If you have not read my post on How to Interpret the Bible, it is important that you read that post first as this builds on everything I have written there.
As a pastor writing about my past with crossdressing, I feel like this is probably the most important post I can write. There are many different aspects of crossdressing to talk about, but I of course enjoy very much talking about what the Bible has to teach us about our struggle. I have tried to work really hard to make this a careful, sensitive, and intelligent post. But please forgive me if I have overlooked any important views, objections, or details. Feel free to comment below and we can continue the discussion, and I may even update this post from time to time in light of your helpful comments.
Let me say at the outset that I don’t think this verse is easy to interpret and don’t think my interpretation is necessarily obvious. My explanation here might not convince everyone and that is okay. You’ll see that my analysis of this passage is that it does indeed prohibit crossdressing and transgenderism as sinful behaviors. But this verse is not the sole reason that I think crossdressing is a sinful behavior to engage in. See this post – Summary – Reasons Crossdressing is Sinful and Harmful. Even if this verse was not in the Bible, I’d still believe that crossdressing is wrong.
I do think that this passage condemns my form of crossdressing and most (not all) other reasons for and types of crossdressing, including crossdressing because of gender dysphoria. But it’s an extremely tricky passage. It’s tricky because it is in the Old Testament Law, and it has always been a big challenge to know how to apply the OT Law to our Christian lives. And it is tricky because it is one of the few verses in the Bible to say anything like this. And it is tricky because there is almost nothing in the context of the chapter and book that helps us to understand what the intent was behind this law.
But it is tricky most of all because we who are crossdressers are really the only ones who pay much attention to it. Everyone else seems to basically ignore it or use it to make blanket judgments against all behaviors even remotely connected to crossdressing or homosexuality, without well-thought-out reasons for doing so. And then when we, as crossdressers, try to interpret it, we do so with a severely strong bias. I don’t know how our bias could be any stronger. As sinful fallen people, we look at this verse and we do whatever we possibly can to try to explain it away so that we can continue in our behavior. I know that we do this, because I’ve done this at times of weakness in the past to rationalize giving in to crossdressing.
The same tendency is there for justifying any other type of behavior that might be deemed sinful. Whether its homosexuality, divorce, keeping our money to ourselves, not obeying our parents, gambling, you name it, whatever we struggle with, our tendency is to explain away biblical passages so that we don’t have to repent and deal with our sin. We don’t want to take away our pleasures or our perceived happiness in order to follow Christ. I think its important that we be honest with ourselves about this bias, and try hard to guard ourselves from just accepting any explanation of this passage, (even if it’s a bad explanation with no evidence), in order to justify engaging in our beloved crossdressing behaviors. Even if you don’t think crossdressing behavior is sinful, please at least agree with me that we have to be careful about this bias when we go to Scripture. I’m going to try as hard as I can not to explain this passage away because of my crossdressing desires, and on the other extreme, I’m going to try hard to not pretend the passage says more to us than it really does about crossdressing being sinful.
Besides reading articles, websites, Bible dictionaries/encyclopedias, and lexicons on this passage, I have read at least 30 scholarly Bible commentaries on this verse. Most of them were very unhelpful and a couple quite helpful. The commentary I found most helpful, that I quote on occasion in the analysis below, is the Word Biblical Commentary on the book of Deuteronomy by Duane L. Christensen. I’m not going to try to say everything possible about this verse, but just what I find is important for our interpretation.
Grammar of the text
Using my rusty Hebrew knowledge, I translated from the original Hebrew. My translation is just about exactly the same as the literal translation from the Word Biblical commentary which is as follows:
“Things pertaining to a man shall not be worn by a woman. And a man shall not wear a woman’s garment. For it is an abomination to YHWH your God, anyone doing these things.”
That’s a real rough and literal translation. A better fitting English translation would be the NIV’s –
“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.”
The “things pertaining to a man” are clothes, ornaments, and even utensils. But it has been noted by scholars that these words כְלִי־גֶ֙בֶר can also refer to the gear and weapons of a soldier. The word can mean both, so we aren’t sure which one it is talking about here or all of those things together. This detail tells us that this verse probably should not be limited to just clothing, whatever its explanation might be. It also may or may not hint at a possible explanation.
Here is a helpful quote from M. A. Grisanti in the Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Numbers-Ruth – Although some interpreters apply this verse to fashions or styles of dressing, it more likely refers to some kind of deviant sexual conduct, i.e., transvestism and/or homosexuality. The word for men’s “clothing” (kelî) can refer to weapons (1:41) or utensils (23:24) as well as clothes (1 Sa 21:6), while the term used in connection with women (śimlâ) more clearly signifies a garment of some kind
There is a debate between some scholars as to whether the person crossdressing is detestable to God, or whether just the action itself is detestable, as Rabbi Tilsen talks about here – http://www.beki.org/crossdress.html. I don’t know which is correct grammatically, but I side with all the common versions of Scripture which apply it to the person. Either way does not make much difference to our main question about the morality of crossdressing. How could God feel pleased with a person doing something which is detestable to him? Our main goal is to find out whether crossdressing actions are sinful or not.
I did a word study on the Hebrew word תוֹעֲבַ֛ת translated in the NIV as “detests” which literally means “abomination,” pronounced “toebah.” This word appears 118 times in the Old Testament. I read each verse that used it.
- The majority of the verses talked about God hating the “detestable practices” of the Israelites or Canaanites or the Israelite kings. It just mentioned detestable or abominable practices without much specificity, though by reading the Bible stories we can determine what the sinful practices were (examples abound in 1 Kings).
- The next biggest group of verses used the word to describe detestable or abominable idols or idolatry. (Deut. 13:15, 27:15, Isaiah 44:19, countless times in Ezekiel).
- The next biggest group of verses after that used the word to talk about detestable sins of a sexual nature, including things like homosexual sex (Lev. 18:12, 20:13), shrine prostitution (Deut. 23:17-18), defiling a neighbor’s wife (Ezek. 33:26), and incestual sexual relations (Ezek. 22:11).
- The last group includes the other miscellaneous sins that were labeled as detestable or abominable to God like sacrificing children (Deut. 18:12), lying (Proverbs 6:16, 12:22), pride (Proverbs 6:16, 16:5), oppressing the poor (Ezek. 18:12), theft, violence (Prov. 6:16), dishonest weights and scales (Deut 25:16, Prov. 11:1), and acquitting the guilty while condemning the innocent (Proverbs 17:15).
Based on this word study, I notice a few things:
1. The word describes the sins that are most offensive, nasty, and hated by God. This explains why idolatry, which is the most serious sin, is the sin most often connected with this word. There is something about the crossdressing being condemned here that God really hates. It’s a verse we can’t just ignore.
2. Every time this word is used, it is used to describe sinful actions which we would still believe to be sinful today even as Christians (aside from the debated Deut. 22:5). Almost all of the sins are reaffirmed as sinful in the New Testament. They appear to only talk about timeless universally sinful actions. The commands against them are probably all part of the Moral Law of the Old Testament, which means they still apply to us as Christians today (I will explain that later).
3. Perhaps crossdressing is detestable because it falls into the idolatry category like the other times the word is used to talk about idols or idolatry. It is true that most of the time idolatry in the Old Testament was focused on actual idols or worshipping other gods. But we know that idolatry can also be worshipping anything other than God, whether it be money, sex or power. Crossdressing in my experience is generally a narcissistic self absorbed activity. Like other idols such as power or approval, it is something that we worry about the most in our lives, something that we feel like we can’t live without, something we go to for comfort, something we find much of our life’s meaning in, and what we think will make us most happy. If we go to crossdressing over God for any of those things, that is idolatry. So perhaps that is what is being talked about here. There is also an element of self-worship in transgenderism. People seek to take the place of God, the creature becomes the creator. God and his creation is rejected and we seek to fashion ourselves in our own ways. Read this article for more on this idolatry in transgenderism. Transgender Idolatry: Let’s Look at the Bible.
4. It seems a likely possibility that crossdressing also is detestable to God as these other sins are. Fetishistic crossdressing especially seems to fit easily into the sexual immorality category of this word just like homosexuality, incest, adultery, bestiality, and other deviant sexual behavior. The words and sentences are almost exactly the same but with different sins besides crossdressing mentioned. All of these things go outside the boundaries that God has set up for us regarding sexual pleasure. It seems possible that this is the way that fetishistic crossdressing might fit into the category of detestable sins. But we need to do more analysis.
Historical Background and Context
To begin, it has been noted by many that there wasn’t much difference between the clothing of men and women of that time. This is true, but there were differences; the differences were just not quite as stark and obvious as the differences we have in clothing today. “The major difference between male and female robes was their decoration or ornamentation, and not their cut” (KJV Bible Commentary). There were also distinctions between the ornaments and cosmetics used by men and women. We don’t need to go into all the details, because culture and dress changes over time, and we don’t need to try live in the culture of the Israelite people or wear the dressing styles of the Jews. But this verse is clearly trying to keep those gender dress distinctions in tact, whatever the distinctions were, however small.
Next, we should note the place of this verse in the Bible. It is in the Old Testament, in the fifth book of the Bible, Deuteronomy. I won’t say a lot about the book of Deuteronomy. I, the church tradition, and most conservative scholars believe that Moses was author, under the inspiration of God. Most historical critical scholars believe it was not Moses. It makes little difference to me, given that either way I view it as authoritative scripture. Deuteronomy restates the covenant that God had made with the Israelite people and does so in a new form for the new generation of the nation of Israel. A covenant is a binding agreement between two parties with commitments and promises made.
The author(s) of Deuteronomy put to writing the whole collection of tradition and truth that God had revealed to him. The book explains the stipulations of God’s covenant with the Israelites which includes all of the laws which together make up God’s Law. The Law was given to the Israelites after God rescued them from Egypt, after he made them his people. The Law showed the Israelites how to live as a distinct people, how to live holy lives in the presence of a holy God, and showed them how to live lives of worship and obedience out of gratitude for what God had done for them. Following the Law would bring them blessing, and disobeying the Law would bring them God’s punishment. The book is divided into various sections and Deuteronomy 22:5 falls into the section about specific stipulations of the covenant.
Many scholars group this verse into a subsection of verses going from 21:22 – 22:12. Please read this whole section if you haven’t yet. At first glance, these laws appear to be a bunch of rules that don’t relate to each other. For example, the NIV gives this section the title, “Various Laws.” But some scholars have tried to figure out what they might have in common, which can be very helpful for us as we try to figure out what the intention was behind this crossdressing law.
A few commentaries have labeled this section, “Laws concerning the preservation of life.” This certainly fits a few of the laws together under a theme, but maybe not all of them. The view I find more helpful is seeing that all of these apparently miscellaneous laws are actually all about keeping things in their proper boundaries. They all talk about illicit mixtures, things that should not be combined. They are about blurring the boundary lines God has set up. Some of these boundary lines and things that shouldn’t be mixed were for the exclusive purpose of keeping the Israelite people holy and distinct or set apart from the Canaanites around them. For example, the rules about their distinctive clothing in verses 11 and 12 seem to fit this, and the law in verse 9 about planting two types of seed in one vineyard. We cannot discern anything morally wrong about planting with two types of seed. It must have been a rule given just for the Israelites to remain a unique people. And then some of the other laws seem to be about moral boundaries such as returning lost items to your neighbor (verse 1), not taking both a mother bird and its young (maybe so that the species continues, verse 6-7), and building a house safely so you aren’t responsible for someone getting hurt (verse 8).
In the Word Biblical Commentary the section is variously labeled –
Ten Laws on “True Religion” and Illicit Mixtures (21:22–22:12)
And “Three Laws on “True Religion”—Loving Your Neighbor as Yourself (22:1–5).
We really don’t know for sure the historical intention behind this verse, so we can only guess. But I think that the crossdressing verse is best explained by this theme explained above. It is wrong for the Israelites to crossdress because it blurs the lines of sex that God has set up since creation. Moses perhaps could have included this law in a different section together with laws about sexual morality, but as a very unique law, it fits just as well here in a passage about not crossing boundaries. Times change and culture changes and dress codes gradually change for each sex. (Even gender roles gradually change at least slightly). But the verse entails that God never wants us to blur the lines of our sex, but to always dress like a man dresses in our particular culture, or like a woman dresses in our culture.
Let’s think back to Genesis 1:27 and remember how God created humanity.
27 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.
God made two sexes, male and female. He was not content with only one, but did not make three or four or five. Why? We don’t know exactly the reasons he created two sexes instead of having us all the same. Maybe it was for the beauty and diversity of life in his creation. Maybe it was for the purpose of procreation. Maybe it was a way to bring fulfillment to humans and our need for companionship, by having 2 sexes that were different and complementary. Maybe that was the best way to point to and model the relationship between Christ and his Church (Ephesians 5:31-32). Maybe it was all of these reasons. Having two distinct sexes, male and female, was God’s design for his creation. It is not his original design and desire to have people be both sexes at once, or for people to try to live alternatively as both sexes. God does not want people to try to be something different than the sex they were created as. He doesn’t want people to try to deceive others about their true sex. It would make sense to me that this verse is prohibiting any kind of blurring of the lines of sex that God has created through any kind of crossdressing or transgenderism, whether for sexual pleasure or because of gender dysphoria.
(Tangent – People born with intersex conditions are still loved by God. Their abnormalities are a result of being born into a fallen world that has been affected by sin, no different from a person being born with an eye abnormality so that they cannot see. Living in a broken world has affected all of us; none of us have perfect bodies. But it’s not good, and in the resurrection our bodies will be made new and be perfect. We should be careful not to confuse intersex conditions with transgenderism. See my post – Intersex Conditions – There is Still a Binary).
In summary of my position, this quote from the Word Biblical Commentary is helpful in putting together both the themes of preservation of life and illicit mixtures of this passage –
“Kaufman offers the suggestion that the theme of separation in this law (men’s and women’s clothing) finds parallels in the separation between a mother bird and its young in the next law (vv. 6–7). Inasmuch as the latter at least indirectly touches on the subject of death (“You may take the young”), the law on transvestism may also do so by association. In fact, anyone who so blurs these divinely ordered distinctions is a tôʿăbat the Lord, “an abomination of the Lord,” one who can expect most serious consequences for his deeds. Another linkage between the verse and its context is the chiasm connecting vv. 5–8 with 9–12: dress (v. 5), animals (vv. 6–7), house (v. 8), field (v. 9), animals (v. 10), dress (vv. 11–12). There is thus a strong tie-in between death and mixtures, that is, between the expositions of the sixth and seventh commandments. The sin in improper mixtures is brought out in the laws of purity that follow (22:9–23:18).”
God wants us to keep the integrity and the distinction of the two sexes he has created. But is this just a boundary line to keep the Israelites distinct as a people, or a timeless moral principle? I think it is a timeless moral principle because of the extra added clause about it being an abomination, God detesting the one who does this. Further the entire Bible, both Old Testament and New Testament upholds the importance of this distinction between the sexes, that God made male and female. Some of the distinctions and boundary lines in this chapter are just for the Israelites as a culture and people, God’s holy special nation, so that they would live a peculiar and unique life to stand out from the Canaanites. But 22:5 goes beyond that in that crossdressing crosses a moral boundary God has set up for all people.
Another way that it would be possible to interpret this passage is to say that it is only talking about blurring the “sexual” boundary lines (not sex as in male-female, but sex as in sexual pleasure or sexuality). Many other sexual actions were wrong for the Israelites and wrong today because they blurred the boundary lines sexually, outside the boundaries of sexual pleasure that God set up for a man and a woman in marriage. Things crossed the lines such as incest, bestiality, homosexuality, adultery, and so on. Perhaps crossdressing here is an abomination because it crosses those specific sexual boundary lines. But this particular idea would only fit fetishistic crossdressing and not other types of crossdressing. That’s possible, but my view is that the verse prohibits all crossdressing which blurs the lines of male and female as distinct sexes.
Other historical explanations people have suggested
Some have guessed that maybe this law was arguing against some form of deception, of tricking others by dressing in the clothes of the opposite gender. This view is pretty general, and I would certainly agree that this would be a sinful thing to do. But I have a difficult time limiting the verse to only be talking about deception. It seems deception would have been mentioned if this was the case, and I still favor the verse saying that crossdressing is wrong in general because it blurs the lines God has set up, which is more fitting with the theme of the passage.
Some have taken the deception view but added more nuance, suggesting that men were trying to get out of going to war by pretending to be women and being with the women. And that perhaps some women wanted to get out of being stuck at home and go to war by pretending to be a man, and putting on the weapons and gear of a man. This is certainly a possibility. And perhaps this happened at times in Israel’s history. But I don’t think that this was what God had in mind when he gave the Israelites this law. There are other passages of Scripture that have laws about men going off to war, and times when they don’t have to go to war. It seems that this verse would have been included in those contexts instead of here. Also, it’s hard to see how getting out of going to war would fit the theme of this passage. Moreover, this verse is written in such a basic general way. If the application was supposed to be limited to people trying to get out of going to war, that would have been mentioned along with it. Last, I fail to see how wanting to get out of war, while clearly being disobedience, would constitute being an abomination to God.
Related to this view, some have speculated that this verse was supposed to prevent men and women from doing each other’s roles in society. Again, if this was the case, I would expect the verse to talk more about gender roles, about what men do, and what women do, than just simply mentioning the wearing of clothing.
Another possibility that some scholars wonder about is that maybe the crossdressing envisioned here was connected to idolatry in some form. From the Word Biblical Commentary – “Again, in some religions, it has been the custom for priests to assume a quasi-female or even completely female garb, and . . . this usually occurred when the deity was a goddess rather than a god.” This may have included crossdressing during the worship of foreign gods, or even temple prostitution while crossdressed. (The idolatry connected to crossdressing I am talking about here is different than the idolatry I mentioned under my #3 conclusion about the grammar of the text. #3 was about valuing something like crossdressing more than God or trying to take the place of God. The idolatry I’m talking about now is about actual stone idols and foreign gods and using crossdressing in the worship of these idols).
It is definitely true that there have been some cultures throughout history, and probably at least one Canaanite culture around Israel that had crossdressing as part of their worship of other gods. Maybe the Israelites learned this practice from people around them. The strength of this view is that it makes sense of why the crossdressing would be detestable, because it would have been connected with idolatry. And if this was the only reason it was condemned, then it would mean that this verse alone doesn’t necessarily prohibit our crossdressing for other reasons today.
Although this view makes some sense, and could be true, ultimately I don’t think that is what this verse was referring to. Why? First of all, we have no historical evidence that the Israelites ever crossdressed while worshipping idols and participating in rituals to foreign gods. Second, it doesn’t fit the theme of the passage. There are plenty of other passages and laws about idolatry in Deuteronomy, and it would be more fitting to talk about crossdressing and idolatry in those passages rather than here. And third, if worshipping stone idols and foreign gods was really what was in mind, I think it would have been mentioned, given the serious sin it is, instead of stating only this basic idea of prohibiting crossdressing.
Another possibility is that this verse had in mind crossdressing for the purpose of committing adultery. I read about this view here – A Message from Rabbi Tilsen. This doesn’t make much sense to me. It’s true that adultery is a sexual sin that crosses the boundary lines that God has set up, which would fit the passage. But if the command is against adultery, why not just have a law about adultery, (which there were laws about anyway)? It makes little sense to have a separate and vague law against adultery here. Also, in my studies of Israelite culture, I don’t remember reading anything about women and men being so isolated from each other in their camps to make such disguise necessary. In fact, there are verses in this very chapter about rape (verses 25, 28), that seem to talk about how easy it would be for such sins like rape or adultery to happen with no witnesses around.
There may be other views out there, but these seem to be the most common and well respected views. Though they all have some merit, and I certainly can’t fully disprove them, I still think the view that makes the most sense is that crossdressing blurs the distinctions that God set up between the sexes, and this fits with the theme of the passage. In times of struggle in the past, I wished to believe the other views, but when I am honest with myself, those views don’t make as much sense.
This verse is part of the Old Testament Law that God gave to the Israelites. The interpretation of this genre of Scripture is pretty basic. Laws were given to be obeyed by the Israelites as part of how they lived lives of gratitude to God for what he had done, as part of the Mosaic covenant. Full obedience was demanded and there were warnings of punishments if they disobeyed.
But when we think about how to look at the Law as Christians, interpretation becomes much more difficult. In fact, this might be one of the hardest genres of Scripture to interpret. Churches and denominations have wrestled with this issue all throughout church history and there are a few main views for how to interpret and apply the Law to our lives as Christians. I think the biggest misunderstandings of Deut. 22:5 arise from not understanding how to apply the Old Testament Law to our lives as Christians. Most of the explanations of this verse I have read online are written by people who show no clear consistent method for how to understand the Old Testament Law. Of course, this is not their fault, but the Church’s fault for slacking in its duty of teaching how to interpret the Bible. It would be nice if we as Christians could all agree in how to interpret the Old Testament Law, but at least each church should strive to have a consistent method for interpreting, rather than just picking and choosing what passages and laws they want to pay attention to.
First of all in explaining my position, for any of you who know about these two competing views, I am a covenant theologian rather than a Dispensationalist. And that heavily influences the way I view the Old Testament. I see Scripture as a unity of two testaments, one complete story of God and his people. We are part of the same people of God by faith as the Israelites were. They looked forward to Jesus’ coming, and we look back to Jesus’ coming, but we are all unified by that event. The Israelites and us are all saved by true faith in Jesus, even though the Israelites didn’t know his name. It is not that the Israelites believed in salvation by works, and we believe in salvation by grace, but it has always been about salvation by grace. The Law was part of that system of grace that God set up. But because of sin, the Law became a burden to the Israelites, and only increased their disobedience (see Romans 1-8).
My view of how to interpret the Law below is not a new one, and it is the view many Christians throughout church history have held (at least as far back as Thomas Aquinas). It is the view of my church tradition today. It is the view that I find most logical and most helpful and most fitting with Scripture.
I believe that Jesus came to fulfill the Law rather than do away with the Law as he himself explains in Matthew 5:17-20. In a sense, we are still under the Law today, but we look at it through the lens of Jesus who fulfilled it for us. The important part of my view is that the Old Testament Law contains three types of laws. And each of these types of laws Jesus fulfilled perfectly for us, and we relate a bit differently to each type of law today.
1. There are Ceremonial Laws. These are laws concerning the entire cultic system for the Israelites. They include laws about the sacrifices the Israelites had to complete, laws about ceremonial cleanliness, and laws about the tabernacle and temple. Jesus fulfilled these laws by becoming the perfect sacrifice for our sins. He also became our perfect great high priest (Heb. 4:14) offering himself as the sacrifice. Instead of the blood of sheep, he gave his own blood. He was perfectly righteous and innocent, and became the final sacrifice for the sins of humans. Through his righteousness we are all made perfectly clean and don’t have to go through cleansing rituals to enter the presence of God. We no longer have a temple, because Jesus was and is Emmanuel – God with us. Jesus is our temple. All of the laws about cleanliness and sacrifices were shadows pointing the way to Jesus ultimately as the final sacrifice (Hebrews 7-8). We no longer obey these laws today since Jesus is our sacrifice and way of salvation. We as Christians are sometimes charged with inconsistency for not obeying these laws, but to obey them would be to reject Jesus and to reject what Jesus said that these laws are all actually about him (Luke 24:25-27, John 1:45, John 5:39-40).
2. There are Civil or Judicial Laws. These are laws about the social and civic life of the Israelite people in all of its ramifications. Their social relations had to reflect the covenant relationship with God that they were in. These are laws about the justice system, with penalties for sins that affected the society like laws for capital punishment. These were also laws about the unique culture of Israel, how they were supposed to stand apart and be distinct from the other cultures around them, like the circumcision laws, laws about clothing, food, etc. Jesus fulfilled these laws perfectly as well. Jesus was the true King of Israel, but also made known that he was the king of the world. Through what Jesus did, salvation history progressed, and the Gentiles were invited to become part of God’s people as well, through faith in Jesus. No longer are the people of God limited to one nation and one culture. Now the people of God is made up of people from all nations. So we no longer follow these laws today. There were only for the specific Israelite people. Some Jewish-Christians, however, because they continue to belong to the nation of Israel and the Jewish ethnicity, continue to observe these laws. And that isn’t inappropriate. But the Jews at the first Church Council of Acts 15 declared that Gentiles were exempt from these Jewish customs. Jesus himself declared all foods clean (Mark 7:19).
3. There are Moral Laws. There are many moral laws throughout the Old Testament Law, but in general, the 10 Commandments are the summary of the entire Moral set of laws in the Old Testament Law. The first few commandments are about our love and worship of God. And the rest of the commandments of the 10 are about our relationship to our neighbor, loving our neighbor. These laws were also fulfilled perfectly by Jesus. He perfectly loved God and neighbor. He had no sin. And his perfect obedience and righteousness is applied to us and that is how we can be saved and have eternal life. But unlike the other two types of laws, we still follow the moral laws today. We follow them not to earn salvation. Jesus earned salvation for us, we have it as a free gift if we trust in him. We follow the moral laws out of gratitude to Jesus for what he has done. We follow them because Jesus has transformed our lives, and we want to love God and love our neighbor. Old Testament righteousness is normative for all people today. The New Testament writers even remind us not only that we must follow these Old Testament moral laws, but that we must even obey them in our hearts and minds. Jesus made clear in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) that he was not bringing a new Law, but he was preaching a new kingdom ethic of radical love, which magnified and strengthened the original moral law. It’s not just that the moral law continues to apply to Christians, but in a sense it is on steroids. Not only is it wrong to commit adultery or kill, but even to lust or hate in the mind. Of course, becoming a Christian is not dependent on observance of such radical commands, but the goal of salvation is to transform us into the type of people that actually live out these ethics by the power of the Holy Spirit.
I’m not going to give a long argument of why I think this view of the Old Testament Law is the best. There are plenty of examples in the New Testament where Jesus or others talk about certain laws in the Old Testament that we no longer follow, and ones that we still do follow. Although the Old Testament doesn’t make these distinctions real clearly, it can be deduced from the distinction of the 10 commandments in the Old Testament, and from the way authors in the New Testament relate to the Law. Paul made distinctions between various types of Law. Jesus did as well (Matthew 23:23). Hebrews 7 talks about cessation of ceremonial laws. Jesus and the New Testament authors held up the moral laws for us to still follow today, whereas the civil and ceremonial laws were not held up as things for Gentiles to follow. The first church council, written about in Acts 15, also affirms this. The Gentiles were not to give in to sins (moral laws) especially the ones they were prone to like sexual immorality. But they didn’t have to follow the ceremonial and civil laws of the Jews, such as circumcision. They were told to follow a few dietary laws, for the sake of easier fellowship among their Jewish-Christian brethren in church.
For Christians today, ceremonial and civil laws are not followed to the letter because of their nature and how they have been fulfilled in Jesus. But they do have use for us as God’s inspired Word and have a pedagogical function.
Concerning the Moral Law, I believe there are three uses of this Law for us. 1. The Law can help teach society how to restrain sin and promote righteousness. 2. The Law teaches us about our own sin. It shows us that we can’t meet God’s demands for holiness on our own. In this way, the Law prepares us to accept Jesus, knowing that only through him can we have complete righteousness and be saved. 3. The Law teaches us how to live as God wants us to. It shows us how to live lives of thanksgiving to God for what he has done, showing us how to live holy pleasing lives to God.
Let me give a quick note on the 10 commandments. I believe (with my church tradition), that each commandment is just one specific command that teaches a whole principle of what God desires for us. They are syecdoches, one part signifying a whole group of unwritten commands. For example, the 7th commandment says we should not commit adultery. I think that this is a specific commandment that is about the whole issue of protecting our marriages. The positive force of this commandment is that we should do everything we can to preserve and encourage our marriage and other people’s marriages. The negative force of it would be to not do anything which harms any existing or potential marriages. (On a side note, because of this I think that crossdressing would be prohibited under the 7th commandment as well).
So the big question is whether Deuteronomy 22:5 is a ceremonial law, civil law, or a moral law. This is a difficult question. Is it a ceremonial law? It has nothing to do with ritual purity or sacrifice. There are ceremonial laws about priestly clothing, but that is not what is being talked about here. So it seems that this verse is not a ceremonial law.
But maybe it could be a civil law. Perhaps it was a law just for the Israelites to dress in a specific way distinct from the Canaanites around them. Maybe the Canaanites crossdressed, but the Israelites were not to do the same. This would be similar to the two clothing laws in verses 11 and 12. Perhaps they are all about the Israelites dressing in a peculiar way for their culture to be God’s people at that time. This also makes good sense of the theme of the passage. All of these clothing laws would then be boundary lines and things that should not be mixed, as a way for the Israelites to maintain their distinct set apart culture as God’s people. If this law is a civil law, then it would be one that we don’t need to follow today as Christians.
The other possibility is that it is a moral law, and that is what I think it actually is, and clearly so. It still fits the theme of the passage to be a moral law. The illicit mixtures and blurring the distinctions that God has set up in this chapter are of two types. Some are civil laws, and some are moral laws as explained earlier. I think that this one has to be a moral law because of the qualifier that it is an action that God detests. All of the other sins that are mentioned in the Old Testament with this word for abomination or detestable are things that we still consider to be immoral today as Christians. All the other times this word was used, it was used about timeless moral laws, about worship of God or love of neighbor, about living holy lives before God. It seems unthinkable to me, that every other usage of this word would refer to timeless moral things, but that in Deuteronomy 22:5 it is just a law about the Israelites dressing differently than the Canaanites but somehow God thinks it would be an abomination to disobey it. I think it has to be a moral law, and we should still follow today as Christians in order to live lives that are pleasing to God.
Comparing Scripture with Scripture
What does the rest of Scripture say that might enlighten us about this verse? First of all, the New Testament clearly affirms that as Gentile Christians, we don’t need to bother trying to adapt to the culture of the Jews. We don’t need to eat what they eat, and wear what they wear. In fact, if we try to adopt their culture in order to please God or earn his acceptance, we are sinning and rejecting that we are completely saved by Christ. This verse is about clothing, so we should note that we don’t have to try to adopt the clothing and culture of the Israelites.
But Scripture also affirms, in both the Old and New Testaments, that there are differences between men and women, and that those differences should be maintained. The things that make us distinct should remain distinctions.
This starts in Genesis 1:27 (chapters 1-2) where God made people of two sexes, male and female, (and many would say he created Adam and Eve with different roles as well). There was divine distinction between the sexes among the Israelites, even among utensils that they used (Ex. 22:6, Lev, 11:32, 13:49). Men and women had different roles among the Israelite people. They continued to dress differently throughout both testaments.
In the New Testament, we see some changes. It is especially important to notice that the status of women is lifted up. Jesus treats them differently than the surrounding culture. He values them and treats them as if they are as important as men. And later on, we see that in the church we are all equally valuable to God, and equally gifted for helping God’s Church. In Galatians 3:28, Paul explains that we are all equal in standing in Christ Jesus, receiving his salvation, whether male or female, or Jew or Gentile. We are all united together in the church.
But distinctions among the sexes remain. We don’t completely cease to be who we are when we come to Christ. We remain in the cultures we come from, even though how we act changes. We remain slave or free when we come to Christ. We remain Jew or Gentile. We remain man or woman. The distinctions among the sexes don’t go away. And even the different roles for the sexes remained. Men and women have different though very similar roles in marriage (Ephesians 5). They are both supposed to serve each other, but in slightly different ways. And men and women may or may not have different roles in the church. (This is a completely different debate that I won’t get into here).
One of the most important passages for our purposes is 1 Corinthians 11. This is the passage about women wearing head coverings in church. It is largely ignored by churches because we have mostly forgotten why we don’t literally follow the teachings of this passage. In general though, this passage is about maintaining the cultural distinctions among gender and dress, so that people aren’t offended in the church and surrounding culture. Today, this looks very different and has nothing to do with head coverings as it did for the Corinthian church. Please see my post – 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 Prohibits Crossdressing. 1 Corinthians 11 teaches us the principle that Deuteronomy 22:5 teaches, that there are still distinctions among the dress between men and women that need to be upheld. Each culture is different. Some cultures have clothing for men which is similar to clothing for women in Western cultures. The point is not that all cultures need to be the same. In fact, many of the differences in dress between men and women might be arbitrary. And cultures can slowly change. But in general, we must uphold those differences in dress in a culture, and appear as a man, or appear as a woman.
We never want to interpret the Bible on our own, but instead we are called to interpret it along with the wisdom and accountability of the rest of the church, both today, and throughout history. I haven’t done enough studying about how this verse has been viewed throughout church history, but most of the commentaries I consulted viewed it as a condemnation of crossdressing in general. In my studies of church history I have never read anyone who affirmed crossdressing, transgenderism, or same-sex marriages as some Christians are trying to do today. And most Christians today would still view crossdressing, for any purpose other than necessity or humor, to be offensive, sexually immoral, and a result of gender confusion.
Last, I should note that I have prayed extensively about this verse, trusting the Holy Spirit to guide me. Of course, this part of the interpretive process doesn’t help me convince anybody else. But I am convinced that the Holy Spirit has worked in my mind, and worked through my studies, to help me come to the true understanding of this verse. I encourage you not to try to interpret difficult passages of Scripture, or really any part of God’s Word, without reading it in a spirit of prayer and in relationship to Jesus Christ.
So in conclusion, I do think Deuteronomy 22:5 prohibits crossdressing for us today as Christians, both fetishistic crossdressing and transgenderism, as both blur the lines of the two sexes that God has set up. It is a moral law that is still to be followed by Christians today.
Common Objections to this interpretation
1. If we take verse 5 literally, we have to take the rest of the chapter literally, and no one does that and that would be ridiculous.
This is a common misunderstanding, but as I’ve explained there were different types of laws in the Old Testament Law, and they were not always divided up into their types. Here we have a chapter that includes different types of laws together in a list. Some types of laws we still obey literally today, others we don’t. It would be in direct disobedience to Scripture and Jesus’ teaching in particular, to try to obey all the Old Testament laws, or to obey none at all.
2. This means women today can’t wear pants.
If at one time, women were wearing pants, not for comfort, but for trying to appear and dress as men, I think they would be going against this command. And even for the women who wanted to do so for comfort, they possibly could have been going against this verse if they were trying to dress like men, instead of making pants for women. But today pants are for both sexes, and they no longer constitute one of the distinctions in our dress (though there are different cuts of pants for men and women). The women who made this cultural change over history were not disobeying this verse, they were not trying to dress like men. They were just trying to be able to do farm work and factory work while wearing practical clothing. And perhaps some also saw that pants can be flattering on the female body and they wanted to wear pants as a style choice.
This is a difficult thing, but culture and dress changes. And I don’t want to stop that. I don’t think it’s sinful for that to change. And I don’t think we should try to stop it from changing. I think it is good that women can wear pants now. But we need to be careful how we go about the changes.
As far as changing the culture, I think it needs to happen gradually as dress codes are so ingrained in our minds. It’s going to take more than one generation for people to get comfortable with men wearing skirts. If there is a man out there who really finds skirts comfortable, and doesn’t feel feminine while wearing them, and it’s nothing to do with gender, or sexual pleasure, or comfort, or deception, or femininity to wear them, then so be it. Let him invent a skirt for men and try to change the culture. But I think as Christians we should be cautious about being the ones trying to make the changes, and we have to make sure our motivations are okay. And for those of us who are confused about our gender, and lean towards transgender, or fetishistic crossdressing, or anything similar, we should NOT be the ones to try to make those changes in the culture. We can’t do so in an unbiased healthy way. My impression is that most of the men who are trying to change dress codes in Western cultures today, to allow men to wear skirts or high heels are makeup, are not doing so for practical reasons, but they actually have sexual or gender motivations, or in some cases they just enjoy shocking people by dressing in a deviant way.
Right now in our society men crossdress and people are disgusted or tease men for it. But women can crossdress by wearing clothing specifically tailored to men and people tend to think its just fine. I don’t think this is good. Maybe society accepts it, but I don’t. Society has always been at odds with the Christian faith in some ways. Women should not be allowed to crossdress either.
The important thing though is not making detailed rules on what clothing is okay or not. The important thing is our motivation, what is going on in our hearts or minds. Are we attempting to appear as women? Are we trying to deceive others? Are we dressing like this for sexual arousal? Are we confused about our sexual identity? Do we hate our bodies that God has given to us? Are we harmfully addicted to this activity? When deciding what men or women can or cannot wear, the spirit of the Deut. 22:5 verse is important. So we should focus on discerning our motivation for dressing in a certain way, rather than making lists of rules about male versus female dress.
3. So you think all crossdressers are going to Hell?
No, I never said that. This hints at a common misunderstanding of the Christian faith. We believe that ALL people deserve Hell, whether or not they are homosexual, whether or not they crossdress, whether or not they steal, etc. You can be a nice seemingly good person and still deserve Hell. You deserve Hell if you have not loved God and neighbor perfectly which includes every single person that ever lived, except for Jesus. Yes I believe crossdressing is a sin, but it’s not just that one sin that makes us deserving of Hell. We ALL deserve it. Yes, we as sinners are detestable to God because of our actions as this verse says, but he still loves us and gives us the opportunity to be made clean and saved through Jesus.
So if we have crossdressed or murdered 500 people, or avoided both, we can still only be saved through Jesus. We can be totally forgiven through him. And even after we’ve accepted Jesus as our savior, we still struggle with sin. We start sinning less and less, but we still sin. I have crossdressed since receiving salvation in Jesus, but I believe I am not going to Hell. We still daily fight against sin while also are still being completely forgiven in Jesus. This is not an excuse to give in to crossdressing as we should still try to resist it and live lives pleasing to God. True Christians show themselves by their fruits of trying to live for God, which the verses below explain. They have been born again, they have new hearts, and they love to obey God. What I know is that the only way to be saved from Hell is through a relationship with Jesus, but I let God be the judge of who is going where as I do not see into people’s hearts.
17 Likewise every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. 18 A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit.
1 John 3:5-9
5 But you know that he appeared so that he might take away our sins. And in him is no sin. 6 No one who lives in him keeps on sinning. No one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him.
7 Dear children, do not let anyone lead you astray. He who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous. 8 He who does what is sinful is of the devil, because the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work. 9 No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God’s seed remains in him; he cannot go on sinning, because he has been born of God.
17 In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.
18 But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.”
Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do. 19 You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.
2 Corinthians 7:1
1 Since we have these promises, dear friends, let us purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit, perfecting holiness out of reverence for God.
5 If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection. 6 For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin— 7 because anyone who has died has been freed from sin.