0 President Lewis speaking with a student in front of the Chapel Quad

People-First Christianity | President’s Blog

December 3, 2021

When I was a preservice special education teacher, my professors at The University of New Orleans drilled into us the importance of using people-first language (PFL) when referring to students with disabilities. In using PFL, rather than referring to a student as an “autistic girl” or a “learning-disabled boy,” we use language that first and foremost recognizes their personhood—a girl who has autism, a boy with dyslexia. As I soon came to learn as a practicing special educator, the importance of PFL is more than semantic. It is much more than an attempt to be politically correct. Recognizing someone’s personhood first in our language reminds us (and everyone else) that we are dealing with a person first, not a disability.

As Christians, I have come to believe that a person-first perspective can be helpful in how we interact with and serve people—particularly people in situations and predicaments that are sinful, objectionable, or just not to our personal liking. Just as special education teachers are expected to first recognize the personhood of the children they serve, not their disability, I believe, as ambassadors of Jesus Christ, we are called to first recognize the personhood of those we serve. What if, instead of seeing a stealing woman, we saw a woman who had committed theft? What if, instead of seeing a lying man, we saw a man who had lied. What if, instead of seeing a sexually immoral woman, we saw a woman who struggles with sexual immorality.

When I recognize someone’s personhood first, I must also acknowledge that the person is made in the image of God, just like me.

Two women hugging as they comfort one another

The difference between the two perspectives is so much more than semantic. With a person-first perspective, I recognize the personhood of a woman who is an unrepentant sinner; I see her first and her sin second. When I recognize someone’s personhood first, I must also acknowledge that the person is made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27), just like me. We can sometimes get so wrapped up in a person’s sin, their challenges, their shortcomings, their situation, that we forget we are dealing with a person—a person who needs and deserves love and respect. Recognizing someone’s personhood does not negate their sin. Neither does a person-first perspective pretend that sin is not there or that it is acceptable. In dealing with the woman caught in adultery in John 8:11, Jesus treated her with compassion (“Then neither do I condemn you”) and commanded her to sin no more (“Go now and leave your life of sin”). In recognizing that we are first and most importantly dealing with people, God’s children, prayerfully, we will be reminded to deal with them not only with resolve but with overwhelming care and compassion, as modeled by our Savior.

President Wayne D. Lewis Jr.

About the Author

With 20 years of experience in education, higher education leadership is a calling for Wayne D. Lewis, Jr., President of Houghton University. He is recognized as being a champion for students; focusing on improving educational access, opportunities and experiences for students, including those who have historically been underserved.

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