God, Grammar, and Gender

A theological library is filled with various approaches to the study of God and His Word, not the least of which is the shelf of books on Greek and Hebrew word studies. Sometimes it helps to take a look at what the Scriptures say through the prism of one’s own language. Since there are those who insist on changing the English language to make it conform to preconceived theological ideas, their attempts deserve a study from the standpoint of English linguistics.

During Operation Desert Storm in the Persian Gulf, the chaplaincy office of the Christian Reformed Church sent out a letter to all churches requesting prayer for our chaplains and servicemen on duty in the area, a request we were quite willing to fulfill. What was striking about the letter, though, was the reference to our “women and men” serving in the armed forces. The phrase was unusual in its word order and made me pause to think about the message conveyed by the simple reversal of words. That the order was purposeful was reinforced by a repetition of the phrase further on in the letter. I got the message. Equality of the sexes, so why should men always come first? (I did wonder why, to emphasize equality, women was put first both times.) Not long after, a writer in Christianity Today mentioned “Eve and Adam.” OK, I got the message again.

Now, a simple rule of composition (or homiletics) is that the writer should stick to the point, but by deliberately derailing the reader’s train of thought, the writer is saying in effect, “What I am writing on the surface is not so important as that you understand that I am politically correct on the issue of women’s equality.” Am I overreacting to this simple use of words? Surely a writer has a right to his own style as long as his meaning is perfectly clear? I think the answer to both questions is “No” because of the way English “works.”


We do not speak simply in words, one strung after another. We speak in word groups -words combined in different grammatical structures (prepositional phrases, verbal phrases, clauses, etc.). These structures are the building blocks of our thoughts, which we form by putting the blocks in a particular order to convey meaning. The whole complex process becomes simplified as we memorize certain blocks of words, enabling us to speak freely without thinking about how we will form our sentences. Our brains become programmed for English so that the thought triggers the flow of words.

When we combine simple nouns, we use word pairs that often occur together, and we use them in the same order each time so that we don’t have to stop to decide which one to use first. Consider these common pairs which, for lack of any other technical term, we might call dyads:

• black and blue

• meat and potatoes

• toast and jam

• heaven and earth

• table and chairs

• frank and earnest

• black and white

• left and right

• boys and girls

• hand and foot

• here and there

• ham and eggs

• women and children

• salt and pepper

• thunder and lightning

• lettuce and tomato

• arms and legs

These are just a few, and no doubt you can think of many more. The point is that no one would say, “It’s as plain as white and black!” Why not? Are we prejudiced against white? No, it’s simply that we have universally accepted the “black and white” word order as a matter of convenience. (I wonder how many readers were puzzled because your minds read “black and white,” even though your eyes saw “white and black.” Did you have to reread it to straighten it out?)

But isn’t there a principle of interpretation in Biblical and literary studies that places the more important item first? (As in I Cor. 12:7–11, most commentators view the list of spiritual gifts in descending order of importance.) There are some things to note about that principle. First, it is only a principle, not a binding rule. Paul sets aside the principle at the end of I Cor. 13 where he declares: “And now these three remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love.” Second, the principle has nothing to do with the dyads that we couple for convenience. It has to do with lists of items that are not commonly paired.

It may be objected that certain of these dyads have gender reference, and in those the masculine is always first: boys and girls, men and women, sons and daughters. Doesn’t that order show that the language itself expresses a masculine dominance, that men are more important than women? Rather, what it shows is a movement from the general to the specific. To make clear what I mean, we must look at a second and far more important point. So leaving behind the dyadic mischief created by some in the name of equality, we pass on to inclusivism in language and subsequently in theology.


We have a problem in elementary English grammar concerning gender in pronouns. A teacher of a men’s Bible class might tell his students, “Everyone ought to read his Bible.” A teacher of a women’s Bible class would say, “Everyone ought to read her Bible.” But what should a preacher tell his mixed congregation? If he says his, he follows the principle taught for generations, that the masculine predominates. The unfortunate phrasing of that rule probably contributes to the indignation that some women members of the congregation might feel, as though they were being excluded from the necessity and consequent blessings of reading God’s Word.

Some insist that the solution is to refer to both his and her. But I find it difficult to stoop to such circumlocutions for several reasons, not the least of which is their awkwardness illustrated by the following revision of the NIV’s version of James 5:13–15:

Is anyone of you in trouble? He or she should pray. Is anyone happy? Let him or her sing songs of praise. Is anyone of you sick? He or she should call the elders of the church to pray over him or her with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him or her up. If he or she has sinned, he or she will be forgiven.

Another proposed solution is to switch to the plural. “Is anyone in trouble? They should pray.” Such usage is common, especially in colloquial speech. But in writing it is imprecise as well as illogical because it violates the consistency of number to avoid incompleteness of gender. And switching to the plural can create some real problems of ambiguity, as in “if anyone has a problem, they should speak to me.” (Who should speak to me, the one with the problem or the others who know about it?) Consistency is an aid to logic and clarity. The NRSV, trying to avoid being gender specific, uses the plural consistently throughout the James 5 passage:

Are any among you suffering? Let them pray. Are any sick? They should call for the elders of the church and they should pray over them.

The trouble with this solution is that it is not so much a translation as a paraphrase. The original passage is singular, and the NIV, even with its method of dynamic equivalency, still preserves the literal phrasing of the Greek with no change in meaning.

Regardless of how Bible translators work, how do we use the language, and can we insist that “sexism” be expunged from the English language? A person may use the language the way he (or she?) chooses, as long as he is understood. But can he insist everyone else conform to his usage? What we must do is recognize the way English works, regardless of how it got that way. And the principle of pronoun agreement in English is not that the masculine predominates, but rather that the feminine is included in the masculine. This principle is beautifully Biblical.

English has what we call a natural gender for pronouns only. Nouns do not have gender. Some languages, like Chinese, have no gender at all. The pronoun to, for instance, may mean he, she, or it, with the context indicating the reference. Some languages, like French, assign gender to everything. If you took French sometime back, you may remember that neuter gender has disappeared and everything becomes either masculine or feminine, so you understand when the Frenchman, struggling with English, says, “The house, she is large.” The problem with feminists is that they are like the Englishman who went into a French restaurant for lunch and ordered soup. When he was served his soup, he saw a fly floating in it. He protested to the waiter,

“There’s a fly in my soup! Le mouche!” The waiter bent over and said politely, “No, monsieur, la Douche.”

The Englishman looked startled and said, “My gracious, you’ve got very good eyesight!”

Just so, the feminists’ problem is that they equate grammatical gender with sexual differentiation. The two have very little to do with each other. For that reason a Frenchman can read in the beginning of John’s Gospel:

Au commencement etait la Parole, et la Parole etait avec Dieu, et la Parole etait Dieu. Elle etait au commencement avec Dieu. And he would be shocked ifyou suggested that the French version says the Word of God is a woman because of the use of La and elle.

The feminists’ problem of thinking sex and grammatical gender are the same is based upon the mistaken assumption that man and woman were created equally. It is true that men and women stand as equals before God respecting their salvation. In that sense they were created equal by God. But God did not create them equally. If that were so, Eve would have been formed from the dust of the ground, the same as Adam. This is an important distinction, not only for grammar, but for theology, and it does affect ow salvation. Paul carefully bases some of his instruction on this very distinction in I Corinthians 11:8,9: “For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; neither was man created for woman, but woman for man.”



The English words themselves reflect this distinction, giving a literal translation of Genesis 2:23: “She shall be called ‘woman ,’ for she was taken out of man.” The Hebrew words used are *iysh (man) and *ishah (woman). It is this creative distinction that feminists would deny in their attempts to change the word woman to the absurdity of womyn. Such attempts to stand before God as equally created beings rob women of a redemptive relationship with God. But before we look at how this is so, we have to consider one more fact of how words are used in Scripture.

Genesis 1:27 is a key verse for understanding God’s creative arrangement, for here God uses two different words for man. “So God created man in his own image.” The Hebrew for man here is adam, and it refers not only to our first parent, but to the entire human race, mankind. (The NRSV uses humankind, but that word seems not to solve the feminists’ problem in that it still has man smack: in the middle of it.) The last clause, “male and female he created them,” uses *iysh and *ishah. This last could easily be translated “man and woman he created them.” In Hebrew there are two words to distinguish beween the human race and male members of the race. This distinction is employed throughout the Old Testament. Laws in the Pentateuch, e.g., that are universally applied to all people use adam (Cf. Leviticus 13:2: “When a man shall have…[KJV] is properly translated “When anyone has…” by the NIV). Those laws which apply only to males or to females use *iysh and *ishah (Cf. Lev. 15 which speaks of particularly male and female body discharges).

The same differentiation is found in Greek. The word for man which refers to the whole human race is anthropos, as in Romans 5 where anthropos refers both to Adam and the human race (v. 12): di’ henos anthropou, “through one man,” and eis pantas anthropous, “to all men.” On the other hand, where man and woman are given as different sexes, the Greek uses aner and gyne, as in I Corinthians 11, where Paul talks about the difference in head distinction of words is just as consistent in the New Testament as in the Old.

Now, when God is so careful to distinguish by the very words He uses, it obligates us to pay attention. If being a part of man is anathema to feminists, then it follows that they unwittingly argue, not for inclusion in the redemptive plan of God, but for exclusion from it. Romans 5 makes it clear that all who are in Adam sinned, but through God’s grace all who are in Christ shall be made alive. The implication is that if one is not in Adam, he cannot be in Christ, for not having been made a sinner in Adam, he has no need of redemption in Christ. Feminism destroys federal theology in its insistence on distancing women from men because, even if Eve sinned prior to Adam’s sin, she still sinned in Adam because he was her federal head, her (and our) representative before God. Consider the nature of Eve’s sin. She not only turned away from God, but turned away from Adam’s representation in taking it upon herself to taste the forbidden fruit. Is this not the nature of the error of feminism?

Another consideration of the word man being used for everyone in English is that, rather than indicating male dominance, it becomes generalized and loses some of its force. Compare that to woman, which refers only to female persons and is therefore very specific. Man may mean male, or male and female; and therefore is less “gender specific” (read “sexually·distinctive”) than woman.

Some are still bothered by this double use of man in English. I heard a woman report to Classis Florida some years ago about the new Psalter Hymnal then in process. She referred to the old headings of the Heidelberg Catechism—“Man’s Misery, Man’s Deliverance, Man’s Gratitude”—and questioned why it should be necessary to teach young children that man refers to everyone before they could begin to understand the Catechism. I told her that it would not be necessary if some weren’t first insisting that man does not refer to everyone, because even young children readily understand the difference in the two uses of the term. But how are we to know if man refers to a single male or to the whole human race? It’s very simple and no one really has a problem with that, since we all automatically distinguish between the two by the use of the article:

Man is the only creature with the ability to speak.

God made man in His own image. But,

God made the man from the dust of the ground, but the woman was formed from the man’s side.

A man in a blue suit confronted me at the door.

Further, contextual framing guards against a confusion of terms.


The generic use of man creates another problem for those feminists who are radical enough to want to change the language as it refers to God Himself.

The purpose of speaking of God with feminine pronouns is apparently to emphasize the fact that God is sexless. However, to refer to God as she defeats the very purpose of doing so, since using the more generic masculine pronoun may simply refer to God as a person, whereas the more sexually distinctive female pronoun says that God is definitely female, a thought that is at the very least unscriptural.

If we change God to a she, other interesting problems arise. For instance, wouldn’t the bride of Christ then become the groom, referred to as he? (If Christ is God Himself [herself], shouldn’t she also then become the daughter of God? But I haven’ t heard of anyone yet seriously proposing that radically logical step.) Even the NRSV, in its attempts to appease the feminists, would not destroy the beauty of Paul’s imagery in Ephesians 5:22ff. The parallel is too clear beween husband and Christ, wife and Church.

Another feminist assumption is that our earthly fathers are the pattern by which we view God and that we consequently rob God of those feminine qualities that are rightfully His by not viewing Him as divine parent, like our father and mother. The mistake is in forsaking the Biblical view. Just as the writer of Hebrews 8:5 is careful to point out that the earthly temple was only a copy of the heavenly, true temple of God and not the reality itself, so the role of our fathers, marred by sin and creaturely being, is only a pale copy of the role of God as our heavenly Father. Doubtless, this is something of what Paul has in mind in Ephesians 3:14,15: “For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom his whole family in heaven and on earth derives its name.”

God is not a man or a woman, but He has chosen to reveal Himself in masculine terms, not only in grammatical gender, but in figures and imagery running consistently waugh His Word.

To say the language is hopelessly patriarchal because of cultural male dominance is to operate under the non-Christian assumption that language evolves as a naturally ascending activity of the species. (The cave man gradually assigned meaning to various grunts and groans till a viable language developed.) Instead, language devolves as a corruption of the gift of speech given as part of the image of God bestowed on man. The significance of this is that, as man became more and more corrupt through his willful sinning, the treatment of women deteriorated. As the redemptive power of God’s grace salted the earth through the church, women’s position and treatment were redeemed also. It is instructive that the emergence of radical feminism is evident in those societies where the Church is in decline. But an honest assessment of how the English language functions cannot be shown to reflect a Neanderthal view of women.


What shall we say then, to these things? Some conclusions may be drawn. Rather than arguing for a “sexless” language, feminists in the church might better work toward an implementation of the prescriptions of Scripture: “Honor your father and your mother” (not “your mother and her live-in boyfriend” or “your father and his gay partner”). “Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the church” because the bride-price is the sacrifice of self.

Finally, are words important? There is an implicit contradiction in thinking that the words we use are all important and must reflect current social mores, whereas the Word of God is not important because it can be altered at will. How much better to pattern our words as well as our thoughts after God’s thoughts and His Word.

Richard Stevens, a graduate of Westminster Seminary, has degrees in Theology and English Literature. He has served in missions in China and Russia. He resides in Cape Coral, FL.