Last Sunday, a New Jersey Lutheran church celebrated the transition of its pastor from womanhood to manhood. The Rev. Rose Beeson became the Rev. Peter Beeson.
The rhetoric surrounding the move was predictable and typical of our age. The phrase “radically inclusive” was used by one congregant to describe the parish. I suspect that such “radical inclusion” is probably not as unqualified as the term suggests. Klansmen are unlikely to be included in the franchise. Nor are those who affirm the historic Christian view of marriage as between one man and one woman. It is likely that such persons will be dismissed as bigots. And I doubt very much that those who see the body as fundamental to gender—from the left or the right—will feel particularly “included,” either. T.E.R.F.s are hated by the transgender lobby as much as any right-wing crazy might be. The phrase “radically inclusive” actually means “radically exclusive in conformity with whatever the mores du jour happen to be.”
More disturbing and worthy of reflection is a comment the Rev. Beeson makes in her interview with a local news channel. She describes her transition as a way of demonstrating that Christians believe trans people are made in the image of God.
Absolutely they are. And the failure of the church to treat them accordingly is surely an indictment of the church’s testimony to her beliefs. But then, the church believes that all human beings are made in the image of God: transgender people, gays, T.E.R.F.s, Klansmen, Trump supporters, even proponents of traditional marriage. The church needs to be a place where all such people are welcomed—with a key qualification. Being welcomed does not entail being affirmed in the beliefs or the identity one has when one walks into the sanctuary. The gospel is, according to Paul, foolishness to Greeks and an offense to Jews. In short, it contradicts human expectations and identity at the deepest level. The church can avoid offending people or appearing stupid only by abandoning the gospel. We need to understand that at the outset.
The belief that all are made in the image of God carries with it profound moral implications for the church. But one of them is not that the surrounding culture gets to decide the nature of human personhood and identity, nor the bounds of acceptable sexual expression. This belief actually entails the transcendent, fundamental given-ness of what it means to be human—which carries an authority over the individual, such that I do not get to decide who I am and how I may behave.
This belief is somewhat complicated by the church’s understanding of sin. The Formula of Concord, which is central to the confessional documents of the Lutheran church, declares that original sin has replaced the image of God in human beings with “a deep, wicked, abominable, bottomless, inscrutable, and inexpressible corruption of his entire nature in all its powers, especially of the highest and foremost powers of the soul in mind, heart, and will.” That’s not me talking—I am a Reformed Christian and scarcely qualified to offer my own thoughts on Lutheran theology. This is what Lutherans are supposed to believe, according to their foundational creedal documents.
If this teaching is taken seriously, it will naturally affect how one regards one’s psychological convictions about identity and sexuality. Of course, one might reject this teaching as mythological nonsense—but then one needs to ask what on earth is the difference between being a Lutheran and being just another secular radical. Is it simply that the radicalism is expressed in an unholy synthesis of political and theological rhetoric (a perennial temptation, incidentally, upon which both the Religious Left and the Religious Right need to reflect)?
And that question points to the real challenge of inclusion in the church. The church is to care for those who have been damaged by the sexual revolution. But caring for such people requires that we make a careful distinction between the political and cultural aims of the sexual-identity lobbyists and the personal struggles and painful confusion experienced by individuals in these areas. Failure to do this will lead to one of two outcomes: Either we will go the route of the Rev. Beeson and affirm whatever the current cultural consensus happens to be, and the church will become so inclusive as to be indistinguishable from the world; or we will focus so much on combating the socially revolutionary aspects of the lobbyists’ ambitions that we will fail to care for the individuals who come into our churches seeking help and clarity.
It is chaos out there, and the church needs to think calmly and soberly about these issues. The doubtless well-meant actions of the Rev. Beeson and her parishioners sadly do nothing but increase the confusion the sexual revolution has cultivated over many decades. We who disagree with her need to think clearly and do better.
Carl R. Trueman is William E. Simon Visiting Fellow in Religion in Public Life at the James Madison Program at Princeton University.