The Pronouns of the Gospel
As our society has come to view gender as a less-than-static social construct, there has been some wrestling over what to do about our personal pronouns. On the face of it, it might seem simple. A man who begins to identify as a woman simply becomes “she.”
But how do you refer to them when you are discussing something in their pre-transition past? Do you look at a picture of a young boy who grew up to identify as a woman and say, “She loved that family trip to Disney World”?
The answer, according to the Civilities column in The Washington Post, is “yes.” To refer to someone in the past using their old name and/or gendered pronoun is called “dead naming” and is to be avoided. When you see a picture of the 1976 Olympic Decathalon champion, you ought to say “Caitlin Jenner was the winner. She went on to be on a Wheaties box.”
But there are other complications. What about people who do not identify as any gender? Or people who identify as something other than “male” or “female”? What pronouns do we use to refer to them? “It” seems unkind. Some suggest that a “they” of singular reference could work, others have invented options like “ze” or “ne.”
As Christians, we may not be surfing the waters of current gender theory and practice. In fact, we should have some pretty strong objections to these developments. But we do know the importance of the pronouns we use, not just for what they say about our gender, but what they say about who we are and where we belong.
The Jewish philosopher Martin Buber made much of pronouns, noting that we tend to relate to other people as either a “he/she/it” or a “thou.” And while I’m not completely in the tank for 20th century Jewish mystical philosophy, I agree that there is a lot of relational truth bound up in our pronouns.
PRONOUNS IN THE CHURCH
As a pastor, I’ve noticed that when a gospel culture begins to take root in a church, it changes the pronouns that we use. Let me explain: Sometimes a church member will come up to me and ask something like, “What are you doing about __________?” Or, “What is the church’s position on ___________?” Or “What’s your vision for ___________?” You can fill in almost any issue: abortion, world missions, church growth, racial reconciliation, reaching the community with the gospel, etc.
Those questions are all fine and good, as far as they go. But the problem is that the speaker is conceiving of himself or herself as standing apart from the identity of the church, as if they themselves are not a part of the congregation’s life, beliefs, plans, and vision.
But when the gospel transforms the way they understand the amazing truth that “we who are many are one body” (1 Cor. 10:17), it inevitably shows up in the pronouns. As a person begins to understand what it means to be part of a church, the “you” and “they” turns to a “we” and “us.”
The gospel creates unity in a church. I trust that’s not a very controversial thing to say; happily, our day has seen all sorts of books and articles that argue for and unpack that biblical truth. The logic is inescapable—if we’re the people who are reconciled to God, that reconciliation must reveal itself in our relationships in the church. A right standing with God precedes and necessitates a right standing with each other. The love of God compels us to love one another.
So, my point is simple: make your unity clear in the way you speak. Next time you’re talking about your church, watch your pronouns!