A Sensible Approach to Christian Truth


Worship and Inclusive Language

Some years ago I had the privilege of attending a conference on the future of worship which brought together representatives of all major Christian denominations, and some smaller ones such as my own. The conference featured sessions dealing with worship-related issues and "live" examples of the worship models being discussed.

During one of the sessions a woman who was an official of one of the more liberal denominations complained that this was not really a conference on the future of worship. Her point was that the worship services had actually regressed 25 years, because they did not use "inclusive" or gender-neutral language. Commenting on a book on biblical worship by Dr. Andrew E. Hill being sold at the conference, she stated she could never recommend it because of its title, Enter His Courts with Praise. She further revealed that during the worship services she had a "visceral reaction" to the exclusive use of masculine terminology for God.

When I objected that I and other evangelicals might equally have a "visceral reaction" to gender-neutral language, a distinguished professor who was part of the conversation chided me, "But, Richard, God does not have genitalia." I think I knew that already. Somehow that profound observation did not settle the issue for me, for reasons I will explore below.

There was a noticeable irony about the whole discussion. The speaker who complained that non-inclusive language can't be the future of worship represented a denomination that is rapidly losing members and closing down churches. The worship services she complained about, which use the scriptural idiom with its masculine pronouns, were led by people from groups that are growing. Where, indeed, does the future of Christian worship lie except with those Christian groups that will survive and grow in the twenty-first century?

The other attendees at the conference, including the evangelicals, were quick to give assurances that they would watch their language in the future. I think they reacted too quickly in their desire not to offend. There are some important reflections on inclusive language in worship that need to be considered before we decide to jettison the Bible's "patriarchal," masculine-oriented way of referring to God.

Some Language Problems with Inclusivism

Now, in speaking of inclusive language, we're not talking about horizontal language, or references to people. As far as I'm concerned it's fine to watch one's language in this area, and to say "people" or "he or she" instead of the generic "mankind" or "he." It's okay, that is, as long as we can do so while using the language gracefully.

But sometimes it's hard to use gender-neutral language and still speak correct English. To say, "Each person should do it their own way," is simply not correct English, since "their" is plural while its antecedent, "each person," is singular. But in English we don't have a singular genderless pronoun usable for people. "It," of course, will not do. The only correct way to say what we mean is, "Each person should do it his own way." For centuries, English speakers have understood that the "his" here was generic and did not indicate one's sex. Now, however, we are being asked to alter historic practice.

All of this shows that there are problems with attempts to use only gender-neutral language, even with reference to people. But the real difficulty appears when we try to apply the mandate for inclusive language to the vertical dimension: speaking to or about God. On this we have some further thoughts.

Gender Not the Same as Sex

First of all, it is a mistake to associate gender with sex. The professor who pointed out that "God does not have genitalia" was confusing the two. Of course, he was wrong on two counts. Even with people, sexuality is not entirely bound up in the configuration of one's plumbing. A lot more is involved in being male or female. Even secular writers recognize that men and women are "wired" differently; a good example is Deborah Tannen's book You Just Don't Understand.

But all that aside, the professor also failed to acknowledge that gender is a linguistic phenomenon which doesn't always relate to sexuality. We who speak English find this hard to appreciate, since in our language only living things have gender except for ships, locomotives or states! In many other languages, however, things have gender whether they are living or not. And even living things may have an unexpected gender. In German, a young, attractive and very feminine girl is still das Madchen, which is neuter gender. In French, the teacher is still le professeur even if she is a woman.

The biblical languages also use gender. In Greek, all abstract nouns, like redemption, resurrection, philosophy or wisdom, are feminine gender. This means that sophia, which means wisdom and which sometimes stands in the place of God, sounds to us like a feminine noun. (For this reason, the famous "Re-Imagining Conference" of the feminists protested masculine dominance by worshiping a goddess named Sophia.) And to a Hebrew speaker, it doesn't seem strange to hear that "the Sun of righteousness will rise with healing in her wings" (Mal. 4:2), or to hear of wisdom (hokhmah, feminine) being the master builder who was with the Lord at creation (Prov. 8:30). But because gender is a standard feature of such languages, these concepts are not necessarily associated with sex.

Why Inclusive Language Won’t Succeed

Inclusive language in worship is supposed to correct what is thought to be male dominance in the church. Writing in Commonweal, Robert Woodward of Newsweek has questioned the existence of this hypothetical masculine domination. Citing Walter Ong's insightful book Fighting for Life, Woodward contends that the church at large has always been overwhelmingly feminine, the "Holy Mother Church." (And, we may add, the New Testament portrays the church as the bride of Christ.) In such a feminine environment an all-male clergy, as in the Catholic and Orthodox communities and many evangelical denominations, is a necessary balancing force which encourages men as well as women to be religious. Sociologists confirm that the best predictor of whether a child will maintain a religious commitment in adult life is not the faith of the mother — women are expected to be religious — but the faith of the father. Woodward comments, "if the father demonstrates that religion is not foreign to what a man is and does, the child — especially the male child — is much more likely to be religious upon reaching adulthood."

Because of their biological makeup, principally their more task-focused and less intuitive intellectual processes, men are unlikely to connect with a feminine-dominated or even gender-neutral symbolic environment, which is what a religion is. Masculine language in reference to God is part of the traditional symbol system of biblical faith, and it has allowed men to find meaning in that faith. Feminizing the language of worship virtually guarantees that men will fall by the wayside, except perhaps those whose sexual identity is confused.

Languages lie at the bedrock of cultures, and are inherently resistant to change. Bible translators know this, and make accommodations in order to translate the biblical idiom into phrases that will have equivalent significance in the target culture. But the current drive for gender-neutral language works in the opposite direction: it attempts to force linguistic change in order to foster cultural change. In this case, the translators are attempting to force a linguistic change on both the originating culture (the Bible and Christian tradition) and the target culture (North American society) at the same time. In reality, the movement for inclusive language is an attempt by an elitist segment to impose its values upon a larger community, and to take control not only of the actions of others but their thoughts as well.

If worship is to be truly inclusive, it cannot impose an elitist linguistic convention on a larger culture. A mandate for gender-neutral language in Christian worship would simply create a small, holier-than-thou cult with its own special lingo, while the rest of us hopeless Neanderthals fall off the edge of their world. And that's exactly what's happening to most of the historic North American denominations. Locked into the feminizing agenda, they are fast becoming a tiny minority of left-wing activists and their captive senior citizens who stick around just because of inertia. Anybody who is really looking for a meaningful set of religious symbols is going someplace else: to those churches which don't care about inclusive language, but do care whether or not people are included in the covenant with God through Jesus Christ.

The Need for “Masculine” Language

"God does not have genitalia." True, God is above sex and gender. But, as Joseph Ratzinger (now Benedict XVI) points out in Introduction to Christianity, God is also above the difference between singular and plural. That doesn't mean that we therefore must speak of God interchangeably as "god" and "gods." In Hebrew, he is called Elohim, a plural form, but the word always takes a singular verb showing that, for the Israelites, this was not a plural of quantity but a plural of majesty.

In the same way, biblical language speaks of God using the masculine gender. This is not a masculine of sexuality but a masculine of function; it indicates the linear or directive quality that characterizes most of God's approach to humanity, especially in the revelation of the Word, as opposed to the intuitive or nurturing side which also occasionally appears. In the biblical covenant, Yahweh occupies the position of the Great King who grants and orders the relationship. For these activities the masculine gender is more suitable. Yahweh is not, after all, the Great Queen.

The drive for inclusive language in worship is not something that emerges from the outworking of biblical principles. It is an agenda introduced into Christian worship from the surrounding culture, which is in rebellion against God-given norms. In its basic formulation Yahwistic faith always stood in opposition to prevailing cultural trends, as represented by the polytheistic fertility religion of most of the ancient Near East. The Hebrew prophets fought a pitched battle to prevent Yahwistic worship from being assimilated into alien cultural forms, and one aspect of this battle was vehement opposition to the cult of female divinities such as Astarte or the "Queen of Heaven."

All that was truly deity, for these prophets, was bound up in the person of Yahweh God — just as, for the Christian, the man Jesus Christ is "the image of the invisible God" (Col. 1:15) and "the summing up of all things" (Eph. 1:10). To accept a mandate for inclusive language in the worship of God is to credit ourselves with greater spiritual insight than the prophets, who staked their lives and reputations on the integrity of the covenant. "Whatever else it is," to quote Woodward again, "religion is a symbol system and to change the symbols is to change the meaning that religion expresses." We might want to think twice before we decide the Israelite prophets were wrong.

It's a free country, and one can worship a female divinity if one chooses. Or one can worship the earth, or Druid spirits, or one's deepest inner self. Or a purple blob with pink polka dots. Just don't try to call it Christian.