Written by Jesse White
Over the past year, Equip has partnered with Jesse White, a seminary-trained Christian leader who has been faithfully stewarding his own gender incongruence, to develop Equip’s Gender Incongruence Course. Learn more about Jesse’s education and story at equipyourcommunity.org/about and learn with Jesse about how Christians can offer God’s love and wisdom to trans* people at equipyourcommunity.org/gendercourse.
Disagreement about terminology and whether to use someone’s preferred pronouns/name can be early barriers to offering God’s love and wisdom for trans* people to those we care for.
For the sake of clarity, when Equip uses the words sex, gender, femaleness/femininity, maleness/masculinity, gender incongruence, and trans*, here’s what we mean:
- Sex – male or female; defined by chromosomes, gonads, sexual anatomy, and secondary sex characteristics–these include the presence or absence of a Y chromosome, internal reproductive organs, external sexual anatomy, and endocrine systems that produce secondary sex characteristics
- Gender – the psychological, social, and cultural aspects of being male or female including gender identity (how you experience yourself and how masculine/feminine a person feels) and gender role (adoptions of cultural expectations for males/females)
- Femaleness/Maleness – the nature of being biologically female or biologically male
- Femininity/Masculinity – a person’s sense of being a woman/man and cultural expectations for how women/men will express their gender
- Gender Incongruence – an acute sense that one’s gender does not correspond with the experience typically associated with the person’s biological sex
- Transgender/Trans* – a general term for someone who experiences gender incongruence
- Discomfort with Gender Overprescription – Regardless of one’s gender experience, individuals may notice that cultural prescriptions for gender roles are arbitrarily narrow, chafe at that overprescription, and search for alternative conceptions of gender that more accurately reflect universal and innate experiences. Trans* people will undoubtedly experience discomfort with gender overprescription in addition to their internal experience of gender incongruence. Cisgender people may also experience discomfort with gender overprescription absent an internal experience of gender incongruence.
- Gender Dysphoria – a medical term for a clinically impairing experience of distress associated with the incongruence wherein one’s psychological and emotional gender identity does not match one’s biological sex; many in the transgender community push back against this term and use it as a diagnosis, claiming that it pathologizes the transgender experience as a mental disorder
What should Christians navigating gender incongruence call themselves? What names/pronouns should pastors/ministers use? Various Christians hold different opinions and beliefs about names/pronouns and identifying as trans*.
For those who experience gender incongruence, their given name and biological pronouns can be a constant reminder of the pain and tension they feel every day.
Some experience meaningful relief from that tension when they adopt different pronouns and/or names. Identifying as trans* or using alternate pronouns, similar to identifying as gay, bi, lesbian, etc. can mean as little as “I experience gender incongruence” or as much as “I am fundamentally a transgender person and must follow a trans* cultural script to be true to self” (and everything in between).
For those using using alternate pronouns or the word trans* merely to communicate that they experience gender incongruence, these words can help others appreciate that gender incongruence is a meaningful part of their story without communicating that being trans* encompass the whole of who they are.
I sometimes describe myself as trans* and share with friends and family that my preferred pronouns are he/they. What does that mean? It means that I am comfortable with the pronouns he/him/his, and with the pronouns they/them/their. To be clear, I am not open to alternative pronouns as a rejection of God’s gift of my biological sex. I am grateful for God’s blessing, even in the midst of painful gender incongruence. Instead, I am open to alternate pronouns and sometimes use the word trans* to describe myself to experience some relief from my gender incongruence and to identify in solidarity with others navigating painful gender incongruence.
(Curious what other morally neutral steps a Christian can and cannot take to experience relief from their gender incongruence? Check out “Biblical Wisdom on Transition” on Equip’s blog.)
If someone you’re walking with is considering using alternate pronouns, changing their name, or identifying as trans*, I’d first encourage you to be curious. Ask them why they’re considering these steps, and ask them what it would mean if they took those steps. What would they be intending to communicate to themselves, to God, and to the world around them?
If you’re just starting to get to know someone (particularly if the person is not a Christian), we encourage Christians to practice language mirroring as hospitality. Listen to the identifiers, names, and pronouns that the individual uses, and then use those same words as an act of hospitality. You might ask the individual what they mean when they use those words.
Choosing to mirror those words with those meanings in early conversation is not affirmation that the individual is using the best words and meanings, but is instead an act of hospitality to avoid tension over language and open the door for future conversation.
Should trans* Christians change their name? Is there biblical precedent for name change?
In Genesis 17, God changes Abram and Sarai’s names to Abraham and Sarah. Their new names mean “father of a multitude” and “mother of nations.” In Genesis 32, God gives Jacob a new name, from “supplanter” to Israel, meaning “wrestles with God.” In Matthew 16, Jesus gives Simon a new name, calling him Peter to refer to the way the disciple will serve as a key leader in the early Church. After Saul’s conversion in Acts 9, he is referred to by his Latin name, Paul.
There are other name changes in Scripture, but among these prominent name changes there are meaningful similarities and differences. First, whenever a person’s name is truly changed, God changes their name in an undeniable way, makes the name change known, and the name change is affirmed within the family of God. And second, the person is given a new name to signify a new vocation to serve God in a particular way. But there are also differences. Saul/Paul is not an actual name change. Jacob/Israel continues to be referred to by both names, and it should be noted that both of Jacob’s names are reminders of hardship and brokenness.
How then might these name changes in Scripture apply to trans* people adopting new names today?
First, based on the treatment of Jacob/Israel, it’d be difficult to argue that God gives people new names to leave behind reminders of brokenness. Second, new names are given by God, not the individual. And third, if a person claims God has given them a new name, God’s work of naming would need to be verified by the community.
While adopting new names may be morally neutral depending on the motivations for doing so,
there is little biblical evidence to support the claim that a Christian can biblically rename themselves or unilaterally assert that God has given them a new name. This doesn’t mean the opposite is true—that changing one’s name is necessarily a sin. It just means that name changes in the Bible aren’t meaningful support for trans* people changing their names to reduce distress related to their gender incongruence.
As we explore more deeply in Equip’s Gender Incongruence Course, discerning a potential name change should be done prayerfully in Christian community. Unfortunately, most trans* people lack a Christian community where they would feel safe to invite others into this discernment. Names are a powerful aspect of our identities and as we see in Scripture, the process of changing them should not be taken lightly.
It occurs to me that a person who is experiencing gender incongruity could be reinforcing gender overprescription by adopting pronouns that reflect a sense of gender that is different than their sex. This could be true to the extent that their sense of gender is shaped by gender overprescription. If it is an overly narrow and flawed cultural view of gender that is contributing to the problem, then adopting the other pronoun is allowing that flawed cultural view to determine one’s own sense of gender.
I would appreciate hearing your thoughts on this idea.
Great comments! As explored in our “How Does God See Trans* People? How Can They Find Relief?” article, we encourage Christians navigating gender incongruence to consider steps like using alternate pronouns through a careful discernment with pastors and mentors in one’s life. Part of that discernment can be exploring whether pronouns communicate something about a person’s biological sex, about someone’s gender, both, or something less clear. For example, before feeling peace about the trans Christians using gender neutral pronouns, the pastor or mentor might seek clarity from the trans Christian about whether using those pronouns reinforces an internal sense that they are ontologically something other than their biological sex, or whether using those pronouns is merely a reprieve from the reminder of their gender incongruence each time pronouns come up (while continuing to affirm that their experience of their gender is broken, their biological sex is as God intended, and they continue to be ontologically who God intended them to be). In fewer words, sometimes what you fear might happen does happen, and other times it doesn’t. That’s why we encourage pastors and mentors to guide and speak into that discernment process.