Language, as a function of our respective cultures, traditions, beliefs and values, expresses our historical and contemporary locations. Language describes what we treasure and what we dismiss, and ascribes relative worth.
Language is also fluid and ever-changing: Popular language changes almost seamlessly with the times. A pair of bell-bottom pants today were known as “galligaskins” in the 17th century. A “dowager” in the 1900s is described today as a middle-aged, formally educated woman. And plain old “bad breath” was once luxuriantly labeled “halitosis.”
Even in our biblical history, our Hebraic ancestors held the name of God as so sacred and awe-filled that laypeople were forbidden to utter it or even write it out phonetically. Instead, the name of God was inscribed in silent letters: “YWJH.” On the other hand, modern Christians say, sing, shout, sign and even shriek the name of God with joyous abandon and familiar love.
Yet, in the United Methodist and other contemporary Christian communions, tension arises whenever women and men challenge the exclusive use of male-oriented pronouns and descriptors for the deity and for humanity. Those who raise the issue are dismissed as petty and mean. Advocates of inclusive and expansive language for God are viewed suspiciously and even denounced as non-Christian.
In 1993, speakers at a Christian women’s gathering hypothesized that the Greek word for wisdom, “sophia,” might actually be another, feminine name for God the Holy Spirit. The organizers of that conference — Christians all — were roundly denounced by self-described “conservative, orthodox, evangelicals” as destructive and “enemies” of the true, Triune God.
That incident alone is a reminder that the language we use is neither neutral nor pure. Language, even that of our faith, is a socio-political and cultural construct shaped by our speakers,’ writers,’ readers’ and hearers’ institutional values, preferences, traditions and prejudices. Therefore, language is shaped by and reflects patriarchy and institutional sexism at work in our church and society.
Terms like “fireman,” “policeman,” “manning your stations” and “the pastor’s wife” come naturally to many of us. We were reared to believe that only men could and should serve as pastors — heterosexual, of course, and married — firefighters, police officers and soldiers. Indeed, for most people aged 40 and older, most pastors, firefighters, police officers, bishops, medical doctors and car mechanics to whom we’ve been exposed have been men.
Remember, our ancestor Methodist Church did not fully embrace ordination of women until 1956. A majority of United Methodist congregations around the world have yet to experience a woman pastor.
Impact of patriarchy
Further, the impact of patriarchy on the structure of the English language has led us to consider words like “men,” “mankind” and “brotherhood” as universal and inclusive of all people. We bristle that more inclusive forms, such as “humankind” are derivative and improper.
The explicit, subtle message of “mankind” language — and aggressive defense of such terms — is that males are still superior and normative, and that females are “other.”
The English rendering of the biblical “Good will on earth; peace to all men” and the hymn “Rise Up! O Men of God!” supposedly refer to all people. Yet, when we sing “Faith of Our Mothers” at worship services during Women’s History Month or Mothers’ Day, it is assumed and intended that these are special, set-apart times for women only.
“Forefathers” established our towns, nations, cultures and religions. “Foremothers,” in most references, are those leaders or founders of the works of women only, or those who did the cooking and supported the real work of men.
Limitations of language
Writer Paul Smith reminds us that the limitations of our language coincide with the very nature of human sin. “No system or part of creation was left out of the fall [of humanity, as described in Genesis], including language,” he writes in Is it Okay to Call God ‘Mother? Considering the Feminine Face of God (pp. 35-36).
“We can see this fallenness of language when women become linguistically invisible,” Smith states. “Language devalues the feminine by attempting to include women in words such as ‘man’ when all of humankind is meant.”
If we are to be our most faithful, the Body of Christ should consider and treat all people equally and with dignity, beyond our human bias about gender, race, age, ability, socio-economic status, creed or orientation. As communicators of the gospel, we can help correct and move the church beyond stereotypical, pat, inaccurate concepts about what it means to be male or female, a person of color or white person, a person who is rich and one who is poor.
Gender-exclusive language about people presents the world God made as male-centric, in direct opposition to the God who created humanity as male and female. Exclusive language further denies the reality of human experience, tradition, wisdom, education and faith.
Gender-exclusive language has from its genesis been intentionally exclusive. Latter-day translators of the gospel story of Jesus feeding the 5,000 have inserted the words “besides the women and children,” after researching the earliest known biblical texts. These translators have acknowledged the editorial license taken by male-centric translators who discounted and ignored the presence of women in the earliest chronicles of church life.
‘All men are created equal’
Drafters of the U.S. Constitution, who asserted “all men are created equal,” were writing a governing document to protect the rights and privileges of white men who owned property, otherwise “equality” did not apply. Women of their day were still denied the right to vote, as were African Americans, who counted as only three/fifths of a human being. Native Americans were not considered citizens of their own nation either.
Even the seemingly innocent practice in many nations of women taking men’s last name when they marry has its roots in a male-centric worldview that men by common consent are to be dominant in romantic, intimate and familial relationship. A woman’s identity comes through her father or her husband, and whole families and communities are defined by the sexual lives of men.
Many Western Christians including those “evangelized” by Western missionaries view this practice as normal and right. But, in fact, ancient Jewish tradition, into which Jesus was born, is matrilineal: A child’s “Jewish” status is determined by the mother’s lineage.
Our language about and names for God are even more rigorously, aggressively male. For many Christians, “Father God” is the one true God and creator of Jesus the Christ. “Mother God” is considered pagan, suspect and illegitimate. “Lord” in English and “Señor” in Spanish are male-centric forms of address for God because we are instructed from our first Sunday school class that God is male.
Depictions of God
Most Christians have been exposed to artist depictions of Jesus as a blond-haired, blue-eyed, light-skinned, European-looking man. Mary was the mother of Jesus, so we assume that God is male.
Many of us picture God as a withered, grandfatherly white man. As a teen, I imagined God looking a lot like my favorite TV dad Noah Beery Jr., who played James Garner’s father on the popular TV show “The Rockford Files.”
Paul Smith reminds us, though, that God sent Jesus to earth as a Jewish male so he could “represent the great high priest in Judaism” (Hebrew 2:17, 5:10). As the Lamb of God, Jesus had to be male, since “only an unblemished male lamb could be the sacrificial offerings in the Jewish sacrificial system” (Hebrew 9:10).
Jesus’ maleness also sent a powerful message to men, according to Smith. “[Jesus] modeled servanthood in a culture where only women served,” Smith points out (pp. 158-160). “What a revolutionary message to men!”
Smith explains that by coming to earth as a new kind of man, Jesus challenged the male-centric culture of his time. Jesus embodied the God who is tough and tender, loving and protective, spirit and incarnate in the flesh, male and female.
When we fail to consider and embrace the full nature of God, Smith says we deny the God in whose image all of us are created: We worship, present to the world and witness in the name of an incomplete God.
God the Father
“Perhaps one of the most profound changes in this journey comes when we abandon the old patriarchal divine images and come alive to God as Woman — mother, sister, grandmother, friend and lover,” Smith writes (p. 170). “Until we understand the feminine side of God we don’t know how to embrace the masculine side without getting entangled again in the old patriarchal images of divinity.”
This is not to say that the church should give up on God the Father. This is a powerful image, considered radical and transformative when Jesus uttered it. Before this time, God was distant, judgmental and strictly authoritarian in much of our biblical story. With the coming of Jesus, God becomes a loving parent, compassionate in the face of our human frailty, forgiving and guiding.
“Abba [father] is an important name for God precisely because it does not convey intimidating and fearful ideas of power and transcendence,” Smith asserts (p. 98), “but rather nearness and intimacy.”
What is less well-known among most Christians is that the God of scripture is a God addressed as and described by our biblical ancestors as being both male and female.
- In Jeremiah 31 and Isaiah 46, God’s “womb” and “motherly compassion” are referenced.
- God is called “El Shaddai” six times in Genesis, which some scholars assert comes from a word meaning “breast.”
- Deuteronomy 32:18 (NIV) blends metaphors to describe the God who both fathers and gives birth.
- Luke 13:34, God-in-Jesus desires to gather the children of Jerusalem “as a hen gathers her brood under her wings.”
It is our stubborn, unquestioned embrace of patriarchy and the long-standing impact of institutional sexism that block our consideration of and relationship with the whole God who created us and came to us in the form of Christ Jesus to redeem our world.
Perhaps, a fresh reading of Scripture in settings where exploration and inquiry are encouraged can open our eyes anew to the wonder and boundless nature of our God, who is Creator/Mother/Father and Redeemer/Savior/Expiation, and Holy Spirit/Comforter/Guardian/Guide.
Questions for consideration and discussion
- Recall an early time in your life when you became aware of God and God’s gender identity.
- Which biblical stories/verses have helped inform and shape your understanding of relationship with God? Who is God to you?
- What might be gained by a biblical understanding of God’s feminine nature? What “mothering” aspects of God can you name and affirm?
- Share names for God that describe God in your life; in the lives of people who are also created in God’s image, but whom you may not encounter regularly (i.e., the poor, victims/survivors of domestic and sexual violence, people who are homeless, people without adequate health-care, people of other races and cultures.)
Editor’s note: M. Garlinda Burton is chief executive of the General Commission on the Status & Role of Women. She is communications chairperson, co-chairperson of children and youth ministries and a trustee at Hobson United Methodist Church in Nashville, Tenn.
This is the second in a series of three articles on sexism by Burton. The first, “Countering institutional sexism,” ran in the June 7 issue of Faith in Action.
“Sex & the Church” is a series of articles that addresses critical aspects of human sexuality. The series began with “The Theology of Sexuality.”
Almost every day, sexuality is featured in the news in one way or another: HIV & AIDS; rising divorce rates brought on by marital infidelity; teen pregnancy; homosexuality and homophobia. It is important for the church to address this issue and its impact on all of us. This is the 24th article in the series. Sex and the church — Politics of language, gender | The General Board of Church and Society.
- I thought that I could not be hurt (barefootpreachr.org)
- I thought that I could not be hurt – part 2 (barefootpreachr.org)