The following essay was originally published by the Presbyterian Outlook. In their piece, Jess discusses the reading and use of Scripture in discussions of transgender people, pointing us toward an interpretation of abundance, viewing a coming out process as a call process, and the importance of using a transgender person’s chosen name. Jess’s full bio can be seen below.
Viewing Scripture from a place of abundance
At More Light, an organization of Presbyterians whose mission is to empower and equip individuals and congregations to live into their welcome for LGBTQIA+ people, we often talk about believing in a God of abundance. As children of an abundant God, we believe God’s community is abundant, always expanding beyond the boundaries that may be placed upon it. By understanding God and ourselves as abundant, we refuse to limit whom God loves and welcomes into community. We see our role as helping to create spaces where that expansive community can grow and thrive. More Light believes that members and churches live into this understanding of God through a developmental journey that begins with a deepening understanding of a theology of God’s abundance, which then extends into the organization, leadership and practices of our faith communities and spiritual practice of faith in action.
When approaching Scripture, we must challenge ourselves to first ask how God’s abundance is expanding the community not only in the text, but in our world today. Throughout the Old and New Testaments, Scripture introduces us to characters whose interactions with God and one another expand the way we understand God, ourselves and how to live in the world. It is often the characters who defy the norms projected upon them who show us new ways of being.
In the oldest extant text in our Scriptures, Deborah, both a warrior and a judge, defies the norms put upon her as a woman and leads the Israelites to victory over the Canaanites (Judges 4-5). Ruth, as a Moabite and a widow, resides on the margins of Israelite society, and embodies a courage and devotion so profound that she is the not only adopted into the family of Israel, but also becomes the ancestor of King David and, later, Jesus (Ruth 4:17; Matthew 1:5). Time and again Jesus refuses to stay within the carefully held margins of who is defined as clean and unclean, healing people he’s not supposed to touch on days he’s not supposed to heal, pushing against prescribed traditions. Paul asserts his own pedigree, only to say that the gains afforded to him through his privilege are lost with regard to Christ (Philippians 3:1-10).
Each of these individuals, and countless more throughout Scripture, make the bold step to trust where God is leading them, even though their path was previously unmarked. Rather than following a path of scarcity, they follow the path of God’s abundance. In doing so, they change the narrative about who is included among God’s people.
Transgender people and the Bible
Often when people discuss the Bible and transgender people, they do so with an assumption that the same passages used to justify the exclusion of lesbian, gay or bisexual people also apply to transgender people. While it is beyond the scope of this article to engage those texts, it is worth noting that those passages are often used to justify exclusion based on sexual practices. (For an excellent discussion on the Bible and sexual orientation, see Mark Achtemeier’s book “The Bible’s Yes to Same Sex Marriage: An Evangelical’s Change of Heart.”) Gender identity describes a person’s sense of self with regard to their gender and is not related to their sexual practices. The attempt to use Scripture as the justification for exclusion of transgender people is simply unfounded. Some argue that the creation story, wherein God creates a man and a woman, provides enough evidence to exclude transgender people from the fullness of creation. While this approach completely overlooks the existence of intersex people, whose biologic characteristics (whether chromosomes, hormones or external genitalia) do not align with either male or female anatomy, it also approaches Scripture from a place of scarcity, assuming the lists described in the creation stories are exhaustive, which is not the case. For instance, there is no mention of clouds, mountains, sunrise or sunset in the accounts of creation. In reading Scripture from a place of abundance, we read that God has created everything, and that creation is good.
The Ethiopian eunuch is an excellent example of an expanding vision of God’s abundance illustrated throughout Scripture that specifically addresses a marginalized gender identity. In Acts 89:26-40, we are told the story of the Ethiopian eunuch, a character celebrated as the first foreign convert to Christianity, whose archetype has a colorful history throughout the canon. As a eunuch and a foreigner, Levitical law asserted his prohibition from the assembly of God (Deuteronomy 23:1). Yet Isaiah 56 specifically includes both eunuchs and foreigners, stating: “Do not let the foreigner joined to God say, ‘God will surely separate me from God’s people’; and do not let the eunuch say, ‘I am just a dry tree.’ … For God says, ‘[I will] make them joyful in my house of prayer … for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all people.’ Thus says the Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, ‘I will gather others to them besides those already gathered’” (Isaiah 56:3-5,8).
In Acts, Philip is told by an angel of God to go to a wilderness road, and it is there that he meets the eunuch. A person with a great deal of power, the eunuch is a court official for the queen of Ethiopia and is in charge of her entire treasury. He is reading Isaiah when he and Philip cross paths. Philip again follows instructions from the Spirit, excitedly runs to the eunuch and, surely in astonishment, finds the eunuch on the chariot, reading Philip’s own sacred text. “Do you understand what you’re reading?” Phillip asks. “How can I,” responds the eunuch, “unless someone guides me?” The two then talk through the text, and Philip begins telling the eunuch the good news of Jesus. When they come upon the very next body of water, the eunuch commands the chariot to stop and excitedly points it out: “Look! Here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” The two go down to the water, and Philip baptizes the eunuch right there. Philip is then whisked away by the Spirit, and the eunuch, we are told, goes on his way rejoicing.
For a long time when I read this story, I read the tone of the eunuch as meek, asking permission to be baptized. Now, I read it in a different way. Like so many folks who’ve been told they only occupy a marginal space within a tradition, the eunuch has a unique perspective on the text and on the tradition. While I still believe there is a deep respect in his exchange with Philip, when I now read the question – “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” – I do so with a certain solidarity that has come from years of education, prayer and study. The eunuch is like so many who’ve been told they do not belong among the people of God, only to have studied and learned and felt God’s presence in their lives in a much more acute way than those who are sometimes so wed to their traditions that they forget what it is to be a child of God. When posing the question to Philip, the eunuch knows down to his bones that there is nothing to keep him from being baptized. It has been my experience that so often those of us who have been told we are unworthy of grace are the ones who feel it the most. The eunuch knows that before anything else, he is God’s beloved child. And that understanding empowers him to boldly claim his baptism and his place among God’s people.
Coming out as a call process
In his book “A Brief Guide to Ministry with LGBTQIA Youth,” Cody Sanders lifts up the process of coming out not as a one-time process, but as a journey more akin to discerning a sense of call. He quotes transgender minister and theologian Justin Tannis who explains: “Calling is about a way of being — a calling to awaken to, realize, and manifest who we are. For trans people, our calling is a way of embodying the self that transcends the limitations placed upon us. We physically and literally materialize who we are on the inside and bring it to reflection on the outside.”
Sanders draws a parallel between the process of coming out with the journeys of the Old Testament prophets (Isaiah 6:5-7; Jonah 2:1-7; Ezekiel 3:24-26). The prophets sensed a call from God that often led to fear or even guilt. They often withdrew and became isolated from their communities, or experienced confusion, shame and loneliness. And yet, like the prophets, trans people’s willingness to speak openly about their gender and to share that with the world changes the way people understand not only their own gender identity, but also the range of identities created by God.
I saw this process many times in my work with trans and nonbinary youth as the youth programs director at Side by Side, a nonprofit organization that supports LGBTQIA youth in Richmond, Virginia. Many of the youth were told they were too young to understand their own identity; others experienced a great deal of isolation or shame put upon them by their families or peers as they sought to make sense of an identity that was both within them and also beyond the confines of their physical body. Yet in having the space to move through the process and to discern their own sense of self, these youth moved into a space of acceptance and self-love with regard to their gender identity, often carrying that message out into the world. Two of these youth in particular, Gavin Grimm and Chandler N. Wilson, have gone on to make an international impact on the conversation about gender. Their willingness to answer the call to claim their identity has led to an assuredness so strong that they have changed the lives of millions of people across the world.
Significance of names
Using a transgender person’s name is a big deal. A recent study published by the Journal of Adolescent Health found that simply using a transgender person’s chosen name can reduce their risk of suicide by 65 percent.
Extending the notion of coming out as a process akin to discerning a call, Scripture presents us with abundant evidence of the importance of a name with regard to one’s sense of call. When God promises Abram and Sarai they will be the ancestors of multitudes, God calls them Abraham and Sarah (Genesis 17:5,15). After Jacob wrestles his blessing from the angel, he is no longer Jacob, but Israel (Genesis 32:28). Naomi attempts to change her name to Mara, citing her bitterness towards God’s treatment of her, yet it doesn’t stick, and she remains Naomi, which means pleasant (Ruth 1:20-21). When Saul is commissioned and sent by the Spirit, his name is changed to Paul (Acts 13:9).
While not a story about a change of name, one of the most powerful narratives around being called by name is from the Gospel of John’s account of Easter Sunday. As Jesus and Mary exchange words, it isn’t until Jesus says he name that she knows it is him. I don’t know what happened to Jesus’ body on that first Easter, but I have seen enough youth come back to life to believe that resurrection is possible. I have seen what happens when a person is called by their name and seen in the fullness of their identity, and when they realize their place in Scripture isn’t among the margins but within the fold of God’s beloved and abundant community.
Gender pronouns: they/them/theirs
Jess Cook is the Programs and Communication Manager for More Light Presbyterians. Jess is also a candidate for ordination in the Presbyterian Church (USA). A native of East Texas and lifelong Presbyterian, Jess holds a Master of Divinity from Union Presbyterian Seminary, a Master of Fine Arts in Photography from the University of North Texas, and a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Studio Art from Baylor.
Prior to joining MLP, Jess was the Youth Programs Director at Side by Side, an organization in Richmond, VA serving LGBTQIA+ youth. While at Side by Side, Jess worked with hundreds of young people through support groups, a leadership program, and various programs in the community. They created a parent support group and a meals program, and trained a wide variety of faith community leaders and service providers on best practices for working with LGBTQIA+ youth.
Jess’s call is to help facilitate spaces where reconciliation is possible, with the acknowledgement that reconciliation is only possible if we are able to be honest with ourselves and one another about the ways in which we are broken. True reconciliation requires relationships, and relationships require trust and vulnerability. Jess sees their role as helping make spaces where that vulnerability is celebrated and trust can be built.
Jess loves poetry, liturgy, sharing meals, and pretty much any conversation about the ways we see the Spirit come to life in the world. They live in Richmond, VA with their lively toddler and dog.