In June 2022 Chine McDonald, Director of Theos (a British Christian organization affiliated with The British and Foreign Bible Society) explained her decision to stop using male pronouns for God.
Looking back over church history, she was troubled by the way in which “the perceived whiteness of God and Jesus symbolized society’s pervasive white supremacy”. Reflecting on this she wrote:
“. . . referring to God in the masculine became just as problematic to me as portraying God as white. Not only was God not white, but I came to understand that God was not a man either.”
Having decided not to “ascribe a gender to God,” Chine McDonald now avoids referring to God “in the masculine” and tries to find non-gendered terms:
“For me, this is about freeing God from the man-shaped box in which this male dominated world has placed the creator . . . God is wholly other. So instead of referring to God as ‘he’ or ‘she’, I’ll stick with my decision to refer to God as God.”
It is right to believe that God is transcendent: God is not a man. Even little children learn in the catechism that ‘God is a Spirit and has not a body like men.’ And certainly, in Scripture God’s character and actions are sometimes described using feminine imagery (cf. Isa 49:15).
But none of that means we should abandon male pronouns for God.
Others have dealt with various aspects of this subject at length (here, here, here here, here, here, here, and here), and much more could be said. But here are five reasons why we must not stop using male pronouns for God.
God is God, we are not. He is the One who defines us, he is the One who defines all of reality, but most of all, he is the one who alone can define himself. God reveals his name, and he inspired the Scriptures where we learn who he is and how to speak of him. Throughout the Word of God the main titles, names, and metaphors used for God are masculine. God is King, Father, Husband, Master. In the original Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek manuscripts of the Bible, pronouns associated with God are masculine (as are the forms of adjectives and verbs relating to God).
From Genesis right through to Revelation, male pronouns are used with reference to God (which is reflected in faithful translations of Scripture).
So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:27, ESV)
And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:3-4, ESV)
In Ephesians 1 we find an astonishingly dense presentation of deep truth about the Triune God and his eternal plan of redemption. If you parse out the Greek text, it is difficult to keep up with the number of masculine referents to the Father and Son. Formal English translations reflect this, as in these verses:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. (Ephesians 1:3-6, ESV)
All of Scripture is God-breathed (2 Tim 3:16). The Ten Commandments were, uniquely, also written in tables of stone by the finger of God (Exod 31:18). They reflect God’s own righteous character; they are engraved on the human heart in our conscience (Rom 2:15). The third commandment underlines the fact that God names himself, and contains a solemn warning:
You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain. (Exodus 20:7; Deuteronomy 5:11)
We could also reflect that IF God’s people through church history had been faithful in obeying the second commandment, shunning all images and visual depictions of God (yes, including images of Jesus Christ), none would ever have been deceived by the deluded notion that ‘God is white’.
God is God, we are not. We don’t get to decide how to speak to God. He has inspired the numerous prayers recorded in Scripture. They all use male forms of address.
Consider Daniel’s prayer when he had been given the interpretation of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream:
“Blessed be the name of God forever and ever,
to whom belong wisdom and might.
He changes times and seasons;
he removes kings and sets up kings;
he gives wisdom to the wise
and knowledge to those who have understanding;
he reveals deep and hidden things;
he knows what is in the darkness,
and the light dwells with him.” (Daniel 2:20-22)
How should we pray to God? Our Lord Jesus Christ prayed to his Father in heaven, and taught his disciples to pray likewise:
Your Father knows what you need before you ask him. Pray then like this:
“Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.” (Matthew 6:8-9)
God is God, we are not. We are to submit to his instructions as to how to worship him (Isa 1:10–17). When we assert our independence and decide how we think God wants to be worshiped, the consequences are terrifying (whether Cain choosing for himself how to bring offerings to God (Heb 11:4); Uzzah taking it on himself to protect the Ark of the Covenant (2 Sam 6:6–7), or Saul (1 Sam 13:8–14) and Uzziah (2 Chr 26:16–21) wrongly claiming the right to offer sacrifice).
God has provided us with a divinely inspired praise manual. Throughout the Psalms, male pronouns and other verbal forms are used for God.
Oh give thanks to the Lord, for he is good,
for his steadfast love endures forever! (Psalm 107:1, ESV)
We even get a glimpse of how God is praised in heaven. The apostle John heard “every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea and all that is in them” saying:
To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb
be blessing and honor and glory and might for ever and ever. (Revelation 5:13, ESV)
God is called ‘Father’ over 250 times in the Bible (mostly in the New Testament, and over a hundred times in the Gospel of John). God’s Fatherhood precedes human fatherhood:
I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family (or from whom all fatherhood) in heaven and on earth is named, (Ephesians 3:14-15, ESV)
The Fatherhood of God is the eternal reality, and human fatherhood a temporal signpost to that deeper reality, just as Christ’s eternal love for his bride the Church is the eternal reality, and human marriage (including the non-reversible relationship between husband and wife) is the temporal signpost to that deeper reality.
Chine McDonald writes:
“God is wholly other. So instead of referring to God as ‘he’ or ‘she’, I’ll stick to my decision to refer to God as God.”
Yes, God is transcendent. But he chooses in grace to reveal himself to us so that we can relate to him in a personal way. One of the great treatises of the Puritan era, John Owen’s Communion with God unpacks how we can experience fellowship with each member of the Trinity. God is one and undivided, but God is personal (not just a force), and God is love, for there has been love between the three persons of the Godhead from all eternity. The wonder of our salvation is that we are drawn into the enjoyment of that love relationship.
God the Father has chosen to make himself known to human beings by sending his eternally begotten Son to earth as a man, born of a woman. Jesus Christ has come in the flesh to reveal the Father to us, and make reconciliation with him possible. Jesus has now returned to his Father; he is fully God and fully man for ever. The Father and the Son send the Holy Spirit into the world to apply the grand redemption plan.
So we come to God the Father, by means of the finished work of Jesus Christ, and energized and enabled by the Holy Spirit. We relate to our Triune God in the way that he chooses to reveal himself. We relate to God as our heavenly Father. We relate to Jesus Christ as our LORD, Savior, Prophet, Priest, King, Brother and Friend. We relate to the Spirit as our Comforter, Helper, Advocate, Counselor and Teacher.
As we relate in a personal way to the Father and the Son, we follow the direction of Scripture and use masculine forms of address and reference – it is intuitive and unsurprising. But what about the Spirit? Chine McDonald writes:
“. . . in the Hebrew and the Aramaic that Jesus spoke, the Spirit is referred to only in the feminine. In the Greek used to write the gospels, the Holy Spirit is genderless.”
It is correct that the Hebrew and Aramaic words for “spirit” (Ruach, i.e. “breath”) are feminine gender; while the Greek word for “spirit” or “breath”, pnuema, is neuter gender. But, in John 16:13, for example, the pronoun ekeinos is masculine, pointing to the personal (rather than abstract) character of the Paraclete:
ὅταν δὲ ἔλθῃ ἐκεῖνος, τὸ πνεῦμα τῆς ἀληθείας, ⸂ὁδηγήσει ὑμᾶς⸃ ⸄ἐν τῇ ἀληθείᾳ πάσῃ⸅· οὐ γὰρ λαλήσει ἀφʼ ἑαυτοῦ, ἀλλʼ ὅσα ⸆ ⸀ἀκούσει λαλήσει καὶ τὰ ἐρχόμενα ἀναγγελεῖ ὑμῖν. (John 16:13, Greek NT NA28)
When the Spirit of truth comes he [masculine pronoun] will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come (John 16:13, ESV)
Let’s return to Chine McDonald’s article:
“God is wholly other, so instead of referring to God as ‘he’ or ‘she’, I’ll stick with my decision to refer to God as God.”
Does she have the right to decide how to refer to the transcendent eternal Triune God? God tells us how to speak of God. God tells us how to speak to God. God tells us how to worship and praise God. The eternal plan of redemption (the Father sending his Son) cannot be reduced to ‘gender free’ categories: God’s revelation of himself as Father, Son and Spirit enables us to relate to him in a personal way.
How dare we tell God that we know better than him on these matters (Rom 9:20)!
Should we not, rather, tremble at his word (Isa 66:2)? As the great eighteenth century Baptist leader Abraham Booth insisted:
“When God speaks we should be all attention, and when he commands we should be all submission.”
Sharon James works for The Christian Institute, UK. She is the author of several books, including ‘God’s Design for Women in an age of Gender Confusion’, and ‘Gender Ideology: What do Christians need to know?’
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