This article was originally published in the Spring ’10 issue of Revisions, Gender and Christianity.
Some are frustrated by how the Bible refers to God in masculine terms, especially in this age of gender egalitarianism, and wonder why God is described as a “he” in the text. We must learn how God formed the natural realm we live in, in order to appreciate how God uses language and relationships we understand to explain Himself to us. Ultimately, questions about the gender of God boil down to the chief and more fundamental question of God’s nature: Who is God? What exactly characterizes the essence of God? This is a far more prolific line of enquiry to be enamored with.
Concerning these questions, we must rely on God’s revelation. This involves the word of God, as Psalm 119 so unequivocally declares: “Thy word have I hid in mine heart, that I might not sin against thee” (v. 11, KJV); “Stablish thy word unto thy servant, who [is devoted] to thy fear” (v. 38); “Thy word [is] a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path” (v. 105). Revelation from God also requires the Holy Spirit. “For what man knoweth the things of a man, save the spirit of man which is in him?” the apostle Paul asks pointedly. “Even so the things of God knoweth no man, but the Spirit of God” (I Corinthians 2:11). We can understand, by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit who teaches us (John 14:26), when God Himself explains who He is through His word.
The Bible declares that God is the Creator (Genesis 1:1). He existed before time (John 1:1) and was the One who made “all things” (v. 3)—time, space, energy, matter, and all of nature. The LORD did not haphazardly create things that jumbled and blended together into homogeneity. The book of Genesis not only tells us that God brought light, the sky, land and vegetation, stars, birds and sea creatures, and land creatures and humans into existence, but He did so in a deliberately ordered fashion marked by distinctions. Light was separated from darkness, seas were gathered to let dry land appear, and stars governed seasons, days and years. Furthermore, plants produced seed “after his kind” and animals were made “after their kind”—in other words, within each unique species. God continued this theme of order and distinction with the pinnacle of creation: “God created man in His own image” and He divided “man” into male and female (Genesis 1:27).
God saw that it was “not good for the man to be alone” and made him a “helper” (Genesis 2:18, NASB). Both male and female were made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27, 5:1–2) and therefore created equal in that sense. They have a complementary relationship designed by God—the man is assigned the duty of headship (Ephesians 5:23) and protection (I Peter 3:7) in the family and the woman helps and completes the man (I Corinthians 11:8–9). God wants the man to love his wife sacrificially (Ephesians 5:25) as his own body (v. 28) and the woman to revere the man (v. 33) and so honor the word of God (Titus 2:5). In accordance with God’s design, man and woman are to behave as one, despite being physically separate: “Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh” (Genesis 2:24, KJV). In the end, a marvelous, spiritual union is portrayed: “Nevertheless neither is the man without the woman, neither the woman without the man, in the Lord. For as the woman [is] of the man, even so [is] the man also by the woman; but all things of God” (I Corinthians 11:11,12).
Hence, Scripture uses masculine language to identify God because He is to be the Head of all creation: “Heaven is My throne and the earth is My footstool,” the LORD declares (Isaiah 66:1). The LORD is described as the husband of His wife Israel: “For thy Maker [is] thine husband; the LORD of hosts [is] his name; and thy Redeemer the Holy One of Israel…” (Isaiah 54:5). Our heavenly Father is the omniscient provider who provides good things to “them that ask” (Luke 11:13). He sent His only Son, Jesus Christ, the “firstborn of all creation” (Colossians 1:15), an implication in the context of Hebrew and Greek culture that Christ is to receive His Father’s inheritance. In language that parallels that of husband and wife, Ephesians 5:23–27 describes how Christ gave Himself up for us and is now the head of the body of Christ, the church (Colossians 1:18). God uses His original arrangement for the bond between man and woman—something we can understand—to reveal His relationship to creation, the LORD’S relationship to Israel, and Christ’s relationship to His body.
God deemed His establishment of the natural order as “very good” (Genesis 1:31). He placed distinct elements in a harmonious pattern, a perfect arrangement. Therefore, we should be content with God’s original plans and intentions for us. Not only should we accept the language God communicates to us with, but we should also seek to conduct our relationships, interact with our environment, and live our lives consistent with God’s ways. The Lord Jesus Christ displays high regard for God’s creation in Matthew 19:4–6 by affirming the divine design in the bond between man and woman. Paul reminds us to live according to the created order (I Timothy 2:12–14). Of course, God’s creation suffered a severe blow by the fall of man, which distorted and cursed all the earth (Genesis 3:17–19). However, the Bible gives the account of God’s work of redemption and looks forward to the future “restoration of all things” (Act 3:21).
Rather than dividing ourselves over the question of gender and language usage, we should instead seek the underlying issue: the nature of God. From Scripture, we discover that God ascribed various names to Himself. Biblical names are not merely labels in the context of Scripture—someone’s name also reflected the character, history, and/or prophetic future of that person. For example, Ruth means “friendship”, Shemuel (Samuel) literally means “his name is God” but sounds like “heard of God”, and Jeshua (Jesus) means “the LORD is salvation”. Similarly, the names of God as recorded in the text provide insights into His relationship to us, His character, and His past and future works—essential information for knowing who God is. His word declares that He is YHVH, the self-existent God. He is Elohim, the Creator of the heavens and the earth. As El Olam, He is unbounded by time or space. He is the God of justice (Elohim Mishpat) and strength (Elohim Mauzi), and He desires blessing for His people as El Shaddai, God Almighty.
Even this brief snapshot of the nature of God can cast doubt upon the sensibility of arguing over gender. Gender is an aspect of the natural order constrained by time and space, and God transcends these limitations. The LORD is neither male nor female—He is God! Even believers in Christ are “neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ” (Galatians 3:28). God uses the personal pronoun “he” to refer to Himself in order to help us understand His relationship to us via the relationships we understand from creation. Let us advance beyond divisions over gender and embark on the far more precious journey to understand God. Keeping in mind that a name in the Bible represents that person’s character, let us join David’s passionate cry, “O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!” (Psalm 8:9), the earth which we will rule as “joint-heirs” during Christ’s reign (Romans 8:17).