God and Gender Neutral Language

by David Browder

Photo: David Paulsen/Episcopal News Service

As many of you already know, The Episcopal Church’s General Convention met in Austin last week. A few hot topics such as prayer book revision were on the agenda. Of course, prayer book revision would not affect us directly but we earnestly hope it does not take place for the sake of our sister churches in The Episcopal Church, especially those holding on to the traditional, orthodox Faith.

One aspect of the proposed prayer book revision caught my eye — and the eyes of many you as well. That is the issue of using gender-neutral language to describe God. Several parishioners sent me copies of the article “Is God Male?” that appeared in this past Sunday’s edition of the Houston Chronicle. Many more of you have read it, I am sure. Mainline denominations such as the Methodists (UMC), Presbyterians (PCUSA), and Lutherans (ELCA) have already moved in the direction of using gender-neutral language for God.

It may not surprise you to learn that I do not believe this is a good idea. “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” (2 Tim 3:16-17 ESV) While it is true that God is neither male nor female, it is also true that He chooses to reveal Himself in the masculine as a Good Father. There are many reasons for this that I will not go into; but changing the language changes the way God Himself has chosen to reveal Himself. This is my primary concern.

People who advocate this change give, as one of their reasons for change, pastoral concern toward people who have been abused. The claim is that those abused by men cannot relate to or love a God referred to in the masculine: their pain is too great. This is a good-faith concern. Abuse is a serious issue that cannot simply be cast aside. Those who have suffered abuse must be loved deeply and advocated for passionately. It is unfortunate that dialogue has gotten to the point that real, suffering people are caught in the crossfire and are hurt beyond their original wounds.

If the language is changed to omit the masculine, though, how then is the abused person supposed to heal in his or her relationship to men? Obliterating the masculine would put an end to that possibility, at least from a prayer book standpoint. In Scripture, we are given the image of a Good Father (Luke 15:11-32, 1 John 3:1-3, et al) who redeems and delivers His children. Those who may have had an abusive father or husband are able to see how those relationships were supposed to have been. Knowing that the Good Father is actually YOUR True Father is an unbelievably healing word of Gospel. Knowing that Christ the Bridegroom is actually YOUR True Bridegroom is an unbelievably healing word of Gospel.

If we take away the masculine vocabulary from the prayer book, we also need to ask ourselves how this will affect our young men and boys. If the masculine is done away with rather than being redeemed (just as the feminine needs to be redeemed), what message are we sending to them? We already see young men and boys struggle tremendously in our culture. This is not conjecture, but fact documented in numerous studies. Men and boys are dropping out of church at alarming rates and I cannot see how this proposal will do anything but discourage them and hasten their departure. If God cannot be masculine without causing offense, what does that say about me as a boy or a man?

There is also an effort to promote a particular ideology in this proposal — not from all who support it, but certainly from some. Gender-neutral language fits within the postmodern structure of gender, seeing gender as elastic and subjective. We have all seen the new pronouns this movement desires and we have even seen them made mandatory in some places. This ideology demands an unremitting allegiance to each person’s autonomy and the authority to define reality as each sees fit.

This is far from the Christian message. God created people male and female (Gen. 1:27). It is God who creates and defines reality by His Word. He speaks it and it is. Christian worship should be awash in this Good News. It is our duty as Christian leaders to lead people out of themselves- – out of the mistaken notion that they can create their own reality — into the hands of Our Heavenly Father who creates, loves, redeems, justifies, and nurtures us as His own children. There is no other news greater than this.

There is more to say on this, of course, but I hope I have given you an idea of where I stand and what I think of all this. My utmost hope is that we as a church would stand firm in our Faith. I also believe this: behind every theological fight/disagreement and ideological squabble there is a truly suffering person. They might suffer from abuse, deep confusion, depression, or desperation. Let us then hold firm to the Good News but speak kindly, humbly, and lovingly, with great discernment, listening ears, and great compassion (Col. 3:12). In this, we will be counter-cultural. In this, we will truly be salt and light (Matt. 5:13-16) instead of just another loud voice in the cacophony that is the modern day West.