Affirming Godâ€™s Image: Addressing the Transgender Question with Science and Scripture
Branch, J. Alan. Affirming God’s Image: Addressing the Transgender Question with Science and Scripture. Washington: Bellingham, 2019. 187pp. $16.99. ISBN: 9781683592761
There is a point when a cultural phenomenon becomes so influential that the Church must take notice and respond. J. Alan Branch made this clear in his recent book, Affirming God’s Image, when he wrote, “the rising visibility of transgenderism means the church cannot pretend the phenomenon doesn’t exist. If considered as a group, hundreds of thousands of transgender people worldwide need to hear the gospel” (p. 21). Branch continued to emphasize the relevance and importance of transgenderism throughout the entire book as he made some cultural reference in the introductions of almost every chapter. Branch told the stories of Thomas Beatie, the first “man” to give birth; Jazz Jennings, the transgender child who starred on Oprah Winfrey’s show in 2011; and Christopher Beck, the first transgender former Navy SEAL. These stories, plus others throughout the book, not only help readers become familiar with some milestones of the transgender movement, but also help Christians understand and respond appropriately.
The first few chapters give the basic concepts needed to understand the rest of the book. The first presents the history of transgenderism that finds its roots all the way back in Rome and discusses key figures in the transgender movement up to the present day. The second chapter defines key terms and common phrases in the transgender movement (e.g., transsexual, transvestite, cisgender, gender binary, agender, bigender, genderqueer, gender fluid, etc.). The third chapter critiques transgenderism, drawing from Genesis 1:27 to affirm sexuality as “part of God’s will for his image-bearers” (p. 41). Branch also discusses New Testament passages that show how the Fall has affected human sexuality (Rom 1:18-32; 1 Cor 6:9) and concludes that “the concept of someone assuming a gender role different from his or her natal sex is foreign to the New Testament” (p. 47).
Perhaps the greatest feature of Branch’s book is that it was packed with careful scientific reasoning. The primary discussion about science and transgenderism came from chapters 4-7. Though Branch does not have a scientific background, he has done his research before writing these chapters â€• the endnotes for these chapters span over ten pages. For example, Branch’s explanation of the steps of hormone therapy in chapter 6 and his detailed explanation of what takes place in gender reassignment surgery may seem excessive and unnecessary to some readers. Branch understands this but still maintains that “clearly defining the exact procedures in question allows us to offer a robust ethical analysis of whether or not this type of surgery should be performed” (p. 95).
Branch included a section about physician and scientist Dich Swaab, one of the most influential researchers in the world in terms of homosexuality, transgenderism, and brain research (p. 73-75). In 1995, Swaab and his team claimed that the central subdivision part of the brain, which is generally larger in males than in females, is female-sized in male-to-female transsexuals. This suggests that males born with a smaller central subdivision are prone to transgenderism. However, their sample only comprised forty-two people, six of whom were transsexual. Swaab’s claim also did not reveal that two heterosexual males from his sample had brain sizes similar to females. Furthermore, Swaab’s claim did not reveal that all six transsexuals in his sample had taken female hormones, which could have affected their brains. Swaab’s team conducted a follow-up study in 2000 that retained its findings and its flaws. Then, in 2002, Swaab’s team conducted one more study and found that the central subdivision part of the brain that is typically larger in males does not grow until adulthood. Thus, it is very possible that this size difference in the brain is “more of an effect than a cause” (p. 75). This is just one example of how Branch refutes many pseudo-scientific claims that there are certain causes of transgenderism.
Affirming God’s Image also maintained a pastoral tone throughout. A goal of Branch’s that he achieved was “to join conviction and compassion in an evaluation of transgenderism” (p. 4). In chapter four, Branch showed that there is no sort of biological determinism with the brain and transgenderism. However, at the end of the chapter, he still informed his readers that “the biological and genetic components of transgenderism seem significant enough in some people that we as Christians should acknowledge that they did not choose to experience gender dysphoria” (p. 79). Branch encouraged Christians to show transgender people mercy as they navigate their often unwanted feelings. At the end of chapter seven on gender reassignment surgery, Branch helped readers understand how some transgender people come to desire gender reassignment. Branch explains that it starts as a pleasurable idea and the more this idea is embraced over a long period, the thought eventually seems natural and good. Branch concludes that transgender people come to believe this because humans’ thoughts are so deceptive. That is why Paul said to “take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Cor 10:5, NIV).
The last two chapters, “Transgenderism and the Family” (8) and “Transgenderism, Christian Living, and the Ministry of the Local Church” (9), present pastoral applications. Chapter eight has a section for parents of children questioning their gender as well as a section helping parents with adult children who come out as transgender. Chapter nine discusses two faithful options for Christians who encounter transgender people in their jobs or personal lives. For those who feel convicted to refuse to use the new terms of identity, Branch suggests they ask themselves, “First, have I prayed for the person in question and are my actions motivated by love for both the truth and for the person? Second, am I willing to suffer for following my convictions, including loss of employment? Third, if I am dismissed, will I love my enemies and pray for them?” (p. 134). For those who feel they can accommodate the new terms while not affirming the act of transgenderism, Branch suggests they ask themselves, “First, do I have a clear understanding of the biblical stance on gender, and do I grasp the grievous sin my friend is committing? Second, do I genuinely intend to make an intentional effort to share Christ with this person…? Third, am I willing to share my convictions about gender based on Scripture, realizing others in our culture will strongly disagree; or am I looking for a way to avoid the stigma of being a Christian?” (p. 134).
Affirming God’s Image provides a distinctively Christian perspective on transgenderism and affirms the biblical teaching about gender. It is also rich with information about the scientific research done about transgenderism and includes practical, pastoral advice to those who find themselves in certain situations. This book is highly recommended for pastors, parents, and Christians seeking to minister to a transgender friend, or simply for Christians wishing to think clearly about the transgender movement.