How The Southern Baptists Are Still Completely Failing Transgender People

Denny Burk rejecting transgender identities at #ERLC2014. CREDIT: YOUTUBE/ERLC
Denny Burk rejecting transgender identities at #ERLC2014. CREDIT: YOUTUBE/ERLC

This is the third in a series of posts about the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission’s conference on “The Gospel, Homosexuality, and the Future of Marriage.” Read the first post here and second post here.

NASHVILLE, TN — The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) may have made some important, if subtle, changes to tone and approach when it comes to homosexuality, but the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) conference demonstrated just how far it has yet to go on transgender issues.

Back in June, the SBC approved a resolution “On Transgender Identity,” which declared that “gender identity is determined by biological sex and not by one’s self-perception,” describing transgender and intersex identities as manifestations of “human fallenness.” The resolution also expressed opposition to any form of physical gender transition, as well as any governmental or cultural validations of transgender identities.

Though the Bible is known for its “clobber verses” that have been interpreted to condemn same-sex relationships, it offers very little context for transgender identities. In fact, the only verse the SBC cited in its resolution was the familiar passage of Genesis 1:27: “So God created man in His own image; He created him in the image of God; He created them male and female,” plus two New Testament references to the same text. Combined with the gender roles that the SBC also believes the Bible dictates for men and women, these verses alone provide their theological justification for rejecting transgender identities — and the ample medical research about how best to care for transgender people.


Though the ERLC conference was not focused on transgender issues, they still came up repeatedly. Albert Mohler was the first to mention them during his remarks opening the conference on Monday. “We come to understand that in the transsexual/transgender revolution — the revolt against the fixity of gender — that we’re also looking at… a level of confusion that Biblically would be defined as a form of rebellion that at the level of identity should leave us very humbled,” he explained.

ERLC President Russell Moore offered his own perspective on trans issues during a live “Questions & Ethics” session Tuesday morning. “The people who are coming to you — that biologically male person who says ‘I think I’m a woman,’ or vice versa — that person really experiences that and believes that,” he told the conference. “You don’t have to agree with that at all, and I would say we can’t. The Bible teaches us that God created us male and female.”

It was a break-out session by Pastor Denny Burk, however, that truly took the deep dive on the Convention’s position on gender identity. It’s surely no coincidence that Burk, a professor of Biblical Studies at Boyce College (the undergraduate arm of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary), was the same individual who co-authored the resolution the SBC passed in June. At the time, Burk described the need for the resolution as a “moment of pastoral urgency,” citing familiar unfounded concerns about transgender people’s use of restrooms and locker rooms.

Burk opened by describing the transgender movement as “the next phase of the gay rights movement,” which was surely a surprise to the many transgender people who have felt that the LGBT movement has sidelined their rights in favor of protections based only on sexual orientation. He suggested that trans rights were following a similar course to gay rights, such as the fact that the American Psychiatric Association (APA) stopped identifying trans identities as a “disorder,” much as it stopped classifying homosexuality as a disorder in 1973.

Burk went on to assert that “at the heart of the transgender revolution is the notion that psychological identity trumps bodily identity.” He then discussed a rare and little-studied psychological disorder called Body Integrity Identity Disorder (BIID), in which people desire to have limbs amputated, “like a one-legged man trapped inside a two-legged man’s body.” Since transgender people often receive treatment through surgery, Burk believes the two conditions are similar, and if the amputations seem wrong for BIID patients, surgeries should seem no more right for transgender individuals. “Does the body need adjusting,” he asked, “or does the thinking?”


Insisting that the Bible dictates everything that a person needs to follow, Burk dismissed all of the research that shows that gender is fixed and that there are mental health consequences for denying a person’s gender identity. “The task of parenting, the task of discipling,” he resolved, “requires understanding those [gender] norms and to inculcate those norms into our children and to those who want to follow Christ, even those who have deep conflicts about these things.”

Watch Burk’s full remarks:

Brynn Tannehill, a transgender activist and Director of Advocacy for the transgender military organization SPART*A, took personal exception to Burk’s claims. She pointed out to ThinkProgress that there is an increasing amount of research that demonstrates that transgender identities have a biological origin. Thus, a disorder like BIID, that is not even recognized by the APA, and transgender identities, which are no longer even considered a disorder, make for a “false comparison.” “There is nothing intrinsically wrong or harmful with having a brain that developed along more stereotypically male or female patterns,” she explained.

Tannehill also highlighted the fact that many transgender people do not even pursue surgery as part of their transition. Sometimes they can’t afford to, sometimes they don’t feel the need to, and sometimes they wish to retain their reproductive ability. Research has found that affirming a person’s gender identity is beneficial to their mental health, while rejecting a person’s gender identity can be quite harmful. Burk also claimed that using hormone suppressants to delay puberty for a young person who might identify as trans could have side effects, but a recent study found that the treatment was fully reversible and an effective way at helping young people who experience gender dysphoria, regardless of whether they continue to identify as transgender or not.

Ironically, Burk also addressed a question about intersex identities, people who might be born with ambiguous sex characteristics. He indicated that he believed that chromosomes indicate a binary there, even if it’s not manifested in physical characteristics. After spending the better part of an hour refusing the idea that transgender people could determine their own gender identities, Burk seemed to suggest that intersex people can, in fact, identify themselves, noting the Bible’s references to eunuchs.


The notions about trans identities advanced by Mohler, Moore, Burk, and the rest of the SBC utilize a very small amount of theology to dismiss all of the research on the medical needs of transgender people — not to mention their very existence. Though the ERLC conference demonstrated a few small steps toward better recognizing the experience of people with same-sex orientations, it did just the opposite for transgender people, rejecting them outright.