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 twenty-year study, two prominent pastors’ conferences focused on the need for male-only authority. At one of these conferences, male leadership was viewed as inseparable from the God-given “masculine feel” of Christianity. After all, they said, 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.
Scripture speaks of God not only through father language, but also through a variety of metaphors, some masculine, some feminine, and some genderless. God is called a “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 (Hos. 13:8). 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. God is also imaged as a human mother (Job 38:29, Isa. 46:3-4, Hos. 11:3-4) and as a midwife (Ps. 22:9), because we, as Christians, are born of God, 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 also God’s tenacity on our behalf. Each of these metaphors, too, has “is” and “is not” qualities.
Interestingly, however, in Hebrew, the Holy Spirit 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, 5:18). For this reason, the Syriac church refers to the Holy Spirit as “mother.” What is more, the root of the name El Shaddai (Gen. 17:1, 28:3, 35:11, 43:14, 48:3, 49:25) can also mean “breast,” which emphasizes God’s nurturance and sustenance. Significantly, the self-naming of God in Scripture is “I AM WHO I AM” (Ex. 3:14)—a name without gender.
We cannot ascribe gender onto God because gender is part of the created world. While God is self-revealed in terms we can understand through our own experiences, we should not make these metaphors—these implicit comparisons—absolutes. When we do, we are making God in our image, whether male or female. 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 animal on earth or any bird that flies in the air…” (Deut. 4:15–17). God is neither female nor male, and it is idolatry to suggest otherwise. God is not limited by gender because God is spirit (John 4:24).