News of the Week: Pronouns, Gender, and the Messy Reality of Applying Our Beliefs

Sometimes I wish the internet would break.

Because if it did, then I might just get a break from all of the craziness that is happening in our world.

Arguably I could simply turn off the internet, put away my phone, or set my laptop aside. Even if only for a day or two. And then pick up a book.

Of course, that doesn’t make the world go away.

I began this News of the Week series in order to reflect on things happening in my community, my country, and my world, to try and offer some Christian reflection on the myriad of issues that are front and center in our culture. For those of us who are followers of Jesus, I believe we have something of an obligation to speak about and to speak into what’s happening in our society. After all, this is where we live too. We raise our families, go to our workplaces and schools, shop and do business in communities where lots of things are going on that call for thoughtful, biblical discernment. Not only that, but we have conversations and relationships with all kinds of people, not all of whom will agree with us or see things the same way. How does our faith in Christ factor into these interactions, and into the way we navigate what are often confusing waters? Like it or not, navigate we must.

And this isn’t easy. Figuring out what we believe about an issue at a fundamental level doesn’t automatically answer the question of how to apply that belief in everyday life. Knowing how to live out what I believe in the context of conversations isn’t only a matter of sharing what I think with people who have a different worldview. It’s not just making sure I get a chance to have my say or to try and prove I’m right or to score rhetorical points. Because with my words I also want to speak the truth in love. I want to love God and love my neighbour. The simple truth is that it’s not always obvious in any given situation how to do this well.

Let’s take the example of personal pronouns. You know what I mean. With the recent and rapid rise of transgender activism and the push for people to use a given individual’s preferred pronouns, there have been endless stories in the media about the pronoun debate. On the one social media account I have, there are friends of mine who include their preferred pronouns in their profile. I have not done likewise. I figure the abundance of grey facial hair in my profile picture speaks for itself.

However, lest we think this issue is simply silly nonsense that we can categorically dismiss, not everyone can approach it casually. There are real people in real situations that call for real wisdom. What do you do if someone you are personally acquainted with makes the decision to transition to another gender identity? What if your employer adopts a policy whereby you are required to use the preferred pronouns of the people in your workplace? What if you have, like someone I know, an adult child who recently decided to identify as a gender other than their birth gender?

This is messy and complicated. There are many layers to consider: personal, theological, economic, and legal.

And here’s what makes it even more complicated: you can have two people who essentially have the same underlying belief or worldview, yet who deal with specific circumstances surrounding this issue in different ways.

Not only that, but perhaps not all situations demand the same application of what we believe. How I deal with an employer who expects me to use preferred pronouns in the workplace is one thing, and how I deal with a loved one who wants me to use their preferred pronouns is something else. Either way, my underlying belief is that there are, in fact, only two genders — male and female — but in the context of a personal relationship I can imagine contemplating addressing the person by their preferred pronouns for the sake of meeting the person where they are at in this moment of their life. Though I’d have to discern carefully what a particular interaction calls for. But I wouldn’t — indeed, couldn’t — do so out of the belief that such an individual is the gender with which they have chosen to identify.

That said, therefore, I lean pretty strongly towards not using someone’s preferred pronouns. My reason is that to refer to a man, say, with female pronouns is to speak an untruth. Because a trans man is not a female but a man who wants to identify as female. Or who perhaps actually has what we used to call gender dysphoria. Either way, using preferred pronouns that do not align with a person’s biological sex means denying reality, not to mention what the Scriptures teach about what it means to have been created in the image of God.

Yet there are perfectly reasonable, orthodox Christians who choose, at least in certain circumstances, to use an individual’s preferred pronouns. Sometimes called “pronoun hospitality,” it’s an attempt to be winsome in the context of conversations and relationships with people who identify as trans or with pronouns other than the ones that align with their biological sex.

Rosaria Butterfield recently wrote an article on why she has changed her mind with respect to “pronoun hospitality.” You can find that here. If you are interested in a different perspective, you can check out Preston Sprinkle’s Center for Faith, Sexuality, and Gender here. If you look at both of these links you will quickly see that not only do Butterfield and Sprinkle have very different views on how to navigate the pronoun debate, but that Butterfield’s critique of so-called “pronoun hospitality” is very strong. Some might say harsh. Sprinkle responded to this critique on a recent episode of his podcast, “Theology in the Raw.” You can find that episode here. Theologically, I think Butterfield and Sprinkle probably have a great deal in common as confessing Christians. But here there is profound disagreement. For my part, I have appreciated the thinking and writing of each of them.

But this is what I mean about having a specific belief on the one hand and applying that belief in everyday life on the other. Two Christians can hold the conviction that there are only two genders, that this is how God created human beings, and still disagree about how to apply that truth in the way we relate to people who do not share our belief.

I also think that for Christians for whom this is the case, who hold to an orthodox understanding of gender and sexuality, there needs be an extension of grace towards those who differ on how to apply that understanding. That is, I think Butterfield essentially calling Sprinkle and others false Christians is concerning. It’s difficult enough to contend with a surrounding culture where the Christian faith is increasingly unwelcome, much less to deal with fellow believers who condemn those in the church with whom they disagree. Moreover, that so much of that interaction happens online between people who will never engage with one another directly face to face often has the tendency to highlight and even exacerbate the division. For that reason, I would prefer to see Butterfield and Sprinkle have an actual in-person conversation.

Because this specific matter is so fraught with confusion and complexity, I think it’s a profound mistake to enshrine the use of preferred pronouns into policy and legislation. Though that has happened in my country through Bill C-16. It’s this legislation that led to Dr. Jordan Peterson to becoming such a well-known public intellectual. Giving such legal weight to the view that a person’s preferred pronouns are always the required means of address merely pours fuel on the fire by placing all kinds of people into incredibly awkward situations and heightening the tension between those with differing views.

Listen, I don’t have a 100% certain answer as to how we handle the matter of pronouns, which is merely one of the issues that fall under the LGBTQ+ umbrella. Like I said, it’s a messy world. And I’m ready to extend grace to those who view the matter differently. But what I do know is that as a Christian I have to do my utmost to live faithfully according to what Scripture teaches, including what it says about being male and female, in order to love God and love my neighbour. It means speaking the truth in love, because being truthful about reality is loving. How we convey truth with love may vary with each situation, but it must always be the goal for which we strive.

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