A few weeks ago a friend sent me a link to the video embedded below. The video is titled “The Whittington Family: Ryland’s Story.” Their request was simple: “Would you watch the video and tell me what you think?” I watched. . . and my head began to spin. I watched again. . . and my head began to spin faster.
Since then, I’ve been filtering the video and the larger issues it represents through my ongoing study of the Scriptures, my reading on issues related to same-sex attraction, transgender, and marriage, and my tracking of these fast-developing trends in culture.
Last week, I invited our Doctor of Ministry students in our Ministry to Emerging Generations cohort at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary into the conversation. Actually, the conversation had been going on for some time among the members of our cohort. In fact, in the year since we had last gathered together, issues related to same-sex attraction and transgender matters were exploding to front-and-center in their churches and youth groups. The ethical and pragmatic questions were many and complex. So, viewing and discussing this video together was a very helpful exercise.
Since watching this video – not only the first time but many times since – I’ve been jotting and gathering thoughts. The thoughts are incomplete, nowhere near exhaustive, horribly disjointed (I think), and certainly in process. But here goes. . . .
First, I feel for the Whittingtons. We live in a broken world. . . every square inch has been effected by the fall. We are broken people. We are married to broken people. And whether we want to believe it or not, our children emerge from the womb as broken people as well. As parents, all of us will have to face a variety of complex issues that result from this brokenness. We will be forced – from time to time – to cry over and with our kids as we plead with God to fix things that aren’t the way they’re supposed to be. In this case, I’ve heard stories like the Whittington’s before. Not often, but enough to know that they exist and that it’s enough to make a parent’s head spin. It’s not as easy to answer or live through as those of us who have never had to answer it or live through it might think.
Second, even though the stories we live are complex and gut-wrenching, I must always – as a follower of Christ – submit my emotions to the truths of God’s Word. . . whether I am the one playing a major role in the story, or if I am invited in to play a supporting role. Scripture must always first and foremost inform all of life. . . and not the other way around. Sure, life is the lens through which we approach the Scriptures. That’s an unavoidable fact. But I have to know and address my biases as I go to God’s Word. Then, the Scriptures must dictate the trajectory of my life, rather than vice-versa. I can’t let my emotions or “heart” (as it’s called today) tug me away from God’s will and way by causing me to hear, embrace, and live something that God never intended or desires for me. Un-reined emotions are soil in which the seeds of getting easily fooled so easily grows. “Following my heart” is always a dangerous enterprise. My calling as a follower of Jesus is to engage in the messy and difficult business of twisting my life to conform to the Scriptures, rather than twisting the Scriptures to conform to my life. Sadly, the latter is what seems to be happening more and more in relation to sexual issues in the church.
Third, in the case of this video, there is a strong element of emotional trickery. Who among us can’t be moved by the Whittington’s story being told as it is. . . the family photos, the video clips, the music, the text? It’s the whole package. And that’s where the danger lies. If we aren’t careful, we can allow ourselves to be so manipulated by the way the story is being told that we fail to be conformed to the bigger Story in which this smaller story needs to be seen and processed. Again, emotional tugs can blind us to the truths God desires us to see, embrace, and live. As Christians, we need both grace and truth. When we are pulled by our emotions, we tend to err on the side of cheap grace. Sadly, when that happens, we usually sacrifice truth. Of course, truth embraced by hard and compassion-less hearts is equally dangerous and wrong.
Fourth, we need to differentiate between ethics and pastoral care. Last week, ethicist Dennis Hollinger, author of The Meaning of Sex and President of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary – visited our cohort and made this very important distinction. Dr. Hollinger explained that ethics is about the moral designs of God. Holding to these designs is our high and holy calling. But the reality is that this is a difficult task in a broken and fallen world. Thus, our difficult as we seek to answer the question. . . “What do you think about this video?”, or more specifically, “What do we do in this situation?” Pastoral care is about the love, compassion, and empathy that the church is called to provide to people as they walk through life’s struggles, often in response to ethical problems as we yearn to achieve God’s design. It’s about learning how to walk with people through their struggles. The reality is that each of us will someday, if not already, have to walk through this family’s story with a family that we know.
Finally, we live in an age of child-centered parenting. I know, that sounds like the way it should be. But it isn’t. After all, parenting is about the kids, isn’t it? Not the way we see it today. Parents are given the role, right, and responsibility to be parents because of their wisdom, age, maturity, and experience. And we need to do so from a God-centered perspective. But we have arrived at the place where a pre-school child makes a statement and expresses a desire, and then the parents accommodate that statement and desire. How did that happen? That’s not leading children. That’s following a child’s lead. It’s also a recipe for disaster. Don’t we understand the place of wisdom, age, maturity, and experience that differentiates parents from children and is behind the parental role? I’m glad my parents didn’t give me everything I ever asked for! Isn’t the role of parents to protect kids from themselves and their broken desires, inclinations, and decisions? In this case, I certainly don’t want to take anything away from the difficulty this family has faced. But to be blunt, they have not only done something far too drastic far too soon, but they have then allowed their young child to assume the role of a public icon for those who want others to do the same.
In an interview on these issues with Christianity Today’s Owen Strachen, Tim Keller says, “Jerome Kagan in The Atlantic has talked about how we’re all wired—there are three basic ways to deal with threats. Some run, some fight, some stop and get philosophical. You find this insight in neurochemistry—across 36 cultures, these instincts are wired into us. These are very much who we are. In only a small percentage of the threatening situations is our habitual approach the right one. The worst thing parents can do is listen to the culture when it says, ‘Let your child be who that child is. Don’t try to change him.’ Kagan says that’s the worst thing you can do. Children need to be pulled out of their natural instincts. Parents need to intervene and not let their natures run them. Doing so is a form of child neglect. I’ve never forgotten that with the transgender question. We’re told we can only affirm [this identity] today. The lack of wisdom in this response will become more evident over time. We’re now a radical individualistic culture. If you do anything against it, you’re sacrilegious. I think we’ll see 20 years of mistakes, and then we’ll realize it wasn’t a good idea.
“What do you think?
Here’s a helpful little rundown of terms and distinctions that the Gospel Coalition released earlier today: http://thegospelcoalition.org/article/9-things-you-should-know-about-transgenderism
Walt, again, you amaze me! Thank you for courageously putting yourself into the public realm with honest struggles that we all face. I read the article twice…watched the video twice and afterwards, I thought to myself some of the same things you posted. I had heard about this family a few months back and I started to process the same issue of “child-centered parenting” and the “abuse” of putting your child into a cultural conversation as a potential icon. Those words are insightful. What is very meaningful though, and what I’m afraid may get lost in your article, is the PASTORAL approach that we are all called to…
“Pastoral care is about the love, compassion, and empathy that the church is called to provide to people as they walk through life’s struggles, often in response to ethical problems as we yearn to achieve God’s design. It’s about learning how to walk with people through their struggles.”
I couldn’t agree with this more. That’s what the Body of Christ is called to do. And as difficult as that is, that difficulty must be embraced or we will react in a manner that will continue to leave our voice out of the cultural discourse. So, thank you again…and I”m posting your blog on mine for my friends and followers to discuss with me! God bless you!
Walt, Thank you for this timely, informative and biblical post. Many of us who desire to share the love of God with a broken world are struggling to lovingly address these issues with grace and truth. May we all not fall victim to an emotional plea over God’s better (best) story!
Whew – a really hard topic and a thoughtful response. Thank you.
Well said Walt! I agree with and applaud your entire position. Thanks for your bravery, sensitivity and wisdom in addressing the REAL issues related to this complex and difficult issue.
Thank you for your post. After nearly 20 years of youth ministry, I met and had a meaningful conversation with a transgender teen just the other day. I am searching for the right way to love and share the gospel with her. It is easy to talk about grace, but the truth part is more difficult. I pray that I am faithful to share both grace and truth with this young person.
Wow. I sat here reading this article and felt that it expressed so much of what I have been struggling with. As a Youth Minister and a parent, these issues come front and center with what seems to be very polarized arguments from both sides. Your insights are critical in an attempt to bring those sides a bit closer into understanding God’s work in us. Thank you Walt for your continued guidance and support for all of us.
Thank you for your Gospel-centered response to such a volatile issue. You’ve helped believers think through this issue biblically and equipped us to anser with grace and love. I apprecaite your ministry!
This amazes me. You all sit here and talk about what God wants and God’s plan for everyone. Wasn’t “God’s Plan” to send his only Son, Jesus, to suffer and die for us, so that we may not have to suffer? Was it not God’s plan for all man-kind to love one another for who they are? Are we not told to love thy neighbor AND thy enemy, only then are we truly saved? God sends us tests. It is how we deal with these tests that show our love, respect, and following. How dare you take this family’s story and diminish it to a matter of religious/moral/ethical wrong-doing. If you truly paid as close attention to the story as you claim, you would have understood that the child identified, 100% with the opposite sex with which he [Ryland] was born. If a child was born with an extra arm protruding from it’s forehead, you wouldn’t expect the child to go through life with this extra arm that could potentially destroy the individuals life, or do you really have such little respect for human life, which would lead me to believe that you are a firm believer in abortion. Guess what, it’s called science and medicine. Whether you believe in science or medicine is completely irrelevant and prehistoric. Without medicine and science I doubt YOU or I would even be here. Disease and natural selection would have killed human life. The test here was the child being born transgendered. But you are looking at the whole situation in an ancient-biased point of view. The test isn’t, “well what do we do with the child?” but rather how do we keep this innocent child from suffering unjustly. This isn’t a matter of a child leading the parent. This child was suffering through no fault of their own and the parents did what God wanted them to do. They allowed the individual to suffer no more. If God wanted us to suffer, would he have sent his only Son? IF God was so particular about every tiny detail would he have given us the power of choice? Open your eyes. If God wanted the world to remain in it’s infant stages he wouldn’t have allowed us to advance and evolve. He wouldn’t have given us a brain to learn and grow. Rather than focusing on how other people handle life’s challenges, focus more on how you are handling the obstacles God has placed before you. He without sin may cast the first stone. No one, EVER has a right to judge ANYONE for who they are, what they do or how they do it. It is not our place to do so. So remember…He is always watching and judging…YOU.
Nick – your comment sounds a bit judgemental. . .
Your entire article is judging and questioning the parenting and religiosity of a family who tried to help guide their child towards the sex the child was born with. Unfortunately that is not the same gender the child identifies with. My comment is simply addressing the fact that a book written thousands of years ago cannot be taken literally, that like life, the meaning of the text evolves as the world changes. The messages are still there and still relevant but they apply in different ways now and are still legitimate. You cannot expect the world, society to properly function by following texts to the “T”. Otherwise Ryland most likely would have been put to death for being different, for being a girl wearing boy’s clothes.