On Transgender Pronouns and Christian Speech
This is a follow-up post to my two-part series on the Westminster Standards and gay Christianity, which can be found here. In this installment I will be addressing the question of transgender pronouns and the Westminster Standards. I am not here addressing the subject of transgenderism in general and the best medical or social response to it, for which I recommend the work of Madeleine Kearns on the subject.
The topic of transgenderism and pronouns is a fraught one, but exactly because of its complications it needs to be addressed. There are two foundational principals that I am not interested in demonstrating here, but am rather assuming. First, that men and women are distinct in sex and gender and these distinct attributes are not interchangeable (e.g. Gen. 1:27, 2:20-24, Rom. 1:26-27, 1 Cor. 11:8-15; cf. WCF 4.2, WLC 17, WSC 10), and second, that our bodies are not incidental to being human but constitute who we are. Men have male bodies and women have female bodies. Men ought to be men and women ought to be women.
There is a difference between sex and gender, in that sex refers to someone’s biological sex while gender refers to someone’s personal or social identity that directs their sexual behavior, which is normally, and ought to be, tethered to their biological sex. Someone’s gender is how they live out their biological sex, and ought to be reflective of that sex. Since our bodies matter and are constitutive of our identities, our genders should be consistent with our embodied being. In other words, men should be masculine and women should be feminine. Men should identify as men and women should identify as women. In contrast, someone who is transgender identifies as a gender that does not correspond to their biological/genetic sex, whether or not they have gone through sex-reassignment surgery.
While genitalia are the most obvious bodily differences between men and women, the physical differences abound and permeate both men and women totally (e.g. height, weight, muscle mass, hormones, wombs) because the difference is present in our DNA through our chromosomes. Our genetic sex is definitional of our bodies and is immutable. Sculpting the external aspects of our bodies does not change who we are, either genetically or truly. This is not to downplay the difficulties of those who are intersex or possess ambiguous genitalia, but those external circumstances, no matter how agonizing, do not change the genetic architecture of a person, and therefore do not change their genetic sex or gender.
Likewise, this is not to dismiss gender dysphoria as a real psychological and medical condition from which people suffer. Gender dysphoria as a condition of mental and emotional anguish over a sense of conflict between one’s sex and gender is very real condition and should be taken seriously and with compassion. However, experiencing gender dysphoria is not a justification for living in a gender non-conforming way, nor is the emotional or mental identification with a gender that varies from one’s biological sex an identification with one’s “true self” as the linked psychiatry.org article puts it (as if psychology as a discipline could possibly answer that!). Gender dysphoria is a mental disorder that needs to be healed. Gender dysphoria is a medical and psychological disruption of God’s design for the correspondence of sex and gender. It is an affliction of sin by tearing apart what God has joined and that disarray produces suffering. To embrace the chaos of sin’s effects and reject God’s design through gender non-conformance is to embrace sin. Sin is any lack of conformity to and transgression of God’s law (WLC 24, WSC 14), and suffering does not excuse that.
So how ought Christians refer to someone who is transgender? Last fall, president of the SBC J. D. Greear stoked controversy by recommending Preston Sprinkle argument for “pronoun hospitality”, wherein the speaker uses the preferred pronouns of the person of/to whom they are speaking. Sprinkle and Greear argued that this is not lying, but is a Christian way of showing charity to people with whom we disagree without unnecessarily alienating them.
This tension of hospitality and truth lies at the core of the issue for the Christian. The law of God binds all people “to personal, entire, exact, and perpetual obedience” (WCF 19.1, WLC 93, WSC 39-40) and functioned as such in creation, after the fall into sin (WCF 19.2, WLC 94-96), and continues to apply to the Christian in salvation (WCF 19.5, WLC 97). This law is summarized in the 10 Commandments (WCF 19.2, WLC 98, WSC 41). This is not a way of thinking unique to Presbyterians, but is common to all Christians. The 10 Commandments are God’s law, are good, and should be obeyed. What scripture does not present, however, is a gradation in expected obedience. The difficulty of following God’s law does not excuse the Christian in their failure to follow it, nor does the seeming insignificance of obedience in certain circumstances justify transgressing it. Neither does the apparent good of disobedience justify violating God’s law. Scripture does not present a spectrum where on one end lies total obedience to God’s law and on the other is charitable generosity. The law is fulfilled in love (Gal. 5:14) which seeks the good of your neighbor under the terms of God’s law (James 2:8).
The ninth commandment is “you shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” God demands the speaking of truth. Deceit and untruth are not compatible with the God who made what is. To speak falsely is to communicate untruth about the ordered reality God has created; to present a lie as the truth is to call evil “good” and good “evil”. To speak falsely against your neighbor is to do them harm by invoking untruth and uncreation against what God has made and ordered. The ninth commandment then requires that we “appear and stand for the truth” and “from the heart, sincerely, freely, clearly, and fully, speaking the truth and only the truth”. It bans “concealing the truth”, “speaking the truth…in doubtful or equivocal expressions, to the prejudice of the truth” and “lying”. Fundamentally, it requires “promoting the truth between man and man.” (WLC 144-145).
Speech means something, and the way we speak to and about other people communicates our belief about truth. To call someone “sir” or “ma’am” is to communicate what we believe them to be. We may be mistaken, but insofar as speech and language carry any sort of meaning, our use of pronouns is a way of speaking truth or falsehood. Massaging this, as Greear and Sprinkle do when they suggest that we should not “invest too much into language– ‘oh, I am lying’ You can be clear in other ways”, is exactly the kind of equivocating on the truth the ninth commandment forbids. Attempting to sidestep the issue by using inventive, non-binary and transgender pronouns (e.g. ze/hir, ze/zir, xe/xyr, etc.) similarly equivocates; yes, a man preferring these pronouns is not employing feminine alternatives, but is still using language to obfuscate that he is a male.
Then to put it bluntly: Intentionally using pronouns that reflect someone’s gender identity, while not corresponding to their sex, is deceit. It is using speech to speak something that is not the truth. Someone who is biologically male but who identities as a woman is not a woman, and to call them a woman, address him as “ma’am”, or use her/she of him, is false. To address someone by a pronoun that does not correspond to their sex is to call good (what God has designed in creating them) evil (by falsely calling them what they are not).
Now, the ninth commandment also forbids “overbearing the truth” and “speaking the truth unseasonably”. Obedience in applying God’s law requires wisdom, and understanding the right timing and manner of speaking the truth is an important aspect of speaking. For example, if a transgender teenager visited my church I would not insist on calling them by a particular pronoun. And this should be easy, since the only pronoun a person speaking English uses when addressing someone directly is the genderless, second-person “you”. There is also no reason why you cannot call someone by their first name rather than by their preferred pronouns. Here, charity in truth-speaking means averting overbearance by not using pronouns the visitor rejects.
Once a relationship is established the “seasonableness” of the timing in speaking about gender conformity changes. Speaking the truth in love is never about avoiding the truth so as to not alienate (which is really what Greear/Sprinkles are proposing in their promotion of gender hospitality), but speaking the truth so as to promote the good of your neighbor by loving them as yourself by pointing them to God. Promoting the truth between you and your transgender neighbor requires both the refusal to use inaccurate pronouns on the one hand, and kindly speaking in relationship about why on the other The awkwardness of wanting to avoid offending someone who is transgender is not a legitimate obligation on me to violate God’s law by using pronouns that fail to accurately represent their sex. Calling someone by their preferred pronoun out of respect for them is to choose respect for the creature over the creator. The antithesis between the lie of sin and the truth of God does not permit choosing sin “out of respect.”
The ninth commandment forbids flattery, which is speaking well of someone, to them, untruthfully. Utilizing someone’s preferred pronouns in contradiction of their sex is an endorsement of their false view of themselves, and flatteringly affirms them in their untruth. This is unloving. It is not charitable or hospitable, because rather than promoting the truth between neighbors, it encourages the embrace of sin.
This issue is becoming massively important and will leave no arena untouched. People have lost their jobs in the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia for “mis-gendering” (i.e. not using someone’s preferred pronouns). At the request of some teachers in my church, I spoke to my (quiet, socially conservative) area’s school district superintendent who informed me that teachers would be required to use a student’s preferred pronouns regardless of the student’s biological sex or teacher’s conviction. He demurred about whether the teacher would lose their job for non-compliance.
This is an issue of grave social importance, because all people in their speech to weigh in about what reality is:
What is at stake here is much more than the right of an individual to free self-expression or an employer’s freedom of religion to hold and act on such ‘stereotypes.’ Since everyone in the workplace of that individual employee will be asked to accept that he is “a woman,” what is at stake is whether or not their—and, by extension, every person’s—pre-ideological, innate knowledge of oneself as a boy or girl, imbibed quite literally at the maternal breast, will be for all practical and public purposes officially overruled as false, a ‘stereotype.’
Conversely, what is at stake is whether or not the alternative will be for all public and practical purposes officially true: namely, that everyone’s ‘identity’ is arbitrarily and accidentally related to his or her body—as ghost to machine—even if the two are ‘aligned’ in the majority of cases, as the fashionable prefix ‘cis’ means to suggest.
To call people by gendered pronouns that do not reflect their sex is deny reality, and is not a faithful option for Christians. For the government (or employers) to mandate using someone’s preferred pronouns is to outlaw reality and compel speech from speakers. While the option of simply using the person’s name, or the genderless second-person pronoun “you”, remains, already some organizations are requiring that preferred pronouns be expressly used rather than avoided altogether.
What this inevitably means is that Christians will be forced between the options of using transgender pronouns and keeping their jobs. To put on a fine point on it, there is a time coming when Christians will need to choose between obeying God or losing their livelihood. WLC 105 teaches that the first commandment (You shall have no other gods before me) prohibits “making men the lords of our faith and conscience; slighting and despising God and his commands.” And this is what is truly at stake in the debate over transgender pronouns: does the church subject its conscience to the fads of men, or does it submit to the law of its God?