Saturday, March 11, 2017

The Contextual Meaning of the Lord's Prayer

This prayer is from the Gospel books on the life of Jesus (1), and can be referred to as The Lord's Prayer. It is often referred to as the "Our Father" which is a nickname based on the Latin term "Pater Noster", given to it by the religious empire of Christendom (not known for it's theological accuracy) :

(first century Aramaic translation of the "Pater Noster")

"Oh Thou, from whom the breath of life comes," 
"who fills all realms of sound, light and vibration." 
Nethkâdasch schmach 
"May Your light be experienced in my utmost holiest." 
Têtê malkuthach
"Your Heavenly Domain approaches." 
Nehwê tzevjânach aikâna d'bwaschmâja af b'arha. 
"Let Your will come true - in the universe (all that vibrates)just as on earth (that is material and dense)." 
Hawvlân lachma d'sûnkanân jaomâna. 
"Give us wisdom (understanding, assistance) for our daily need," 
Waschboklân chaubên wachtahên aikâna daf chnân schwoken l'chaijabên. 
"detach the fetters of faults that bind us, like we let go the guilt of others." 
Wela tachlân l'nesjuna 
"Let us not be lost in superficial things (materialism, common temptations)," 
ela patzân min bischa. 
"but let us be freed from that what keeps us off from our true purpose." 
Metol dilachie malkutha wahaila wateschbuchta l'ahlâm almîn. 
"From You comes the all-working will, the lively strength to act, the song that beautifies all and renews itself from age to age." 
"Sealed in trust, faith and truth. (I confirm with my entire being)"

Since Jesus was Jewish he would have grown up learning and citing the 'Kadish' from the Talmud (2), which his female and male disciples would have also been familiar with. The fact that the prayer Jesus teaches is very similar to the 'Kadish' indicates that Jesus was theologically elaborating on it to make the significance of the 'Kadish' more accessible to his disciples. 

However, as you can see from both the original Hebrew Kadish as well as the Aramaic version Jesus taught, there is no indication in either that Jesus perceives God specifically or exclusively as male:

"Our Parent which art in heaven, be gracious to us, O Lord, our God; hallowed be thy name, and let the remembrance of thee be glorified in heaven above and in the earth here below. Let thy kingdom reign over us now and forever. The holy men of old said, Remit and forgive unto all men whatsoever they have done against me. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil thing. For thine is the kingdom, and thou shalt reign in glory for ever and for evermore." (3)

The terms used to portray God in both the 'Kadish' and The Lord's Prayer indicate ancestry and use the term Abwun or Parent in a similar way to how we would use the term "fore-father" or "fore-mother".

Although such terms really refer to an ancestor of either gender, it is easy to see how the term "fore-father" replaced "ancestor" in common language under patriarchal rule, treating the concept of fore-mother as taken for granted and included in the term "fore-father"; it's also easy to see how the term "fore-father" was similarly shortened to "father" in common language for convenience sake. And there we get oversimplified and inaccurate terms like "Our Father" to represent a term that originally referred to our maternal and paternal ancestry.

And this is how easy it is to corrupt theological concepts by ego-centrically projecting our cultural comfort zones onto concepts like "God" which were not meant to be culturally exclusive. Let's keep our personal comfort zones separated from public talk about God out of respect for each individual's opportunity to develop a culturally-independant and personal relationship with this universally-relevant and un-see-able Being.

"God who is blessed and the only Sovereign One, the ruler of rulers, who alone is immortal and who lives in unapproachable light, whom no one has seen or can see." (4)

For more cultural context on this prayer, please see

1) Matt. 6:9-13, Luke 11:2-4
2) English scholar Dr. Hardwicke says: "The so-called 'Lord's Prayer' was learned by the Messiah as the 'Kadish' from the Talmud."
3) The Kadish, translated by Christian scholar, Rev. John Gregorie
4) 1 Timothy 6:16

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Elohim, Eloah & El

For those of us who are in pursuit of the knowledge of God and God’s ways, which is what we rely on to overcome the lesser standards our culture often promotes for us, our study of scripture revolves around the question: What does the Bible say about who God is?

It is not enough for us to get this question answered by our fellow human beings- our pastors & priests, institutional leaders or popular religious teachers- because every human teacher makes their own choices regarding what moments of scripture to emphasize and which to minimize or leave unaddressed altogether. As a result, the picture of God one receives from any one person is very limited by their personal experience and momentary mental state of consideration.

Only the collective perspectives captured in Biblical scripture as a whole can give us a fuller picture of the God we are pursuing, since it consists of a set of books documenting a history of other people’s experiences with this God over multiple centuries and cultures. The consistent patterns that emerge from these diverse testimonies regarding descriptions of this God and this God’s values indicate the authenticity of these encounters with the supernatural, as well as the unique identity distinguishing this God from all other gods. As Isaiah says,
“From ancient times no one has heard, no person has seen, any God besides You, intervening for those who wait for You.” Isaiah 64:4

The Reoccurring Theme of God's Gender-Inclusive Identity

One thematic pattern that emerges, when studying these books as a whole, is that God’s identity is not limited to or defined by any particular physical feature of the human experience -such as gender, race, or culture. God’s identity is distinguished by features of character, not features of physicality or ethnicity, giving credence to the message relayed to Israel that God indeed “shows no favoritism and accepts no bribes” (Deuteronomy 10:17). Although this aspect of God’s identity as transcendent and, most importantly, independent of any particular physical form can be perceived from direct study of scripture, this concept is not often relayed well by individual teachers and leaders in the Christian community who are caught up in conformity to the larger patriarchal culture.

For example, many Christians are used to hearing God portrayed exclusively as a “he” by the teachers and leaders in their community; however, this does not reflect the image of God portrayed by Biblical literature. In fact, the very first name used to describe God in the Bible –“Elohim”- demonstrates the author’s use of this plural Hebrew word for ‘divinities’ to encompass both the feminine singular and masculine singular versions of this word, both of which are used throughout the rest of Hebrew scripture to refer to God. (1)

Grammatical Evidence

Elohim is the most frequently used name for God in the Hebrew Scriptures (2). Although it is the plural masculine word for “majesty”, indicating a plural identity to God, Strong’s Concordance shows that the word is also used to refer to a mix of feminine and masculine deities (3). One reason the plural masculine “Elohim” is considered inclusive of both the female and male singular versions of the word is because “Elohim”, although primarily used in scripture to refer to the God of Israel, is also used in 1 Kings 11:5 to refer to a pagan goddess (4), demonstrating that the word was used grammatically to refer to gods in general, and gods of either gender:

“For Solomon worshipped Ashtoreth the goddess (“Elohim”) of the Sidonians, and Molech, the detestable god of the Ammonites.”

The other reason “Elohim” is considered to include both genders is because the very same books of Hebrew scripture that use it to refer to the God of Israel also use the feminine singular Hebrew word “Eloha” intermittently with the masculine singular Hebrew word “El” to refer to the same God (5). The word “Eloha” is feminine according to the rules of Hebrew grammar (6), and according to scholars (7)(8); it is used 70 times across 9 different books of Hebrew scripture, from Deuteronomy through Habakkuk, to refer to the God of Israel (9).

Despite these passages, many Bible commentators mistakenly interpret the masculine grammar of “Elohim” as evidence that the God of Israel was therefore masculine in all aspects. However, a consistent study of all passages in scripture does not support this. Neither does a grammatical and historical study of Hebrew scripture.  As Wilhelm Gesenius (10), a well-known Semitic philologist and Biblical exegete, perceived, the masculine plural form of “Elohim” does not indicate an exclusion of the feminine from the plural but rather indicates the very ancient Semitic mindset which subordinated the feminine aspect of the word to the masculine aspect of the word in usage (11).

In addition, a grammatical examination of these Hebrew words allows us to see that the Hebrew characters used to spell “Elohim” literally contain both “Eloah” and “El” (12):

 אֱלֹהִים  (Elohim)
    אֱלֹהַּ  (Eloah)
       אֵל  (El)

This particular grammatical indication that God is both feminine and masculine in identity occurs throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. However, this example is not unique or exceptional in the Bible. It is echoed by other grammatical fluctuations in gender in reference to God within both Hebrew and Greek scriptures.

Beginning with the first description of God in the creation account and continuing throughout all books of Hebrew scripture, the Spirit of God is consistently identified as “Ruah”, a Hebrew feminine noun; the verb used to describe the Spirit’s activity in the creation account, “rachaph” (fluttered/moved/hovered), is a Hebrew feminine verb, used only one other time in the Bible –by Moses when he referred to God as a mother eagle fluttering over her young:

“Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit (Ruah) of God was hovering (rachaph) over the waters.” Genesis 1:2

“As an eagle that stirs up her nest and hovers (rachaph) over her young, that spreads her wings to catch them and carries them aloft: So the Lord alone did lead him (Israel), and there was no strange god with him.” Deuteronomy 32:11

In the Greek Scriptures, grammatical indications of God’s gender-encompassing identity are less overt, since the Greek word used for God’s Spirit, pneuma, is neuter in gender. However, Jesus and his apostles did not teach in Greek; they taught their fellow Hebrews in Aramaic, the common street language in their culture (13). And in Aramaic, the word for Spirit (Ruach) is feminine. This perception of the Holy Spirit as Feminine by early Christians is seen in the oldest Syriac translations of the Gospels, where Jesus repeatedly refers to the Holy Spirit as “She”.

Literary Evidence

Although this grammatical evidence of God’s gender-inclusive identity is significant, especially considering the patriarchal bias of both the Hebrew and Aramaic cultures in which these books were written, the confirmation that this is a deliberate theological theme is in Biblical authors' use of mixed gender analogies to refer to God.

For example, not only does the writer of Genesis describe God in feminine and maternal imagery in the creation account (Genesis 1:2) using words that portray the Spirit of God as a female bird giving birth to creation, but Moses echoes the same maternal analogy for God more clearly in Deuteronomy 32:11, specifically describing God’s relationship with the Israelites as that of a mother bird with her young.

Then in Exodus 19:4, God uses this analogy of God as a birth-mother to describe God’s self:
“You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself” Exodus 19:4

This analogy is seen again in the Psalms, where King David echoes this picture of God as a protective mother repeatedly:

“Be merciful unto me, O God… for in thee my soul takes refuge; in the shadow of thy wings I will take refuge, till the storms of destruction pass by” Psalm 57:1.

 “How precious is your steadfast love, O God! All people may take refuge in the shadow of your wings.” Psalm 36

 “...God will deliver you from the snare of the fowler and from the deadly pestilence; God will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge” Psalm 91

Theologist Jann Aldredge-Clanton explains the significance of this repeated reference to the mother eagle in scripture as opposed to the father eagle:
“The female eagle, larger and heavier than the male, bears the eaglets on her wings when it is time for them to leave the nest. The mother eagle stirs up her nest to get the young out on their own to hunt their own food. Then she takes them on her wings and swoops down suddenly to force them to fly alone. But she always stays close enough to swoop back under them when they become too weary and weak to continue to fly on their own.” (14)

Similarly, the prophet Isaiah repeatedly portrays God as a birth-mother, interchanging these analogies with masculine analogies depicting God as a protector:

“"For a long time I have kept silent, I have been quiet and held myself back. But now, like a woman in childbirth, I cry out, I gasp and pant.” Isaiah 42:14,

"Listen to me, you descendants of Jacob, all the remnant of the people of Israel, who have been borne by me from your birth, carried from the womb; even to your old age and gray hairs I am he, I will sustain you. I have made you and I will carry you; I will sustain you and I will rescue you. Isaiah 46:3-4

“"Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you!” Isaiah 49:15

“As a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you; and you will be comforted over Jerusalem."Isaiah 66:13

The prophet Joel portrays God as a birth mother in Joel 2:13, a passage loaded with feminine imagery. The Hebrew word for "compassionate" here is "rachum", derived from the Hebrew word for 'womb'. In the next line, "merciful" is from the Hebrew word "chesed", meaning 'devoted kindness'- a word also used for a mother stork. Then in the next line, the word for "relent" is from a Hebrew word also derived from the word for 'womb' and means "deeply moved":

"Rend your heart and not your garments. Return to the LORD your God, who is gracious and compassionate (rachum, 'womb-love'), slow to anger and merciful (chesed, 'devoted kindness'), and relents ('deeply moved', derived from 'womb') from sending calamity." Joel 2:13

The prophet Hosea similarly compares God to a mother in Hosea 11:3, 11:8, and 13:8.

These maternal analogies for God continue into the New Testament with Jesus’ teaching on the Holy Spirit:
“Jesus answered, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.  Do not be amazed that I said to you, 'You must be born again.” John 3:5-7

The apostle Paul echoes this maternal imagery of God’s Spirit, comparing spiritual conversion to a birthing experience accomplished by the Holy Spirit in 2 Corinthians:

“Therefore if anyone is in Christ, they are a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come.” 2 Corinthians 5:17-19

Another feminine analogy for God’s Spirit in Hebrew and Greek scripture is that of a wise female teacher. Jesus identifies God’s Spirit of Wisdom as feminine, referring to God’s wisdom with the feminine word “Sophia” in Luke 11:49, and as “her” in Matthew 11:19. This recalls Proverbs’ consistent depiction of God’s wisdom as a female teacher.

When these passages depicting feminine imagery for God are noticed and examined alongside of the more traditionally emphasized passages depicting masculine images for God, a fuller picture of God emerges for our community- one that depicts God more accurately and in a way that is more consistent with the Biblical description of this God’s character.


1. Aldredge-Clanton, In Whose Image? God and Gender (New York: Crossroad, 2001), Pg. 24.
3. “However, in the old Strongs Concordance, the 2a definition is "God, Goddess." If you have the new "Strongest Strongs" marvelously reworked and powerfully updated by John R. Kohlenberger III, and James A. Swanson, it is the Hebrew Dictionary number 430 and its under the [4] as "Goddess."” 
5., page 2.
6. To render the feminine singular, the ending has to be with "-ah" while the feminine plural is usually rendered with "-ot"; the masculine ending has no special form. There is a special form ending which changes the feminine ending of "-ah" to "-at" in the construct singular of the feminine nouns as well (Thomas O. Lambdin, "Introduction to Biblical Hebrew," Harvard University, 1971: 74).
7. Aldredge-Clanton, In Whose Image? God and Gender (New York: Crossroad, 2001), Pg. 24.
8. "Names of God in Judaism." The New Encyclopedia of Judaism. The Jerusalem Publishing House, Ltd., 1989, 2002. 29 Mar. 2014.
11. “Gesenius Hebrew Grammar," 2nd ed., revised by A. E. Crowley, Clarendon Press, Oxford, reprint, 1910: (page 391); 122-g, and footnote 2. 
12.Trent Wilde discusses this argument as put forth by Shekinah Magazine in the 1980's:
14. Aldredge-Clanton, In Whose Image? God and Gender (New York: Crossroad, 2001), Pg. 26

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Christian Responsibility and Accountability: the “How” of “Love One Another”

There often seems to be a large divide between popular ideology circulating among American Christians in Church culture and the actual instruction coming from the apostles and Jesus in the Bible. One example of this is the often quoted “Do not judge, lest you be judged” in response to any Christian’s questioning or criticism of the behaviors of fellow Christians -Christian leaders especially. However, it is important that each of us study Scripture thoroughly to avoid the pitfalls of “hearsay theology”. 

Unfortunately, human hearsay has been the source of many heresies in the history of Christianity, as can be seen in Paul’s expression of aggravation with theological rumors and the group spreading them in Galatians 5. As Paul says in Hebrews 2, “We must pay the most careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away.”

Both Jesus and the apostles teach that believers are to use their “judgment” to prevent the corruption of Christian community. Jesus tells Christians to confront other Christians who have done them wrong until they repent to ensure genuine change of behavior and relationship reconciliation. Jesus instructs that if they are repeatedly unwilling to repent and change we should, as Christians, follow through with the negative consequence of expelling them from communion with us:

““If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. 16 But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.” Matt 18:15-17

Jesus' teaching here has application to personal relationships, including marriages, as well as relationships on a community level.

Paul reiterates this instruction in 1 Corinthians 2, just before reprimanding the Corinthian Christians for not using their knowledge of God’s scriptural standards to judge Christians in their own church:

The person with the Spirit makes judgments about all things, but such a person is not subject to merely human judgments, for, “Who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ.”
-1 Corinthians 2:15

Paul is explaining here how to use one’s judgment- that there is a difference between judging by one’s own personal opinions vs. judging believers by God’s standards (the Commandments, the Law), which Paul refers to here as “the mind of Christ”.

Then, in 1 Corinthians 5, Paul talks about how he “passed judgment” on Christians in their church for their exploitative behaviors and encourages the Corinthian Christians to do the same. Paul instructs the believers in Corinth to expel from their fellowship any Christian who is practicing abusive behaviors towards other people- from sexual exploitation to other types of exploitation, which constitutes breaking the Law and the Commandments as Jesus summed them up, (Matthew 22:37-40). Many pastors present this passage as being solely about sexual immorality, however Paul is talking about all forms of greed, including financial exploitation of others, character assassination or slander of others, and those committing idolatry

Paul cites the command from Deuteronomy “expel the wicked person from among you”, indicating that the use of negative consequences to discourage unrepentant un-Godly behavior among believers is not a directive limited to the “Old Testament” but continues to be operative in the “New Testament” church.

Paul explains that holding these Christians accountable for their actions is vital for preventing the corruption of behavior and attitudes in the Christian community so that “sincerity and truth” may be maintained in all the community’s relationships.

Notice how Paul clarifies that Christians are not the judge those outside of the Church, but that they are to judge those within the Church. The implication is that it is only by holding our fellow Christians accountable for un-Godly behavior that we can prevent the corruption and deterioration of true Christian values in the community:

“As one who is present with you in this way, I have already passed judgment in the name of our Lord Jesus on the one who has been doing this…
“Your boasting is not good. Don’t you know that a little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough? Get rid of the old yeast, so that you may be a new unleavened batch—as you really are. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed.  Therefore let us keep the Festival, not with the old bread leavened with malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. “I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people—not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people. “What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside. “Expel the wicked person from among you.””  -1 Corinthians 5:3-13

The Consistency of Scripture

Paul’s teaching, as well as Jesus’ teaching, is consistent with what the books of the “Old Testament” teach about how to love other believers:

Leviticus 19:17 “Do not hate a fellow Israelite in your heart. Rebuke your neighbor frankly so you will not share in their guilt.”

Leviticus 19:15 “Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly.”

Exodus 23:2 “Do not follow the crowd in doing wrong. When you give testimony in a lawsuit, do not pervert justice by siding with the crowd, “

Proverbs 27:5 “An open rebuke is better than hidden love!
Wounds from a sincere friend are better than many kisses from an enemy.”

Proverbs 28:23 “Whoever rebukes a person will in the end gain favor rather than one who has a flattering tongue.”

Proverbs 26:28 “A lying tongue hates its victims, and a flattering mouth works ruin.

Jeremiah 21:12 “This is what the Lord says to you, house of David: “‘Administer justice every morning; rescue from the hand of the oppressor the one who has been robbed, or my wrath will break out and burn like fire because of the evil you have done— burn with no one to quench it.”

Ezekiel 33:7-9 “ Son of man, I have made you a watchman for the people of Israel; so hear the word I speak and give them warning from me. When I say to the wicked, ‘You wicked person, you will surely die,’ and you do not speak out to dissuade them from their ways, that wicked person will die for[a] their sin, and I will hold you accountable for their blood. But if you do warn the wicked person to turn from their ways and they do not do so, they will die for their sin, though you yourself will be saved.”

Protection and Preserving the Good 

Scripture seems to repeatedly demonstrate that the proper way to use judgment and correction of others is for the purposes of rescuing the innocent, preventing further destruction, and helping others to redeem what is being lost. Confronting other believers in response to overt abuse and neglect of God’s commands is a vital part of loving the Christian community. Though it may feel uncomfortable to question and challenge those who lead our communities of faith, our ultimate allegiance should be towards God, not people or groups of people, as the First Commandment states.

If we want communities with leadership that reflects the beautiful and just standards of God as demonstrated in Scripture, we must hold each other and our leadership accountable- in love and in honesty- not compromising on either of those goals.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Where is the Love for Women? Language and Intention

“Out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks…” Luke 6:45

Nothing breaks my heart more than how the Western Christian Church mistreats women. One of the most pervasive types of mistreatment of women by church leaders takes the form of diminishing women’s self esteem, and men’s esteem for women, through using exclusively male language to refer to God and humanity in worship and sermons.

Much of Christian leaders' use of male-centered language stems from social habit. Lacking any clear conviction that gender-inclusive pronouns and terms make much of a difference for others, it is easy to revert to. Much of it also is the result of lack of thorough knowledge of the Bible, which contains substantial evidence that gender-inclusive language for God and God’s servants was God’s intention from the beginning, as this and other blogs demonstrate.

However, not many Christians discuss this issue from the perspective of how our gender-language affects the welfare of believers, the “sheep” Jesus worked so hard to rescue and heal. According to Judaic law, sin is defined simply as causing harm to one’s neighbor (Romans  13:10), and both God and Jesus make clear that we are to cause no harm to one another, whether by commission or omission (Leviticus 19:18, Matthew 18:6,) . So our decisions regarding the language we use for our God, other individuals, and groups of people should be measured by that standard.

 “Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.” - Romans 13:10

God-Language and the Effects on Self Esteem

One of the ordained ministers who has attempted to research the effects of people’s God-language on their personality traits and self-image is Jann Aldredge-Clanton. In 1983 she conducted a two-part study, sampling women and men from six Christian denominations to survey their gender-concept of God and to determine their personality traits by having them complete the “Adjective Checklist”, by Harrison G. Gough.1 She published the results in her book In Whose Image: God and Gender.

Her study resulted in statistical evidence that women who conceive of God as exclusively masculine were more prone to express feelings of inferiority, self-criticism, guilt, and social impotence than women who conceived of God as both female and male in nature. Women with an exclusively masculine concept of God also were more likely to seek and maintain subordinate roles in relationships, accept dominating behavior, accept blame in interpersonal situations, give up in the midst of adversity, and delay or avoid action than women with an androgynous concept of God.2

However, women who conceived of God as both female and male showed statistically significant increases in self confidence, achievement, ambition, assertiveness, enterprising behavior, independence, imagination and determination than women conceiving of God as exclusively male. The affirmation women experience from a female-inclusive concept of God, developed from female-inclusive God-language, seems to benefit women profoundly on a psychological, emotional, and social level.3

One might be concerned that it would affect men negatively to lose their comfort zone of hearing exclusively male references to God and to make room for feminine images of God in their worship language. Conversely, Aldredge-Clanton’s study indicated that when men’s God-concept deviates from the exclusively male one to include both female and male imagery their self esteem does not suffer and their personality traits do not develop the negative characteristics of abasement and deferment that women with an exclusively male image of God suffer from. In fact, their personality traits seem to benefit from an androgynous image of God, scoring higher in qualities like confidence for risking change, perceptiveness, imagination, versatility, independence, autonomy, and spontaneity compared with men whose image of God is exclusively male.4

In other words, exclusively male God imagery is correlated with the development of low self esteem, lack of assertiveness, lack of independence, under-confidence, passivity and self blame in women. These are the very traits that are cited by domestic-abuse prevention research literature as predisposing women to physically abusive relationships and encounters. 5  However, by comparison, men have nothing to lose by including the feminine in their image of God, since they continue to also associate their own gender with God when they see God as androgynous. In fact, not including femininity in their concept of God may even be somewhat detrimental to men, since men with an exclusively male image of God demonstrate a proclivity towards equating themselves and other men with God to the exclusion of women, reinforcing personality traits of pride and control.6

Low Self Esteem as a Precursor to Relationships with Abusive Partners

Jann Aldredge-Clanton’s study is not the only one to find a correlation between low-self esteem in women and an exclusively male God image. In Women and Self Esteem, Sandford and Donovan cite exclusively-male God imagery in patriarchal religions as a major contributor to the low self-esteem  and lack of self-affirmation of women in our culture.7

In addition, exclusion of women from group and religious language, as well as the group behaviors towards women that this language encourages, resemble behaviors that are recognized by social science professionals as psychological and emotional abuse. Professional domestic-violence research literature cites the following behaviors as psychological and emotional abuse: “subtle conveyances of the lack of importance of the victim”, ignoring the victim when she tries to talk to him, “forbidding her to make decisions or offer an opinion”, “emotional deprivation”, “social isolation”, “intimidation”, “use of male privilege”, and “infantilization” (treating or speaking about someone as if they are a child). These behaviors are cited as ones that prime individuals for physically abusive relationships by contributing to a larger cycle of social abuse. 8

Quite simply, church language that ignores biblical female imagery for God by referring to God with the generic pronoun “he” is not only scholarly inaccurate- it also harms women in multiple ways and potentially even harms men. Similarly, language that ignores women by using the generic terms “men” , “he” or “brothers” to refer to humanity and believers harms women by withholding minimal affirmation of their existence and spiritual contributions to the community, giving the impression that they deserve to be ignored and taken for granted. This language also harms men by indicating that they can afford to ignore women’s existence and participation in the group and that no negative spiritual or social consequences will result from excluding women from their consideration in social and spiritual decisions.

Our generic male wording for humanity and God sends a message, subliminally as well as slightly consciously, that women are devalued compared to men by those who claim to speak for God. As women tolerate this mistreatment for the sake of preserving social unity- in their marriage, in the church- they internalize these messages and it affects their sense of social inclusion, right to self-expression, and social confidence poorly. It not only damages their sense of affirmation and acceptance in their own relationship with God, but their sense of support from God and others in protecting themselves from controlling and abusive people.

Creating Unity Between Women and Men in Christian Community

Some Christians might fear that affirming and empowering women would somehow create division between men and women and lead to increased divorce. On the contrary, when women depend on men for their identities and survival for lack of self confidence and self esteem they often blame those men for their lack of fulfillment, which leads in turn to alienation and divorce.9 Corporate and spiritual language that devalues women encourages men, subliminally and consciously, to ignore and devalue women’s self-expression and contributions to their social and spiritual lives; how can that possibly result in authentic unity and intimacy between men and women in Christian communities?

So, if changing our Church-language to include women in our references to humanity and to God’s nature increases women’s self-esteem so that it more closely resembles the healthy levels of self-affirmation among male congregants, so be it! If recognizing women in Biblical history and in God’s maternity protects women psychologically and emotionally against dominating and potentially abusive partners, and encourages Christian men to do the same, so be it!

If the people of the Christian Church claim to have God’s and Jesus’ love for women in their hearts, let them demonstrate such concern for women’s safety, welfare, and social inclusion by actively changing their words and jargon to reflect that women are as important to them as men are. If not, they aren’t representing the God of the Bible.


1. “The Adjective Check List” is a standard tool in psychological practice for assessing participants’ psychological traits. See Aldredge-Clanton, 2001, P. 137.

2. Aldredge-Clanton, 2001, P. 86-87.

3. Aldredge-Clanton, 2001, P. 82-83, 102.

4. Aldredge-Clanton, 2001, P. 98.

5. Packota,2000, P.18; Chang, 1996.

6. Aldredge-Clanton, 2001, P. 92-93.

7. Tschirhart Sanford, L. and M.E. Donovan. 1985. Women and Self-esteem: Understanding and Improving the Way We Think and Feel About Ourselves. N.Y.: Penguin Books, Pp.3, 165.

8. Packota,2000,P.4.

9. Aldredge-Clanton, 2001, P. 114


Aldredge-Clanton, In Whose Image? God and Gender (New York: Crossroad, 2001)

Chang, V.N. (1996). I just lost myself: Psychological abuse of women in marriage. Westport, CT:Praeger.

Follingstad, D.R., L.L. Rutledge, B.J. Berg, E.S. Hause, and D.S. Polek 1990 The role of emotional abuse in physically abusive relationships. Journal of Family Violence 5(2):107-120.

Tschirhart Sanford, L. and M.E. Donovan. 1985. Women and Self-esteem: Understanding and Improving the Way We Think and Feel About Ourselves. N.Y.: Penguin Books

Packota, V.J. (2000), Emotional Abuse of Women by Their Intimate Partners: A Literature Review, Education Wife Assault, Toronto.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

How Christian Cliques Can Lead People Astray

Galatians 2:9, 11-14James, Peter and John, those esteemed as pillars, gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship when they recognized the grace given to me. They agreed that we should go to the Gentiles, and they to the circumcised….When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned.  For before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to pull away and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group.  The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray. 

   "When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter in front of them all, “You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?"

I love this chapter in Galatians, although it also saddens and disturbs me. In Galatians 2, Paul is laying out a timeline of his spiritual conversion and his work as a Christian apostle, which provides helpful insight into his transformation process from leading persecutor of believers to the leader of the early Gentile Christian Church. Without Paul going out on a limb for Gentiles who wanted to follow the Jewish Messiah, many of us would not be believers today.

However, this passage shows the kind of peer pressure he had to withstand from within “the Church” to plant churches among Gentile communities. He already had the blessing of church leaders to disciple Gentiles into the faith because they saw the supernatural miracles accompanying his ministry to Gentile Christians, indicating the approval of God’s Spirit; but when highly visible figures in the Early Church (“certain men came from James”, “the circumcision group”) formed a clique that judged Gentile believers as unequal to Jewish believers, the Apostle Peter and even Barnabas were so intimidated that they “pulled away” from associating with Gentile believers. These famous Christian leaders of the Early Church withdrew from Gentile believers and stood by, passively, while Gentiles were ostracized by the rest of “the Church” at that time.

This demonstrates how even famous spiritual leaders with an impressive track record of ministry are vulnerable to being led astray by a religious clique.

It reminds me of what is happening now in the Christian community towards women believers. Despite the appearance of “Peace, peace” in our modern day Christian congregations, female believers are pulled away from in two ways: male believers keep women separate from men in service by not choosing women preachers for pastoral positions along with men in equal numbers; and male believers keep women separate from men by not attending to their needs.

If it were just an issue of doctrine regarding women’s leadership of men that motivated these believers to pull away from female preachers, it might severely limit women’s options for ministry- but it wouldn't stop male believers from at least ministering to women to attend to their needs thoroughly and well by creating domestic violence prevention ministries and using gender-inclusive speech and thinking in Sunday sermons. The fact that most Christian congregations practice neither the former nor the latter indicates the same kind of “pulling away” from association with certain types of believers that the apostle Paul witnessed from “the circumcision group”.

Paul called the behavior of his Christian peers in this situation “hypocritical” for a reason.

When high-profile Christians “pull away” from female believers out of fear of controversy, or rather condemnation, from their male peers, they give other Christian disciples the impression that their lack of interest in women’s inclusion is inspired by God, when it is really only inspired by the social dynamics of a religious clique. This results in a “community norm” of talking and behaving as if the women in the community are invisible and irrelevant to the group.

Are women believers treated with as much inclusion and consideration as male believers in your congregation? Are examples of Biblical matriarchs and heroic women who served God in the Bible being cited regularly in sermons as examples for us to follow? Is Women’s History Month celebrated in your church right after Black History Month, and with the same amount of effort to educate and edify believers? Is domestic violence prevention addressed by the pastoral staff in ministry and sermons to the same degree as topics such as forgiving a spouse for an act of betrayal? Are couples taught mutual submission (Ephesians 5:21, 1 Corinthians 7:4)? Are words like “men”, “brothers”, and “mankind” being carelessly used over the pulpit to refer to people groups that contain women?

Can you imagine if Paul had also responded to peer pressure from his male colleagues by pulling away from Gentile Christians? He would not have planted all those churches in Gentile communities, and as a result there would likely be far fewer non-Jewish believers in the Christian community. Christian beliefs and practices like circumcision would be restricted to Jewish synagogues. And Gentile men would have to be circumcised as adults in order to join “the Church”.

The benefits of Paul’s zeal for equality of believers between Greek and Jew are obvious to us now, but at the time he only had faith and the knowledge of the Scriptures to stand on while out on his “limb” for Gentile believers. Let’s follow his example and speak out on behalf of equal treatment for female believers in our modern day Church.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

If God is Not Exclusively Male, Then Why is Jesus Male?

How did we get to this place in the church where we speak about God as if God is male only? This unexamined cultural habit has led to many functional problems in the church, from women being excluded from community leadership positions in pastoral teaching teams and church boards, to male church members feeling entitled to batter and dominate their wives. The bottom line is that the assumption that God is male seems to lead to the misunderstanding among Christians that the inverse idea- “male is God”- is a Biblical truth1. However, upon closer examination of the Bible it becomes clear that the Bible supports no such idea. In fact, the Bible uses names, grammar, and analogies to describe God which include femininity and female imagery in God’s identity.

One point of confusion that comes up for people, however, is the gender of Jesus. Between so many people in the church using the word “he” repeatedly to refer to God, and the fact that Jesus- the “chief cornerstone” of our spiritual structure of relationships with God and each other- is also male in gender, some misconstrue passages like John 14: 9 as evidence that God has a gender, and that it is male:

 “Jesus answered: “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you I do not speak on my own authority. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing the works of God.”

This is an example of how careful examination of scripture in context is necessary to prevent false assumptions from misinforming our doctrine. When examined in context, it is evident that when Jesus says “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father” he is not referring to his physical appearance, or gender, but to his character- the nature of his work.  This is evident for two reasons. Firstly, because the apostles didn’t interpret Jesus’ words to mean that he physically represented God, as evidenced by 1 John 4:12:

“No man has ever seen God”

And secondly, because whenever Jesus discussed his relationship with God, or the Pharisees’ lack of relationship with God, Jesus always defined these relationships by the nature of one’s actions, not one’s appearance or physical traits:

Matt. 7:16-20  “Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.” 

John 5:19  “Jesus gave them this answer: “Very truly I tell you, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does.”

John 8:28  "Jesus said, "When you have lifted up the Chosen One, then you will know that I AM and that I do nothing on my own but speak just what the Father has taught me.”

John 8:38  “I am telling you what I have seen in the Father’s presence, and you are doing what you have heard from your father.”

John 14:31 “but She comes so that the world may learn that I love the Father and do exactly what my Father has commanded me.”

In addition, the term “Father” which Jesus used to refer to God, was a cultural analogy that served the function of indicating that God played a paternal role in Jesus’ life as the source of his inheritance and professional trade 2. However, Jesus’ reference to God by this analogy does not seem to mean that Jesus thought of God only as male or paternal. For example, Jesus consistently referred to the Spirit of God with feminine nouns in Aramaic 3. He also used female metaphors to portray God and God’s Spirit4.

So, Jesus’ gender was not a reflection of God’s gender any more than Jesus’ material poverty was a reflection of God’s poverty, or Jesus’ other physical features were an indication of God’s preferred physical features.

This is not to say that Jesus’ male gender didn’t have spiritual significance; actually, it did! It was necessary as a sign, among other outward signs, for the Jewish people to understand Jesus’ role in their already-existing system of worship.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

A God Who Transcends Male Imagery

One of the deepest and most vulnerable questions a person can ask themselves is “How do I know who God is?” Asking this question is really about trying to understand who one is interacting with –what attitude one can expect to find when communicating with them in different situations, and what their response is likely to be. It is the basis for developing trust in a relationship. And so, the names used to refer to God by a community of faith play an important role in developing this image by steering our expectations, hopefully facilitating trust rather than unnecessarily obstructing it.

The rather unique thing about the God of the Bible is that this God is greater than any single living thing or person that ever let us down, yet at the same time demonstrates an intimate knowledge of and personal interest in us. God is at once unseen (1 John 4:12), with a Spirit unable to be accessed through or controlled by any one physical form; yet God’s Spirit is distinctive and knowable, communicating the same values and priorities consistently across cultures and time. These features make God particularly trustworthy: God is not limited by the same social dynamics we are; and so God “shows no partiality and accepts no bribes”. God’s transcendence is what makes God uniquely worthy of our devotion, and what keeps people more dependent on God than on people so that they, too, can be free from partiality or favoritism in their own social interactions.

However, anyone who seriously studies Biblical texts for an understanding of God is bound to notice some discrepancies between how the Bible portrays God and how many Christians talk about God. For example, most Christians know that it’s unbiblical to depict God as exclusively male:

You saw no form of any kind the day the Lord spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire. Therefore watch yourselves very carefully, so that you do not become corrupt and make for yourselves an idol, an image of any shape, whether formed like a man or a woman, or like any animal on earth or any bird that flies in the air..”, Deut. 4:15-17

According to the Mosaic Law of the Old Covenant, imaging God exclusively as a man or any other physical form, visually or verbally, would amount to idolatry. It would reduce people’s image of God to a literal form, encouraging them to inappropriately depend on such finite beings for safety and provision instead of depending on “the Almighty”.

And yet the concept that God transcends masculinity is often not evident from the language for God used by most Christian teachers, obscuring this aspect of their theology. Many English translations of the Bible further confuse things by taking the liberty of masculinizing certain terms used to refer to God and believers, even when those terms are gender neutral or feminine in the original texts. Yet, the Bible in its entirety is actually much more versatile linguistically when naming God or relaying analogies for conceiving of God than what we hear over the pulpit today.

If we do not examine the Scriptural source of our beliefs about God closely, discrepancies are prone to develop between our theology and our language for God that can unnecessarily obstruct both our own and other people’s faith. These verbal discrepancies can cause new believers, and unbelievers, much confusion about what the Bible actually says about God, as well as lead us to eventually become vulnerable to counterfeit theology and inaccurate teachings:

Therefore we must pay the closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it.” Hebrews 2:1

Some may ask, “If God is not exclusively male, then why does the Bible depict God with masculine terminology?”

Actually, there is so much maternal and feminine imagery for God used in even the most male-centered translations of the Bible that the question should really be, “If even God uses feminine imagery and gender inclusive terms to describe God’s own identity, why do so many male translators and Christian pastors go to such great lengths to avoid using it?”

There are a small collection of names that the prophets of the Bible used to identify God with. Some are gender inclusive, such as “Elohim”, as well as the name God initially used with Moses- “Yahweh”, or “I am Who I am”. Other names for God in the Bible are distinctively male or distinctively female in either grammar or analogy. Though multiple names and analogies were used to portray God in the Bible, God made clear that God’s identity was singular and unique; in other words, God was not part of a pantheon ( Deut. 6:4). Therefore, many names used to refer to God are analogies or indicators of God’s multiple roles in our lives.

Similarly, the prophets in the Bible refer to God with human analogies, many being male, but also a good portion of analogies for God being female. In other words, though God has one consistent identity throughout the books and personal testimonies that make up the Bible, God is identified as the one true God by features of character, not features of gender.

Let us follow the example of the original seekers of Yahweh who did not presume to make God into their own image, or the image that their culture of origin preferred to worship, but who acknowledged the complexity of God’s identity with names and analogies inclusive of both genders. It is only by verbally acknowledging God’s transcendence of all things human that we acknowledge, to ourselves and to others, who God actually is.