Does a trans-male involved in an intimate committed married relationship with a cis-female align with our Mennonite Brethren biblical ethic?
Thanks, M., for this question that I know is being asked by some within our national family.
As you are likely aware, a lot of time is needed today to make sure that we are understanding words the same way. So I must spend a few moments explaining my definition of terms and how I’m understanding your question and the terms you are using. (If I have misunderstood your intention, please let me know.)
I will begin with my definition of “birth sex.” This is normally understood as the physical genitalia characteristics of a child at birth that identifies the child as either a boy or a girl. While the exact definition of all the conditions that should be included under the umbrella term “intersex” is debated, “ambiguous genitalia affect 1 in 5,000 live births” (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7845444/). As a result, birth sex as boy or girl is clearly recognizable in over 99.9% of live births. While many would prefer not to use the term “birth sex” but rather the expression “sex assigned at birth,” it seems that birth sex (boy/girl) is an external physical and observable reality—not something that medical professionals need to construct and assign. The question of gender expression and gender identity is related but separate. It is also beyond what we can cover here.
Here are my understandings of the words you have used in your question:
“trans-male”—A person born with a birth sex of girl/female who now identifies as a male/man (their gender identity). This individual may or may not have taken steps to align their physical body with their male gender identity.
“cis-female”—A person born with birth sex of girl/female and sees themselves as a female/woman. (The “cis” prefix here implies that there are objectively [at least] two types of women and men—cis and trans. While these categories obviously exist in society as people identify in these ways, there is much dispute whether a person born as a girl/woman could objectively become a “man” by means of identifying as a man and possibly taking part in body altering measures.)
“intimate committed married relationship”—A covenantal relationship that involves relational and sexual intimacy.
“biblical ethic”— A biblical ethic is for those who desire to worship Jesus, follow Jesus, and seek first God’s Kingdom. A biblical ethic is first of all a summary of what the Bible describes about what loving God looks like. If someone does not absolutely want to love God, then a biblical ethic will be both nonsensical and undesirable. A biblical ethic secondly describes God’s perspective on love for neighbour (and love for self).
A biblical ethic is, therefore, fundamentally a “love ethic” rooted in one’s love for God and demonstrated through a God-centred love for neighbour (and self). We should constantly think of this when we use the expression “biblical ethic” which can sound sort of cold and legalistic. It is really a “biblical love of God and neighbour ethic.”
While we might have many ideas about what loving God and loving neighbour should look like, we are trusting God’s voice through the Bible to guide us, correct us, and empower us on that journey.
A biblical ethic is discerned in a multitude of overlapping ways. God’s overarching Kingdom story from Genesis 1 to Revelation 22 provides the foundational contours for that ethic. We must ask whether certain behaviors are consistent with God’s biblical redemption story which displays God’s character, God’s vision for all creation, and God’s mission that finds its fulfillment with the ultimate return of Jesus. (I have expressed this elsewhere as asking whether the behavior is consistent with the “Shalom Kingdom melody” that God is singing throughout the story that the Bible tells.) There may also be specific biblical texts and biblical teaching addressing the ethical questions we are asking about so a biblical ethic must interact with them. Finally the biblical story can be brought together into key themes like creation, humanity, sin, salvation, marriage, and so on—and these key themes have profound implications for how disciples of Jesus should live.
A biblical ethic that loves God and neighbour does not necessarily produce obviously positive results in the lives of those who follow that ethic. A biblical love ethic does not promise increased happiness or the end of pain and suffering for Christians living faithfully in our broken world. Living in alignment with a biblical ethic may lessen pain and produce joy (Acts 13:52; Romans 14:17), but it may also create more pain (Romans 8:18). But for disciples of Jesus, pain may well be part of developing the character of Jesus (Romans 5:3-5; James 1:2-4) as we share in the sufferings of Christ (Philippians 3:10; 1 Peter 4:12-16).
“Mennonite Brethren biblical ethic”—Our MB Confession of Faith “expresses what [MBs] believe the Bible teaches regarding our core theological and ethical convictions” (“Introduction to the MB Confession of Faith ”). This means that our MB Confession of Faith seeks to express our understanding of a biblical ethic for disciples of Jesus and the Church today. Our Confession describes what we think loving God and neighbour looks like. With this in mind, it should be clear that our MB Confession of Faith is not designed to tell non-Christians how they should or should not live. Unless someone repents, bows down, is reconciled to God in Christ, and wants to truly love God and neighbour, these 18 articles will be more like the aroma of death than life (cf. 1 Corinthians 2:15-17).
Our biblical ethic related to marriage is articulated in Article 11. Here is the most relevant paragraph:
Marriage is a covenant relationship intended to unite a man and a woman for life. At creation, God designed marriage for companionship, sexual union, and the birth and nurture of children. Sexual intimacy rightfully takes place only within marriage. Marriage is to be characterized by mutual love, faithfulness, and submission. A believer should not marry an unbeliever.
When it comes to interpreting the words recorded in the MB Confession of Faith (1999), it seems clear that the “man and a woman” here should be understood in light of the Bible references about God’s creation of humans as “male and female” listed at the end of the article (viz. Genesis 1:26-31; 2:18-24; Matthew 19:3-12). Article 2 in our Confession supports this definition as well: “God created them male and female in the image of God” (Genesis 1:27; 5:2). Jesus quotes Genesis in Matthew 19:4 and Mark 10:6 in support of covenantal marriage. Is there any reasonable possibility that the biblical writers (and Jesus specifically in his pronouncements in Matthew 19 and Mark 10) would look at our modern situation of trans-identity and declare a person as a “male/man” if they had been born with a birth sex of female?
The biblical view of the human person does not describe a person as having separate distinct parts (viz. body, mind, soul, spirit) but as one unified whole of body, mind, soul, and spirit. (The only time that a person is a separated entity is temporarily between the time of physical death and the time of bodily resurrection when Jesus returns. Unfortunately, many Christians over the centuries have embraced an unbiblical anthropology highlighting the eternal value of the human soul and the temporary and therefore disposable value of the human body.)
What this unified human person means practically is that separating one part of a person and giving it the status of “truth” and another part of a person as speaking “untruth” is not consistent with a biblical anthropology. The Bible implies that humans are unified beings—in both sin and redemption.
To answer your question simply and directly, I do not believe that a biblical ethic (and the MB Confession of Faith that is built on that biblical ethic) would affirm that the scenario you suggested (or the various other permutations possible) is in line with how we believe God has revealed to us what loving God and neighbour looks like. As a result, according to our understanding of the biblical ethic, this ethical choice will not ultimately lead to fullness of life, flourishing, and faithful worship of God. And as far as I am aware, there is no CCMBC recommendation or resolution since 1999 that leads me to believe that this assessment has been renounced or revised.
But—some argue that compassion/love (which is understood as prioritizing the reduction of suffering and potential self-harm) and fairness/justice (which is often defined as equality of access to happiness) must override biblical ethics when that ethic seems to, in their eyes, lack compassion and fairness. The argument is that Christian ethical wisdom should involve being guided by these “higher” values when we perceive that the biblical ethic does not meet this standard. I have heard people say almost exactly this—”I don’t care about what the Bible says or what the MB Confession of Faith says, I just want to love my son [or daughter or_____________].”
If we decide that our biblical ethic presently understood is not fundamentally compassionate, loving, fair, and just, we will want to look again to confirm that it is truly faithful to Scripture. But ignoring a biblical ethic in favour of our own ethical wisdom and its definitions of love and justice is a profound church-altering move away from how orthodox Christians over the centuries have understood God’s discipleship path. Let’s think and pray very carefully before we take that giant step. (For my evaluation of a book that argues for a move to “wisdom,” see here.)
While the National Faith and Life Team has not produced a specifically MB resource related to these questions of gender identity and its relation to birth sex, I believe the following resource is helpful. See Dr. Preston Sprinkle, “A Biblical Conversation About Transgender Identities” (Download here).
Thanks again, M., for your question.
National Faith & Life Director