In western society, the role and standing of women have garnered increased attention since the late twentieth century. The ever-changing notion of equality has given rise to a small contingent of voices—even within the church—that have begun to speak of God in feminine terms.
Have we been reading our Bibles wrong? Is God strictly male? Or can God be a woman, instead?
God presents Himself and describes Himself as male, so it is incorrect to describe God as a woman. However, the fullness of God transcends gender. Both men and women are equally made in God’s image, and both are necessary to reflect His image.
Why Think of God as a Woman?
Depending on the speaker’s intent, a reference to ‘Heavenly Mother’ or closing a prayer by saying ‘a-women’ might simply be a pushback against the perception of patriarchy, or even a derision meant to incense listeners.
Still, others take a more sincere view, suggesting that the language and the context of the Bible allow us to consider the notion that God can be a woman. This view gained mainstream popularity with the release of William Paul Young’s novel, The Shack, which portrays both the Father and the Holy Spirit as female characters.
Let’s examine some of the arguments for considering God as a woman to see if they hold up to scrutiny.
Arguments for the femininity of God have been put forth for linguistic reasons. One argument is that the Hebrew word for ‘Spirit,’ ruah is a feminine noun. But this argument ignores the Greek equivalent, pneuma, which is grammatically masculine.
Such linguistic arguments are weak and often originate from English speakers who do not natively use grammatical gender. But as speakers of other languages know, a word’s grammatical gender is not related to its sex, except (in most cases) in reference to animate (living) creatures.
The Hebrew ruah and the Greek pneuma both represent the inanimate nouns ‘air’ and ‘breath.’ And it is the quality of air—not its gender—that causes the same words to mean ‘spirit.’
Where grammatical gender matters—in reference to living beings—God is consistently described in both the Old and New Testaments with masculine nouns, adjectives, and pronouns.
Created Male and Female
Then God said,
“Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness…”
So God created mankind in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.Genesis 1:26-27
Proponents of a female God cite the creation account as evidence that at least one member of the Trinity is female. Verse 26 above shows God speaking of Himself in plural terms, and the outcome in the following verse is God’s image expressed in two genders.
Inconveniently for this argument, the first part of verse 27 depicts God in male terms as He creates. But this also gives us a clue as to why God created two genders and why He expresses Himself in male terms.
Why Two Genders?
If God is male, why did He create two genders? The simple answer is that being created in God’s image is far more complex than having particular chromosomes or body parts. Humanity reflects the essence of God’s character.
No other creatures have the capacity to love, reason, or perceive beauty as humans do. Additionally, because God is triune and inherently relational, He designed us for the capacity to relate to each other at a deeply intimate level. So God’s image is revealed not only in individual men and women but in the union of husband and wife.
That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh. - Genesis 2:24.
If God had made humans androgynous, asexual creatures, we would not experience the depth of relationality that He intends for us. It takes both genders to express the full image of God, but each gender is designed to individually express aspects of God’s image.
Masculine and Feminine Traits
Consider these two verses from Isaiah 42:
- The Lord will march out like a champion, like a warrior he will stir up his zeal;
with a shout he will raise the battle cry and will triumph over his enemies. (v 13)
- For a long time I have kept silent, I have been quiet and held myself back.
But now, like a woman in childbirth, I cry out, I gasp and pant. (v 14)
Without skipping a beat, God goes from describing Himself in very masculine terms as a warrior to comparing Himself to a woman in childbirth. Similarly, in Moses’ song of warning, he says of Israel, “You deserted the Rock, who fathered you; you forgot the God who gave you birth.” (Deuteronomy 32:18)
Throughout scripture, God reveals aspects of His character with illustrations that are both male and female. In doing so, He shows us that He possesses—and is the source of—all good qualities. Some such qualities He made more prominent in women, and others in men.
Why? Because men and women have different roles in God’s creation.
Male and Female Roles
Paul uses marriage to explain Christ’s commitment to the church, while simultaneously holding up Christ as an example for married couples to follow:
For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.
Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her ... After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church— Ephesians 5:23-25, 29
In doing so, Paul gives us some insight into why God presents Himself as male, and this has to do with headship, leadership, and the power to create: qualities that are Biblically described as masculine, and which reflect the role that God intends for men to take.
This does not, as some interpretations suggest, diminish the worth or the role of women in any way. It simply reveals that God has designed men and women with different—but equally necessary—roles.
Can God be a Woman and a Man?
The full mystery of the Trinity is beyond our capacity to grasp. It is accurate to say that God transcends gender because He is infinite and self-complete. But He created us male and female in order to express truths about Himself in a manner that suits His purposes.
Though God’s purposes prompt Him to present Himself as male, both men and women are equally made in His image, by Him, and for Him.
There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus - Galatians 3:28