How Should We Address One Another?
Today I want to answer a question a friend asked me in person.
This question was phrased in a funny way. That's mostly because my friend didn't want to prejudice my answer. It's like one of those questions about how to pronounce a certain word.
Rather than saying, "How do you pronounce tomato?" You say, "How would you pronounce the word for the red fruit, which is commonly confused as a vegetable, which is served with salads, on hamburgers, or to create marinara sauce?"
It's cumbersome, but it avoids prejudicing the person who hears you from saying tomato rather than tomato. [Did you catch that inflection?]
If you pronounce the word itself in your question, you will prejudice the person in their response (either by encouraging them to adopt your pronunciation, or - especially if it's me - prejudicing them to come up with an alternative pronunciation just to be ornery.) So this is the question I was asked: "How should we call and identify people in the church who feel attractions towards members of the same sex? What address should be used?"
The questioner didn't use the terms "gay Christian" or "same-sex attracted" because he didn't want to prejudice my answer.
My answer, in short, is this: I don't know.
Every situation will have surrounding circumstances which will dictate how you ought to speak. I cannot account for all of them and tell you how you always ought to answer.
But you ought to always be gracious in your speech. That is General Principle Number 1.
Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person. - Galatians 4:6
General Principle Number 2.
You're usually going to be addressing people with their names.
There are very few situations where you're going to address someone with anything other than their name.
If you're addressing the Pope as "Your Excellency" or an elected official as "Mrs. Mayor," for example, that would be a proper address. Outside of those situations, or where another personal pronoun will be appropriate, you're generally going to use a person's name.
Of course this question came to me because of my public stance on a difficult topic. As someone who is experiencing same-sex sexual and romantic desires, and speaks on the topic publicly, this will be relevant when the friend is referring to me.
So how should he address, describe, or refer to a Christian with same-sex sexual and romantic desires?
Graciously. With the person's name.
And when the relevant situation leads you to refer to the specific challenge of same-sex sexual and romantic desires, I would argue against using any identity labels based on those desires. Typically people would use the term "gay" or "same-sex attracted" as identifiers.
We shouldn't use any identity terms based on desire.
What other area do we have identity terms - terms of being (he is gay, he is same-sex attracted) - based on desire?
We don't have any other identity terms based on internal desire. I don't know of any.
If you know of any, or think of any, please let me know. I've thought this over for a number of years and have had it on my radar, but have never come across one.
We have identity labels for people based on their nationality (American, French, Australian, etc.); their global position (Western, Eastern, Middle Eastern, etc.); affiliations (Republican, Democrat, Independent, non-denominational, Roman Catholic, etc.) etc.
Do we have any descriptors based on preferences? Anglophile, Francophile, or Anglophobe are the closest I can think of. These are descriptors based on preference for (or antipathy for) certain countries and their products.
But is desire itself the basis for an identifier?
That's like someone coming up with a word to identify me based on my aesthetic propensity toward the color green.
I'm not identified based on my attraction toward green clothing or green scenery [green + scenery = greenery?]. That doesn't identify me. It's not my identity.
Groups of guys are often found asking the question of one another, "Blondes or Brunettes?" (Neglecting the obvious answer: Red Heads.)
But there's no descriptor word based on the answer given to that question.
"Oh he's a brunette-lover."
That is a strange term. Why would we identify the person based on his preference for brunette hair? He's not defined by that attraction.
He's a man who has a preference for brunettes.
There is my conclusion. We shouldn't identify people based on their desires. It's true for all other desires, and shouldn't be any different with respect to the question of who we are sexually or romantically attracted to.
General Principle Number 3.
Don't impose your own preferred identity label on others. If someone has chosen to adopt an identity term based on their sexual desires, we should only use the term that they have adopted. If we use any at all, it should be the one they have chosen and accepted, whether that term is "gay," "straight," "bi," "same-sex attracted," or "opposite-sex attracted." [I don't think I've heard anyone use the term "opposite-sex attracted" other than myself.]
You may think that your term is better. Don't use your term for them when they have chosen another.
Now, again, I don't think that any identity label should be used. And you can choose to not use an identity label even if the person has chosen to use one for themselves.
You don't have to refer to them that way. Address them by their name.
But if you do use an identity label based on sexual desires, or find yourself in a situation where using one would be useful or constructive, don't choose to call someone "same-sex attracted" when they have chosen to call themselves "gay."
Who are you to say to them, "Your chosen term is not the correct one, and I will give you the correct one?"
Now this is something I have personal experience with. Although I have refused to use identity labels, I'm sure there are times I've slipped up and have used some.
But I have had people say to me, "You are gay. Just admit it." And they've tried to foist that label on me.
This is the height of arrogance.
I have clearly given thought to the identity label of "gay" as used to describe myself and I have rejected it.
How dare you come along and presume that you can impose it upon me?
It's wrong for them to do it to me. It would be wrong for me to do it to others.
So do not impose your preferred identity label on others based on your own conclusions on what is most appropriate.
Again, address Christians with same-sex attraction by their name, not using any identity labels based on desires (but if they have chosen one, only use that one and don't impose a different one because you think you know better).
General Principle Number 4.
Uphold the humanity of the person before describing any experiences, conditions, or qualities of the person.
Our society has undertaken to do this very deliberately with respect to people with disabilities.
It wasn't a few years ago that I would not have thought twice about saying "the disabled person." But I have realized, after being shown, that "person with disability" is much more appropriate.
Now the distinction between those two addresses seem inconsequential, but they make a big difference.
Saying "disabled person" puts the disability before the person. The subject is a person, a human being made in the image and likeness of God. I shouldn't be addressing them first with a disability. I should be putting their humanity in the forefront.
So rather than saying "the blind man," I say the "man who is blind."
And you could argue, and I would agree, that those who say "the blind man" don't mean anything by it. They don't have any ill intent by maintaining that someone is blind and saying it in that fashion. They're simply describing the reality.
But the order of the words does indeed diminish the humanity of the subject in a small and seemingly inconsequential way. But how big a deal is it to simply switch the order and put the humanity forefront?
If any descriptors are necessary to describe a person, put those descriptors after the humanity.
In the same way, rather than saying "the gay man," say "the man who is gay."
(Only if that is the identity label the man has chosen. Preferably no identity label will be used at all.)
To be clear, I am only using this example of blindness for linguistic reasons. I am in no way saying that desires for same-sex sexual or romantic relationships are the same or even akin to any physical disability.
I'm only saying that, just as the description of the disability should follow humanity, so should any descriptions of desires.
The humanity should come first, and the descriptors should always come second. Uphold the priority of humanity. Put the descriptors of disability second, if at all.
Abilities do not define a person.
Desires do not define a person.
We are human beings.
So address people as people, and always keep the descriptions of sexual desires - whatever they want to call it - second.
And with Christians it's even more fundamental than that.
General Principle Number 5.
Our identity is as a New Creation in Christ!
Old things have passed away, behold, all things have become new.
Uphold that identity first and foremost with Christians.
So when we address Christians with same-sex attraction, we want to keep the reality of their identity in Christ first and foremost.
When you address me, you could appropriately refer to me in this way: Sean Maguire. A new creation in Christ. He experiences same-sex sexual and romantic desires.
It's a mouthful, but it's a valuable thing to remind me of. It's an encouragement to hear others affirm the reality of my position in Christ.
Here are some ways that you can encourage a Christian who experiences same-sex sexual and romantic desires. Refer to them in these terms:
I am one of God’s Holy People (Ephesians 5:3)
I am Wonderfully Created (Psalm 139:14)
I am a Brother to Jesus (Hebrews 2:11)
I am God's Beloved Child (Ephesians 5:1)
I am an Adopted Son of God (Ephesians 1:4-5)
I am made in the Image of God (Genesis 1:27)
I am Chosen by God (Colossians 3:12)
I am a Future Judge of Angels (1 Corinthians 6:3)
I am God’s Heir (Galatians 4:7)
I am an Ambassador of Christ (2 Corinthians 5:20)
I am a Friend of Jesus (John 15:14–15)
I am a Child of God (1 John 3:1)
I am the Salt and Light of the World (Matthew 5:13–14)
I am the Righteousness of God (2 Corinthians 5:21)
I am a New Creation (2 Corinthians 5:17)
I am God’s Workmanship (Ephesians 2:10)
I am the Temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19)
I am a Member of God’s Household (Ephesians 2:19)
I am a Citizen of Heaven (Philippians 3:20)
These are just some of the many ways we can refer to our Christian brothers and sisters who experience same-sex sexual and romantic attractions. Each of them from this list came from my friend, Professor Joel Hesch, who wrote them as part of the study on sexual freedom called Proven Men.
Another friend of mine pointed out that another way to address those who faithfully wrestle against their same-sex sexual and romantic desires is this: Heroes of the Faith.
I flush to hear that statement. I certainly don't think what I'm doing is heroic - especially compared to the many heroes of the faith recorded in such books as Foxe's Book of Martyrs and the Missionary books from YWAM that I read as a child.
Am I a hero of the faith? I don't feel like it. But all of those other statements are true of me, no matter how I feel.
So we should address one another with these addresses. Children of God. Light of the World. New Creations. Image Bearers of the Holy God. God's Workmanship. Chosen. Beloved. Let us not focus on the desires that others have. We should address Christians with the terms that reflect this incredible reality. We are Joint Heirs with Christ! We have been given the right to become Children of God! Encourage one another with these words.