A woman must not wear men’s clothing, nor a man wear women’s clothing, for the Lord your God detests anyone who does this. (Deuteronomy 22:5)
One verse that every transgender person needs to come to terms with is Deuteronomy 22:5. This verse seems to be a direct condemnation of cross-dressing. But, as has been asked before, aren’t they just clothes? What does this verse really mean?
In researching this, I found one commentator who used Deuteronomy 22:5 as an opportunity to recount the anecdote of following a car containing a man dressed in woman’s clothes and a woman dressed in men’s clothes. He used this as a springboard for an “isn’t it sad the state American culture is in” sermonette. I won’t embarrass the author by naming him. (At least I would have been embarrassed if I had written it.) This type of insightless commentary, where it is so obvious that the writer hasn’t even bothered to crack the cover of the Hebrew scriptures, not only doesn’t help, but it is positively harmful.
I hope that in the following, I can do better than that.
A surface reading of this text would lead the reader to the same conclusion as the commentator in the NIV Study Bible : “Probably intended to prohibit such perversions as transvestism and homosexuality, especially under religious auspices. The God-created differences between men and women are not to be disregarded.”
Most serious commentators on this verse, however, try to look for something more significant than taking issue with the kind of clothes people choose to wear.
The commentator in the NIV Matthew Henry Commentary  notes the following about verses 5-12 of this chapter. “Here are several laws in these verses which seem to stoop very low, and to take cognizance of things common and minute.” With reference to verse 5 he says, “Probably this exchange of garments had been used to gain opportunity of committing uncleanness, and is therefore forbidden.”
Walter R. Roehrs  goes on to suggest that, “Wearing apparel of the opposite sex was an ‘abomination to the Lord’ because it was the vogue among the Canaanite fertility worshipers.”
The writer in the International Bible Commentary  notes that, “Within living memory, this verse has been cited against the wearing of trousers by women; yet there has been no corresponding refusal to wear rayon/cotton or terylene/worsted mixtures (see Deuteronomy 22:11). The practice referred to may have been thought to have magical effects. There is certainly evidence of transvestism and simulated sexual inversion being associated in the ancient world (as well as today) with sexual license — and in a religious context.
So is there more to be gotten out of this than a condemnation of cross-dressing on the grounds of sexual license and sympathetic magic? John H. Walton and Victor H. Matthews  note, “Just as clothing served as a status marker in the ancient world, it also distinguished gender. In classical contexts, cross-dressing occurred in the theater, where women were not allowed to perform, and was also an aspect of homosexual practice. Most instances in which cross-dressing or transvestism are mentioned in ancient Near Eastern texts are cultic or legal in nature. For instance, when the Ugaritic hero Aqhat is murdered, his sister Paghat puts on a male garment under her female robes in order to assume the role of blood avenger in the absence of a male relative. An Assyrian wisdom text contains a dialogue between husband and wife who propose to exchange their clothing and thus assume each other’s gender roles. This may be a fertility rite or perhaps a part of a religious drama honoring a goddess. It may be this association with other religions that made transvestism an ‘abomination’ in Deuteronomy, but the issue may also be the blurring of gender distinctions. Hittite texts use gender-related objects as well as clothing in a number of magical rites used to influence one’s sexual status or diminish or alter the gender status of an adversary. The objects of the female where mirror and distaff; those of the male, various weapons.”
What about this issue of “gender role?” The first thing to note is that the two places the word “clothing” appear in the translation of this verse are really two different words in the Hebrew original. “Men’s clothing” represents the Hebrew “keli-never” which means “all of the things of manhood”, i.e. clothes, armor, weapons, tools, etc. “Women’s clothing” represents the Hebrew word “simlath” which was the square mantel that women wore. These two terms are paired in a list in 1 Kings 10:25 where in the NIV the translation is “robes and weapons.”
Therefore a better translation of this verse might be:
A woman must not wear men’s gear, nor a man wear women’s robes, for the Lord your God detests anyone who does this.
This seems to imply that what we are talking about in this verse is not clothing, but the masculine and feminine roles of protector and homemaker.
It is possible that one motivation for this condemnation was to prevent men from hiding among the women to avoid their civic duty just as in 1 Samuel 10:17-24 Saul hid himself among the baggage.
C. F. Keil  directly addresses this meaning. “… the divine distinction of the sexes, which was kept sacred in civil life by the clothing peculiar to each sex, was to be not less but even more sacredly observed. ‘There shall not be man’s things upon a woman, and a man shall not put on a woman’s clothes.’ Keli does not signify clothing merely, nor arms only, but includes every kind of domestic and other utensils (as in Exodus 22:6; Leviticus 11:32; 13:49). The immediate design of this prohibition was not to prevent licentiousness, or to oppose idolatrous practices; but to maintain the sanctity of that distinction of the sexes which was established by the creation of man and woman, and in relation to which Israel was not to sin. Every violation of wiping out of this distinction — such even, for example, as the emancipation of a woman — was unnatural, and therefore an abomination in the sight of God.”
Based on these interpretations, this verse no longer stands alone as a condemnation of violations in dress code. Instead it fits into a group of verses dealing with gender roles. It is not about transvestism. It’s about transgenderism.
At this point there is some value in gathering the main “Male and Female” passages together in one place. Some of them are from the Old Testament and some from the New Testament.
So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:27)
Do not cut the hair at the sides of your head or clip off the edges of your beard. (Leviticus 19:27)
A woman must not wear men’s gear, nor a man wear women’s robes, for the Lord your God detests anyone who does this. (Deuteronomy 22:5)
Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head. And every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head — it is just as though her head were shaved. If a woman does not cover her head, she should have her hair cut off; and if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut or shaved off, she should cover her head. A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of man. For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. For this reason, and because of the angels, the woman ought to have a sign of authority on her head. In the Lord, however, woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God. Judge for yourselves: Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? Does not the very nature of things teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him, but that if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For long hair is given to her as a covering. If anyone wants to be contentious about this, we have no other practice — nor do the churches of God. (1 Corinthians 11:4-16)
As in all the congregations of the saints, women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the Law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church. Did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only people it has reached? If anyone thinks he is a prophet or spiritually gifted, let him acknowledge that what I am writing to you is the Lord’s command. If he ignores this, he himself will be ignored. (1 Corinthians 14:33b-38)
A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent. (1 Timothy 2:11-12)
The commands of these passages may be summarized with the following table:
|May not shave their heads.
|May not shave their heads. (1 Cor. 11:4-16)
|May not have long hair.
(1 Cor. 11:4-16)
|May not have short hair. (1 Cor. 11:4-16)
|May not pray with head covered.
(1 Cor. 11:4-16)
|May not pray with head uncovered. (1 Cor. 11:4-16)
|Should remain silent in church. (1 Cor. 11:4-16)
|May not trim their beards.
|May not have authority over a man. (1 Tim. 2:11-12)
|Forbidden to avoid military service.
|Barred from military service. (Deut. 22:5)
|May not bear arms. (Deut. 22:5)
|May not enter female occupations, specifically be a homemaker.
|May not enter male occupations. (Deut. 22:5)
It should be noted concerning a man’s hair that the rule of the Nazarite violated two of these commands. He was to grow his hair long (Numbers 6:5) and afterwards was to shave his head (Num. 6:18). Also the tonsure of medieval monks would have violated Leviticus 19:27.
Today few, if any, of these rules are enforced by even the most conservative churches. The twentieth century saw the abandonment of head coverings by the Catholic Church. Among all but the very conservative, female pastors and priests are allowed. This last is an area worthy of discussion at another time.
Lawrence O. Richards  writes, “In most cases the OT civil laws governing the rights of men and women reflect cultural patterns. They fall short of what many believe to be a deserved “equality.” But it is important to remember that no culture provides equality. Injustices exist in every culture. And OT law was not a perfect expression of God’s ideal for the whole human race (Matthew 5:21-43). OT law was an accommodation, bringing righteousness as close as possible to men and women who lived in a world in which all things were tainted and twisted by sin.”
Many of the rules that Paul imposes on men and women above are reflections of practices in the Jewish Synagogue. For example, “The woman does not read out of the Torah, for the sake of the honor of the congregation.” In contrast to this, it was also Paul who wrote,
You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise. (Galatians 3:26-29)
Richards continues , “With the gospel came the announcement that in Christ ‘there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus’ (Galatians 3:28). This proclamation insists that there is spiritual equality in God’s sight, despite those cultural distinctions made in every society. Yet believers remain male and female, slave and free. And each must live out his or her life within roles imposed by society as well as within the believing community.
“For the church, the teaching of the gospel is a challenge to become the kind of community that Scripture says we are — one that values persons apart from their social role. For the woman today, the teaching of the gospel is a challenge to be comfortable with herself as a female. A woman, because she is significant in Christ, can find worth and dignity by living life as a woman — without a need to act like a man.”
I would expect Richards would be willing to expand this section to include, “For the man today, the teaching of the gospel is a challenge to be comfortable with himself as a male. A man, because he is significant in Christ, can find worth and dignity by living life as a man — without a need to act like a woman.” And this is where the real issue for the transgender person begins.
How can the transgender person, whether male or female, be comfortable with himself/herself within his/her gender? To address this issue it is necessary to understand who and what a transgender person is.
The transgender person is usually not homosexual. The stereotype of the gay drag-queen is exactly that, a stereotype. Although a few cross-dressing homosexuals exist, they are rare compared to the number of heterosexual transgender people. If transgender people spend a lot of time at gay bars, it’s because they find more acceptance there than they do in the “straight” world.
The transgender person is not sick. Mental health professionals state publicly that transvestism is not a mental illness.
It might be a fair statement, though, to say that any kind of transvestism represents some relationship defect in a persons life and so is a reflection of sin. People who cross gender lines in dressing can be classed into four categories.
1. The fetishist transvestite receives sexual stimulation from women’s clothing and this stimulation is the reason for cross-dressing. For the fetishist transvestite there is the brokenness in relationships that comes from valuing things (articles of clothing) more than people.
2. The transsexual suffers from gender dysphoria, a condition where it is difficult or impossible for the individual to operate in the traditional roles of his gender. In extreme cases, the sufferer of gender dysphoria may receive hormone treatments and surgery in an attempt to conform the body to the desired gender. For the transsexual, cross-dressing does not produce sexual stimulation. Instead it is used as a way to feel like they fit in to the desired gender. Belonging is the most important motivator, and being forced to return to the birth-gender role can be emotionally traumatic for them. This shows a deep-seated brokenness with self, and often there are problems of low self esteem. Sometimes this brokenness can be healed in the gender of birth; sometimes it can only be healed by transitioning to the gender of choice. Here the challenge is to find healing in a way that does not destroy the sufferer’s relationships with those around him, especially family and friends. Often the result of this struggle is divorce, with its accompanying problems. This happens even though most transsexual people highly value these relationships and mourn their passing. Another deep-seated problem is with the transition process itself. Many transsexuals have trouble following the Benjamin Standards of Care. There are many cases of abuse of illegal hormones, overdosing on prescription hormones and going off-shore for surgery.
3. The dual role transvestite, also known as androgynous, is like the transsexual except that the gender dysphoria is not strong enough to be debilitating. This type of transvestite feels relatively comfortable functioning in both male and female roles. Here all that has been said about the transsexual’s brokenness applies with the addition that the dual role transvestite is more likely to reach a compromise to preserve existing relationships while still allowing some expression of the “other-genderedness.” In some cases the compromise is to make a feminine gesture of sacrificing happiness for the sake of others.
4. Certain members of the fashion counter-culture also dress in transgender clothes with no attempt to fit into the opposite gender role. Generally they try to make a fashion statement by wearing skirts. Properly this group does not belong to the transgender community. Here a brokenness exists with society where an attempt is made to be non-conformist.
So how can the transgender person, whether male or female, be comfortable with himself/herself within his/her gender? There is sin in the life of every transgendered person, just as there is sin in the life of every “normal” person. And the solution is faith in Jesus Christ, just as it is for every “normal” person.
But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished — he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus. (Romans 3:21-26)
Like the rest, we were by nature objects of wrath. But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions — it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith — and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God — not by works, so that no one can boast.” (Ephesians 2:3b-9)
First justification comes through faith. When the relationship with God has been repaired (justification) in Christ, then the Holy Spirit begins to work healing (sanctification) in the life of the transgender person. The power for this comes through the Word, in the community of the church. It is to the church that the transgender need to turn for help in healing the relationships that sin has broken in their lives, relationships with others and with self.
There is some value in comparing the transgender issues of today to the women’s movement of the twentieth century. The women’s movement was militant and political. This is in many ways the opposite of the transgenderism. The transgender usually want nothing better than to conform and blend in. The desire is to just be “one of the girls.” And with advances in hormone therapy and sexual reorientation surgery, this is becoming more practicable. Where this is not possible, there is a tendency for the transgender person to “stay in the closet.”
This means that the approach the church needs to take is different than dealing with women’s issues. Where many churches develop women’s programs toward empowerment, transgender programs need to provide safe places to draw out the feelings, the hopes and fears, of participants. There needs to be a support system for wives and others in close relationship with the transgender. There needs to be a support system to help the transitioning deal with Standard of Care issues. And there needs to be opportunities given for the constructive expression of cross-gender feelings that make each one feel valued in both the gender of birth and the gender of choice. What the church needs to bring is compassion, not condemnation.
The real questions is whether the church will be willing to aid in that healing. If the church withholds the word of the gospel until the transgender have fixed the sin in their lives, that healing will never happen. Happily it is the Holy Spirit that provides the real healing through the words, “Christ died for you.”
Copyright Elisabeth Anne Kellogg, all rights reserved. You are expressly granted permission to copy this article provided you do not modify any portion of the text, including this copyright notice.
Lisbeth Kellogg lives in Minnesota and has been active in the Lutheran Church, serving on the board of directors of Lutherans Concerned/North America from 2003-2008. She earned an M.Div. in systematic theology from Concordia Seminary and an M.A. in Christian Education from Concordia University.