Is God Masculine?

by William Mouser

Foreward

This white paper defends and elaborates the Bible’s presentation of God as masculine. Gender (as that modern idea is conceived today) springs from the very deepest metaphysical roots one can imagine—the interaction between the Creator and the Creation. While a full exposition of this idea would require a book-length treatment, we here invite you to consider this overview of what God has told us about Himself, and about ourselves as creatures He created to be male and female.

Is God He?

Betty Friedan, author of The Feminine Mystique, predicted in 1972 that the great debate of the 1970s would be “Is God He?” The Seventies were barely half-finished before Krister Stendal, Dean of the Harvard Divinity School, weighed in with a verdict:

The masculinity of God and of God-language is a cultural and linguistic accident, and … the masculinity of the Christ is of the same order. To be sure, Jesus Christ was a male, but that may be no more significant to His being than the fact that presumably His eyes were brown.[1]

A decade after Friedan’s prophetic suggestion, a New York church erected a crucifix with a female Christ—including breasts, hips, and vagina.[2]  But the debate about God’s gender was much slower to ignite in most churches. In the early 1990s, Dr. Dan B. Allender wrote,

I don’t know how many people I’ve talked to who actually think God is male! This is a preposterous idea. God is not a sexual being, but chooses to communicate images that are familiar to us. The father image comes readily to mind, but too many Christians ignore the mother image. God is our loving Mother (Psalm 131, Is. 66:13).[3]

About 40 years after Friedan predicts the great debate about God’s gender, vast numbers of Christians still think God is masculine. Why?

Why did it take a couple of thousand years for those claiming to be Christians to challenge the Bible’s masculine portrait of God? Is God’s femininity so obscure that it has taken two millennia anyone to notice it?

Christianity begins with the Bible, so answers to these questions begin there too. Christians continue to think of God in masculine terms because the Bible presents us a masculine God. Whether or not this fact sheds any light on the current debate among Christians about God’s gender depends on how those Christians evaluate the Bible itself.

God is He

Pronouns agree in gender with their antecedents. In the Bible—a collection of writings spanning over 2,000 years and composed by dozens of authors—the pronoun for God is invariably He.

Language purists insist that gender is a grammatical concept that has no connection to sex. For example, the word sun in German is feminine (die Sonne) while in French it is masculine (le Soleil). The ambiguous relationship between grammatical and sexual gender appears more strongly in two German words for a young woman—das Mädel and das Mädchen—both of them grammatically neuter. The English word child, like its German equivalent—das Kind—takes the word it as a pronoun (E.g. “If you always give a child what it wants, you will spoil it.”)

Nevertheless, when we speak of persons by their proper names, or when a grammatically neuter term is applied to someone known to be male or female, the grammatical gender of subsequent pronouns matches the sexual gender of the person referred to.

Many claim that God transcends sexuality or, alternately, that God incorporates both masculinity and femininity within the Godhead. Such an idea, however, is alien to the Bible’s way of speaking about God.

From Genesis to Revelation, God is He. Nowhere is God she. For some, this observation alone will not force a conclusion that God is masculine. But, it makes untenable any thought that the Bible presents us with a feminine or an androgynous deity.

He is Masculine

God’s “genderedness” in the Bible, however, does not spring from colorless pronouns alone. The Bible overwhelms us with masculine models and images, offices and roles, most of them drawn from the family, government, and the military.

God is the Father, God is the Son. Christ is the First Born among many brethren. God is the Goel, the kinsman-redeemer whose duty was to avenge any wrong done to His next of kin, to buy back what His poor brother had lost, and to marry His dead brother’s widow and raise up heirs for His deceased brother. What Boaz did for Ruth, God does for Israel and through Israel for all mankind. God is the Husband of Israel. Christ is the Bridegroom, betrothed to His bride, the Church.

Outside family relationships, God assumes other offices and roles which are invariably masculine—God is a warrior, the Lord of Armies (Ps. 24:7ff), who teaches King David’s hands to war (Ps. 144:1). Christ is a King, the King of all Kings (Rev. 19:6). God is a Judge—an enforcer of righteousness and a punisher of the wicked in society (Gen. 18:25, etc.).[4] Christ is a priest, our Great High Priest.

An exhaustive list of masculine references to God would number in the scores of hundreds. One can hardly turn a page of the Old or New Testaments without finding dozens of masculine references to God. The Psalms are littered with them. Jesus’ teaching about God majors (almost exclusively) on God the Father. Against this diverse spectrum of masculine roles, offices, and images, is it any wonder that Christians read their Bibles and find there a thoroughly masculine Deity?

He is Not Feminine

Is God ever compared to a woman? If so, does this warrant our seeing God as feminine? Dr. Allender’s comment in Bold Love leaves us the impression that the Bible routinely offers us feminine images, metaphors, and models for God: “The father image comes readily to mind but too many Christians ignore the mother image. God is our loving Mother.”[5]

Is Father-God common in our faith because “too many Christians” ignore what the Bible is saying? Or could it be that the Bible says little, perhaps nothing, about God being feminine?

Virginia Ramey Mollenkott wrote The Divine Feminine in an effort to demonstrate that the Bible contains feminine images of deity as compelling as masculine ones.[6] Her work was a reprise of many such arguments by many religious feminists before her, and they have been repeated by many later religious feminists, all of them insisting that we must read the Bible in ways that involve the reader in astounding non sequiturs and logical leaps into the void.[7] But, when the rhetorically outlandish portions of her work are dismissed, Mollenkott points to a handful of passages from the Old and New Testaments which contain a comparison between God and some entity that is sexually feminine. What conclusion can we draw from such passages?

First, we should ask “What is the point of such a comparison?” For a moment’s examination of any of these comparisons discloses that the point of these comparisons is wholly irrelevant to the questions of God’s gender. See the white paper in this collection entitled Searching for the Goddess for detailed examination of the few passages where God is compared to something (human or animal) that is female.[8]

Second, there remains a massive problem of proportion for anyone who urges that a feminine God is revealed by the handful of passages Mollenkott and others deduce to support such an idea. If every passage they cited were actually relevant to the notion of God’s intrinsic femininity, how do we explain the scarcity (fewer than a dozen) of such statements in the Bible in comparison to the hundreds and hundreds of masculine references to God? Why can no one adduce a single place where God is referred to with the word she? How do we explain that the community of faith has never—until the rise of the late Twentieth Century feminism—questioned that God is masculine?

Dr. Allender is wrong. God is not our Mother. A local congregation of Christians can be our mother (2 John 1:1). The New Jerusalem is our mother (Gal. 4:26). David likens his own mother’s womb to the earth (Ps. 139:15), giving an oblique endorsement to the almost universal conception of the earth as our mother. Indeed, Paul claims that the entire creation is a mother in labor (Rom. 8:32)! A cosmic, archetypal figure such as Lady Wisdom appeals to us personified as a mother (Prov. 8:32). But, God is eternally the Father. Over against the creation, or mankind, or the community of faith—all of them compared frequently in the Bible to feminine entities—the God of the both Old and New Testaments is vigorously and transparently masculine.

He is Male

Male signifies biological sex. Maleness arises from concrete, tangible, biological and physiological characteristics. Males inseminate. However, maleness is not merely a matter of genital design; an animal’s sexual maleness arises from a host of hormonal, physiological, and chromosomal characteristics.

Masculinity, on the other hand, is a concept which encompasses not only males but other things which are not biologically male, including females. A biologically female human can be masculine in her behavior, even as a biologically male human can be feminine. Masculinity and femininity, as we commonly apply the terms, are social, psychological, or spiritual concepts. They are sometimes applied to impersonal objects which are construed, for whatever reasons, to be masculine or feminine. In contemporary English, for example, femininity is commonly applied to ships, the earth, and the moon.

Different cultures at different times have imputed sexual (not merely grammatical) gender to inanimate things in various ways. This does not, however, obscure a fundamental conviction of all human societies—male humans ought to be masculine and female humans ought to be feminine—no matter what the cultural particulars. Social roles, manners, customs, and fashions of dress ordinarily function to highlight and augment and to exaggerate this differences between the biological sexes.

What, then, about Jesus? First of all, He is male. Luke the Physician preserves not only the angel’s prediction that Mary would conceive a male in her womb (Luke 1:31ff), he records the datum that Jesus was circumcised on the eighth day after His birth (Luke 2:21).

Second, Jesus’ roles, manners, and customs are all conventionally and unambiguously masculine. We know next to nothing about Jesus’ dress or grooming; but, they too must have been ordinarily masculine, unlike the feminized portrait of Him gracing so many Sunday School rooms today. Had they been otherwise, the Scribes and Pharisees—eager to spotlight the slightest unseemliness in His life—would surely have noted any hint of sexual ambiguity in Jesus. They slander Him as a bastard (John 8:19, 41), as a half-breed and demon-possessed (John 8:48, 52), as a law-breaker (Luke 6:2), as a glutton, drunkard, and carouser (Matt. 11:19), and as a blasphemer (Mark 7:2). Never do we read that Jesus’ enemies accused Him of effeminacy. In view of their eagerness to lodge any complaint against Jesus which would stick, their silence on Jesus’ “femininity” is significant.

Consequently, maleness and masculinity—a creaturely complex of biological, social, psychological, and spiritual characteristics—were united with the masculine God in the person of Jesus the Messiah.

He is Not Female

Stendal’s notion that the Messiah’s maleness is accidental suggests that the Messiah might just as well have been a woman. With centuries-old prophecies of a male Messiah in place, the Messiah could not have been female. Moreover, Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances demonstrate that His maleness abides in His resurrection humanity (cf. Luke 24:13ff, Acts 22:7-10; Rev. 1:12ff) as does the maleness of other humans whom Jesus has redeemed (Rev. 14:1-5).

The orthodox doctrine of the Trinity makes clear that the First Person is masculine (the Father), the Second Person is masculine (the Son), and the Third Person is masculine as well. “He will guide you into all truth,” Jesus tells His disciples in John 16:13. Jesus bends Greek grammar by using the masculine pronoun He to refer to the Holy Spirit, which in Greek is grammatically neuter.

In addition to this biblical data, the New Testament’s Christology renders a feminine Messiah impossible. The Messiah—in both the Old Testament prophecies and the New Testament fulfillments of them—integrates in Himself a number of “polarities.” Christ is, for example, both Priest and Offering. He is both King and Servant. He is at once both the Judge and the One judged for the sin of the world. He is both Master and Servant of all. He is both the Prophet and the Word. He is both Shepherd and the Lamb of God. He is both divine and human.

Over against these polarities which are all united in Christ is the thundering silence in the New Testament concerning Christ’s integration of masculinity and femininity. Christ is a brother but never a sister, a bridegroom but never a bride, a king but never a queen.

Galatians 3:28 is irrelevant for the simple reason that Paul says nothing there about Christ integrating any of the polarities mentioned in that passage. Rather, Paul claims that neither ethnicity (“neither Jew nor Greek”), civic status (“neither bond nor free”), nor sex (“neither male nor female”) have any consequence for one’s entitlement to the promise God made to Abraham. Included within the body of Christ, therefore, are both Jews and Greeks, slaves and free citizens, males and females! Yet, Christ was not only male Himself, He takes a masculine role—the Bridegroom—toward the Church, who is consistently construed as feminine, viz. as His Bride.

The polarity of gender does not vanish in the person of Christ. Instead, it is amplified and magnified throughout salvation history until it is finally enshrined at the end of all history in the Marriage Supper of the Lamb (Rev. 21:2, 9-10, 22:17). When God first created male and female, His pattern was something at the end of all things—Christ and the Church (Eph. 5:31-32).

But, what about …?

The objections lodged against God’s masculinity fall into the following three categories:

1. Divine Androgyny: Some claim that God is not only masculine, He is also feminine. They posit a divine androgyny. Since there are no express statements in the Bible to support such an idea, people like Mollenkott appeal to passages which supposedly compare God to some feminine entity. These passages, they claim, reveal to us that God is feminine as well as masculine.

2. Patriarchal Bias: Others acknowledge that the Bible presents God as a powerfully masculine personality. But, they also point out that the Prophets and Apostles spoke to a culture which was profoundly patriarchal. So, the Bible presents God in masculine terms in order to accomodate the patriarchal bias in the biblical audience. Today, they claim, we are free to worship God as a personality who transcends our feeble notions of gender.

3. Spirits have no gender: Others emphasize that God is a spirit, and spirits are “beyond gender.” Gender, they claim, is a feature of mere animal existence. A variation of this idea is that gender distinctions or roles are a transient cultural phenomenon. God, on the other hand, is beyond all that, above all that. If we insist that God is masculine, they claim, we are acting like idolators—forcing God to conform to our own image, putting Him in a box.

Many similar criticisms dispute the idea that God is masculine, but all are variations or combinations of the three criticisms just described. What are the answers to these criticisms?

An Androgynous God?

Two things answer this criticism. First, the passages where God is compared to a woman number less than a dozen (depending how you count them). If we grant that each passage actually supports the idea that God is feminine, we must still account for the hundreds of passages in both Old and New Testaments which present God as masculine! If we include every passage where the pronoun He refers to God, we have many thousands of references to God’s masculinity, over against six to eight alleged references to God’s femininity. Moreover, there is not a single use of the pronoun she in either Testament to refer to God! These proportions call into serious question whether the adduced passages for God’s femininity are being interpreted rightly by egalitarians.

Second, when we examine the passages adduced to support God’s femininity, we find they do nothing of that sort! The most that can be said is this—they compare God a feminine entity. However, the comparison is never made in order to assert (via the comparison) something about God’s gender. Interpreters who claim otherwise impose onto the biblical text a meaning foreign to its near and far contexts.

This mistaken reading of the so-called feminine images of God is ably refuted by texts where men compare themselves (or other men) to feminine entities. For example, in Numbers 11:12, Moses complains to God about the nation Israel, using these words—“Did I conceive all these people? Did I give them birth? Why do you tell me to carry them in my arms, as a nurse carries an infant?” Was Moses trying to tell God—or to tell us—that Moses, the male, is actually feminine? The notion is preposterous. Incredibly, Mollenkott reads Moses’ words as meaning that “God was the mother who conceived and gave birth to the children of Israel.”[9]

Paul speaks the same way about himself in Galatians in 4:19—My dear children, for whom I am again in the pain of childbirth until Christ is formed in you … Paul likens himself to a mother in childbirth, and compares the Galatians to pregnant women, who are attempting to form Christ within their own wombs! This is strange language indeed. But, whatever Paul means by it, no one can hear him to be asserting that his readers are actually female or feminine! For further details, consult the white paper entitled Searching for the Goddess” in this archive.

Patriarchal Bias

Critics who claim the Bible has a patriarchal bias acknowledge the obvious—the Bible’s God is masculine. But, they deny that this portrayal is factually accurate. Consequently, they must explain why God is so masculine in Scripture. The Biblical authors and their audience, they claim, were so thoroughly patriarchal that their cultural sexism moved required them to describe God as masculine. God’s “masculinity,” therefore, is a symptom of cultural sexism (or, alternately, an accommodation to sexism designed to win a hearing with a sexist audience.)

This analysis, however, is false at its foundation. The Old Testament and New Testament cultures were certainly patriarchal; but, it is false that patriarchal culture only permits male deities.

When we examine the religions of the ancient Near East—the time and place where the Bible was written—we find that people—including the Jews—worshiped both masculine and feminine deities. If anything, female deities in the ancient world outnumber the male ones. Whenever the Jews abandoned the Bible’s God to worship the gods of their neighbors, female gods were just as apt to be worshiped as any other. It is simply false that patriarchal societies reject female deities.

The really odd thing about Old Testament religion is its proclamation of a solitary masculine deity. The scandal back then was not God’s masculinity. Rather, pagans were scandalized with the Prophets’ message that the Jewish God was the only god. That this solitary masculine god had no consort or wife provided a second scandal. Other ancient Near Eastern gods had one or more girl-friend-goddesses tucked away somewhere. But, not Israel’s God.

Old-time pagans rejoiced in goddesses. There was no need for Israel’s Prophets to accommodate anyone at this point. What actually happened was this—the Prophets and Apostles stubbornly refused to accommodate their audience about the gender of God. From the very beginning, the Bible cut across the religious grain of the world when it proclaimed a solitary, masculine deity.

The Bible still proclaims a solitary masculine deity, but the scandal has shifted. Now, monotheism is not the scandal—instead, God’s masculinity grates on feminist sensibilities. The modern idea of “inclusivity” prompts the effort to repaint the masculine portrait of God in the Bible, and to substitute for it a deity rendered in greys, tans, and beiges of gender-neutrality. And, this brings us to the third major criticism of the idea that God is masculine.

Genderless Spirits

“God is a spirit,” we’re told, “and spirits have no gender.” He is beyond gender. If we say God is masculine or feminine, we act like idolaters, conforming God to our image.

Those who make this claim usually combine it with the earlier accommodation view to explain the blatant masculinity of the Bible’s God. The truth about God’s gender, we’re told, is not in the Bible. That part of the Bible is, at best, culturally irrelevant; at worst, it is idolatrous.

Remarkably, many evangelicals embrace this view, from many pulpits, in books published by main-line Christian publishing houses, from professors in evangelical seminaries to executives in evangelical mission boards. This is a novel development in the thinking of Christians who anchor their beliefs about God to the Bible.

Other than God, the only other spiritual beings in the Bible are angels. They are consistently masculine when they appear in human form. When “non-humanoid” angels appear in the Bible (e.g. as Isaiah’s vision of the Seraphim or Ezekiel’s vision) the biblical text applies masculine gender to them. They are designated “the sons of God.” They are never called the daughters of God, nor is there any instance where the pronoun she refers to them.

The point: a “spiritual” being (such as an angel) can clearly possess masculine gender!

Christianity, whether we like it or not, is a revealed religion. Francis Schaeffer summed up this point in the title of his book He Is There, and He Is Not Silent.[10] Christianity rests on this idea—whatever we know truly about God, we know only because God reveals Himself to us.

That self-revelation occurred in only two ways. First, it occurred as God spoke directly (as at Sinai) or through the prophets and the apostles. Their words were God’s words, and they were written down to form what we know today as the Bible. Second, God revealed Himself in tangible form when He entered history as the son of Mary. Jesus was God in the flesh, fully human and fully divine. He remains fully human and fully divine today.

If a masculine spiritual deity is a scandal to feminist sensibilities, Jesus is a greater scandal! He is not merely masculine, He is male! He was born of the Virgin Mary, He grew up in Nazareth as the son of Joseph, and He preached and ministered to the sick and demon-oppressed in Israel 2,000 years ago. He was crucified because He claimed to be God. He subsequently proved His claim by rising from the grave three days after His execution. The resurrection accounts, or John’s encounter with Jesus on Patmos, show us that Jesus is still a masculine male.

If God is really a genderless spirit, the Bible is wrong, so very wrong as to merit our distrust. Christians who claim that God is a genderless spirit must stand above the Bible and judge it to be in error. But, what is their authority for doing so? Why should we believe they are right and the Bible is wrong?

What’s Really At Issue

G.K. Chesterton noted an odd problem which arises when someone tries to defend an obvious idea:

Thus, if one asked an ordinary intelligent man, on the spur of the moment, “Why do you prefer civilization to savagery?” he would look wildly round at object after object , and would only be able to answer vaguely, “Why, there is that bookcase…and the coals on the coal-scuttle… and pianos … and policemen.” … But the very multiplicity of proof which ought to make reply overwhelming makes reply impossible.[11]

Answering the question “Why do you believe that God is masculine?” creates same problem. Amidst the mountains of biblical evidence, where does one point first? If someone can read the Bible and seriously question that it presents us a God who is masculine, he has already resisted, ignored, or discounted far more proof than any apologist could possibly assemble!

Challenges to belief in God’s masculinity raise the suspicion that a prior and more elementary issue lurks in the shadows. That issue is this—is the Bible God’s word to us? Or is it man’s word about God?

The Christian faith loudly insists—in the Bible, and down through the centuries—that what we truly know about God arises exclusively from His own revelation of Himself in Jesus Christ and in the Holy Scripture. That testimony is prodigious, lucid, and compelling. No one can question God’s masculinity without simultaneously rejecting the veracity and sufficiency of God’s self-revelation in the Old and New Testaments and in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.

To answer Friedan’s question “Is God He?” we need only extend slightly the title of Dr. Schaeffer’s book—He is there, He is not silent, and He tells us He is Masculine.


1 Krister Stendal, as quoted in Words and Women—New Language in New Times, ed. by Casey Miller and Kate Swift (Anchor Books/Doubleday, 1976), p.64.

2 A lucid and detailed survey of this debate is found in Mary Kassian, The Feminist Gospel: The Movement to Unite Feminism With the Church (Crossway Books, 1992), especially Chapter 12, “The Feminization of God,” pp. 135-147.

3 Dan B. Allender, Bold Love (NavPress, 1993), pp.112-113.

4 When speaking of God the Judge (shophet), one thinks immediately of Israel’s female judge, Deborah (Judges 5:1ff). The significance of Deborah—either as a model of a feminine deity or as a model of feminine leadership in the community of faith—is treated in the white paper entitled The Womanliness of Deborah,.

5 Allender, pp.112-113

6 Virginia Ramey Mollenkott, The Divine Feminine: The Biblical Imagery of God as Female (Crossroad, 1994)

7 See, for example, chapter 14, “Bakerwoman God,” pp. 79-82. From Jesus’ comparison of the Kingdom of God to leaven, Mollenkott deduces an “instance of Jesus portraying the divine nature in female terms” because “women did the baking in the ancient Hebrew culture” [p.81].

8 A detailed discussion of the few passages where God is compared to a feminine entity is contained in the white paper entitled Searching for the Goddess.

9 Ibid., p. 21

10 Francis A. Schaeffer, He Is There and He Is Not Silent (Tyndale House, 1972).

11 G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (Garden City Pub. Co., 1908), pp. 152-153.

 

 

 

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