Many people wonder, “What does the Bible say about transgender people?” — from conservative Christians who want to point to “Biblical truths” about gender identity, biological sex, and men and women to LGBTQ+ and ally Christians who want to support diverse identities. But even though trans people have existed throughout history, the Bible doesn’t directly mention trans people because the term “transgender” wasn’t coined until the 1960s.
Despite this, the Bible does examine some issues having to do with gender identity, biological sex, and also men and women. Queer and progressive theologians spoke with LGBTQ Nation about some commonly misinterpreted Bible verses, verses that seem to affirm trans people, and different ways of understanding Christianity’s message to transgender people.
Understanding gender in the Bible
British theologian Rev. Jonathan Tallon says that some people point to Bible verses as proof that God created only two distinct genders and, because “God doesn’t make mistakes,” changing gender is “against God and God’s plan.”
But these empty slogans ignore the existence of transgender people as well as intersex individuals, those born “with a reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn’t seem to fit the typical definitions of female or male.”
Two such verses illustrate the narrow way that some Christians misinterpret the Bible and how history and modern perspectives can provide new insights into the ancient text.
Genesis 1:27 – So God is a man?… and he only created two genders?
“So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”
Some people point to this verse, the first mention of gender in the Bible, as “proof” that God only created two genders — man and woman — and nothing in between. But this is a misinterpretation that ignores that most things in the world exist on a spectrum, says Dr. Justin Sabia-Tanis, Assistant Professor of Christian Ethics and Social Transformation at the United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities.
He points out that 500 species of fish change sex during their lifetimes, and these animals have been around a lot longer than humans have.
Dr. Sabia-Tanis tells LGBTQ Nation, “In the original Hebrew, the verbs used for God are both feminine and masculine; God is shown here as embracing more than one gender, so we know more complex things are happening with gender here.”
He also points out that, before creating humans, God created the day and night as well as water and land.
“Day transitions to the night at dusk; night becomes day at dawn — it’s not an on/off switch but a continual process,” Sabia-Tanis writes. “And then, in a similar way, the sky and the waters, and then the waters and the land, are separated. We know, however, there are many places in which both water and land mingle — wetlands, estuaries, beaches. And places where sky and water are one — clouds, the cycle of evaporation. The sky and the water, the water and the land has never been a binary system, but a cyclical, dynamic one.”
Deuteronomy 22:5 – Is God super-judgy about personal fashion choices?
“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.”
This verse is the only one that directly references gender-based notions of clothing.
While the Bible honors many women of faith who act bravely, there are also many verses that dictate what men and women should do: how women should behave, how husbands and wives should treat each other, and how children should honor their mothers or fathers.
The Bible’s Old Testament contains 613 commandments known as Old Testament Law, ancient Biblical law, or Mosaic Law. These laws were created around 1393 to 1273 BC and were issued to regulate almost every aspect of Jewish life at a time when the Jewish people were still a group of ex-slaves struggling to survive in the desert. In fact, Biblical scholars have theorized that this specific law about clothing may have been established as a way to differentiate Jews from other religious cultures or as a way to ensure that the Jews’ gender-segregated society stayed 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,” three queer theologians told the Human Rights Campaign (HRC).
Mosaic Law also contains prohibitions against wearing garments of linen and wool together; burning incense; eating pork, rabbit, and shellfish; charging interest on loans; and working on Saturdays. In fact, the Old Testament refers to each of these things as “abominations” and states that the latter two items should be punished by death. Other parts of the Old Testament say it’s okay to kill women who have pre-marital sex, to smear animal feces on the faces of lazy priests, and that it’s okay to own and beat slaves.
Of course, most contemporary Christians don’t follow these ancient Biblical laws because they don’t make any sense in modern-day life. As such, people who point to Deuteronomy 22:5 to demonize trans people and other “gender-nonconformists” should question why they’re willing to uphold this particular Biblical law while ignoring all the rest — it’s likely because they want a religious-based reason to punish people they disapprove of.
However, another verse in the Bible, Hebrews 8:13, explicitly states that people no longer need to follow ancient Biblical laws now that Jesus Christ established a new covenant between man and God. The verse states, “By calling this covenant ‘new,’ he has made the first one (Mosaic Law) obsolete; and what is obsolete and outdated will soon disappear.”
Perspectives on Being Transgender in Christianity
While the Bible literally says nothing about transgender people, biological sex, or gender dysphoria, there are still a handful of verses that show how the earliest Christians embraced marginalized people as well as eunuchs, people whose bodily changes subjected them to widespread oppression.
Galatians 3:28 – All are equal in the love of Christ
“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.”
This verse appears in the apostle Paul’s letters to early Christian churches. In his letter, he angrily begins, “You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?” He then asks church leaders who taught them to judge other Christians by their physical bodies and how well they follow laws rather than by their spirit or faith.
Paul says that ancient Biblical law was only put in place to help guide and protect people until Jesus arrived. But after Jesus arrived, one’s faith mattered more than one’s adherence to old laws.
Queer theologians told the HRC that when Paul says “there is neither male nor female,” that doesn’t mean that individual differences shouldn’t matter. Indeed, Paul’s other letters reveal that he considered personal differences important within the church. But Paul’s letter says that if we are all children of God, then that should be the basis for building a community together rather than discriminating against others based on nationality, race, social standing, class, or gender.
This sentiment is echoed in 2 Corinthians 4:7, a verse that compares the light of God inside of humans to “treasure in jars of clay.” Reflecting on this verse, queer-affirming Rev. Tallon asked LGBTQ Nation, “Which is more important: the clay jar or the treasure?”
“Yes, we need to take our physical bodies seriously – we follow an incarnate Christ. Our bodies are real. But so is what is going on inside us. Our minds are real too.” Rev. Tallon continues. “Your gender identity is how you think of (and feel about) yourself … Is making a commitment to Christ real, or just a feeling? Is having an identity in Christ real, or just psychology? To reduce biology to being the only reality is sub-Christian.”
Matthew 25:40 – We honor God by loving trans people
“And the King answering shall say to them, Verily, I say to you, Inasmuch as ye have done it to one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it to me.”
This verse comes from a parable Jesus tells about God returning to the Earth as a messianic king who separates righteous people from the wicked. The king knows the righteous because they are the ones who fed, sheltered, clothed, and healed the poor, sick, and imprisoned. When the wicked people protest that the poor, sick, and imprisoned have nothing to do with their king, God essentially says, “But that which you did to the lowest of people, you also did to me.”
Put another way, Jesus says that a person’s relationship with the most marginalized people in society reflects their relationship with God — people honor God by honoring oppressed people. When people ignore or abuse trans folks, they ignore and abuse God as well as God’s commandment to love the most oppressed people in society.
“Here Jesus brings a notion of the least: those marginalized and scapegoated [and] the persons or groups targeted for exclusion and violence,” priest and theologian author Robert E. Goss tells LGBTQ Nation. “What I love about Jesus is that he consistently teaches us that compassion is justice. When we stand in solidarity with those who are marginalized we stand for [Jesus Christ].”
Psalms 139:13-16 – God’s gift of life blesses trans people and their bodies
“For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place, when I was woven together in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.”
These verses appear in the middle of a hymn that praises God for being ever-present and all-knowing of everyone’s innermost thoughts and beings. Some people point to this verse as proof that God purposefully created each person’s soul and body before birth, and thus changing one’s body goes against God’s creation.
But queer-affirming theologians see no textual basis in the Bible to think that God’s creation of bodies and souls should exclude any person’s gender identity or gender expression. Indeed, cisgender people regularly undergo medical and non-medical “gender-affirming care” — including styling their hair, wearing certain fashions, taking medications, having surgeries, and otherwise altering their appearance — in ways that affirm their God-given bodies while fitting the self-image they hold in their hearts and minds.
“[Many trans people who undergo physical transformations 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,” several theologians wrote.
The Eunuchs: proto-transgender people in the Bible
The Bible doesn’t explicitly mention trans people, but it does contain several references to “eunuchs.” Eunuchs weren’t exactly transgender — they were people who were either intersex or who were assigned male at birth and had their external genitals removed before puberty. A Biblical law from Deuteronomy 23:1 forbids eunuchs from participating in Israelite society. As such, eunuchs in ancient Isreal experienced discrimination and oppression similar to what some trans people face today.
“Eunuchs have been proto-transgender individuals in the ancient world and even in the modern world as Hijras, religious eunuchs in Hinduism,” priest and theologian author Robert E. Goss tells LGBTQ Nation. “The eunuch
was not religiously acceptable in the ancient world as transgender folks are not acceptable to many conservative Christians today.”
Dr. Sabia-Tanis tells LGBTQ Nation, “I think the value of looking at the eunuchs is not that we (trans people) share persecution with them, but that we embody similar variations in human society and physiology. I’m not sure if this helps address religiously-based transphobia, simply because I’m not sure how much it helps change those who have already firmly made up their minds to exclude and reject trans people. But, these points do, I think, provide information and comfort to those who are open to hearing it.”
Matthew 19:12 – Loving trans people is a divinely radical act
“For there are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others—and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.”
Jesus says these words when speaking to Judeans asking whether divorce should be legal. Numerous verses command married people to treat their spouses with love and respect, and Jesus tells the Judeans that it’s actually better for people not to marry in the first place rather than to get divorced later on.
Understanding that some Judeans may reject his radical opposition to divorce, Jesus then mentions that there are many types of eunuchs and that people should accept them as well, even though some may find that too radical.
Isaiah 56:5 – Trans people (and their names) are included in God’s many blessings
“To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, 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.”
In this section, the prophet Isaiah conveys the voice of God, urging the people of Israel to keep their covenant with God by observing the Sabbath, a religious day when one isn’t supposed to work. “Blessed is the one who does this,” God is quoted as saying in book of Isaiah.
God then states that this commandment includes foreigners and eunuchs, even those who think that they fall outside of God’s blessing. Put another way, God says that no one is excluded from God’s blessings, even outcasts who were traditionally excluded from the socio-cultural life of ancient Isreal.
Dr. Sabia-Tanis tells LGBTQ Nation, “In fact, [God’s] promises are directed precisely towards those who have been treated unjustly and excluded from society. God never reserves privileges for those who follow societal norms or behaves ‘properly’ in human terms — God’s call is to be just and faithful according to God’s commandments, which include how we treat the poor and outcast.”
Sabia-Tanis also points out that God’s reward of an everlasting name makes Isaiah 56:5 a particularly beautiful verse for nonbinary and trans people who may change their names. “It affirms the promise of an authentic name that is everlasting and blessed by God,” he said.
Acts 8:26-36 – God wants Christians to welcome trans people with open arms
While traveling, Phillip, an evangelist who cares for poor Christians in Jerusalem, meets an Ethiopian on a chariot who is also a eunuch. The Ethiopian, who is reading a scroll of Isaiah, asks Philip to explain a Bible verse to him, and Philip does. When the two later encounter a body of water, the eunuch asks, “Look, here is water. What can stand in the way of my being baptized?” Finding that there is nothing that should prevent, exclude, or deny the eunuch, Philip baptizes him, and the Ethiopian leaves rejoicing.
Dr. Sabia-Tanis told LGBTQ Nation that this Biblical story about a eunuch isn’t about discrimination or dehumanization. Instead, the Ethiopian “is treated as a person, who has riches (which we know because of his position in the queen’s court, his chariot, and his scroll), and is included.”
“While there are earlier baptisms in the book of Acts, this is the first really detailed account in which we get to know a bit about a person who desires to join the emerging Christian faith,” Dr. Sabia-Tanis adds. “The author chose this [story in partcular], I believe, to illustrate the inclusion of all kinds of people into the Jesus movement. It would have been easy to tell the story of an upstanding male pillar of the Jewish community being baptized — no controversies about Gentiles or women or eunuchs — but instead, the story was told about an outsider. That’s important.”
“This is a Biblical model about how to respond to nonbinary and transgender people — and one that the church should follow,” Dr. Sabia-Tanis continues. “There is no litmus test or exclusions because of who the person is, what their ethnicity or gender, or nationality is, or any other category. Just inclusion.”
Goss tells LGBTQ Nation, “The post-Easter Jesus movement reflected Jesus’ radical inclusive practices of inviting outsiders and marginalized into his table fellowship. If God in the Isaiah scripture, Jesus in the eunuch statement in
Matthew, and Luke in Acts on the baptism of the Ethiopian eunuch [all welcome eunuchs] into the body of Christ, then we can stand [with trans people] in solidarity.”
A complex topic for Christianity
The topic of transgender individuals and their place in Christianity is intricate and layered. While the Bible may not explicitly refer to transgender individuals, it does offer insight into the larger concepts of gender and identity.
It’s worth noting that the way different denominations and individuals approach this issue varies widely – some condemning, while others accepting and showing love.
Ultimately, it’s important to approach all interactions with individuals, regardless of their gender identity or how they choose to express themselves, with love and empathy as a guide.
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