Volume 23, Number 3
For some time it has been quite evident that there are those working diligently to perform a major sex-change operation on the Bible’s language. This is a high-priority agenda item for some feminists. We believe the trend toward inclusive language is not all bad, but it has gone too far. And the “too far” for us has to do primarily with the attempt to eliminate all male references to deity.
The whole cause behind the language issue seems to be largely artificial. Does anybody really feel left outside God’s offer of salvation and grace because the words do not always specifically refer to all genders? Must “children” and “boys and girls” always be mentioned along with grownups for them to know that they are not excluded from God’s plan? Are there really some women and girls who honestly believe that the use of male terms or masculine pronouns in Holy Scripture has barred them from the promises of God?
Something of the intimacy and personality of God is lost when we refer to God in neuter terms. Jesus needed closeness with His Father. So do we. The term “Abba” Father is employed in Scripture which would be the equivalent of today’s “daddy.” It is unacceptable to have this concept destroyed. At times I have found it disturbing during worship services at Annual Conference to be singing along heartily to the tune of some familiar hymn, and then all of a sudden have to adjust to the new words of some recent editors who thought they could improve on the hymnwriter’s words. This tends to distract from the true spirit of worship.
BRF views the strong endeavor at language change as another in a long list of attempts to undermine the authority and finality of the Bible. Tinkering with the Bible’s words cannot be done without changing the Bible’s message. Sometimes we wonder if those who are so unhappy with God as Father are really satisfied with Him as God.
We are glad to share the following carefully studied article as our way of trying to influence the language issue debate.
God Our Father (and Mother)
By Harold S. Martin
One of the most important issues facing the church in the late 1980s centers around the matter of changing language when speaking of God. Language is always changing. Dictionaries and grammars are frequently revised to include new words and phrases which become more commonplace with the march of time. The radical feminists are saying that the Scriptures are written in male terms and that the Bible should be corrected. They maintain that we must eliminate the 11 male bias” which supposedly runs throughout the Bible, and this includes references to the human family (such as “mankind”), and allusions to a male God (such as “the Father”), and the use of male pronouns (such as “he”). They argue that Bible descriptions are authoritarian and gender distinctive and in our day such terms are no longer useful; Biblical language must accommodate itself to the insights of the modern age!!
The inclusive language is being imposed upon the church like a kind of new fundamentalism. Requiring “correct” language is necessary in order to have a proper faith. The argument runs like this: Women are offended by traditional language, and so teaching materials, the words of hymns, worship liturgy, and even the Bible itself must be changed to conform to inclusive language standards.
1. SCOPE OF THE LANGUAGE CHANGE
In our day, the feminist critics are calling for a number of word changes that would make our language more inclusive of men and women. It is true that there have been some biases built into the words and phrases that are commonly used in church circles. It is not always helpful, for example, to refer to a congregation as “men” or “brethren.” In sensitivity to other persons, we can make an effort to be inclusive. We do not object to using the phrase “men and women” (instead of “men”) when referring to people, nor is it offensive to speak of “chairpersons” instead of chairmen,” or to say “mail carrier” instead of mailman.”
It is okay with most people to say that “utility men” are “utility persons” and that “manholes” are “person holes.” It doesn’t bother most of us if inspectors want to work in “sewer holes” instead of “manholes.” And certainly all of us should intentionally avoid use of stereotypes such as 11 woman driver” or “scatterbrained female.” However, the present-day discussion in church circles is not primarily concerned with typical references to people. The more serious concern centers around language which is used in reference to God.
There are groups within our churches that call for widening the terms used for God so that the language includes female images of God. They want all exclusive male references to God removed from the Bible. The language and wordpictures used in the Bible, they say, must be changed. The National Council of Churches, for example, has prepared inclusive translations of Scripture passages for use in its Lectionaries. In the NCC-sponsored Inclusive Language Lectionary, language for people is changed to include women as well as men. For example, it can be helpful to translate “Blessed is the man that walks not in the counsel of the ungodly” (Psalm 1:1) as “Blessed are those who walk not in the counsel of the ungodly” -and to render “Let your light shine before men” (Matthew 5:16), as “Let your light shine before others”–and to say, “Follow me and I will make you fishers of men and women,” instead of the translation formerly used. But to change language about God (to speak of God as Father “and Mother,” and Christ as “Child” of God) is unacceptable and can lead to some serious consequences. We will examine more carefully some of the results of such changes later in this article.
2. NATURE OF THE LANGUAGE CHANGE
The first Inclusive Language Lectionary* was released in October, 1983 by the NCC and further editions were published in more recent years. These collections of Scripture passages have been the first structural effort to eliminate male references to God in the Bible, and the words of the new translations have jolted committed Christians all across North America. When the United Church of Canada adopted the new language, the Vancouver Sun chose the headline: CHURCH MOVES MY GOD NEARER TO SHE.
(a) God as Mother
The Scripture translations for the Inclusive Language Lectionary add the words “and Mother” whenever there are references to God the Father. It is true that in several Old Testament texts, God is pictured as a woman giving birth, as a mother tending a small child, as a nursing mother, as a woman putting food and water on the table, etc. Christians down through the years have often referred to the motherly tenderness of God. It is true that in some ways God is like a mother-but God is never called “Mother.” When we speak of God as “Father,” we are including not only His fatherly (but also His motherly) qualities.
The word “Father” is the most distinctive name that Christians use for God. It is interesting to note that Muslims have 99 names for God (Protector, Provider, etc.), but not one of them is “Father.” Christians have learned to use the name “Father” by following the example of Jesus; this was the name by which He knew God. Even as a boy, Jesus said, “Did you not know that I must be about My Father’s business?” (Luke 2:49 NKJV). The last words of Jesus on the Cross were, “Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit” (L uke 23:46). When Jesus taught the disciples to pray, He said, “Say, Our Father who art in heaven.” And it is dangerous for us to tamper with those words. The prayer begins with “Our Father,” and goes on to say, “Hallowed be thy name.” What name? The name which opens the prayer – ” Father. ” To use the word “Father” when referring to God is simply to follow the example which Jesus set for us.
There is also a trend in hymnwriting that uses feminine imagery for God. British poet Brian Wren is a leader in the trend in hymnwriting. One of Wren’s most controversial hymns is entitled “Strong Mother God.” The hymn begins by calling God “Mother.” Later verses address God as 11 warm, father God; great, living God; old, aching God; and young, growing God.” For the feminists, the hymn “God of our Fathers” becomes “God of the Ages.” The line of another hymn is changed from “Like a loving father” to “Like a loving parent.” (Early reports indicated that the BrethrenMennonite Hymnal Committee favors eliminating masculine language in reference to people, but not necessarily with reference to God. See page 8, Messenger, February, 1987).
(b) Jesus as Lord
Radical feminists say that to sing songs like “The Church’s One Foundation is Jesus Christ Our Lord”-is to use sexist language and is not sensitive to the concerns of women. They say that the Bible (with all its talk about “lords” and I ‘kings”) reflects an ancient feudal society which is not acceptable in our day.
The feminist critics find something grievously wrong with the beginning of the Twenty-third Psalm. The sentence “The Lord is my shepherd,” they say, has a male-oriented sound, and so it is translated “God is my shepherd.” In their view, no one is in a position of “lord” over another. The words of Sarah recorded in 1 Peter 3 make them cringe: “So once the holy women who hoped in God … were submissive to their husbands, as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord” (1 Peter 3:5-6, RSV). The word “lord” is a four-letter “no-no” in feminist thinking.
Dropping the term “Lord” (in reference to Jesus) is a serious departure from truth. Early Christians repeatedly declared that “Jesus is L ord. ” This was in direct contradiction to the loyalties of citizens in the Mediterranean world. Citizens of the Roman Empire were required to declare that “Caesar is lord” (meaning that “Caesar is God”)-and precisely because Christians confessed that Jesus is Lord, many early Christians lost their lives. They refused to bow their knee to Caesar. If we drop the word “Lord” (when referring to Jesus), we are in effect denying the totality of who Jesus is, and we are not giving due credit to the special relationship which Jesus has with the Father, who (along with the Holy Spirit) are one God manifest in three Persons.
In the new translations, Jesus is no longer “Son of God” or “Son of man,” but He is now “Child of God” or “Human One.” And the sentences are re-written so that the pronouns “he” and “him” do not appear. Thus, in the new Lectionary, John 3:16 reads, “For God so loved the world that God gave God’s only Child, that whoever believes in that Child should not perish, but have eternal life. ”
3. RESULTS OF THE LANGUAGE CHANGE
What is behind all this call for change in language? Where might it eventually lead us? Since meaning is bound up in language, surely one cannot change the language for God without altering his understanding of who God is.
The result of changing the description of God from “Father” to “Mother/ Father” is to create the picture of a partly male and partly female God. And to make Christ “the Child” instead of “the Son” is to picture Him as immature. To speak of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit-as “Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier”- may at first seem like an innocent change. But the terms “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” have a precise theological meaning which is not communicated by any other terms. The words “Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier” are functional names (focusing on God’s deeds), whereas “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” are names that focus on God’s own essence and the nature of His being. There are a number of results that rise out of attempts to tamper with the names for God.
(a) Questions the Validity of Special Revelation
To constantly speak of God as “Creator” and not as “Father” denies a fundamental revelation about God in the New Testament. Theologians talk about “general revelation” and “special revelation” when describing how God has chosen to reveal himself to the human family. General revelation refers to that which is plainly clear about God, while special revelation refers to that which God specifically reveals about himself (information about Him which we could not know by mere observation).
To believe that God is creator is self-evident; it is something which all religions believe and teach in some form or another. But to believe in God as Father is not self-evident; that belief comes to us especially through what Jesus tells us about God. In Matthew we read, “…no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him” (Matthew 11:27b, NIV).
(b) Takes Lightly the True Authority of Jesus
God is referred to as “Father” in twenty-five of the New Testament Books. Thus the teaching about God as “Father” is not an obscure doctrine. If we say that Jesus spoke of God as “Father” merely to accommodate the ideas prominent in the culture of His day, and that Jesus deliberately chose to use a term for God which is biased against women, we are saying that Jesus was wrong about (or ignorant of) God’s love for the female of the human family. When we say that it is an error to refer to God as “Father,” it means that we know how to describe God better than Jesus does!
Was Jesus wrong in telling us to pray to God by saying, “Our Father who art in heaven”? And if Jesus was wrong in teaching us to address God as “Father,” He might be wrong about other things as well. To eliminate the word “Father” when referring to God is to deny that Jesus had any valid authority.
(c) Diminishes God to the Level of the Mundane
To present God as “Mother and Father” is not only clumsy, but also repulsive to concerned Christians. God (when called “Mother and Father”) becomes a side-show freak instead of the supreme Person who deserves our highest reverence. If people are allowed to describe God at whim, most any image could appear. One writer says that God might be described as “Cotton Candy” by someone who experienced Him as soft and sweet, or as “Solid Concrete” by one who experienced Him as hard and cold. And of course some designate God as “The Man Upstairs” because their vision of God is apparently limited to a kind of superhuman grandfather image.
Furthermore, to add “and Mother” when referring to God the Father, has (at some places) an awkward implication. For example, in the NCC translation of John 15:26, Jesus promises “the Spirit of truth who proceeds from [God] the Father [and Mother].- This seems to add a heretical Fourth Person to the Trinity. We believe that the controversy surrounding the God-language debate is more serious than most people (who prefer to stand on the sidelines) are willing to admit. The evidence is mounting that what is happening in the church is not simply a change in language, but a change in faith.
(d) Revives the Ancient Heresy of Pantheism
Those who substitute phrases such as “Heavvenly Parent” or “Womb of Being” as descriptive terms for God the Father, are altering the apostolic faith to bring it into accord with the spirit of the times. Some of the new language implies that God is impersonal and that He gave rise to a world that is inseparable from His own Being. It implies a kind of pantheism and a revival of the ancient fertility gods of mythology. God gives birth to the earth, and God is the motherly-father of the Child who comes forth. (Theologians these days are writing and speaking about a “birthing” God. For an example of such teaching, listen to the tapes of the Pastors’ Association Meetings at Annual Conference in Phoenix, AZ in 1985).
Radical theologians are more and more conceiving of God in panentheistic terms. (Panentheism means that God and the world are mutually dependent. Just as fire and wood in a stove are two different things-but one is dependent upon the other for existence-so the new theologians say that God needs the world to continue existing!!) But the Bible does not present God as identical with creation (pantheism), nor is God dependent upon it (panentheism). God simply created the world out of nothing, and is sovereign over it. We must refuse to accept heretical diversions from truth lest we unintentionally become promoters of ancient paganism.
(e) Accuses Bible Writers of Being Sexist Males
The recent fad is to view the Bible references to the masculinity of God as just another evidence that sexist males have made God in their own image. However, we are thoroughly convinced that the wording of Scripture is not an invention of the male mind, designed to subdue (or insult) women.
There are Bible passages which speak highly of women and men, and there are passages which express contempt for women and for men. For example, there is a word of praise for Abigail 0 Samuel 25:32-33), while there is scorn for the foolishness of her husband Nabal (1 Samuel 25:25). There are Scriptures which honor women for their bravery and wisdom (Judges 4:4-9; 2 Kings 22:14-20). There are Scripture passages which praise women who are godly wives and mothers (Proverbs 31:10-31). Some females in the Bible are pictured as wanton and unstable, but others are shown to be helpers and persons who inspired others to good deeds (Romans 16:1-2; Acts 18:26). In the incident between David and Bathsheba, God punished David, and not Bathsheba (2 Samuel 12: 10). The Bible tells about reputable men and evil men, and about reputable women and evil women. God’s Word shows base depravity where it occurred, and gives proper honor where it is deserved regardless of sex.
Surely it is unfair to say that the Bible is biased against women.
In conclusion then, it is not a serious infraction of good judgment to try and eliminate an overuse of the male pronouns when speaking of people. The pronoun “he” has long been used in our English language to include both men and women. We say, “A school student must study his lessons if he expects to pass the test.” The statement refers to boys and girls who are students in school. Such a use of the masculine pronoun “he” is acceptable, but to re-word the sentence so as to limit the use of the masculine pronoun is certainly proper. Instead of saying, “The average American drinks his coffee black,” we can say, “The average American drinks black coffee.” And in the Bible, minor editorial changes which avoid overusing the male pronoun can be a healthy improvement in translation. Instead of, “If any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in” (Revelation 3:20), it is not offensive to say, “if anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in” (as translated in the New International Version).
The real concern which dedicated Christians have (with regard to the issue of non-sexist language) arises out of the dangers which surface when attempts are made to re-write the language pertaining to God. Calling God “Mother and Father,” according to Donald Bloesch, sets up a dyad and is a denial of the Trinity. The roots of this heresy stretch back to Gnosticism, which taught that God is bisexual. Tampering with the nature of God (as He has chosen to reveal Himself in Scripture), and meddling with the Personhood of the Holy Trinity-is blasphemy. It is time for Christians to vigorously resist attempts to further move in the direction of such appalling foolishness.
*A “Lectionary” is a collection of Bible passages which relate to the church calendar, and are chosen to be read aloud by the worship leader in church services. The “Inclusivist Lectionary” (according to the NCCC Chronicles, Vol. 81, No. 1) was prepared because there was dissatisfaction “with biblical language that makes women appear secondary in the eyes of God or the church.” Throughout the Lectionary the word “man” and the pronoun “he” are eliminated.