Lately I’ve had some grammar conversations with Christians.
Specifically, the conversations have been about pronouns. You know what I mean, the increasing practice in our world of identifying preferred pronouns in email signatures, resumés, CV’s, and so forth.
The practice has developed out of sensitivity to those who, for various reasons, don’t think the pronouns that might usually be assigned to them based on the usual cues to their biological sex — dress, secondary sexual characteristics, speech, and so on — adequately convey their own understanding of their gender.
And that’s the problem for some of us. For people who believe that our sex is given to us by God, and that our understanding of gender should come from that, it can seem like we’re in foreign territory. Why would we refer to a biological female as “he”? Why would we refer to a person of determinate biological sex as “they”?
And, deeper still, the unasked question: “Why would a person’s gender not conform to their biological sex?”
And the related question: “If I use someone’s preferred pronouns, or identify my own (even assuming they match my biological sex), am I compromising something of my faith?” Am I validating deeper theological problems, like the relative nature of truth or the goodness of God’s creation or questions of sexual morality?
In many contexts in our world today, even asking questions like this would be considered inappropriate and offensive. To believers, they’re real questions, at least for some of us. Other believers might not have such questions, but that may be less about having greater spiritual insight and more about already being immersed in the world’s view of the subject. (Many younger believers think it’s odd and even reprehensible that some of us older Christians would even ask such things, but they are in schools and workplaces that have already embraced a much more open attitude toward this subject — and may even discipline violations of it.)
So, I’m having the grammar conversations: “Should I use someone’s preferred pronouns at my school or workplace? Should I not use pronouns at all? Am I compromising my faith if I do? Am I contributing to the idea of the church as an intolerant mob if I don’t?”
I think these are good questions that indicate a desire to live out our faith in the real world that we live and work in every day. If you’re honestly thinking through questions like these, honestly are trying to figure out how to navigate this situation at your own school, workplace, or even home, then read on. I’m just going to offer suggestions, not rules. Beginning points. Some hopefully solid ground you can stand on as you try to find leverage to deal with this issue.
First, it’s not going away. The tide’s not turning, the preferred pronoun genie isn’t going back in the bottle.
Second, let’s cut each other some slack, especially in the church. Let’s figure this out together, and let’s not try to immolate each other if we come up with different answers. This is complicated. There is no verse that says “Thou shalt” or “Thou shalt not.” Any answer we come up with is going to require some interpretation, and that can be as dangerous as it is helpful.
One text that might be helpful is 1 John 3:18 — “let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth” John is addressing a situation where someone sees someone in need and “has no pity on them.” He asks, “How can the love of God be in that person?” So he wants embodied love — not just affirmations of care for human beings, but real, in-the-flesh evidence that you love people in the life situations that they’re in.
It’s maybe significant that John was writing to push back against a heresy that the physical body and reality didn’t matter, a heresy that had reached the point of denying even that Jesus came in a body. Whether or not to feed to feed the hungry was likely an open question because they believed that physical bodies were only temporary vessels holding immortal souls. A disembodied gospel has consequences, including a lack of compassion toward those in need.
John reminds us that human beings have bodies. Jesus came as a human being in order to bring redemption to those bodies, and he did it through laying down what he wanted in order to show love to others:
This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. (I John 3:16, NIV)
I don’t think it’s possible to love other people without taking seriously their physical reality. You can’t love someone who’s hungry without recognizing their hunger, you can’t love someone who’s sick without acknowledging their illness. And I don’t think you can really show love to someone whose gender and biological sex are in some way disjointed without acknowledging that fact.
Some might argue that love requires us to refuse, that a person who believes they’re anything other than their biological sex is deluded. That might be the case. But agreeing with their belief and going along with what they ask are not necessarily the same thing, are they? Assuming that it is a delusion, isn’t going along with their pronoun choice simply one small way to let them know that they are accepted and valued as human beings, even if we can’t really understand what they’re feeling?
Besides, very few of us would be even close to qualified to try to talk someone out of their feeling that their sex and gender don’t match, and to try could have devastating consequences.
I think that sometimes in trying honestly to deal with this topic from a Christian perspective, we make the mistake of failing to show compassion. Maybe we too quickly turn it into a cultural battleground, and it becomes all about politics and our frustration that traditional Christian faith doesn’t seem to have a comfortable place in the world anymore. Maybe it’s just because we’re uncomfortable with the whole idea. But most people who ask you to address them with a particular pronoun aren’t trying to make a political statement. They’re trying, as well, to find a comfortable place to live and work.
It’s my belief that if we’re going to make mistakes — and we will sometimes — then we should make those mistakes on the side of compassion, love, and kindness.
Here’s where I come out, if you’re curious: I don’t post preferred pronouns. My name, my appearance, my voice, the way I dress point other people to the pronoun that’s appropriate for me. I believe God intended that when he created us male and female.
But I also believe that, as with other aspects of creation, sometimes there are disconnects in the way we see ourselves. What should be done about that is for people more qualified than I am to determine. What we’re called to do is to show love, compassion, and kindness to people who are struggling to navigate those complex questions and feelings about who they are. If one of the ways we can do that is by simply using the pronouns for them that they prefer, then — for myself — I don’t see what would be wrong with that.
Let’s don’t forget that it’s also our job to introduce people to the God who knows them better than even they know themselves, who created them and who, if they can learn to trust him, is able to offer them clarity about who they are. Certainly more able than any of us.