The other day I stumbled into a Twitter discussion about God and gender. My point was that God, though neither male nor female but spirit, nevertheless reveals himself as male. The other side of the discussion, who stress God’s genderlessness, asked me to back up what I was saying. A very fair request!
The point I raised was that God self-identifies as male by only employing masculine pronouns for himself. When he uses feminine imagery it is always in the form of metaphor “as a…” That is, God never refers to himself as female but rather uses feminine metaphors to describe some of his attributes.
Since the dialogue took place on Twitter, there were limitations and I wasn’t able to address every point my interlocutor raised. There were a few items that I felt I needed to get back to in a longer format because they either came up from more than one source or others following the discussion favorited his points.
First, an observer asserted that Jesus overthrew the patriarchal structures of society of his day. I asked the commentator to explain when he did that and she cited Galatians 3:28 and John 4:24. I’ll leave the Galatians passage alone since John 4 came up again later in the discussion with someone else using it to show that language describing God as spirit is always other than masculine.
I believe that both of the people who offered the verse may misunderstand the nature of gendered nouns. It can be hard for English speakers to get the idea that a noun can be masculine, feminine, or neuter and that has nothing to do with the sex of the thing. It is just the form of the noun. So the fact that “spirit” in John 4:24 is neuter does not overthrow a patriarchal anything. Nor does it mean that we are free to refer to God now as a he, she, or it. It simply means that God is spirit.
So how do you determine the gender of a thing with you’re dealing with verbal and noun genders? You look for other clues such as the pronouns. So let’s look again at John 4:24: “God is spirit, and those who worship him…” It does not say, “God is neuter, and those who worship he/she/it…” There are landmines to avoid on both sides of this discussion here. “God” and “worship” are both masculine. That doesn’t prove that God is a man. The noun ???? (“theos”, God) is a masculine noun and the verb that modifies it, in this case “worship”, must agree in gender. However, the pronoun is masculine and that does mean something. If John was seeking to stress that God is beyond gender here, he could have used a neuter or feminine pronoun but he didn’t. God consistently uses masculine pronouns to refer to himself.
When God wants to stress his care and concern for his people, he sometimes uses feminine metaphors. For example, in Isaiah 66:13, God says, “As one whom his mother comforts, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.” There are other verses as well but this is a good example. And still, it makes my point that it is imagery and metaphor, not an equality. For example, no one is arguing that Moses is a female but Numbers 11:11-12 says,
Moses said to the LORD, “Why have you dealt ill with your servant? And why have I not found favor in your sight, that you lay the burden of all this people on me? Did I conceive all this people? Did I give them birth, that you should say to me, ‘Carry them in your bosom, as a nurse carries a nursing child,’ to the land that you swore to give their fathers?”
Similarly, when God uses feminine metaphors for himself we have to understand them correctly. We wouldn’t take Moses’ statement here to mean that we can refer to him as “Moses herself” and so we should not take that kind of liberty with God.
The second thing that I wanted to expand on is a warning I received that always taking scriptural language literally risks producing an unscriptural view of God. I think the concern was that my insistence that we refer to God as he has revealed himself could lead to thinking he, is in fact, masculine. I certainly don’t want to make that mistake and so I took the warning seriously. After reflecting on it, I don’t think I’m making that mistake. What he was getting at was warning us away from the mistake of saying, for example, that God has wings because it says so in the Psalms.
This is where I got very frustrated with Twitter as a conversational medium. It would be impossible for me to communicate how I was careful to make that distinction in only 140 characters. So I’m taking to my blog. It will cross-post a link to my Twitter account but I don’t expect anyone from that thread to see it. Still, just to clear my conscience, here goes.
When God uses terms about himself like “Father” and “groom”, at one level he is speaking metaphorically even if he doesn’t say “as a…” Why? Because we know that God’s essential nature is spirit. Also, we can fairly infer that he is beyond human genders because when he created human beings, it says,
So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:27)
He didn’t create Adam in his image and then tacked Eve on. Adam and Eve together constitute his image therefore there are masculine and feminine attributes in God. We don’t want to push the masculine language too far and distort who God is.
At the same time, if we are careful to stick to all the Biblical language about God, we’ll avoid that error all together. When we incorporate all of what the Bible says about God, it really, truly places him beyond gender. He just is. We’re divided into two genders, he isn’t.
At the same time though, these metaphors do mean something! God is a Father and a groom and male in some sense. There are things about those roles that illustrate, more than other societal roles, who he is. God wrote those words on purpose and he chose them carefully because that’s the kind of person God is.
To really know who God is, we need to know his Son (John 14:8-9), we need to be filled with his Spirit (1 Cor 2:10), and we need to seek him in his word (1 John 5:11-13). And in these revelations of himself, God chose to show himself using masculine terms and the occasional feminine metaphor. To refer to God as feminine is unbiblical, to refer to him as masculine is following his lead, but to claim he is male or female is an error. He is ultimately neither and both. We worship a really big God.