If a transgender person asks you to use a pronoun or name in line with his or her preferred gender, what do you do? It’s no longer a hypothetical question.
In “Romeo and Juliet,” we remember Shakespeare asking, “What’s in a name? A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” A rose is still a rose no matter what we call it. But what’s in a pronoun? Specifically, if a neighbor who identifies as transgender asks us to use ze rather than he or she, does it really matter? What should we do to honor the relationship and the gospel?
It’s a sticky issue for Christians, and it’s becoming stickier by the day. That’s why I’m glad to tell you about a very helpful perspective, an article by Andrew Walker entitled, “He, She, Ze, Zir? Navigating pronouns while loving your transgender neighbor.” Walker, who wrote the great book “God and the Transgender Debate,” is Director of Policy Studies at the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention.
In the article, Walker exhibits the truth and grace so necessary for believers to navigate these choppy waters in our homes, at work, and in church. Regarding the truth, he forthrightly points out, “Pronouns are not an insignificant issue. … The question we as Christians have to consider is whether the reality we are being asked to affirm is objective and corresponds to biblical truth, or whether the reality we are being asked to acknowledge is subjective and false. Nothing less than the truth and authority of God’s revelation over created reality is up for grabs in something as seemingly innocent as pronoun usage.”
Andrew adds, “Because, at root, the transgender debate is a metaphysical debate about whose version of reality we live in, and only one account—Jesus Christ’s—can lead us into truth about reality and human flourishing.”
The Bible reminds us, as well, to speak the truth in love—that is, with grace. While God’s Word unequivocally says that we’re created male and female, it also makes clear that each of us has been made in God’s image and therefore deserves to be treated with dignity and compassion. So while Andrew never backs down from our mandate to obey God’s Word as we see it and follow our consciences, he counsels godly wisdom in how we respond to people, depending on things like the social context and the depth of the relationship.
Surprisingly, Andrew first counsels avoiding the pronoun dilemma whenever possible. Rarely do we have to use the third person when speaking to someone. Second, generally, we can use the person’s preferred first name, since names are gendered culturally. Third, don’t lie! “Those with writing or speaking platforms,” Andrew writes, “have an obligation to speak and write truthfully and not kowtow to political correctness or excuse falsehood. … I will call Bruce Jenner ‘he,’ or if I do say ‘Caitlyn,’ I will still say, ‘him.’”
Then Andrew covers what he calls some “tricky situations.” When it comes to a close family member who is transgender, Andrew says he would not honor the pronoun or first name request. “I know this person intimately,” Andrew explains, “and in all likelihood I possess the relational capital to understand this person’s story and speak truthfully.”
He acknowledges this decision may be deemed offensive even when done kindly, but sometimes this is unavoidable.
Same thing with the workplace. If you know the other person well, you should tell him or her the truth. Andrew acknowledges this might mean you will run afoul of company HR policies. “None of this is easy,” he acknowledges, “but Jesus never promised that following him would be without great personal cost.” Indeed not.
While it may not matter what you call a rose, it matters very much what you call a fellow human being.
Eric Metaxas is the host of the “Eric Metaxas Show,” a co-host of “BreakPoint” radio and a New York Times #1 best-selling author. His most recent book is "Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World."
Editor's Note: This piece was originally published by BreakPoint.