This article first appeared in America, February 2, 1991, and is reprinted by permission.
The Church is on the defensive these days, attacked by feminists for her long history of condoning patriarchy. Much of the criticism is valid, and most denominations are working hard, as they did when accused of racism, to atone and amend for past and present sins of sexism.
Sometimes the results are commendable, as when the translators of the new edition of the Revised Standard Version correct translation errors in previous editions. When the text refers to male and female human beings, and not just males, the new RSV changes “man” to “one,” “human,” or “people.” At the same time, the translators have retained the traditional masculine pronouns to refer to God.
As a writer and editor as well as Bible reader, I welcome this moderation, for there is much pressure these days to change biblical language referring to God as “he.” The appropriate reform of sexist language is being distorted by a disturbing attack on the integrity of the Bible. Speakers and worship leaders are being urged to use “inclusive language” in hymns, prayers, and other public communication, even when doing so does violence to the language of the text.
It is true that Scripture references to God as “he” have led some people to picture God as male, even though the Bible states very clearly that God has no gender, that, unlike pagan gods, the Lord God of Christians and Jews belongs to neither the male or female sex. But as usual, after other elements in society have brought a problem into the open, the Church climbs onto the bandwagon, trading the authority of biblical revelation for this season’s politically correct fashion.
I believe that one source of the problem is a widespread misunderstanding of poetic language. The use of masculine language for God is metaphorical—figurative, not literal. We don’t fall into the trap of misunderstanding references to God as shepherd, rock, storm, lion, gate, hen, wind, yet the use of male language causes confusion. Perhaps we just can’t accept the fact that human language is incapable of containing the mystery of God. We dislike uncertainty and hesitate to admit that all our attempts to speak of God are inadequate. We also suffer from the temptation to use the Bible to defend our prejudices. One much-cherished prejudice is that God has ordained the subordination of women. Some earnest Christians have attempted to remedy this “deficiency” in biblical language by omitting male language altogether. All such attempts go astray, because the use of masculine language for God has a sound theological basis. The Bible reveals that God is like a male — king, lord, husband, father — in relation to his people (Israel in the Old Testament, the Church in the New). What we need to do is not change biblical language that refers to God as masculine, but reclaim the female metaphors that refer to God’s people as “she”—bride, wife, daughter. We need to change our understanding of God’s view of our relationship with him.
There is a positive, receptive, nurturing quality about the Church when she is what God intends her to be. This, of course, does not mean that church members must be exclusively female (though I suspect that in a culture that taught the subordination of men, such teaching would be defended as “biblically based”)! Likewise, referring to God as “he” does not mean that God is male.
Metaphors referring to God and his people as husband-wife, father-child, master-servant reveal God as the initiator of the covenant, the creator and begetter. Within the covenant relationship, God’s people are to be receptive, obedient, and fruitful.
The Bible isn’t rigid in its use of language. In some places God is said to have compassion, a word related to “womb” in Hebrew. The author of Proverbs describes Wisdom, an aspect of God, as a woman. Jesus spoke of God as housewife looking for a lost coin.
Yet God is not bound by any metaphor. The Old Testament prophets struggled to say as much when they reached for new, sometimes shocking poetic language to express their experience of God.
The danger is in reducing God to our level of understanding. Rather than argue over the gender of God, we need to expand our understanding of metaphor, to appreciate that God is beyond every category the human imagination can devise. When biblical language doesn’t fit our fashion or ideology, it is we, not the Bible, who need to change.