Professor Jordan Peterson at the University of Toronto has been at the center of a swirling controversy that has garnered international attention, made him a famous figure in academic social media, and brought down letters of rebuke from the university that employs him. Peterson’s offense: he has insisted that he has the right to use the pronouns “he” and “she” instead of gender-neutral pronouns like “ze” and “zir,” or “they.” (“Ze” and “zir” are newly invented words for the expression of gender in the transgender community.)
Many are insisting that a failure to use gender-neutral pronouns is discriminatory, constitutes hate-speech, and can lead to conviction before a human rights tribunal. Others—like Professor Peterson—are saying that it is a violation of freedom of thought and speech to be forced into using the favored pronouns of the ideological left. This is a multifaceted issue, touching on linguistics, ethics, politics, freedoms, and the law. And, be assured, it is not going to simply disappear.
From a Christian perspective, we certainly do not want to dishonor God in anything that we say. We also, however, want to be respectful and loving in our attitudes and words to our neighbors. If a believer has a friend, co-worker, or family member who identifies as transgendered—and who requests to be referred to by gender-neutral pronouns—how should the believer address them? How do we speak the truth in love in such a situation? How do we show our love for the person? How do we show our love for God? How then should a Christian talk?
Gender-Inclusive and Gender-Neutral Are Not Identical
If we are going to love God and love our neighbor in light of this particular issue, we need to understand the basics of gender-neutral pronouns. Using gender-neutral pronouns is not the same as using gender-inclusive language. In contemporary English, gender-inclusivity is normative. So instead of saying, “When a doctor goes about his rounds,” in contemporary English we say, “When a doctor goes about their rounds.” Instead of saying, “We need peace for every man,” the normative expression would be, “We need peace for everybody [or every person, or every human being].”
Gender-inclusivity does not specify a male or female gender when the class being referred to is not gender-specific. Since both men and women can be doctors, a gender-inclusive word is preferred when referring to doctors as a generic category. This widely accepted convention, however, is not what the gender-neutral pronoun debate is about.
The gender-neutral pronoun debate is about the correct pronouns to use when speaking about a particular person. If my doctor is a woman—which she is—I rightly say, “When my doctor goes about her rounds.” I use a gender-specific pronoun when I’m referring to a particular person. You (gender-inclusive!) may notice that in my example I used the gender-specific pronoun “she” in the statement inside of the long dashes (“—which she is—”); we simply use gender-specific pronouns all the time. For many, it is extremely difficult to understand how such pronoun usage can be termed discriminatory hate speech.
Gender-Neutral Pronouns and Transgender Advocacy
The issue of gender pronouns has become controversial because some people in the transgender community (as well as transgender advocates) want people who self-identify as transgendered to be called by their gender pronouns of choice.
So if someone is biologically and genetically of the masculine sex, but identifies their gender as female, transgender advocates are insisting that people must refer to them as “she.” Some are suggesting that it is a hate crime to refer to such a person as “he,” since it is an attack on their person and identity. Biological sex, then, is considered irrelevant. We must refer to someone on the basis of their preferred pronouns. This extends to newly invented gender-neutral pronouns like “ze” or “zir” (and others).
It is this issue that has caused Professor Peterson to draw the line. He regards it is a freedom of speech issue, and does not believe that it is acceptable for a left-wing ideology to control which pronouns we use (particularly when it is overturning the entire history of accepted pronoun usage in favor of a recently made-up vocabulary). English pronouns have always been tied to biological sex—for the first time in history, some are trying to shift them away from identifiable sex, tying them to a person’s self-identified gender. Failure to do so, in the eyes of some, is discriminatory and violates human rights.
There are many things that could be said under this heading. Transgender advocates are insisting that the old binary of male/female needs to be rejected. But once you reject the binary, how many genders are there? How many gender pronouns do we need? There are now literally dozens and dozens of identified genders.
Some reject the concept of gender altogether. Some say their gender is perfectly unique and refuse to be classified with anyone else. (If everyone did this we would need to have as many different pronouns as the number of people on earth; good luck remembering all of those words). Some say that they are gender fluid, meaning that they may identify as male this morning, female at lunch, genderless in the afternoon, and as equally male and female in the evening.
Is one responsible to know how such a person is self-identifying at any one moment, and infallibly discern which set of pronouns to use from one minute to the next? Even dropping every gender-specific pronoun out of the English language can’t solve this problem, because someone can say that they are not comfortable being referred to by gender-neutral pronouns, and that gender-neutral pronouns deny their unique gender, with the result that they are the victims of discrimination.
Lee Harrington identifies as transgendered and has written a book (Traversing Gender: Understanding Transgender Realities), which advocates for the transgender community. One of the fascinating features of this book is that Harrington apologizes every few pages for the terms being used to describe transgendered people, because accepted vocabulary is shifting so quickly, no matter what you say and what terms you use, you’re offending someone! If the standard is that we are going to have to speak in such a way that nobody is offended, speech will be impossible.
Should Christians Refuse to Use Gender-Neutral Pronouns?
I certainly do not believe that Christians—or anyone else—should be coerced into using gender-neutral pronouns. I think that we are seeing an abuse of power by people who support an extreme left-wing ideology. Christians need to speak up and take a stand for biblical morality, God’s design in creation, freedom in society, and the danger of Orwellian thought-police using human rights’ tribunals to force people to use invented words.
But is our freedom the most important thing? Christians should have the liberty not to use gender-neutral pronouns, but do Christians ever have the liberty to use them? Could there ever be a scenario in which a Christian could choose to use gender-neutral pronouns in order to provide the best witness for Jesus Christ? Although every Christian needs to walk faithfully in the Spirit and God’s Word, Christians sometimes find that their consciences do not agree with the consciences of other brothers and sisters. They may also disagree on what the most loving course of action is in a given set of circumstances.
Imagine that a Christian meets a person who identifies as transgendered. They become friends, and as their friendship grows the Christian is introduced to a circle of people, all of whom self-identify as transgendered, and all of whom wish to be referred to with the gender-neutral pronoun “ze.” Does a Christian have the liberty to say, “I truly want to respect you, but I also need to honor my God. I believe that God created people as either male or female, and that gender-specificity is part of the created order. I will be as respectful of you as I can, but I’m asking you to also respect my religious beliefs and freedoms. I don’t believe that I can refer to you with gender-neutral pronouns and be faithful to God.”
I assume—forgiving the stilted speech—that most believers would think a Christian has every right to say such a thing. But does a Christian have the liberty to say, “I’m a Christian, and I believe that God created people as either male or female. I need to honor God. But I’m willing to honor your wishes in regards to being called ‘ze’, because I want to have an ongoing relationship with you and I want to be able to tell you more about the love of God in Jesus Christ.”
Does a Christian have the liberty to discern which approach is most likely to give opportunities for the gospel to gain an audience? 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? Can different Christians honor God by taking different stances? These are just a few of the issues that we need to think through, because the worldview and ideological clash in our society is not—barring a miracle of awakening and revival—going to get better before it gets worse. But whatever our answer, it must be based on speaking truth out of love for God and love for our neighbor.