Is God a man? (a brief response to CBMW’s accusation of heresy)

'God o' Music' photo (c) 2009, Steve Snodgrass - license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

"You saw no form of any kind the day the Lord spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire. Therefore watch yourselves very carefully, so that you do not become corrupt and make for yourselves an idol, an image of any shape, whether formed like a man or a woman, or like any animal on earth or any bird that flies in the air…”

 - Deuteronomy 4:15-17

Back in 2012, I wrote a post for Holy Week about Mary’s experience during the crucifixion.  At the end of the post, I refer to God as She.  I believe it’s the only time in any of my published writing I have done so, as I typically avoid gendered pronouns when writing about God or simply refer to God as He. 

Well today Owen Strachan, president of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, took to twitter to declare the post heresy. (It’s unclear to me why it’s only just now coming up.)  It’s no small thing to be named a heretic by someone in a position of Christian leadership, and the tweet has already given rise to all sorts of crazy rumors, so I figured a brief response might be warranted. 

First, I wholeheartedly affirm the Apostle’s and Nicene Creeds and I believe Scripture to be inspired by God and authoritative in the Christian life. Like Owen, I believe in the good news that Jesus Christ is Lord and would gladly join him in proclaiming the great mystery of the faith—that Christ has died, Christ has risen, and Christ will come again.  I disagree with Owen that differences in theology regarding gender are matters of orthodoxy, particularly given the number of faithful Christians who have disagreed on these issues through the centuries, and I’m disappointed he resorted to charges of heresy when we should be able to discuss these differences with gentleness and respect. (As luck would have it, next week we’re slated to host an interview with Justin Holcomb who has written a whole book on heresy, so this conversation should get even more interesting!) 

Second, I believe Scripture teaches that both men and women are created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27), which means both masculinity and femininity are - at some level - part of God’s nature.  Scripture often uses feminine imagery to describe God as a mother, nurse, seamstress, midwife, etc. (Ruth 2:12, Ps. 17:8, Matt. 23:37, Isa. 46: 3-4, Job 38: 29, Hos. 11:3-4, Ps. 22:9, Luke 13:20–21, Luke 15:8-9), and while God is often referred to as Father, and Jesus was certainly a man, the Hebrew word for Holy Spirit is a feminine noun. And in the New Testament, the Spirit is frequently connected with images of childbirth and nursing (John 3:5; cf. John 1:13, 1 John 4:7; 5:1, 4, 18).  

Mimi Haddad of Christians for Biblical Equality does a really fine job unpacking these images in her article on the topic, “Is God Male?” 

Finally, (and as Mimi points out), the self-naming of God in Scripture is “I AM WHO I AM”—a name without gender. I suspect that’s because, though God is a person, God is not a human being like us. The people of Israel received a strong warning from God about this in Deuteronomy 4:15-17: “You saw no form of any kind the day the Lord spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire. Therefore watch yourselves very carefully, so that you do not become corrupt and make for yourselves an idol, an image of any shape, whether formed like a man or a woman, or like any animal on earth or any bird that flies in the air…”

I believe that when we declare God to be exclusively male, we flirt with idolatry, for we re-create God in a human image. And the fact that some people find the notion of a feminine God so repulsive reveals the degree to which this type of idolatry has snuck into the Church and the degree to which women in our society are still seen as lesser beings than men

That said, I use the feminine pronoun for God very sparingly in my writing. Usually, I either avoid using a gendered pronoun altogether or I use the word He to avert unnecessary controversy (much to the chagrin of my more progressive readers!). I don’t have a problem referring to God as Father, or as He. Scripture does this often. To insist on referring to God only as She would be to commit the same error.  As Mimi puts it: 

“God is self-revealed in terms we can understand through our own experiences, using metaphors which are, at times, feminine. We should not, however, make these metaphors—these implicit comparisons—absolutes. When we do, we are making God in our image, whether male or female. God is not limited by gender because God is Spirit. It is idolatry to make God male or female. God is no more female or goddess than God is male, and males have no priority over women in the New Covenant community because of gender (Gal 3:27-29).”

To say that God is not a man is not the same as saying God is a woman. It is saying that God transcends gender categories. 

On the very rare occasion that I refer to God as She, I do it with a lot of intentionality and with the goal of reminding myself and my readers that God is not merely some elevated, deified version of ourselves. God is not a man. God is not white. God is not American. God might not even be a Bama fan. (Too far?)

And as a woman, referring to God as She or as Mother serves as an important, liberating reminder that I am indeed created in the image of God, not as some lesser being who exists in perpetual subordination to men, but as an expression of God’s very self. 

If that makes me a heretic, you can string up the rope. 

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