Occasionally, fellow feminists or egalitarians will get in touch to critique my use the masculine pronouns for God when I write or speak publicly. Critique is often hard to hear, of course, but it has often made me a better writer and sometimes even a better follower of Jesus. And in this case, I think that’s a fair critique and question, worthy of a thoughtful response. This is my attempt.
It’s not because I believe God is a man or exclusively masculine. Far from it, in fact.
And it’s not because I believe that’s the best or right or “most biblical” thing to do. In truth, I always feel elated when another writer or preacher avoids gender-specific pronouns or employs both male and female pronouns interchangeably when speaking of God (or, in the case of Anne Lamott, her way of getting around it is to occasionally call God “Howard” which delights me).
I think we limit our understanding of God by only referring to God as “he” or even “she.”
After all, both male and female are made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27). Calling God “Mother” or ascribing to God characteristics that we have traditionally considered more feminine is not only scriptural, but completely within line of our Church history. God is described in scripture as a midwife, as a mother, as a nurse. God is referred to by Jesus as “Father” or “Abba” (a tender word for father, similar to our “Daddy”) and yet the Holy Spirit is often described using a feminine noun in Hebrew. The Apostle Paul himself often employed feminine metaphors or experiences to explain the work of the Spirit – pregnancy, labour, birth, and breastfeeding.
As my dear friend, Rachel Held Evans wrote on the topic back in May:
Finally, the self-naming of God in Scripture is “I AM WHO I AM”—a name without gender. I suspect that’s because, though God is a person, God is not a human being like us. The people of Israel received a strong warning from God about this in Deuteronomy 4:15-17: “You saw no form of any kind the day the Lord spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire. Therefore watch yourselves very carefully, so that you do not become corrupt and make for yourselves an idol, an image of any shape, whether formed like a man or a woman, or like any animal on earth or any bird that flies in the air…”
There’s no good scriptural or theological or even church-historical argument for exclusively requiring or using male pronouns for God. God is neither male nor female.
I’ve used both male and female pronouns for God occasionally in my work. You wouldn’t have too look very far into my book or my blog to find those metaphors or phrases or pronouns, not at all. But it is true: I often default to male pronouns.
When I hear from people who are hurt or surprised by my use of pronouns in preaching or prayer, I think it’s a legit critique. But I don’t use those masculine pronouns or call God “Father” in prayer without purpose. Some might find my reasoning flawed. (I think that’s fair, too.) To me, this is simply a matter of personal conviction. There isn’t a right or wrong answer here, not really.
So here’s my big secret reason: I want to serve the Church in love. This is my small way of trying to build bridges and create pipelines for people to move towards freedom and justice. This is me walking a few steps into their familiar territory instead of waiting for everyone to line up where I think we should line up before the conversation even begins.
And for some of our brothers and sisters, those who have not yet experienced freedom in this area, any other pronoun or name only distracts or offends.
I choose to use familiar pronouns in order to reach even more with the message of Christ’s freedom and love.
People and publishers don’t require it of me. Not all. In fact, if someone did, I’d probably be much more prone to take a big stand against such restrictions to the freedom that Christ has given us and become a bit more militant about it.
I do this only out of care and love for the ones who haven’t received this revelation yet.
I do it to create a pathway for those coming after us.
It’s not an easy choice but given the nature of my work and witness and audience, it is where I have felt lead to submit.
I want to build bridges. This is a concession that I make as an effort to build bridges and reach out to those who are still new to the idea that both men and women are made in the image of God.
For so many who read Jesus Feminist, it was a huge leap of bravery to read something with the “f-word” in the title. I honour their bravery. So my heart was, and continues to want to, make space for their legacy and experiences with my public language about God. I want to meet our brothers and sisters halfway with my hand outstretched.
Of course, I don’t believe God is exclusively or primarily male. And to be honest, in my personal journalling and prayer life, I either avoid pronouns or employ both in equal measure. Much like Anne Lamott’s “Howard,” these days, I find myself calling God “Love” as if it’s their name. But I don’t do so publicly because I don’t want that to serve as a distraction.
If I used female pronouns only to “prove a point” or to deliberately distract or anger or offend my brothers and sisters in Christ, then I think my reasons for doing so would be selfish and suspect, perhaps even filled with pride at the ways that I am “enlightened” compared to others. I appreciate those who feel called to blow these assumptions up and push back here with consistency – I don’t think that my way is the only right way, I’m simply sharing my convictions right now.
In 1 Corinthians 8, Paul warns us about how we walk in the freedom we enjoy in Christ: “But you must be careful so that your freedom does not cause others with a weaker conscience to stumble. For if others see you—with your “superior knowledge”… won’t they be encouraged to violate their conscience… So because of your superior knowledge, a weak believer for whom Christ died will be destroyed. And when you sin against other believers by encouraging them to do something they believe is wrong, you are sinning against Christ. So if what I eat causes another believer to sin, I will never eat meat again as long as I live—for I don’t want to cause another believer to stumble.”
Now, granted, Paul was specifically talking about how some believers felt free to eat food that was sacrificed to idols while others were horrified at the idea. But the underlying truth of his words serves as a universal guide for us today – we live our lives not only for ourselves but for those with whom we are in community. And, yes, I do see myself as “in community” with those who read my work or come to hear me preach. I care deeply about their histories and legacies, about the bravery it often requires to step out in faith to their new convictions and the price they often pay.
It was for this same reason that my husband and I chose to have a “dry” wedding without any alcohol all those years ago – we did as a sign of respect for those among us who had strong feelings or experiences around alcohol, particularly our parents. Even though we personally feel okay with drinking wine, we don’t do so in front of those whom it would offend or if it would cause others to stumble. We make those choices, not out of shame, but out of love and respect.
So as an act of love and respect, I have chosen to submit myself to the preferences of others.
People can get so tripped up with a pronoun that they miss the truth that we preach about the Kingdom of God, about freedom, about our value, about calling and vocation, even about marriage. It’s not perfect, but it’s reality.
In some contexts, it would be the equivalent of setting up a road block to freedom for some of our brothers and sisters. And I won’t do that. I won’t set up that stumbling block.
Should it be a stumbling block? Absolutely not. Of course not. But do we make our decisions in our interactions with one another based on “what should be” or based on the reality of the situation? Perhaps I’m simply too much of a realist.
In a weird sort of way, it’s the same with cursing. I very rarely curse in my writing – and even when I do, it’s of a rather mild variety. Even though the situation may call for it, I know that there are a lot of people who will simply shut down and check out the second they see a curse word or an offensive word. They’ll miss the truth of what I’m writing because I’ve distracted them. It’s not the same thing at all, but it sort of is related to my mind.
Paul wrote often about the freedom we enjoy in Christ but he also wrote about our obligation to one another, particularly to those who are either weaker or not yet free; he exhorted us to choose the slavery of loving them over the freedom of our own expressions. He himself wrote in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23:
“Even though I am a free man with no master, I have become a slave to all people to bring many to Christ. When I was with the Jews, I lived like a Jew to bring the Jews to Christ. When I was with those who follow the Jewish law, I too lived under that law. Even though I am not subject to the law, I did this so I could bring to Christ those who are under the law. When I am with the Gentiles who do not follow the Jewish law, I too live apart from that law so I can bring them to Christ. But I do not ignore the law of God; I obey the law of Christ. When I am with those who are weak, I share their weakness, for I want to bring the weak to Christ. Yes, I try to find common ground with everyone, doing everything I can to save some. I do everything to spread the Good News and share in its blessings.“
I have submitted myself to the familiar language of many in order to bring as many people along with me as possible.
So rather than derail the conversation or perhaps the work that the Holy Spirit is up to with the distraction of pronouns, sure, I’ll call God “Father” and I will use the word “he” while I pray to build bridges. Absolutely.
I will use the common pronouns of our church language in order to reach even more with the greater truth behind the pronouns. I figure we’ll get there on pronouns eventually and in the meantime, the bridge is open, the path is clear, and I’ll stand with arms wide open to welcome as many as possible to freedom.
I’ve made this imperfect choice out of love.