Thursday, June 28, 2007

Our Father and Mother, Who Art In Heaven?

One of the most important issues facing the church today, as it has for centuries past, centers around the matter of changing language when speaking of God. Language is always changing. Dictionaries and grammars are frequently revised to include new words and phrases which become more commonplace with the march of time. Some radical feminists and revisionists are saying that the Scriptures are written in male terms and that the Bible should be corrected or adapted to fit today’s post-post-postmodern culture (I may have left out a few “posts”). They maintain that we must eliminate the male bias which supposedly runs throughout the Bible, and this includes references to the human family (such as "mankind"), and allusions to a male God (such as "the Father"), and the use of male pronouns (such as "he"). They argue that Bible descriptions are authoritarian and gender distinctive and in our day such terms are no longer useful; Biblical language must accommodate itself to the insights of the modern age.

For some time it has been quite evident that there are those working diligently to perform a major sex-change operation on the Bible's language. This is a high-priority agenda item for some people. And although I believe the trend toward inclusive language is not all bad, I believe it has gone too far. And the "too far" for us has to do primarily with the attempt to eliminate all male references to the God of Scripture.

Some Inclusivist Examples:

In our day, the feminist critics are calling for a number of word changes that would make our language more inclusive of men and women. It is true that there have been some biases built into the words and phrases that are commonly used in church circles. It is not always helpful, for example, to refer to a congregation as "men" or "brethren." In sensitivity to other persons, we can make an effort to be inclusive. We do not object to using the phrase "men and women" (instead of "men") when referring to people, nor is it offensive to speak of "chairpersons" instead of chairmen," or to say "mail carrier" instead of mailman."

It is okay with most people to say that "utility men" are "utility persons" and that "manholes" are "person holes." It doesn't bother most of us if inspectors want to work in "sewer holes" instead of "manholes." And certainly all of us should intentionally avoid use of stereotypes such as 11 woman driver" or "scatterbrained female." However, the present-day discussion in church circles is not primarily concerned with typical references to people. The more serious concern centers around language which is used in reference to God.

There are groups within our churches that call for widening the terms used for God so that the language includes female images of God. They want all exclusive male references to God removed from the Bible. The language and wordpictures used in the Bible, they say, must be changed. The National Council of Churches, for example, has prepared inclusive translations of Scripture passages for use in its Lectionaries. In the NCC-sponsored Inclusive Language Lectionary, language for people is changed to include women as well as men. For example, it can be helpful to translate "Blessed is the man that walks not in the counsel of the ungodly" (Psalm 1:1) as "Blessed are those who walk not in the counsel of the ungodly" -and to render "Let your light shine before men" (Matthew 5:16), as "Let your light shine before others"--and to say, "Follow me and I will make you fishers of men and women," instead of the translation formerly used. But to change language about God (to speak of God as Father "and Mother," and Christ as "Child" of God) is unacceptable and can lead to some serious consequences, some of which I will briefly mention:

(a) God as Mother

The Scripture translations for the Inclusive Language add the words "and Mother" whenever there are references to God the Father. It is true that in several Old Testament texts, God is pictured as a woman giving birth, as a mother tending a small child, as a nursing mother, as a woman putting food and water on the table, etc. Christians down through the years have often referred to the motherly tenderness of God. It is true that in some ways God is like a mother-but God is never called "Mother." This is something significant. When we speak of God as "Father," we are including not only His fatherly (but also His motherly) qualities.

The word "Father" is the most distinctive name that Christians use for God. It is interesting to note that Muslims have 99 names for God (Protector, Provider, etc.), but not one of them is "Father." Christians have learned to use the name "Father" by following the example of Jesus; this was the name by which He knew God. Even as a boy, Jesus said, "Did you not know that I must be about My Father's business?" (Luke 2:49 NKJV). The last words of Jesus on the Cross were, "Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit" (Luke 23:46). When Jesus taught the disciples to pray, He said, "Say, Our Father who art in heaven." And it is dangerous for us to tamper with those words. The prayer begins with "Our Father," and goes on to say, "Hallowed be thy name." What name? The name which opens the prayer—" Father." To use the word "Father" when referring to God is simply to follow the example which Jesus set for us.

There is also a trend in hymnwriting that uses feminine imagery for God. British poet Brian Wren is a leader in the trend in hymnwriting. One of Wren's most controversial hymns is entitled "Strong Mother God." The hymn begins by calling God "Mother." Later verses address God as warm, father God; great, living God; old, aching God; and young, growing God." For the feminists, the hymn "God of our Fathers" becomes "God of the Ages." The line of another hymn is changed from "Like a loving father" to "Like a loving parent."

(b) Jesus as Lord

Inclusivists say that to sing songs like "The Church's One Foundation is Jesus Christ Our Lord"-is to use sexist language and is not sensitive to the concerns of women. They say that the Bible (with all its talk about "lords" and “kings") reflects an ancient feudal society which is not acceptable in our day.

The feminist critics find something grievously wrong with the beginning of the Twenty-third Psalm. The sentence "The Lord is my shepherd," they say, has a male-oriented sound, and so it is translated "God is my shepherd." In their view, no one is in a position of "lord" over another. The words of Sarah recorded in I Peter 3 make them cringe: "So once the holy women who hoped in God ... were submissive to their husbands, as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord" (I Peter 3:5-6, RSV). The word "lord" is a four-letter "no-no" in feminist thinking.
Dropping the term "Lord" (in reference to Jesus) is a serious departure from truth. Early Christians repeatedly declared that "Jesus is Lord.” This was in direct contradiction to the loyalties of citizens in the Mediterranean world. Citizens of the Roman Empire were required to declare that "Caesar is lord" (meaning that "Caesar is God")-and precisely because Christians confessed that Jesus is Lord, many early Christians lost their lives. They refused to bow their knee to Caesar. If we drop the word "Lord" (when referring to Jesus), we are in effect denying the totality of who Jesus is, and we are not giving due credit to the special relationship which Jesus has with the Father, who (along with the Holy Spirit) are one God manifest in three Persons.

In the new translations, Jesus is no longer "Son of God" or "Son of man," but He is now "Child of God" or "Human One." And the sentences are re-written so that the pronouns "he" and "him" do not appear. Thus, in the new translations, John 3:16 reads, "For God so loved the world that God gave God's only Child, that whoever believes in that Child should not perish, but have eternal life."

What’s the Result of All This?

What is behind all this call for change in language? Where might it eventually lead us? Since meaning is bound up in language and God has decided to reveal himself to us most directly in the form of words, surely one cannot change the language for God without altering his understanding of who God is.

The result of changing the description of God from "Father" to "Mother/ Father" is to create the picture of a partly male and partly female God. And to make Christ "the Child" instead of "the Son" is to picture Him as immature. To speak of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit-as "Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier"- may at first seem like an innocent change. But the terms "Father, Son, and Holy Spirit" have a precise theological meaning which is not communicated by any other terms. The words "Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier" are functional names (focusing on God's deeds), whereas "Father, Son, and Holy Spirit" are names that focus on God's own essence and the nature of His being. There are a number of results that rise out of attempts to tamper with the names for God.

(a) Questions the Validity of Special Revelation

To believe that God is creator is self-evident; it is something which all religions believe and teach in some form or another. But to believe in God as Father is not self-evident; that belief comes to us especially through what Jesus tells us about God. In Matthew we read, " one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him" (Matthew 11:27b, NIV).

(b) Takes Lightly the True Authority of Jesus

God is referred to as "Father" in twenty-five of the New Testament Books. Thus the teaching about God as "Father" is not an obscure doctrine.

Was Jesus wrong in telling us to pray to God by saying, "Our Father who art in heaven"? And if Jesus was wrong in teaching us to address God as "Father," He might be wrong about other things as well. To eliminate the word "Father" when referring to God is to deny that Jesus had any valid authority.

God is a deliberate God. He is not random or haphazard in his judgments. He is infinitely wise and sovereign. And if we believe so, we should believe and accept his revelation to us as "Father" as perfect and pleasing and acceptable.

(c) Diminishes God to the Level of the Mundane

To present God as "Mother and Father" is not only clumsy, but also repulsive to concerned Christians. God (when called "Mother and Father") becomes a side-show freak instead of the supreme Person who deserves our highest reverence. If people are allowed to describe God at whim, most any image could appear.

Furthermore, to add "and Mother" when referring to God the Father, has (at some places) an awkward implication. For example, in the NCC translation of John 15:26, Jesus promises "the Spirit of truth who proceeds from [God] the Father [and Mother].- This seems to add a heretical Fourth Person to the Trinity.

Is the controversy surrounding the God-language debate more serious than most people are willing to admit? I think the evidence is mounting that what is happening in the church is not simply a change in language, but a change in faith.

In conclusion then, it is not a serious infraction of good judgment to try and eliminate an overuse of the male pronouns when speaking of people. The pronoun "he" has long been used in our English language to include both men and women. We say, "A school student must study his lessons if he expects to pass the test." The statement refers to boys and girls who are students in school. Such a use of the masculine pronoun "he" is acceptable, but to re-word the sentence so as to limit the use of the masculine pronoun is certainly proper. Instead of saying, "The average American drinks his coffee black," we can say, "The average American drinks black coffee." And in the Bible, minor editorial changes which avoid overusing the male pronoun can be a healthy improvement in translation. Instead of, "If any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in" (Revelation 3:20), it is not offensive to say, "if anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in" (as translated in the New International Version).

The real concern, which Christians like myself have, have arises out of the dangers which surface when attempts are made to re-write the language pertaining to God.

Honestly, as well meaning as some of the people in the inclusivist camp may be, I believe the strong endeavor at language change as another in a long list of attempts to undermine the authority and finality of the Word of God. Tinkering with the Bible's words cannot be done without changing the Bible's message. Sometimes I wonder if those who are so unhappy with God as Father are really satisfied with Him as God at all.

More Questions…

Does anybody really feel left outside God's offer of salvation and grace because the words do not always specifically refer to all genders? Must "children" and "boys and girls" always be mentioned along with grownups for them to know that they are not excluded from God's plan? Are there really some women and girls who honestly believe that the use of male terms or masculine pronouns in Holy Scripture has barred them from the promises of God?

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