How should Christians respond to transgenderism in general and Bruce Jenner’s “transition” in particular? I think Christians are at their best when they recognize a need for both compassion and truth-telling. Compassion for those who experience painful alienation from their own bodies and truth-telling in the face of fictional accounts of gender identity.
As I have written before, transgenderism is a denial of God-ordained differences between male and female (Gen. 1:26-27). It is an untruthful suppression of the sexual binary that God has encoded into every cell of our bodies. When a person feels their gender identity to be out of sync with their sexual identity, the problem is not with the body but with the mind. To steal a phrase from Sam Allberry, the conflict is evidence of how sin distorts us not of how God made us. Thus, it is unloving and contrary to human flourishing to deny or obscure these truths.
I have seen one issue popping-up in the commentary this week that appears to be unresolved among Christians writing and commenting about transgenderism. How do we refer to people who have adopted a transgender identity? Transgender ideology says that we must refer to transgender persons by their assumed name, not by their given name. It also requires using pronouns that match their transgender identity and not those that match the sex they were assigned at birth. Should Christians go along with this or not?
Just yesterday I saw Christians coming at this question from opposite directions. On the one hand, Marty Duren writing in The Washington Post refers to Jenner with the name Caitlyn and with feminine pronouns. Duren explains, “How does insistence on calling Caitlyn by her birth name help me reach Lisa who now goes by ‘Fred,’ or Tom’s kid who remains confused?” Duren believes that we close-off opportunities for evangelism if we don’t go along with the way transgender people want to be named.
On the other hand, Doug Wilson refuses to go along with transgender naming, saying, “I am afraid that I am not going to be addressing him as Caitlyn — the most accommodation I will offer is that of calling him Jenner.” Thus Wilson rejects both feminine pronouns and the name Caitlyn.
(I could perhaps mention a third way. I have heard arguments from people I respect that take a somewhat divided approach. They agree to use a person’s legal name, whatever that may be, but refuse to adopt pronouns that contradict a person’s birth sex.)
These are just a couple examples that I read yesterday. I could marshall many more. The questions is, however, which one is right? I am still thinking through these things myself, so consider the following a first draft of my thinking on this. Above all, I aim to be biblical in coming at this question. So here are the principles that have guided my thinking thus far.
1. Avoid unnecessary provocation.
Paul writes, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men” (Rom. 12:18). That means that offensiveness doesn’t necessarily equal faithfulness. Offensiveness might be an evidence of fidelity to the gospel. Or it might be an evidence that we are pugnacious. And we don’t get brownie points for being angry jerks. The fool is the one who “speaks rashly like the thrusts of a sword” (Prov. 12:18), but the wise “ponders how to answer” (Prov. 15:28). In short, the foolish person offends people with his words because he’s self-absorbed and thoughtless. The wise person is persuasive because he’s constantly strategizing how to use his words to bring healing and life (Prov. 16:24).
When it comes to gospel witness, we need to build bridges wherever we can. And of course that includes how we speak to and address sinners with our words. Paul modeled this for us at Mars Hill in Acts 17 and broke it down for us in simple terms in 1 Corinthians 9:22, “I have become all things to all men, so that I may by all means save some.”
The practical upshot of this principle is that Christians should not adopt the posture of a scold. If you can avoid conflict over this point and still speak truthfully, then do so. Wilson’s “Jenner” accomodation seems reasonable to me under this principle. Under this principle, one might also avoid certain pronouns in order to postpone a confrontation that is better left for a later time.
2. Embrace necessary provocation.
Truth-telling is always necessary for the Christian (Eph. 4:15). We are not allowed speak in ways that are fundamentally dishonest and that undermine the truth of God’s word about how he made us and the world. Transgender ideology is fundamentally a revolt against God’s truth. It encourages people–sometimes very disturbed and hurting people–to deny who God made them to be. It traps them in a way of thinking and living that is harmful to them and that alienates them from God’s truth. We do not serve them or love them well by speaking as if transgender fictions are true.
We are called not to participate in the unfruitful deeds of darkness, but instead to “expose them” (Eph. 5:11). That means we must always “speak the truth in love” (Eph. 5:18). We must realize that real love always, always, always “rejoices with the truth” (1 Cor. 13:6). So loving our neighbor means telling them the truth, even when that truth brings an unpleasant confrontation.
The doctor does his patient no favors by speaking in ways that conceal an unpleasant diagnosis. Likewise, we do our neighbors and loved ones no favors by speaking in ways that conceal the truth of God. The proverb says, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend, But deceitful are the kisses of an enemy” (Prov. 27:6). That means that an enemy will tell you what you want to hear, but a real friend will tell you what you need to hear. Sometimes saying the right thing is hard, but we won’t shrink back from the confrontation if we really love our neighbor.
The practical upshot of this principle means that I must never encourage or accomodate transgender fictions with my words. In fact, I have an obligation to expose them. For me, that means that I may never refer to a biological male with pronouns that encourage him to think of himself as a female. Likewise, I may never refer to a biological female with pronouns that encourage her to think of herself as a male. In other words, I have to speak truthfully. And that includes the choice of pronouns that I use.
It seems to me that the use of a legal name may present a special case. What if the only name you know is the assumed legal name and not the birth name? Aren’t some names ambiguous with respect to gender? It may be that a consistent application of the principles above would allow the use of the assummed name in some situations and not allow it in others. I can only say that the principle of truth-telling in love always has to determine whatever choice you make.
There may be scenarios that are not covered by the principles as I have articulated them here. I’m open to being persuaded from the Bible that another approach is better or that I need to consider another angle. So I invite any feedback aimed at helping us to think and speak with greater biblical faithfulness.