A New Name

Pronouns, Dead Names and Truth

“He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.  To the one who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, with a new name written on the stone that no one knows except the one who receives it” (Rev. 2:17, ESV).

The sexual revolution in Western culture presents many pastoral challenges to the Church, as highlighted in a recent resurgence of controversy over whether Christians should attend so-called ‘gay weddings.’  As Christians in a secularized culture, how do we navigate the demands of truth and love when people in our lives have accepted an understanding of humanity that contradicts reality and opposes God’s design?

In such situations, the demands of truth and love are frequently placed in tension or opposition; but we will see that they are, in fact, unified.  Love speaks the truth about what is beautiful and good.  In word and deed, we must seek to love in truth.

Language is central to many of the ethical issues involved, and nowhere more so than concerning the pastoral response to the transgender movement.  One of the most basic questions here is how to deal with the new names and preferred pronouns that people take when they embrace a transgender identity.  Do we call people whatever they want to be called?  Why or why not?  What are the implications of affirming transgender names and pronouns?

How does our obligation to tell the truth in love bear on how we address people?  This question is often treated in a very simplistic way—often a way that subordinates truth to love—but we can go deeper.  We will get a better sense of the requirements of truth and love in this matter if we have a theologically-informed understanding of naming.  What is the significance of a name, of naming and renaming, and of transgender names in particular?  What’s going on here theologically?  When we understand these matters, we will be equipped to glorify God in our address of one another.

Transgenderism and Reality

However, before embarking on our theological exploration of naming, we should be clear on the underlying reality in this issue.  Are the claims of transgenderism true?  Can a man or woman change genders?  Is it possible to be biologically male, but a woman with regard to gender (and what would that even mean)?  Are there other genders?  Is there such a thing as a ‘trans-man’ or ‘trans-woman’?

The biblical, theological, biological, and logical answer to these questions is “no.”  The ideology of transgenderism has no basis in reality; in fact, it explicitly opposes reality, as revealed by Scripture and nature, as discerned by science and theology alike.  God created mankind male and female (Gen. 1:27)—and only those two sexes; He made man and woman (2:22)—and only those two genders.  We may distinguish sex from gender (sex being the biological characteristics, gender the social characteristics), but we have no grounds for separating them, let alone for suggesting that a male can have the gender woman, or vice versa.  The whole disciplines of biology and genetics bear out the biblical revelation of reality.

Of course, it is possible to be confused about one’s gender identity, and for this confusion to be seemingly uncaused and deeply rooted psychologically.  In many cases, the causes of gender dysphoria are in fact easy to discover, as the abundant and intuitive evidence of transgenderism as social-contagion in recent years demonstrates.  To a great extent, transgenderism is a product of the sexual revolution.  But even in instances where no external cause may be found, a deep sense of psychological distress does not overrule the objective reality of God’s design.

And there are rare cases in which a person’s biological sex is not readily discernible.  In this fallen world, we suffer many things because the creation has been corrupted by sin.  Christian charity calls for compassion on all those who suffer, who are hurting or confused.  But that does not mean that these basic realities about humanity are at all unclear, any more than the rare instance of a missing limb at birth obscures the basic reality that healthy human bodies have two arms and two legs.

It is not the burden of this essay to defend the Christian position on transgenderism and reality; I state it because we cannot talk about truth and love require in this matter of transgender naming without acknowledging the truth regarding transgenderism.  Were the claims of transgenderism true, the demands of truth upon the Christian would look very different than outlined below.

But they are not.

Naming and Identity

A name is essentially a marker of identification.  Out of all the creatures or objects of a type, I specify this one by name.  This street is Maple, this rifle is Old Betsy, this horse is Silver Blaze.  We name not only individuals, but sets within a larger group: these dogs are Border Collies, and this one is Fido.  Naming concerns both individuality and relationality.  A name identifies and situates one among others.  So, when it comes to transgenderism, the more fundamental shift than a changed personal name is that the name of man or woman is being changed, and the name of that given man or woman altered to match.  It is a different event than a man changing his name from Dave to John; in what we may refer to as trans-naming, a core identity claim is being made.

Individual names may or may not be significant by design.  Some people name their children with attention to the name’s meaning; others choose a name based on how it sounds, or a family connection, or some other reason.  But regardless of how it is chosen, the name gives the dignity of identity.  With people, a sense of personality clusters around our names; we very tightly associate our names with ourselves, and we name animals and sometimes even things because of a personal connection with them.  We don’t grow so attached to a dog if we just think of it as ‘the dog,’ and it would seem callous and dehumanizing to not name our children.

To change a name is to signal a changed identity.  In transgenderism, the changed name and pronouns are intended to signal a realization about the ‘real’ identity of the person.  When we consider the pronouns, an obvious moral conflict emerges because we are being asked to affirm something that is transparently a lie—whatever rationalizations about ‘pronoun hospitality’ or such may be advanced (as by Preston Sprinkle).  But names can seem more complicated.  Surely, I have a moral right to change my own name to whatever I want for whatever reason…or do I?  Is naming autonomous, or does it touch on larger social and theological realities?  To answer this question, we go back to the beginning.

Naming begins with God, who calls things into existence and then imparts identity.  So in Genesis 1:1-10, we read a repeated pattern where creative activity begins with the “And God said” of creation, and proceeds to the “God called” of naming.  This is true of day and night, sky and sea and land; it is also true of mankind, for “When God created man, he made him in the likeness of God.  Male and female, he created them, and he blessed them and named them Man when they were created” (Gen. 5:1-2).

On the other hand, there is a holy secrecy about God’s name, in keeping with His holy identity.  So in the story of Samson the effort by Manoah to coax a name from his mysterious supernatural visitor is answered, “And the angel of the LORD said to him, ‘Why do you ask my name, seeing it is wonderful?’” (Jdg. 13:18); and the majestic mystery of the returning Lord is described, “His eyes are like a flame of fire, and on his head are many diadems, and he has a name written that no one knows but himself” (Rev. 19:12).

Yet God has revealed Himself by name, because in glorious grace He condescends to be known by His creatures.

Naming and Relationship

God reveals His holy name in the context of redemption.  Though He is called by many names, it is significant that the divine exposition of the ‘proper name’ of God, Yahweh, is given in preparation for the paradigmatic redemptive event of the Old Testament—the Exodus.  God commissioned His chosen messenger, Moses, to demand that Pharaoh release the people of Israel:

Then Moses said to God, “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?”  God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.”  And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel: ‘I AM has sent me to you.’”  God also said to Moses, “Say this to the people of Israel: ‘The LORD, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.’  This is my name forever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations” (Exod. 3:13-15).

God’s self-identity is fundamental.  He Is.  As the God Who Is, eternally and absolutely, He establishes a redemptive relationship with a people called to Himself.  The Creator who called all things into being calls a people into being, and calls them by His name (2 Chr. 7:14).  He makes Himself known to them, so that they may be found in Him (Php. 3:9).  As Jesus Christ, the ultimate self-revelation of God, declared in His prayer to God the Father, “I have manifested your name to the people whom you gave me out of the world…I made known to them your name, and I will continue to make it known, that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them” (Jn. 17:6, 26).

We are relational creatures, made in the image of the fundamentally-relational Triune God.  The revelation of a name is central to relationship, as the sharing of identity.  When we meet, we introduce ourselves by name, so that we may be known; to give a false name places a barrier in the relationship, prevents us from being truly known.  We hide behind anonymity and pseudonyms, but when we actually want relationship, we begin with self-giving.  On the other side, we show the closeness and affection of relationship by using someone’s name, as we see when the apostle John closes his third letter with the personal encouragement, “Greet the friends, each by name” (3 Jn. 1:15).

But, unlike God, we are creatures, and our naming comes in a relational context that includes the question of authority.  This is another basic observation from a biblical theology of naming.  As J. Alec Motyer observed:

In general in the Bible name-giving is an authority function: the imposition of the name ‘Man’ on the couple by their Creator (Gn. 5:2), the giving of animal names by the man, in his capacity as creation’s lord (Gn. 2:19f), the naming of children by their parents (by the mother on 28 and by the father on 18 occasions), the naming of a conquered king (2 Ki. 23:34), etc (J.A. Motyer, “Name,” New Bible Dictionary, Third Edition, 800).

Naming begins with God, who as Creator possesses all authority by right.  Man, with the delegated authority of God’s representative, names creatures.  Parents name children.  To some extent, to change your name can be a denial of the authority of the parent or guardian who named you, and whether it is justified or unjustified may depend on the circumstances.

But if the motivation behind the name change is part of the adoption of a transgender identity, there is a whole reversal of the authority structure of creation at work.  The person involved is denying the parental authority in their naming precisely in order to defy the Creator’s authority to declare who they are, to declare their name of man or woman, as communicated by their biology and ultimately their genetics.  Trans-naming is a relational act of rebellion, and it further disrupts human relationships by insisting on the usurped authority to define oneself.  This reversal of the authority structure of the cosmos is carried to the furthest extent by liberal theologians who demasculinize language for God, refusing to use masculine titles and pronouns for Him despite the ubiquity of such language in holy Scripture.

This desire for ultimate subjective authority is why the use of trans-names and preferred pronouns is not a neutral issue to the transgender movement.  They are committed to the individual’s absolute right to self-identification and self-definition.  In defiance of all public truth (theology and science), they insist on the individual’s right to establish the truth about the self, and the right to further establish that self-defined ‘truth’ as a public truth that must be confirmed by others—thus the social pressure, and sometimes economic or legal sanctions brought to bear against those who will not participate.  The redefinition of the self, encapsulated in naming, is a peculiarly bald contemporary resurgence of the primordial temptation, “you will be like God” (Gen. 3:5).

Naming and Redemption

Not all name-change is an act of rebellion.  In fact, it is a key element of salvation.  In the history of redemption, the naming God who calls a people by His name changed the names or gave names to some whom He set apart for His work.  So Abram was changed to Abraham and Sarai to Sarah (Gen. 17:5, 15), Jacob was named Israel (Gen. 32:28), John’s name was given by revelation (Lk. 1:13), as was the name of the Lord Jesus (Lk. 1:31).

But even beyond these pivotal renamings, the taking of a new name is at the heart of salvation for all who come to Christ.  Salvation is about a new identity in Christ; to be redeemed is to be united with the Son by the Spirit through faith, for adoption as a child of the Father.  Likewise, believers are baptized into the name of the Triune God, as Jesus instructed the disciples in the Great Commission: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19).

Naming brings a sense of belonging.  The wonder of redemption is adoption into the family of God, and being marked with His name.  The book of Revelation describes this reality of belonging with a triple name-marking promised by Christ:

The one who conquers, I will make him a pillar in the temple of my God.  Never shall he go out of it, and I will write on him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, the New Jerusalem, which comes down from my God out of heaven, and my own new name (Rev. 3:12).

In fact, all people will be marked as belonging either to God or to His enemy.  End-times furor makes much of the mark of the beast, which designates those surrendered to evil, “so that no one can buy or sell unless he has the mark, that is, the name of the beast or the number of its name” (Rev. 13:17).  But it is less popularly known that this is paralleled with the mark of God upon His people: “Then I looked, and behold, on Mount Zion stood the Lamb, and with him 144,000 who had his name and his Father’s name written on their foreheads” (Rev. 14:1).  This naming as belonging to God is not only the mark of salvation from judgment (cf. Rev. 14:9-10), but one way of expressing the ultimate joy of eternity, the presence of God’s people with Him: “They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads” (Rev. 22:4).

To bear God’s name is to know Him, and so also to be known by Him.  Jesus turned His disciples’ joy from the authority that came with their commission to the glory of belonging, saying, “Nevertheless, do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven” (Lk. 10:20); and He promised that enduring welcome to the persevering church, “The one who conquers will be clothed thus in white garments, and I will never blot his name out of the book of life” (Rev. 3:5).  The gift of the gospel is belonging to God.

That belonging comes with identity in Him, even a new name given by Him: “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.  To the one who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, with a new name written on the stone that no one knows except the one who receives it” (Rev. 2:17).  We belong to God by right of creation, and the believer belongs doubly, by right of redemption.  We are waiting to be named by Him who called us into being, and called us to Himself.

In light of this, we can see trans-naming for what it is—a religious act of self-worship.  It is a sacrament of the sexual revolution.  We do not have a moral right to rename ourselves as part of redefining our identity in defiance of God’s creation design.  To do so is a form of idolatry.  Made in God’s image, male and female, it is attempting instead to be remade into the image of our choosing, ultimately dissolving the categories of male and female.  This conversion to a new life as the opposite gender comes with a new name, self-bestowed (of course), and the old name—the ‘dead name’ as they call it—is cast away.  But the awful tragedy is that we are not fit to be our own gods, and this ‘new life’ brings only suffering and sorrow.

With this framework for understanding transgender renaming, we can see why affirming trans-names and preferred pronouns is not a valid option for Christians; it is not truthful, and it is not loving towards those in the grip of this dehumanizing idolatry.  It is not, as Mark Yarhouse claims, “an act of respect, even if we disagree, to let the person determine what they want to be called.”  This assumes that we are self-determining beings; but we are not.  We are creatures, called into being by God and defined by Him.  It is profoundly disrespectful, both to God and to a person created in His image, to affirm his or her self-destructive self-worship in the way transgenderism demands.  This issue is not at all so morally or theologically murky as Christianity Today and other voices of the evangelical left would suggest.  Our unwillingness to use trans-names and preferred pronouns will sometimes anger people and cost us; but we should love them enough to not share in this lie.

That alignment of truth and love in this matter is important to grasp; the division of these virtues in speaking makes room for mischief.  Rachel Gilson, on a podcast with The Gospel Coalition, treats the question of trans-names and preferred pronouns as adiaphora—though her sympathies are clearly in the affirmative, and she appears to regard those who oppose using trans-names as ‘the weaker brother.’  She thinks they emphasize truth, but need to give deeper consideration to how love applies in the situation:

And if that is your position, you have to recognize that when you are interacting with a transgender person, your inability to use their preferred name or pronoun could actually be received as very offensive by them or deeply hurtful by them. And so I would encourage people in that category to think, “Okay, well, my truth is clear, how can I communicate clearly the grace of Christ here? How can I go above and beyond to show love knowing that my posture and pronouns is going to be tricky for the person that I’m talking with?”

On the other hand, when it comes to using preferred names and pronouns, you can hear the excitement in her voice.  These are the people, she seems to believe, who have a proper sense of love in the situation.  They ought to consider how truth integrates with their obvious display of love—but only in a vague sense:

Others of us have no problem at all using preferred name and pronouns. We’re like, “Yes, this is a way of showing love. I am ready to do this.” And in that case, your conversation partner is probably easily going to feel loved and accepted by you. So then I would challenge you, since you have access to the heart of your friend, what would it mean for you to use that access to have truthful conversations either about who Christ is? Maybe if you feel competent about the nature of the body, even just beginning conversations of even if your friend has thought about how God relates to these questions in their lives.

Clearly the weight in her consideration of the matter is on love, and telling the truth may supposedly hinder one’s ability to show love.  But isn’t this framework allowing worldly sensibilities trained by the sexual revolution to set the standard for love?  Perhaps that is why truth and love seem rather at odds in this way of looking at the issue, and why the seriousness of affirming a transgender identity is so downplayed.

We desire something so much better for those caught in the grip of transgender ideology.  As messengers of redemption, our task is to speak the truth in love, our commission is to share the gospel of true life.  So we refuse to share in or affirm the lies of transgenderism; we love the people caught up in these lies too much to go along with their deception.  Our message is the offer of newness in Christ, new life, new identity centered in Christ and bearing His name.  This is the fulfillment of our design as human beings, rooted in our creation in the image of God—male and female (Gen. 1:27).  Identity is at the heart of redemption.  As Stanley Grenz describes,

The imago Dei is the divinely intended vocation of all humankind and the shared goal of our existence.  This vocation, in turn, defines our very being.  God’s intention is that we might experience eschatological transformation after the pattern of the resurrected Christ, who is the Second Adam.  Or, viewing our destiny from another perspective, God desires that we find our being as we are caught up in the narrative of the Son.  (Stanley J. Grenz, The Named God and the Question of Being, 364).

As a wife takes her husband’s name when embracing their union, so the bride of Christ joyfully bears the name of her husband.  It is in Christ’s name that believers receive life (Jn. 20:31), by His name we are known (Acts 11:26), and for His name we are privileged to suffer (Jn. 15:21; Acts 5:41)—in which honor we should give glory to God (1 Pet. 4:14, 16).  There is a new name which comes with a new birth and the death of the old self: the name of Christian.

If we wish to win people to a new identity in Christ, we should not try to do it by reinforcing the idolatry that holds them back from Him.  We have a message of the newness that comes by self-surrender, which is directly opposed to the self-centering of transgender ideology.  We speak of a God who gives His name, who calls us for His name, by His name (Acts 15:14, 17).  We take no part in the sacraments of the sexual revolution, because we proclaim the baptism in Jesus Christ.

In Him, we hope, and we are waiting to be named: “and I will give him a white stone, with a new name written on the stone that no one knows except the one who receives it” (Rev. 2:17).

Jesus is Lord.

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