As it has become increasingly customary for a person to announce their preferred gender pronouns in both social and professional settings, many Christians have begun to grapple with how to respond to a gender ideology with which they do not agree. In the midst of that, some have called for pronoun hospitality.
Simply put, pronoun hospitality is the idea that Christians should refer to others by their preferred pronouns, whether or not those preferences align with the individual’s biological sex. In some cases, this would mean referring to a trans person by pronouns opposite of their biological sex, and for nonbinary people, referring to them by gender neutral pronouns, such as they and them.
For faithful Christians on either side of the pronoun hospitality debate, they have much they would agree on. For instance, they would all agree that when we look at the biblical text, no author in scripture gives any indication that gender is anything other than binary, or that it is anything other than synonymous with a person’s biological sex.
Further, Christians can agree that this conception of gender has been the unbroken tradition held almost universally by every stripe of Christian since the beginning of the church two millennia ago, and has only been challenged on a large scale in very recent times.
Faithful Christians would also agree that there exist instances where biological factors play into the gender identity conversation. Specifically, there are cases in which a child is born with what is called “ambiguous genitalia,” a condition which may require surgery and could blur the line of a child’s God-given, biological sex. An extra measure of care and empathy is required in such instances. Nevertheless, these cases only occur in roughly a tenth of a percent of births and do not play a large factor in the broader ideological conversation surrounding gender identity.
Christians seeking to be faithful would further agree that when it comes to speaking about gender identity, we have an obligation to not simply change our understanding of sex and gender with the spirit of our age. Rather, we must affirm and hold fast only to what is true.
Despite agreement among most Christians in these areas, sharp debate exists as to whether Christians ought to practice pronoun hospitality out of deference and respect for others, or if we are morally obligated to only call people by their biologically accurate pronouns.
Below, I will attempt to summarize the arguments of the opposing views as charitably as I can.
The Case Against Pronoun Hospitality
The case against pronoun hospitality rests on the importance of truth-telling. Simply put, many Christians believe calling someone by pronouns that do not align with their biological reality fails to tell the truth.
Further, in failing to tell a person the truth by referring to them by biologically inaccurate pronouns, it could be argued that we have also failed to fully love them. After all, “Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth” (1 Corinthians 13:6). Acknowledging a person’s preferred pronouns may convey an implicit affirmation of a gender identity that does not align with that person’s God-given biology and gender.
In line with this view, pastor and theologian Denny Burk has argued that while Christians are called to not unnecessarily provoke conflict or offense, truth-telling is paramount.
“We are not allowed [to] speak in ways that are fundamentally dishonest and that undermine the truth of God’s word about how he made us and the world,” Burk has written. “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.”
Even more than an individual commitment to truth, those who argue against pronoun hospitality would say that by using preferred pronouns rather than biological pronouns, the Church is ceding the truth collectively, failing in its calling to be set apart from the world in favor of cultural acceptance.
Language matters. And to those against pronoun hospitality, capitulating on language cannot be parsed out from capitulating on the truth itself.
In this view, Christians ought to put their stake in the ground on pronouns, even if it means sacrificing cultural influence, access, or even their jobs and livelihoods. Because if Christians say that we stand for the truth, then we need to be willing to sacrifice for the truth, regardless of the cost, in order that others might know the truth and come to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ.
The Case For Pronoun Hospitality
Conversely, those who advocate for pronoun hospitality would argue that using someone’s preferred pronouns does not constitute a violation of truth or personal integrity. Rather, it indicates a willingness to make accommodations for someone whose worldview is different from our own.
For example, author and theologian Gregory Coles, who is credited with coining the term “pronoun hospitality,” has argued that language is a shared social space. And while it is true that words matter, the meaning of those words isn’t always agreed upon by everybody. In the case of pronouns, someone with a Christian worldview believes that pronouns are a reflection of a person’s biological reality, but someone with a differing worldview may believe that pronouns are a reflection of a person’s self-identified internal reality.
In fact, the latter understanding of pronouns, while not aligned with the Christian worldview, has become the prevalent understanding in the broader culture. Therefore, Coles and others argue that the onus is on Christians to use language the culture will understand rather than the reverse.
“We don’t need to believe that this definition of pronoun gender is ideal in order to recognize that it is indeed a prevalent meaning of pronoun gender today,” Coles has written.
Therefore, for the sake of relationships and gaining an audience with people who have divergent pronoun preferences, it has been argued that practicing pronoun hospitality is not a matter of capitulation, but rather missional verve.
After all, Christians are called to “become all things to all people, that by all means” we might save some (1 Corinthians 9:22).
Evaluating the Strength of These Arguments
While I can certainly appreciate the reticence of some to use language that accommodates someone’s gender identity, I think there are well reasoned arguments for pronoun hospitality.
I don’t find every argument incredibly well reasoned, however. For example, Coles further states his case for practicing pronoun hospitality by arguing that doing so is akin to what the apostle Paul did in his sermon to the Athenians as recorded in Acts 17.
In that sermon, Paul quotes Greek philosophers Epimenides and Aratus, saying, “God [created humanity] so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring’” (Acts 17:27-28).
These quotes, pulled from the ancient writings Cretica and Phaenomena respectively, use the pronoun “he” to refer to Zeus, king of the Greek pantheon. In quoting these philosophers, Paul radically reappropriates their words and applies them to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Therefore, by the same principle, Coles argues, we can use pronouns in a way the surrounding culture will accept but radically reinterpret them according to a Christian worldview.
Where this argument seems to fall short is that when Christians use a person’s preferred pronouns, it doesn’t seem to be for the purpose of reinterpreting them in order to present the gospel message in that same conversation. We are simply calling them what they want to be called.
Nevertheless, Coles’ point is well taken in that by accommodating someone’s preferred pronouns, we leave open the door to have influence in their lives that might have not otherwise been afforded to us—influence that could lead to meaningful conversations not only about gender ideology, but about the good news of Jesus.
Furthermore, a careful reading of Acts and the Gospel accounts will reveal that neither Paul nor Jesus seemed to feel particularly compelled to divulge their entire theological system or every point of disagreement with their hearers upon first meeting them. The starting point of Paul’s preaching differed drastically from town to town. And let us not forget how often Jesus was maligned by the Pharisees for spending his time with tax collectors and prostitutes, dining and communing with them rather than immediately condemning and ostracizing them.
Jesus was never pro-prostitution or morally lax when it came to extorting your fellow countrymen out of their hard earned living. In fact, he had challenging conversations with a number of these individuals. Only, Jesus led with love for those outside the fringes of his religious community, meeting them exactly where they were.
What I Practice
All this to be said, so long as we are motivated by love of others rather than fear of being canceled, I have found it appropriate to address and refer to people according to their preferred pronouns. Though, I would not be so bold as to prescribe this practice for every Christian, thereby “binding their conscience” on a matter that is very much in dispute. Further, I concede that there are certain contexts in which a universal application of pronoun hospitality would not be appropriate.
Be that as it may, I live in a context where a majority of my unbelieving friends and acquaintances feel strongly that people ought to have the right to be referred to by the pronouns of their choosing. They see it as a matter of common decency. And while I have a different understanding of the meaning contained in those pronouns, the nuance and care bound up in my beliefs will never be conveyed in my simply using a pronoun that someone feels misrepresents them or others.
I would rather have the opportunity to further a relationship than demand that someone use words according to my definitions, thereby potentially surrendering the relationship entirely.
In the context of those relationships, I may find an opportunity to share my view. And depending on the quality of the friendship, I believe I could express myself clearly and carefully such that I could reasonably expect to still have a relationship with the person following the conversation—even if they disagreed with what I said in the strongest terms.
I have actually found that when these types of difficult conversations come within the context of a relationship wherein the other person has a genuine sense that I will regard them kindly regardless of their ideologies, I actually have the freedom to speak more boldly and candidly.
The right to this kind of candor is hard earned, easily lost, and must be handled with care. It must be cultivated over the course of a friendship that feels safe. And, in most cases within my cultural context, I don’t think that anything other than pronoun hospitality enables me to achieve the level of relational safety required to broach the subject of gender identity and openly disagree.
Nevertheless, even more than telling someone what I believe about gender identity, I want to prioritize telling them what I believe about Jesus. I believe that Jesus came to redeem a broken and sinful world, save broken and sinful people, and have his will be done on earth as it is in heaven. And I’ll use whatever pronouns I have to in order to get that message across.