I Can't Find Myself in the Universal "He"

by Sarabeth Marcello | September 05, 2021

I have spent most of my life in a complementarian Lutheran denomination, which means I’ve been taught that using male language to universally refer to all people (brothers, mankind, men) is biblical and should not be challenged. I’ve been taught that trying to correct gender-inaccurate language in Bible translations means I do not take the word of God seriously. I’ve been told that biblical references to men and brothers and mankind include me—except when they don’t. Many women I know who accept complementarian interpretations of Bible passages acknowledge how difficult it is to have to discern when it’s appropriate to read themselves into verses where masculine language—brothers, mankind, men—dominates.

Correcting gender-inaccurate language in the Bible and in our own conversations is more than just an egalitarian concern. Gender-inclusive language that clearly identifies the intended audience matters for the whole church: it clarifies the Gospel, invites women and men to embrace their redeemed identities, and dissipates confusion for women especially. It is worth our strongest efforts to correct unnecessarily gendered language so that the Bible more clearly communicates what God means it to communicate.

As I was editing this issue of Mutuality, I started imagining what it would be like if all Christians used gender-inclusive language. I saw women who didn’t have to constantly ask if they are included in a certain Bible passage, if they are loved as much as their brothers in Christ. I saw men who welcomed women where they previously excluded them.

Will we ever get there, I wonder?

Right now, there are so many women and men in the body of Christ who are blind to the hurt they cause when they insert male language unnecessarily—and thereby erase women, stigmatize feminine language, and embrace the status quo of equating maleness with godliness. I am reminded, as I read through this issue’s articles, that we are all sinful and fall short of God’s glory (Rom. 3:23), yet we are all called to bear each other’s burdens (Gal. 6:2). We have an individual and corporate responsibility to uncover how we hurt ourselves and our brothers and sisters in Christ. We stand together through it all—from the overwhelming fight against abuse and racial injustice to the fight against gendered language where it does not belong.

Gender-inaccurate language isn’t a matter of semantics, as my complementarian upbringing would have me believe. I hope the articles in this issue of Mutuality will help you understand that it affects not just certain phrases you see in your chosen Bible translation, but that it also affects how you relate to God and others. If all this feels new and intimidating, that’s okay! Start by reading Juliann Bullock’s and James Nichols’s articles. Then, widen your viewfinder to include Finnish and German language nuances with Hannele Ottschofski. Finally, dive into how particular Bible translation choices affect us all with Christine Woolgar and Jeff Miller.

All of these articles confront the lingering toxic idea that maleness is better and preferred to femaleness. When we accept the use of a universal “he” instead of insisting on inclusion for “she,” we reinforce the very complementarian norms against which we thought we were fighting. We accept that women are inferior to, and should remain behind, men. We accept that matters of faith apply first and foremost to men and then can be filtered down to women. We accept that there are places where women don’t belong.

We reject God’s creation of women and men as co-workers.

But CBE proudly stands on the principles of Galatians 3:28, that Jesus Christ has brought us all together as one body.

We in the church have the responsibility to lead the charge in revolutionizing our misuse of gendered language. We have the clearest picture of how gender relations should be. We have the power to change the narrative. Inappropriately gendered language is not an issue that society can resolve without the church because this societal issue is perhaps just as pervasive in the church. We have before us the opportunity to show the culture at large what redemption looks like when we redeem our own use of gendered language to reflect God’s intentions and love for all of us.


This article appears in “Gendered Language and the Church,” the Autumn 2021 issue of Mutuality magazine. Read the full issue here.