meaning for their lives. While some transgender and non-binary people do not feel that affirming their gender identity requires a change in name or pronouns, many do. To this end, it feels important to lift up the way that Scripture is filled with stories of people having their name changed as well as stories of people changing the name by which they called upon God. These stories demonstrate that name change can be about proclaiming who one is to become, recognizing and confirming who one has always been or some combination of the two. In Genesis 32 we read of a fearful patriarch, Jacob, on a pilgrimage back to his family from whom he was estranged several years prior as the result of his own wrong-doing. The night before he returns, Jacob is awoken by an attacker, a man whom he wrestles until daybreak leaving him with a displaced hip, a new name and a blessing. Through the violent encounter Jacob is told he will now be called Israel, because he had “struggled with God and with humans and [had] overcome” (Gen 32:28, NIV). While the name Israel is interpreted differently from scholar to scholar, for the most part, it seems to confirm the longer character arc of Jacob, and perhaps the nation of Israel as a metaphor for a community that has indeed long struggled with God and yet persevered.

In Genesis 16 Hagar, the slave of Abram and Sarai, runs away after severe mistreatment and in the wilderness encounters an angel of God. The angel offers encouraging words and consequently Hagar changes God’s name to El-roi, meaning “one who sees.” This does not shift God’s identity so much as it confirms something poignant about God’s character that Hagar had not fully recognized before. Immediately following this story, we see in Genesis 17 a reaffirmation of the promises God made previously to Abram and Sarai. In this passage, God changes Abram’s name to Abraham, which means “father of many nations” and the name of Sarai to Sarah, possibly meaning “princess of many.”

In Numbers 13 we read the story of Moses changing the name of Hoshea, son of Nun, to Joshua, and from there becoming the second-in-command to Moses. Similarly, Matthew 16 describes the interaction between Jesus and Simon where his name is changed to Peter, as a signal that he is to be “the rock” and foundation of the church. The Bible establishes a precedent that name changes can be either an uncovering of who God has always seen a person to be, or as the recognition of a new identity and a new beginning. These too are important principles at play for many transgender and non-binary people in being able to affirm their gender identities with themselves, with their communities and ultimately with God.

Eunuchs as an example of gender diversity - Deuteronomy 23:1; Isaiah 56:1-8; Matthew 19:12; Acts 8:26-40

The word “transgender” is relatively new, but it speaks to a host of age-old experiences. If you got in a time machine and interviewed people in the Bible, you wouldn’t find anyone who would use this word, because it didn’t exist, but you’d still find transgender and non-binary people. Some trans biblical scholars today are especially interested in the experiences of people in scripture referred to as “eunuchs.”

Typically, eunuchs were people who were assigned male at birth who had their reproductive organs changed or removed prior to puberty, but the word “eunuch” in the ancient world would also sometimes be used for those who we would now call intersex. Trans scholars today aren’t interested in these individuals because they believe that eunuchs identified as transgender, but rather because some of the things the eunuchs in scripture experienced are similar to what trans people -- and intersex people -- experience today, particularly in terms of discrimination, oppression and dehumanization.

In Deuteronomy 23:1 a law forbids people assigned male at birth who had their reproductive organs crushed or cut off from being part of the community of Israel. This meant that there were probably relatively few eunuchs in Israelite communities for many years, and they’re mentioned rarely. However, once the Israelites were captured by Babylon and Persia, two cultures in which castration was more common, we begin to see more stories concerning eunuchs and their position in society. We see that eunuchs are allowed to move back and forth between men’s and women’s spaces, that they take on tasks and roles related to both genders, and because they were either intersex or physically changed before puberty they often looked different from cisgender men and women. This was normal in Babylonian and Persian society, but still looked down on by the Isrealites.

Once the people of Israel are freed from captivity, several prophets, including Isaiah, guide them in the rebuilding of their homeland. In Isaiah 56:1-8 God speaks through Isaiah and says that even though Deuteronomy 23 outlawed the participation of eunuchs in Israelite society, in the new Israel they will have a special place--God says, “I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off” (Isaiah 56:5, NRSV). This wide welcome would have been a relief for the eunuchs, but warring theological factions meant that as far as we know, this prophecy was never fulfilled.

Many years later, Jesus mentions eunuchs in Matthew 19:12, where he notes that there are many kinds of eunuchs, including “eunuchs who have been so from birth,” “eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others,” and “eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven” (NRSV). While the first group might include intersex people, and the second group people who were castrated by force, Christians have been arguing for centuries about who might be included in that third category. Regardless of whom he was referencing, what we do know is that in this moment, Jesus first of all does not denigrate eunuchs like others in his society may have done, and beyond that he actually lifts eunuchs up as a positive example. The fact that Jesus positively mentions people who are gender-expansive in his own time and place gives hope to many gender-expansive people today.

Finally, we see another important eunuch in Acts 8:26-40 who travels all the way from Ethiopia hoping to worship in the temple in Jerusalem, and who meets Philip, one of Jesus’ followers, on the way home. Up to that point, we don’t have a record of eunuchs becoming part of the early Christian church, but in this story in Acts we hear about this Ethiopian eunuch who, after hearing about Jesus, asks Philip “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” (Acts 8:36, NRSV). While Philip could have said that there was no precedent for this situation--that the Ethiopian’s ethnicity as a non-Israelite or his identity as a eunuch might indeed prevent him--instead, Philip baptizes him with no questions asked and no strings attached. This story of a gender-expansive person of color welcomed as one of the first Christian converts is a powerful part of our spiritual history.

11 There’s quite a lot of writing from trans people on this subject, but for an overview see Towards a Transgender Theology: Que(e)rying the Eunuchs by Lewis Reay in Trans/Formations by Marcella Althaus-Reid and Lisa Isherwood (SCM Press, 2009). Additionally, for a perspective from transgender theologians who don’t find eunuchs to be a helpful point of connection, see chapter 5, “What Does the Bible Say” in Transfaith: A Transgender Pastoral Resource by Chris Dowd and Christina Beardsley (Darton Longman & Todd Ltd, 2018).
12 For more on intersex people in scripture, and especially connections to the word “eunuch,” see Sex Difference in Christian Theology: Male, Female, and Intersex in the Image of God by Megan K. DeFranza (Eerdmans, 2015).

13 Violence Against the Transgender and Gender Non-Conforming Community in 2020. (HRC 2020)

Being wonderfully made - Psalm 139:13-14

Psalm 139:13-14’s reference to “being wonderfully made” in the “womb,” is frequently referenced within non-affirming theologies to support the idea that being transgender or non-binary and pursuing medically necessary health care is a rejection of God as the designer of life. But that is a severly limiting interpretation, with implications well beyond transgender experiences. Psalm 139 implies that we are all created with love and intention and that every part of us was divinely formed with dignity --both our bodies and our inner knowledge of self. There is no textual reason to believe this excludes our gender identities or gender expressions. While it is true that physical transformation can be rooted in shame, unrealistic beauty standards and body-negativity generally, for many people it can also stem from a position of love, care and stewardship for their body. Transgender and non-binary people pursue physical change, not as an act of revulsion, but as an expression of being committed to integrity in body and spirit. They are acting on the conviction that being “fearfully and wonderfully made” means that peace and wholeness is actually what God wants for us and for the world, whatever that journey looks like to each person.

Often times, trangsender people know God through their transgender journeys. Trans experiences can be a rich source through which God speaks different words both to that person and to the people around them; a message that God loves diversity and variation; a message that God invites people into collaboration and co-creating how we will move in and shape the world around us; a message that sometimes knowledge about who we are and who God made us to be can come in different stages and evolve over time.

Gender in Christian community - Galatians 3:28

One of the most difficult things human beings have had to learn how to do is to work together despite our differences, and that’s no less true in the church. There are times when we emphasize the things that we share, and times when we have to emphasize our different gifts and talents even when they seem to put us at odds. We see this tension play out in many of the Apostle Paul’s letters to the early Christian churches, and in his letter to the Galatians he toes this line again when he says, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28, NRSV). While on the surface this verse may suggest that we ignore or even try to get rid of our differences, it’s also clear from the rest of Paul’s letters that he took these differences seriously during his ministry. He probably was not suggesting that a person ceased to be male or female after baptism, and yet perhaps, when we die and rise again with Christ, we might be made free from the cultural power dynamics that cause one person to oppress another based on race, ethnicity, class, ability, gender or any other difference we may have. Instead, rather than trying to destroy or ignore a facet of humanity that makes us all different, we might consider dissolving the harmful power dynamics that tear us apart. This balance between sameness and difference, between the individual and the communal, is necessary for life together in Christ.

But what if these interpretations are wrong?

The answer to this question will be different depending on the tradition of the person asking. For example, for some Christians, affirming or not affirming transgender and non-binary people is connected to salvation and eternity. For other Christians, the afterlife isn’t their main concern, but instead their focus is determining what it means for Christians to contribute to human flourishing and to the moral integrity of the church. Whatever is at stake for the person asking, it is important to note the role of humility, grace and having a consistent standard to apply in discerning what is true of God. We read in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians that until Christ returns we are bound to see truth in a way that is incomplete, a mere reflection, “as in a mirror, dimly” (1 Corinthians 13:12, NRSV). The Bible calls its interpreters to the awareness that even if ultimate truth about any subject isn’t always in our grasp, we can still remain committed to the task of trying to find it.

As we wrestle, though, we can find solace in knowing that our salvation is not based on our ability to read God’s mind, or our ability to be absolutely perfect and hold all the right views--we are saved by grace through faith alone (Ephesians 2:8, NRSV). Additionally, for many Christians, the metric Jesus provided in the Gospel of Matthew about good fruit and bad fruit is one of the most important tools for interpretation: “...[E]very good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit” (Matthew 7:17-18, NRSV). A quick survey of the destructive fruit that has come from non-affirming teaching on transgender communities demonstrates the need to explore what other theologies might have to say. Conversely, the outcome of affirming theologies on gender identity lead to words and actions that are reconciliatory, restorative and profoundly “good news” -- not just for individuals, but families, churches and entire communities.

Conclusion

If you are new to this conversation, it’s normal to feel overwhelmed, or fearful that other people will accuse you of affirming transgender and non-binary people merely because it seems politically correct or trendy. However, even though it is true that there has been an increase in transgender and non-binary visiblity in media, our society has never seen as many trans-exclusionary bills in state legislatures, public faith statements made against transgender people in churches or higher rates of recorded crimes and violence commited against transgender people. Having the biblical and theological precedent demonstrated throughout this writing doesn’t guarantee anyone protection from continued discrimination. It is always a profound act of courage to come out to yourself and to your community. Similarly, for the friends and family of transgender and non-binary people, to publicly express your love and support in many contexts can be an act of critical solidarity.

In the midst of fear, stress or confusion, it’s important to remember that we are invited to pause, breathe and simply observe the work God is already doing. The experiences of gender diversity can be found in nearly every culture throughout recorded human history. Traditionally gender non-conforming people were given communal roles as spiritual leaders, healers, conflict mediators and cultural conduits.

While not all of these experiences map perfectly on to contemporary trans experiences, what we do see similarly today are countless examples of transgender and non-binary people across denominations operating in specialized roles within the church whether formally recognized or not. Transgender and non-binary people are actively preaching, teaching, leading, pastoring and offering their time, energy and various gifts for ministry and service. What this tells us is that the real issue here is not whether a person can be transgender and Christian, but whether the church will acknowledge and empower those whom God is already working through to enrich the whole life of the body of Christ. As we all approach this topic with compassion, humility and courage, we may call to mind the words of Gamaliel, a teacher who defended the persecuted apostles of the early church: “...[I]f this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them—in that case you may even be found fighting against God!” (Acts 5:34-39, NRSV).

Read what the Bible says about homosexuality here.

Austen Hartke (Co-Author)
Founder and Director of Transmission Ministry Collective
Master of Arts, Old Testament/Hebrew Bible Studies, Luther Seminary

Myles Markham (Co-Author)
Christian Educator
Master of Arts of Practical Theology, Columbia Theological Seminary

Michael Vazquez (Lead Editor)
Religion & Faith Director, Human Rights Campaign
Master of Theological Studies, Duke Divinity School


The Human Rights Campaign reports on news, events and resources of the Human Rights Campaign Foundation that are of interest to the general public and further our common mission to support the LGBTQ+ community.