I Dared to Call Him Mother (Using Gender-Inclusive Terms in the Church)

During my stay at AMBS (which in some ways may be considered short, but in other ways has been long enough to get a fairly comprehensive view of the school), I have noticed that many members of our community frown upon what is considered to be “Paternalistic” language.  Many seem almost afraid to use the term “Father” seeing it as old-fashioned and out of vogue.  It seems as if it is more acceptable to just use the term “God” rather than even finding a balance between Father/Mother, or to use completely gender inclusive terms such as “Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer” in place of “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”

I see a great value in trying to becoming more gender inclusive.  For many years, women have felt that their voice has mattered less, caught in a patriarchal religion which made a male God hard to identify with for some.  Oftentimes, patriarchy can cloud how we view the Scriptures perhaps making it inaccessible to some, and when Scripture becomes inaccessible one might simply choose to do without the Gospels (or any other part of the Bible for that matter).

At the same time as realizing that God is beyond gender and neither male nor female, I think there are some concerns with doing completely away with the term “Father” and only saying “God”.  For one, English does not have a gender inclusive pronoun which would be appropriate.  I doubt anyone would feel comfortable calling God “it”.  Yet to substitute “God” for every “he” or “him” is in my opinion redundant.  One would not say “Deborah went to the store, then Deborah bought some eggs and cheese.  Then Deborah walked back to the seminary.  Then Deborah made lunch.  Then Deborah ate it.”  I’m pretty sure if we talked like this all the time people would get tired of our third person language.  It might even feel foreign or strange – if you know me, Deborah, why would you keep referring to me by my proper name?  You might use my name once as a way of getting someone’s attention so that they know who you are referring to, but after that you will just say “she”.   This problem specifically comes into play when we are using hymns that were written at a different time period where Father language was quite acceptable.  To change all the hes and hims to “God” would not make musical or metrical sense.  My personal favourite is how people sing “Praise God from whom all blessings flow, praise God all creatures hear below, praise God above Ye heavenly hosts.  Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost”.  As hard as we might try to do away with the Paternalistic language, it is virtually impossible to sing one of our favourite hymns to the same melody without being paternalistic with it.                        

I spent a summer interning at a Pregnancy Resource Center.  This is where I first learned to pray in non-Father language.  So many young teenage women came to us from abusive relationships with men.  Some of them never had a Father or had a less than desirable Father.  To use Father language with them would be to exacerbate an already existing problem.  So I learned to address God in other ways.  Yet, overtime, I would gradually bring in the concept of God as a Father.  Many of the clients found this to be most helpful.  At the beginning, finding God to be a Father was beyond their grasp, yet later on, it became a source of comfort and hope.  God was the Father they never had.  God was the only “man” they could trust.  God was a “man” who did not let them down.  They found this to be very healing. 

I think that to never use “Father” is to do people a disservice.  There might be others in our midst who would really benefit from seeing God as a “Father” or as a “Mother” and not just as “God”.  So, I personally feel it would be better to use “Father” and “Mother” interchangeably rather than being afraid of those terms.  Rather than just saying “God” “God” “God” “God’s self” all the time.

Or you could adopt the prayer that I have used now for several years, “Father God and Mothering Spirit” or “Father God with the Mothering Spirit”.  I have found that even my most conservative friends who feel it is an insult to call God “Mother” to have been quite okay with this prayer and several of them have even started using this prayer on their own despite the fact that they would otherwise never call God anything other than “Father”.


5 thoughts on “I Dared to Call Him Mother (Using Gender-Inclusive Terms in the Church)

  1. I went to a “liberal” school (using the word with caution as always, but by any measurement I can think of, it was). Depending on the prof you could get away with masculine language for God, but for a lot of the others you had to strictly use feminine language or neutral language. All of the hymns were changed to neutral in chapel, and I remember a classmate getting in trouble one day for choosing a contemporary song that referred to being God’s sons with no mentions of daughters.

    Personally, I have ended up back at referring to God primarily in masculine terms, unless I need to make a specific point about God being as much female as male. The neutral just sounds/reads terribly for its redundancy as you mentioned, and it strips God of personhood. For a while I tried alternating but I felt like it was just unnecessary confusion.

  2. The real problem with using “God” all the time is a) come came as a man and thus claimed gender as a good thing and b) we loose one of the main distinctive’s of being Christian, that we can know God as Father. Muslims would never call God Father, they don’t have that kind of relationship with Him. We need to emphasize, not deemphasize, His personal nature. As for calling Him Mother, I personally reject that, mainly because I don’t see what problem it’s really solving and I think it creates more problems than it solves.

    • I agree with the first 2 points that you raised. It was getting a bit crazy at AMBS where people looked down upon calling God “Father”. I call God Father in my own prayer life as this is how Jesus taught us to pray. At the same time, I also call God Mother sometimes. I know that The Shack is controversial and in some ways lacks bad theology, but I agree with W.P. Young that sometimes we need God to be a Father an other times a Mother to us. God is beyond gender so I don’t think there is anything wrong with calling Him either one. When I call the Holy Spirit “Mothering” it helps to bring out a nurturing side, though it is rather gender stereotypical.

      • I guess the thing with “Holy Spirit Mothering” is you’re describing a personality characteristic, not a role. I suspect that’s what makes it less offensive to some.

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