What about language for God?
Many members of the Christian faith believe that language traditionally used for God, especially exclusively masculine language, is not useful in worship and faithful community. Drawing from Jewish opposition to physical images of God, which might become idols and draw people from worship of the true God, many Christians are concerned that our understanding of God as male has become idolatrous. In addition, especially for Christians who have suffered from sexual abuse or exploitation at the hands of men, portraying God as exclusively male can be painful or traumatic. Worship leaders, biblical scholars, and churches and denominations around the world have explored new ways of speaking about God that go beyond traditional masculine and/or dominating language.
Using non-traditional language for God in worship can take many different forms. Some churches choose to use “inclusive” language for God — not using genders, gendered pronouns, or specifically gendered metaphors for God. Others choose to use multiple images and metaphors for God, including understandings of God as both male and female. This is often called “expansive” language. Language that expands beyond God as a single gender is also sometimes called “gender-neutral” or “genderless.”
How do we go beyond masculine language for God in worship?
Trinity: The traditional phrasing for the Trinity is “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” Churches seeking to use inclusive or expansive language often explore other options for this Trinitarian formula, sometimes using other language in conjunction with the traditional words. Some alternatives include:
• Who was and is and is to come (from Revelation 1:8)
• Beloved, Lover, and Love (based on Augustine’s On the Trinity)
• Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer (by the 16th century reformer Martin Luther)
• Mother, Lover, and Friend (by Sallie McFague in her 1987 book Models of God: Theology for an Ecological, Nuclear Age)
• Abba, Servant, Paraclete (suggested by feminist theologian Gail Ramshaw in her 1995 book God Beyond Gender)
• Of Whom, Through Whom, In Whom (also suggested by Gail Ramshaw)
• Source, Word, and Spirit (by Ruth Duck and Patricia Wilson-Kastner in their 1999 book Praising God: The Trinity in Christian Worship)
• Fountain of Love, Word of Truth, Spirit of Power (also by Duck and Wilson-Kastner)
• Parent, Child, and Love (also by Duck and Wilson-Kastner)
• Fountain, Offspring, Wellspring (by Ruth Duck)
• Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, one God, mother of us all (from Riverside Church in New York City, originated by James F. Kay)
Pronouns for God: The pronouns used in the original language of the Bible for God are almost exclusively he/him/his. Some churches choose to keep this language. Other churches find ways to translate the scriptures that do not restrict God to a male gender. These churches may alternate between He/Him/His and She/Her/Hers, or use gender neutral pronouns such as It or They. Some churches choose not to speak of God but always to speak directly, addressing God only as You or Thou. Some churches choose to use no pronouns at all but alternate between names (God, Lord, Adonai, Elohim, etc).
Images of God: Many metaphors for God in the Bible are rooted in masculine imagery. This is quite logical for a society that was run by men! However, there are a number of images for God in the Bible that offer a view of God that go beyond male:
Non-gendered Metaphors for God
• Rock and fortress: Psalm 18:2
• Shepherd: Psalms 23:1
A cypress tree: Hosea 14:8
Female Metaphors for God
• A mother eagle: Deuteronomy 32:11-12
• A woman in labor: Isaiah 42:14
• A nursing mother: Isaiah 49:15
• A comforting mother: Isaiah 66:13
• A mother caring for infants: Hosea 11:3-4
• A mother bear: Hosea 13:8
• A mother calming a child: Psalm 131:2
Both Male and Female Metaphors for God
• Both women and men created in the image of God: Genesis 1:27
• God who fathers and gives birth: Deuteronomy 32:18
• God compared to both master and mistress: Psalm 123:2
Jesus often directly referred to God as Father, and directly instructed the disciples to pray to a Father (“Our Father in heaven” in Matthew 6:9 and “Father” in Luke 11:2). Some Christians believe this is less of an indication of God’s gender and more a demonstration of the intimate, familial, and protective relationship that God wants to have with us. In some congregations, the word Father may be replaced with Father and Mother, or with Parent. “Father”-heavy scripture readings might also be balanced with other images of God read alongside them, or by directly addressing masculine imagery for God and its limitations in the sermon.
In songs and hymns
Many songs and hymns, throughout the traditional to contemporary spectrum, refer to God using masculine pronouns and imagery. Churches that feel masculine language does not encompass the whole of God have often 1) used traditional music that does not identify God’s gender, 2) adapted existing songs, or 3) created entirely new music. For example:
1) Traditional Songs that are also Gender-Inclusive or -Expansive
* Robert Robinson, “Come Thou Fount of Ev’ry Blessing” (1758)
* Reginald Heber, “Holy Holy Holy” (1896)
2) Existing Songs Altered or Adapted
* Be Thou My Vision, which in its original translation referred to “Thou my great Father and I thy true son,” has been adapted by Eleanor Hull for the Chalice Hymnal (1995), with the second verse as follows:
Be Thou my wisdom and Thou my true word
I ever with Thee and Thou with me Lord
Thou my redeemer my love Thou hast won
Thou in my dwelling and I with Thee one.
3) New Music & Hymns with Gender-Inclusive or -Expansive Language
* Jean Janzen adapted poetry from Julian of Norwich to create “Mothering God, you gave me birth” (1991).
* Brian Wren’s “Bring Many Names” (1989) incorporates both male and female metaphors of God as parent.
* Hymns by Carolyn Winfrey Gillette is a free online collection of traditional tunes re-written with scriptural themes and inclusive language.
* Jann Aldredge-Clanton and Larry E. Schultz have published a series of inclusive hymns, including Inclusive Hymns for Liberating Christians (2006); Inclusive Hymns for Liberation, Peace, and Justice (2011); Earth Transformed with Music! Inclusive Songs for Worship (2015).
The traditional Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds, as they were first written in the 4th century, use male pronouns and masculine names (“Father”) for God. Churches seeking to expand their expressions for God’s gender have found non-masculine imagery in these, and other, alternate creeds.
Ionian Creed from the Iona Abbey Worship Book
We believe in God above us,
maker and sustainer of all life,
of sun and moon, of water and earth,
of male and female.
We believe in God beside us,
Jesus Christ, the word made flesh,
born of a woman, servant of the poor,
tortured and nailed to a tree.
A man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief,
he died alone and forsaken.
He descended into the earth
to the place of death.
On the third day he rose from the tomb.
He ascended into heaven,
to be everywhere present throughout all ages,
and His kingdom will come on earth.
We believe in God within us,
the Holy Spirit burning with Pentecostal fire,
life-giving breath of the Church,
Spirit of healing and forgiveness,
source of all resurrection and of eternal life.
“A New Creed” from the United Church of Canada
We are not alone,
we live in God’s world.
We believe in God:
who has created and is creating,
who has come in Jesus,
the Word made flesh,
to reconcile and make new,
who works in us and others
by the Spirit.
We trust in God.
We are called to be the Church:
to celebrate God’s presence,
to live with respect in Creation,
to love and serve others,
to seek justice and resist evil,
to proclaim Jesus, crucified and risen,
our judge and our hope.
In life, in death, in life beyond death,
God is with us.
We are not alone.
Thanks be to God.
Salvadoran Creed from Partners With El Salvador
L: We believe in God,
C: who created us free and walks with us in the struggle for liberation.
L: We believe in Christ,
C: crucified again in the suffering of the poor, a suffering which calls out to the
conscience of people and nations, a suffering which ends in resurrection.
L: We believe in the power of the Holy Spirit,
C: capable of inspiring the same compassion which has led our best brothers and
sisters to martyrdom.
L: We believe in the church,
C: called forth by Jesus and the Holy Spirit
L: We believe that when we gather,
C: Jesus is with us, and that Mary his mother is a sign of living faithfulness.
L: We believe in the Christian community
C: where we proclaim our ideals, through which we practice our Christian faith.
L: We believe in building a church
C: where we pray and reflect on our reality, and share in the prophetic, priestly,
and pastoral mission of Jesus. We believe that one day all peoples will love
under Christ’s gentle rule.
L: We believe in unity in the midst of differences. We believe that Christ calls us
C: to communion and to live as sisters and brothers.
L: We believe that we need
C: to love one another, to correct one another compassionately, to forgive each other’s errors and weaknesses.
L: We believe that we need
C: to help each other to recognize our limitations, to support each other in the faith.
L: We believe that the poor,
C: the illiterate and the sick, the persecuted and the tortured, are always close to
the heart of Jesus. Through them, Christ challenges us to work for justice and
peace. Their cause is our cause.
L: We believe that Christ is also present
C: in those who are slaves to their passions, to vices, lies and injustice, to power and
L: We pray
C: for the possibility conversion; to love those who slander, persecute and kill, and
to help each other so that one day we may all live simply and humbly in the way
that the Gospel calls us to live. Amen.
P: Do you believe in God?
C: We believe in one God,
maker of heaven and earth,
who in goodness created us and by grace sustains us.
P: Do you believe in Jesus Christ?
C: We believe in Jesus Christ,
beloved child of God
who became a human being and lived among us,
experiencing fully the joys, sorrows, and temptations of human life.
While he walked the earth, he taught and healed,
but most of all he loved,
and showed us how to love one another.
By us and for us he was crucified;
he died and was buried.
Yet he rose again and lives on
freeing us and empowering us to be children of God.
P: Do you believe in God the Holy Spirit?
C: We believe in the Holy Spirit,
poured out upon the early disciples at the Day of Pentecost
and upon us in our baptisms.
She has spoken through the prophets
and continues still to speak through us today.
She joins us together in the body of Christ,
yearns within us to pray for those things too deep for words,
nourishes us in faith and brings us to the wholeness of life everlasting. Amen.
A Liturgical Affirmation from the New Zealand Prayer Book (page 481)
You, O God, are supreme and holy.
You create our world and give us life.
Your purpose overarches everything we do.
You have always been with us.
You are God.
You, O God, are infinitely generous,
good beyond all measure.
You came to us before we came to you.
You have revealed and proved
your love for us in Jesus Christ,
who lived and died and rose again.
You are God.
You, O God, are Holy Spirit.
You empower us to be your gospel in the world.
You reconcile and heal; you overcome death.
You are our God. We worship You.
More Resources for Inclusive and Expansive Language
Orchard Ridge United Church of Christ has collected “Alternative versions of the Lord’s Prayer” from various sources (2010).
Voices Found is an Episcopal supplemental hymnal with music by, for, and about women (2003).
re-worship is a blog to help worship leaders access many rich prayer and worship resources, and features inclusive language in many of its suggestions.
The New Century Hymnal (1995) from the United Church of Christ combines the hymns of the ages with the best of the ecumenical church, attending diligently to the need for inclusive language in worship.
The Iona Community of Scotland produces a great quantity of resources around renewing and inclusive worship. Many of their contributions can be found in online repostings, including samples from Fifty Great Prayers from the Iona Community.
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, “How is language used in worship?” (2013)
Wesley Spears-Newsome, “5 Tips and Tricks for being Gender-Inclusive in Worship” (2013)
Christian Peacemaker Teams, “Guide for Using Inclusive Language” (1993)