!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD XHTML 1.0 Transitional//EN" "http://www.w3.org/TR/xhtml1/DTD/xhtml1-transitional.dtd"> Emerging Women .comment-link {margin-left:.6em;}
Sunday, March 04, 2007
Feminine Language in Church: Adding an "S" to the "H.E.s"
My church is fairly open-minded. No one seems to have a problem with women in leadership -- in principle. But it just so happens that the pastor, assistant pastor and worship leader are all men. The messages are often powerful and interesting, we have cool music videos and we've been doing a small group question and some cool interactive worship stuff during the service. But Patriarchy runs deeper than skin. It's in people's blood, flowing through veins of custom and comfort, lurking beneath accepted status quos that many don't wish to challenge.

I am the kind of person who challenges a great many things (in case you haven't noticed!) and so I've been trying to exercise more timing and restraint, being a bit more selective about where I express my voice assertively. I've been biding my time about gender pronouns for God in worship, and tonight I decided to free the words from my tongue. I tried to be chill; even a little tongue-in-cheek.

I raised the issue during a casual conversation which included the worship leader and the assistant pastor, saying simply, "So do you think we could add a few "S"s to some of the "H.E."s during worship? The worship leader was pretty responsive and open, wanting to hear from of where I was going with the concept. The assistant pastor, however, jumped in and said, "I'm not sure I'm comfortable with that. How about as a compromise subsituting some H.E.s with some G.O.D.s? I responded by relaying a story about how my 4 1/2 year-old daughter announced to me that God was a boy, and how when the only pronoun we hear used for God is "He," when we hear the word "God" we associate it exclusively with the masculine aspect of God." Again, the worship leader got the point. The assistant pastor sort of it got it, but fell back on reiterating, "I'm just not comfortable with that." I said, "Do you really come to church to feel comfortable?" He fidgeted and said something along the lines of "no, but..." I concluded the interaction by making a pun of, "Well, it's something to let gestate" and excused myself to go find my daughter.

Now this assistant pastor is not a fundamentalist. Theologically, he seems very open minded and interested in asking questions over providing answers, etc. Yet I heard him preach on genesis once and throw in something about how "God seems to have given little bit more responsibility to the man," which seems nonsensical to me since this same pastor doesn't make any claims to taking genesis literally. Yet he remains severely influenced by patriarchy.

Given that this man has never questioned my calling to ministry, I was surprised by his response. And even more surprised by how hurt I felt by his discomfort with using female as well as male pronouns for God. I felt personally insulted. And it was disconcerting for him to in the next breath talk about meeting with me, along with another man to discuss co-leadership of a possible upcoming ministry. I felt like someone knocked the wind out of me, like how can you say something like that and then just act normal? Don't you realize the implications of what you just said? Don't you see that you just degraded me and that your discomfort implies that I am not truly equally in the image of God as the men with whom I am invited to meet?

I'd love to hear your reflections, experiences, insights and advice.

Labels: , , ,

posted by Jemila Kwon at 9:21 PM ¤ Permalink ¤


  • At 3/04/2007 10:00:00 PM, Anonymous Christina

    It is a shame that in the English language there is no pronoun that transcends gender without objectifying the status of the person to whom it refers. I don't tend to relate conceptually to God as He or She as both are limiting and terribly laden with our cultural stereotypes and expectations. I must confess that I generally use the masculine pronoun for want of an alternative that captures the essence of God any better, and to avoid depersonalization or cumbersome expression that often results with inclusive language. I don't extend this pronoun generosity to the scriptures though. Interestingly, there are examples in the bible where the feminine pronoun is used to refer to God. In the book of Job God answers in the whirlwind with a feminine pronoun. You won't find that in any translation that I am aware of though!

  • At 3/04/2007 10:08:00 PM, Blogger Jemila Monroe

    Very cool about Job -- can you give me a reference on that one by chance?

    For me, it's not about technicalities; I agree, that having to be neutral or use he/she he and she every time you refer to God is cumbersome and artificial. I just want to switch up, the way most parenting books do now, where in one anectode, the generic child is a "she" and in another it is a "he" so that the overall feel and tone balances out to one that feels inclusive with being cold and impersonal or structurally awkward.

  • At 3/04/2007 10:13:00 PM, Anonymous lisa

    I believe that God is all that is male and all that is female so, for me, it doesn't really help to change all the He's to She. Though it would be fair to go for a couple of thousand years with She in the place of He, it doesn't seem to actually reflect the true nature of God any better than "He" did. I guess that for that reason I would try to say "God" rather than He or She. Maybe we could try "Parent God" instead of "Father God."

  • At 3/05/2007 07:40:00 AM, Blogger Lydia

    Theologically, he seems very open minded and interested in asking questions over providing answers, etc

    I like this about him.

    Assuming that the male leaders are willing to taste of the "other" side, here's what I'd suggest:

    Pick a meeting time. It can be a small group or the (I assume) larger group on Sunday, the only thing that matters is that the leaders are in attendance.

    For this meeting, I'd suggest doing the following:

    Use only feminine pronouns to refer to God in the worship, sermon, and in casual conversation before and after it all begins.

    Preach a sermon that is female-centric (preferably by a female speaker). Use examples that resonate with the average woman much more than the average man.

    Throw in a comment or two about God's special relationship with womenkind. Most of all, assume that the audience is female and treat them accordingly.

    I think this sort of experience may help to open eyes. These aren't bad men by any stretch of the imagination, they just haven't had our experiences.

    After the service, I'd take the leaders (and any wives they might have) out for coffee or a beer to talk about their experiences that day.

    I'd expect them to be feeling uncomfortable and overlooked. Maybe even angry. I wouldn't moralize, but I would agree with anyone who mentioned that women might often feel the same way.

    I'd suggest the same techniques if your church leaders were struggling with issues related to race, social class, etc etc. When you're a member of the dominant group it's very difficult to imagine the experiences of other groups.

  • At 3/05/2007 08:23:00 AM, Blogger Melissa


    I've been following this blog for awhile and thought I'd jump in with my two cents.

    Even for the most open-minded of people who believe God is neither male nor female, hearing "Praise God, for She is good!" just doesn't sit right. It's alarming to think that that is how deep patriarchy runs.

    I bemoan the absence of a gender neural pronoun in English, but I wonder if languages that do have it use it in reference to God. I personally like Madeleine L'Engle's term "El" (short for Elohim), though it still doesn't quite capture it.

    For me personally, I try to not use pronouns when referring to God, but it gets a bit awkward after awhile, especially when doing "God's self." I've seen people write "Godde" (combination of "God" and "Goddess") but that doesn't convey itself in speech very well.

    What it all comes down to for me is I think the language of S/He should be balanced. My systematic theology teacher used the two pronouns pretty interchangeably while he taught. I think this is the best way to make people comfortable with different language for God...and point out scripture passages where God has female attributes (like in Luke, where Jesus talks about gathering Israel like a hen gathers her chicks).

  • At 3/05/2007 08:32:00 AM, Blogger Jemila Monroe

    Melissa, what a blessing to have a theology prof that put that into practice! Along the lines of L'engle, about El and Elle, or El and Ella? :)

  • At 3/05/2007 10:14:00 AM, Blogger Miz Melly

    Jemila I just want to applaud you. I think it took a bit of gumption to bring that up. I can't imagine actually speaking to my minister about it although I know he wouldn't be against it neccesarily. It's just that he'd worry about the reactions of the other congregants, particularly our older (but pretty powerful as a group) members.

    The more I ruminate on the idea of a pronoun for God, the more I jus think that it makes sense to use it interchangably, so that people *get* comfortable with SHE being used as often as HE.

    The English language is so restrictive sometimes. I saw an amazing play once by Shelley Mitchell which recounted the stories of four Hungarian friends in WWII who encountered angels. They referred to God as *O* with a Germanic umlaut over the O , pronounced Uuuh - which is a neutral term for God. It encapsulated God's genderless and genderful nature and was so effective.

    Anyway, you go girl! SHE's with you!

  • At 3/05/2007 10:24:00 AM, Blogger Julie

    In many ways I have to look at my use of pronouns as not being that which increases people's comfort, but that which helps rescue them from idoltry. As Peter Rollins points out, those names and images we use for God are at best icons that mediate our worship and at worst are idols that we worship in place of God. When we insist on using one name or pronoun for God because it is what we are comfortable with I think we have crossed that line into idol worship.

    The point isn't of course to just replace he with she. Or to say that because God is both male and female and neither it doesn't matter what we use, so lets not make a big deal about it (which guarantees that the male default terms will continue to be used). But when the conversation takes place about using inclusive God language, it forces people to understand the limits of language, the vastness of God, and their own prejudices. For in my experience, those who are open minded enough to allow the conversation to occur, often are faced with a limited number of options - 1. They fall back on the selfish what is comfortable excuse. 2. Their sexism becomes overt and they use their fear and dislike of women to avoid the issue. or 3. They admit the tension of the need to hold our conceptions/language of God lightly and expand our usage of names and methaphors for God (even when it is difficult).

  • At 3/05/2007 02:13:00 PM, Blogger Michele L

    A girl after my heart! ;)

    I have been trying not use pronouns, but it is not very easy sometimes. I refer to God as God as much as possible. My daughter also said something to me recently which had me stumbling. We had to have a talk that Jesus was a "boy" but God isn't a boy or a girl. Quite a topic for a 6 year old.

    I am realizing though that I would like this concept to settle for my kids. Honestly in my raising, there was no hint at all that God wasn't a man. I think as I got older I figured out as much, however, I would say I pretty much always thought of God as a Man.

    Patriarchy does run deep. I think many feel they are open to things, but then react in ways that are not quite reflective of that. I also feel many times it is very subconcious. The men in our church are "supportive" of women, and have even used feminine pronouns to talk about God. The interesting thing is, I think we still have a lot of work to do as a church to really reflect the acceptance of women as equal etc.(or should I say, not always placed into tradional roles)

    Being that I run our children's programs, I get a different perspective. I don't think some of the "issues" even cross people's minds. On the surface we are very "liberal" in many ways but I would say observing many of the families, that a lot of "child things" still fall on most of the moms and the women.

    We have been struggling to provide childcare. We have approximately 30 volunteers, 4 of which are men. As a staff, the women are still "in tradional roles" (office, children etc.) and as Jemila said, the speakers are almost always men.
    It is hard sometimes, because I feel like I am always "bitchy", but to be honest I have gotten stuck with a lot recently. I have shared my thoughts, and been pretty blunt, and yet sometimes we (the other girl I do the job with and I) feel like we speak a completely different language. We both have laughed...we will say things that to us seems completely clear, and the response just leaves us baffled. The fun of communication!

    I think many of the men just don't "feel" comfortable doing the children's programs, or assume "the women" are better at it. (Again patriarchial ideas) I would get that for some, however, many of these men are fathers (HELLO!) To be honest, I am not a huge "kids person", I never was. Over the years, and especially after having kids, I have learned to be a better "kids" person. If I can learn so can a man.

    Well to go back to the main topic, I think Lydia had great ideas (sure would like to do a similar idea). It is about perspectives. I give grace a lot to the men I deal with, in that I just don't think they understand the opposite position. Jemila, I know your feelings in that, but keep it up! It's not easy, but I think to all the strong women who have changed the world over time. Someone has to be willing to push for change!

  • At 3/05/2007 03:10:00 PM, Blogger Happy

    Jemila - this is a tough issue, mostly because language IS so tricky (God bless Bible translators the world over who have to grapple with issues like this one daily!)... but here's my two cents...

    Jesus did refer to God as His Father, and therefore so do I. I'm not comfortable refering to God in the feminine, but that doesn't mean I can't or don't understand that some of His qualities are "feminine" - being sheltered under God's wings as a mother hen shelters her chicks, etc. The thing is, the pronouns and the imagery are just shadows of who God really is - He is, as a little girl told Chris Tomlin, "indescribable" - and so the metaphors we have are just glimpses into God's glory, and not the whole thing...

    And about what your pastor said, in terms of men being given more responsibility... hello, pregnancy and childbirth? :) I don't think they got "more" - I think we were given different roles, and I love that. And I love it that God's call on my life has everything to do with who He's making me to be, and that being a woman is simply one facet of that in this life.

    Christina, I'd love that reference in Job, too - I want to look it up. :)

  • At 3/05/2007 04:21:00 PM, Blogger Amy

    I agree with Christina that it's a shame our language lacks the pronoun that would better encapsulate who God is.

    We recently had a service on the Holy Spirit. I've always viewed the Holy Spirit as having the most feminine attributes as discussed in scripture. Our pastor was trying to move our imagination of the HS from an "it" to viewing this person of the trinity as an actuan person. The line went something like, "The Holy Spirit is not an 'it', it's a 'he.'" I was so disappointed that a terrific opportunity to talk about the feminine aspects of God were completely glossed over. I know, though, that it was not purposely exclusive, but rather based on certain assumptions that have never really been parsed out.

    I think even for those fully supportive of women in ministry, it is a very difficult move from "I support women in ministry" to "I am willing to use feminine names for God." At least in my circles, it just doesn't happen. I long for that though.

    Lydia, great ideas. I may use those sometime soon, although on a very, very small scale!

  • At 3/05/2007 06:47:00 PM, Blogger Linda

    Michele - I also bemoan the inconsistencies of churches that "support" equality of women in the church but expect women to do the typically female things (i.e. child care). I'm not a real little kids kind of person either, but you said it well... you can become just about whatever you need to be if you try hard enough.

    To everyone else - Do you ever find confusion when switching back and forth between pronouns that refer to God? Also, what about the unchurched, uneducated person who walks in off the street and hears people talking about God as "She?" Do you think this ever puts up barriers? I'd really like others input regarding this. I'm all for not identifying God as one gender or the other because of the way s/he is described in scripture, but I'm wondering how it affects others (especially the impoverished class our church works with) who walk in off the street with a very simple understanding of God. I'd love to hear from anyone with experience or an opinion.

  • At 3/06/2007 10:24:00 AM, Blogger Linea

    Thanks, Happy, for your comment.

    I recently had a discussion on God as Father with a woman studying to become a pastor. She reminded me that Jesus always refers to God as his Father but that for us Father means more than "male parent". It means originator, creator and is not so much tied to sex.

    I will keep using the term "Father" I think. To me it does not have so many negative connotations as it may have for some. I think I am comfortable enough with who I am as a woman that I do not have to have a female form or language to describe God. However, it does not really freak me out to hear God referred to as She either.

    Our language just is not adequate to describe God.

    I hope this does not offend any of you who feel strongly about the use of feminine language. I think there is a lot of solid study that we as women must do in this area. I hope that women in the emerging church can be sensitive to women who do not see the language issue in the same way.

  • At 3/06/2007 11:34:00 AM, Blogger Doxallo

    I've been watching this topic, but haven' thad a chance to comment yet. I find myself relating mostly to the last couple of posters who haven't really felt the 'need' to use feminine terminology regarding God. I'm not really opposed to it, its more of a non-issue for me. I know that others feel strongly about it though (on both sides) and I don't want to be unsupportive or invalidate anyone's experience/emotions, etc. so I find myself tiip-toeing around the topic. I don't want to do that, but its hard when for example, I'm just now reading SMK's book and she takes the approach that if it doesn't bother a woman (all manner of things) then we're just 'asleep' or something. I don't feel like I'm asleep - I've just been brought up in a way that has empowered me from the get-go in a sense. Relating to God in the masculine has never seemed to compromise, for me, who I am as a woman, or the life I lead.

    I did bring this up the other day with a gal I work with who is a believer, and one thing she said was that the HS conceived christ in mary's womb and to her that seemed significantly 'male'.

    Jesus referred to God as "Father", Jesus was born a 'son', the HS conceived a child through Mary....while I agree with the idea that God is genderless and there are 'female' attributes, what do you all think about these other avenues of thought? I know that we have a lot of varied beliefs here - how does the conception of Jesus and such factor in to this discussion from your perspectives?

  • At 3/06/2007 02:29:00 PM, Blogger Jemila Monroe

    Lydia, I love your ideas; unfortunately I am not currently in a position in my church to do that stuff freely, but I may be in the future, and I will tuck those thoughts away :)

    Miz Melly & Michele, thanks so much for the encouragement!

    Lisa, I agree that we don't and shouldn't change all the masculine pronouns to feminine ones; I think alternating would create a nice balance.

    Michele & Linda, I too am not so much of a "little kid person," although I love them on an individual basis :) I encourage you both to stand up for your giftings and move in them, and let go of additional responsibilities of childcare that don't line up with your gifting or a nudging from Holy Spirit.

    It's interesting that sunday school is so assocated with women/mothering, in light of lots of new research coming out that especially our daughters really benefit from the unique play styles of fathers and father-figures. I am happy to say that in my church there are several couples that do childcare together, so that men are involved.

    Happy, Linea & Doxallo, I mean in no way to be insensitive to people who are able to, in their own minds and hearts fully appropriate "Father" to include the feminine and beyond gender aspects of God. That being said, it's no problem for people for whom this is a non-issue to worship God unhindered in most church services; however, for people for whom it is a problem and a manifestation of default patriarchy, the current situation is unacceptable. I recognize that this is not everybody's battle, nor would I expect it to be; at the same time, I would hope that my fellow emerging women would not OPPOSE a shift to a more holistic approach to engaging with God through language.

    In terms of the comments that Jesus called God Father (or more accurately, "Daddy,") my reaction is, "of course he did, he may have been divine, but he was also human and a product of the 1st century palestinian culture in which he lived. At that time God sent God's son; a culturally wise and appropriate thing to do. But would it be theologically incorrect to imagine that under a different set of cultural circumstances God might have sent her only daughter?

    For me personally, to have a leader in my church tell me that he is uncomfortable with sometimes using feminine pronouns for God is tantamount to saying that he is uncomfortable fully acknowledging that I am every bit as much made in the image of our creator as he is. Because if male AND female represent the full image of God, then to refuse to acknowledge the feminine aspect of God in our language is an implicit denial of women as equal image-bearers. It is an insult to me, even if he (or anyone else) doesn't mean it that way, which I am sure he(and others) don't.

  • At 3/06/2007 02:32:00 PM, Blogger Jemila Monroe

    Julie, I think you summarized the situation very well! Thank you.

    I think the key here is not so much the outcome, although I do think that matters, but that fact that there is so much emotional resistance to an outcome that actively embraces the feminine aspect of God.

  • At 3/06/2007 02:46:00 PM, Blogger Doxallo

    Jemila, I appreciate your continued feedback and perspective. I'd offer more comment but really don't want to appear oppositional. I do feel for you and others for whom this is an issue. I truly do. It saddens me to see anyone feel the way you do (offended, shut out, [insert your own descriptor here_____]). Just offering love in christ as I know I don't have anything else to offer right now.

  • At 3/06/2007 03:25:00 PM, Blogger Jemila Monroe

    Thanks Doxallow.

  • At 3/06/2007 04:03:00 PM, Blogger Lydia

    But would it be theologically incorrect to imagine that under a different set of cultural circumstances God might have sent her only daughter?

    This sounds like it would be good fodder for a short story. What would this world be like if God had sent his only daughter to save us?

    Hmmm...now you have me really thinking. :)

  • At 3/06/2007 06:22:00 PM, Blogger Michele L

    I agree with your thought on the context of the "world" around the birth of Christ. Had it been a women, would anyone have noticed? Women weren't really at the top of influence at the time. As for Jesus referring to God as "Father", I would assume that those around him would have just killed him faster if he had referred to God as Mother. That would have been completely heretical! Just my 2 cents though.

    As for the thought that the HS conceived Jesus in the womb of Mary, so that might seem masculine, I have never heard anything like that. IMO I think that really limits the power of God. Why would the HS have to be a male to help in the conception? For me if God can create the littlest of details in this world, then the conception doesn't have to be "sexual". It happened because God made it happen, however God chose for it to. Not something I think we need or will understand. Again, my 2 cents.

  • At 3/06/2007 07:01:00 PM, Blogger Julie

    God sends her only daughter... interesting.

    Check this out.

  • At 3/06/2007 07:17:00 PM, Blogger Jemila Monroe

    While I can understand the logic of thinking Holy Spirit is male because Holy Spirit helped Mary conceive, I agree with Michele; Such a perspective does not make sense to me theologically.

    In addition to the fact that the word for Spirit in Hebew is feminine, presuming that the immaculate conception required a male Spirit to impregnate a human woman goes beyond a non-gendered God described with default masculine pronouns to a concept of God as an actual physical man who provided the sperm for Jesus.

    Of course some animals are naturally hermaphrodites and are able to provide both the sperm and the womb, so maybe these creatures are a good "animal model" of all God's reproductive potential :)

  • At 3/06/2007 07:18:00 PM, Blogger Jemila Monroe

    Julie, awesome card! I just might use that one next year :)

  • At 3/06/2007 07:45:00 PM, Blogger medium guy

    As a male weighing in on this, I must say that I have always found it preposterous that God is referred to as male exclusively. Frankly, the idea that scripture refers to God as "Father" [and, yes, according to the gospels Jesus referred to God as his "Father" - but actually he said Abba which is more like daddy as Jemila pointed out] so that's how God defines "himself" is also falsely projecting our developped sense of patriarchy onto a different culture and language from 2000 years ago. English is not the only language that is deficient when it comes to this issue, I mean, I'm sure Aramaic has no word for "Omnipotent being that transcends gender" and even if so, would not have been used in the recorded scriptures. Conceptually speaking, I find it ridiculous to even consider something so relatively banal and microscopically insignificant as gender when it comes to the God of the universe. Sure, you can talk about masculine and feminine energy/essence, but what about genders of alien creatures that are neither male or female, or all the energy of subatomic particles, and other things about which we have no clue that only God knows about?

  • At 3/08/2007 05:16:00 AM, Anonymous Christina

    interesting thought about the HS impregnating Mary. I think that if anything, God transcends gender in how creation occurs or how Jesus is conceived. Consider Adam - his life is created from asexual soil, and is brought into existence through God's breath - something he receives (normally the woman is the receptive one in the process of procreation). Adam loses part of himself to create woman - something is taken from Adam - he does not actively do anything. In the conception of Jesus, the male role not needed. Maybe I have stated the obvious, but really it is quite amazing to consider how God transcends human sexuality in these two miraculous events. God created sexuality, but is certainly not defined or confined by them.

  • At 3/08/2007 09:19:00 PM, Anonymous Janene

    When both my boys were 2 1/2 they expressed to me that God is a "he". They were both quite proud. I began to teach them that God encompasses the masculine and feminine. When my son was 4 1/2 and my daughter was 3 they were preparing a play. My daughter said, "I'll be Jesus". My son said, "You can't be Jesus, Jesus was a man, but you can be God!". We had quite a laugh about this but I think its significant that both my boys, who grew up in a home that embraced the otherness of God, ended up recognizing themselves in God's image (or God in their image) and yet neither of my daughters ever did.


Links to this post:

Create a Link