THE BLOG
05/03/2014 11:14 am ET Updated Jul 03, 2014

Avoiding Sexism, Perhaps Excessive in Religion

Avoiding being labeled as "sexist" is very important these days. The current emphasis on bias-free language has created difficulties for today's writers. Some traditional uses of the English language that have long been the cornerstones of good writing are no longer acceptable: for example, using "he," "him," and "his" to refer to a male or a female (if the finder returns my watch, he will receive a reward). Because these pronouns are masculine-specific, they are now regarded as sexist.

Good writers will find ways to achieve gender-neutral language, but it may take some thought. There are gender-neutral words that were used in the past, some as long ago as the 1700s, that in later years we stopped using: for example, "mail carrier" (first recorded in 1788) and "police officer" (1797). "Fireman" was first recorded possibly as early as the 1300s and definitely by the 1500s. The non-gender "firefighter" was introduced in 1903, but never caught on. The first recorded use of "salesman" was in 1523. "Salesperson" was introduced in 1901, but was not used extensively until sixty years later.

The emphasis on using non-gender terminology began after World War II. During the war woman were forced into the workplace because so many men were in the armed forces. After the war, many women went back primarily to being housewives, while others were widows or had husbands who were disabled, and they worked in order to make a living. Some continued working outside the home because they wanted to. Today, women in the workplace is the norm, and we have gradually adopted using gender-neutral words.

Sometimes it is appropriate to use gender-specific language: "women's" studies; "men's" golf championship, "men's" final four; or "women's" state champions. It should be noted that in recent decades "woman" has replaced "lady" in such references. And such clumsy wording as "s/he" and "(wo)man" just don't work. "He/she" is now acceptable in informal writing, but not in formal writing. "You" is an acceptable gender-free substitute, but the third-person plural pronouns "they," " them," "their," and "themselves" are still considered ungrammatical in formal writing as substitutes for singular pronouns.

I have a wife, three daughters and six granddaughters, and I applaud using gender-neutral language. We need to do everything possible to make it clear that women should be respected and equal members of the business and professional sectors of today's workplace.

But as a theologian, a biblical scholar and a member of the clergy, I wonder if we have carried this "gender-neutral" thing too far. I am referring to the attempt in modern versions of the Bible and in prayers, responses and hymns to eliminate gender-bias language.

For example, in Genesis 1:26-27 the original Hebrew word that is correctly translated into English in older versions of the Bible as "man" appears as "humankind," "humans," and "human beings" in more recent versions. The same thing happens in the flood narrative (Genesis 8:21). In newer versions of the New Testament, the tendency is referring to Jesus as "Christ" or "Savior" instead of "Son" of God, making Jesus gender-neutral rather than masculine-specific. Instead of using the pronoun "He" in referring to God or to Jesus, their proper names are repeated. Even the opening of the Lord's Prayer in some versions is changed from "Our Father" to "Our Creator" or "Our God."

We see the same tendency of referring to God and Jesus in neutral-bias terms in creeds, prayers, responses and hymns used in worship services. For example, in the well-known hymn commonly referred to as the Doxology that dates back to 1551, the last line originally was: "Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost." In several modern hymnals that line has been changed to: "Creator, Christ, and Holy one." We see this same wording in calls to worship, prayers and responses.

The opening and closing lines of the statement of faith of one major denomination, written in 1959, read as follows: "We believe in God, the Eternal Spirit, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ and our Father, and to his deeds we testify: He . . . creates man in his own image and sets before him the ways of life and death . . . Blessing and honor, glory and power be unto him."

Compare the current version of that same statement of faith, which was revised in 1981 to include more inclusive language. "We believe in you, O God, Eternal Spirit, God of our Savior Jesus Christ and our God, and to your deeds we testify: You . . . create persons in your own image, and set before each one the ways of life and death . . . Blessing and honor, glory and power be unto you."

It is interesting that I don't find in today's bookstores, for example, The New English Version of Early Church Fathers, revising their writings to be more gender-neutral. I am referring to such renowned churchman as Tertullian, Saint Ambrose and Saint Augustine. And what about the works of Reformation leaders like Martin Luther, John Knox and John Calvin; do we update their works to make them gender-neutral?

Getting out of the religious sector and turning to such playwrights, poets and authors as William Shakespeare, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Robert or Elizabeth Barrett Browning and James Whitcomb Riley: do we edit their works to make them gender-neutral?

I fail to understand why religious leaders are so determined on making God appear gender-neutral when in both the Old and New Testaments God is clearly portrayed as our spiritual or heavenly "father." What is so bad about being a strong and loving father figure? People may debate whether or not Jesus really was the expected Jewish Messiah, but Jesus was clearly a historical figure, and Jesus was clearly gender-specific--he was a male. Rewriting the Jewish and Christian Holy Scriptures in order to accomplish today's emphasis on being gender-neutral is, in my opinion, going too far.

(The Chicago Manual of Style used as the primary grammatical authority.)