For the first time in history, significantly fewer women in North America are serving or participating in the life of the church, according to the George Barna Group—considered the leading research organization studying faith and culture. Several weeks after Barna released their 20-year study, two prominent pastor’s conferences focused on the need for male-authority. At one of these conferences, male-leadership was viewed as inseparable from the God-given “masculine feel” of Christianity. After all, Jesus was male, and Scripture reveals God as “king not queen, father not mother.”
But, let’s not allow these facts to blind us to the truth. Misconstrued facts take us not closer, but further from the truth. This risk is ever-present when focusing on one set of facts to the exclusion of all the others. And, facts, as stated in the Bible, require more than simply reading the words. To gain the fullest understanding of Scripture, facts should be read in light of the whole text as well as in their historic and cultural context. Does the gendered language of Scripture suggest that maleness is inseparable from God’s being, and that males should be, therefore, in ultimate positions of leadership?
Though Jesus called God “Father,” it was understood in Jesus’ day that it was fathers who passed on inheritance, protection and identity to children, as Marianne Meye Thompson observes in The Promise of the Father. Christ also called God Abba, or “daddy,” as a way of expressing not only intimacy and trust, but also birthright. Like all language used for God, “Father” and Abba help us understand a spiritual or eternal principle: that just as Christ is God’s child, in Christ we, too, are heirs of God’s kingdom, a point Paul emphasizes in Galatians 3:27-29:
“As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves in Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.”
In as much as we are in Christ, we, too, are sons and daughters of Abraham and therefore heirs of God. This is the case regardless of gender, ethnicity or class specifically because it was not Christ’s gender, ethnicity or class, but Christ’s humanity, that makes him a sacrifice to all people.
Scripture also uses feminine metaphors to emphasize specific qualities of God. Last week, we considered the feminine language the early church used to understand God. Today we turn to the metaphors of Scripture, including gendered metaphors. Scripture speaks of God using a variety of images like “rock, fortress, and shield” (Deut. 32:18, Ps. 18:2); “light” (Ps. 27:1); “moth” and “rot” (Hos. 5:12); “lion, leopard and bear” (Hos. 13:6-8); “shade” (Ps. 121:5); and “shepherd” (Isa. 40:11).
Each metaphor has distinct “is” and “is not” qualities. For example, God’s love is fiercely protective like a mother bear. Yet, God is not like a mother bear in all ways. God is not a mammal. Similarly, Scripture describes God as a “mother bird” (Ruth 2:12, Ps. 17:8, Matt. 23:37), protecting and sheltering her young. Of course, God is not a mother bird. Rather, God’s nature is motherly, nurturing, and fiercely protective (Hos. 13:8). God is also imaged as a human mother (Isa. 46: 3-4, Job 38: 29, Hos. 11:3-4) and as a midwife (Ps. 22:9), because we are born of God as Christians and God continues to love and instruct us with a motherly protection throughout our lives.
Jesus also described God in feminine images—as a woman baking bread (Luke 13:20–21) or as a woman sweeping the floor (Luke 15:8-9)—not to impart gender as an attribute of God’s being or to suggest that females are more god-like than males. Rather, these metaphors illustrate the momentum of God’s kingdom and God’s tenacity on our behalf. These metaphors, too, have “is” and “is not” qualities.
Interestingly, however, the Holy Spirit in Hebrew is a feminine noun and is frequently associated with the birthing process (John 3:5; cf. John 1:13, 1 John 4:7; 5:1, 4, 18). For this reason, the Syriac church refers to the Holy Spirit as “mother.” What is more, the root of the word El Shaddai can also mean “breast” which emphasizes God’s nurturance and sustenance (Gen. 17:1, 28:3, 35:11; 43:14; 48:3; 49:25). Finally, the self-naming of God in Scripture is “I AM WHO I AM” (Ex. 3:14)—a name without gender.
Yet, even these examples are not sufficient reason to ascribe gender onto God, because gender is part of the created world. God is spirit (John 4:24) and Scripture warns against creating God in earthly images (Ex. 20:4). Hosea 11:9 reads, “I am God, and not a human being.” “Therefore watch yourselves very carefully, so that you do not become corrupt and make for yourselves an idol, an image of any shape, whether formed like a man or a woman, or like any bird that flies in the air…” (Deut. 4:15–17).
God is self-revealed in terms we can understand through our own experiences, using metaphors which are, at times, feminine. We should not, however, make these metaphors—these implicit comparisons—absolutes. When we do, we are making God in our image, whether male or female. God is not limited by gender because God is Spirit. It is idolatry to make God male or female. God is no more female or goddess than God is male, and males have no priority over women in the New Covenant community because of gender (Gal 3:27-29).God is beyond gender, and leadership is not gender-bound.