Gender dysphoria is unstable and unfamiliar ground for the church. As more and more people navigate their way through feelings of gender incongruence the church must seek to understand it and navigate it with them. We must do so from within a Biblical framework and with compassion, but we must do it. The unstable and unfamiliar terrain makes Mark Yarhouse’s new book Understanding Gender Dysphoria a welcome resource. Yarhouse gives the diligent reader great information, perspective, and challenge in this packed monograph. Yet, for all his information, he is missing some vital pieces in his counseling framework.
The book’s seven chapters and 161 pages, give readers all the important information about gender dysphoria. We navigate the common nomenclature and the distinctions between biological sex, gender, gender roles, and sexual orientation. As well as the distinctions between the terms transgender, transsexual, cross-dressing, and intersex. We are introduced to the various theories of etiology and the divergent personal experiences of those under this large umbrella. The book also focuses in on distinctions between the gender dysphoric experiences of children, adolescents, and adults. A great deal of the first four chapters is simply information. Not all of it would be categorized as Christian, nor does all of it reflect the author’s beliefs. But he gives us all of it to help us see the whole picture before us in current counseling. Yarhouse reveals his depth of knowledge and research in the field and reminds readers of why he is so highly respected in the field of Christian counseling and sex therapy.
The book also pushes back on the knee-jerk reaction of Christians as they respond to those within the transgender community and those who experience some level of gender incongruence. He models for us some humility and great compassion as he writes about the subjects. He guides us, as well, in thinking through the dynamics and usefulness of narrative therapy. It proposes a plan for thinking about how to respond to both individuals and as Christian institutions. That is another unique feature of the work.
As there are not many works on this subject at present Yarhouse’s book will surely become a go-to resource. Add to that Yarhouse’s own reputation and expertise and you understand the impulse to make Understanding Gender Dysphoria a leading text for counselors. As a Biblical counselor there’s much that I love about the work, and yet there are some concerns I have with it as well.
Yarhouse is very careful to affirm a biblical framework that supports the “sacredness” of male and female. He disapproves of the gender deconstruction efforts by some in the larger Transgender community. Yet, his Biblical theological work on gender needs further development. A Christian counselor attempting to help people navigate their own gender incongruence needs to listen to a person’s experience, but they also must be able to give a fully developed theology of manhood and womanhood. Yarhouse’s treatment of 1 Corinthians 6:9 is lacking, and he spends more time quoting the EAPC than he does interacting with the text in context, as other’s have noted.
In addition I think Yarhouse fails to interact intelligently on the Bible’s doctrine of “identity in Christ,” which has to be a major part of counseling those with gender incongruence. Identity is not fundamentally rooted in gender, anatomy, or experience. It is fundamentally rooted in our relationship to God and grasping this can have a massive transforming impact. This is why Jesus can speak of the place of the various kinds of “eunuchs” in the Kingdom of God. Their identity is not tied to biological sex, but to their relationship with God. Yarhouse has much to say about meaning-making and identity throughout the book, but is nearly silent on identity in Christ.
There’s much to appreciate about this book. It will certainly give readers a starting place for “understanding” gender dysphoria. Counselors will need to consider more as they seek to be the most help to those who struggle with this kind of incongruity. Understanding Gender Dysphoria is a good resource, but not a complete resource.