I was interested to see Chloe Specht’s article “Actually, ‘They’ is a Beautiful Pronoun for God” published in Sojourners on the same day that I finished teaching a three-week class on “feminine God-talk” at my church. In this class, in the course of talking about feminine imagery, metaphors, pronouns, and other ways of thinking about God, we also touched on the possibilities of “they/them” as pronouns for God.
Specht does a great job of reflecting on the possibilities for God as “they.” I’d recommend her article, and I also have a few thoughts to add.
Specht mentions that “some have recently argued” that “‘He’ and ‘him’ are the only acceptable pronouns for God”—for example, in this bummer of a Christianity Today article. I agree with Specht that the fact that we get mostly masculine pronouns for God in most English Bible translations is “insufficient evidence for such a definitive conclusion.”
I’d also take this a step further to say that, really, any time we start talking about the “only acceptable” anything for God, I think we’re on the wrong track. I’m not against using masculine pronouns to refer to God. I am against the dogmatically exclusive use of masculine pronouns. I’m against the general claim that God is only what we already understand God to be, and not something else also.
Do we really know what God does and doesn’t consider acceptable when it comes to God’s identity? Often, when we think we do know these things—and especially when we’re totally sure of them—we’re really just putting God in a box. We’re acting like we know everything about God—like God can never surprise us, like God can never do anything unexpected or turn out to be anyone unexpected.
To me, that sounds like a sure sign that we’re worshiping an idol, not the actual God who created us. The “idol” language might sound harsh. But isn’t that what we’re doing when we define God’s only acceptable pronouns, or God’s only acceptable anything? We’re creating boundaries for God rather than letting God be God in all the surprising forms this may take.
I know my vision of God has expanded dramatically over time. God has blown through a lot of the boxes I used to put God in. I’m sure, or at least I hope, that God will continue to do so. And this is a good thing.
Jesus was always expanding people’s categories of who God is, whom God loves, whom God centers, what God will and will not do. Jesus was always doing unexpected things that lifted up the marginalized, promoted justice, and drove religious people bonkers because of all the things they thought they knew. Why would God be any different today?
I also appreciate Specht’s note about ruach, a feminine word in Hebrew that’s used in the Bible to refer to God’s Spirit. I would also add that the Greek word used for God’s Spirit in the New Testament is πνευμα, which is neuter. To the extent that grammatical gender has something to do with actual gender—which I don’t think is always a good assumption, but it seems to come up a lot in conversations about the Bible and pronouns and God and such, so let’s talk about it—God’s Spirit is a “she” in Hebrew, and God’s Spirit is a sort of an “it” in Greek. But a very personal kind of “it.” One might say, perhaps, a singular “they.”
It feels important to talk about what’s at stake here. We can argue about what the Bible does and doesn’t say about God and gender, and that’s part of the equation. But the fact that these debates are still happening implies that this is an area where biblical interpretation could go in a number of different directions. This invites us into deeper thought, beyond the assumptions we might make or the doctrines we have been taught.
When what the Bible says and what to make of it are ambiguous, we are more clearly able to see that the way we read the Bible is informed by all sorts of things outside the Bible itself. We come to scripture bringing all of who we are. We bring our family backgrounds, our theological backgrounds, our cultures and ethnicities and gender identities and personalities and languages and the norms of our faith communities. And we have choices.
Ultimately, we bring our people with us. And if these people include non-male people—that is, women and non-binary people—which I very much hope they do, we can choose to make room for all of these people. We can choose to read scripture in ways that help people of all gender identities see themselves in it. We can choose to read scripture in ways that honor all people, that help all people know they’re valuable and loved.
Incorporating “they/them” pronouns into our language about God may help. I can attest that, as a woman, hearing “she/her” pronouns for God helps me feel seen and valued. I don’t need this all the time. I’m very happy with a balanced mix of “he,” “she,” “they,” and whatever other beautiful ways people come up with to speak of God. But when God comes across through people’s language as solely masculine, I feel othered. I feel like I’m considered less of an image bearer.
I want all people to know—to really, deeply know—that they are created in God’s image. And I love that “they/them” pronouns for God just might help non-binary people know that—and help whole communities better embrace the gender diversity in their midst.
Ultimately, any and all human language for God—especially when we limit ourselves to just one language, as we do when we talk about what is and isn’t possible in English—falls short. It’s totally inadequate in the face of our triune Creator, whom we see only in part and know only in part (1 Cor 13:9-12). We are like Ezekiel trying to describe his vision of angels, and the best he can do is talk about wheels and eyes, so many eyes (e.g. Ezekiel 1:1-21).
No English pronoun does justice to all of who God is. Why limit ourselves to just one? If “she” pronouns or “they” pronouns or other pronouns in other languages help us express something about the different aspects of who God is, why not use them?
Change can be difficult. But it can also be good. It can also be necessary. The Christian tradition has always needed to continually reform itself. After all, every generation gets some things wrong, and every generation has things that seem to work for them but then make zero sense to the generation who comes after them. I don’t think God feels threatened by these changes.
I want to worship a God who resists all the boxes I try to put God in. I want to worship a God who is always centering people on the margins, always moving—and moving us—toward more expansive visions of justice and true inclusion. I want to worship a God who is bigger than anything I could imagine, anything I could place boundaries around.
If expanding our sense of what God’s pronouns might be helps us move beyond the boxes and toward this unbounded God, I’m all for it.