What Pronouns Should Christians Use When Speaking to a Transgender Person?

by John Ellis

In a recent episode of his “Ask Me Anything” podcast, pastor and current SBC president J.D. Greear provided extra fuel to the conservative evangelical discernment blogosphere’s rage by admitting that he would likely use the preferred pronoun of any transgender person that visited his church. Never minding that Greear clearly and unequivocally declared that God created only two genders – male and female – and that those two genders are immutable, a statement that is anathema within the LGBTQ community (and much of broader society), the vitriol heaped on him by professing brothers and sisters in Christ has been severe. I’m not going to link to any of them nor even mention any of their names because I don’t want to provide them any attention, but the current crop of popular invectives has been liberally and, frankly, injudiciously applied to Greear. Denunciations of being a cultural Marxist, social justice warrior, and gay affirming have been added to the charges that the North Carolina based pastor is a great compromiser leading foolish people down the broad road to perdition. Based on the responses, one would think that the man had denied the divinity of Jesus while officiating a same-sex marriage. But, that’s where we’re at in our hot-take social media world. Lost in all the hoopla, though, is the wisdom of J.D. Greear’s words.

Not long into the short episode (which you can find by clicking here), Greear makes the observation that, “behind every question is a questioner.” He adds that when asked questions like the current one, he tries to discern if it’s an honest question or not. That’s an important distinction and gets to the heart of his point, what he calls “generosity of spirit.” Many times, questions like the one Greear tackled about pronoun usage come from those who are struggling with how to love family members and friends who are struggling with gender and/or sexual identity and even, at times, from those who are in the midst of that struggle themselves. Sadly, among conservative Christians, the stance towards homosexuality and transgenderism often reveals the belief that, according to Greear, “the only categories are affirmation or alienation.”

For Greear, though, it’s not a matter of generosity of spirit versus telling the truth; it’s a generosity of spirit and telling the truth. Our King came to earth to save sinners; which is a good thing for me (and for you). And our King has called us to share his gospel with lost sinners, and to do so with love and compassion. How that’s worked out in various situations is often complex and not as easy to discern as some contend.

Those who can declare without a shadow of doubt that Greear is sinfully wrong for his stance on pronoun usage apparently live in a different world than the rest of us. For those of us struggling to figure out how to live out Jesus’ commands that include making disciples, speaking truth, and loving others in a world that has gone topsy-turvy, the answers aren’t always so clear. Like Greear, I believe that Jesus (and Paul) provide a model for how to interact with unbelievers, a model of Greear’s “generosity of spirit.” Granted, that model is not always as clearly delineated in the black and white terms that we desire. This is why, and again finding myself in agreement with Greear, I believe that pronoun usage regarding transgender individuals is a matter in which we need to extend grace towards brothers and sisters in Christ who disagree with us. Living out our conscience before God requires humility, after all.

This was hit home to me almost a year ago when a member of the church where I was serving as a pastor approached me with this very question.

This member works as a public-school teacher in northern Virginia, a hotbed of progressive ideology, and was faced with the possibility of having a transgender student in her class the next school year (this year). In the grade below the one she teaches was a girl who believes that she is a boy. The student’s parents insisted that the school use the preferred pronoun.

After several conversations with other pastors, and after much prayer, study, and thought, this was my counsel to her:

First off, I believe that this is a matter of conscience, and it’s a decision that, if you are called upon to make, you will make before God and will answer to Him for alone. Knowing your heart and your committed beliefs regarding the Bible’s teachings on sexuality and gender, you do not need to fear any sort of reprisals or church discipline from your church, no matter what you decide regarding pronoun usage. Secondly, I don’t believe that this is as clear-cut a decision as many well-meaning Christians claim.

Frankly, if I were in your shoes, I’m not sure what I would do; I can see the argument for both sides.

On one hand, if you do end up with this student in your class, God may have placed you in the student’s life to speak truth. You may be the only adult in this student’s life who is willing to say what’s true and right regarding gender. Of course, doing so will most likely put your job in jeopardy. But God is always good and faithful.

On the other hand, refusing to use the preferred pronoun will most likely introduce further confusion into the child’s life. It will most definitely introduce further chaos and acrimony into the student’s life. Is that a loving way to be a gospel witness? I’m not sure that it is. The most important role you have is to introduce the child to Jesus, not necessarily to make a stand on pronoun usage. However, introducing the student to Jesus may very well require a stance on gender and pronoun usage that will open you to persecution and even the loss of your job. I don’t know. But I think that these questions and answers will most likely be context dependent, meaning that if God places this child in your classroom next year, you will need to depend on Him for wisdom through prayer and continued submission to His Word and the ordinary means of grace. And this will be a decision that only you can make, and you need to make it in full faith before God. Your church family and I will do our best to love you through it and to serve you. We’ll definitely pray for you, as we’ve covenanted to do. And I will be more than happy to continue dialoguing with you about this and giving you as much counsel as I can. One word of specific counsel, though, is do not make the decision out of fear. By God’s grace, do not allow the fear of persecution and possible loss of job be the driver in your decision. Likewise, by God’s grace, do not allow the fear of possible anger and judgment from brothers and sisters in Christ be the driver in your decision.

Mercifully, that sister wasn’t left with just my Charlie Brownesque answer; I pointed her to several resources, including a book that J.D. Greear referenced multiple times during the podcast – God and the Transgender Debate by Andrew Walker. In his book, Walker helpfully reminds us that the “transgender debate,” is, “about people: precious people made in the image of God who are hurting, who are confused, who are angry, who are scared, who may have been told by their family that they are unwelcome. … What would Jesus do? He would listen to us, and he would love us, and when he disagreed with us, it would always and only be out of compassion, never oppression. There is no hurting person he would mock, or shun, or insult, or sneer at. He is so determined to pursue what is best for all of us that he died – excluded, mocked and rejected – to secure it.”[1]

Andrew Walker is correct. Whenever our King interacted with sinners, which was often, he did so gently (religious leaders and money-changers, notwithstanding) as well as lovingly. We see this in John 4 during Jesus’ conversation with the woman at the well. And in Luke’s account of Jesus’ interaction with the wretched and unethical Zacchaeus, there is no record that Jesus demanded that the tax collector acknowledge his status as a thief before dining with him. In fact, according to Luke 19:5, Jesus invited himself over to Zacchaeus’ house, an act that prompted the ire of the watching religious leaders who were scandalized that Jesus would break bread with such a sinner. And breaking bread with a sinner in first century Palestine was far more impactful and carried much more epistemic weight than any pronoun usage in the 21st century. Yet, Jesus’ love and mercy and his willingness to ignore socially constructed taboos in order to call sinners to repentance was, of course, effective. Zacchaeus openly repented and promised to make restitution. In reply, Jesus said, “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and save the lost (Luke 19:9-10).”

The model of our Savior was carried into the apostolic era, too.

During his podcast, J.D. Greear points out that Paul modeled this while talking to the Athenians when he was at Mars Hill. Paul didn’t pull out the exegetical big guns from the word “go” and sharply denounce their false idols. He looked around, found an apologetic entrance point, and gently nudged them towards the truth that there is only one true God.

Yes, without question, there will come a point when Christians need to speak the truth about gender to the transgender persons that God brings into our life. But that truth doesn’t have to be fought from the moment of introduction. And I don’t believe that the line of truth needs to be cemented into the ground regarding pronoun usage in every instance, and, most likely, very rarely from the word “go.” At some point in the relationship speaking truth about gender will most likely swamp whatever is decided about pronoun usage anyway. But upon meeting a transgender person for the first time, openly refusing to use their preferred pronoun will likely slam the door shut on any gospel conservations you may have had. Maybe there will come a time when it’s necessary to draw that line and say, “I’m sorry, but I need to use the pronoun that corresponds with your biological sex.” But I believe that probably best happens in the context of an established relationship and not, for example, upon meeting a transgender person visiting your church, to add my agreement, once again, to J.D. Greear.

Regardless of the approach, followers of Jesus need to extend charity towards one another as we seek to honor God, share the gospel of Jesus Christ with sinners, and love the transgender people that God brings into our life. We’re going to come to different conclusions, and we need to allow one another to obey God according to our conscience. This world is hostile enough towards Christians without us turning on one another over disputable matters.

Soli Deo Gloria  

[1] Andrew T. Walker, God and the Transgender Debate: What Does the Bible Actually Say About Gender Identity? (Denmark: The Good Book Company, 2017), 14-15.

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