Retreating with Dignity

The Protestant church in the West has largely succumbed to a plan of cultural engagement that might be called retreating with dignity.

In disobedience to the express command of Jesus to disciple the nations, teaching them to obey everything God has commanded, the Reformed and Evangelical churches of the West have decided that this would be too dangerous, too costly, and we’d prefer to run to catacombs cheerfully, without any of the bloodshed of actual martyrdom, but then talk about being in the catacombs as if we were just as brave and courageous as those first Christians. This is the spiritual equivalent of buying pre-ripped jeans at Old Navy.

Of course people don’t just come out and say that they’re planning to retreat and disobey Jesus. It isn’t cool to say that you’re afraid. That would be unseemly. So it’s all couched in Bible verses and pious sounding theologizing. And then decade after decade, we, for some reason, find ourselves on a cultural reservation getting smaller and smaller, and it’s just a deep mystery found in the recesses of the providence of God and in the fact that there are still more books to write and conferences to plan that help fund my comfortable upper middle-class lifestyle (that I will routinely signal the requisite white guilt about). Or something.

So let me give you an example. A couple days ago, I tweeted out a link to an article on The Gospel Coalition Canada website, with my comment: “This is what it looks like for God’s people to defend Baal worship in our day.” The article was entitled “Speaking the Truth in Love,” and of course that is a line from the Bible, but the application of that verse has become such a distortion of anything Paul had in mind on the topic, you should pretty much just read that line in the vast majority of articles so-titled, as “I’m getting ready to compromise, but I plan to do so in style.” And sure enough, Dr. Steven West does not disappoint us.

One question I received about this was whether there was anything Dr. West actually said that was objectionable or whether it was the implication of what it seemed like he meant. And actually it was both. The compromise begins early on when he writes:

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.

Actually, Dr. West, you are wrong. Just because this convention is “widely accepted” does not mean that it is not what the gender-neutral pronoun debate is about. This is a great example of evangelical amnesia, another contributing factor in our decades-long retreat. Frequently what evangelicals come to accept as “widely accepted convention” turns out to be last decade’s defeat. We lose a battle, accept the terms of surrender, and then when the same enemy shows up five years later, we immediately forget that it was the same enemy who took us out to the wood shed last time. And when that same enemy shows up again asking for 100 more acres, our alzheimer-ridden seminary professors stand up and clear their throats and assure everyone that this has nothing to do with what happened last time. No, this has nothing to do with that, they wave their hands about nervously, this is a “widely accepted convention” and very, very “normative.” Nothing to see here, people.

Yes, Dr. West, the “gender inclusive” movement most certainly does have to do with the “gender neutral pronoun” movement. It has to do with whether Jesus is Lord or not. It has to do with whether the Bible is God’s authoritative word to us and the standard that we must love and the standard that we must teach the nations to love. Has God said anything in His word about nouns and pronouns? Has He said anything particularly about the relationship between the words we use and the genders/sexes they refer to? Yes, as a matter of fact, He has. In fact, He did so right at the very beginning when He created man. And by “man” I mean what God says that word can and does often mean: both men and women. Man can refer both to a human of the male sex and can also refer to both men and women collectively. It is, in the terminology of our preening overlords, “gender inclusive.”

Male and female he created them, and he blessed them and named them man when they were created (Gen. 5:2).

This means that the ordinary, generic way that God instructs us to refer to people in general is after man. God created us. We did not create ourselves. Therefore, God gets to name us. And God named us (all of us) man. This same pattern continues throughout the Bible, up to and including the New Testament in the gospel itself. Paul says,

For in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise… And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying ‘Abba! Father!’ So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God. (Gal. 3:26-29, 4:6-7)

So notice what Paul says. He says that all (male and female) are sons. Why? Because Jesus is the new Adam, the new Man, and because He is the Son of God. There is no other salvation, no other inheritance to be found in God. There is only the inheritance of the perfect Son. Therefore, to be a Christian is to be in the Son, and to receive the Spirit of the Son. Therefore “son” is another gender inclusive word, because of the facts of our salvation and because God says so. And we should not miss the fact that all of this is why it is perfectly reasonable and fully biblical for Christians to be addressed as “brothers.” Despite the mincing and prancing of the editors of the ESV, we do not need their censorious footnotes reminding us constantly that “brothers” means “brothers and sisters.” Yes, thank you, but the whole Bible explains that fact. We all fell in Adam our first covenant head, and there is no salvation outside of Jesus, our new covenant head. Therefore, Dr. West, while it is true that both men and women can be doctors, and a gender-inclusive word is preferred when referring to doctors as a generic category, you are wrong to say that “man” and “he” are not inclusive terms. The Bible says that “man” is an inclusive term. You are disobeying and disregarding God’s clear word on this matter.

The connection between this disobedience to God’s Word in one place and the next one being offered is the simple question: Does God’s Word give us direction here in our use of nouns and pronouns? Dr. West frames the question in terms of freedom — is a Christian free to adopt a rebellious pronoun for the sake of winning his brother?

Let’s try this logic on in a couple of ways:

Is a Christian free to adopt racially derogatory epithets in order to minister to white supremacists? Would it be OK for the sake of loving those sinners to adopt their preferred names for classes of people they believe are inherently inferior to them? You’d (presumably) say of course not. Why? Because that would be offensive to the various people those racial slurs refer to. That use of language is humiliating and degrading. Exactly right. And ze and zir and calling biological males “she” is a degrading slur of a far higher magnitude than any racial slur. Our God-given sex is more fundamental, more essential to who we are as human beings than what land our ancestors came from or what shade of skin we have. The animus behind this pronoun swapping is far more spiteful and hateful than anything any Simon Legree ever came up with. It is a curse flung at Heaven and a middle finger pointed at every human being made male and female in the image of the Living God. And while we’re here: where are all the Christians pleading for loving the white supremacists? Where are the appeals to the fact that this is a very complex pastoral challenge, ministering to these racists? How many racists are you close friends with, my brother? How many have you ministered to? O, you mean loving those kinds of sinners is different? You mean it isn’t cool, isn’t sexy? Right… because this isn’t actually about obeying the living God, it’s about setting up Baals on the high places on the sly. Which leads me to my next example.

Dr. West’s logic is no different than a pastor standing up in the first century A.D. asking: Is a Christian free to put a little incense in a fire? Certainly, a Christian (or anyone for that matter) shouldn’t be coerced into putting incense on an altar. But what if given the context, given the situation, doing so would allow a Christian to build relationships with certain pagans, to show those pagans the love of Christ? It’s just incense in a fire, after all. Right, tell that to Daniel and his three friends. Tell that to the thousands who have lost their lives rather than worship any god but the living and true God. Everybody knows putting a pinch of incense on the altar is how you worship the emperor as a god. That altar is dedicated to Zeus or Aphrodite. And the thing we need to understand and see clearly is that gender neutral pronouns are a religious altar dedicated to the false god Demos — the deity of the whims and demands of a rebellious people.

And this is what I meant by defending Baal worship. Idols and false gods always pose as authorities and powers. The reason no one is wringing their hands about ministering to white supremacists is because they have so little power in our day. But everyone knows that in the current pantheon certain victims and minorities have been granted a sacred, priestly status. So-called transgenders, sodomites, lesbians have been granted the power. Therefore everyone is worried about offending them. They are sacred and to hurt their feelings is to sin against them and blaspheme. But what of the white supremacists? Is there any call to be careful about the language you use about them? No, they’re like pedophiles and rapists and they receive the rage and hate and spite of our mad, capricious world. Of course these are heinous sins, but that is because God says so, not because Demos says so. So who are you most afraid to offend? That is your god. All the Christians making room to go soft on what the Bible says in the name of loving unbelievers are afraid of those people. That is the high place they are tolerating, the Baal worship they are defending. But you cannot serve God and mammon. You cannot be a witness for Jesus while disobeying Him.

There are many linguistic conventions that vary from culture to culture, language to language, and there is such a thing as honest poetic and stylistic freedom that exults in Christ and the way He has made the world. But rebellion is also a widely accepted convention. That’s what this whole movement is about:

Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together against the Lord and against his Anointed, saying, ‘Let us burst their bonds apart and cast away their cords from us’ (Ps. 2:3).

So enough with this foolish naivete. He who sits in the heavens laughs. We are Christians, bought with the blood of Christ. He is Lord. He is Lord of language. He is the Lord of pronouns. He has spoken, and therefore, we must not be silent. He has spoken, and we must tell the truth. Jesus has been given all authority in heaven and on earth. He is our God; we must fear Him. What pleases Him? What offends Him? He has sent us out into the world to disciple the nations, and this includes teaching all of them how to use pronouns properly.


Photo by Jed Adan on Unsplash

  1. Jack Bradley December 14

    “So who are you most afraid to offend? That is your god.”

    That is indeed the heart of the matter, Toby. Thanks for this powerful piece!

  2. Tyson Ranes December 14

    Thank you for writing this! This is what the Church needs to grow…..truely speaking the truth in love. There is a way that seems right to a “MAN” but the end there of is death. Jesus came to bring Life, he gave us teachers for our perfecting not for our capitulating. When I say Church I don’t say that with any condescension I refer in part to myself as a brother who is in desperate need of perfecting in faith and proper Biblical understanding in Truth. My desire is for Truth. Mercy triumphs over judgement, Truth triumphs over man at his best state! Jesus is the Truth, the Lord is Salvation. The gates of hell will never prevail. To God be the GLORY!

  3. John December 14

    Without a robust postmill perspective, the cool kid theologians will continue to see us a church “in exile” (thus the excuses you hinted at above). however if we are in the New Heavens and New Earth, this changes everything. I’ve come to the conclusion that this postmill thing is central, not peripheral, to robust Christianity today. Otherwise, instead of the church in exile being a historical time (between Pentecost and 70A.D.) the cool kid churches will continue to use the Carl Trueman “exile theology” as excuses. Or, they go the way of the Benedict option (very similar). Either way, postmill changes everything.

  4. Tom Steffen January 5

    “Of course these are heinous sins, but that is because God says so, not because Demos says so.”

    Words matter because “God said, ‘Let there be light!’ And there was light.”

    HE speaks. HIS words create reality. Our words can correspond to that reality.

    Your personification of pomo-democracy as Demos is excellent writing.

    The method of discipling nations includes both weeping over Jerusalem and decrying “Woe to you… white-washed tombs full of death.”

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