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Published Date: September 5, 2021

Published Date: September 5, 2021

Featured Articles

Featured Articles

Where Are All the Women? Hidden Words and How They Affect the Church

One of my favorite movies of recent years is Hidden Figures. In this 2016 film, the setting is the early 1960s and the exciting Space Race between the United States and the Soviet Union. The movie traces the stories of three African American women—Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, and Dorothy Vaughan—each of whom makes brilliant contributions to the eventual NASA launch of John Glenn into earth’s orbit. Because of their gender and race, all three face severe obstacles to having their contributions recognized.

We moviegoers several decades later can see the blatant racism and gender discrimination, but it takes an agonizing amount of time for the dominant, white males to perceive and take advantage of the women’s gifts because they seem to be, at best, clueless. A clear message of the film is how our background and prejudices (conscious or unconscious) can hide truths that become evident at a later or different time.

Taking the concept out of the Hollywood setting, the message is that there are “hidden” preconceptions that cloud the behavior and language of our lives. Some of these preconceptions are unconscious, but others are the result of unreflective acceptance of inequality. We would each do well to examine our language and behavior in a search for these hidden items.

In the Classroom

A colleague of mine identified a parallel situation. There was a chemistry professor at a university who lectured from a prepared script. That is, apparently, he wrote down every word for his classes ahead of time. While I might question the pedagogical effectiveness of this, it was a pattern that he had developed and that worked for him.

Although it was a chemistry class, there were several times during the semester in which he would use an illustration of a specific experiment conducted by someone or identify someone’s contribution to the development of a concept.

At the beginning of one semester, he decided to use male and female identifiers each exactly 50 percent of the time. That is, for each time he used male pronouns such as “he” or “his,” he would use an equal number of female pronouns such as “she” or “her.” Since he was lecturing from a prepared script, this was easy for him to do without thinking about it every time during class.

About two-thirds of the way through the semester, a belligerent male rushed up to the front of the room after class had ended. He said angrily, “What’s with this ‘she, she, she, she, sh#*#!?’” The professor pulled out his lecture script and showed the student that exactly 50 percent of the gender references were male and 50 percent were female. The student did not believe him, even after seeing the lecture script. The professor noted that it was an illustration of how male pronouns are invisible, but female pronouns are not.

Because I am a man (and some of you readers are too), this may not seem to be an interesting story. However, my experience is that women understand the story exactly. Our English language, written and spoken, often hides one gender—the female gender. Words matter.

In the Church

Educational settings are not the only place where male pronouns dominate without many of us even noticing. Once we become sensitized to this use of language, it pops up all the time. This is rather like looking for a new car to buy, a brand or style different from what you have. Immediately after car shopping, you begin to see this brand or style everywhere on the streets; you had been overlooking it before. In this case, however, it is not just cars on the street. We must understand that this slanted language that hides one gender also has lasting spiritual impact.

As the father of two girls (now also grandfather of three), I have cringed listening to some preachers and teachers in the church make perfectly good points while using solely male pronouns during their exposition. We all want to be spoken to directly; young people especially want to feel identified individually. Each of us will disengage if we do not hear and feel ourselves a part of the conversation or message, asking, “What does this mean for me?” Long ago in my marriage, my wife sensitized me to this and now it stands out glaringly.

At your next congregational gathering, look around at the people and identify those who are clearly “hidden.” What is it that makes them hidden? Next, carefully listen to everyone who speaks. Do they include men and women in their examples or only men? There are, indeed, “hidden figures” in our language, and the church is diminished because of it.

It is entirely possible that the dominant use of male gender pronouns in churches is inadvertent; it is just the type of language we use in every other setting. That does not mean, however, that it is without spiritual effect or not worth our efforts to change. What do the girls who are listening hear about their importance in the life of the body of Christ when their pastor never presents generic portraits of believers as “she” and only as “he”? How much are they weighed down by a lifetime of accumulated losses of appropriate recognition, by being consistently overlooked or mis-identified? Again, many males are completely clueless about this concept because they have been in the congregational mainstream since their birth.

The remedy for this must be mixed, as usual, with love. My experience is that a blunt, challenge approach on this topic, or any other, generates unthinking resistance. Gender bias in language is often best addressed during a small group Bible study or devotional time. And then addressed again. And then addressed again. And again. This is also a reasonable comment for a lunch meeting with a congregational leader—not the main topic of the lunch, but a pointed aside.

Not sure how to bring it up? Blame this article for it! Say something like, “You know, pastor, I was reading this article that pointed out to me how we choose male language and especially pronouns by default. It was a new point to me and made sense. I think we should be more intentional about including female pronouns as well.”

Women Are Here—We Must Acknowledge Them

When I was a child, I often heard the phrase, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” But that is not true. In many cases, words can indeed hurt. They hurt more than sticks and stones. Furthermore, using words in an imprecise manner can not only hurt, but also be a subtle part of a religious direction that we must not support. If we believe in the priesthood of all believers, we must look for ways to help our sisters in Christ elevate their voices. This involves calling their names and using female pronouns.

One of the most powerful images in Scripture is James’s speaking of the tongue at the start of chapter three. Consider verses nine and ten, for example:

With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be.

With our tongues we can curse or edify, degrade or uplift. We might be tempted to argue that a discussion of pronouns is simply a matter of personal choice and not something of anyone else’s business. If that’s what you find yourself thinking, I will simply leave you with Frederick Buechner’s wisdom in Wishful Thinking, “The Christian position is that there’s no such thing as your own business.”

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

A shorter version of this article first appeared on Used and expanded with permission.