Posted by: Bob Clark | June 28, 2011

God and Gender

Have you ever heard God referred to as “the big guy upstairs” or “the old man in the sky?”  These statements may reveal something about people’s perception of God. Throughout my ministry I have been surprised (shocked may not be too strong a word) at the times when people have told me they think God is actually “male.”

I mistakenly had thought everyone understood God is not a human and so not male or female. God is a spirit. God is, well, God. Jesus was a male, but the great mystery of the incarnation is not just that God has taken on a male body, but that God has taken on any human body at all (Philippians 2:1-11). God…in a human body? Wow! 

Without question, scripture uses male metaphors to present God to us in language we can understand. The best known example of a male metaphor being used to reveal God would probably be God as our “father”.  While there are few references to God as father in the Old Testament, this imagery is frequently used by Jesus and elsewhere in the New Testament. While we are familiar with male metaphors and imagery used to reveal God to humans, for some reason we are not as familiar with female metaphors and imagery used in scripture to reveal God. For that reason, I ask you to consider these few examples:

  • Numbers 11:12  Moses asks, “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…?” The obvious answer is, “no.” Moses did not, but he is making the point that God did. God conceived them. God gave them birth. God carried them.
  • Deuteronomy 32:18  In this passage God is pictured as both father and mother; and, I suppose it is worth noting, God also is pictured as a “rock.”
  • Job 38:8, 29  The Lord uses feminine birth imagery to describe God’s creating the universe.
  • Psalm 131:2  David describes putting his hope in the Lord as being like a weaned child cuddling with its mother. A weaned child does not seek its mother to demand food. A weaned child wants its mother for comfort and assurance.
  • Luke 15:8-10  In Luke 15 Jesus tells three stories to teach about the nature of God. While two of the stories use male imagery, the second of the stories uses female imagery to reveal God.
  • Matthew 23:37  Jesus describes God’s desire to protect Israel being like that of a hen wanting to protect her chicks.
  • John 1:13; John 3:5; 1 John 4:7; 1 John 5:1, 4, 18  John uses feminine “born of God” images several times.
  • Isaiah 42:14, Isaiah 46:3-4, Isaiah 49:14-15, Isaiah 66:13 These are but a few of many more examples which could be listed. 

Don’t miss the point here, I am not trying to pitch that God is female. Far from it. I am saying while God is God and not human (male or female), scripture uses numerous images and metaphors — both male and female — to reveal the nature of God.

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Responses

  1. Bob: I just discovered your posts and read the first couple on gender. Well written and insightful (and, for some people, possible “inciting”). I agree that God (in “his” essence) is clearly neither simply male, nor female. He cannot be, as he “created” these sex classifications, and he is before creation. (See e.g., Acts 17:24 & 29). I like your use of the word “metaphor.” Descriptions of God as Father, Mother, Husband, Rock, and Breath or Wind give us glimpses into key aspects of his character, and help us relate to the mystery of his divinity. However, we should not minimize the fact that a) the favored expression of the first personality of the Godhead is in the male form — father and husband; and b) that of the second figure of the Godhead is likewise male (the Angel of the Lord and the only begotten son of God). Then there is the strange and ephemeral Holy Spirit, more on this infra.

    Thus, it is my belief that God purposefully reveals himself in sexual terms, and made man a sexual being (in His image), to permit deeper insight into by mankind into God’s character. Without (hopefully) pushing the analogy too far, I think the creation template bears this out. God created Adam in his own image — but with flesh. God referred to Adam as his son. Jesus is known as the second Adam (God with flesh (speaking of mysteries!)). Jesus (in both the old testament and the new – as the Angel of God and as Jesus of Nazareth) serves as God’s principal ambassador to and mediator with all of creation. Adam was to have dominion — Jesus is and will be Lord and King. Then, there is the recognition that it is “not good for Adam to be alone” (after all, Adam was made in God’s image — the one thing we know about God before time and creation is that He somehow existed in intimate community (“Let us create man in our image … let them have dominion…”)). So God makes a woman and brings her to Adam as his “helper” (see John 14:16, etc., — parakletos as helper, comforter or counselor). Some have suggested that the Spirit is the feminine aspect of the trinity. That may be pushing the metaphor too far, but there just may be a connection between the role of the Holy Spirit in the trinity, and the role of the woman as helper, comforter and even counselor to Adam.

    I know the metaphor is imperfect, but provides limited insight into healthy gender roles in our families and churches. We affirm and promote healthy male spiritual leadership. We have seen the profound negative consequences that flow from usurpation or abandonment of this role. The Father loves the son, who honors and submits to the Father. The Father loves the mother and wife, who respects and submits to the Husband In the New Testament the Holy Spirit is constantly pointing to and promoting the work of the Father and the Son. Although the Holy Spirit is God, the principal expression is a support role as helper, counselor and comforter.

    To the extent this metaphor is “true,” it is helpful in mediating the gender wars in our brotherhood. The Holy Spirit is God. The woman is “man” (Genesis 1:27). The woman is not inferior to the male — she is of the same essence and being as the man. It is silly to say that a woman cannot speak or teach (even in the church) — that is after all a principal role of the helper and counselor. But she does so with respect for the Father and the husband.

    Oh well — more could be said, but I didn’t mean to say this much. Got to go to a meeting.

  2. Thanks for your response, Scott. I will soon complete these posts on gender. I think there will be about 14 or 15 total (the first of two posts on restrictive passages of the NT is scheduled to post next Tuesday). They are simple and brief summaries of material presented and discussed in an adult Bible class. The conversation we have enjoyed in these sessions has been rich. I considered presenting the HS/female idea, but decided not too in the class setting simply due to time constraints. I have thoroughly enjoyed the study, teaching, and interaction. I have personally been stretched and have seen some of my long held views evolve over the last few months, particularly my thoughts about male spiritual leadership. I am very thankful the Lafayette elders encouraged me to pursue this subject and, quite frankly, I will be glad when it ends. I look forward to continuing to learn, grow, and be challenged on this subject but at a slower pace! Thanks again, brother!

  3. Well, you have done a terrific job of placing the subject matter in its hermeneutic, historical and cultural context. For me, the hard part is objective application. When and how do we apply what we know to be true (and in this case culturally relevant) in the tinder box of “Sunday morning worship?” I continue to pray for Lafayette and all her leaders. Blessings.


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