Gender-Inclusive Language; Gender-Inclusive God (Part 1)

From the archives: originally posted January 16th and 17th, 2012

I grew up in a politically and spiritually conservative Southern hometown.  When I was younger, I thought conversations about gender-inclusion were silly, that people who made such a big deal out of small things were petty and that they should stop trying so hard to fight against what’s normal and accepted and expected.  The first time I read dear Madeleine L’Engle‘s Walking on Water, I agreed with her when she wrote,

I am a female of the species man. Genesis is very explicit that it takes both male and female to make the image of God, and that the generic word man includes both….That is Scripture, therefore I refuse to be timid about being part of mankind. We of the female sex are half of mankind, and it is pusillanimous to resort to he/she, him/her, or even worse, android words….When mankind was referred to it never occurred to me that I was not part of it or that I was in some way being excluded.

I agreed with her because I thought that was my experience, too.  I thought I understood myself as intrinsically included equally in the world alongside my brothers, my father, my male classmates, and all the men I knew.  All through grade school, high school, and most of college, I maintained this understanding.  Then in my search for a church community near my college, I stumbled upon a respectable little PCA church nearby.

Being ignorant of the difference between PCA and PCUSA denominations, I began attending. For a while, I enjoyed the verse-by-verse explication of Galatians in the Sunday School class, and I dutifully followed the class into the sanctuary each week for the main church service.

But then I noticed something disturbing.

The senior pastor, a man, would lead us in a weekly congregational prayer for all the men in seminary and all the men on the mission field, asking God to empower the future leaders of the Church.  I found myself wondering, what about the women in seminary and the women on the mission field?  At the time, I already had close female friends in both categories, not to mention I have a number of female missionaries in my family tree, including my grandmother.

Then I noticed something else. There were only men up front.  Men preached.  Men led and performed the music.  Men prayed.  Men served communion.  Men took up the offering.  Once I saw a woman stand up to share an update about the Children’s Ministry, and I was shocked when she stood on the ground in front of the pulpit while the man in the pulpit unhooked the microphone from its stand and handed it down to her.  Why didn’t he just move over so she could speak on the raised stage where everyone could see her? I wondered.  Her speech seemed disembodied because I could only see the slight movement of the top of her head as she spoke. I was disturbed to see a woman in ministry so publicly and literally positioned below a man in ministry.

That was the last time I attended that church.

I didn’t think too much more about the issue until I moved to California after college to enter seminary.  I was surprised at some of the reactions I got from my friends back home.  Some asked me what degree I was pursuing and were visibly relieved when I told them I wasn’t planning to be a pastor.  Others actually told me I was going to hell and stopped speaking to me.  While some of my family members were supportive and even encouraging of my seminary training, others became hurtful and even combative, telling me I should come home, that I shouldn’t be in seminary because I’m a woman.

Then there were the people I met in seminary, both students and professors.  Not just women, but men were advocating for women in ministry, arguing for equality, and providing opportunities for women to step up into leadership positions.  My seminary has a seminary-wide gender-inclusive language policy, and I was surprised as I began sitting in lectures and writing papers how thoroughly ingrained I was in gender-specific language, especially when it came to language about God.

The more I thought about the language I used, the more I realized that I had been wrong when I thought the issue was silly and petty.  I was wrong to agree with Madeleine L’Engle that everyone was intrinsically included in gender-specific language.  The more I learned about the history behind the language and the way it had been used to marginalize and oppress over the centuries, the more convinced I became that it was my responsibility as a woman, as a Christian woman, as a Christian woman who–dare I say it?–has been given certain qualities and skills of a leader, to hold myself to a higher standard of language and to advocate for gender-inclusion, not just in language but in life–church life, home life, and public life.

That’s a tall order.  And as an introvert, as a conflict-avoidant person, and as woman who grew up believing barefoot-and-pregnant was all was I meant to be, living into my calling as a female Christian leader seems impossible. Yet, God does not call us to impossible tasks, for the Bible tells me so: the Spirit of God does not make me timid but gives me power, love, and self-discipline (2 Tim 1:7).

Indeed, the Spirit I received does not make me a slave to culture or to other people’s expectations of who I am supposed to be so that I return to live in fear again of coloring outside other people’s lines; rather, the Spirit I received brought about my adoption as a daughter of God–by which I receive all the honor, standing, and inheritance of the Most High God. And because of this Spirit and this adoption, I cry out to God with all the confidence and innocence of a toddler calling for “ma-ma” or “da-da” (or “a-ba”)…and I know God answers me with all the immediacy, care, and tenderness of a proud and loving parent (Romans 8:15).

To be continued in the next post.

 

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About Laura K. Cavanaugh

I'm a writer, spiritual director, and advocate of holistic body theology.

Posted on June 17, 2013, in Community, Equality, Identity, Image of God and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. We don’t have female priests in the Catholic Church, but we do have a long tradition of female leadership, though it’s not always recognized as such. Though we refer to God exclusively as male, it’s interesting how often Jesus is described as a Mother in the writings of the saints.

    • You’re very right, William. I notice female imagery especially in the writings of the mystics. I wonder what the Church would look like if we were all as open to the movement and inspiration of the Holy Spirit as they were. And hey, one day there will be female priests. Think we’ll live to see it happen?

      • There is also a LONG history of female saints and several “Doctors of the Church” (the most important theologians). Women had prominent roles of leadership in the Catholic Church for centuries, despite not being ordained or part of Church government.

        Actually, John Paul II wrote about God as both mother and father. (I believe he had a few things to say on body theology.) His work was heavily influenced by that of St. Edith Stein.

        As for women priests, the Vatican has pretty much said absolutely no way. They studied the issue in the 1970s and found they couldn’t ordain women without saying something heretical about either the Virgin Mary or the sacramental priesthood. (Why wasn’t Mary a priest?) They did, however, open many OTHER Church ministries to women, including, most visibly, Altar Girls.

        They are looking into women deacons, though. This would allow women to read the gospel and give the homily. I think we will see some form of “deaconess” in the Catholic Church near future.

      • Thanks for weighing in, friend, and sharing your thoughts. I heard it said once that change in the Church (or any large organization) is like turning a cruise ship. We might not be able to adjust to the guidance of the Holy Spirit as quickly as we’d like, but I have faith that we’ll get there. Let’s just hope we don’t end up like the Titanic and capsize before we have a chance to see that change happen!

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