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Some Christians are using sacred texts to embrace a broader understanding of gender

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Many evangelical Christians have pointed to the Bible as the reason they oppose transgender rights. They say God separated humans into males and females, and those categories are innate and immutable. But some other Christians are using sacred texts to come to a different conclusion, highlighting the presence of characters who defy traditional gender roles. Deena Prichep explains.

DEENA PRICHEP, BYLINE: Theology is stories - the stories written millennia ago by people trying to figure out their relationship with the divine...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

PRICHEP: ...And the stories that are told on any given Sunday, like at Saint David of Wales Episcopal Church in Portland, Ore. The Reverend AJ Buckley is associate rector.

A J BUCKLEY: I speak to you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

PRICHEP: Buckley's church, like many, has made changes, putting pronouns on nametags, preaching to siblings in Christ instead of brothers and sisters.

BUCKLEY: Sometimes, we will say God loves you but then not live that out in the church always. And so having those things say, no, you're actually wanted here, and we're excited that you're here.

PRICHEP: Buckley says that's part of living out the Bible's message.

BUCKLEY: For me, as a nonbinary person, I've been to so many churches where they don't have a bathroom that I feel like I can use, and so I'll just not go to the bathroom there.

PRICHEP: Sometimes the change is as easy as a sign on a bathroom door, and sometimes it's harder. Not every congregation, not every Christian, welcomes these changes. Robyn Henderson-Espinoza, a theologian and ordained Baptist minister, says conflict is not new to Christianity.

ROBYN HENDERSON-ESPINOZA: I followed the story of a brown Palestinian Jew who was executed by the Roman Empire. And that story is painful.

PRICHEP: But Henderson-Espinosa, author of the book "Body Becoming: A Path To Our Liberation," says this recentering of the story is the work of Christianity.

HENDERSON-ESPINOZA: I think that's how we bring heaven to Earth, is having these hard conversations and creating more relationships and creating more opportunities to be in relationship with difference.

PRICHEP: And if you look in the Bible, those different stories are there as well. Shannon TL Kearns is the first openly transgender man ordained in the Old Catholic Church, a denomination that split from Rome after the first Vatican Council in the 19th century.

SHANNON TL KEARNS: The world of gender in the Bible is much more complex than I was taught growing up as an evangelical.

PRICHEP: There are all sorts of stories of transgressing gender norms.

KEARNS: We have women who are judges. We have men who spend their time in the kitchen. There are eunuchs, which were considered this kind of other third gender.

PRICHEP: Kearns says figuring out the Bible's message on transpeople is partly about rediscovering these stories. But in a larger sense, it's about asking harder questions of the stories Christians think they already know. For example, in Genesis, angels come to Sodom and Gomorrah, and the townspeople threaten to rape them. The destruction of those cities is often seen as God's condemnation of homosexuality, but it could be read as a lesson in welcoming the stranger.

KEARNS: You know, when we look at a passage like, you know, Sodom and Gomorrah, we're looking at the places where where might we still be inhospitable to people today? Are we benefiting from systems that are hurting other people?

PRICHEP: Kearns says this arc of scripture, bringing the most marginalized to the center, has always been there. But he's not surprised it hasn't always been told that way.

KEARNS: White, cisgender, heterosexual men, they're reading from their specificity and particularity and calling it universal. And that's the real damage.

PRICHEP: Kearns says a fuller reading of the Bible means listening to all voices.

KEARNS: I think that we all read ourselves into Scripture. I think the kicker is that folks from marginalized communities are being honest about the fact that that's what they're doing.

PRICHEP: Good narratives survive because they welcome a range of readers into their world. They don't define meaning. They reveal it for those who enter the story. Austen Hartke is a Lutheran theologian and author of "Transforming," a book about the Bible and the lives of transgender Christians.

AUSTEN HARTKE: If you believe, like I do, that God made me trans on purpose, then what does that mean that I am allowed to do to steward my body to live a healthy and full life? In the same way that if God made somebody nearsighted, they're allowed to get glasses.

PRICHEP: Hartke says it's part of Jesus' call to abundant life. It's not desecration. It's co-creation, holy work.

HARTKE: Yes, our bodies are temples, but temples change.

PRICHEP: And Hartke says the blueprint for that change is in the text.

HARTKE: If we say God is the alpha and the omega, we don't mean God is just A and Z.

PRICHEP: He says it means God contains the full range of existence.

HARTKE: Even though Genesis 1 talks about binaries in the world, we know that those binaries aren't as clean-cut as they are in this one piece of writing.

PRICHEP: It's not just man and woman.

HARTKE: So, for instance, God creates the day and the night. It says nothing about dawn or dusk.

PRICHEP: But these in-between places exist. And Hartke says there's a richness to them and to the theology that emerges from them because they tell a fuller story of this holy world. For NPR News, I'm Deena Prichep. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Deena Prichep