Christians and gender neutral pronouns

October 16th, 2019

Learning new things

Several years ago, I was catching up with a friend whose son was attending a college in the San Francisco Bay area. My friend mentioned that in her son’s dormitory, all of the students were asked to put their gender pronoun preference on their door at the beginning of the semester. After some confusion on my part, she explained that this was an increasingly common trend at colleges so that resident advisors and other students would use the proper term for someone who did not identify in conventional male or female ways. At the time this seemed like an odd “West Coast” thing to me, and I figured it was a passing fad. Honestly, the thought of having to learn the specifics of yet another new cultural change made me tired.

Fast forward a few years, and my college-aged daughter was telling me about her phone interview for an internship in Washington, D.C. She attends a comparatively conservative university in Texas, where gender pronoun preferences aren’t widely discussed. She said the first question the interviewer asked her was, “What pronouns do you prefer?” She told me, “Thank goodness I knew what the interviewer meant by that question, so I didn’t embarrass myself. I quickly answered ‘she/her’.” She got the internship and almost everyone she worked with puts their preferred pronouns at the end of their email signatures.

If you don’t know what gender neutral pronouns are, or if you don’t know anyone who goes by such pronouns, you are not alone. According to a recent study by the Pew Research Center, only 22% of U.S. adults have heard a lot about the use of gender-neutral pronouns, while 38% have heard a little, and 39% have heard nothing at all. Only one-in-five Americans say they personally know someone who goes by a pronoun other than “he” or “she.” Unsurprisingly, younger adults are more likely to know someone who goes by a pronoun such as “they” instead of “he” or “she.” About one-third of Americans ages 18 to 29 know someone who prefers being referred to by a gender-neutral pronoun, compared to only 8% of those over 65.

The basics on gender neutral pronouns

In 2017, Time did a cover story titled “Beyond He or She: How a new generation is redefining the meaning of gender.” In a summary of the story, Time writer Katy Steinmetz says that a growing number of millennials don’t see gender as either this or that, and instead see gender identity as a spectrum. “This variety of identities is something that people are seeing reflected in the culture at large. Facebook, with its 1 billion users, has about 60 options for users’ gender,” writes Steinmetz.

Confused? That is understandable. However, learning a few terms will help you navigate this discussion. First, gender identity is different than sexual orientation. According to the Human Rights Campaign, gender identity is “the innermost concept of self as male, female, a blend of both or neither.” Sexual orientation is to whom you are romantically attracted, and can’t be predicted by gender identity. Some common terms you might hear or read to describe people who don’t identify with being put in traditional male or female categories are gender neutral, non-binary, gender nonconforming, agender and gender fluid. Transgender refers to someone whose identity does not correspond to their assigned sex at birth and cisgender refers to someone who does identify with their birth sex.

Consider this fact about the English language. First person pronouns (I/me for singular or we/us for plural), and second person pronouns (you for both singular and plural) are already gender neutral. It’s only the third person pronoun, in the singular use, that is gender-specific (she/her or he/him) as third person plural pronouns are also neutral (they/them). If you want to be respectful toward someone who does not identify with traditional gender categories, you can either ask them how they want to be referred to (a third person reference), or instead just use their name without pronouns. As mentioned previously, there are numerous options for gender terms, but the most common are he/him, she/her, they/them (used as singular pronouns) and ze/hir.

Love in action and speech

Those who educate others on gender identity issues remind us that one’s gender is very important to a person’s self-esteem and affects how one operates in society. Because you cannot always visually tell if someone is cisgender, transgender or non-binary, advocates insist that asking for a person’s pronouns is respectful and helps alleviate stress for that person in social situations.

In the article “Speaking Truth in Love: Should Christians Use Gender-Neutral Pronouns?” posted on The Gospel Coalition Canada’s website, Pastor Steven D. West raises some important questions. He recognizes that many Christians interpret the Bible to say that God created humans either male or female, and to engage in gender-neutral language is disregarding God’s word. In response, West suggests that being respectful of a friend’s gender-neutral pronoun request is a way to be Christ to that person. “Does a Christian have the liberty to discern which approach is most likely to give opportunities for the gospel to gain an audience?” asks West. “If people we meet in the transgendered community are convinced that Christians are hate-filled bigots, homophobic and transphobic, do we need to take our stand immediately on the issue of gender-neutral pronouns, or is that a secondary issue on which we can be flexible, so that we have more opportunity to share the gospel?”


Language in the Bible

Gender-inclusive language is different than gender-neutral language. An example of gender-inclusive language would be something like replacing “peace for all mankind” with “peace for all humankind.” This language includes people of all genders. An example of gender-neutral language would be saying “a doctor must listen to their patients” rather than “his patients.” This acknowledges that not all doctors are male.

There are several gender-inclusive (or egalitarian) Bible translations available that share the the goal of reducing male-dominate language. While the topic of gender-neutral pronouns is different, a non-binary person might still be more comfortable reading an inclusive translation.

For example, Genesis 1:27 in the New International Version reads, “So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them…” while the Common English Bible reads, “God created humanity in God’s own image, in the divine image of God created them…” Both versions, however, note that God created male and female.

Writing to the Galatians, Paul makes it clear that Jewish identity markers (circumcision, eating kosher, observing the Sabbath) dissipate under the realm of the Spirit. The law had a purpose, but now through faith in Jesus we all belong to Christ. In turn, our identity is now as children of God. “There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free; nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus,” Paul writes in Galatians 3:28.


Merriam-Webster weighs in

For those of us who write and edit, the thought of using they to refer to just one person makes our red pencils twitch a bit. We’ve been trained that they is a plural pronoun. For example, the sentence “Ask each student what they want for lunch” is grammatically incorrect, and instead should read, “Ask each student what he or she wants for lunch.”

However, the Merriam-Webster dictionary now includes the following as one definition of they: “used to refer to a single person whose gender identity is non-binary.” An article on the Merriam-Webster website explains that the use of they as singular dates back to the 1300s. The article states, “People have used singular 'they' to describe someone whose gender is unknown for a long time, but the non-binary use of 'they' is relatively new.”

Merriam-Webster reminds readers that you has been used as a singular pronoun for years, although it was originally a plural pronoun. As a Texan, I was in high school before I knew that you could be plural. That’s why we often say “we welcome y’all” instead “we welcome you” because to our ears it sounds strange to use “you” to refer to more than one person! Language changes as culture changes and the more we hear or read a different use of a word, the easier it is to adapt to the change.

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