He, She, Ze, Zir? Navigating pronouns while loving your transgender neighbor

December 4, 2017

Since the release of my book, God and the Transgender Debate, I have traveled across the country and given numerous talks to Christian audiences on how to understand the new frontier of transgenderism.

In almost every instance, one of the first and most pressing questions I received after speaking was on the subject of pronoun usage concerning how a Christian relates to their transgender neighbor.

These questions came from sincere, compassionate Christians concerned about how to gracefully interact with transgender family members, coworkers, or church visitors while also obeying Scripture and their consciences.

Why pronouns?

Pronoun preference is all the rage in many circles. There is a growing phenomenon for people to state their preferred pronoun, whether on social media bios, email signatures, or even buttons someone wears in social settings. Pronoun preference is increasingly a cause célèbre for virtue signaling one’s social awareness in progressive circles.

At root, the transgender debate is a metaphysical debate about whose version of reality we live in, and only one account—Jesus Christ’s—can lead us into truth about reality and human flourishing

Pronouns are not an insignificant issue. How a person wants to be referred to communicates how that person understands himself or herself at their deepest, most intimate level. This means that language has deeply significant meaning embedded in its usage. The use of language is an attempt to name and give meaning to reality. Pronouns and gendered names, therefore, refer to a reality in which the transgendered individual is wishing to live. The question we as Christians have to consider is whether the reality we are being asked to affirm is objective and corresponds to biblical truth, or whether the reality we are being asked to acknowledge is subjective and false. Nothing less than the truth and authority of God’s revelation over created reality is up for grabs in something as seemingly innocent as pronoun usage. Because, at root, the transgender debate is a metaphysical debate about whose version of reality we live in, and only one account—Jesus Christ’s (Colossians 1:15-20)—can lead us into truth about reality and human flourishing. No amount of willing something into existence that is at odds with one’s biology—such as one’s gender identity—can bring that desired reality about.

Before I state how I’ve evaluated the issue and the conclusion I’ve reached, I think it is important to state that Christians of goodwill who seek to obey and believe the Bible disagree, prudentially, on what the best pathway is concerning transgender persons and pronouns. This is important to establish because this should not be an issue that divides otherwise Bible-believing Christians.

First, let us establish a few general ethical principles that can help guide our thinking on pronoun usage.

Love rejoices in the truth

Paul tells the Corinthian church that love “does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth” (1 Corinthians 13:6).

This entails that the act of truth-telling from the perspective of the Bible is an act of love. This also means, however, that those who do not believe the Bible will likely not receive an act of truth-telling as loving. From the perspective of the non-Christian, shedding light on someone’s sin or error will likely be met with rejection or contempt. Nor is the obligation to state the truth a license to be obnoxious, condescending, or uncaring. The opposite, in fact, should occur (Colossians 4:6).

Concerning pronouns, Christians should, in principle, be willing to speak truthfully to their transgender neighbor if asked their opinion on the matter, and understand that truth-telling is loving, even if it is not received that way. In Article 11, The Nashville Statement helpfully clarifies “our duty [is] to speak the truth in love at all times, including when we speak to or about one another as male or female.”

Love your neighbor

As Christians, we are commanded to love our neighbors (Mark 12:31) and to treat others how we want to be treated (Matthew 7:12). The call to love our neighbors, however, is not a quid pro quo that permits us to affirm whatever your neighbor wants affirmed. As Francis Beckwith writes, “The Golden Rule is not about merely protecting your neighbor’s preferences, but rather, advancing your neighbor’s good.” This means that loving your neighbor may mean speaking something they will interpret as unloving. But Christian ethics assert that it is never loving to aid and abet a friend or family member who is in error, confusion, or sin—whether intentional or unintentional. The same can be said of all persons as well, while also acknowledging situational constraints may add additional difficulties.

Concerning pronouns, as in all other things, Christians are called to be for everyone—even if we disagree with them or if our neighbor does not perceive our truth-telling as loving.

Obey your conscience

The conscience is the internal tripwire stemming from God giving humans the ability to know right from wrong. When we act righteously in accordance with biblical truth, a freeing obedience and joy results from acting in accord with God’s moral law written on our hearts (Romans 2:14-16). When we act sinfully, our conscience makes us aware of that sin because God endowed us with the knowledge of right from wrong. It is our conscience that condemns us and makes us aware of our need for a Savior. While true that some consciences go awry from unrepentance (1 Timothy 4:2; Titus 1:5), for the Christian, the conscience is a vehicle God gives to direct us in the path of righteousness.

Christians should continually strive to reform their consciences according to God’s Word. This means a Christian should, in principle, always follow their conscience in how they respond to a request concerning someone’s preferred pronouns. Christians should speak of what they know to be true at their deepest core. Violating one’s conscience is never a place someone should find themselves.

Live at peace

The Apostle Paul declares “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all” (Romans 12:18).

Concerning pronouns, this means that Christians should, in principle, not be needlessly combative or confrontational in how we navigate the language of transgenderism. We should attempt to be disarming and defuse circumstances ripe for conflict.

Getting practical

But what does this mean practically as Christians navigate relationships with family members, friends, co-workers and church visitors who may identify as transgender?

Much of how someone will determine their use of pronouns and names is based within a matrix that includes the Bible as the supreme guide, one’s social context where the relationship is occurring, and the depth of the relationship itself.

My principles for navigating pronouns and names are the following: First, context determines the level and type of engagement. Second, the depth of the relationship determines one’s authority to speak correctively. Third, speaking authoritatively and correctively must be guided preeminently by the authority of Scripture.

The more impersonal the context, the less likely a Christian will feel the need to correct pronoun requests; and the further removed someone is from their transgender family member, friend, or colleague, the less likely the Christian will have the ability to speak authoritatively and correctively to them.

Avoid if you can. If at all possible, avoid using pronouns altogether. Think to yourself: How often are you in conversation with a person where you have to refer to this person’s pronoun in the third person? Not very often. So, avoid pronoun use altogether.

Probably use preferred first name. Depending on the context and relationship, if (for example) someone is a biological male who requests to be called by a feminine name, I am more likely to use their preferred name on the grounds that names are not intrinsically gendered. Names are gendered culturally, which is important, but not the only point to consider. A man may be named Aaron and a woman Erin, yet both sound the same. I’ve known boys and girls named Kelly and Cameron. My own wife’s name, in fact, is the only time I’ve heard hers applied to a female.

Additionally, it is likely that if you are just meeting someone for the first time who identifies as transgender, the name associated with their biological sex will not be known, so by default you would be left calling them by the name given at their introduction.

Be honest in public. Though it is politically incorrect to do so,  I will not refer to someone with their desired pronoun in a public venue such as a talk. Those with writing or speaking platforms have an obligation to speak and write truthfully and not kowtow to political correctness or excuse falsehood. This means I will call Bruce Jenner “he,” or if I do say “Caitlyn,” I will still say, “him.” Political commentator David French argues that the pronoun debate is not simply about effete political manners, but compelled speech: “…when your definition of manners requires that I verbally consent to a fundamentally false and important premise, then I dissent. You cannot use my manners to win your culture war. I will speak respectfully, I will never use a pronoun with the intent of causing harm, and if I encounter a person in obvious emotional distress I will choose my words very carefully. But I will not say what I do not believe.” Furthermore, compulsion is unacceptable. The compelled speech element to the pronoun debate is significant, since in some areas of the country, “misgendering” someone with the wrong pronoun can result in civil penalties. That should be named for what it is: an unlawful power grab designed to conscript people’s consciences into cooperating with politically correct fiction. No government, movement, or ideology, however, can usurp the conscience’s right to speak freely and truthfully (Acts 5:29).

For the majority of us, this is not a culture war issue. It is an issue of neighborliness. Here is how I would evaluate some of the tricky situations.

Family. If I were to have a close family member (let us say a child or sibling) identify as transgender and request a first name or pronoun in line with their gender identity, I would not honor this request. Why? Because I know this person intimately (their history, their struggles), and in all likelihood I possess the relational capital to understand this person’s story and speak truthfully to them. I will not aid and abet my loved one’s confusion and sin. It is highly likely that my family member would find this offensive; but in being truthful with this person, who knows if I am the only remaining person in their life stirring their conscience with truth. I would communicate my unconditional love and desire for this person to be in my life, and how both motivate my concern to speak truthfully to them because I want what is best for them.

The same guidelines apply when navigating this issue with friends of varying degrees of relational depth.

Coworkers. This, admittedly, gets trickier. Many individuals are not looking to enter the fray in their workplaces. They want to do their jobs, provide for their families, and live their lives. This is where each person in the workplace has to evaluate their context and the relationship with their coworker. In general, here is my principle: Nearness means clarity. Think of a concentric circle. How someone will choose to refer to a colleague will depend on the depth of the relationship. If you have a transgender coworker in the same department whom you hardly ever see or talk to, you lack the relational capital and depth to speak truthfully into that person’s life. In fact, not speaking to the person except to correct them seems unseemly and rude. Some Christians’ consciences may have no problem calling a person they do not know by their desired name or pronoun, and I do not begrudge them for thinking this way if they are removed from the person and not in a context that makes authentic relationship building possible. While not avoiding the person, it is wise to evade circumstances that would put you in a position to violate your conscience.

One important caveat especially relevant to corporate settings is the expectation that employees sign statements to some effect signaling their agreement with a company’s diversity compliance standards, which may include invasive policies related to transgenderism, such as pronouns. Brothers and sisters, if this is you, you need to evaluate your conscience. If you find yourself in a setting where your employer is requiring you to violate your conscience as a condition of your employment, let me be as clear as possible: You need to be forthright with your employer. Ask for an exception. If it won’t be given, it might be time to find a new place of employment. None of this is easy, but Jesus never promised that following him would be without great personal cost. In fact, he said just the opposite—He foretold it (Matthew 16:24-26). But Christ also promised that taking up the cross at great cost to ourselves is the pathway to finding greater union with Him.

Church Settings. It is possible you may not know someone visiting your church is transgender and will unknowingly use their desired pronoun and name. If that is the case, a Christian is not at fault. Also, someone who is very obviously transgender may visit your church. I do not know how a question of pronouns would come up in a momentary introduction between persons, but I do think it would be needlessly confrontational to immediately correct someone’s pronoun preference if they are visiting. Again, avoid pronouns altogether. I think the more appropriate route is to gloss over whatever pronoun discussion ensues, greet the person kindly, listen to how they heard of your church, get to know them, and invite them back to church in hopes of building a relationship. Context and relationship matter. To the extent that individuals begin to gain the relational capital to speak truthfully to this person about their confusion, those attempts should be made and made soon. One important caveat: to the extent that a visitor becomes hostile, rudely adamant, or disruptive about pronoun usage, I can foresee the necessity of pastors and elders addressing it immediately in order to guard the flock (Acts 20:28; Titus 1).

Related, topics like this should prompt churches to preemptively develop policies on restroom usage so as to protect the privacy and safety of their members.

I do not deny that there may be contextual and relational ambiguities unique to each person's circumstances, but in general, if a Christian is asked his or her opinion on the matter of pronoun usage, whether by a transgender person themselves, or by a friend regarding the cultural debate around pronouns, a Christian ought always speak truthfully.

Pay the price

I often get asked questions about various vocations where dilemmas like pronoun usage are likely to arise. Most assume there is an easy resolution available. Increasingly, I find myself saying to people, “There’s not, so be prepared to pay the consequences for honoring your conscience and Scripture.”

That is sobering, right?

That is the age in which we live. There are vocations that I foresee being very difficult for Christians to enter in the future, among them public education, counseling, and medicine. This is tragic. The foreclosing of certain vocations from Christian influence will deny these vocations the common grace of Christian witness impacting them.

In my role at the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, I get requests almost weekly from individuals who find themselves in compromising situations regarding transgenderism. In most of these circumstances, the solutions I provide are often not resolutions to their dilemma. I wish I had better answers, but the direction of culture, law, and government policy is making satisfactory resolution more and more difficult. What I do know is that Christians should seek guidance from mature Christians and from their pastors. Regardless of the circumstances, the task of the Christian in society remains the same: Love God, love your neighbor, and promote the truth of how God’s design is best for us and our neighbors.

Andrew T. Walker

Andrew T. Walker is Associate Professor of Christian Ethics at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and a Fellow with The Ethics and Public Policy Center. Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24