News stories keep uncovering devastating, widespread sexual abuse in Catholic and Southern Baptist churches. Although abuse also occurs in other churches, it’s not surprising that more of the stories implicate the most male-dominated denominations.
Male dominance in the leadership and language of churches forms the foundation for this abuse of women. When males are given God-like status, they are more likely to feel entitled to do whatever they like and females not to question their authority.
The #MeToo movement that raised widespread awareness of the prevalence of sexual abuse and violence empowered women to break their silence about the abuse they have suffered in churches. #ChurchToo stories are a powerful reminder that sexual abuse isn’t limited to Hollywood.
George Whitefield, a founder of Methodism and the evangelical movement, ignited a spiritual revival in the 18th century called the Great Awakening. When a critic asked Whitefield why he preached so many times on the subject “You must be born again,” he replied, “Because sir, you must be born again.”
If you ask why I keep writing and preaching on inclusive language, I’ll take a cue from Whitefield and reply, “Because we must use inclusive language if we want to end abuse and contribute to justice and equality.”
Words matter. Inclusive language for humanity and divinity is vital to healing our churches and our world.
“Inclusive language for humanity and divinity is vital to healing our churches and our world.”
Some churches have more readily embraced inclusive language for humanity. Scripture readings come from the New Revised Standard Version or some other translation which uses inclusive language for humanity, such as “beloved” instead of “brothers.” Sermons refer to “humankind” instead of “mankind.” These churches sing from hymnals that have made changes, such as “Good Christian Friends, Rejoice” instead of “Good Christian Men, Rejoice.” But many churches continue to speak and sing of all people as “mankind” and “men” and “brothers.”
Even in those churches who would not say “men” for all people, I hear the exclusive expression “you guys” over and over again in Sunday school classes, sermons, conferences and social gatherings. It seems that “you guys” is becoming more prevalent, contributing to our male-dominated culture at the foundation of #ChurchToo.
More and more I find myself responding, “I am not a guy,” to waiters in restaurants, to people at conferences and even to people in progressive churches who refer to groups of women and men as “you guys.” Sometimes these are groups of all women, and still they call us “you guys.”
Just when I thought we’d about eliminated the so-called “generic” use of “man” because it really is exclusive, up pops “you guys” almost everywhere. Women and girls seem to use “you guys” as much as men and boys do. So why do people think it’s okay to call females by the male word “guys”?
Kendra Weddle, chair of Religion and Humanities at Texas Wesleyan University, writes that many people dismiss as unimportant critiques of the usage of such phrases as “chairmen” for women as well as men. “Yet, we begin to uncover the depths of our sexism if we substitute ‘women’ for ‘men’ in these cases.” We would not refer to a man as “chairwoman,” so why is it okay to refer to a woman as “chairman”?
The same goes for “you guys.” We would not refer to a group that included males as “you gals.” And we would not call an individual girl or woman a “guy,” so why would we call a group that includes females “you guys”? By the 1980s it had become clear that a group that includes women cannot be referred to as “man” or “mankind” because an individual woman cannot be called “man,” and the “generic” use of “man” left the grammar books.
“Making the Ultimate Power of the universe male gives the strongest support imaginable to the dominance of men and the devaluation of women.”
But now “you guys” sneaks in all over the place. The ways in which our male-dominant culture continues to perpetuate itself are insidious. Calling girls and women “guys” makes femaleness invisible. It says that males are still the measure of all things. Exclusively male language, even the seemingly innocuous “you guys,” devalues women and girls through this exclusion, contributing to a culture in which gender violence and discrimination are all too prevalent.
Male dominance in the leadership of churches also contributes to abuse by devaluing females. Many organizations are working for gender equality in church leadership. Equity for Women in the Church, birthed in the Alliance of Baptists, is an ecumenical movement working for equal representation of clergywomen as pastors of multicultural churches in order to transform church and society. The Gathering: A Womanist Church in Dallas, Texas, is also at the forefront of this transformation with a mission of racial equity, LGBTQ equality and dismantling PMS (patriarchy, misogyny and sexism).
The Gathering and Equity also understand the power of inclusive language for divinity. Andrea Clark Chambers, creator of Equity’s Calling in the Key of She project, includes this question in her presentations: “What difference would it make if little girls hear God’s name and it sounds like their own?” Irie Lynne Session and Kamilah Hall Sharp, co-pastors of The Gathering, call God “Mother” as well as “Father.” Faith Manning, minister of music, alternates “She” and “He” for God in songs.
The more I’ve tried to live out my call to pastoral ministry that includes writing and preaching on social justice, the more I’ve realized that resistance to gender equity is part of a larger culture that gives greatest value to males, especially white, heterosexual, able-bodied, financially privileged males. At the foundation of this culture is an image of a male God, sanctioning patterns of dominance and submission.
Naming and imaging God exclusively as a “guy” contributes to abuse of females. Making the Ultimate Power of the universe male gives the strongest support imaginable to the dominance of men and the devaluation of women. I have written extensively about the suffering that comes to all people and all creation from male-dominated theology that has at its foundation an exclusively masculine naming of God, and about the healing, peace and justice that come from gender-balanced names and images of Deity.
Drawing from my heritage as a Baptist preacher, I conclude with an invitation to change leadership and language in our churches. We live out the liberating Gospel through gender equality in church leadership and language. Changing male-dominant leadership and language that have been the norm for thousands of years may not always be easy or comfortable, but when we understand the suffering that results from failure to do so, we can change.
“Through our inclusive language and leadership we help change male-dominated culture at the root of #ChurchToo.”
We can start by changing “you guys” to “you all,” still only two words like “you guys,” or if you’re from the South, as I am, you can simply say, “y’all.” Another inclusive choice is “you folks” or “you people,” or just “you.” And we can begin including biblical female names for God, such as “Mother,” “Mother Eagle,” “Wisdom” (Hokmah in Hebrew and Sophia in the Greek language of the New Testament), “Midwife,” Ruah (“Spirit” in Hebrew).
Eliminating “you guys” and other exclusive references that make males the human norm, and adding female names for God and female church leaders can make a big difference in the lives of children and adults, helping us all to truly believe that people of all genders have equal value in the divine image. Through our inclusive language and leadership we help change male-dominated culture at the root of #ChurchToo.
So I will keep on writing and preaching and saying, “God is not a guy, and neither am I!”