God, gender, pronouns and the church

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If you check someone’s social media profile these days, then you are likely to find that they’ll tell you their preferred pronouns. The point is that we are not to assume that they want to identify with a particular gender.  It is considered respectful to allow another person to let you know how they want to be addressed and to comply with their preferences.

What then about God?  There has also been much discussion about how we address him.  If we use masculine pronouns, does that mean we have gendered God and in so doing have we become complicit in male/patriarchal domination. In that context, increasing numbers of people are preferring to talk about God in ways which either avoid gender language(it/they/them/creator/supreme)  or to use both male and female, to talk to God as Father and Mother, to refer to God as she as well as he.

It seems to me though that in so doing, we may risk failing to offer the courtesy we do to one another. If God chooses to reveal himself as Father, if masculine pronouns are used in his inspired word, then shouldn’t we at least pause and ask why God chooses those words and images in his self-disclosure?

Now, it’s important therefore to be clear about what God and Scripture are not saying.  We are not intended to think of God as male, a kind of super powerful man.  In that respect, the language of male/female is inadequate if we are to fully understand God. He cannot be limited and constrained by our human finiteness.  So, Scripture is clear that when God made humanity in his own image, this refers to both male and female. Further, if God is Spirit, then God is not defined by physical, creaturely sex organs.

However, this does not mean that the language is meaningless or interchangeable. Some people have suggested that it is metaphorical, an attempt to communicate about greater mysteries. However, if that is so, then, again, shouldn’t we ask “what is the mystery that is being communicated through this language?” If something is a metaphor, then it isn’t “just a metaphor” it is for something.

Therefore, I’ve always found it fascinating that if Scripture’s dominant references to God employ masculine language and imagery, that at the same time, the dominant images of God’s people – Israel and The Church are female.  Yes, there are references to Israel as God’s Son (Hosea 11:1) but more often than not, we meet an adopted daughter or a bride. We see this most explicitly in Ephesians 5:21-32.

Of course, we are not talking about a literal (human-like) wedding -as was recently pointed out to me -whoever is suggesting that? However, again, in treating this as metaphor, let’s not lose the significance.  If there is an eternal wedding, then it is not less than our human weddings, it is more than.  We are not meant to think of God’s relationship to The Church as “a bit like a husband’s to his wife”. No, we are meant to think about the husband/wife relationship in marriage as being a bit like Christ’s relationship to The Church.

The significance becomes clearer when we think about how Ancient Near Eastern Religions thought about their gods.  Often, a God like Baal was seen as Lord and husband (Baal was in fact used as the word for husband in some contexts) but those gods were married not to their people but to a supreme goddess.  Humans were not in relationship with their gods, humans were slaves to their gods.

In other words, I want to suggest that continuing to talk about God with those masculine pronouns does two incredibly positive things that we can miss.  First, it offers a higher view of the feminine than we often appreciate.  Secondly, if offers a higher view of God’s creation and of his people, of humanity than alternative worldviews do.

We have this high privilege of being invited by God into this incredible relationship with him, we are allowed to partner in his mission, we are allowed to share in the riches of his blessings. And the Bible uses feminine language to show that.

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