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The Context of Gender Identity in Christian Counseling

by John Woodward

Identity is an essential aspect of our self image. “Houston, we have a problem.” In our post Christian culture the belief in no absolute truth has allowed our society to drift into ethical confusion and subjectivity. Humanistic teaching, distorted values in entertainment, and peer pressure in social media have all contributed to create confusion about gender identity, especially in adolescents.

An example of the escalation in the gender identity controversy is an Internet article titled “81 Types of Genders & Gender Identities (A to Z List).”

An example of how this confusion impacts society is the controversy of transgendered athletes competing in female sports.

The Heritage Foundation published a helpful introduction to clarify the categories that are relevant to this subject: sex, gender, and gender identity:

“The best biology, psychology, and philosophy all support an understanding that sex is a bodily reality and that gender is a social manifestation of bodily sex. By contrast, ‘gender identity’ is an internal sense of gender.

Sex is a biological reality, referring to an organism’s overall organization towards sexual reproduction. … It’s the only way to make sense of the concepts of male and female.

Gender, by contrast, is the way one expresses their biological sex.
…Transgender activists deny that sex is a bodily reality. They argue that one’s perceived gender identity represents who a person really is even if it goes against their biological sex. They deny biological reality by suggesting that biological sex was merely “assigned at birth.”

Gender identity: According to the American Psychological Association, ‘Gender identity refers to a person’s internal sense of being male, female or something else.’ It is distinct from either sex or gender. Activists claim it is a person’s ‘internal sense of gender.’ They also assert that it’s more than just male or female; it’s fluid and there is a spectrum of various options beyond man and woman, like ‘gender fluid,’ ‘intergender,’ or ‘non-binary.’ “[1]

As it is useful to distinguish some basic terminology related to sex and gender, it is important to be precise concerning different facets of one’s identity.

1. We have a human identity as those created by God in His image (Gen. 1:26; Psalm 8), although the image has been damaged (Gen. 3).

2.  We have a biological (sexual) identity as male or female (Gen. 1:27).

3. Our psychological identity has been shaped by positive and negative life experiences. Over the years we differentiate ourselves from others in the context of social interaction with family and friends. (Compare Matthew 16:13-17, as presented in GFI’s Exchanged Life Conference, session 1.)   Our psychological identity is affected by our unique version of the flesh and is subject to change.  Gender identity is an aspect of psychological identity. [2]

4. Spiritual identity: Our essential, ultimate identity is spiritual. If we have been regenerated by God’s Spirit through redemption, then we have a new, grace-based, secure, positive and unchangeable identity in Jesus Christ! (1 John 3:1-3).

As we guard against gender identity distortion and contradiction, we need to maintain a biblical worldview. Sue Bohlin of Probe Ministries affirms,

“That’s the key: we need to understand that this is really a worldview issue. Perspective is crucial. Where you start makes all the difference. If you leave God out of it, starting with the person trying to make sense of the feeling that one’s body is not aligned with their internal sense of gender, then confusion is inevitable. If people feel free to define themselves as they wish, then sex and gender can be seen as elastic or fluid—and manipulatable. It’s the modern-day expression of an Old Testament phenomenon that never worked out well, when ‘every man did what was right in his own eyes’ in the times of the Judges (Judges 17:6).” [3]

In his important book about how to Biblically navigate our gender-confused culture, Gary Yagel counsels parents to wisely address gender identity issues with their children. He summarizes “components of the biblical sexual identity script your teen needs”:

1. It must be rooted in gospel grace, so teens need know that the community to which they belong is the church, the Body of Christ…

2. It recognizes that as believers, their truest identity is to be in Christ and, through Him, the adopted children of God.

3. It explains why they don’t fit into the secular world around them.

4. It emphasizes that they are uniquely designed by God.

5. It motivates boys to pursue godly manhood and girls to pursue godly womanhood.[4]

As Yagel mentioned in point two (above), a key aspect in finding peace and joy is living  according to our spiritual identity in Christ.

Although this is our birthright, most believers have not appropriated this new identity. But welcoming our spiritual identity is more than learning about it. Identity flows from identification with Christ (Gal. 2:20; 2 Cor. 5:17). And the Cross of Christ is central to this message and process. The deeper meaning of the Cross is explained in Roman 5:12-6:14 and further applied in chapter 8.

May we have God’s love and wisdom as we disciple and counsel in a gender-confused culture. James 3:17,18 describes the qualities of divine wisdom that we need: “But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality and without hypocrisy. Now the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.”

[1] https://www.heritage.org/gender-identity/1-what-are-sex-gender-and-gender-identity

[2] Subjective “gender” first emerged in the humanities wing of secular universities in the 1970’s.

[2] Sue Bohlin, “Transgender Children” https://probe.org/transgender-children/

[3] Gary Yagel, Anchoring Your Child to God’s Truth in a Gender Confused World (Fort Lauderdale, FL: D. James Kennedy Ministries, 2018). 75-77

Put off and Put On

“Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds…assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Eph 4:17,22-24 ESV emphasis added).

To put off fleshly behavior and put on saintly behavior is a central emphasis in Nouthetic biblical counseling. We see this emphasis as more successful on the resurrection side of the Cross (Gal. 2:20), as the context in Ephesians and Colossians indicates. Since we value the clarified message of identification with Christ, it is important to help the counselee discover that the old man has already been “put off” at the Cross.

“knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Him…”(Rom. 6:6a)

“Do not lie to one another, since you have put off the old man with his deeds” (Col. 3:9)

Then why does Paul exhort us to put off (present tense) the “old self” in Ephesians? Looking more closely, the text refers to what is “in reference to your former way of life” (NASB). By metonymy, Paul refers to these old patterns as “the old self.” In other words, we are to remove the old, dirty “clothes” that are still in the flesh closet

Also, see how our new identity is established in the next verse, Ephesians 4:24: “the new man has been created (anew) in righteousness and holiness.” This refers to our new human spirit (2 Cor. 5:17).

Mike Wells illustrates the need to put off the phantom of our old identity: 

“I once asked a woman to purchase a rag doll and write on it the adjectives that best described her before coming to Christ, both positive and negative. I then instructed that she set the doll in a chair and adore it, beg it, plead with it to help, and condemn it. When she got sick of trusting something lifeless, I wanted her to go bury it in the garden and then pray to Jesus, the One whois Life. I knew she would have an immediate release, since there is nothing His nearness will not cure. I then warned her that one day she would call me, depressed, frustrated, and in the same condition I first found her. When she called, I would make her go to the garden, dig up the old doll, dust it off, put it in a chair, and begin the whole process anew. Once again when she got sick of it, she could bury it and worship Jesus. However, as the years went by, the trips to the garden would become less frequent, and the doll would eventually disintegrate! When we trust the old man, the Adam life, the fallen nature, our frustration is not coming from a battle between the old man and Christ, but from trusting something that is dead. Again, bury it!” (Mike Wells, Heavenly Discipleship, (Littleton, CO: Abiding Life Press, 2006), p. 23., quoted by John Best in The Cross of Christ, p. 91).

May God give us wisdom to show the good news of identification with Jesus Christ and facilitate “put off/put on” in the proper context with grace motivation and the enablement of the Holy Spirit.


Counseling Conversations

In his course on The Pastor as Counselor, Dr. Brad Hambrick identifies four kinds of counseling conversations. Let’s consider these in light of the Exchanged Life Counseling approach.

1. Inquisitive / Reflective conversation. This describes an assessment conversation. This type of dialog uses more active listening and encourages the counselee to open up and helps him/her become more self aware. In our model this would describe much of the initial phase–the “presenting problem” conversation.

2. Perspective / Narrative Reframing conversation. This kind of conversation seeks to put a life struggle in a larger, redemptive context. This is often important because they have inaccurately defined the challenge they are facing. In our model this type of conversation emerges from the the history taking process. The counselor takes a social, psychological, and spiritual history not only to get a context of the presenting problem(s), but to move toward reframing the counselee’s struggle as a journey from the self-life condition to the Christ-life condition (Gal. 2:20). 

3. Directive / Character Formation conversation. This kind of conversation combines biblical direction and moral guidance. This is more needed when confusion, distraction or rebellion are holding back the counselee. This aspect of counseling is more common in “phase 4” of Exchanged Life counseling–on the resurrection side of the Cross. In other words, the counselee will respond better to directive counsel about specific behavior change after he/she has tapped into the power and freedom of knowing Jesus Christ as Life and Liberator. (See GFI’s “Four Phases of Counseling” lecture and chart.)

4. Supportive / Relief Focused conversation. This conversation is about how to help alleviate suffering, exploring practical ways of improving the counselee’s situation. Early in the process this should reflect the care of the counselor, and may help the counselee move forward in the heart-oriented counseling process. However, in the Exchanged Life model, some of the suffering may be “reframed” (in a sensitive way) as part of the “crowding to Christ” process. The Circle of Serenity teaching is a practical tool that helps the counselee to live from the resources of the indwelling Christ, while gaining discernment in practical problem solving. [See the Christ is Life Conference, sessions 4 and 8.]

Adapted from The Pastor As Counselor course. To see Dr. Hambrick’s overview in his Nouthetic context, see his blog post at http://bradhambrick.com/


Grace Discipleship: Ministering to Men

Testimony of Darren Fehr

Although I was raised in a loving Christian household and accepted Christ into my heart at a very early age, I did not know my Lord and Savior until I was well into my forties. I had to be broken before I would know what it was like to surrender, because in my brokenness I was too weak to want to carry on. He took over. 
Steve Ranz and I started Men Under Construction so that when someone accepts Christ into their life, they can share in the learning of what the Exchanged Life is and means–how it guides us on the journey to know Jesus so that we can trust and love Him.
My journey really began with getting into a small men’s group at Grace Church in Eden Prairie, MN where I met Steve and from there, got into a 1-1 mentoring relationship with him where he introduced the Handbook to Happiness. Having the opportunity to study this book with Steve led me to take a course with Cross to Life Discipleship and this provided me with more personalized guidance, going in-depth into the key fundamentals of living the Exchanged Life. What impacted me the most was the deeper understanding of my FLESH-life. I would say this allowed me to move forward with maturing in my relationship with Christ (Luke 9:23).
We have had so many men that are in our small groups, or were in our groups, that have said they wished they knew about the Exchanged Life many years ago. We are so grateful that we have the opportunity to have Christ at the center of our ministry.
Steve was interviewed for a GFI webinar on March 23, 2022. Additional resources for discipling men are described. Here is the recording:

Spiritual Warfare in Counseling

Deeper Walk International will be providing a free conference on spiritual warfare on Friday and Saturday, January 28, 29, 2022. Grace Fellowship usually addresses these issues in the “phase 3” context of Exchanged Life Counseling.

Here is an introductory video about the physical, psychological and spiritual aspects of soul care.

Cry of the Wounded Soldier

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An Exchanged Life Novel- free online

Frank Allnutt is a friend and Exchanged Life author:

Cry of the Wounded Soldier is a work of fiction, inspired by Charles
Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.” The story and characters were invented by
the author.

“A rare gem…a contemporary parable…a Gothic novel about the spiritual awakening of a modern day Ebenezer Scrooge….”

Desmond Morehouse was a crotchety old pastor who would give anything to forget his shameful past. Anything, that is, except his iron-fisted self-will. It had begun long ago, on a dark and stormy night in World War II—a night of horror and death on the battlefield that left the Pastor burdened with haunting guilt, fear, and a false identity. Over the years, his shameful secret slowly ate away at his heart and robbed him of the joy of being a child of God. Now a fading television evangelist in his autumn years, his life has deteriorated into endless frustrations and conflicts. As an ominous thunder storm rages through the night, Pastor Morehouse settles down to read once more Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. He is overtaken by sleep, only to be awakened by a mysterious intruder named Jonathan. It is the beginning of a life-changing, Dickensesque adventure through which the Pastor is taken back in time to see himself through the eyes of those he loved, as well as those he rejected—and to relive “that night” of fear, death, and guilt. The journey’s end is Golgotha, where the Pastor discovers his true identity in Christ.

Courtesy of the author: available as a PDF download here:

Jesus as My Life

Video presentation of the PPT

What is the believer’s essential identity? And how does abiding in Jesus Christ relate to being an effective, fruitful witness? This PowerPoint talk goes back to Genesis to consider man’s makeup, what happened at the Fall, and the significance of being identified with Christ. PowerPoint by Al Middleton of Dynamic Churches International. Presented (with permission) by John Woodward, Grace Fellowship International. 11/15/2021

The PPT file is here to download: