“God is a woman,” Ariana Grande declared in a recent album. Evidently, Grande’s sexual prowess is so formidable, any of her lovers will be forced to admit the Almighty is, in fact, a woman.
Grande is more influential than I had realized, for an Anglican bishop soon after publicly expressed doubts about the church’s historic use of masculine pronouns in reference to God. “I don’t want young girls or young boys to hear us constantly refer to God as he,” she explained. In light of recent YouGov research showing that half of Christians 18-24 years old think God is male (as in, physically male, the way we characterize human beings), other Anglican clergy warmly welcomed the idea of varying the pronouns.
Although they readily admit that the feminine pronouns “[contradict] orthodox Christian teaching,” they suggest that “many young people don’t have enough contact with the church for actual Christian teaching to counter the thinking they pick up from culture.” In other words, it’s easier to acquiesce to culture than to counter it.
Although perhaps the Anglicans aren’t following Grande’s lead, what of the Swedish Lutheran church, which in 2017 recommended its clergy begin using gender-neutral language? “[W]e know that God is beyond our gender determinations, God is not human,” according to Archbishop Antje Jackelén. And she is, of course, right. God is not human, neither male nor female himself, while creating both in his image. But everyone throughout church history has known that, so why now should the masculine pronouns be “problematic”?
Christianity Is the Root of Equality
Some believe the male pronouns are a carryover from the oppressive, patriarchal society from which the Bible and Christianity sprung. Thus, portraying God as “beyond gender” by changing his pronouns is the least we can do to compensate for two centuries of misogynist oppression.
This popular narrative, however, doesn’t accord with history. In “Inventing the Individual,” Larry Siedentop traces our modern concepts of human equality and natural rights to Christianity. He shows how “the conventional view in antiquity was that women could not be fully rational beings.” But with Christianity came the “moral revolution”: Before one God, all human souls are equally sinful and in need of redemption.
For the first time, women were thought to “have the same rational and moral capacities as men.” Furthermore, the institution of Christian marriage insisted on the equality of both man and wife. “It became much harder to look upon women as mere chattels. … The early church insisted on the equal obligations imposed by the bond of marriage.”
Outside of marriage, women also held positions of dignity. With Christianity, “women were no longer confined by the statuses of the ancient family,” in which “the father, representing all his ancestors, was himself a god in preparation. His wife counted only as part of her husband, having ancestors and descendants only through him.”
As the church imbued them with equal worth, women, especially in the upper class, began making “declarations of independence” and becoming “patronesses, disciples and travellers,” no longer valued solely as wives to produce heirs for the family cult. Thus women, along with slaves, were crucial for the incredible growth of the early church, an amazing fact considering these women worshiped God with masculine pronouns.
Male and Female Metaphysical Differences
Of course, some congregations or parishes disrespect and demean women even today, but they are failing to live as the church. And I am aware that churches still bar women from positions of leadership, so isn’t that proof of the oppressive patriarchy?
Here, perhaps we run into a problem unique to Protestantism, for in the ancient traditions, the highest position of honor bestowed upon an individual, sainthood, is open to all. Priests are indeed exclusively male, but this is not because women are deficient, but because the priest is a symbol of Christ to the community. And since Christ was male, priests are male.
Some Protestant churches retain this central framework by ordaining only male pastors. One might scoff, saying, “Well, Christ was bearded, so should all priests and pastors be bearded?” But this scoffer is ignoring the metaphysical significance of sex differences.
Being male is not an arbitrary trait such as being bearded, for sex differences are essential for sexual union, the height of created order. Thus, maleness exists only because femaleness exists. And they exist as such for the sake of “becoming one flesh.” The complementary nature of the created world is evident throughout the Bible’s Genesis 1. Day and night, sun and moon, Earth and sky, land and sea — they all lead to the finale of creation: male and female, whom God commands, “Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the Earth, and subdue it.”
The union of male and female brings new life. This is essential to the Christian view of human nature. Sex is not just for pleasure; it is primarily for participating in the pinnacle of our created order. Sex differences are not just biological; they are theological. And on the anatomical level of this sacred union, the man gives, and the woman receives.
It is because of this basic and indisputable fact that we refer to God as “he.” So in a sense, Grande is correct: How we understand sexuality does affect how we understand God.
Bringing Life out of Nothing
Some have suggested that because the Bible depicts God with a variety of masculine and feminine characteristics — for instance, he is our protector and nurturer — we should vary the pronouns to reflect the depth of his character. But to be nurturing is not exclusively feminine, whereas being on the receiving end of sexual union is.
As our creator, God’s metaphorical maleness indicates his otherness, for he has given us life, and he has not received life from anyone or anything. For a woman to give life is for her to give birth. The child is equal and of the same substance as the mother. Not so with God and us. He did not birth us; he created us ex nihilo, or out of nothing.
As a necessary being, whose existence is his essence, who has no beginning and no end, who created us from nothing, he gets the metaphorical “he” and not “she.” If “she” created (birthed) us, we might ask, who or what impregnated her? To imply the existence of a “who” or “what” outside the eternal existence of God is to imply that God is not, in fact, God.
Well, no one impregnated God, but God did impregnate the virgin Mary with the divine Logos. Here we have another reason to understand God as metaphorically masculine. For the Son of God to become incarnate, he must be born. For the incarnate Son of God to be born, he must necessarily be born of a woman. For him to be born of a woman, the woman must receive something from God the Father. Only the union of male and female creates new life, so Christ must have a mother and a father, a she and a “he.”
The Pinnacle of God’s Plan
But why couldn’t Christ have been a woman? All that giving and receiving makes sense for God the Father, up there in the sky creating things out of nothing, but what about down here in the created world? Wouldn’t making the Messiah a woman truly put men and women on equal footing, proving to future generations, especially in the 21st century, that Christianity isn’t sexist?
Others have successfully argued that Jesus had to be a man to be taken seriously as a teacher in the patriarchal structure of first-century Palestine. While this is certainly true, I will suggest that the same metaphysical distinction between male and female that renders masculine and not feminine pronouns appropriate for God the Father also holds for his Son.
Christ as a giver of life complements another of the church’s gendered metaphors: the church as the bride of Christ receiving the Holy Spirit. We, the church, are the “she” to Christ’s “he.” Since the union of male and female is the pinnacle of the created order, we conceptualize the pinnacle of God’s divine plan with masculine and feminine metaphors.
Language About God Matters
Thinking symbolically is a respected and a necessary tradition in the church (or, at least, it was). Since God is beyond us in every imaginable way, our language about Him can only be analogical, as Aquinas noted. Since all analogies are incomplete, our language will always be inadequate to describe God.
But this does not mean our language about God, however metaphorical, doesn’t matter. No, what we say about God and how we say it matters. Metaphors have theological implications to which we must be sensitive. He is the Lion and the Lamb, not the Platypus and the Newt.
Instead of adding confusion upon confusion, the church should once again take seriously the teaching of traditional metaphysics. We say “he” is God, but God is not a male. He is not a creation. He is the uncreated creator, the uncaused cause, the necessary being, the sui generis beyond the reaches of human reason and language. Once the church understands the metaphysical nature of God and of sex differences, she can more confidently invite the world to worship him.