Throughout both the Old and New Testaments, whenever reference is made to God (or, for that matter, to the other two members of the Godhead) a male pronoun (He, Him, His, etc.) is employed. Why is this the case? Does God indeed possess gender comparable to that of humans? Is God male?
God’s “gender” has been a hot topic for approximately the last two decades, owing in large part to the impact of the women’s liberation movement and the sexual revolution. Books with titles like When God was a Woman, The Feminine Face of God, Womanspirit Rising, and Beyond God the Father are leaping off bookstore shelves. Religious writers have capitulated to the “signs of the times” in attempts to make God “gender neutral.” For example, the well-known writer on science and religion (and herself a believer in God), Kitty Ferguson, placed the following disclaimer in the frontispiece to her best-selling book, The Fire in the Equations, produced and distributed by the W.B. Eerdmans company (a religious publisher).
The author of a book on the topic of science and religion needs a pronoun for God. Regardless of whether I choose to call God “he” or “she,” I find myself making a statement which I don’t wish to make. Using them interchangeably seems contrived and gets confusing. “She/he” or “he/she” is cumbersome...and one still has the problem of which gender comes first in the pairing. “It” will not do. Lacking a better solution, I have chosen to use “he,” which makes the weaker statement and is more easily interpreted as inclusive (1994, ellipses in orig.).
Major religious groups even have begun altering their views on God and the language they use to express those views. In the Inclusive Language Lectionary produced by the U.S. Council of Churches, Christ’s word for God, Abba, has been changed from “Father” to “Father and Mother,” and the word for Christ’s relationship to God has been altered from “son” to “child” (see Reuther, 1988, p. 144). At its annual conference in 1992, the Methodist Church in Great Britain concluded that “the use of female imagery is compatible with faithfulness to Scripture—indeed Scripture itself points in this direction and also gives us examples of that imagery.” The Methodist Faith and Order Commission thus recommended that, in order to avoid distortion of our image of God, both female and male images should be used to refer to Him/Her (Inclusive Language and Imagery about God, 1992). And, as British writer Hugh Montefiore noted:
Even the Church of England, while not going so far as this, has made some suggestions for inclusive language. No doubt such measures are as yet in their infancy. Teaching will in future focus on the filial relationship of Jesus to God rather than on his sonship, and on our dependence on God and on his love and care for us, rather than on his fatherhood (1993, p. 131).
What should be the Christian’s response to these kinds of innovations and the changes that ultimately stem from them? Is it scriptural to speak of God as “Mother”? Is it permissible to refer to Jehovah as “Her”?
To answer these kinds of questions, one first must know something of the nature of deity. And the only source of that kind of information is God’s Word, the Bible. While it is true that something may be known of God through a study of the created Universe—namely “his everlasting power and divinity” (Romans 1:20)—there nevertheless are specific traits of Deity that can be explained to mankind only via supernatural revelation. Fortunately, such a revelation has been provided in the Bible. Arthur W. Pink expressed this concept most beautifully when he wrote:
If it were announced upon reliable authority that on a certain date in the near future an angel from heaven would visit New York and would deliver a sermon upon the invisible world, the future destiny of man, or the secret deliverance from the power of sin, what an audience he would command! There is no building in that city large enough to accommodate the crowd which would throng to hear him. If upon the next day, the newspapers were to give a verbatim report of his discourse, how eagerly it would be read! And yet, we have between the covers of the Bible not merely an angelic communication, but a Divine revelation. How great then is our wickedness if we undervalue and despise it! And yet we do (1976, p. 103).
If answers are to be found, they will be found within the pages of Holy Writ. The question then becomes: “What has God revealed concerning His nature and gender?”
It is true that the Bible often uses masculine terms to describe God or His activities. Male names and terms are applied to God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit throughout Scripture. The names for God—Yahweh, Elohim, Shaddai, Sebbaoth, Adonai, Kurios, and Theos—are all masculine gender. Furthermore, male metaphors frequently are applied to God. The psalmist cried, “The Lord is king for ever and ever” (10:16) and wrote that “like as a father pitieth his children, so Jehovah pitieth them that fear him” (Psalm 103:13). Nehemiah represented God as a warrior when he wrote: “Our God will fight for us” (4:20). Jeremiah portrayed God as a spurned husband (3:1-2). Jesus likened God to a loving Father (Luke 15:11-32). The names for Christ—Iesus and Christos—are masculine. And Jesus is presented in the male roles of a shepherd (Matthew 25:32; John 10:11-18), a prophet (Luke 13:33), a priest (Matthew 26:28; Hebrews 7:24-28), a bridegroom (Matthew 22:1-4), and a son (Mark 1:11; John 3:16 [John mentions the father-son relationship more than 60 times in his Gospel]; Hebrews 1:2-3).
It also is true, however, that on certain occasions God is portrayed via female images and metaphors. Isaiah 42:14 has God saying, “I cry out like a travailing woman,” and Isaiah 46:3 records God’s words as “Hearken unto me, O house of Jacob, and all the remnant of the house of Israel, that have been borne by me from their birth, that have been carried from the womb.” In Isaiah 49:15, God inquired: “Can a woman forget her sucking child, that she should not have compassion on the son of her womb? Yea, these may forget, yet will not I forget thee.” The psalmist used a female attribute in speaking of God when he said, “Surely I have stilled and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with his mother” In Isaiah 66:13, Jehovah promised: “As one whom his mother comforteth, so will I comfort you.” In one of His parables, Jesus portrayed God as a woman diligently sweeping her house in search of a single lost coin (Luke 15:8-10). And in Matthew 23:37, Jesus employed a female figure to refer to Himself in His lament over the city of David: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, that killeth the prophets and stoneth them that are sent unto her! How often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not!”
However, there are other important factors to be considered as well. In an article titled, “Is God Female?,” Steve Singleton mentioned three of them:
1. God is referred to hundreds of times with masculine names and with masculine pronouns such as “he,” “him,” and “his.”
2. God is never given a feminine name, or referred to with feminine pronouns such as “she,” her,” and “hers.”
3. This does not mean that God is male. The masculine pronouns have always had the second, generic sense, referring to both male and female, just as “Man” has been used for centuries to refer to both men and women (1978, 120:154).
These are critical points that must not be overlooked or minimized in responding to those who question the “gender” of God. I began this article by asking: “Does God indeed posses gender comparable to that of humans? Is God male?” In his book, Credible Christianity, Hugh Montefiore asked and answered those very questions. “Does this mean that God is male? The very question verges on the absurd.... God exists eternally, and in the eternal sphere there is no sexual differentiation. God has no gender. He is neither male nor female...” (1993, pp. 130-131, emp. in orig.). As Singleton concluded: “God is not male or female. God is God. Do you hear the answer which God gave to Moses on the mountain when Moses asked, ‘Who are you?’ God said, ‘I am that I am!’ ” (1978, 120:154, emp. added).
But why is it that God has no gender? Hopefully, the answer to this question will become obvious as we study the Scriptures. God is an eternal Spirit (Deuteronomy 33:27, Psalm 102:27; John 4:24; 1 Timothy 1:17; Revelation 1:8) and, as Jesus pointed out, “a spirit hath not flesh and bones” (Luke 24:39). In 1 Samuel 15:29, God Himself announced: “The Strength of Israel...is not a man.” Moses wrote in Numbers 23:19: “God is not a man ...neither the son of man.” Hosea repeated that affirmation: “I am God, and not man” (11:9). Time and again the Scriptures address the fact that, as a Spirit, God is invisible. John wrote of the fact that “no man hath seen God at any time” (John 1:18). Paul spoke of “God...whom no man hath seen, nor can see” (1 Timothy 6:13,16) and of Christ as “the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15). He reminded the young evangelist Timothy that to the “immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever” (1 Timothy 1:17).
Spirits—because they are non-corporeal beings—have no physical body and thus by definition are incapable of possessing gender. In speaking of the humans who one day will inhabit the heavenly realm, Jesus remarked that they “neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are as angels” (Matthew 22:30). His point was that we shall not take up our earthly gender roles in heaven, just as the angels, as spirit beings, have played no gender roles throughout their existence. Similarly, God, as a Spirit Being Who inhabits the heavenly realm, has no gender.
Why, then, if God has no gender, do the Scriptures refer to Him via masculine names and metaphors? And must we refer to Him via masculine names and metaphors?
The answer to the first question has to do with both history and authority. From a historical standpoint, the fact is that every known ancient religion—except one—posited both gods and goddesses as beings worthy of worship. The lone exception was Judaism. Kreeft and Tacelli, in their Handbook of Christian Apologetics, addressed this matter when they wrote:
The Jewish revelation was distinctive in its exclusively masculine pronoun because it was distinctive in its theology of the divine transcendence. That seems to be the main point of the masculine imagery. As a man comes into a woman from without to make her pregnant, so God creates the universe from without rather than birthing it from within and impregnates our souls with grace or supernatural life from without. As a woman cannot impregnate herself, so the universe cannot create itself, nor can the soul redeem itself. Surely there is an inherent connection between these two radically distinctive features of the...biblical religions...: their unique view of a transcendent God creating nature out of nothing and their refusal to call God “she” despite the fact that Scripture ascribes to him feminine attributes like compassionate nursing (Is. 49:15), motherly comfort (Is. 66:13) and carrying an infant (Is. 46:3). The masculine pronoun safeguards (1) the transcendence of God against the illusion that nature is born from God as a mother rather than created and (2) the grace of God against the illusion that we can somehow save ourselves—two illusions ubiquitous and inevitable in the history of religion (1994, p. 98, emp. in orig.).
From an authoritative standpoint, as Singleton pointed out earlier, God is referred to hundreds of times throughout Scripture by masculine names and masculine pronouns—but never is given a feminine name or referred to by feminine pronouns. Thomas Rees, writing in the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, addressed the matter of God as the ultimate authority figure when he wrote that “the essential nature of God, and His relation to men, is best expressed by the attitude and relation of a father to his children; but God is Father in an infinitely higher and more perfect degree than any man” (1955, 2:1261). K.C. Moser, in his book, Attributes of God, stated emphatically that “this manner of referring to God is significant” (1964, p. 12). Indeed it is. While those who were involved in the false religions that surrounded the Jews worshipped a myriad of non-existent gods and goddesses, the Israelites worshipped “Jehovah the true God, the living God, an everlasting King” (Jeremiah 10:10; cf. “the true and living God,” 1 Thessalonians 1:9, NLB; “the only God,” John 5:44). Or, as Spencer, et al. put it in their book, The Goddess Revival: “The Judeo-Christian God, unlike the gods and goddesses of pagans new and old, exists above the limitations of gender” (1995, p. 48). It is an “authority” matter—not a “gender” matter.
But must we refer to God via masculine terms? The question has nothing to do with what we would like to do, but instead with what God tells us to do. C.S. Lewis addressed this point in his book, God in the Dock:
Goddesses have, of course, been worshipped: many religions have had priestesses. But they are religions quite different in character from Christianity.... Since God is in fact not a biological being and has no sex, what can it matter whether we say He or She, Father or Mother, Son or Daughter?
Christians think that God Himself has taught us how to speak of Him. To say that it does not matter is to say either that all the masculine imagery is not inspired, is merely human in origin, or else that, though inspired, it is quite arbitrary and unessential. And this is surely intolerable (1970, p. 237, emp. in orig.).
Scripture makes it clear: “O Jehovah, thou art our Father; we are the clay, and thou our potter; and we all are the work of thy hand.... Shall the potter be esteemed as clay; that the thing made should say of him that made it, ‘He made me not’; or the thing formed say of him that formed it, ‘He hath no understanding’?” (Isaiah 64:8; 29:16). Since when does the clay have the right to dictate to the potter or override his decisions? As a believer in God and His inspired Word, and yet as one speaking from an inherently masculine view point, Lewis went on to say:
We have no authority to take the living and semitive figures which God has painted on the canvas of our nature and shift them about as if they were mere geometrical figures.... It is painful, being a man, to have to assert the privilege which Christianity lays upon my own sex. I am crushingly aware how inadequate most of us are, in our actual and historical individualities, to fill the place prepared for us. But it is an old saying in the army that you salute the uniform not the wearer.... A given man may make a very bad husband; you cannot mend matters by trying to reverse the roles... (1970, pp. 237-238, emp. added).
It is not man’s (or woman’s!) place to question God’s sovereign authority or divine will; neither falls under mankind’s jurisdiction. As Kreeft and Tacelli noted: “One issue is whether we have the authority to change the names of God used by Christ, the Bible and the church. The traditional defense of masculine imagery for God rests on the premise that the Bible is divine revelation, not culturally relative, negotiable and changeable” (1994, p. 98). Christ Himself left us the perfect example (as He always did) when He said: “Our Father Who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name” (Matthew 6:9, emp. added). The fact that biblical designations of God are placed within the specific framework of the masculine settles the matter once and for all. It simply is not a matter up for discussion.
Ferguson, Kitty (1994), The Fire in the Equations (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans).
Inclusive Language and Imagery about God (1992), (Peterborough, England: Methodist Faith and Order Commission).
Kreeft, Peter and Ronald K. Tacelli (1994), Handbook of Christian Apologetics (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press).
Lewis, C.S. (1970), God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans).
Montefiore, Hugh (1993), Credible Christianity: The Gospel in Contemporary Society (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans).
Moser K.C. (1964), Attributes of God (Austin, TX: Sweet).
Pink, Arthur (1976 reprint), The Divine Inspiration of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker).
Rees, Thomas (1955), “God,” International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, ed. James Orr, et al. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans), 2:1250-1264.
Reuther, R.R. (1988), “Feminism and Jewish-Christian Dialogue,” The Myth of Christian Uniqueness, ed. J. Hick and P. Knitter (London: SCM Press).
Singleton, Steve (1978), “Is God Female?,” Gospel Advocate, 120:145,154, March 9.
Spencer, Aida B., et al. (1995), The Goddess Revival (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker).