(RNS) — Last month, hundreds of thousands of freshly minted high school graduates stepped onto university campuses for their first day of classes as freshman college students. It is here, in the hallways of academia, where discussion of trendy new personal pronouns is most likely to arise. In fact, some schools now require everyone to list their pronoun when they register for classes and display it on name badges during orientation.
No matter how you square it, the infusion of new pronouns into today’s culture is happening, and Christians would be wise to embrace this opportunity to love our transgender friends well.
Outside of university settings, many feel that being compelled to use a non-traditional pronoun is part of “PC culture” — or that doing so goes against personal religious beliefs on sex and gender. Conservative Christians may reflexively balk at the idea of a progressive society that polices language, and concerns with religious liberty may be well-founded, given developments in universities where Christian student groups are unrecognized due to their LGBTQ policies.
But it’s no infringement on freedom of speech or religion if Christians choose to respect someone’s gender identity by using their preferred pronoun.
While intricate charts indicating new pronoun options and how to use them often elicit eye-rolling from those not invested in the LGBTQ rights movement, Christians should question their annoyance with it.
As Andrew Walker, author of “God and the Transgender Debate,” reminds us: “How a person wants to be referred to communicates how that person understands himself or herself at their deepest, most intimate level.”
This should set off alarm bells for those not yet taking the conversation about preferred pronouns seriously. People are courageously asking us to love them when they introduce their pronoun. Refusal or irritation to recognize this could have devastating spiritual consequences.
Something else to consider? According to the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey, 40% of this population has attempted suicide in their lifetime — nearly nine times the rate in the U.S. population. This is a crisis of despair. Respect and compassion are the least we can offer as individuals navigate their way through it.
Not only that, but as Christians, we should be "set apart" from the world — including in how we display our temperament, express love and cultivate compassion where none exists. Romans 14:3 provides guidance on how Christians should view pronoun preferences that aren't our own: "The one who eats is not to regard with contempt the one who does not eat, and the one who does not eat is not to judge the one who eats, for God has accepted him."
The Bible uses the example of food, but the sentiment easily translates to other life choices. One must not be in full political and moral agreement with someone on issues of sex and gender to reject contempt against them for a preferred pronoun. More importantly, withholding respect for someone's preferences to gain points for your side of the gender debate also withholds love for the person in question.
Shortly afterward in the same chapter in Romans, Paul urges Christians to regard our earthly brothers in this way: "For if because of food your brother is hurt, you are no longer walking according to love. Do not destroy with your food him for whom Christ died" (Romans 14:15).
Again, food translates into other grievances: "For if because of (language), your brother is hurt, you are no longer walking according to love." It may seem a petty offense to those not dealing with gender identity issues, but for those living in the midst of them, it's not.
A Christian's primary purpose in life is to share God's love and the everlasting hope of Jesus with those around us. Anything that detracts from that goal should be re-evaluated. Debates on gender and sexuality aside, "love your neighbor" is an undisputed measure of the gospel and should be prioritized at all times. Being annoyed by "new rules" in society is no excuse to de-emphasize love of neighbor.
I like how Beth Moore spoke about annoyance on Twitter, calling it a "form of pride." She writes:
"Annoyance is a form of pride, of course. It’s arrogance with a side-helping of impatience. Both quench the Spirit & both look ugly on us. We’re Holy Spirit people with the inner unction to be kind, patient, loving and grace-giving. Let’s give what we also require."
Rather than being annoyed that you need to remember a new set of pronouns, view it as a chance to love someone in a very specific way that will speak to their heart and nourish their longing to be seen.
As Philippians 2:4 directs: "Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others."
In reality, only a tiny percentage of the population at this time prefers a non-traditional pronoun. It's not common and isn't cause for panic.
Certainly, times have changed, and we are culturally discussing identity in new ways. However, Christians need not fear culture clash or feel threatened by the personal evolution of others if we are rooted in Christ and in an eternal perspective of love.
Love God, love others — and do so by using their preferred pronoun.
(Ericka Andersen is a freelance writer and mother of two in Indianapolis, Indiana. Her first book is the Thomas Nelson title, "Leaving Cloud 9." The views expressed in this commentary are not necessarily those of Religion News Service.)