by David Closson
March 26, 2021
On Monday, South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem (R) vetoed House Bill 1217, legislation that would protect women from being forced to compete against biological men in sporting events. In a press conference announcing the veto, Noem said she supported a bill to protect middle and high school girls but argued that extending the same protections to female collegiate athletes would prompt lawsuits from groups like the NCAA.
While most conservatives were frustrated by Noem’s capitulation on the transgender sports bill, one faith group, the South Dakota Synod Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), actually encouraged Noem to veto it. Signed by about 30 church leaders, the short letter read:
Dear Governor Noem:
Grace and peace to you in this season of Lent. I reach out to you today on behalf of the 200 South Dakota congregations, ministry sites and organizations of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). As Lutherans, baptized members in the body of Christ, we care about the actions of our government because it is a gift from God intended for the safety and flourishing of human life. Yet, as sinners in need of God’s grace and forgiveness, the gift and power of government is abused. It is why I am urging you to veto HB 1217 that claims to promote “fairness” in women’s sports. In the Gospel according to Luke, Jesus asks his disciples, “which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?” After the lost sheep is found Jesus says, “rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.” (ref. Luke 15:4-6) Meaning that there is no rejoicing until all have found a place in the flock — including our trans siblings of faith. Policies and laws that purposely exclude trans individuals contribute to deteriorating mental health. The Trevor Project reports that 40% of transgender adults reported having made a suicide attempt, and that over 90% of those attempts took place before the age of 25. Looking after the lost one means inclusion and compassion. God the incarnate goes to the far stretches of the Earth to find the lost and calls them home by name, “you are mine.” (Isaiah 43:1) As people of faith, we are invited to do the same. Please, as a beloved child of God, do not forget about the one child, when you have the ninety-nine with you.
As Christians, it is important to think carefully about current events. When it comes to matters of public policy, there are many issues that do not have a clear-cut answer for how believers should think. This requires restraint and humility. On the other hand, there are some topics—such as abortion—where Scripture speaks clearly. Christians, especially pastors and Christian leaders must be clear about their convictions.
This brings us to the recent letter to Governor Noem. One of the most important responsibilities a minister of the gospel has is caring for hurting people. As Christ’s under-shepherds, pastors are called to serve people with love and care (Acts 20:28). Thus, it is appropriate when ministers discuss legislation they believe will affect their congregants and those in their ministries. However, the recent letter to the South Dakota governor is problematic for a few reasons, chiefly its misuse and appropriation of Scripture.
But first, it is important to note their letter contains some helpful reminders. For example, they are right to acknowledge that positions of leadership, especially in government, can be challenging. They also acknowledged that man is fallen and broken due to sin. Moreover, the desire to love our neighbors who identify as transgender is commendable, as Christ has called the church to love everyone (Mt. 5:43-48, Luke 6:27-36). Their reminders along these lines are helpful.
However, there are a few problems about the letter that deserve attention. First, our love of neighbor must be modeled after the pattern of Christ, not the world (Rom. 12:2). We cannot adopt the world’s understanding of love, which demands affirmation of lifestyles and actions contrary to the will of God as revealed in Scripture. According to the leaders who signed the letter, love for their friends who identify as transgender requires accepting transgender ideology which contradicts the Bible’s teaching on sexuality.
Second, the letter misuses Scripture to make its main point. In its proper context, the parable of the lost sheep in Luke 15:1-7 is about salvation and pursuing lost people (i.e., those who do not have a relationship with God). The shepherd goes after the one lost sheep because it is lost; he rescues it and shows it the way of life. This parable (and the subsequent parables of the lost coin and the prodigal son) discloses Christ’s heart and His redemptive love for sinners. It encourages believers following His example to pursue those who do not have a relationship with God in order to show them the way of life.
Clearly, Jesus’ intention in telling the parable of the lost sheep was not to make sure “all have found a place in the flock” (if inclusion in the flock means disregarding and flouting clear biblical teaching). Again, the context of the passage is about repentance and salvation. Jesus’ explanation of the parable makes it clear that He is talking specifically about sinners who repent. Moreover, Scripture is very clear about God’s design and purpose for marriage and human sexuality.
Citing the parable of the lost sheep as evidence that Christians ought to oppose a bill that would protect women and girls’ sports is not a faithful interpretation of Luke 15. Christians are called to tell the truth, and that includes the truth that God made us male and female. It is not unloving or unkind to truthfully (1 Cor. 13:6) point out the many injustices and physical dangers associated with allowing biological males to compete against biological females.
It is never permissible to misuse Scripture to advance a political agenda. Moreover, there is no reason for Christians to oppose commonsense legislation that protects women and girls at all levels of athletic competition. In fact, supporting legislation like House Bill 1217 is a practical way to protect female athletes. This bill deserves support, not condemnation, from Christian leaders in South Dakota and around the country.