God, Gender, and the Language We Use

You may, if you’re a careful, discerning reader, noticed that I talk a lot about words — specifically, the words we use, like “illegal aliens” and “liberty” and how they convey sometimes more than the mere content of their definitions.

The Christians For Biblical Equality academic journal, The Priscilla Papers, is devoted this month to the subject of gender and God, and it’s a treasure trove of scholarship and reason, which explains why this award-winning journal is not read nearly as often as it should be in Evangelical circles. We too often tend to develop our theology from anecdote, not analysis, hearsay and not hermeneutics. The result has been tragic, and tragic especially for women, who suffer from what New Testament scholar and Baptist Pastor Paul R. Smith calls the Church’s “war on women.”

The mistake the Church’s male guardians of doctrine and theology have made over the centuries in wrongly assuming, yet nonetheless asserting, that God is revealed in Scripture as a male-gendered Being, a literal “Father” primarily as in “male parent.” The acquiescence to bad theology on the part of pitifully disempowered and thus predictably undiscerning laypeople has caused the Church of Jesus Christ to plunge into profound sin. The Church has idolatrously done what God has forbidden it to do — make the Divine into an easily-digestible, easily-understood, version of humankind — and has arrogantly given itself over to the belief that if God is male, and surely God must be, then men are just a little more “like” God than women are. The very worst examples of misogynistic violence and oppression, as well as what seems to be the relatively tame sexism in the pews, are all part of the same continuum of bad gender theology. It’s what makes this issue of Priscilla Papers even more important than usual, and here are just a few points:

Author, New Testament scholar and Pastor Aida Besancon Spencer rightly points out that flirting with “God is male” theology is a clear example of idolatry. “God transcends gender because God is Spirit and has no form, male or female. This is God’s explicit revelation.” She continues, “To conceive God as having any earthly form is not only to displease God (Exodus 20:4-5), but also to misrepresent God.”

Elsewhere, she observes that Biblical grammar and linguistics demonstrate that “God is not called ‘he’ because God is a male or masculine. Rather, God is ‘he’ because God is powerful and personal. In Hebrews, ‘Spirit’ (ruah) is grammatically feminine because the word is a metaphor for wind, a natural force. Grammatically, God is described by masculine (Greek theos), plural (Hebrew elohim), singular (Hebrew yhwh), feminine (Hebrew ruah)and neuter (Greek pneuma) nouns. These nouns do not tell us about God’s sexuality. They are simply classes or categories of grammatical substantives. God must communicate to us humans within the confines of our own languages.” Language is at best — and language at its best — is a roadmap that relies much on metaphor and analogy, not a pedantically literal grouping of exact specifics of definition or form.

Besancon Spencer’s comments are in contrast to the painfully — nay, pitifully — absurd belief of patriarchy defender Leon Podles, who insists that “The holy is a masculine category.” Now, I don’t call Podles’ words “pitiful” because he didn’t think the holy was somehow “feminine.” It’s because it seems so . . . grasping. So greedily certain and smug. So much like the T-shirt that says, “Jesus Loves You, But I’m His Favorite,” gleaned from pages and pages of talk about male bleeding rituals, Anglo-Catholic homosexual worship nuance, ancient French philosophers, and mother-separation, agency and communion in his book “The Church Impotent.” It’s dizzying, and it’s far afield from what God reveals in the Word.

But what God does reveal is, well, revealing of what the male words used to describe him mean or, better, were meant to convey. An example is the word “Father.” It would be a mistake, and is in fact the mistake of the heretical Trinitarian subordinationists populating anti-egalitarian circles, to take “Father” as a literal depiction of the male parent/head of household/non-female parent Being in the Godhead. He is described more commonly in “father” terms, hardly surprising in a patriarchal Old Testament culture, and yet there are myriad illustrations of the Creator using feminine imagery. Further, Jesus’ human-ness, and not his male-ness, is the ontological basis of his ability to atone for our sins, as he is described as “the human,” or “himself human,” the sole mediator between God and humans — not, in the original languages, “himself male.”

Besancon Spencer, in her article Does God Have Gender?, wryly wonders “If God is male, is the male god?” Too many men, and too many women, while denying the literal confession thereof, nonetheless act as though there were some truth in it. It’s easy to drift into practices that reflect that notion, and Smith observes — correctly, I think, that “the abortion of the feminine from our language about God is the foundation of the war against women within the Church.”

No egalitarian asserts that God is female, much less that the female is god. We simply believe, using the words of Scripture that God has given to guide us in our understanding of the Trinity, that we are forbidden from carving a gendered God in the strata of our consciences. The test of whether or not we have a high view of Scripture is not if we conclude from our Bible studies that God is male, masculine, or a literal Father to a literal Son, but that we refuse to sin against God by veering into the sin of idolatry that he despises. Fidelity to our God, fidelity to the cause of the Gospel, and fidelity to our sisters and brothers in Christ, requires that we take God as God is revealed, and acknowledge the truth that somehow, in ways understood only by God, he is neither male nor female and yet created the man and the woman both in the Imago Dei. To be “more like God” speaks not of biology, but of character. Genitalia is a terribly inadequate substitute for the Fruit of the Holy Spirit in the pursuit of Godliness, and it’s a rotten determiner of service in the Church, position in the family, and possibilities in the world.

One Response to “God, Gender, and the Language We Use”

  1. Ashwin says:

    Does is really bug you so much that God prefers us to think of Him as Father?

    Again and again Jesus – unquestionably male – has us speak of God as our Father in Heaven.

    So thats it. That is how we are to think of God. Abba. Father.

    The fact than some men abuse some women is merely an accident of the Fall. It does not change who God is.

Leave a Reply