Love, Knowledge and Discernment: Getting the Right Mix

The need for informed and discerning love:

We all know about how the world thinks of love: it is often lust, or sappy sentimentalism, or feel-good niceness, or vacuous non-judgmentalism. But believers can also have weak and unhelpful understandings of what love is. The biblical understanding is often a far cry from what so many Christians think it is.

That the Bible speaks about love repeatedly is clear, and we are most certainly commanded to love. But it must be love as God intends it to be, not love as fallen man wants it to be. Philippians 1:9 says this: “And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment”.

Paul goes on to say this in the next two verses: “so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.”

This is just one of many places where love is not left floating in nebulous space, but is connected with important things such as right knowing. Another key text is 1 Corinthians 13:6: “[Love] does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth.”

There are many areas where we need to apply this. One case in point is how we show love and offer help to those struggling with gender issues. These folks clearly need to hear biblical truth while we seek to compassionately try to assist them in their struggles.

A Catholic friend recently sent me a link to a 12-page document that she wanted my thoughts on. It has to do with how trans students should be treated. The 2022 document put out by the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference is called “Created and Loved: A guide for Catholic schools on identity and gender”.

I think overall it is a pretty good document, but still, it can be a bit of a mixed bag. To the extent that it seeks to stay in line with things like the Catholic Catechism, it can have some helpful aspects. But it sometimes seems to give too much away in terms of ‘affirming’ or ‘supporting’ or ‘loving’ those students who are struggling in this area. Early on when it speaks of Christian anthropology, it offers this as its main framework to approach this matter:

In the extraordinary beauty of creation, each unique human person, male or female, is to be received and appreciated, protected and nourished, respected and cherished. Christians are committed to respecting the dignity of every individual. No human person is to be diminished or devalued, and all have an indispensable part to play in the human community regardless of differences. (p. 4)

Now in one sense this goes without saying: We are to love all people and treat them with respect because they are image-bearers of God. But again, we want love grounded in truth, in knowledge, in biblical morality, and discernment. While the document seeks to affirm the biblical view of who we are, it at times might veer too much in trying to accept and make things comfortable for the trans or trans-inclined student. Balance is needed here.

The document says many good things, such as the majority of kids struggling in these areas will move through this with psychological help and care (p. 2). It rightly says that sex cannot be changed: “The Christian vision is careful to note that any ‘transition’ is in gender presentation only and not in the person’s ‘sex’ which, as a permanent biological given, cannot be changed by either hormone or surgical treatments.” (p. 9)

One possible concern is that the term “detransition” is mentioned only once, at the very end of the document, under its section of definitions (p. 9). It would have been better had more time and emphasis been placed on this matter. Yes, it is a short booklet and only so much can be said, but this vital aspect must always be put front and centre.

In terms of schools and policies, it says things like this:

  • Toilets and changing room
  • Providing a unisex toilet and change room area or creating a bathroom space that is private and not aligned to biological sex increases the access and safety options of vulnerable students and may alleviate anxieties.
  • School uniforms and dress codes
  • Offering flexibility with uniform expectations, would cater to the diversity of the student body. (pp. 6-7)

These and related areas need to be thought through carefully. Sometimes good intentions can lead to bad outcomes. And sometimes more care is needed in the terms it uses, as in this paragraph:

In this sense, gender can also change over time and vary both between individuals and across different cultures. Rigid cultural stereotypes of masculinity and femininity are thus unfortunate and undesirable because they can create unreasonable pressure on children to present or behave in particular ways. (p. 4)

It can be argued that a restoration of ‘cultural stereotypes of masculinity and femininity’ – rightly understood – is in fact the way to go. But as mentioned, often the book does take us in the right direction, as when it speaks of the usual “affirmation” model whereby students are simply given a rubber stamp to go full tilt, including all the physical and surgical procedures.

The writers remind us that such treatment “causes permanent infertility.” They continue:

Many medical and healthcare professionals do not endorse this form of treatment, finding it medically and ethically controversial. Traditional medical ethics and Catholic Church teaching maintain that health professionals should not disable or destroy healthy bodily organs or systems, or perform and/or advise actions that render a person incapable of parenting a child. There are also serious concerns regarding a young person’s capacity to consent to these treatments, as well as concerns with the safety of using puberty blockers and cross sex hormones on children and adolescents, particularly as many research studies continue to note the absence of reliable longitudinal data on this approach. A school community has a responsibility to avoid cooperation with actions which risk unnecessary damage, or which limit a student’s future possibilities for healthy human growth and development. (pp. 4-5)

Those sorts of paragraphs are much more helpful. They do seek to warn of some real dangers here, but again, one wishes a bit more was said either on prevention (as in reaffirming basic Christian teaching on God’s original creation mandate when he created man and woman), as well as an emphasis on how so many who did go down the path of transitioning now deeply regret it and are trying to detransition.

My friend who had alerted me to this book had said this about it:

It is instructive to reflect on the miracles that Christ performed. These were clearly driven by love and care for the person. They fall into two types:
*    Physical miracles like curing palsy, healing blind, deaf or otherwise disabled people or raising from the dead
*    Spiritual miracles like casting out evil spirits
In every case, the miracle restored the person to a state of well-being aligned with God’s intentions (eg the person was restored to “normal”).
In no situation did Christ affirm the person in their state of injury or disability, but restored them. In effect, Christ wishes each person to be restored to “wholeness”. He desires truth and righteousness, which brings peace.
This approach of restoring a person with problems to a “normal state” underlies the tradition in medical practice as well as therapy and psychiatry to restore the patient to a whole state and, in particular, to “do no harm”.
So, to advocate that we should confirm the problems that a person is experiencing runs counter to Church teachings and to medical and health practice.

Yes there is something to this. In our desire to “love” the students (or others) struggling in this area, we can perhaps at times go too far in showing our care and concern by pulling back on how even in a fallen world, the work of Christ is still there to restore us to the way we were created to be. I am not sure if the booklet’s authors would say they are ‘confirming’ these people in their situation, but it can seem to come across that way at times. So care is needed here.

The ability to change must always be highlighted. Thus in the area of homosexuality our emphasis – as we seek to love and help the homosexual – is to remind them of this most loving of truths: “You don’t have to be gay.” It is the same with the person struggling with the trans issues. The most loving thing to do is remind them that they are either male or female, and no amount of surgery or chemicals can ever change that.

If our attempt to make them feel comfortable and accepted leads them to move further away from what God intends for them, then we are really not helping them. Yes, we must show compassion and empathy where possible, but the aim is to bring a person back to where God wants them to be.

Overall, I think this is the aim of this booklet, and as mentioned, it is always a struggle to get everything right, especially in a short document. It covers many of the bases pretty well, but some parents or educators could take what they find here and run with more of an “affirmation” model instead of a transformation model.

Christ is in the business of changing lives. He is into transformation – big time. And in a sin-soaked and fallen world, the most loving thing we can do is remind everyone – not just our school children – that God is in the change business. Biblical loves mean caring enough about the person to want to see real change take place.

Whatever condition we might find ourselves in, God by his grace can set us free. That should always be at the forefront of any Christian teaching on human sexuality – or anything else for that matter. We all have issues and problems we are dealing with, but thank God we do not have to remain in that place.

With these basic truths in mind, one can find a booklet such as this to be mostly helpful. We all will struggle here as we seek to offer help to others – whether they are in the trans camp or elsewhere – to find hope and healing in Christ. Yes, we must indeed do this with love – but with love informed by knowledge and discernment as Paul urged.

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