“I will exalt you, my God the King; I will praise your name for ever and ever.” (Psalm 145:1, NIV)
One of the central concerns of theology is learning to speak rightly of God. At its most basic level this is not such a hard thing to learn when we follow God’s lead and listen to what He has said. But when secular culture is allowed to lead, you can very quickly get very far off track. ‘Too many chefs spoil the pudding,’ and in theology two is too many.
Case in point, the discussion in the Episcopal Church this summer. As described by this article in the Washington Post, there are parties within the denomination advocating revisions to their Book of Common Prayer to make references to God gender-neutral. Thus far the measure has not succeeded, but high-level voices advocating it are there.
The Washington Post article is informative on many levels. Note the lack of integrity, that Wil Gafney (Episcopal priest and professor at Brite Divinity School) admits to changing the words used in worship, despite this being against her church’s rules. Note the driving interest given to contemporary social justice concerns. Note the interest in more autonomy for local ministers (if that’s what you want, why are you Episcopalian?).
But the main issue is the movement away from male terms for God. Calling God Father, or King, etc., is thought to stand in the way of gender equality or communicate a wrong picture of God–at least, unless such titles are counter-balanced with feminine titles. This is motivated by a sense that exclusively masculine language for God is grounded in outmoded traditions, and that with contemporary understanding a change is due.
The guiding force is the secularization of the Episcopal Church. The social concerns of our culture are given priority over the teachings of Scripture. The wisdom of the world has displaced the wisdom of God.
But the Bible is God’s written Word, inspired, truthful, and trustworthy. In Scripture we have God’s teaching about how we ought address Him–and that teaching leads us to address Him with exclusively masculine titles and pronouns. It is not tradition but divine revelation that leads us to call God “Father” instead of “mother.”
There are occasional feminine images related to God in the Bible, as when God compares His kindness towards His people to the care of a mother for her child (Isaiah 66:13). But these images constitute neither feminine titles of address nor feminine pronouns of description; such images do not nullify the fact that in the Scriptures God is always He, not she, always King, not queen, always Lord, not lady. That does not mean God is male. That does not mean women are less valuable than men. But it does mean that God has expressed His names and identity in a certain way, and we ought to pay attention. God’s own self-description comes in masculine titles; we are not on safe ground to reject this.
As an interesting aside, there is mention of a “Queen of Heaven” in the Bible–five times in the book of Jeremiah. Her worship is listed among the pagan practices of idolatrous Judah. Goddesses in general are mentioned many times in the Bible, always as pagan deities in contrast to the one true God.
Now, the revisionists are not entirely lacking in references to revelation. But there is a selectivity in their approach to Scripture that shows it to be a secondary, not a foundational element in their theology. Episcopal theologian Kelly Brown Douglas contrasts masculine language about God–which she seems to describe as “very limited, finite images of God which we are creating in our own image”, despite the fact that they clearly emerge from Scripture–with other biblical descriptions of God. Instead of the biblical image of God as Lord, she wants “The God whose voice comes through the whirlwind”, which the article makes clear is a reference to Psalm 77:18.
“Wow! Who is that God?” she asks. Providentially, the same Psalm tells us, in verse 2, that this God is “the Lord.” If her question was rhetorical, was she counting on us not reading the whole Psalm? If her question was not rhetorical, the Scriptures have the answer, for those who will listen.
Really, the keys to the problem can be found in the article itself. Language matters; “Our theology is what we pray,” says Jeffrey Lee, an Episcopal bishop. Indeed, and that fact underlines the serious theological revisionism behind this proposed revision to their denomination’s prayer book. For Kelly Brown Douglas, titles of God such as Lord are “static nouns that don’t tell us anything anyway.” But they were supposed to tell you something; the problem is a failure to listen. The title ‘Lord’ was supposed to tell you that God is in charge, that things should be done His way and that we should honor Him by speaking rightly of Him.
The root of the problem is rebellion against God’s authority. That is the root of all sin. The first budding blossom, in this case, is an attack upon the names of God. If that is not already idolatry, we can be confident that idolatry will be the final fruit.
It may prove to be the case, in our time, that using exclusively masculine titles and pronouns for God becomes one of the litmus tests of orthodoxy.