There are two facts about American Christianity that I think we will all agree are true:
(1) Our churches and denominations (and non-denominations) are still largely patriarchal.
(2) The vast majority of people refer to God with male pronouns.
What may be less clear to many American Christians is how these two facts are tied together at deep levels of our understanding of church and God. Many who would lament and oppose patriarchy still use gendered language about the Divine—language that subtly and implacably reinforces our patriarchal tendencies. Let’s examine each of these facts in turn, and perhaps the connections between them will emerge and suggest to us a new way forward.
Smash the Patriarchy
There are plenty of good articles out there that make the case for the importance of female leadership in our churches (here’s an incredibly thorough and Scriptural explanation from Fuller Seminary). I’ll assume that for most readers here at RLC, full gender equality in the church is a clear and obvious need. But even in “egalitarian” contexts, the sad truth is that patriarchy still linger—hiding (or out in the open) in our organizational charts, hiring practices, and ministry committees.
Sometimes this is obvious, as when a church only partially embraces gender equality in the first place. My last church, for instance, made the monumental decision to begin ordaining women as pastors for the first time (in the year of our Lord 2019), but they continue to reserve the elder role—which includes the lead pastor job—only for men. This sort of thing is perhaps unsurprising in conservative evangelical contexts so steeped in patriarchy, but patriarchy is not limited to these churches. Report after report detail the hardships that women face, even in egalitarian traditions, every step along the way in their pastoral journeys: from seminary education to ordination processes to the quest for a pastoral placement (see, for instance, Jaco Hamman’s “Resistance to Women in Ministry and the Psychodynamics of Sadness”).
In traditions whose official statements and by-laws call for women to fully and equally engage in church leadership at all levels, why is there still so much resistance to female leadership? The answer to that question is probably multi-layered and complex, reflecting all the ways our society still suffers from gender bias, male privilege, resistance to change, and on and on. But one factor we may need to start taking more seriously is our gendered language about God.
God, Mother of Us All
There are many understandable reasons we default to “he/his” when referring to God: two persons of the Trinity are Father and Son; the Son became flesh in a male human body; the Bible itself and people throughout church history use male pronouns this way. To be clear, I do not want to vilify anyone who uses male pronouns for God. But just because something is reasonable and historical does not mean it’s without consequence. We can and should examine this very reasonable practice for any damage it might be causing.
Ask any theologian if God is male or female, and they will undoubtedly give you an answer that amounts to “neither” or “gender-expansive” (perhaps explaining that God contains all good characteristics of the full gender spectrum). You might even repeat the question, just to make sure, “God is not a male?” Yes, you heard right the first time, they explain—God is not a male.
Why, then, do we exclusively and always describe God as a Him? Well, we do have the reasons given above, but since we do not consider God to actually be male, the only real answer is that we (read: the biblical authors, priests of old, and our mentors) have always done it that way. We have always done it that way.
And when a practice is doing good, and not harm, we can just keep on doing what we’re doing. But is that the case here? Or is our constant use of male pronouns for God causing us to actually view God as masculine (and by extension favoring men over women deep in our psyches)? Often when asked this, people are somewhat defensive and claim that no, using masculine pronouns in no way causes them to view God as masculine or male. If that’s so—if gendered pronouns do not affect our perception of their referents—then using female or nonbinary pronouns instead shouldn’t make any difference.
Let’s put this theory to the test. Here are two well-known passages to reflect on:
“For God so loved the world that she gave her one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)
“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. She makes me lie down in green pastures; she leads me beside still waters; she restores my soul. She leads me in right paths for her name’s sake.” (Psalm 23:1-3)
I’ve engaged in this exercise with people in real life (well, what passes for real life in the age of quarantine), and the unanimous feedback I’ve received is that these pronouns do change our reception of such verses. And that should be no surprise, given how deeply ingrained the gender binary is in our thinking from childhood. This ought to disturb us on a theological level alone. Why are we using language about a non-gendered or gender-expansive God that makes us view God in accordance with deeply ingrained notions of binary gender?
It must be clear that this is also deeply problematic in our concrete experiences. If our mind holds some qualities to be masculine and some to be feminine, and our pronouns teach us over and over and over again to more closely associate the masculine traits with God, then we will ultimately want the leaders of our homes, churches, businesses, and government to be people who have those masculine traits. And because society conditions males to become masculine men and females to become feminine women, we will simply be reinforcing patriarchy.
There may be even more roads out of this quagmire, but I’ve come across two since my flight from conservatism. One is to simply not use pronouns for God (as I’ve done in this article aside from the thought experiment). This solution helps us question the gender binary and free ourselves from gendered thinking about God. Another option is to use a variety of pronouns when speaking about God (for instance, “Our Father and Mother, who art in Heaven” or “Our Good Parent, who art in heaven”). This allows us to broaden our view of God to more readily include those traits we normally think of as feminine or nonbinary.
May God bring full equality to our churches, and may she teach us how to rightly think and speak about her.