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.

White Paper #10: Creation: Our Identifiers (and a teaser about pronouns)

In White Paper #9, we discussed “identity.” Identity properly answers the question, “Who am I?” in categories found in the Bible. Specifically in our being, our experience and our purpose. In sum, we are “male and female made in God’s image, subject to the fall and its miseries engaging in worship.”

But, that is insufficient to fully answer the question, “Who am I?” There are things about me that are not true of you and vice versa. Those things have come to shape how I approach the world, relationships with men and women, politics even food choices. These are true of me but are not true of others. Identity is what we share with everyone else ever born or will be born but “identifiers” are what is specifically true of me.

Identifiers answers a related question, “What else is true about me?”  Here is where we can avoid some category confusion. Identifiers are things I do not necessarily have in common with others but are true of me.  Identifiers can be good things or bad things, godly things or sinful things. For example, here are some of my identifiers:

My name, Spanish heritage, child of a divorced home, oldest sibling, left-handed, near-sighted, truck-owner, father of 5, husband of one wife, Presbyterian, pastor, American, conservative. I once was a resident of MO, then SC, then NY, then GA, then KS, then IL, then VA, then SC and now, NC.

You following?  All of those things have left a mark on me—more than a mark, they have shaped me; they color the filter that I use to look at life.  They influence how I make decisions.  They are experiences, part of my upbringing, God’s specific providence for me.

In a real sense they are “me” but only in a sense.  Identifiers don’t extend all the way down to identity though they run deep. This is where some who want to call themselves “Gay Christians” get it wrong: homosexual interest and practice is an identifier not an identity. At the same time, to answer the “Who am I?” question, if I only used identifiers, my answer is inadequate.

As I mention, there are good identifiers and bad, sinful ones. In my example above, I explained what could be called “good” identifiers.  Nothing about how I describe my experiences can be called sinful. Inappropriate, sinful identifiers are those things about me and my conduct that do not glorify God, that is, are contrary to His word.  

There are things in my past that have had shaping and influencing effect on my life that are not good: sport idolatry, achievement idolatry, views of sex, drunkenness, aloofness, rudeness and manipulation.

These have taught me ungodly lessons and habits—all of which I have had to learn from and some of which I have to regularly mortify. Things like these that, if taken from desire to act, would be sin. Paul gives us a list in Galatians 5:

…the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these….those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.

Any one of these (and those like these), from desire to act, is sinful.  These need to be mortified whenever they arise; not contemplated but killed. Each of these, when they become lifestyle choices, aren’t part of our identity but are identifiers—things uniquely about me. If we mis-categorize them as part of my “identity” then we make an error since they might be true of me and not you.

Want to end this post with a little pizzaz? Let’s talk about pronouns. “What are your pronouns?”  Is that a question of identity, identifiers or both. It matters, doesn’t it?  If it is a question of identity, then I answer, “I am a male, image-bearing, living in a fallen world worshipper of Jesus Christ.”  That’s who I am: I am a “he, him.”  It’s what the Bible and my biology tell me.

I am more than that but I am no less and those are the necessary basics that without them I am not speaking truthfully about myself.

White Paper #9: Creation, part 6 “Identity”

How God has created us male and female with distinct but overlapping responsibility is the essential starting point for discussing identity.  In order to best understand the biblical teaching, we need to consider the difference between “identity” and “identifiers.” In this post, we’ll look at identity.

Strictly speaking, identity answers the question: “Who am I?”  It is this very question that so polarizes people: am I my sexuality? Am I my ethnicity? Am I my nationality? These aren’t unimportant questions but they aren’t answered by appealing to identity. The answer our culture gives is some form of “I am whoever I want to be—whoever it is that makes me feel happiest about myself.”

That’s a key point in our culture: we answer the identity question in light of my happiness. To tie happiness to my answer to “Who am I?” is treacherous. Instead, the Bible answers this very profound question in a three-part answer. I draw from the Ad Interim Study Committee Report on Human Sexuality.

There, we find three strands that are woven together to answer the identity question.

#1: Ontologically: “in our very essence” we are male and female in the image of God. This is our non-reducible, common-to-all-mankind answer.  We are no less than male and female in God’s image—all of us.  One writer calls this “indelible, central and direct from God.”

  • In other words, when we are answering the identity question, we must search for what all mankind has in common.

The study report says, “We are made male and female and therefore these categories are not merely cultural constructions or fluid components of our self-understanding—they are identities imprinted upon us in our creation by God.” In our very essence, we are male and female in the image of God.

#2: Phenomenologically: “in our experience” of the world we are beset with original sin and actual sin that flows from it as well as the miseries of this life.  We cannot think of ourselves simply as male and female image bearing soul carriers—we exist in time and our time is fallen. In fact, it is not possible to extract who we are in our essence from who we are in our experience.  I’m not trying to be abstract or philosophical.  I’m simply saying it is impossible to think about “me” apart from “me—in my history and in my present.”

#3: Teleologically: “in our purpose” we are to be worshippers of the God who made us. Again, not just male and female image bearers subject to sin and misery but also worshippers—we were made to worship. All of mankind’s purpose is to give worship to whom it is due, namely our Creator.  Yet the Fall corrupted our ability to fulfill this purpose.  

It doesn’t mean, however, that fallen mankind don’t worship—they do!  Paul tells us they do in Romans 1:

For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.

Men and women who do not follow the one, true and living God of the Bible now worship the creature and created things and are enslaved to what is false. Now, only those in union with Christ are rightly ordered to our created purpose.  For we have been born again and are being renewed in the image of our Redeemer.   Our fundamental purpose is worship of God through Christ Our Lord.

Identity—a summary. Identity is what all mankind shares with each other:

  • We are male and female created in God’s image—ontologically, “in our essence.”
  • We are male and female created in God’s image in a fallen world—phenomenologically, “in our experience.”
  • We are male and female created in God’s image in a fallen world and worshippers of God (or of the creation)—teleologically, “in our purpose.”