The Gender of God

If male and female are God’s image, then God is male and female

Instead of writing the standard God, one of my seminary professors would spell it Godde, halfway between God (male) and Goddess (female). I generally have not adopted that practice but I do think it helps remind us of something very important: God is no more male than female. For some, this is a fairly radical concept because most people use male pronouns for God, equate Jesus with God (rightly) who happened to be biologically male, and we often associate the general concept of a god with the bearded old man in the sky that we inherited from the Greek image of Zeus.

But to the surprise of many, the Bible isn’t afraid of using female imagery for God. Here are a few quick samples:

So God created humankind in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:27 NRSV)

You were unmindful of the Rock that bore you;
you forgot the God who gave you birth. (Deut 32:18)

As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem. (Isaiah 66:13)

For a long time I have held my peace,
I have kept still and restrained myself;
now I will cry out like a woman in labour,
I will gasp and pant. (Isaiah 42:14)

Jerusalem, Jerusalem… How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings… (Matthew 23:37)

Of course, Christian orthodoxy has always affirmed in theory the idea that God is not biologically male any more than biologically female because God is spirit rather than physical being. Unfortunately, even with this belief in place, many still lose sight of this and associate God with being primarily if not exclusively male. Why? Our language choices have a lot to do with it, summed up by this famous quote:

If God is male then the male is God.

Mary Daly, Beyond God the Father: Toward a Philosophy of Women’s Liberation (Boston: Beacon, 1973), 19

Since we speak about God primarily in male terms, it is inevitable if left unchecked that we see God primarily as male and therefore see males as in some sense or another more like God. Not intentionally and not even consciously for many of us, but it is there.

We have a significant linguistic problem in English. There is no pronoun that is both personal and gender-neutral. Using “he” makes it seem like God is male and causes the problem of furthering sexist systems, even if usually unintentionally. Using “she” runs the risk of reversing the problem. Using “it” strips God of any personhood and could allow us to forget the fundamental relationity of God. It is true that English is changing in such a way that it is becoming acceptable to use “they” as a singular, neuter, personal pronoun. Maybe that will solve the problem in another 20 or 30 years as this shift happens, but for now, we have an issue.

Different pastors and theologians handle this differently. I generally have taken the approach of alternating “he” and “she.” This is sometimes confusing, I admit, simply because it is takes that extra step to realize that I am still referring to God. Others take the approach of never using pronouns, always saying “God,” which sometimes ends up awkward; after all, pronouns exist precisely so we don’t have to keep repeating the noun. Some, probably the majority, will stick with the traditional and just say “he,” but then try to speak about the femaleness of God enough to make sure women don’t get the impression that they are inferior. And finally, some use the female imagery, at least for now, to serve as a balance for the male imagery that we usually hear elsewhere. Each has its strengths and weaknesses and I’m not going to pretend that any are clearly the absolutely correct solution.

This post was simply for two reasons. The first was letting you know why I alternate male and female language for God, in an attempt to limit the inevitable future confusion. That’s the main reason I brought forward this post now instead of latter as we delve into how the Bible calls us toward gender equality.

The second was to help you become aware of the small and often-unintentional ways that we can sometimes encourage oppression. Our language does have consequences, even when we are completely well-intentioned. In fact, I can pretty much guarantee this idea will come up again throughout the year as we talk about a variety of topics: we are often complicit in something oppressive even when we don’t mean to be.

Ending on a musical note, the song and video below covers a lot of misconceptions about God and her favourite types of people:

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.

  • Kevin Daugherty

    Many in the Progressive Christian Alliance use “Godde” instead of God. For the longest time, I could not understand why.