White Paper #11: What can we do about pronouns?

During the seminar, I was asked how should we handle a person’s request that we use a specific pronoun even when it violates the person’s biology?  My initial answer was to refuse to accept the request to use preferred pronouns: “It isn’t speaking truthfully,” I reasoned–and I’m correct, almost.

However, as the questioner and I spoke further off-line, she told me that with a relationship in progress and trust being built, it might bring the whole house down if she were to change in mid-stream.  I think there’s wisdom in that. Indeed, the priest in me agreed while the prophet frowned.  I’d suggest to you that it should do that to all of us: create a tension, a grace-truth tension.

This issue might be analogous to Jesus’ approach to the Samaritan woman.  He did not start the conversation with a discussion about her marital status; what may be analogous to our “pronoun issue.” He was ultimately more interested in her soul than her sexual habits.  However, neither did He ignore her marital status: He eventually asked her to go get her husband.

The apostle Paul did something similar at the Areopagus in Acts 17:22-24:

So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription: ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.

Paul’s first words weren’t, “My what a bunch of pagans you are!”  Though he would not have been wrong!  He met them where they were—in respect and dignity—and proceeded from there. If we are thinking biblically, we know we should be referring to ourselves according to how God made us: biology is apology. However, those walking in darkness by definition are ignoring and suppressing how God made them.  

Their demand that we use their preferred pronouns is a statement of three rebellious things:

  1. “I refuse to accept how God made me.”
  2. “I am sovereign over my life.”
  3. “You will help me be happy.”

Yet they are statements made by one captive to do the devil’s will—a sinner and a sufferer, remember? Where do we start?  What do we address?  We “accept them with an agenda” (I first saw this phrase in Paul David Tripp’s book, “Instruments in the Redeemer’s Hands.”)

  • We accept them: they are like us: male or female, image-bearing, subject to sin and worshippers.  They have inherent dignity and value and worth.  

We were just like them in our sins when we were unconverted—and we are more like them than unlike now. We accept them (even, at times, agreeing to use their pronouns) but with an agenda.  What is the agenda we must have with those who are seeking their happiness in sexual brokenness and expressive individualism? Is it simply to get them off their crazy pronouns? No: that they become worshippers of God through Jesus Christ. 

Remember our new mission field—as needy as any mission field—is characterized by confusion, anger and misdirected joy-seeking in distorted sexuality. The most loving and compassionate thing we can do is lead those who are broken to wholeness in Christ. This agenda sets the boundaries of our love: we are ambassadors of Christ. So:

  • We won’t follow them into sin—we won’t become like them
  • We won’t forsake our confession of Christ or our walk with Christ
  • We won’t minimize the biblical teaching on sexuality
  • We will be honest about our perspective
  • We will be earnest about our interest in getting to know the other person
  • We will display the fruits of the Spirit

What cannot be part of our agenda?

  • Celebrating brokenness as normal and desired: brokenness isn’t normal—it is not God’s design and shouldn’t be celebrated
  • Advocating for policies or actions that make brokenness easier or more acceptable
  • Shaming those who are broken as if something weird is happening to them

What an agenda like this means is that we go at God’s pace in the relationship. This is very hard especially if the one we are working to accept is dearly loved: we want them to be free and the time is NOW! That is normal and it is good but we can’t step into God’s providential plan apart from the fruit of the Spirit and wisdom. Jesus’ work with the Samaritan woman is very instructive.

Even in the midst of a patient pursuit of a person’s worship well-being, there are at least seven reasons why we need to have an agenda: 7 TRUTHS.

#1: God chose the person’s sex, the parents chose the person’s name—our pronouns are received not declared: it is sin to ignore those.

#2: We cannot accept self-sovereignty: the Bible tells us we are not gods over our lives. 

#3: Happiness in this life will not translate to eternal life apart from Jesus Christ; eternal life for the soul has to be our focus.

#4: Is it loving and respectful to God to ignore how He created the person using pronouns that aren’t true?

#5: Does it speak truthfully to the person about who they really are?  

#6: Is it dignifying to them —does it honor them are created image-bearers—to speak falsely to them about them?

#7: What is to be gained by continuing on without confrontation?  For us or for them?  Eventually Jesus spoke to the woman; eventually Paul spoke to the Athenians.  So must we.

To accept them with an agenda is what Jesus did with the woman at the well—He did not shame her or mock her or condemn her, remember? He was willing to engage her.  He dignified her by speaking to her crossing over a number of cultural taboos. He preached the good news to her before addressing her sexual sin. In His honesty, He called her out eventually. He didn’t ask her to leave the man she was living with but rather leave the false religion she was committed to.

Jesus had an agenda—and that agenda meant wisdom and patience in not immediately addressing something that was sinful and obvious.

Pronouns matter yet souls matter more than what pronouns someone chooses to use about themselves.  If we accept people with an agenda—and that agenda is to get them to see who they are based on what God’s word says—them we might have to wade through and compassionately tolerate things we know need to change.

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