What is a path of wisdom for churches to follow with emotion-packed, divisive, yet meaningful topics of today that we do not think Scripture speaks to? What do we do when we don’t want to bind consciences on things that Scripture is not clear about, but we want to promote wisdom and biblical fidelity? In an era replete with complex social issues, Christians often encounter scenarios that Scripture does not explicitly address. Consider, for instance, issues that have become more common as transgenderism has become more prominent, such as pronoun usage and restroom choices. What should we think about such matters?
Four principles for wisdom and biblical fidelity
When Scripture seems silent, here are four principles we should consider applying in order to uphold both wisdom and biblical fidelity.
1. Understand the scope of Scripture
In thinking about how to navigate these issues, Christians must first turn to Scripture. But there are two primary pitfalls we need to avoid when considering whether Scripture addresses an issue.
The first pitfall is to assume that Scripture always has something to say about every subject. This is what philosopher Roy Clouser calls the “encyclopedic assumption”: regarding the Bible as an encyclopedia in which we may look for an answer to any sort of question we may have. The problem with this approach, as Clouser points out, is that it ignores the Bible’s own central theme and purpose and tries to force the Bible to yield truths about matters which never crossed the minds of its authors.
The second pitfall is assuming that Scripture has nothing to say about a topic the Bible does not directly and specifically address. Therefore, we reason, we are free to “follow our conscience” in determining how to think about it. This approach ignores the fact that God’s Word is the foundation for all knowledge. As 2 Timothy 3:16-17 states, Scripture is profitable for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness, equipping us for every good work. There is almost always something we can apply from Scripture to help us think about every issue we are called on to consider.
This is especially true the closer the issue gets to the realm of the human heart. The Bible does not have much to say about the inner workings of an atom, so it does not directly address specific issues within the realm of physics. But the Bible does have a great deal to say about the inner workings of the human heart, and thus it does often have something to say about issues related to human conduct and behavior.
2. Search for and apply relevant scriptural commands, whether directly or indirectly
If an issue proceeds from the heart, then we must consider whether Scripture has something to say about it directly or indirectly. The first place we should look is in scriptural commands, whether broad or narrow.
Within the Bible we find two basic categories of commands: broad (or general) commands and narrow (or specific) commands. Broad/general commands typically apply to many situations, such as the command to love God first and then love our neighbor, and always apply in some way to all cultures and all contexts. In considering the issue of pronouns, we must first ask what behavior most exhibits our love for God? For instance, since Jesus is truth (John 14:6), we must use language—including pronouns—in a way that best expresses and reflects truth. We must also do that in a way that is most loving toward our neighbors.
The other type of Scriptural commands are narrow or specific commands, those that relate to a particular circumstance, often in a culture that differs from our own. An example is Deuteronomy 22:8 which says, “When you build a new house, make a parapet around your roof so that you may not bring the guilt of bloodshed on your house if someone falls from the roof.” An application in our day might be to build a fence around your backyard pool so that a neighbor’s child doesn’t fall in and drown.
Narrow commands might not always apply to all cultures and all contexts. In some cases (as with the example above), there might be a parallel application. Narrow commands are similar to “case law” (i.e., law as established by the outcome of former cases) in that they give us paradigmatic examples for situations we might encounter.
In determining how a command applies, we must consider the reason for the command. If the reason for the command is a theological principle that is always true, then the rule will almost always apply today. As a general rule, if the Old Testament gives a moral command, it is still in effect unless later canceled, either explicitly or implicitly, in the New Testament.
3. Apply indirect commands analogically
Sometimes it is rather obvious how a command in Scripture can be applied. But oftentimes, to determine whether an action or circumstance is similar to an action judged to be wrong in Scripture, we must use analogical reasoning. In his essay “The Place of Scripture in Christian Ethics,” James Gustafson states the commonly accepted method of scriptural analogy:
Those actions of persons and groups are to be judged morally wrong which are similar to actions that are judged to be wrong or against God’s will under similar circumstances in Scripture, or are discordant with actions judged to be right or in accord with God’s will in Scripture.
An example of how to use analogical reasoning might be to consider the relevance of Jesus’ commands regarding oaths (Matt. 5:33-37). The application extends beyond the issue of oaths into the realm of general truthfulness. As Tim Keller explained, Jesus is “saying if you think you can create levels of truthfulness, you’re wrong. He is saying that ‘every yes and every no must be as truthful as if you just swore it on a stack of Bibles on network television.’ Every yes and every no is observed, because God is the creator and is present with us.”
As applied to pronouns, the question you might ask is whether you believe pronouns represent specific genders or are interchangeable terms? If you do not think they are interchangeable, then are you being untruthful if you use the pronoun “she” to refer to biological males or “he” for biological women.
Ultimately, the issue is not what pronouns you are using but what you are doing with those words—and your motive behind it. Are you using the words to communicate truth or to say what you do not truly believe? And are you using pronouns as weapons in a “culture war” (e.g., to mock or hurt a person who identifies as transgender), or are you attempting to avoid conflict or hurt someone’s feelings at the expense of speaking the truth?
4. In the absence of scriptural commands, apply Christian liberty thoughtfully
Those are difficult questions to address, which is why we are tempted to classify pronoun usage as an issue of Christian liberty.
How does Christian liberty apply? In Romans 14:1-23, Paul addresses matters of conscience where Scripture is silent. He advises believers not to pass judgment on disputable matters but to act in love. This principle of Christian liberty applies to contemporary issues not explicitly mentioned in Scripture.
The issue of pronoun usage might not be, as we’ve argued above, a true issue of Christian liberty, though, since Scripture does seem to address how we use language for the purposes of being truthful. However, the issue of individual restroom usage may be a better—albeit counterintuitive—example of an issue where Christian liberty should prevail.
The Bible does have something to say about how to go to the toilet (Deut. 23:12-14). But it does not say anything about the necessity of those individual facilities being gender-neutral. We could argue, of course, that such an explanation was not necessary because it is a matter of “common sense.” Yet appealing to a common-sense standard might violate the purpose of Christian liberty.
There are, after all, numerous activities that some Christians have considered to be sinful because they violate the common-sense standard. The ingestion of harmful substances, such as tobacco, has been a frequent example through the past few centuries. However, this has not prevented other groups of believers (perhaps most famously, the Baptist pastor Charles Spurgeon) from claiming it to be an issue of Christian liberty.
Whether or not it is a matter of common sense, the best approach might be to consider bathroom usage to be (in a limited sense) a matter of Christian liberty. This is not to say that in considering it a matter of liberty that Christians must therefore allow anyone of any gender to use any restroom they choose. Indeed, that is not how Christian liberty works. What it means is that in the absence of clear direction from Scripture, Christians are allowed to adopt whatever customs and practices are deemed to be best and in keeping with the principle of love.
Restroom usage can thus be approached as an issue of Christian liberty, with a focus on other relevant concerns such as safety, privacy, and respect for persons. These are some of the reasons why many churches with newer buildings have a “family-friendly” restroom. There is nothing in Scripture, of course, that requires a separate facility for families of young children to use. But concerns over privacy and respect have led some churches to choose that as a loving and respectful option.
In the same way, churches can use their Christian liberty to allow visitors who identify as transgender to use gender-neutral facilities (such as single-room toilets that might not be available to everyone or family restrooms when they are not in use). But Christian liberty also gives churches the freedom to require that restroom usage conform to a person’s biological sex. Both are examples of how Christian liberty might look different within different circles of believers.
After choosing a side, we might think that one group is weaker in faith than the other. Yet, because they are fellow believers, we are still required to welcome them instead of quarreling over our different opinions, despising them, and passing judgment on them (Romans 14:1,3).
(A third option, allowing transgender individuals to use the public restroom that aligns with their gender identity is likely to be the least loving option. Christian liberty should never be used in such a way that it becomes a stumbling block to other sincere Christians (Rom. 14:13). Allowing a biological man to enter a female-only space (i.e., a space where men who aren’t transgender would be forbidden from entering) would give the impression that biological sex is irrelevant to God and his people. It does not properly love the individual because it affirms their disordered identity.)
Embracing wisdom, love, and grace
As we face questions that Scripture does not explicitly address, we should be committed to walking in wisdom, love, and grace. Rather than simply assuming we are right and another group of Christians is wrong, we must first seek diligently to hear from God and apply his Word directly and analogically. If we become convinced that Scripture is silent on the issue, we then can view it as a matter of Christian liberty. But we must embrace all that entails and not use it as a license to do whatever our sinful nature (or our sinful culture) deems to be best.
Adopting such an approach requires humility, patience, and a commitment to uphold the core truths of our faith while navigating the nuances of our ever-changing world. It’s an approach that is rarely easy and often controversial. But in doing so, we reflect Christ’s love and wisdom, and we offer the watching world a God-honoring response to the pressing issues of our times.