Shua Wilmot and Raegan Zelaya worked in residence life at Houghton University, a Christian school in upstate New York. Even though it conflicted with university policy, they listed their pronouns in their email signatures to help students identify their genders, they said, given their atypical names. When the university requested they remove their pronouns earlier this year, Wilmot and Zelaya refused. They were fired.

“My name is Shua. It’s an unusual name. And it ends with a vowel, a, that is traditionally feminine in many languages,” Wilmot, whose full first name is Joshua, said in a YouTube interview. “If you get an email from me and you don’t know who I am, you might not know how to gender me.”

Zelaya added in the same interview that she felt removing her pronouns from her email signature would imply that “the students who felt safe by me doing that, the students that felt seen by me doing that” weren’t worth “taking this risk and this stance.”

Furthermore, as Wilmot told ABC News, his views regarding gender and identity do not fully align with the theology of the Wesleyan Church, the sponsoring denomination of Houghton University.

The university denied in statements to the press that anyone was fired solely over pronoun usage, adding that its policy required any “extraneous items” be removed from email signatures, including Scripture references.

Houghton president Wayne D. Lewis Jr. told CT, “The ideas that one’s pronouns are preferred, subject to change, and may be inconsistent with one’s biological sex are inconsistent with the beliefs of Houghton University. … We believe the assignment of one’s sex and gender is a divine prerogative. We require that employees of the university be respectful of the university’s beliefs and positions.”

Christian colleges and their employees are not the only ones confronting changing institutional norms around pronoun usage. Specifying personal pronouns is increasingly common during introductions and in correspondence at workplaces, in classrooms, and in organized social settings. In such contexts, evangelical Christians often face the opposite pressure of the former Houghton staff: being expected or required to provide or use personal pronouns against their own convictions.

While some evangelical Christians don’t mind identifying their pronouns, others believe that doing so—or referring to someone by a pronoun that doesn’t match their birth sex—makes inherent ontological claims that should not be glossed over.

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“We’ve reduced this giant conversation, and it’s become so culturally salient that it raises the whole debate of a signature line,” said Mark Yarhouse, a psychologist and head of the Sexual and Gender Identity Institute at Wheaton College. In other words, salutations and autographs, which for generations were mere formalities, can now feel like a litmus test.

The discussion over pronouns goes beyond “virtue signaling” or “political correctness.” Christians who have thought deeply about this issue understand the role of language in shaping reality and thought and believe it’s central in how we treat people as image-bearers of worth and value.

“Lexicological change won’t happen overnight,” a New York Times columnist wrote in 2016 about the increase of gender-neutral pronouns such as they.

And yet in a way, it has.

It’s taken less than a decade for gender-neutral and alternative pronoun usage to shift from a theoretical discussion to the norm in many places of employment, academia, and much of the media.

In 2014, Facebook rolled out 50 new gender identity options for users. Five years later, Merriam-Webster declared the singular pronoun they its word of the year, and public figures like some Democratic presidential candidates signaled their support by adding their pronouns to their social media profiles leading up to the 2020 election.

Pronouns have become a political land mine within broader transgender debates, from women’s sports to trans representation in marketing. Multiple lawsuits have been filed in recent years over individuals who refused to use a transgender person’s pronouns. And in the first quarter of 2023 alone, 24 US states introduced legislation to regulate pronoun usage in schools.

Some employers are trying to keep up. “Using a person’s correct pronouns provides gender affirmation, signals mutual respect, and creates a more welcoming and tolerant environment,” a National Institutes of Health guide for gender pronouns in the workplace states. “Intentional refusal to use someone’s correct pronouns is equivalent to harassment and a violation of one’s civil rights.”

Many companies advise employees to declare their pronouns in business communications. “Private enterprises are often quicker than governments to recognize that sensitivity to gender issues may be good for business,” linguist Dennis Baron writes in What’s Your Pronoun?: Beyond He and She.

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The Boston-based tech company HubSpot, for example, offers its employees a guide to pronoun usage in online correspondence. “Adding pronouns to email signatures or online profiles,” it says, “lets people communicate their gender identity, which is how they see themselves and want to be seen. This may differ from a person’s gender expression, which is the gender they seem to be based on appearances.”

The institutional push for pronoun identification seemingly reflects the increasing number of people who use either nonbinary pronouns or a pronoun different from their birth sex. Pew Research Center reported in 2022 that 1.6 percent of all US adults said their gender is different than their birth sex—and 5 percent of adults under the age of 30 identify as nonbinary or transgender.

One in ten Americans have a close personal relationship with someone who is transgender, and the same percentage have a close friendship with someone who uses gender neutral pronouns, according to the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI). Using gender-neutral pronouns in the workplace and marketplace “reduces mental biases” toward women and the LGBT community, one 2019 study found.

But other studies suggest the growing emphasis on pronouns has perhaps strengthened traditional views on gender. According to a spring 2023 PRRI study, more Americans believe in a gender binary now than two years ago (increasing from 59 percent to 65 percent). Among religious Americans, 92 percent of white evangelical Protestants, 81 percent of Hispanic Protestants, and 71 percent of Black Protestants agreed. A poll from NPR, PBS, and Marist found in June 2023 that a similar percentage (61 percent) of Americans believe gender is defined by the person’s sex at birth, and that belief has significantly grown in the past year.

Around 40 percent of Americans, and a bit less than 80 percent of evangelicals, told PRRI they would be uncomfortable if a friend told them that they used gender-neutral pronouns or pronouns that didn’t match their appearance.

While businesses attempt to be inclusive toward a broader workforce, pushing employees to identify their pronouns can sometimes have the opposite effect.

One professor argued in an op-ed for Inside Higher Ed that directly asking someone for their pronouns can cause unnecessary pain for the very people it is meant to recognize. And a sales employee wrote to a New York Times advice columnist in 2021 worried about losing customers by including his pronouns in his emails. The Times columnist was also concerned, but for a different reason: “For trans or nonbinary people who aren’t ready to come out … this policy is problematic. It pressures people to either out themselves before they’re comfortable or lie.”

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Words matter.

“Language is a profound tool. It’s how we access and construct reality,” said Abigail Favale, a Catholic scholar at the University of Notre Dame and the author of The Genesis of Gender: A Christian Theory. “Postmodernism and gender theory recognize the power language has in shaping human perception.”

The stakes around language and gender are high. Some people argue that to not use their self-identified pronouns is to erase their existence. For them, pronouns are not just “preferred”—they are in fact the most accurate. And when mental health and suicidality are on the line, some advocates like the Minnesota Department of Health say that “using a person’s correct pronouns saves lives.”

Today, “gender identities are not grounded in the reality of bodily sex; they are grounded in language,” Favale said. “I think that’s why there’s such a profound focus on words.” But Favale says that postmodernism and gender theory go too far in creating reality out of words—only God can do that (Gen. 1; John 1:1).

The first two chapters of Genesis ground human identity in relationship to God and to each other, argues Katie McCoy, author of To Be a Woman: The Confusion Over Female Identity and How Christians Can Respond. Genesis 1 refers to the creation of a male (zakar) and a female (nequeba)—the biological terms for the created man and woman.

But in Genesis 2, McCoy argues, the creation story is much more relational. Rather than male and female, this chapter refers to man (ish) and woman (ishah)—gendered terms—as they relate in their natures to one another. Even the way that God names Adam and Adam names his wife is according to their natures (Gen. 2:7; 2:23).

“In Genesis 1 and 2 we see the created intent that there would be harmony between biological sex and gender identity. Gender is something that is theologically bestowed and not socially constructed,” McCoy said. But today, “our words create our identities rather than reflect them.”

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Earlier this year, Atlantic journalist George Packer argued against what he called “equity language” and the often unreasonable pressure it puts on the culture. It is polite and dignifying to “address people as they request,” Packer wrote, but equity language isn’t organic; it’s being “handed down in communiqués written by obscure ‘experts’ who purport to speak for vaguely defined ‘communities,’ remaining unanswerable to a public that’s being morally coerced.” New language makes ideological claims, he wrote. “If you accept the change—as, in certain contexts, you’ll surely feel you must—then you also acquiesce in the argument.”

Many evangelical leaders are realizing that they and their congregations are not equipped to respond to the evolving linguistic and social norms. Travis Rymer, a pastor in Providence, Rhode Island, was one of them. “I went into [studying pronouns] wondering why anyone would be consumed by this topic, and then I realized this is a bigger philosophical and ideological thing than I realized,” he said.

Rymer, who teaches on gender ideology at his own church and other local churches, views it as a sort of secular religious system that aims to dismantle the binary of male and female. To use preferred pronouns without further honest conversation is not only to acquiesce to a belief system that is biblically unfaithful but also to promote it, Rymer says. He encourages his congregants to compassionately decline to offer their own pronouns in a work or educational setting or to use others’ self-identified pronouns. Not only is this an act of faithfulness toward Scripture; it is also an act of love, he says.

“I see this as a creation issue and a gospel issue,” Rymer said. “I believe God’s creation is good and designed for human flourishing. My call to love my neighbor is that I want the best for them.”

Some evangelicals who write on sexuality, such as Rosaria Butterfield and New Testament scholar Robert Gagnon, have gone so far as to say that using pronouns that don’t match a person’s biological sex is a sin—it is bearing false witness and an affront to the Creation mandate. Butterfield, a former English and women’s studies professor, calls their use the “Achans in the camp of broad evangelicalism” (referencing Joshua 7), and Gagnon cites Paul’s warning to those who eat the meat sacrificed to idols (1 Cor. 8–10).

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“Paul’s remarks clearly do not extend to participating in another’s self-deception in matters abhorrent to God, such as idolatry, even when one recognizes the idolatry to be self-deception,” Gagnon wrote on Facebook, adding that he does not see this as “an agree-to-disagree issue.”

Others, like Robert Smith, an ethics lecturer at Sydney Missionary and Bible College and the author of How Should We Think About Gender and Identity?, prefers the pathway of avoidance rather than what he sees as compliance or resistance to using self-identified pronouns, especially as the cultural expectations, and sometimes people’s pronouns, can quickly change and “new offenses are being created.”

Using someone’s name is often the easiest way forward, in order to build a relationship and still hold to personal conviction. “Scripture tells us, ‘Do not lie to one another’ (Col. 3) but also ‘Do all you can not to cause offense to others’ (1 Cor. 10), so we want to avoid both of those pitfalls,” he said. “That pushes me to a path of avoidance.”

The apostle John wrote three letters during a period when Gnosticism, the heresy that salvation could be found in escaping the physical body, was prevalent in the early church. “Dear children,” he writes, “let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth” (1 John 3:18).

He was not saying that words do not matter, but rather the opposite: that our sincerity of love must be shown in our whole lives through obedience and walking in love (2 John 6). John demonstrates this even through his tender parting words of his final letter: “Greet the friends there by name” (3 John 15).

As the early church fathers dealt with Gnosticism, McCoy believes, the Western church can and should think deeply and speak boldly about the value of our bodies—and that extends to how we talk about them. This is one reason McCoy thinks the pronoun conversation is a defining one for the church. “Our embodied God was born, died, raised, and is physically going to resurrect us,” McCoy said. “At the end of history is physically resurrected people brought into heaven by our physically resurrected Lord. The physical body matters to God, deeply.”

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In a sense, much of the disagreement among Christians on whether to use personal pronouns boils down to priorities. Which takes precedence: using language that reflects God’s immutable design, or using language that honors our neighbors’ wishes and invites them into deeper relationship?

Using others’ requested pronouns can demonstrate that Christians care for them, whether or not they hold the same positions on questions around gender and sexuality. (Favale and others warn, however, that this could also negatively affect relational trust when it becomes apparent there is a discrepancy in belief.)

As a clinical psychologist at Wheaton College, Yarhouse frequently works with transgender young adults and people who experience gender dysphoria. While he generally doesn’t volunteer his pronouns in an institutional setting, he will offer them when requested. He neither objects nor initiates. He sees the use of pronouns in places like an email signature as, at best, “signifying an awareness that there are individuals whose identities are discordant with biological markers.” At worst, “it can come across as virtue signaling.”

Christians can hold to multiple “ontological truths” simultaneously, Yarhouse believes. One can believe in the inherent truths of maleness and femaleness and also that God loves and cares for every person.

Yarhouse believes in the value of acknowledging people whose experiences do not fit into social norms about gender identity, though he is careful not to imply that gender is arbitrary. But some of the institutional forms of inclusivity, like using pronouns online, are “reductionistic,” he said, even in a community with diverse views about pronoun usage.

“There are many ways to express an awareness of these topics without symbolism [like email signatures],” Yarhouse said. “You teach differently and you talk differently and preach differently—as if there are people in the room that have these experiences.”

Preston Sprinkle, like Yarhouse, has become known as an advocate of the position some call “pronoun hospitality,” in which Christians use self-identified pronouns for the sake of showing grace and building relationships. Several transgender or formerly transgender Christians Sprinkle interviewed for his podcast and a book on transgender identity said that part of their journey to faith in Jesus included relationships with Christians who used their self-identified pronouns. If those Christians had refused to use them, it would have scared them away, they said.

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“All throughout Scripture, we see God meeting people where they are in order to walk with them toward where he wants them to be,” Sprinkle writes in Embodied: Transgender Identities, the Church, and What the Bible Has to Say. He “spoke our human language in all its imperfection, because that was the language we could understand.”

Sprinkle writes that he believes a “long-term goal of discipleship” is for all Christians to “see their biological sex as a divine gift and part of their identity” and to eventually use pronouns that match their biological sex. “But I don’t think it should be a short-term prerequisite,” he clarifies.

However, some believe that this position doesn’t go far enough. The founders of Kaleidoscope, a Christian nonprofit that ministers to LGBTQ young adults in New York City, say that a phrase like “pronoun hospitality” can convey a power dynamic and be “condescending toward trans and nonbinary people.”

“We believe in mutuality,” said CEO Meg Baatz. “We are using language to build trust.”

Their organization aims to contextualize the gospel in a missional way. One action they find important in their community is to intentionally offer their pronouns in introductory remarks or in online communication. They’ve seen this approach lower walls in conversations and make relational and pastoral connections in their outreach efforts.

Christians should show generosity to those with a different framework, added Kaleidoscope president Elizabeth Delgado Black. “Jesus himself interacted within a cultural framework. I’m sure there were things that he didn’t agree with. However, he made himself a part of the community for the sake of his message and for the sake of the will of the Father.”

And they’ve found a commonality among conservative Christians and those in the trans and nonbinary community they minister to: People simply want to think and talk about pronouns less. The PRRI findings affirm this: More than half of Americans (62%) think that people talk and think about pronouns too much.

One Christian who experiences gender dysphoria and works in campus ministry on the West Coast identifies as “pronoun agnostic,” since avoiding pronouns is the easiest way to “pursue peace” in ministry: “If we are trying to reach all people as missionaries, that includes queer people.”

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As declaring pronouns becomes more ubiquitous, what’s a Christian to do? Christian leaders who hold a spectrum of opinions agreed: Everything is changing so fast, we’re figuring it out together, and we should give each other grace.

Sam Allberry, a pastor and the author of Is God Anti-Gay?, believes that using pronouns is a “wisdom matter, not a righteousness matter” and that Christians of differing opinions should give each other grace. He references the Book of Proverbs and the wisdom it offers for navigating life’s challenges, especially wisdom in speech. Allberry himself has publicly identified as same sex attracted but upholds and teaches a traditional biblical sexual ethic.

“We should allow each other enough grace where we might not agree, but understand why we did it and understand that motives are honorable,” he said. “Our call as Christians might be to step in and defend people whose ideology we don’t agree with from ideologist reaction against it. We don’t want to see trans people demeaned or bullied.”

For many, the matter of pronouns is one of conscience. Some look to the biblical example of Daniel, who lived in exile in Babylon and was chosen to serve in the king’s palace (Dan. 1:4). Daniel and his friends had to navigate the pressures of living with holiness and integrating into a culture that didn’t care about their religious convictions. They were assigned pagan names, were taught a new language and culture, and were given food and drink that likely violated Mosaic Law (1:4–7).

The text says Daniel graciously and wisely navigated these situations. He accepted his new name and engaged in learning the culture, but he drew the line at food and drink. Was it a matter of law, or of wisdom, or of conscience? While Scripture doesn’t say, it’s clear that Daniel strove to follow God’s law with courage and grace.

“They were actually willing to go quite far. They were willing to take pagan names in this assimilation program,” Allberry said. “But at the same time, they had a line.” Scholars aren’t sure why Daniel and his friends discerned this specific line while accommodating other aspects of Babylonian culture. But it made a point: “I’m going to communicate that I’m going to be an obedient employee but let them know, ‘You don’t own me, I have a higher allegiance,’” Allberry said.

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Some Christians distinguish between institutional norms and personal relationships. “Love is due to persons, not to ideologies,” Favale, the Notre Dame scholar, said. In other words, Christians whose consciences are bound by their convictions might choose to show love by using friends’ self-identified pronouns yet resist providing their own pronouns on an institutional level through civil disobedience or silence.

In his letters, the apostle John emphasizes the Christian commands to follow the truth and to walk in love. In the Christian life, these theological truths are woven in constant tension. Problems arise when one exists without the other.

“We’re often in the position of cultural warrior or cultural capitulator. We have fewer examples of how to be an ambassador,” Yarhouse said. “But we are ambassadors of the kingdom of God to a culture that is increasingly unfamiliar with what that means.”

The Scriptures do not offer specific answers for every situation, but they do give us general principles and truths underscoring the inherent dignity of every person and our need for godly wisdom found through the Spirit, the Bible, and the church.

“It takes a prayer-soaked, discerning response and ambassadorship in my neighborhood, work setting, and relationships,” Yarhouse said. “I wouldn’t want to reduce my ambassadorship to a pronoun.”

Kara Bettis Carvalho is associate features editor at Christianity Today.

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