Hands up… who recoiled or cringed at that? (Just so you know, my hand is raised.)
For most of us, it sounds so alien that we can only assume that the person who reinterprets the pronouns in a Bible verse like this must be making some angry feminist point, not interested in exploring God’s word at all.
But can I share another quote that makes me recoil and cringe?
“God revealed Himself in the Bible pervasively as king not queen; father not mother. The second person of the Trinity is revealed as the eternal Son not daughter; the Father and the Son create man and woman in His image and give them the name man, the name of the male…God has given Christianity a masculine feel.”
(That one was the American pastor John Piper by the way, rather than the Bible.)
Why such a strong reaction then to both? In our world, where gender equality is becoming an increasingly pressing concern, where we’re more aware than ever of the power of language to include or exclude oppressed groups, it’s right for us, as Christians, to consider whether we’re using language in a way that reinforces harmful attitudes and assumptions about gender. It’s even more important that we check our language about God. And because it’s important for us to honour God in the way we speak, that’s bound to cause a few differences of opinion.
God is not male. Everyone with me so far? Jesus affirms that ‘God is spirit’. Christian doctrine has always generally agreed that gender is a creaturely distinction, and one that requires a body – though that obviously throws up a few more questions about sex, gender identity and biology – a post for another day. Most of us would say, if asked, that we don’t believe God has a gender. Instead, God transcends gender.
But we tend to use masculine pronouns for God because the Bible does. Yes.
We imagine God as male because Jesus called God ‘Father’. Yes.
Because Jesus, the image of the invisible God, was a man. Yes.
Because dominant images of God are associated with strength and power, with active and protective roles and we’ve been taught that strong means male… Ah.
Because we understand God in part by how we understand ourselves and the theologians who have had the most influence through Christian history have been male… Ah.
Because God is the highest and the greatest and the very best of the best, and our experience tells us that a person at the top is probably male… Ah.
Do you see where we start to have a problem?
Given that women are excluded, abused and silenced across the world and in all spheres of life, both subtly and brutally, there’s good reason to question the effects of choosing to use exclusively masculine language for a God who we admit is not actually male.
Given that women’s experiences of faith have been sidelined, their leadership so often denied, their participation restricted to children’s ministry and crafts, there’s good reason to ask how exclusively masculine language for God affects our experience of knowing God, and ourselves as divine image-bearers.
If we really want to better understand who God is, and if we’re really interested in pursuing fullness of life in relationship with God for everyone, then these are good questions to be asking. We need to lower our defensives, take a deep breath, and start having these conversations with gentleness and respect.
I haven’t got perfect answers, I’m afraid, nor the space here to expand on the many imperfect answers, but here’s a few possibilities to ponder:
- We could stick with masculine language because if it’s good enough for Jesus, and good enough for the Bible, it should be good enough for us. But in doing so, we ignore the beautiful biblical imagery of God giving birth and nursing, and we risk inadvertently affirming stereotypes and excluding those who feel uncomfortable with a ‘masculine feel’.
- We could ditch all gendered pronouns for God, using only the awkward singular ‘they’ or restructuring our sentences to repeat ‘God’ rather than using a pronoun at all. My mum’s church, an MCC church that I love and hugely respect, go further, replacing ‘Father’ with ‘parent’ to avoid any reference to gender. The result is sometimes refreshing, sometimes jarring, and often impersonal. After all, we generally know and relate to people as gendered, so to remove every gendered reference tends to make God an ‘it’, a ‘thing’ rather than a relational being.
- We could broaden our vocabulary, using both female and male pronouns, both Father and Mother, and a diversity of images and metaphors for God. We could start undoing some of our ingrained assumptions about God and gender. Yes, it’s uncomfortable for a while, and yes, it might distract from our worship until we get used to it. But if our comfortable worship is being interrupted to challenge, broaden and deepen our understanding of God, then perhaps that’s a divine interruption to welcome.
As I say, no perfect answers. The important thing is that we start the conversation, for Her glory and our growth.