“Joy to the world, the Savior reigns. Let men their songs employ!”
We sang these words a month ago on Christmas Eve. I quietly sang “all” instead of “men” to myself and wondered how many other people found the use of a masculine noun for a mixed-gender group strange. Our church is normally very careful about using gender-accurate language in our songs and in the pulpit, but at Christmas-time this year, several gender-inaccurate songs slipped in. Granted, these are old songs and reflect an old way of speaking.
But still, language matters. It impacts our ideas. It reflects our biases. It influences those we speak to. As I sang on Christmas Eve that all men are to employ their songs, the picture in my head was of men singing praises to God. Not one woman was among “all men” in my own imagination! It’s crucial that women see ourselves in what we sing, in what we read, and in what we hear.
The message of the gospel is that God became human, offering redemption for all. It is a message of embrace—of open arms and of welcome. It is a universal awakening sparked by the Spirit falling on sons and daughters, resulting in a new wave of female leaders rising up among the people of God. At the very heart of the story of the gospel is a woman who became the God-bearer. These key theological truths must be reflected in the language we use to articulate our faith and worship our God.
When the feminine is simply absorbed into the masculine in our worship, it communicates that men are able to fully represent all of humanity before God. It denigrates the design of God, who created both male and female as joint stewards of the earth. Failing to expressly include women in our worship songs sends a message about who is important and who can offer acceptable worship. Consequently, women may see themselves as secondary players on the great stage of our collective spiritual life.
A woman in my church recently shared that as a result of learning about the women of the Bible, she no longer sees herself as a second-class citizen. Why did she see herself that way in the first place?
Lack of teaching about women and lack of feminine language sends not-so-subtle messages about value and meaning. The argument that women know they are included in the word “men” is insufficient because it assumes that women have no need for an identity that is distinct from our male counterparts. On the flip side, when we are intentional about using gender-accurate language, it indicates that both men and women are equally valued by the church and by God.
Language is continuously changing and it is no longer commonplace to use masculine pronouns to describe all people. The church has always been concerned with relating in the vernacular of the culture. We must not shrink away from this task when it comes to our public worship.
We live in a time when powerful men, in society and in the church, are increasingly being held accountable for their treatment and abuse of women. There is a movement for equality and justice afoot, not unlike other great movements for liberation throughout history. The church has a moral obligation to be present in this fight, wielding our greatest weapon against evil—love.
But, we cannot fully live in love as a church when we choose to use language that excludes half of our population. Now, more than ever, we need gender-accurate songs, texts, and sermons as we equip our people to lead the way in honoring women.
If church is to be a place where women are represented and welcomed, then it’s vital that we use gender-accurate language in worship songs, in Bible translations, and in preaching. Let our language say that women belong, that women matter, that women are seen, and that both men and women can be used for the glory of God.
Let “all” our songs employ his great praises, and let no one be left out of the song. Joy to the world, indeed!