One of my favorite classes in college was an intro-level course on rhetorical criticism. When I enrolled in it, I had no idea what the class was - I just knew that it was required for my degree - but by the end of the class, I had been deeply changed.
The basic idea was that we were studying what words mean. It was a vocabulary class for memorizing definitions - it was a study of how our attitudes shape the words we use, and how the words we use shape our attitudes.
For example, when someone thanks you for something, how do you respond? I usually say one of two things: “no problem” or “of course.” Those responses communicate something different than if I were to respond with “you’re welcome” or “no, thank you.”
Every word I say or write has impact in two directions. On the one hand, they work internally to reflect my own history, assumptions, and biases, while reinforcing those biases in my own mind; on the other hand, they communicate my history, assumptions, and biases to my audience and, if enough people use similar rhetoric, it can shape entire cultures.
This class showed me that, though most of us don’t give much thought to the words we use in day-to-day conversation, the rhetoric we use is deeply impactful on our own thoughts and behaviors and on the community in which we live.
The Bible Primarily Describes God in Masculine Terms
The Bible is filled with masculine references to God. Throughout the text, biblical authors refer to God as “father” and use masculine pronouns when describing God. Even the traditional doctrine of the Trinity refers to the three persons of God as being Father, Son, and Holy Spirit - two of those persons are explicitly described as masculine. Jesus Christ, the human manifestation of God, was physically, literally a male.
It’s easy to understand, then why we’ve come to embrace the idea of God as predominantly masculine. As one prominent example, John Piper, although he confesses that God is not a man (in the sense that God doesn’t have a body, so he doesn’t have male physical features), promotes the idea that the Bible establishes God as primarily masculine. This same idea pervades much of mainstream American Christianity today.
As postmodern views of theology continue to rise within Westernized Christianity, though, there has been an increasing focus on perspectives of God that are not distinctly male. It is growing more and more popular to avoid masculine pronouns when talking about God - many theologians avoid pronouns for God altogether.
What has caused this trend to rise in popularity? Is it biblical? Is it important? Whether you agree with my conclusions or not, this question is one that should not be brushed to the side. It deserves careful consideration because its ramifications reach deep into the personhood of every woman in your life.
Cultural Effects on "God" Language
The idea of a masculine God pervades the Bible. As modern biblical scholars have studied ancient cultures, though, they have begun to raise legitimate questions as to how much the patriarchal systems of the time influenced the writing of Scripture. The study of ancient Hebrew and early Christian societies has led us to reinterpret many of the texts we previously assumed we understood.
For example, in Ephesians 5, Paul instructs wives to submit to their husbands in the same way that Christians submit to Christ. When we view this chapter through the lens of that era’s cultural context, though, we understand it differently than we might by reading it through our own cultural lens. The call for women to submit to their husbands was the social norm - it was nothing new or challenging for readers at that time. The emphasis of this passage, then, falls onto the next few verses, where Paul instructs men to love and honor their wives. In this society, women had no status or rights as individuals, so Paul’s command for men to honor their wives and put their needs before their own was an absolutely revolutionary concept. This is a transformation in how we now understand this passage.
One of the basic doctrines of our faith has always been that men and women were both created in the image of God, but as the early Christian church grew from being an underground movement to being a dominant political and social machine, those biblical narratives that served to equalize gender gaps were twisted to reinforce the patriarchal cultural norms they were supposed to replace.
As the Hebrew faith traditions and the revolutionary teachings of Christ were assimilated into secular worldviews, they were distorted to reinforce the cultural presuppositions of the time. Christians emphasized the parts of the faith that affirmed their existing social systems and brushed aside the parts that challenged those systems. As one example of this, St. Augustine blamed Eve for the introduction of sin into the world because she was the first to eat of the forbidden fruit (even though, in contrast, Paul says in Romans that sin entered the world through one man: Adam).
Repercussions of Patriarchal Systems
In the past decades, as we have developed an increasing awareness of the culture in which the Bible was written, we have also become more aware of the ways in which our own American society has devalued women. Beginning with the women’s suffrage movement of the early twentieth century, which culminated in the recognition of women’s right to vote, our country has attempted to change its trajectory from being a patriarchal society toward being one that treats women and men equally.
Recent movements stemming from the civil rights movements of the 1960s have helped us recognize how much social power in the United States has been centered exclusively within the white male demographic. With that recognition over the last few decades, we have been increasingly able to confront some of the pervasive, hidden consequences of the patriarchal system from which we are still emerging.
There are employment inequities such as the discrepancy between how men and women are paid for the same work, but there are even deeper issues - like the ways in which social domination has led men to hold an overly sexualized view of women. Patriarchal societies set up a bloated sense of self-worth for men and a diminished self-worth for women, which is a recipe for sexual exploitation. Citing statistics from the Department of Justice in 2000, the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) reports that one in six women has been the victim of rape or attempted rape and that 90% of all adult rape victims are female. If these are the reported statistics, we must acknowledge that the number of actual cases are probably far higher.
I have three sisters; according to the statistics of reported cases, there is a 50% chance that one of them has been or will be raped. That terrifies and angers me. These numbers are evidence that our society has systemic issues - issues that can be traced back to, among other things, the devaluing of women promulgated by patriarchy.
While we, as a society, have been reevaluating these social norms in light of their consequences, so have we, as Christians, been reevaluating the way we have, to some extent, read into Scripture a cultural standard of patriarchy.
The Pivotal Question
All of this leads, then, to a question. It is clear that the Bible primarily refers to God in masculine terms, but is that a reflection of the cultural assumptions of its authors, or is it a prescription for how we should refer to God even today?
There is no cut-and-dried answer to that question, yet many Christians today adamantly oppose any feminine depiction of God, even though Christians across the globe and throughout time have understood that God is not anthropomorphically male - God doesn’t grow facial hair or have male genitalia - and the Bible does, indeed, attribute to God more than a few feminine references.
In light of the damaging effects that a male-centric culture has had upon our society’s views of women, we must consider whether a male-dominated view of God has a similar impact. When we refer to God solely in masculine terms, does that not implicitly communicate that men are more “made in the image of God” than women? Does it not suggest that God relates better to men than to women? I hear story after story of those exact implications being experienced by women in the pews and pulpits of the church (for an overwhelming number of examples, browse through #ThingsOnlyChristianWomenHear on Twitter).
Patriarchy as a social structure has devastating consequences for women (as I’ve written in the past, it has damaging consequences for men, as well). And it seems clear that those effects are not limited to the secular world - the exclusive usage of masculine pronouns for God has similar consequences within the church.
Since the Bible itself uses feminine imagery for God, and since using exclusively masculine imagery has so much potential for damage, I have chosen to no longer use masculine pronouns when I describe God. Although it is clearly not wrong to use masculine pronouns, and I certainly don't hold to this legalistically, I personally think it is worth using non-gendered descriptors in order to counteract the damage done by the historically powerful patriarchal system.