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Gender Neutral

Is using feminine terms to describe God permissible?

Q: Is using feminine or gender-neutral terms to describe God permissible?

A: Regardless of my answer to this complicated question, someone's feathers will get ruffled. So let me clarify that I empathize with women who've suffered from the chauvinism that sometimes lurks in Christian culture. Frankly, I've rubbed shoulders with more than one misogynist masquerading as a godly man while oppressing women to prop up his wimpy ego. So I understand the emotional temptation to tinker with divine text and massage words such as Father or he into less masculine, more inclusive terms. But the existence of chauvinism still doesn't make tweaking God's Word right.

What Does God Say About This?

First of all, in the Old Testament God unequivocally declares himself to be a "he": "So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them" ( ESV; see also ; Psalm 68:5-6; Isaiah 9:6, 64:8).

Then Jesus refers to God as "Father" more than 150 times in the New Testament: "My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father's hand. I and the Father are one" (John 10:27-30, ESV; see also Matthew 5:44-45, 6:9-15, 7:7-11; ; John 4:23-24, 5:19).

In the Greek and Aramaic languages that yield our modern translations of the Gospels, our Messiah never, ever calls Jehovah "Mama" or refers to our Creator as "she." And while Scripture uses a few lovely feminine images—"As a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you; and you will be comforted over Jerusalem" () or "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing" ()—these figures of speech paint a picture of God's affection for us, but they don't define him as a person.

How Does This Affect Me?

Renaming God—though sometimes well intentioned—presupposes authority. In other words, to change God's identity according to individual preference is to assume dominion over him. Calling God "she," or, worse, "it," won't heal the woman abused by her husband or abandoned by her daddy. And shelving God's fatherhood doesn't rehabilitate anything.

Ultimately, the only antidote to those who rule with an iron fist or pervert authority with narcissism is divine mercy, as modeled by Jesus. Instead of ruling from an ivory tower surrounded by "yes men" and political cronies, Jesus hung out with the lowest on the first-century social totem pole—women, lepers, and tax collectors. Instead of barking orders from behind a mahogany desk, Jesus wrapped a towel around his holy waist and washed his disciples' stinky feet. Instead of living a life of privilege, he walked up a lonely hill and stretched out his arms and died to reconcile us—his "subjects"—into a real relationship with our heavenly Father.

Re-imaging God doesn't solve the problem of gender injustice in our world. Instead of trying to avoid abuses of power and authority by fiddling with divine text, let's testify to the perfect love our heavenly Father lavishes on us through Jesus, his Son. That's what the human heart so desperately craves.

Lisa Harper has a Masters in Theology with an emphasis in biblical studies from Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis. She's a sought-after speaker and has written several books, including Holding Out for a Hero: A New Spin on Hebrews (Tyndale) and What the Bible Is All About for Women: A Book of Devotions (Regal). Visit her atwww.lisaharper.net.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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