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Should Christians Use Feminine Inclusive Pronouns?

October 23rd, 2007 | 3 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

*Note: I thought I would rest for a few hours from Huck-a-Mania and post this, which I typed up in response to a dialog at my alma mater. These are fairly tendentious thoughts that I have been trying to articulate for some time. I would appreciate any feedback you have.*

I don't pretend to understand the dynamics of graduate school, nor of publishing, where the feminine pronoun has reached the mainstream. I don't fully grasp the pastoral issues involved, though I have no doubt they are complex. I am still working on seeing how Scripture, theology, history, sociology and psychology all interact on this issue. And I thought I would work it through here.

The central question seems to be whether we should adopt two grammars, and what those grammars should look like. On the one hand, we have the grammar for God, wherein we use masculine names and personal pronouns, while simultaneously acknowleding his purportedly "feminine" attributes. Here, it seems, the masculine name of Father includes within it elements that are not currently a part of our social framework for "masculine."

On the other hand, we have what we might call our "anthropological grammar," which divides masculine and feminine asunder and which purports to be "inclusive" only when we use the feminine pronoun as frequently as the masculine.

The difficulty is that we must keep the grammars separate--divine speech is, as best I can tell, not the same as human speech. But we must also keep the grammars united--divine speech is uttered in human speech, lest the Word be unheard.

What, then, is the relationship between the two? The meeting point is obviously the person of Jesus Christ and the testimony of him in Scripture. And there we see God come as a person, and as a male. But is the latter point not instructive not only for our understanding of God, but for our understanding of humanity? Is it simply a historical accident that God came as a man--that is, a male--to redeem the world?

The question of masculinity and femininity, then, is a question of revelation--it is the domain of theology and theological anthropology, which I would argue are inextricable after the Incarnation (with the former governing the latter). It can not be given to the contingencies of history or sociology.

But this is why I am reticent to give up on the masculine pronouns. If the incarnation of Jesus Christ as a male is simply a contingency of history, then it seems we can must understand his humanity through the lens of psychology, sociology, or anthropology.

The revelation of Jesus Christ as a male seems to have been necessitated by the patriarchal structures of his day--would he have been able to have the authority in his own culture had he been a woman? Would he have been recognized as a Messiah had he not come as a male? Presumably not. He would be recognizeable to his own only if he came as a male.

But then his incarnation as a male is tied to his revelation of humanity. His revelation must fit within the patriarchy of his time to be intelligible to his people; his revelation critiques his culture's patriarchal structures without destroying them, just as he critiqued its religion without dissolving it. If God we dismiss his male-ness as accidental to his culture, we miss the very redemption--which demands both judgment and forgiveness--of the patriarchal nature of that culture. And in doing so, we subordinate the revelation of God to man, of God in man, to the contingencies of history.

Here, then, is justification for using the masculine pronoun to refer to all of humanity. The God-Man is male, and must come as a male. It is a fact upon which the intelligibility of the entire Scriptures depends. It is a theological fact that must inform our anthropology, and which must correct our sociology and psychology.

And lest we refuse to acknowledge the incarnational nature of our speech, it must also inform our grammar. The body of Christ carries theological significance: the body of our speech must do the same. The inclusive masculine pronoun is inevitably painful, for it is inevitably a critique of the world. But to dispense with it is to shift our understanding of humanity away from that which is given to us in Scripture, and toward that which exists in the sin and pain of a fallen world.

***Title updated for clarity's sake.  Obviously, Christians should use feminine pronouns to refer to women.  But should they use them when the gender of their subject is unknown?  That is the question.

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.