God is not gendered.
Such a statement will likely be met with considerable objection by some who profess a Christian faith. As some celebrate and advocate during this Pride Month, I also ask you to reflect on how your attitudes reflect your understanding of God.
Scripture teaches that we are made “in the image and likeness of God.” We are, in this sense, “icons” of the Divine Being. We start to get a little mixed up when we start thinking about Jesus. Christians believe that Jesus is the “perfect image of the living God”—God incarnate—made flesh by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary. As a human being, Jesus had to be made either male or female—and there is the rub: that binary choice.
It is that binary division that has been baked into our cultural mindset. We think of it as something so obvious that we apply it to all beings—including God. It is interesting that biological research reveals nature to be far more complicated and varied than that. Anthropology further demonstrates that other cultures and historical periods have looked at gender differently. Even the Bible and early Church tradition have used more fluid gender metaphors and concepts, which have been overlooked or deliberately ignored for centuries. We, however, continue to apply strict binary categories—“either/or” choice—to many things, even to God. Regrettably, this choice is now being used to divide us as a society and as a nation along political lines. This should not be a political issue. It is a human issue. As such, it is ultimately a theological and spiritual issue.
Part of the problem comes from our need to categorize things. We use categories to simplify and to organize the complex world in which we live. As things get more and more complex, we increasingly need to use categories. Categories in themselves are neutral. There is nothing wrong with them.
Categories, however, can get in the way of our awareness of reality. If we allow our categories to become too rigid, we only perceive things about the world that match our expectations, rather than interacting with a multifaceted and sometimes surprising reality. In other words, we make people fit our categories rather than meet them as unique individuals. We narrow things down even more when our categories provide only two choices, as in: you can be male (a category that requires you also be masculine as I perceive what masculine means), or you can be female (which means you must also be feminine as I perceive what femininity means). But you can’t be both—and you certainly can’t be anything else. “It’s simple biology,” it is often said. Except it’s not biology. Experts can explain to us how assigning physiological sex is far more complicated.
Simple divisions like male/female have another problem as well: We have long tended to rank one as better than the other. The assumption that men are inherently superior to women provided the foundation for patriarchy, a form of rigid social categories that began some 5,000 years ago in Near Eastern societies, an outdated pattern based on social patterns that no longer even exist. Many Christians would disagree. Instead, they say, binary gender (and the roles that emerge from them) is not merely a set of convenient mental pigeonholes but rather a God-ordained reality. The Bible, after all, begins with this same division: “God created humankind in his image,” in Genesis 1. “In the image of God, he created them; male and female he created them.”
As we are increasingly realizing today, pronouns are important. When the masculine pronoun is assigned to God in this verse (as it is in the original language), it thwarts any implication of equality between male and female. Although we can assert that females may have also been made in the divine image, if God is a “he” who created males first (Gen. 2), then females must somehow be blurry, secondary copies—not quite as complete or accurate as males. Furthermore, a God who is “he” would naturally favor the human most like him, who bears his image most precisely, namely, the male.
Some of these assumptions are based on language. For humans, categories and language go hand in hand. We have a hard time thinking about anything for which we lack words. When I was growing up, for example, we didn’t talk about gender. Coming to terms with my own identity as a gay man took longer because I had limited language to describe it or understand it. Similarly, I could never conceive of God as anything but male. Only later could I begin to even think of God having any feminine qualities at all. For many of us who were Catholics, that was why we developed such devotion to another feminine icon—the Virgin Mary. But, we were told, Mary was not God. So, God still couldn’t have feminine qualities, those qualities were still second best—and so were women. It took a long while and a major conversion of thought to overcome that prejudice. Our language not only reflects our beliefs but shapes the way we construct our view of the world.
Hebrew has no nongendered pronouns. This means if you were speaking in Hebrew, you would refer to a book as “he” and a loaf of bread as “she.” For the most part, these are purely grammatical categories. This is true in many languages even today. We can argue that the Old Testament refers to God as “he” simply because the word god is masculine in a grammatical sense. However, whenever the same scriptures speak about the Spirit of God, feminine pronouns are used, because spirit, in Hebrew, is feminine in form (as it is also in Greek and Latin).
But why do our translators never use feminine pronouns when talking about the Spirit of God? More than likely because they, like many of us, have adopted a perspective that the Triune God is wholly masculine and so cannot have feminine qualities. So, the Holy Spirit is “he” not “she.” If we used “she,” somehow we would almost immediately conclude we were not speaking about God.
The more we dig into the scriptures, the more we find that if we remove our prejudgments just for a bit, we will find that there is more gender fluidity than we would ever expect. In fact, the Old Testament is filled with such images. In the New Testament, Jesus uses many feminine images to describe God: as a mother hen (Luke 13:34); the woman searching for the lost coin (Luke 15:8-10); the Spirit giving birth to our new life (John 3:5-6). How many times do we hear the Apostles speak about God “giving birth to us”?
I am not trying to be dismissive or flip here. I am not trying to be super “relevant” or “woke.” What I am trying to do is to point out that many of our prejudices and social biases may be inconsistent with the teaching of the Christian faith, even though many others will say that they are required of those who profess such faith.
The main point is a simple one: God is not gendered.
If we are made in the image and likeness of God, then the gender with which we identify in an authentic manner and in which we can sincerely and fully worship the one true God with pure and open hearts is the gender in which God is glorified. The practical implications of living within the physical, psychological, and social world present us with challenges. These challenges must be confronted and resolved within an authentic faith.
That journey is unique and requires a place of safety where one finds the space and time to explore, study, pray, worship, and discover the God who created, redeemed, and most of all loves us all into eternal life.
The Episcopal Church is such a place. As an open and affirming congregation, St. Luke’s Episcopal Church of Lebanon affirms the full inclusion of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and non-binary persons and those who love them in our church’s life and ministry; we support their relationships; we advocate for their basic human rights.
The Rev’d Dr. David A. Zwifka
Rector, St. Luke’s Episcopal Church
22 South 6th Street
Lebanon, PA 17042
Please join us on June 25 at 10:30 a.m. for “YOU ARE LOVED” – A PRIDE SERVICE at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church to open the Lebanon’s Got PRIDE 2023 Celebration. The service will conclude with a Progress Pride flag raising ceremony in the church yard and a community reception in the church auditorium. To learn more, visit stlukeslebanon.org/pride-service/.