Navigating Pronouns in the Real World
Parameters and prudence for complex situations
When I attended orientation for my graduate degree, I expected and received information about my courses, my advisor, and my classmates. I was also given materials about campus and my new city. One item I did not anticipate needing or being given was a pronoun pin—a small black pin that could be added to a backpack or worn on clothing to easily display one’s pre-ferred pronouns.
When asked which pin I wanted, I was taken aback and stammered “he/him” before taking it and shoving it in the bag. This was my introduction to the language and use of preferred pronouns. The pin was supposed to cut down on the awkwardness of a class’s first meeting. In addition to name, degree program, and area of interest, students were expected to give their preferred pronouns. In some instances, those matched their biological sex. In others, they did not. And in others, students adopted multiple options (he/him and they/their).
What I once thought was a product of the progressive place I had chosen for my degree has become common practice in our society. Individuals in workplaces and universities—in red states as well as blue—now regularly share their pronouns and expect the same.
Wisdom and pronoun usage
As a Christian who operates in spaces where preferred pronoun usage is expected, I have had to think through what it looks like to be both faithful to God’s design for gender and sexuality and what it looks like to maintain relationships where possible.
At the level of principle, certain parameters should be established for all Christians as they think about this topic.
- We are to be a people committed to God’s good design for our bodies and sexuality.
The foundation of all our activity on this topic (and all topics), is that we ground our theology in the truth of God as Creator of humanity. The fact that he has created us means that we are bound by his design, which is for our good. God has created humanity as male and female, two biologically distinct but complementary sexes made in his image (Gen. 1:27).
- We are to be a people committed to the truth.
The Christian message is one grounded in certain fundamental realities. In matters of gender and sexuality, the truth of the binary nature of the sexes, their necessary relationship to one another for procreation, and the philosophical impossibility of “changing” your sex are matters on which Christians should not compromise.
- We are to be people who are not needlessly belligerent or antagonistic.
The call to be bold in our truthfulness is not a call to unwisely seek opportunities to be defensive and aggressive. Neither is it a call to be passive and compromising. Rather, we can be confident in our convictions and respond to the needs of the moment without being insulting or performative.
- We must seek wisdom in how to discern the appropriate action.
The rapid pace at which culture is changing the way it talks about this topic means that in order to respond, Christians must seek wisdom grounded in the timeless truths of Scripture. We should be unmoved on matters of clarity and clear teaching from the Bible. In matters requiring application of principles, we must seek to be prudent in our actions toward believers and unbelievers.
At the level of practice, different scenarios have called for varied responses on my part.
When in classes where the expectation is that I share my preferred pronouns, I have chosen not to do so. I offer my name and other information, but do not share pronouns because to do so would be to participate in a language game and imply that my correct pronouns could be other than those of a male. I know of other Christians who have gone further and openly stated that they will not offer pronouns because of their views on gender and sexuality. Were I asked to give pronouns after I had chosen not to, I would respond in a similar manner.
For individuals, especially those I don’t know, I try to avoid pronoun usage. This was especially important when I learned that a classmate of mine was transgender. James 1Name changed. is a transgender man (biological female presenting as a man), who I had known for six months before I realized James was transgender. Prior to that moment, I used masculine pronouns because I never considered that James might not be a biological male. Following this situation, I began referring to James by name only because I did not want to speak a lie (which can sometimes be tricky and create awkward wording, as in writing this paragraph).
In the case of names, I use the name that someone offers me. Names are not inherently gendered. For example, my parents picked out the name Alex and planned to use it whether I was a boy or a girl. My father-in-law is named Tracy. However, there may be times when I would not use a name someone offers me as a matter of conscience. For instance, if my brother, whose name is Bryson, were to tell me that he is now to be known as Brittany and uses female pronouns, I could not honor that request. I believe that using his new name in that way would be sanctioning his attempt to contradict his God-given gender. Even so, this is a place where Christians must seek wisdom and discern the appropriate action, acknowledging that consciences shaped and molded by Scripture and led by the Holy Spirit may arrive at different conclusions in matters of prudence.
In all things, Christians should seek to be people who are truthful in our words, gracious in our tone, and evangelistic in our relationships. James was not unaware of my beliefs about gender and sexuality. James, however, did not believe that I was unkind or cruel. We were still able to study together and interact with civility in common spaces. Most conversations with James did not center on gender, but rather the experiences we shared in our graduate degree. My goals, whether with James or others I interact with in these spaces, are to accommodate what I can (James’ name, for example), not transgress my conscience, and be faithful to the witness of Scripture.
- 1Name changed.