In our little corner of the world, in that small space of human history and habitation where dwells the 21st century Western mind, our society has been asking questions that our fellow Christians in other lands and eras never had to consider. Our idiosyncratic culture is daily increasing the divorce between body and mind, suggesting that a biological male may yet be female in the inner soul. Since it is undeniable that many among us sincerely believe this to be true of themselves, some Christians have attempted to bridge this gap in a well-intentioned effort to find a place for transgenderism in the Bible and theology.
I experienced this recently as I was confronted by two attempts to find just such a place. In neither of these cases was the person in question trying to set aside the teachings of the Bible or to undermine any principle derived from it or church tradition. Instead, while maintaining fidelity to the truths of Christianity, both sought to use biblical passages and the implications of Christian understandings to embrace transgenderism in some way while not leaving the faith of our fathers behind.
The first appealed to the presence of eunuchs in the Bible. If you recall your history, eunuchs were men who had been, shall we say, surgically altered to eliminate the reproductive impulse. This was a fairly common practice in the ancient world and continued on into the modern era in many traditional societies. Sometimes this was done for the sake of art, so as to keep a young man’s voice unnaturally high. Other times this was simply for the sake of humiliation or punishment, as in the famous case of Peter Abelard in the 12th century.
However, most notably this was done to court officials as a way to suppress threats. The most obvious reason for this is that eunuchs were hardly likely to be up to any shenanigans with royal ladies, but this isn’t the only justification. In societies where virility of all sorts was greatly admired, eunuchs, perceived as less than manly, would find it difficult to rally supporters to usurp the throne in their own name. Further, with no way to establish their own dynasties, there was far less incentive for such men to work against the royal incumbent.
In biblical lands, eunuchs would have been a common sight in power centers like Assyria, Babylon, and Persia. There’s some thought that Joseph’s master, Potiphar, was a eunuch, but this is unlikely as it was not a common practice in Egypt during that period and since he had, you know, a wife. Others have suggested more plausibly that Daniel and/or some of his friends were eunuchs since this was quite common in Babylon, but there’s nothing in the text to suggest that.
What we do know for certain is that there are a few direct allusions to eunuchs in the Scripture. Probably the most famous comes in the Book of Acts where Philip the Evangelist leads the Ethiopian eunuch to faith in Christ. We also see eunuchs referenced in places like Isaiah 56 where a figurative eunuch speaks of being denied entry into the people of God. Then, we can look to the words of Christ in Matthew 19 where the Lord talks of those who have become eunuchs either by man’s will or by nature.
There are several other eunuchs mentioned in the Bible. In II Kings 9, eunuchs assassinate the wicked Queen Jezebel after Jehu’s coup d’état, a few chapters later in chapter 20, Hezekiah is told that some of his descendants will be made eunuchs by the invading Babylonians, and there are eunuchs mentioned in Esther 4 as attending the eponymous queen as she works to save her people from Haman. In most of these cases, the biblical authors merely note the presence of eunuchs without comment, as in Esther and with Jezebel, or their state is a curse or cause for mourning as in Isaiah and with Hezekiah.
The argument for normalizing transgender identity within Christian ethics centers significantly on places like Isaiah and Matthew. In those passages, those with an alternative sexual identity are included in the kingdom of God.
The argument for normalizing transgender identity within Christian ethics centers significantly on places like Isaiah and Matthew. In those passages, those with an alternative sexual identity are included in the kingdom of God. That much is true, in one manner of speaking. What is rather more questionable is whether the people in question are eunuchs in a literal or metaphorical sense.
With a hypothetical metaphorical sense of the term, a eunuch would include not only actual eunuchs but those whose sexuality was not, to use the common parlance, cisgendered. The idea being that the people of the ancient world did not have a concept of transgender and so, in the same way that they might use a single term to describe all large sea creatures, they used “eunuch” in a way that embraced both literally neutered individuals as well as those who were non-binary. This line of reasoning is plausible insofar that it does not overtly deny the reliability of Scripture or require an overriding suspension of disbelief to maintain it.
The problem is that much the same can be said for many other logically coherent yet extremely unlikely interpretations of the biblical text. For example, you wouldn’t have to spend very much time on an internet search to find equally plausible explanations of Scripture supposedly demonstrating interactions with aliens of the flying saucer variety. I’m not contending that anyone trying to find transgenderism in the Bible is the intellectual equivalent of the History Channel’s “Ancient Aliens” proposals. I am, however, suggesting that arriving at either conclusion can only happen by looking for something in the text which isn’t there and by foisting contemporary preconceptions on another culture.
Specifically, when we attempt to translate “eunuchs” as transgenders, we’re pushing past Occam’s Razor by choosing the more convoluted metaphorical meaning in place of the simpler literal meaning. Given the common nature of eunuchs in the historical situation being addressed, to suggest that a eunuch isn’t a eunuch is akin to saying that a receiver in a football game should really mean a radio. It could mean that, but there’s nothing to suggest that it does and lots to say that it doesn’t.
It is true that in Matthew Jesus is clearly speaking of eunuchs in a metaphorical sense when He refers to those made eunuchs by nature. But, that’s the point. He’s telegraphing the fact that He doesn’t mean someone who’s been intentionally castrated but someone who was born that way. After all, there’d have been no need to verbally indicate a metaphorical meaning if a metaphorical meaning were to be assumed in the first place.
Going again with Occam, we must keep in mind that for the ancient world the key component of being a eunuch was childlessness, not ambiguous sexuality. This is the basis of Christ’s analogy here, that just as there are those who cannot have children on account of an intentional act, so too, there are those who remain childless because of an accident of nature.
The Isaiah reference is of no better help in establishing transgender identity with biblical eunuchs. When Isaiah is speaking about giving hope to eunuchs, it’s in a passage talking about several people who were considered beyond inclusion within the blessings of the Patriarchs. In our world, the question of childlessness and ethnicity are deeply personal concerns, but even here we cannot match the existential connection that family created for the ancient world. Where you came from and who would come after you were fundamental identity markers in past ages, and any threat to either made you feel less than fully human.
As such, the two groups of people discussed in Isaiah 56 would have felt keenly the biblical connection to the sons of Abraham. Foreigners could not claim descent from Israel and eunuchs could not have posterity of their own. The grace here is that that even those lacking heirs will have an inheritance and that those born outside of Israel will be treated as though they were. The parallelism entails reversing what was a curse, being without ancestry or descendants, and providing both with inclusion in the people of God.
In the interest of being open-minded, let us say, for the sake of argument, that Isaiah does have transgenderism in view here. Contrary to expectations, that is of no more aid in including non-binary sexuality. Consider, if the eunuch here is transgender, then the passage would be about undoing the curse of being transgender, not accepting this alternative orientation as morally legitimate. Again, the historical and literary context pushes strongly against anything but a straightforward interpretation of the term “eunuch.”
Our love for our fellow human beings is best maintained by pointing them again and again away from social and individual desires and to the certainty of divine intentions. This is not a restriction on human freedom but a celebration of human nature. The goodness of God's creation in making us male and female, as a psycho-somatic unity, as gloriously physical beings, is a great blessing that should be treasured always.
The other argument is much more straightforward and, in many ways, more compelling. It is compelling because instead of trying to see transgenderism as an equally moral manifestation of human sexuality, something that would be decidedly unique in Christian thought, it puts it in the category of other recognized consequences of the Fall.
So, just as a man born blind or a woman born deaf will, in the New Heavens and New Earth, receive back sight and hearing, what if the transgender person will receive the correct gender in a restored body? If someone can be born with an incorrect body in the sense that his limbs don’t develop rightly, what about having an incorrect body if the gender is wrong? What if, as a result of the same fallen cosmos which yields cystic fibrosis, a female soul were born in a male body?
As an argument, this is appealing. It takes seriously the key Christian doctrine of the Fall and its real-world consequences, and it gives hope for a final Restoration when all things will be made new. However, as an argument, it’s also clearly insufficient.
There are a lot of questions which can be put to this contention. Are human souls gendered so that it’s feasible to speak of being male or female apart from our bodies? Can we in our fallen condition come to an accurate awareness of this supposedly true, inner self apart from our physical natures? Is our soul wholly what makes us who we are even separate from our physical make-up? What is the more likely source of error in transgenderism: that our soul ended up in the wrong body, or that our fallen, finite minds have misconstrued our true identity?
Each of these questions is important in itself and could provide fertile ground for undermining the argument. However, I think a more robust rebuke is in the argument’s understanding of gender itself. The more compelling challenge is that while true maladies are a result of the Fall, our nature as gendered beings is a fundamental part of the creational order.
When we think of congenital defects, whether overtly harmful or “merely” life-altering, we are seeing something that would not exist in an Edenic world and therefore will not continue after Christ returns. Someone who is blind or deaf, someone with either dwarfism or gigantism, a cleft-palate, Down syndrome, or a host of other conditions, is suffering on account of the Fall but is in no way sinful simply as a result of this condition. At the end of all things, the blind will see and the deaf will hear, and all the rest will find themselves restored to the way God intended.
The same cannot be said for gender, as being male and female was part of who we were long before God’s intentions were challenged. We all laugh when we hear people speak of being born with the wrong ethnicity, but our racial background is just as a beautiful a part of God’s creation as our gender. Being born female is no more a defect or the fault of sin than being left-handed, and being an artist is neither more nor less virtuous than being an engineer. We should never equate a good or neutral aspect of our bodily natures such as gender moments when God’s plan was corrupted.
In a manner of speaking, both of these challenges to traditional Christian understanding of gender are to be admired, and this for two reasons. In each case, the argument strives to root itself in the rich soil of biblical theology, and both suggestions are an attempt to extend the love of God to those who perhaps have not felt it before. That they are wrong does not take away from these virtues. However, they are wrong, and we must take care not to let their initial plausibility or good intentions sway us from the truth of the Scriptures.
The call of Christ in this day of moral confusion is to emulate these virtues of neighbor-love and theological care while insisting that it is God’s Word and will which leads us and not the shifting currents of cultural priorities. Our love for our fellow human beings is best maintained by pointing them again and again away from social and individual desires and to the certainty of divine intentions. This is not a restriction on human freedom but a celebration of human nature. The goodness of God’s creation in making us male and female, as a psycho-somatic unity, as gloriously physical beings, is a great blessing that should be treasured always.