A Non-Gendered or Gender-Inclusive Faith: Lessons from Finnish and German

by Hannele Ottschofski | September 05, 2021

For many people who live their whole lives in the same region, my life must seem strange. Due to my father’s job for an international church, my family had already lived in Sweden and England in addition to my native Finland by the time I was eleven. As a child, learning new languages came naturally to me. School introduced me to French, German, and Latin. I have lived in French-speaking Africa as well as making my home in Germany for most of my adult life. Different languages have played a big part in my life’s journey. All of these languages have helped broaden my horizons on life and in my Christian faith.

However, my native Finnish language has maybe had the greatest impact on my basic understanding that we are all equal before God and that our belief in the Son of God is what saves us whether we are men or women. I have wrestled with this much of my time in Germany, where the language seems to work against gender equality, even as Germans try to find ways to make their gendered language more gender inclusive.

Non-Gendered Language in Finnish

Today, Finnish people are fluent in many languages. As a small nation with a complicated language, we have had to learn to communicate with others in their languages. There are, however, some things many Finnish-speaking people struggle with, and one is the use of gendered words and pronouns. In my Finnish mother tongue, instead of gendered pronouns there is only one pronoun, hän, for people, and there is one word, se, for things.

When speaking other languages, it can be difficult for native Finnish speakers to choose the correct pronoun to use for male or female persons because Finnish has no gendered pronouns for “he” and “she.” Thus, we have to stop and consider whether the subject we are speaking of is a man or a woman when using a gendered language. In Finnish we are all hän and do not need to differentiate.

Finnish nouns also have no gender. The Finnish language does not assign a gender to occupational titles—whether the person is male or female, they are all described with the same word. Maybe that has also had an impact on the sociological development of the people, because you need not have the preconceived idea that, for example, a judge, doctor, or pastor must be a man. Everyone can become what hän (he or she) wants. Although women still mostly work in traditionally female jobs like sales, caregiving, teaching, etc., they also have full access to all professions. In my experience, it was much easier to find a female gynecologist in Finland than in Germany, and most dentists I encountered were women.

Although no country has achieved gender equality, Finnish women grow up with self-awareness, assertiveness, and a clear understanding that there is nothing they cannot do just because they are women. In the Finnish parliament, 47 percent of the current members are women. All five parties of the government coalition are led by women. The Prime Minister, Sanna Marin, is a thirty-five-year-old woman who was just pronounced the most popular Prime Minister of the twenty-first century in a poll. Finnish women got the right to vote in 1906, and in 1907, nineteen women were elected to the parliament, among them Miina Sillanpää, who became the first female minister twenty years later. Tarja Halonen was the first woman to hold the position of President of the Republic from 2000 to 2012. And as of 2019, 49 percent of pastors in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland (Finland’s largest religious body) are women.1

Finnish society has made it easier for women to pursue careers, with good childcare and schools, as well as care for the elderly. Studies show that countries in which women play an important role in society are the most economically, socially, and environmentally sustainable.2 Without the inclusion of women in decisions, the problems of this world cannot be solved. Men and women have to work together. Maybe this cooperation is made easier in Finland by the non-gendered Finnish language.

The Finnish language also affects how Finnish Christians understand and relate to God. The term for God, Jumala, is not assigned a gender. Certainly in Finnish, we also worship the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but in our imagination, God is not necessarily male. God is not associated with gender.

The Apostle Paul hit the mark when he wrote to the Galatians: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). We are all one in Christ, no matter what we look like and who we are. I think Paul would have loved the Finnish language, which treats people as equals.

Gender-Inclusive Language in Germany

I have lived most of my life in Germany and also speak German, which is a much more gendered language than Finnish, with pronouns and nouns all having a gender. German not only has er–sie–es for “he–she–it,” but also all nouns have a gendered article. That means that, for instance, a professor—der Professor—can only be a male. If, however, the professor is a woman, an ending -in is added to create the word Professorin. If German-speakers want to include both men and women, we have had to use both words, making the language cumbersome.

Lately, speech has become politicized, with women becoming upset if they are not included and pointing out discrimination. Politicians have been trained to include both genders in their speeches, so they have learned to address both males and females, their Kollegen und Kolleginnen (colleagues and female colleagues). Recent efforts to simplify this barrage of words have led to a new form, in which the female ending is added to the word by either using a capital letter or an asterisk for differentiation. For example, Kollegen und Kolleginnen would become either KollegInnen or Kolleg*innen, with a little hiccup or short guttural stop at the place of the asterisk when speaking. This new form includes persons of all genders at once, but not everyone likes this new-fangled creation.

Differentiating terms that refer to men and women in the German language, with its emphasis on difference, affects theological perceptions as well. In German, the word for God, Gott, is distinctly masculine, shown by the article or adjective used with it. This might make it difficult for women who have had negative experiences with men to relate to God while others, with positive male relationships, might feel secure in the arms of a Heavenly Father.

German patriarchal structures where women’s worth is diminished are strengthened by the notion that God is masculine in the German language. Embedding a male gender for God in the very word Germans use to refer to God results in men’s conviction of their superiority. Although harmful patriarchal structures like this are slowly crumbling in Germany as more men with egalitarian convictions support women’s empowerment, there is still a long way to go.

Finding Equality in Non-Gendered and Gender-Inclusive Faith

The old hymn “Faith of Our Fathers” depicts an exclusive faith for men who are prepared to be imprisoned and die for their faith.3 This hymn implies that true faith is the faith of male martyrs, but let’s not forget the Protestant women who were imprisoned for their faith, like Marie Durand. Marie was imprisoned in the Tower of Constance in Aigues-Mortes, France, for thirty-eight years and is said to have engraved the word “Resist” on the wall of her cell. But it is futile to argue about whose faith is holier and more persistent. We are all in this together. We are all sinners who need our Savior. Faith is not a competition between men and women. There is no men’s faith and women’s faith.

Whether language is non-gendered (as in Finnish) or gender-inclusive (as in German), the Bible is clear that “whoever believes in him [the Son of God] shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). “Whoever” includes all and does not discriminate based on gender. Non-gendered language indicates inclusiveness, while gendered language points to the differences. But there is one faith for all that we should concentrate on. “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Eph. 4:4–6).

Even though many passages in the Bible seem to only address men (depending on your translation), women should have enough self-confidence to feel included even if the translated language is not gender accurate. Various Bible translations have already accepted the fact that the message of the Bible is for all, so they include women when the believers are being addressed, translating “brothers and sisters” where many previous translations only mentioned “brothers.” The inclusive meaning present in the original biblical text is what is important. At the same time, it is important to show this inclusiveness clearly so that women know they are not left out.

We as Christians can so easily find ourselves stuck in arguments about what some specific gendered term in the Bible means for us today and its theological implications. Let’s not quibble about language when the gospel message includes salvation for all—men and women—who believe in Jesus Christ. Because God includes all humans in his plan for salvation, his church should not use language to differentiate and divide. We are all God’s children.

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


Notes

1. "The Church in Numbers," Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland, accessed 3 September 2021. 
2. Candice Stevens, "Are Women the Key to Sustainable Development?" Sustainable Development Insights, no. 003 (2010).
3. Words: Frederich W. Faber, 1849. Music: Henri F. Hemy 1864.