These days, the issues of gender and sexuality are very controversial, particularly in Western societies. Steadily, over a number of decades, the traditional perspective has been undermined. We have now reached the point where the current politically correct stance, under the guise of tolerance for all, has become emboldened in its cause and is hostile to any challenge. (In other words, modern ‘tolerance’ has, ironically, become intolerant of all but its own viewpoint.) Thus, we have seen a major retail store willing to place female shoppers at risk of potential sexual predators and voyeurs—and consequently to drive away a significant number of customers and to lose profit—solely to promote the cause of transgenderism and gender fluidity. We have seen a young Christian baker in Northern Ireland condemned in court, simply for refusing to bake a cake that would promote same-sex marriage.1 We have seen the publication of “gender-friendly” translations of the Bible, even one in which God is presented as female (see below).
In such a climate, any attempt to argue for the biblical perspective on gender and sexuality is likely to elicit a hostile response.
In such a climate, any attempt to argue for the biblical perspective on gender and sexuality is likely to elicit a hostile response. Yet, as followers of Christ, we are not called to preach what people want to hear. Like Isaiah and the other biblical prophets of old, we are to be faithful to preach a message of truth in love. Jesus, the Initiator and Completer of our faith (Hebrews 12:2), was full of truth and love (John 1:14). He did not dilute the Scriptures, but upheld them with authority and boldness (Matthew 5:17–20). Nevertheless, he demonstrated tremendous compassion.
This article, then, is offered in that same spirit. We believe that this generation desperately needs to hear the truth of Scripture, including on the issue of gender, not the least God’s gender. But it is important to understand that the message of the Bible—even when it’s not what we want to hear—is given for our benefit, and comes from a God who is “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Exodus 34:6). The message is given in order that people may hear “and turn and be healed” (Isaiah 6:10). With that in mind, we turn to the question: does God have a gender?
The Bible Presents God as Male
God is always portrayed in the original manuscripts of the Bible (Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek) as being male, not female.
Regardless of who is referring to God—whether he himself or others—he is always portrayed in the original manuscripts of the Bible (Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek) as being male, not female. For instance, in the Hebrew Old Testament, the 6,828 occurrences of his name, יהוה (YHWH), are always in association with masculine adjectives, and masculine verbs.2 Similarly his titles—whether in Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek—are all masculine, and are always associated with masculine grammatical forms.3 Furthermore, in all three biblical languages, all pronouns associated with God—i.e., words used instead of his name or titles, such as he, him, his—are masculine.
Thus, throughout the Old and New Testaments, God is portrayed in many thousands of grammatical forms as being male and never once as being female. The evidence is overwhelming and conclusive.
Could God Be Partly, or Wholly, Female?
So, what arguments do opponents of the maleness of God put forward in order to promote the idea that he is partly (or wholly) female? There are at least three.
First, it is noted that the word for spirit in Hebrew and Aramaic, רוּחַ (rûaḥ), functions grammatically most often as a feminine noun. This has led some to suggest that the Holy Spirit represents a feminine side of God. However, the word (rûaḥ) sometimes behaves as a masculine noun, a tendency that is particularly noticeable when the word occurs as part of the phrase, רוּחַ יהוה (Rûaḥ YHWH), “the Spirit of YHWH.”4 The argument for femininity is further weakened by the fact that the equivalent Greek term, πνεῦμα (pneúma), is neuter (i.e., genderless).5 The Bible teaches that the Spirit of God proceeds from the (male) Father (John 15:26), and from the (male) Son (John 20:22), operating in and through both. Jesus, the man, was full of the Holy Spirit (Luke 4:1)—that did not make him female, or even half male and half female. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of a God, who, as we have already noted, is consistently presented throughout the Scriptures as being male.6
Second, it is pointed out in a small number of instances that an attribute or action of God is associated with that of a woman.7 Isaiah 42:14 records YHWH saying,
For a long time I have held my peace; I have kept still and restrained myself; now I will cry out like a woman in labor; I will gasp and pant.
The use of the word like is critical, telling us that this is a simile. A simile is “a figure of speech involving the comparison of one thing with another thing of a different kind, used to make a description more emphatic or vivid.”8 God is not a woman. But just as a woman can set aside her inhibitions in the intense pain of labor, so too a time is coming when God, having held his peace from long ago, will unreservedly make himself heard. The simile regards a transformation in behavior at an important threshold.9
In Isaiah 49:15 God speaks of his faithful love toward his people as being even more reliable than a woman’s compassion for her nursing infant. It is somewhat surprising language to use of a God who is elsewhere compared to a mighty warrior:
The LORD goes out like a mighty man, like a man of war he stirs up his zeal; he cries out, he shouts aloud, he shows himself mighty against his foes (Isaiah 42:13).
The shock in Isaiah 49:15 is no doubt intended. God is at pains to get his people to understand that, though he is all-powerful, and though in the past he has been angry with them and punished them as a father disciplining his children, now he is comforting them and having compassion upon them (cf. Isaiah 40:1–2). But this in no way supports the notion that God is female.10 “A father . . . does not become a mother when likened to a mother, any more than he becomes a rock when likened to a rock (Dt 32:18).”11 His unfathomable capacity to show compassion no more makes him female than does the extravagant mercy extended by the father of the prodigal son in Jesus’ famous New Testament parable (Luke 15:11–32). Compassion may be an attribute that is strongly evident in women, but it is not exclusively feminine. Indeed, it is a trait that finds its source in God (see, for example, Psalm 78:38; James 5:11), and it is the first quality he mentions in his famous self-description: “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious . . .” (Exodus 34:6; see also Psalm 86:15, 103:8, 145:8; Nehemiah 9:17; Joel 2:13; Jonah 4:2).
Third, godly wisdom is personified as a woman in the book of Proverbs. Some of the descriptions are quite elaborate, such as her participation in creation (Proverbs 8:22–31), building a house, preparing a feast, and inviting guests (Proverbs 9:1–12). But, ultimately, these personifications are, in nature, extended metaphors and wordplays, facilitated by the feminine gender of the Hebrew word for wisdom, חָכְמָה (ḥoḵmāh).12
Is God Genderless?
Some may accept that God is not female, but may argue that neither is he male. For example, feminist scholar Phyllis Trible writes, “Yahweh is neither male nor female; neither he nor she. . . . Yahweh embraces and transcends both sexes.”13 And Steve Holmes, Senior Lecturer in Theology at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, asserts,
The united witness of the church through the ages is unquestionably that God is beyond gender, and that speaking of God as male, or even as promoting a masculine account of himself, is a grave error. . . . No-one was ever stupid enough to propound such an obviously ridiculous idea.14
Similarly, S.T. Kimbrough argues in his article on Bible Translation and the Gender of God,
There is no philological evidence that the writers of the Hebrew scriptures intended the opposite of female by the use of third person masculine singular pronouns. . . . All language for God, including pronouns, is symbolical . . . Symbolical language is used when the reality cannot be fully expressed. . . . What do the third person masculine singular pronouns reveal about God? To answer “Nothing” would be misleading, since they are a part of the language and shape the overall language picture one receives in reading. But to assume that they present a false representation of God as male is untenable.15
In their biblical Hebrew textbook, An Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax, Bruce K. Waltke and Michael P. O’Connor affirm, “There is a strong scholarly consensus that God is regarded as non-sexual,” i.e., non-gendered (1990, 108). But even if we were to grant the questionable assertion that such a scholarly consensus exists, we shall see below that it is by no means a unanimous view. And the only two evidences that Waltke and O’Connor offer in support of this notion are easily countered.16 Furthermore, one wonders how such a position can be maintained when Christ is presented as being male in both his pre- and post-Resurrection body. After all, Paul wrote that “in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily” (Colossians 2:9). Are the post-Resurrection accounts mistaken in identifying Jesus as being male? Or did Jesus’ gender change at the ascension? And, if so, why is the future returning Christ portrayed as male? The plain sense of Scripture seems to me to consistently affirm, from beginning to end, the maleness of both God the Father and his Son, Jesus Christ.
Is God Only Figuratively Male?
Though some may grant that God is always presented as male (and as a father), they may nevertheless insist that these are “figurative representations.”
Though some may grant that God is always presented as male (and as a father), they may nevertheless insist that these are “figurative representations.”17 They may assert that he is not really male (or a father), but that the Bible merely uses maleness (and fatherhood) as an anthropomorphic metaphor to help us understand his character. There are at least three good reasons for rejecting this notion:
the true and perfect reality of maleness (and fatherhood) as found in God
- Being all-powerful and all-wise, God could have created a world in which there were no gender distinctions, and in which human reproduction was non-sexual. But he didn’t. He chose to incorporate gender and sexuality as part of his “very good” creation (Genesis 1:31). Thus, in creating gender and then representing himself consistently and repeatedly as male, God is making a deliberate assertion about his nature. There is something particular about maleness that he chooses to represent his nature in a way that femaleness does not. I would argue that the Bible presents human maleness as including headship, which incorporates the functions of leading, providing, and protecting; and that God is the supreme holder and perfect model of these offices.18
- The potency of a metaphor or simile lies, at least to an extent, in the fact that it often makes an unusual comparison between two different entities. While it may be conceivable for the same metaphor to be used repeatedly, in practice this is not normally the case. Indeed, a given metaphor is often rendered most effective because of its peculiarity and relative rarity, and hence its ability to arouse curiosity, leading us to ponder more deeply the association it describes. For instance, we are surprised and curious to hear God describe his behavior metaphorically as a woman crying out in labor (Isaiah 42:14), for the very reason that such a comparison is extremely rare and therefore quite unexpected. In contrast, the presentation of God as male is ubiquitous, reinforced many thousands of times throughout the Bible, thus supporting the notion that his maleness is a reality and not a metaphor.
- Rather than maleness (and fatherhood) being primarily a human reality associated with men, which then constitutes a metaphor (i.e., a figurative representation of reality) concerning God, it can be argued that, if anything, the emphasis works in the opposite direction. In other words, human maleness (including fatherhood), particularly since sin entered the world, provides us with only a poor reflection of the true and perfect reality of maleness (and fatherhood) as found in God. I think that this may be partly what Paul had in mind when he wrote of “the Father” as being the One “from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named” (Ephesians 3:14–15).19 Fatherhood, at the head of the family structure, takes its lead from God. That the Fatherhood of God is a reality, and not just a metaphor, is supported by the fact that he is called “Father” approximately 256 times in the Bible: eight times in the Old Testament and about 248 times in the New Testament, of which no less than 113 occur in John’s Gospel.20 On numerous occasions Jesus referred to and addressed God as “Father.” Clearly, for the Son, God’s Fatherhood (incorporating maleness) was a firm reality, rather than a qualified metaphor.21 “‘Father’ is not simply one metaphor among others in the Bible; it is what God in actuality is for his worshipers.”22
the true and perfect reality of maleness (and fatherhood) is found in God
Ignoring Sound Testimony
It is worth noting that there is no serious debate among mainstream scholars that the Scriptures present God as being male . . .
It is worth noting that there is no serious debate among mainstream scholars that the Scriptures present God as being male, even if many believe that representation to be figurative. Indeed it is significant that the biblical scholar David J.A. Clines, emeritus professor at the University of Sheffield in the UK and a specialist in the Hebrew Bible, despite a “commitment to feminism,”23 has published a formative paper entitled, “Alleged Female Language about the Deity in the Hebrew Bible.”24 In it he writes:
There is a common belief that in the Hebrew Bible there are a number of places where female language is used in reference to the deity.
The conclusion is sometimes drawn . . . that the vocabulary of female imagery for God “tempers any assertion that Yahweh is a male deity” [Phyllis Trible]. . . .
My conclusion is that there is not a single instance of female language about the deity in the Hebrew Bible, that is, of language suggesting that the deity is viewed as a female, whether as a mother or a midwife or in any other typical female activity. . . .
In the Hebrew Bible, which consistently represents the deity as male and everywhere employs the masculine pronoun ‘he’ and masculine verb and adjective forms for the deity there is no trace of a view that in some respect or to some degree this deity is ‘female’ or ‘feminine’.
The fact is . . . that the Yahweh of the Hebrew Bible is a thoroughly male god, and there is simply no benefit in failing to recognize that fact and accept its consequences.25
While there has been a move for more gender-inclusive language regarding men and women,26 all the respected modern Bible translations consistently portray YHWH as being male, with very few versions altering the gender of God. The latter include Silent Voices—The Feminist Bible, “with the gender of each character swapped—including God,”27 e.g.,
God created woman in her own image. In God’s image she created her; female and male she created them (Genesis 1:27, SVFB);
For God so loved the world, that she gave her one and only Daughter, that whoever believes in her should not perish, but have eternal life (John 3:16, SVFB);
Husbands, be subject to your own wives, as to the Domina. For the wife is the head of the husband, and Christ also is the head of the assembly, being herself the savior of the body (Ephesians 5:22–23, SVFB).
Aside from the Bible itself, some have sought to change the gender of church liturgy. For example,
A group in the Church of England is calling for services to address God as “She” as well as “He.” . . . The Methodist Church introduced a new service book in 1999 which uses both male and female language for God, “our Father and our Mother.”28
God Need Not Have Created Gender or Represented Himself as Male
As already suggested, theoretically God could have conceived of a means of asexual reproduction for humans. Indeed, asexual reproduction is seen in single-celled organisms, and in many plants and fungi. Furthermore, had he so wished, God could have made it clear that he was genderless. Translators of the Chinese Bible have apparently utilized a genderless, divine pronoun,29 so it is entirely conceivable that God could have done something similar when he spoke, for example, to the Patriarchs, to Moses, and to the other prophets. But he didn’t. The only explicit support that Waltke and O’Connor offer for the notion that God is non-sexual (i.e., non-gendered) is Deuteronomy 4:15–16.30 Not only do these verses fail to confirm their supposition (see note 14), but they also highlight how easy it would have been for God to state unequivocally that he was genderless, if that had been his intent. When he told the people not to make any image in “the likeness of male or female” (v. 16), he could easily have added, “for YHWH your God is neither male nor female.” But he didn’t add these words.
The fact is that God chose to incorporate gender into his “very good” creation and to present himself as being male.
The huge irony in all the heated debate over the Bible’s presentation of gender and equality is that it often totally misses the vitally important ingredient that God intends for earthly male leadership, namely that of humble submission to him.
The huge irony in all the heated debate over the Bible’s presentation of gender and equality is that it often totally misses the vitally important ingredient that God intends for earthly male leadership, namely that of humble submission to him. Arguably the greatest Old Testament leader, the man Moses, was described as being “very humble, more than all mankind that was upon the face of the earth” (Numbers 12:3). And Jesus, the perfect man and the supreme example for all Christians, described himself as “gentle and lowly in heart” (Matthew 11:29). Moreover, he sought only ever to do the will of his Father in heaven (see John 4:34, 5:19). He refused the devil’s offer of seizing dominion over the nations (Matthew 4:8–10; Luke 4:5–8), even though he was indeed destined for such a position and could have argued that he would use that dominion for good. In other words, for Jesus, the end did not justify any and every means. Leadership had to be on his Father’s terms, and its fullness was to come through submissive obedience. Only then would true and lasting exaltation result (Philippians 2:8–11).
Christ’s example is an inspiration and model for both his male and female followers. Both are called to empty themselves (e.g., of selfish ambition) and to become humble, obedient servants, even to the point of death (1 Peter 2:21–23). This may be anathema to the spirit of our current age, but that is what it means to have the mind of Christ (Philippians 2:5–8).
Gender is determined at the very instant of conception by either the presence (male) or absence (female) of the Y chromosome.
We are witnessing a social revolution, a rebellion, in which there is a media frenzy concerning gender fluidity.31 The impression given by its advocates is that gender is indeterminate and must be the choice of each individual. However, the scientific reality is that a person’s gender is determined at the very instant of conception by either the presence (male) or absence (female) of the Y chromosome. Sadly, it is indeed true that, with the entrance of sin and its deathly consequences into the world in the Garden of Eden, there are gender disorders of various types. And people affected by such disorders should certainly receive compassion and support. But it is quite another matter when society urges those who may have no such conditions, even children, into gender/sexual experimentation, which leads ultimately to deep inner confusion and turmoil. One pediatrician has described such efforts as “large-scale child abuse.”32 In their seminal 2016 report on “Sexuality and Gender,” the respected scholars L.W. Mayer and P.R. McHugh admitted, “We are concerned by the increasing tendency toward encouraging children with gender identity issues to transition to their preferred gender through medical and then surgical procedures.”33 They conclude, “The scientific evidence . . . suggests we take a skeptical view toward the claim that sex-reassignment procedures provide the hoped-for benefits or resolve the underlying issues that contribute to elevated mental health risks among the transgender population.”34 Attempting to neutralize or switch human gender perverts God’s original “very good” creation, and consequently leads to many unnecessary problems.
It is a blasphemous misrepresentation of his nature, and seriously undermines Christian doctrine.
Even worse are the attempts to neutralize or switch God’s gender. As we have seen, throughout the Bible he has revealed himself as being male. To assert that he is partly, or wholly, female is inconsistent with sound biblical scholarship. It is a blasphemous misrepresentation of his nature, and seriously undermines Christian doctrine.35
That feminist criticism is a rebellion against God’s authority, besmirching his holy and just character, is clearly evident in the writings of its advocates. For example, in drawing from the work of a number of feminist critics, Danna N. Fewell (1999) asserts the following:
The Bible, for the most part, is an alien text, not written . . . with women in mind (270);
For Mieke Bal, another feminist literary critic, Eve develops into a character of great power. Her decision to eat the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil is the first act of human independence . . . Eve did not “sin”; she opted for reality (271);
No feminist reformation of surface elements, suggests [Pamela] Milne, is going to disguise the fact that Genesis 2–3 is essentially male mythology (274);
Tensions and contradictions within the text, and between text and reader, may challenge us to reenter the garden with our eyes opened, even if that means eventually running up against the contradictory, unstable character of God (277);
God is responsible for the “fallen” . . . state of creation (278);
Feminist criticism. . . . suggests that the Bible offers something other than universal truth (280).36
A Glorious Marriage
That the Bible does not teach a demeaning of womanhood is made abundantly clear when we note, for example, that the entire redeemed community of saints, the believing church (including both men and women), is given the female title, Bride (Revelation 19:7–8). In terms of the relationship of Christ to the church, no other gender designations would be suitable: Christ as Leader, Provider, and Protector, could only be male (see note 18); and we, his people, who willingly and gladly submit to the authority of our great Redeemer, could corporately only be designated as female (Ephesians 5:23–33). The fact that the long-hoped-for faultless state of the church is represented as a female bride, ready to be joined in marriage to her Bridegroom, unequivocally demonstrates that God does not show favoritism when it comes to gender (or anything else—Acts 10:34; Romans 2:11; Ephesians 6:9).
Clines, D.J.A.. “Alleged Female Language about the Deity in the Hebrew Bible.” Paper presented in Seoul, South Korea: Society of Biblical Literature, (2016), https://www.academia.edu/26598665/Alleged_Female_Language_about_the_Deity_in_the_Hebrew_Bible.
Mayer, L.S., and P.R. McHugh. “Gender Identity” (Part 3 of “Sexuality and Gender”). New Atlantis: A Journal of Technology & Society, no. 50 (Fall 2016): 86–113.
Waltke, B.K., and M. O’Connor. An Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax. (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1990).