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A Top Pastor’s Culture War Surrender

J.D. Greear, president of the Southern Baptist Convention. His pronouns are he/him (ERLC screenshot)

A reader — a former Evangelical, but still Protestant Christian — passes along a surprising thing that J.D. Greear, pastor and president of the Southern Baptist Convention — said. The reader, who sends me things from time to time, writes (I’ve slightly edited the text of his letter):

I said in an email the other day that I thought the SBC would schism soon because the urban ones would follow the culture. Well, I think that day may be closer than I imagined. I mean, read the transcript:

Greear said that while there is room for disagreement and Christians should disagree charitably, he sees it as a hospitable courtesy to refer to transgender people by their chosen pronouns, despite knowing that their sex does not match their descriptors.

“There is a spectrum of generosity of spirit vs. telling truth,” Greear wrote in the podcast’s description. “I tend toward generosity of spirit.”

The reader has a very strong view of this. He described this as “mealy-mouthed,” and went on:

From a Sunday School teacher who works at a newspaper or community college during the week, it might be forgivable. Some men are stronger than others. But this guy is supposed to be a leader! Not just a pastor of a megachurch, but the President of the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination by far in the U.S. Really and truly, if the SBC goes down, theologically orthodox Christians across America are in deep trouble.

More:

1) There is no need to use the pronouns. The only pronouns I call someone when talking to them are the 2nd person pronouns like ‘you’. If you must talk about someone in the 3rd person in front of them, you can always use their name or the common (but incorrect) ‘they’ that all of us have used as a 3rd person pronoun when our English teachers weren’t watching. This was virtue-signaling pure and simple.

2) The danger is real. When we give in on this, we are denying reality and forced to commit doublethinks. I cannot take anyone seriously who thinks it is a good habit to engage in habitual doublethinking. We are enabling the PC police to further erode the culture and destroy very important norms–norms essential to the survival of human communities. A human society that is post-sex is not going to last long and will spiral down into unimagined depravities on the way down.

3) More to the immediate situation, this perverse rhetoric is being used to justify mutilating young people–binding breasts, hacking them off, and castrating young men. When you use these pronouns to win the approval of the PC police, you aren’t cutting off any girl’s breasts, but you are approving of it and enabling it. …

4) I looked at Greear’s website. We shouldn’t be surprised at his stance. What I saw looked to me like a whole lot of self-help, inspirational, moralistic therapeutic deism. Jesus is mentioned a lot of course, but sort of as a life coach. Now to be fair, I have not read his books, only summaries. But they seemed all too American, all too consumer culture, all too middle class. I realize that he would probably be utterly bewildered at such a criticism, but the Great Story of Salvation was nowhere to be seen. It looks like fitting God and Christianity into categories suitable for middle class modern life.

5) Raleigh, NC. Like I said, as Evangelicals enter the professional class, they will adopt their values. Raleigh is exactly the sort of urbane post-Southern city I am thinking of here. … Keep your eye on the major urban centers of the South and their suburban churches. I think the Evangelicals in Atlanta, Nashville, and most of North Carolina’s cities are ripe for the plucking by the cultural left. Charlotte, Fort Worth, and OKC are a little bit behind, but I think they will end up in the same place. Places like Shreveport, Lubbock, Mobile still seem relatively safe for now, but don’t count on that lasting. I can’t speak to Baton Rouge, but where there are Evangelicals getting college educations and working in growing white collar professions, they will succumb to the values of the elite very quickly. It isn’t just sociological; their empty ego-centered MTD theology of Jesus-as-life-coach has prepared the ground well.

What do you think? I don’t know J.D. Greear, but the few times I’ve seen his name in the news, I’ve been impressed with him. But I have to say that the reader is generally right about the capitulation on pronouns. It’s discouraging to see a Virginia schoolteacher lose his job because he wouldn’t use the preferred pronoun (he just called the trans kid by the kid’s name), but a major Evangelical leader yield to be nice. I can understand somebody like a teacher, or an ordinary employee at an organization, choosing to yield on this issue in the workplace because they have kids to feed. I don’t necessarily agree with it, but I can understand it. But who, exactly, is going to fire the president of the Southern Baptist Convention for not getting with the progressive program on pronouns? As with the Chick-fil-A capitulation earlier this week, it was conservative Christians operating from a position of strength, but surrendering anyway.

I see no reason for us not to take Pastor Greear at his word that he uses preferred pronouns out of “generosity of spirit,” even at the expense of truth. That’s something that makes intuitive sense to me. When I was a kid, there was an older man who lived in our town who insisted that people address him as “Colonel.” I recall that nobody believed that he had actually been a colonel, but everybody used his preferred honorific out of courtesy to him, and because what did it hurt? Let the old man have his fantasy.

But then, as I said, nobody was hurt by this courtesy. As this blog’s reader points out, the ideology that compels us to use “preferred pronouns” is one that leads to the mutilation of young bodies and the ruin of young lives. (Read Madeleine Kearns’s powerful piece on the poor Texas boy caught in the middle of a trans drama with his divorced parents.)

It is causing people who don’t conform to lose their jobs. I interviewed this past summer, for my book project, a senior physician who emigrated to America from the Soviet bloc, and who talked about the transgender issue in American medicine in terms appropriate to Soviet-style political mandates. He is a practicing Christian, and said that the issue of “health” in these matters is entirely determined by cultural politics. He only talked to me after I promised I wouldn’t use his name. He told me the kinds of precautions he takes on social media, and in every aspect of his public-facing life, so he won’t be found out as someone who questions transgenderism, and the rest of the progressive project. I swear, it was like talking to a doctor trying to keep the secret police off his back — but this is America.

If the Democratic Party has its way, and passes the Equality Act — it passed the House this year, but the GOP Senate didn’t take it up — then the use of preferred pronouns will become a federal civil rights mandate.

So, look, I understand the desire for a pastor to be gracious to people he’s trying to evangelize, and not to enter into conversations with them from an adversarial position. But the pronoun issue is not merely a matter of courtesy. It means something substantively. The use of language creates social realities. Read your Orwell: what we say and how we say it frames the way we perceive and interpret the world. Progressives understand this well, which is why they insist on preferred pronoun usage. By doing so, they are creating “facts on the ground.” When religious and cultural leaders concede this territory for the sake of being nice, they surrender more ground than they realize. They are laying down arms in the face of the ideological colonization of our collective moral imagination.

When Solzhenitsyn told the Soviet people “live not by lies,” he was not telling them to refuse to humor an eccentric old man who wants people to think he was a military officer. He was telling them to refuse in every way the fictions that support the malignant Soviet system, which was built of lies, and survived because everybody was too afraid to say, “This is a lie, and I’m not going to participate in it.” Once more, I can see where a school bus driver, or a car salesman, or an administrative assistant, would decide that he or she couldn’t risk losing a job over this, because they had mouths to feed at home. I don’t like it, but I can understand it.

But J.D. Greear has nothing to worry about on the employment front — and his example will lead, or mislead, many, in consequential ways. Leaders lead. Mom and Dad may learn from their conservative pastor that they should use preferred pronouns, even though these pronouns are based on an untruth, but their kids will not make that distinction. The kids, having grown up in a world where everybody uses preferred pronouns, are naturally going to assume that these words correspond to reality. The use of language will train minds to believe that gender really is fluid, and corresponds to biology only incidentally. And eventually, no one will remember a time when people believed anything other than the lie.

Peter Vlaming, a Virginia schoolteacher and Christian, was fired for taking a stance that the president of the Southern Baptist Convention refuses to take, because he judges it discourteous. Vlaming, the sole provider for his wife and their four kids, said at the 2018 school board hearing in which he was dismissed:

“Even higher than my family ranks my faith.”

And then, after he was sacked:

“There are some hills that are worth dying on.”

Which one of these men — Greear or Vlaming — is the better representative of Christianity in the public square? If you are a Christian facing job loss over pronouns, who would offer wiser counsel: an unemployed Virginia schoolteacher, or the president of the Southern Baptist Convention?

UPDATE: In that podcast, Greear advises his listeners to read two books on transgender: Andrew T. Walker’s, and Ryan T. Anderson’s. Both of those writers are friends of mine, and both are quite conservative on gender issues. Greear cites Walker a couple of times as his guide on the issue. Walker has written:

Pronouns are not an insignificant issue. How a person wants to be referred to communicates how that person understands himself or herself at their deepest, most intimate level. This means that language has deeply significant meaning embedded in its usage. The use of language is an attempt to name and give meaning to reality. Pronouns and gendered names, therefore, refer to a reality in which the transgendered individual is wishing to live. The question we as Christians have to consider is whether the reality we are being asked to affirm is objective and corresponds to biblical truth, or whether the reality we are being asked to acknowledge is subjective and false. Nothing less than the truth and authority of God’s revelation over created reality is up for grabs in something as seemingly innocent as pronoun usage. Because, at root, the transgender debate is a metaphysical debate about whose version of reality we live in, and only one account—Jesus Christ’s (Colossians 1:15-20)—can lead us into truth about reality and human flourishing. No amount of willing something into existence that is at odds with one’s biology—such as one’s gender identity—can bring that desired reality about.

Before I state how I’ve evaluated the issue and the conclusion I’ve reached, I think it is important to state that Christians of goodwill who seek to obey and believe the Bible disagree, prudentially, on what the best pathway is concerning transgender persons and pronouns. This is important to establish because this should not be an issue that divides otherwise Bible-believing Christians.

If you read Walker’s long article about it, it’s full of practical wisdom for navigating these situations. If you only hear Greear’s podcast, you might think that his stance is the same as Walker’s. I don’t think that’s true. Walker draws much narrower boundaries for pronoun usage. Greear’s stance, judging by his podcast comments, is to deflect in every case to using the trans person’s pronoun, even though he personally believes that the trans person is not, in reality, the gender he or she claims to be.

For Greear, it’s not an issue of metaphysical or theological truth; it’s about strategy. He says, “Is that the battlefront you want to choose?”

Walker says in his piece that one should not lead with contradicting a trans church visitor’s gender status, but only confront them if they want to be involved in the life of the church. That makes sense to me, prudentially. It sounds, though, like Greear goes further, adopting that context-specific approach to his entire relationship with trans folks.

Greear, like Walker, says that Christians can disagree in good conscience over how to handle this matter. Greear, in the podcast, says, “You need to do what your conscience allows you to do.” The problem with that, as I said above, is that language is a teacher. 

To be clear, I don’t think J.D. Greear is a liberal about this stuff. No liberal would recommend Andrew T. Walker and Ryan T. Anderson on the subject of transgenderism! But I think in his effort to be pastoral, he concedes ground that he should not concede. It’s one thing to use preferred pronouns in very specific situations; it’s another to use them as a general practice. Whether or not he realizes it, Pastor Greear is undermining his own professed convictions on gender and biology.

My bottom line: I think Greear’s heart is in the right place here, but he’s wrong, and a pastor of his authority being wrong is consequential.

UPDATE.2: Reader Harold Steiner:

This is one of those situations where I can kind of understand where he’s coming from. Partly. Somewhat.

When I listen to people who are actually in the evangelism field talk about their interactions with transgender people, they say that they use the preferred pronouns because it keeps the communication channels open. Refusing to use their pronouns basically shuts down the conversation and any chance of actually sharing the gospel or trying to change their worldview.

Which makes sense to me, but appears to me as the proverbial camel’s nose in the tent. It is surrendering a tremendous point of contention for the sake of appeasing people who are not just being unreasonable, but who take every concession as grounds for pushing further. Everyone loves to use Acts 17 to say, “Even Paul knows how to make wise use of an opposing worldview,” but this seems very different.

Reader Robert:

Just as bad (or worse): Like Francis’ mealy-mouthed pastoral statements (“Who am I to judge?”), this leaves his flock exposed.

“This isn’t bigotry,” they’ll say. “We just have a philosophical difference of opinion.”

HR’s response: “Your own leaders don’t agree with you. You’re obviously just a bigot. Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.”

UPDATE.3: Ryan Booth, a Southern Baptist layman:

I was really disappointed to see this from Greear.

As it happens, I basically agree with him on the substance of what he said. As you know, Rod, I welcomed a temporarily homeless transgender couple (a man and a F to M transperson) into my home in the wake of the 2016 flood, and I certainly used “he” and “him” in their presence, as I was specifically trying to be hospitable.

But just because I agree with Greear on the actual issue absolutely does not mean that this was a good thing for him to say. It comes off as capitulating to our sinful culture, it unnecessarily creates division in the SBC, and it fuels the false narrative that our denomination is going liberal.

Greear’s job as SBC President isn’t to create unnecessary confusion and division in our denomination. Again, I am really disappointed that he said this.

UPDATE.4: One of Greear’s congregation defends his preaching:

I do go to the Summit with my wife. We have been there before JD was the pastor. If anyone thinks the Gospel isn’t preached with passion and clarity, they simply don’t know what they are talking about. JD Greear is as good a communicator of the Bible and the Gospel of Christ as anyone I’ve ever heard (and I listen to David Jeremiah, Ravi Zacharias, Matt Chandler, Bill Johnson, John Piper, etc).

I may not agree with JD on this issue, but a “self help” church is a comment based in ignorance. I’ve probably listened to…well…18 years of Sundays. There is no pastor I’ve ever heard that I would rather a believer or non-believer hear for salvation and christian growth than JD Greear.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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