my stake in the ground on male pronouns for god

i’ve had the title of this post sitting in my drafts for a long time — more than a half year. time to get around to writing it. it’s not much of a stake in the ground if i don’t actually put the stake in the ground!


phase one of marko’s thinking about male pronouns for god (1963 through, roughly, the late 80s):
it’s a stupid waste of time to even consider our use or lack of use of male pronouns for god. only liberals who might not even be actual christians care about such a silly argument. and they’re not actually interested in god; they’re only interested in social issues and feminism. besides, the bible uses male pronouns for god all the time! and, come on, it’s god the father, not god the mother.

phase two of marko’s thinking about male pronouns for god (roughly, the late 80s through the mid-90s):
ok, i’ll admit this much, god — as spirit — doesn’t have a “gender” per se. i mean, i can agree that god doesn’t have male genitalia. so i can understand, a little bit, trying to be sensitive to our projections of a male personification onto god. but bother with the whole pronoun thing still seems to be aligning oneself with a liberal church issue that’s not really important. remember, the bible does use male pronouns.

phase three of marko’s thinking about male pronouns for god (roughly, the mid-90s through the end of the 90s):
(sigh). ok, now i can agree to the notion that using exclusively male pronouns for god is, in many ways, actually damaging to our understanding of god. it’s limiting. how come no one, in all my wonderful church upbringing and christian college classes ever showed me the feminine metaphors for god (the mother hen, the mother eagle, others), or that wisdom is a feminine word. but it’s way too much of a hassle to try to use more neutral words. we don’t have a neutral pronoun, so we’re stuck with what we’ve got.

phase four of marko’s thinking about male pronouns for god (roughly, end of the 90s through about a year ago):
i’m going to try to be a bit more sensitive to this issue, and use “God” in my speaking and writing a bit more. but there are still awkward sentence constructions — like saying “Godself” — that are too much of a pain and way too weird. i’ll still use “him” and “he” some, but try to cut down a bit.

phase five of marko’s thinking about male pronouns for god (roughly, a year ago until now):
i did some reading, and talked to a bunch of women about how — for some of them — male pronoun use for god, no matter how much we might try to admit that god doesn’t have a human gender like we do, is a struggle for them. i understand that, no matter now much we try, it’s impossible for us to fully separate our understanding of god from our experience in life, and that metaphors and history both speak loudly into our psyches, worship, theology and practice. and while it is much more work to avoid male pronouns — at least for me, as i’ve used them for more than 40 years, and hear them in most of the contexts i live in — i’ve also seen (in writing) and heard (in speaking) people who artfully craft sentences to avoid the awkwardness of structure i previously thought was occasionally necessary (when this is done well, i don’t notice it at all). i’ve put a stake in the ground: i’m trying to excise the use of male pronouns for god when speaking and writing.

the result, so far:
it’s a pain. awareness of this has led to a few subsequent awarenesses…

first, i tend to notice every single use of a male pronoun for god. it’s distracting. i wish there were a way to separate my attempt from my listening to others — i wish i could turn it on and off. but the awareness has brought a relentless noticing. i really notice it when i use a male pronoun for god while i’m speaking, and it’s extremely distracting to me! i’m even distracted by my intention to not use them. sometimes i wish i weren’t in this place, that i didn’t have this awareness.

second, i still think the “father” metaphor in scripture is helpful and good. of course, i understand it’s a metaphor (i think there are lots of christians who don’t see it as a metaphor): certainly god the father didn’t give birth to jesus. the father metaphor still works for me. but, while i can cognitively assent to the mother metaphors being just as valid, they don’t quite work for me in my thinking and worship. i don’t find it easy to meditate — for example — on god as caring, nurturing mother, like i do on the image of god as loving father. i have searched for images that work for me, but haven’t really found one yet. part of this is that i’ve lived a life with a humanized father image. and while the images of god in scripture — male and female — include lots of non-human images (rocks, hens, eagles, wind, water, light, bread, lamb), the only scriptural metaphors i have to work with that are decidedly feminine are non-human. there are also a ton of human metaphors for god in scripture (best friend, guide, potter, servant, judge) — which don’t have to be male, i’ve spent a lifetime thinking of them as male. even the feminine “sophia” — the scriptural word for wisdom, often associated with the holy spirit — has all kinds of hurdles for me at an experience level.

finally, i’m choosing to live in this tension. i’m not peppering my prayer, sermons or writing with female metaphors for god. while i can understand the democratic impulse to do this, i think it only complicates the problem. for me, that would be adding to the problem, not solving it. instead, i’ve been working to learn how to change sentences to use the name of god without a gender-specific pronoun. and i’m praying for deeper understanding and revelation from god.

i’m sure some will see this as some kind of horrible, liberal proof of my slip from orthodoxy. nothing could be further from the truth, actually. i deeply desire to know my creator, the one who breathes life into me, the revealed and revealing one (see, that was one of those phrases i had to work on — it would have been my first instinct to say, “the one who reveals himself), the one who is active in scripture, in the church, in the world, in my life.

 clarifications and further thoughts

interesting comments so far.  i’ve mostly really enjoyed reading them.  mostly.

i couldn’t get my laptop to work with the wireless at this resort in mexico, but i had to jump on and respond a bit; so i finally paid for an hour at the internet cafe.  a few things…

first, please understand that my whole point was about MALE PRONOUNS for god, NOT the metaphor of father.  i tried to be clear about this, but the quantity of comments that said or implied that i was dumping or dumping on the scriptural father metaphor leads me to believe i wasn’t clear enough.  i’m talking about the constant use of him and he and his when referring to god.

second, i love the father metaphor, and think it is totally scriptural – obviously so.  i have no intention of moving away from or discarding that wonderful metaphor.  and i will still talk about the trinity in terms of father, son and holy spirit.  that said, i think we have a tendancy – i know i have – to worship the metaphor, rather than worshipping through the metaphor.  this is a major portion of my shift — i want to know god better and deeper, and don’t want to be limited by charicatures of my own making or my culture’s making.

third, many of said to major on the majors, and that this is a minor issue.  first of all, i find that highly dismissive.  wow.  i was — i have to admit — a bit aghast at how many times that was suggested.  limiting our understanding of god is a minor thing?  worshipping a metaphor rather than god is a minor thing?  i think not.  and, the quick assumption that this is a minor thing may reveal an arrogance or some other issue that allows this to be dismissed in such a manner.  i’ll tell you this — this is a major thing for me for two reasons:  a.  i want to know god more; and b. i know so many women who have really struggled to understand themselves as created in god’s image because they only had a male concept of god. 

fourth, and finally, i appreciate that lars commented that this is my journey, not a ys mandate.  this is true.  i’ve had this discussion with tic and jeanne stevens (my two convention co-emcees), as i would love to see us be more cautious on stage.  but tic thinks i’m making a big deal out of nothing, and i’m not about to send a memo or make a policy enforcing my journey.  i’ve not suggested to our publishing team that we take this direction, or talked about it anywhere else.  really, this is experimental for me, and it’s as much about honoring my wife in her journey as it is anything else.

so, there you have it — for now.  hope that clarifies some stuff.  and i hope more people will comment.

108 thoughts on “my stake in the ground on male pronouns for god”

  1. I am a PC(USA) pastor and I can not agree with you more Marko. I too felt it was nothing but a word for a long long time. Then I began to understand that when we limit God to a certain term or pronoun we limit how God can work in our world. When we begin to see God as a man we begin to only think of God as a man. God is so much more than any words we can say. God is bigger than event he bogey man! I have made it a point to not use male pronouns for God whenever I preach. I try not to use these when I am speaking or praying in public either. I think it just helps us to remember that God is more than all the words in all the languages of all the world. None of them are sufficient to explain or define who God is.

  2. Several thoughts come to mind with this issue. How I hope the Spirit gives me the exact words to communicate!

    Let’s start with the Spirit. Before this blog I never once attributed a female connotation to the Spirit. In John 14 Jesus himself says, “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever – the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept HIM (emphasis mine), because it neither sees HIM nor knows HIM. But you know HIM, for HE lives with you and will be in you.” I will admit I have not studied Greek or Hebrew, but I am clear in my understanding of he/him in these verses. These are Jesus’ words.

    Second, why is it so unbelievable that God as Father can be loving, compassionate, merciful, affectionate, nurturing, etc…. In the story of the prodigal son Jesus states that while the son was still a long way off, the father saw him and was filled with compassion for him and ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him. Are we so removed in our society and culture that the only characteristics we associate with any type of father is one of dictator, bully, body guard, and disciplinarian? God the Father is strong, creative, defender, and disciplinarian, but He is also loving (so much so He sent His son to die for the ungodly). He is compassionate, merciful, nurturing, and affectionate. He made garments for Adam and Eve after the fall. Are you going to say that God must be a female then because men can’t sew! That’s sexist – stereotyping! Are you saying men can’t cook either? Jesus himself was cooking fish (breakfast) for his disciples on the side of the shore after his resurrection. Your description and images of “father” are skewed by culture, media, and personal experiences.

    Jesus had no problem referring to God as Father – specifically. Several times referring to Him as Abba (Daddy). When people want to refer to verses in scripture which describe God as a mother hen or a woman in labor you are really misinterpreting the point. Those phrases are similes. The definition of a simile is “a figure of speech that expresses a resemblance between things of different kinds – usually using ‘like’ or ‘as’.” Every single one of those verses that were referenced earlier begins with the word “as”. That is a simile. It is a comparison to the original – not the real thing. Jesus repeatedly referred to God as “Father”. Why do we want to change that image? I understand people have had horrible experiences with earthly fathers, but come on – what better image then to compare that God our heavenly Father is NOTHING like that! Someone very close to me was raised by an abusive, apathetic, non-loving earthly father. In fact, the person will only refer to him as his “B.F.” – biological father. I don’t have time to tell you the things he suffered because and from this man. But he has NO problem whatsoever in seeing God as his Father. God is the Father he never had. He is the complete opposite of his B.F. It brings him comfort to know that God the Father is all of the things his earthy father was not. And now that he is a father himself, he strives to be like God the Father and not his BF. Though he admits his BF was a great teacher because he taught him that he did not want to be like him. I do not think that is a valid argument or excuse for people refusing to address God in the masculine form. It’s an excuse. Period.

    I know this is a long post – and I don’t apologize. In our “me” society and make “me” feel good culture it requires more than a few sentences.

  3. g,

    Just a quick note…

    In English, we read John 14:16 with the pronoun ‘he’. But in Greek, the word used (pneuma) is not a male word. It’s a neuter word. By tradition, in the English language, we use ‘he’ in those type of translation issues. But, I think english grammar is a poor place to get theology from. If you want to get theology from grammar, at least do it in the original language. If Jesus had spoken those words in Hebrew (and maybe he did and its just written in Greek, who knows) he would have used the Hebrew word for Spirit which is feminine.

    Also, I really want you to hear that point that no one is denying the beauty of God as Father. That is a good metaphor. And it is a metahpor, we all know God is not a human man who has fathered biological children. I think the point is : let’s take the Bible MORE seriously and look at all the metaphors God uses for himself, including the female ones.

  4. Michball – I hope you’re still reading and I’m sorry we got caught up in our discussion and didn’t respond to your blog.

    Marko definitely loves and knows God. I don’t think any of us are challenging that and I hope you will keep looking at his blogs and taking note of his faith. More importantly I think all of us (including Marko) would hope you’d read The Bible as well. You might start in the gospel of John or Romans (a little tougher perhaps but worth reading).

    You mentioned a double standard that many (perhaps even all) Christians have. I think a better way to put it is Tension. The one true God and the faith we have in God presents some fun and sometimes difficult tensions to deal with. For example, I am called to live perfectly but I know that I can’t and yet the Bible tells me that in Christ I am made perfect and yet I still sin. Can you see the tension? It’s also from this that Christian’s are often seen as hypocrites – that we claim to be perfect but clearly aren’t. I don’t think any one of us responding to this blog would claim to be perfect.

    The tension that you mentioned from this particular discussion is that all of us are claiming humility and that we don’t know it all but then we seem to be saying we know the answer…what you’re seeing are two tensions…
    1) we don’t have all the answers and we as people make mistakes but The Bible does not make mistakes because it is God’s word and it has all the answers that we need. Because of this we can claim humility and yet point to God’s word with confidence and make a bold claim of truth.
    2) we have a mysterious and transcendent God that is greater than we can imagine but God is also relational and has made Himself known through the Bible and actually coming to earth as Jesus Christ to restore our broken relationship. So we have to admit that we do not know everything about the infinite God who exists but that is not to say that we cannot know and understand God because God has chosen to make Himself known to us

    In other words, while we continue to learn the extent of God’s character and therefore can say that we do not completely know God because He is infinite. We can also very accurately say that we know God’s character because He describes it to us in the Bible. Again, there is a tension. That doesn’t make either part wrong it simply means we must remember both parts…God is infinite and His ways are beyond ours but God is also relational and He has described and explained who He is and how He relates to us.

    One last thing, you mentioned a tendency to take our business elsewhere if we don’t get our way, at least on the part of some. I don’t mean to condemn or condone any of the responses, only to explain. Because we take God and the Bible seriously there are some things that we believe that we must not change them…Jesus is God…We cannot earn our way to heaven, faith in Jesus is the only way to heaven, etc…these are not our opinion, they are statements from God in the Bible and they are essentials that we live by. You sometimes see us disagree on what the essentials are, though, and this seems to be the case here. It’s not that some are throwing a hissy fit, it’s that some see this issue as an essential and others perhaps don’t.

    I hope our discussion does not distract you from what’s is crucial…(as I mentioned before, read John or Romans and you’ll find this)
    God made humanity to know and glorify Him.
    But our sin has kept us from doing this and made us guilty before a holy and just God.
    Because of His holiness and justice and because of our sin a penalty of death was handed down.
    Because of His love, grace and mercy, Jesus came to pay that price of death
    Any who put their trust in Jesus are saved by Him, He restores our relationship that we might know Him and honor Him.

    Again, I encourage you to read John and/or Romans and I hope you will come to know the amazing God who exists.

  5. Come on people! Do you really think for a minute, God the FATHER, the Creator of this universe, and the One that made both male and female…. (I don’t know about you.. but I can’t do either of those) do you really think He’s confused as to what He wants to be called. God IS Father… I’m not saying God is a “male” or has a penis, but all scripture is abundantly clear that He wants to be referred to as He, Him, and Father. Bottom line for me is.. If calling Him Father is good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for me. We can stop pretending that we will ever know this side of heaven if God is male, female, or whatever. However, we do know He want’s to be referred to as He, Him, and Father.

  6. PBJ –

    Thanks for the comment and food for thought. I do come back to this post every once and awhile since I find the discussions here quite fascinating.

    First I think I should clarify that I definitely don’t think everyone who is disagreeing with Marko (or with anyone else for that matter) is throwing a hissy fit. Debate and discussions are great and can lead to growth and discovery. So my point was not at all to condemn the discussion.

    Also, I understand that there are certain truths or beliefs which are fundamental to the Christian faith. But Marko wasn’t actually challenging any such truth? If he had been I could understand the rage in some of the comments on here. If I understood correctly he was simply speaking about his own journey where he is searching for more inclusive and less limiting ways to view God. And for that people would actually boycott seminars that have any sort of affiliation to Marko. That is very puzzling to me.

  7. This is a long conversation that probably no one is reading anymore. I honestly haven’t read through all the comments, so I might be saying what someone else already said.

    That said, I’ll state my point anyway.
    Marko, you want to worship God more purely by understanding exactly who and what God is. That’s good. But the gender issue is not the point (and I think you know this). When Jesus refers to God as the “Father,” he’s not talking about gender (at least I don’t think so), he’s talking about character. Is God calling himself a hen? No. He’s referring to character.

    What would the perfect Father be like? That’s the concept Jesus is getting at. What does a mother hen do for her chicks? That’s what God is getting at.

    I believe the general use of male terms for God has more to do with authority and power than it does with gender. God is helping us understand him. We are stupid specks, with a limited language to express concepts.

    Getting hung up on gender is only hurting the journey. Let’s try to understand the character of the comparisons, not the gender.

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