Pressure to conform to the ways of the world will always be present in our lives as Christians. This is very clear in areas that the world deems important. For example, in the world’s current obsession with transgenderism there is a great deal of pressure placed on Christians to violate our conscience by calling men and women by their preferred gender pronouns. Thankfully, Christians have seen that doing so would be sinful for a number of reasons, and they have roundly rejected that practice.
Sadly, however, there are other professing Christians, and those with a rather extensive reach, who make a spurious distinction between ontological names (e.g. man/woman) and arbitrary names (e.g. Steven, Laura, Chris, and so on). For instance, John Piper argues as follows –
Calling someone by that arbitrary name their parents chosen or the one they choose halfway through life may not imply agreement with all that that name was created to signify by the person.
So if I had a neighbor next door to me, which this is very feasible, who was biologically male, and everybody knew it, and he introduced himself to me as Sally — if I met him for the first time, and I saw him the next day, I might avoid calling him anything, but I would probably default to Sally. I probably would until there was a relationship that would go deeper to see whether I could be of any help. So that is one concession I am going to make because of the arbitrary nature of names. And then it is going to get a little more dicey and divisive.
He puts the matter even more tersely in his conclusion, stating –
Naming may have a certain ambiguity and arbitrariness to it, but the language of he and she and the use of bathrooms and hotel rooms does not.
And he’s not alone in thinking this way. Over at 9Marks, one pastor tells the story of how he and one of his congregants dealt with the reality of having a family member come out as “trans.” He explains that in his dealing with the transgender family member he and his congregant
…explained that [they] were to happy to call him [i.e. the “trans” person] his new name, as it’s his legal name, and we have to call him something. To us, names aren’t the property of any specific gender (I know guys named Stacy and girls named Stacy), but pronouns are. I do think it’s a lie (think of what Exodus 20:16 says about “false testimony”) to convince this person they are something they are in fact not, and I think the usage of pronouns seeks to do that. I can see the argument for the usage of the name change doing that, but I don’t think names/pronouns finally land in the same category.
Another professing Christian leader, Andrew Walker, repeats the same idea when in conversation with J.D. Greear (who promoted the use of preferred gender pronouns as a means of showing hospitality to “trans” people), saying:
“Calling a person by their legal name or preferred name is more acceptable because names are not objectively gendered, but change from culture to culture.”
The same view has been espoused by other prominent figures populating the current sexual identity and gender identity scene in evangelicalism. For instance, Rosaria Butterfield, in an August 1, 2019 interview on the “Youth Matters Podcast” (Source: “Episode 87: ‘Navigating LGBTQ Issues’ With Rosaria Butterfield”) speaks about her transgender friend “Jill” (whom she previously referred to simply as J, and of whom she claims to have formerly used female pronouns see here and here and here, but of whom she uses the feminine pronoun “her” in the podcast).
For “Trans” People, Proper Pronouns [i.e. Names] are Not Arbitrary
When Bruce Jenner openly declared his decision to identify as a woman, he changed his name to Caitlyn Jenner. Why? Apparently, Bruce understood that the name Bruce was not merely overtly masculine but that it also was inseparable from his “former” existence as a male.
And he isn’t alone. In a September 6, 2019 Nbcnews.com article titled “Making a Name for Yourself: For Trans People, It’s ‘Life-Changing,’” Dan Stahl reports that
The importance of [company policies that make name changes for trans people less difficult] is grounded in something deeply personal. By letting people use their chosen name and gender marker, corporations and governments are sanctioning their identity.
Stahl goes on to quote a “transfeminine” person who expressed a desire for non-trans-people to understand the significance of changing one’s birth name to match one’s gender identity. “Suzanne” Ford stated:
“I think it sounds superfluous to people on the outside…[but] that’s a big statement to the world about who you are.”
The article further notes that many “trans” people view their name change as contributing to their becoming who they really are, underscoring, again and again, that the name by which a “trans” person goes is anything but arbitrary to them. Bruce did not change his name to Caitlyn for non gender identity related issues. He did so in order to make his felt gender identity and his name match.
What should be evident to the reader is that the evangelicals who claim proper names are arbitrary, as regards the actual sexual identity of the person using them, are wrong. In the abstract a particular name may be used of either a man or a woman, or both. However, when it comes to “trans” individuals changing one’s name ties directly into their overall understanding of themselves as the sex which they believe themselves to be. In When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Moment, Ryan T. Anderson even notes that changing one’s name can constitute a part of treatment for individuals with gender dysphoria. For instance, in the case of children who are experiencing gender dysphoria –
Transgender activists maintain that when a child identifies as the opposite sex in a manner that is “consistent, persistent, and insistent,” the appropriate response is to support that identification. This means, first, a social transition: giving the child a new wardrobe, a new name, new pronouns, and generally treating the child as if he or she were the opposite sex.
This is far from arbitrary or unimportant. The name chosen by a “trans” person is intended to signify something about that person’s perceived sexual/gender identity. If a man who is legally named Kelly wants to take on the name “Rebecca” because he sees it as tying together his new identity as a “trans-woman,” in other words, calling him Rebecca is no different than calling him her.
A Very Brief Theology of Names
The evangelicals mentioned above are not merely wrong as regards the intentions of “trans” people themselves, but also in light of what the Scripture teaches us about names and their functions. All throughout Scripture, names serve the purpose of identifying one’s identity and function. Adam, for instance, appears to have named the animals after having encountered and observed them. Genesis 2:19-20 –
Now out of the ground the Lord God had formed every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens and brought them to the man to see what he would call them. And whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all livestock and to the birds of the heavens and to every beast of the field. But for Adam there was not found a helper fit for him.
Adam did not find a helper fit for him among the animals he had named. However, once he encounters his wife he says –
“This at last is bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called Woman,
because she was taken out of Man.”
Whereas the animals who were not deemed to be fit helpers for Adam had been formed out of the ground, she who was taken from man’s own body was deemed to be a fit helper. And her name reflects her identity and function.
Adam’s naming of his helper as Woman, moreover, changes after the Fall in accordance with what God reveals about the Messiah. Scripture declares —
The Lord God said to the serpent…
“I will put enmity between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and her offspring;
he shall bruise your head,
and you shall bruise his heel.”
The man called his wife’s name Eve, because she was the mother of all living.
Having been informed as to the Woman’s role in bringing forth the Messiah/Seed who would destroy the bringer of death, Adam names his wife Eve because she was the mother of all living. As John Gill notes, Adam’s naming of Eve took place on
…the ground of this faith and persuasion of his, that he and his wife should not die immediately for the offence they had committed, but should live and propagate their species, as well as be partakers of spiritual and eternal life, was the hint that had been just given, that there would be a seed spring from them; not only a numerous offspring, but a particular eminent person that should be the ruin of the devil and his kingdom, and the Saviour of them; and so Eve would be not, only the mother of all men living in succeeding generations, but particularly, or however one descending from her, would be the mother of him that should bring life and immortality to light, or be the author of all life, natural, spiritual, and eternal; and who is called ζωη, “the life”, which is the same word by which the Greek version renders Eve in the preceding clause.
Thus Scripture does not teach us that names are arbitrary or arbitrarily chosen. Rather, naming is based in part on what we observe about that which we are naming. Adam, Woman, and Eve are names that point to origin and function. By implication, so too are the names of the animals which Adam had given them.
To change someone’s name, then, is to implicitly identify them as something than what they were. For instance, the patriarch Abram’s name was changed to Abraham to reflect his becoming the father of many nations (cf. Gen 17:3-8). Similarly, Sarai’s name was changed in the same context to Sarah (cf. Gen 17:15-16). And there are many other examples we can give from Scripture. But these should be sufficient to show that names are anything but arbitrary. They play a very important role, one that primarily signifies origin and function.
We Don’t Need to Compromise
Sadly, it seems to be the case that while some evangelical leaders have correctly rejected the idea of pronoun hospitality they have replaced it with personal pronoun hospitality. These writers and teachers and speakers may refuse to call a man “her” or “she,” but by using that man’s preferred personal pronoun (e.g. using Rebecca instead of Robert, etc) they are doing what is essentially the same thing. As noted above, “trans” individuals themselves recognize the significance their chosen new names bear, as do psychologists and activists who prescribe name change as part of a treatment regimen for individuals with gender dysphoria.
Such a compromise may have good intentions, but that does not legitimize it. It seems, in fact, to stand in the way of an accurate presentation of the Law and the Gospel in one’s witnessing/evangelizing efforts. This is so because identifying someone as male, when they believe themselves to be/represent themselves as being female, is functionally equivalent identifying a “man who lives for the moment” as a hedonist. Having identified the hedonist as a hedonist, then, we can point him to the Savior who died for hedonists and transgender persons as well. If reaching individuals for Christ is the goal, then should we not be using the Scripture’s preferred method of so doing—namely, openly identifying men as sinners who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, are under the wrath of God, and can only be delivered by the Lord Jesus Christ?
Let us not be fooled by the serpent’s craftiness into thinking that a little leaven will not leaven the whole lump. By the grace of God, let us press on with the truth of God’s Law and Gospel, both of which give us the truth about ourselves, our sin, and our need for salvation via trust in the perfect work of the Lord Jesus Christ on Calvary.
Soli Deo Gloria