#7. Sexist Language

Part 7 of the series “10 Things I Hate about Church
Rev. Mark Schaefer
Kay Spiritual Life Center
October 24, 2010
Genesis 1:26-28, 31; Luke 8:1-3

Genesis 1:26-28, 31 • Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.

Luke 8:1-3 • Soon afterwards he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources.”

I. BEGINNING

So, I’d like to address something of concern to the girls in the community.  Oh, I shouldn’t say “girls” should I?  Okay, then: chicks.

I guess I’m interested to talk to you chicks because I am concerned about the cost of higher education.  The tuition at this school seems like an awfully large amount of money to spend just to find a husband.  Wouldn’t it make more economic sense for you lovely ladies just to spend the money on a nice dress or some make-up? You know, to gussy yourselves up a bit.  That’s what a man wants, isn’t it?  Some pretty young thing that he can take to parties and show off to the guys at the office.  Well, that and to cook for him, I guess.

I guess it just seems like that education debt would be quite a distraction when you’re home raising the children.  I mean, it’s cute and all that you’re studying international relations and biology and political science, and all, but really, do you really need all that to talk to the grocery clerk when you’re out shopping for the family?  I suppose you could get a job while the kids are at school during the day.  Secretary, receptionist—that kind of thing.  But you don’t really need to understand the memos you’re typing up, now do you, sweetheart?  Now, don’t trouble your pretty little heads trying to answer that one.  The answer is ‘no’.

Oh, that reminds me: would one of you little ladies run down to the kitchen and make me a sandwich?  Preaching takes a lot out of you and I get hungry afterwards. It’s a man thing, you wouldn’t understand.

Alright… is that sexist enough for you?

II. THE SEXIST CHURCH

I suppose that is sexist enough for all of us.  We don’t generally encounter that blatant a brand of sexism any more.  That is, unless we’re watching an episode of Mad Men or something.  Even in the church, which is often slow to change its habits after several centuries, you still don’t quite encounter that level of sexism any more.  Though, after services, I encourage you to talk to Cassie, Nora, and Elise about an experience they had with someone on our spring break trip last year.  Let’s just say my “sandwich” line wasn’t exactly invented out of whole cloth.

Wordle.net Word Cloud of SermonBut it would be a mistake to say that the church was completely free of sexism.  No, in many ways, the sexism is more subtle, more implicit, and not as blatant or explicit as it had been.  And that can be problematic because it’s harder to see and can shape attitudes on an almost unnoticeable level.

A.   Sexism

In the law, there is the difference between de jure discrimination and de facto discrimination.  De jure was the kind of thing they had in the south: Jim Crow laws that prevented Black Americans from exercising their political rights or from using the same facilities as whites.  In the north, there was de facto discrimination.  There were no laws on the books segregating the races, but the fact of the matter was that there was discrimination anyway, and it was tolerated.

The church has not had de jure sex discrimination for quite some time.  The United Methodist Church began ordaining women over 50 years ago (we were not the first denomination to do so by any means, but nor were we the last).  And yet, though the church speaks eloquently about the equality of the sexes and the rejection of gender norms, there exist all kinds of de facto ways in which sexism still persists in the Church.

While in our own region the number of women in leadership positions in the Annual Conference is high, it is not so in all the Conferences of the church.  And even in our own Conference, it is extremely rare to find a woman as the senior pastor of a large church. One of the reasons that female pastors continue to earn less than their male counterparts is that they tend to pastor smaller churches.[1] In fact, it’s probably rarer in the church at large to find a woman as a senior pastor of a large church than it is as a bishop.  Now, you might think that an even trade, but let me ask you: given that most congregations do not have regular interactions with their bishops, but do with their pastors, what message is being communicated to our largest congregations when they are presented with an unending string of male senior pastors?  What implicit lessons are learned about the church’s attitudes toward women from that example?

Or what about the language that still assumes that a “pastor’s spouse” is a woman?  Or even the way that we’ll still sometimes qualify a woman leading a church as a “woman-pastor” as if to differentiate her from the full-fledged male clergy?

There are all kinds of ways in which through its language, the church continues to perpetuate the sex roles and stereotypes of a bankrupt social order.

B.   Sexism and God

But perhaps one of the deepest, most ingrained patterns is the language we use for God.  God is a “he”.  Often with a capital ‘H’.  The Bible is full of this language—particularly the Psalms.  “Give thanks to the Lord for he is good, his steadfast love endures forever.”  “He” language abounds right from the second word in the Bible: B’reshit bara Elohim… literally: “In-beginning created God…” “Created” being the third person masculine singular. It is inescapable in the Biblical narrative and practically inescapable in the liturgical tradition.

In the liturgical tradition, you see it all the time in the hymns of the church, in the prayers, and in the rites.  Now, there are occasions where the usage is correct (though misunderstood). In the communion liturgy when it says, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord”, the “he” there refers to Jesus, not to the individual Christian who may come in the name of the Lord.  But it is often understood as a sexist reference, precisely because the church has such a long history of sexist language.

The church has for a long time used the masculine pronoun for God.  For all the persons of the Trinity, too.  The Father is a He, the Son is a He, the Spirit is a He.  God is a He three times over.  But does this really matter?  Does it really matter that the same masculine pronoun has been used for God for so long?

III. EQUALITY OF THE SEXES

Well, it’s important to note that there is a connection between our theology and our real world experience. The insistence upon God’s maleness has very often had the consequence of insisting upon women’s inferiority.  In fact, the idea of God’s masculine nature has often led many in the church to conclude that men were, by nature, closer to God than women.  The male sex was more intellectual, more spiritual.  Women were ‘earthy’ and ‘material’ and thus not capable of the same communion with God.  In fact, there are groups that meet on this campus in which it is impermissible for a woman to lead a bible study if a man is present, because it is not permitted for women to teach men matters of faith.  But that is a distortion of Biblical faith and teaching.  Now, to be fair, there are verses in the Bible that suggest subordination of women, but they also run against the deeper strain of thinking that is visible through both Testaments.

In the Gospel of Luke, we read of the disciples of Jesus: the twelve whom we know, but also of a number of women, among whom were Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Susanna, and “many others” who provided for Jesus and his disciples out of their resources.  Women, it seems, were fundamental to the support of the early Christian mission.  It sounds like they were bankrolling it.

We also know that it was these women who remained present at the crucifixion (all the men having fled).  It was women to whom Christ first appeared after the Resurrection.

Paul refers to women as leaders in the church and even describes one Junia as “an apostle”.  Women continued to be in positions of leadership in the ancient church, as equals right alongside men.  And so we see that the New Testament itself provides evidence of the crucial and equal roles that women played in the spreading of the Gospel.

But most importantly, we read the creation narrative in Genesis, in which we hear the story of the creation of Humanity:

So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created [humanity]; male and female he created them.

“Male and female he created them.” This story, from the first chapter of Genesis does not, as the story in the second chapter does, create the male first and then the female second.  No, here male and female are created together and, we understand, are created both “in the image of God”. Male and female both reflect the image of God.

And so what we understand is that if both male and female reflect the image of God, then both male and female reflect the divine.  God is both male and female.  Quite frankly, God is not a “he”.  I want to emphasize that this is not a new idea.  St. Jerome, the great biblical scholar and translator of the 5th Century, wrote the following in his commentary on Isaiah:

“In the Gospel of the Hebrews that the Nazarenes read it says, ‘Just now my mother, the Holy Spirit, took me.’ Now no one should be offended by this, because ‘spirit’ in Hebrew is feminine, while in our language [Latin] it is masculine and in Greek it is neuter. In divinity, however, there is no gender.”

In divinity there is no gender.

Jerome was not the only one to see it that way.  In fact, throughout the history of the church there have been those who lifted up feminine images for God.  The medieval mystics Julian of Norwich referred to God as “Mother Christ”. St. Ephrem the Syrian spoke of God’s womb and used feminine imagery for God. The rabbis spoke of the shechinah, or the Divine Presence, in feminine terms.  Isaiah refers to God as a mother, Proverbs describes holy wisdom as a ‘she’.[2]

A consistent voice in the tradition points out: In divinity there is no gender.  And so, when the church uses exclusive, sexist language, it does more than simply continue to provide the fuel used to subordinate one gender to another, it also, through subtle and insidious ways, misrepresents God.

By insisting on tradition for its own sake, we have limited God.  We have placed God in a gendered box of masculinity.  We have not allowed God to speak with God’s own voice and in God’s own way.

IV. GOD AND GENDER

Now, I want to be very clear about something.  If you are a woman or a man who feels more comfortable using the male pronouns for God, fine.  Continue to do so.  Some who have had an absent father, or lack of strong male role model, have often noted that there is great comfort in conceiving God as that loving, protective father. That attitude should not be denied to anyone.

Because I am not talking about individual preferences.  I am talking about the church as a whole.  It is one thing for an individual to relate to God in a certain way.  That is subject to the dictates of a person’s conscience and the prompting of the spirit.  (In fact, I think that it’s fair to say that the only pronoun Christians should avoid using when talking about God is “I”.)

No, we are talking about the Church.  Because by continuing to insist upon one mode of expression—to the exclusion of others—the church does not do justice to the mystery of God.  The church would be just as wrong to insist upon the use of ‘she’ all the time as the church would be to insist upon the use of ‘he’ all the time. Now, I know a number of women in my own life that do not feel that the use of the masculine pronoun for God interferes in any way with their ability to relate to God or their own self-worth before God.

But that is not the case for everyone.  And the church is meant to be a house of prayer for all people.  And there have been very many people who have been hurt by sexism and patriarchy.  There have been many women who have been told they are not as worthy as men.  Many who have been denied leadership in the church because they are not men.  And as a community meant to be a house of prayer for all people, we are not meant to thoughtlessly reinforce language that has been used to repress, used to divide, used to keep people from feeling that they don’t quite belong, that they are somehow second-class.

V. END

Language is a powerful tool.  Perhaps the most powerful tool we as a species possess.  With it we shape people’s attitudes, we help to define people’s understandings.  And with it, we are called to proclaim the Gospel and the message of God.

But God is mystery.  God is beyond all categories of human understanding especially language.  The ancient Israelites referred to God as a ‘he’ because of the dictates of grammar—‘god’ is a masculine noun in Hebrew—and because of metaphors of majesty.  But they understood, as Jerome and many others did, that God was a mystery beyond gender.  God cannot be summed up in any one word.  In fact, all human language is simply a placeholder for the reality of God that we cannot fully comprehend.

And so, this reality should be reflected in our teaching.  It should be reflected in our preaching and our liturgy.  It should be reflected in the language of the church.  We should not be so wedded to the use of any one pronoun—either masculine or feminine—to the point that we lose sight of the ineffable mystery of God.

When we do that, perhaps that radical understanding of the comprehensiveness of God—an understanding of the inclusion in God of both the masculine and the feminine—perhaps that understanding will help us to view one another in a new way.  To see male and female alike as equal reflections of God.

Imagine what it would be like if the church truly claimed this understanding of God and of humanity.  We would not only make the church a welcoming place for all people—to describe God in the language of their own hearts, to open up leadership to more fully include women—but we would help to promote the inherent equality of male and female in the broader society.  We would be able to speak to a reality of all people, regardless of sex, being seen as persons of inherent worth and sacred dignity before God and one another.  In so doing, the church would become an agent for the transformation of the world itself.


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[2] http://www.archives.aumethodists.org/worship/sermons/2008-fall/she/

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