It is becoming increasingly common for people to use feminine terms in reference to God. Well, why not? In one way, this is not so radical. After all, the Bible itself uses feminine metaphors for God. We know that God created male and female in “His own image and likeness.” Therefore, women as well as men bear God’s image and likeness. This means that something of God’s essential nature is revealed through women in a way that it is not revealed through men. So why can’t we call God, “Mother”?
Lets begin our answer with this: we believe that the Bible is much more than a human document. Were it merely a human document, we would be free to edit it to reflect our growing sensitivities about such things. After all, women have often been greatly harmed by male domination, even within the church. Throughout much of history, a father or husband has been able to beat a woman of his household without answering to anyone for his actions. He could approve or disapprove his daughter’s choice of husbands. He had control over any income the women of the family might make. Most of us no longer believe that such male domination is an acceptable practice. So, naturally enough, some believe that addressing God as a Father only reinforces the old culture of male domination (the formal term for that culture is patriarchy). They argue that by sometimes calling God “Mother” or escaping from the dilemma altogether by calling God, “Parent”, will help us to avoid the reinforcement of patriarchy.
These arguments make sense. They will gain strength as new generations become the teachers and pastors of the faith. They are often made in all sincerity by sincere and capable people. They are not as Biblically weak as some conservatives might believe. Nonetheless, however noble the cause may seem, we simply do not have the authority to edit Holy Scripture.
When we develop theology from an orthodox view of the Bible, we are constrained by the belief that God inspired the Bible to be written in such a way that it reveals God as He wished to be revealed. In the Bible, God nearly always chooses to speak of Himself in masculine terms. Even the most conservative believe agrees that God “as He really is,” is beyond all gender distinction. Nonetheless, God “as He reveals Himself” in Scripture is nearly always masculine. The orthodox believer must ask, “should we do otherwise?” The answer one gives to this question depends on one’s view of the Bible.
Is the Bible the product of fallible human beings who strained to give us a divinely inspired message, in the best way they knew how, but distorted nonetheless by their own cultural biases?
Or, is the Bible, though certainly a product of human minds and hands, so inspired that its message is divinely protected from error?
Christians who are more liberal tend to give the first answer. More conservative Christians give the second one. It is a question that every Christians has to settle for himself or herself.
I am a conservative Evangelical. Although I am a fallible human being, and therefore realize that my interpretation of the Bible and of God’s intentions can be faulty, I believe that God’s revelation of Himself in Scripture comes to us through history as He intended. I do not believe we have the right to edit that revelation, however noble our reasons.
There is another reason why conservative Christians are reluctant to use feminine language in reference to God. Through history, when people have spoken of God as feminine, they have tended to drift into a sensual, pantheistic, fertility worship. (Pantheism is the idea that the earth is God’s body, and that everything that exists is a part of God.) “Goddess” spirituality seems to produce an earth religion, a sexualized spirituality without ethical demands. Through the centuries, Christian and Jewish thinkers have seen this as a dangerous seduction that takes us away from God’s Word. That redefines God, making human beings the judge of how God should be understood rather than accepting God as He wishes us to understand Him.
For all the reasons stated above, orthodox Christians conclude, together with the saints throughout history, that we should reject the current fad of so-called “gender inclusive language,” where the nature of God is concerned. This is not, or at least should not be, a political or social bias. We do this on the basis of a godly fear, resisting the potential for heresy at the core of our faith: God’s revelation of Himself to us.
The challenge facing Christians regarding so called gender inclusive language, is how to be orthodox without being reactionary. When translating the Bible from the original languages, we should feel free to be gender neutral where the original languages are gender neutral. In older English translations of the Bible, words that in the original Greek and Hebrew had been gender neutral, were often translated into gender specific words in English. The translators did not do this on purpose, they were merely reflecting the culture of their times. Also, we must remember that until fairly recently, the words “men” or “mankind” were often used to include both men and women. Nowadays, that practice is more rare. When modern Bible translators attempt to address these changes of linguistic habits, it does not necessarily mean that they have a liberal bias'.
The bottom line is that we must be faithful to the Word of God; we should not be resistant to change unwarranted discriminatory language. Words change. (Just think of how the word “queer” has changed.) To insist on freezing language in print when the meaning has changed on the street is foolish. It does injustice to God’s word, which was not written in English to begin with! The point in Bible translation is to make the Word of God clear to those who read it in languages other than Hebrew and Greek.
This is all easier said than done! We Christians can get downright testy when we think someone is guilty of deliberately tampering with our faith. We also have a tendency to elevate the cultural idiosyncrasies of a particular bygone era to a pedestal of special honor. Certainly, we should honor the Christians of the past. We should preserve their contributions. However saintly they may have been though, they were not right about everything. Peoples’ opinions about gender roles, like much of what we call “common sense,” is usually based on the accepted practices of the particular time and culture in which they live. One of the responsibilities of a Bible translator or a theologian is to carefully, prayerfully, and honorably separate what the Bible claims to be unchangeable truth from that which merely relates to his or her own cultural comfort.
In the matter of God’s 'gender', we must recognize that both male and female are made in His image and likeness. From that truth, we infer that both maleness and femaleness have their origin in God Himself. This obviously means that God transcends gender. Even so, for His own reasons, God chose to refer to Himself most often as male. This must be respected. But we should not make more of it than the Bible itself does.