The Gospel Coalition published an article last week by Stephen West titled “Speaking the Truth in Love: Can Christians use Gender-Neutral Pronouns?” This article was appalling in a number of ways.
Stephen West is wrong on this issue primarily because he fails to see the bigger issues involved. He takes such a narrow view that he seems to think this issue is merely an academic discussion about the placement of a grain of sand: should it go here or over there? Meanwhile a tsunami is heading our way. This discussion is not primarily about loving people who suffer from transgender dysphoria. This is about the reality of the world and how our culture is trying to reject that basic reality. California already has a law on the books forcing doctors and nurses to refer to patients by their “preferred” pronouns. The law says it is illegal to “willfully and repeatedly fail to use a resident’s preferred name or pronouns after being clearly informed of the preferred name or pronouns.” If this isn’t a law straight out of 1984, then I am not sure what is.
West says he is aware of this larger cultural issue: “I certainly do not believe that Christians—or anyone else—should be coerced into using gender-neutral pronouns. I think that we are seeing an abuse of power by people who support an extreme left-wing ideology. Christians need to speak up and take a stand for biblical morality, God’s design in creation, freedom in society, and the danger of Orwellian thought-police using human rights’ tribunals to force people to use invented words.”
But then West fails to realize that the very advice he gives is setting things up so that the “left-wing ideology” can “force people to use invented words”. He seems to think that we can maintain these basic freedoms by freely agreeing to use these invented words. How is that not being controlled by these people? He is suggesting that we don’t have to be coerced to use these words, we will do it gladly ourselves. The title of his article should actually be: “How to use the pronouns the thought-police want us to use.”
In this issue, and in other cultural issues, we need to push further than our goal. If we want to make sure we have the freedom to use correct biological pronouns, then we can’t settle for just the status quo of our position. The status quo is what got us here. We need to go on the offensive in order to maintain the position we really want.
We must think strategically and thoughtfully as we engage on this issue. One small way we could start pushing back would be to write blogs about why transgenders and others in our culture should be using biological pronouns. It is, after all, the loving thing to do. They aren’t being very loving if they make others use their specific pronouns: why aren’t they being more loving? In many ways Christians have accepted the accusation that we don’t know how to love these people. In reality, these people are the ones who are not loving others: God, us, or even themselves. They should be more loving.
But the bigger issue in this article is that West has given into the individualist culture that surrounds us. Notice how he asks the question: “Could there ever be a scenario in which a Christian could choose to use gender-neutral pronouns in order to provide the best witness for Jesus Christ?” This question focuses on the individual Christian as the only person in this scenario, but that is an individualistic cultural assumption that we need to stop making. Alastair Roberts discusses this individualistic mindset in his post “The Strangeness of the Modern Mind”. To suggest that the question about pronouns is an issue that merely involves an individual Christian is to misunderstand this issue in a huge way. Going back to my first point, this is an issue that affects our whole culture and as such we need to approach this discussion as “How can we, as the body of Christ, minister in these situations in a way that builds the kingdom of God?”
As a Christian, I do not have freedom for myself. Paul says, “Do not use liberty as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another”(Galatians 5:13). I have freedom in Christ but that freedom is subject to His will and should be for the service of His body, the Church. So I am not an isolated individual as I come to this question (or any question). This means that as I consider this issue I need to consider it in the light of the Church community. What is the best way that we can work together on this problem?
One key component then is to consider how third person pronouns work. These are the pronouns that have specific gender in English and these are the ones that people are trying to change. So where do we use these third person forms the most? Not when we are talking to the specific person—we use “you” and “I” in that situation mostly. The place we use third person pronouns is when we talk about that person to someone else, which is to say, when we talk about that person in our community. For example, Bruce Jenner. I have never talked to him personally and so I only ever talk about him in the third person.
The key question that we need to consider is: should we as a community when we talk about this person use his “requested” pronouns or not? Each Christian needs to make this decision but being in the body of Christ means we need to see that we are connected to other Christians. How will my decision about pronouns affect others in the body of Christ? Will other Christians be afraid to use the correct biological pronouns if I choose not do it? The body of Christ is who I need to love first and I need to see that my actions can hurt them far more than my actions will hurt an outsider. John says “Whoever does not love his brother abides in death” and “We also ought to lay our down our lives for the brethren” (1 John 3:14, 3:16) Am I loving the Bride of Christ as I am supposed to?
The LGBT community knows the power of community. They are pushing hard for people to build “inclusive” communities where a person will introduce himself with his name and “preferred” pronouns. This is not because that particular person is actually transgender but just in case anyone else in the room is. This is an example of how leadership should work in a community: by making the first move like this it makes room for transgender people in the room. Christians need to pick this play up and use it. Christians needs to lead the way and make lots of room for other Christians to use normal pronouns. And this is where West fails the most. He doesn’t want to lead the way forward into the conflict: he is trying to lose it.
As Christians, we are not isolated individuals. We do not have the luxury to use pronouns however we want to nor can we think that our actions do not affect other Christians in the Church. The reality is that how we speak affects other Christians in a huge way. So the bigger question each of us needs to ask is “Am I leading the way to greater faithfulness in the Church or am I opening the door for greater sin?” That is what West ultimately fails to understand. I am not an individual. I belong to Christ and His Church. I cannot make this decision without my brothers in mind. I must speak the truth in a way that makes room for others in the Church to also speak the truth.