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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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Gender-Inclusive Language; Gender-Inclusive God–Part 4

Read part 1 here. Read part 2 here. Read part 3 here.

So “we” have now established that effort toward a mindfulness of gender-inclusive language is preferable when talking about ourselves and each other.  But what about when we talk about God?

Remember when Madeleine L’Engle was writing about her perspective on gendered language? She referred to Genesis 1:27 as the basis for “man” being inclusive of both male and female.  Here’s how the TNIV translates the verse:

So God created human beings in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.

If it takes both a man and a woman together to represent the image of God, then why is it that we often only use male language when referring to God?  One common argument is that God is described in male language in the Bible; therefore, Bible-believing Christians must follow God’s example and continue to use male language to describe God.

Let me be clear.  I do not think there is anything wrong with using male language or masculine imagery for God.  In fact, God as the Father is one of my most precious expressions for God in my personal spiritual journey.

What I think is unhelpful is referring to God using male language at the exclusion of female language and feminine imagery.  Christian mothers like Julian of Norwich, Teresa of Avila, and Catherine of Siena helped bridge the gap by describing God using male language and at the same time feminine imagery.  For example, Julian of Norwich wrote of Jesus nursing us at his breasts and described Jesus as “our true Mother in whom we are endlessly born and out of whom we shall never come.”

In today’s Christian culture, many people are too quick to settle on God as Him and dismiss the movement of the Mother-Father-God-ers as radical and perhaps even heretical.  For me, I strive for a more moderate stance.  That’s why I avoid gender-specific pronouns when I talk about God.  That’s why I still refer to Jesus as male (because he was a man, even if he isn’t still).  That’s why I like to refer to the Holy Spirit as female, because so much of my experience of the divine feminine has come through encounters with the Holy Spirit and the Holy Spirit-inspired.

Even when I must use gender-specific pronouns so as not to write myself into ridiculously awkward sentence structures, I try to use “he” and “him” or “she” and “her.”  That way I know I am not saying God is “He” as in God-the-All-Masculine or “She” as in God-the-All-Feminine.  Instead, I say God is “he” as in God-as-God-embodies-the-masculine or God is “she” as in God-as-God-embodies-the-feminine.  In this way, I am able to balance the masculine and the feminine aspects of the Trinity, which is very biblical.  At least for right now, this is what works for me.

(Does the idea of God as “she” rock your world? Ask yourself what it would be like if the situation were reversed and God as “he” was revolutionary.  Watch out for double standards and try to be mindful of the way language may affect others, even if it doesn’t affect you that way.)

We all know that when the pendulum swings away from one extreme, it inevitably swings right past the middle and reaches the other extreme before it can gradually settle more and more toward the balance the middle brings.  My journey with gender-inclusive language has swung from one side where “man” includes both men and women to the other side where God as “He” and “Him” makes me feel like I, as “she” and “her,” am not part of the image of God after all.

Maybe my reaction is too extreme.  Maybe as the pendulum of my journey continues to swing back and forth, I will come closer and closer to the perfect balance of the middle ground.

But I’m not there yet.

So for now, oh ye readers, you will see me still swinging.  Let’s approach both ourselves and each other with grace, and give each other room to swing out as far as we need to, safe in the knowledge that we will also have room to swing back.

Gender-Inclusive Language; Gender-Inclusive God–Part 1

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.

To be continued in the next post.

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