Have you ever felt uncomfortable in a church service because of the overwhelming number of masculine references to God? Have you ever found yourself changing the words to a hymn as you sing in order to be more inclusive? Have you ever found yourself counting the number of times a masculine reference is spoken, prayed or sung versus the times a feminine one is used? You will if you read Paul R. Smith’s Is It Okay To Call God “Mother:” Considering the Feminine Face of God (Hendrickson, 1993). An evangelical pastor of a Southern Baptist church for thirty years, Smith has led his congregation through nine major changes; the most recent one has been to recognize “the feminine face of God.” In his book, Smith thoroughly explores this issue, its importance, and objections to it; then he offers practical advice to implement change in the church today.
Smith calls eleven o’clock on Sunday mornings “the most sexist hour in America.” Not only are women excluded from leadership in most evangelical church services, but the feminine “side” of God which they were created to image is never presented.
The problem, according to Smith, is that many evangelical public worship services present a distorted picture of God. If masculine language for God is used predominantly, in exclusion of feminine imagery, we are stating, both explicitly and implicitly, that “God is exclusively masculine or male. This in turn appears to make men more like God than women are.” Smith writes with three purposes in mind: to expand our image of God; to recognize that calling God “Mother” is biblical, beneficial and significant; and to understand the need for corporate recognition of the biblically-based masculine and feminine images of God.
One objection to including feminine God-language in worship services is that the Bible never refers to God as a woman. This assumption is false. Smith discusses over thirty biblical references to feminine imagery for God. He calls them “Bible verses you never memorized.” He questions why allegorical metaphors used only once in Scripture, like. “Lily of the Valley” or “Rose of Sharon,” are quite easily used in song and speech about Jesus, while “in spite of numerous references in the Scripture to God as a maternal figure and a woman in labor,” as well as others, feminine images of God are still shunned.
Smith answers other objections to calling God “Mother” including: Jesus called God Father, not Mother; patriarchy is grounded in God’s very Being shown in the Trinity ruled by God the Father, and if women are leaders and God is “Mother,” we end up with a “feminine” church which is distasteful to men. Smith then explores the reasons for the strong reactions against feminine God-language, addressing issues such as fear of role confusion, fear of losing God as Father, and the image of women as evil. He offers biblical insight into the reasons for such reactions through a study of Acts 15.
Recognizing the biblical feminine imagery for God is directly linked with men and women sharing all church roles and functions, including leadership. Smith proposes that as long as the feminine imagery for God is suppressed, women will continue to be considered less capable leaders because they are considered somehow less like God than men.
Smith concludes his book with practical advice from his experience of leading his church through this change. He has laid out a course of action to effect change which includes those who are more than eager to follow as well as those who are, at best, reluctant Smith believes this issue to be “the most pressing theological and social agenda in the American church today” because it affects each of us, male and female, in profound ways. It determines the kind of God we worship and serve and know.
Can the church embrace feminine imagery for God and still remain true to its orthodox/evangelical beliefs? I believe it must if it is to minister in a meaningful way today and in the future. Paul Smith’s insights can help us on our way.