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“While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven.” —Luke 24:51

A Report to the Church on Issues of Language and Gender

Issues Regarding Inclusive Language 

A concern for inclusive language bespeaks the church’s emerging conviction both that the diversity of the people of God is to be acknowledged and embraced in such a way that all may feel included, as well as the realization that every reference to God is limited in its capacity to express the reality and mystery of the One who has so variously encountered us. (Definitions and Guidelines on Inclusive Language, 197th General Assembly (1985))

The 210th General Assembly (1998) approved a recommendation from the Advocacy Committee for Women’s Concerns to: 

Direct the Office of Theology and Worship and Research Services to conduct research to assess the current status of the church on inclusive language policy at all levels.

In response, the Office of Theology and worship mailed questionnaires on inclusive language policy to every presbytery and synod. All seventeen synods and 134 out of the 174 presbyteries (77%) replied to the questionnaire. All results are on file in the Office of Theology and Worship and in the Office of the Director of the Congregational Ministries Division. Moreover, the Office of Theology and Worship has attempted not only to meet the letter of the GA referral, but to go beyond it to get a clearer picture of attitudes and practices related to inclusive language issues, especially in public worship. Working closely with Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s Office of Research Services, the Office of Theology and Worship commissioned a Presbyterian Panel in February, 1999 focusing on inclusive language issues. Research Services also adapted the questionnaire used in the Panel for all faculty at Presbyterian seminaries and a random sampling of students at all the Presbyterian seminaries plus the non-Presbyterian seminaries associated with the Committee on Theological Education (Fuller Theological Seminary and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary). The Office of Theology and Worship collected inclusive language policies from these seminaries as well.

In order to help the church think through the issues raised in the research, the Office of Theology and Worship convened a group of five people to help interpret the data in a theological context. The members of that group were: Linda Bixby, Elder, First Presbyterian Church, Westerville, Ohio; Mark Labberton, pastor, First Presbyterian Church, Berkeley, California; Kevin Park, Assistant Director, Asian-American Program, Princeton Theological Seminary; Amy Plantinga Pauw, Professor of Doctrinal Theology, Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary; Sally Willis-Watkins, Pastor, First Presbyterian Church, Flemington, New Jersey.

"Definitions and Guidelines on Inclusive Language" (1985) continues to be instructive, especially in its careful definitions, distinctions, and practical suggestions. The 210th General Assembly was wise to ask moderators of governing bodies to renew their commitment to the "Definitions and Guidelines." The work of the 197th General Assembly should continue to be the basis for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A)’s interpretation and practice. Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts:

the knowledge of God and of ourselves.
But, while joined by many bonds,
which one precedes and brings forth the other is not easy to discern.

— John Calvin, Institutes, I.i.1

Just as our knowledge of God and of ourselves is closely intertwined, so there are strong bonds between our language for God and our language for ourselves. Yet it is important to reaffirm the distinction made in the Inclusive Language Guidelines between language for the people of God and language for God. The issues are related, but the differences between them require that they be discussed separately.

Language for the People of God

The studies conducted by the Office of Research Services indicate that a commitment to inclusive language for the people of God reflects the consensus of the church. Significant majorities of church members, elders, and Ministers of the Word and Sacrament prefer the use of inclusive language for the people of God. Moreover, practice in public worship appears to reflect this commitment. This development should be celebrated. Significant change has occurred over the past twenty-five years in the church, both in attitude and practice. While it is tempting to look only at what has not been accomplished, it is important to take note of a sea-change in language for the people of God. Change in language is difficult to effect, but congregations and individuals within the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) have been responsive to the call for language that is inclusive of all people.

This is not to suggest that work is complete or that the issue is settled. While movement away from exclusive masculine language for the people of God has been largely successful in public worship, it is much more difficult to ascertain how language is used in Church school classes, youth groups and adult study groups.

The issue of language for the people of God in the reading of scripture has been influenced by the adoption by the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible. However, many congregations still use the Revised Standard Version or the New International Version, both of which use "man" as the generic term for human beings. The Office of Theology and Worship encourages those congregations to look again at Guideline 1.B of the "Definitions and Guidelines on Inclusive Language:" "Decisions to use inclusive language are in order when the lector has been able to discern that the intention of the original text has been preserved."

"O the depths of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!" (Romans 11:33)

The glorious reality is that there is one, living God, whom we know and trust. Our words for God are never adequate to the riches of God's being. Yet our language for God does not simply project our desires or wants. We believe that we can speak truly of God because God has revealed God's self to us:

Revelation is self-disclosure of God. Thus God is both its source and its content. Because God is the author and end, judge and redeemer of all creation, revelation also illumines our understanding of ourselves and of all other creatures. But it is first and foremost the revealer that is known in it. ("The Nature of Revelation in the Christian Tradition from a Reformed Perspective," 199th General Assembly (1987))

Our language for God should be appropriate to what we believe has been revealed about God and God’s way in the world. The primary issue in our God language is to be as faithful as possible to God's revelation to us. This requires seeking the guidance of the Holy Spirit as we practice attentiveness to God's witness in Scripture and to the pattern of God's Word made flesh in Jesus Christ.

The Reformed tradition understands the ever-present danger of idolatry. Thus we must not pretend that any of our designations for God ever "comprehends" God. We must not act as though we "own" the name of God, refusing to allow anyone to refer to God except in a limited number of ways. We must also not manipulate the names of God, as if the primary reason to speak of God were to achieve some pedagogical or psychological end.

The church should be thankful to those who raised before it the issue of God language, in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Being pushed to consider the full range of language for God in the Bible and in the tradition has enriched the church. We have been challenged to move beyond reliance on a few familiar terms. In fact, the consensus of the church does reflect the language from the "Definitions and Guidelines:"

Our language about God should be as intentionally diverse and varied as is that of the Bible and our theological tradition.

We reaffirm the use of "intentionally diverse and varied" language for God in worship. However, we note that the word inclusive does not refer in the same way to language for God as it does to language for the people of God. When discussing language for the people of God, the issue is clear: "the diversity of the people of God is to be acknowledged and embraced in such a way that all may feel included." That understanding founders when referring to God. Who or what is it that needs to be included when referring to God?

The issue is not reducible to feelings of inclusion in worship. Further, the data from the Presbyterian Panel tells us that four times as many church members feel "more included" in worship when God is referred to exclusively as "He" than do when referred to as "She." If feelings of inclusion wee the predominant arbiter of God language, the church might feel justified in maintaining the status quo.

The standard for God language is the language of the Bible and the language of our theological tradition. This is not to say that we are restricted in our language for God only to terms that have been used in the past. Since the Christian tradition is alive and ongoing, we are to hope for the gift of new language as well. Sometimes being faithful requires "singing to God a new song." Thus the Office of Theology and Worship suggest an important shift in terminology: from inclusive language for God to faithful or faith-building language for God. This shift does not signal a retreat from the issues raised in discussions of inclusive language, but shifts the term in the debate to one that is more helpful and in keeping with the Reformed tradition.

An important key in judging the faithfulness of a religious tradition is to look at the way of life it nurtures. The language of worship is central to helping us understand God and God's relationship to us. Limiting our language for God to a narrow range of comfortable images carries the risk of limiting our understanding of our relationship to God and to each other.

Although the research demonstrates a consensus regarding a desire for diverse and varied language for God, there are significant divisions in the church regarding specific usage. The primary locus for disagreement is over the place and form of Trinitarian language.

Christian worship and theology is, by nature, Trinitarian. It is Trinitarian, not because a particular formula is used, but because the doctrine of the Trinity sums up the good news of the gospel. The church has consistently confessed God as the Father who sends the Son for us and our salvation, in the power of the Holy Spirit. This confession, articulated in many ways throughout the tradition, proclaims that God is for us. The doctrine of the Trinity is not simply a confusing add-on to a more fundamental idea of God; Trinity is our very understanding of God.

The Office of Theology and Worship is concerned over a growing phenomenon occurring in the church: a functional Unitarianism that results from a concern to avoid traditional Trinitarian language. "Definitions and Guidelines on Inclusive Language" singles out Trinitarian language for special attention. There is much at stake in this theological issue. Because of concern about using the masculine language of Father and Son in worship, the liturgies produced by many entities within the church and in many congregations abandon traditional Trinitarian language and substitute frequent repetition of an undifferentiated God. Concern for those who object to masculine images for God and a concern for those who might object to alternative language for God lead to bland liturgical compromises that rob Scripture and tradition of their richness.

The Trinitarian designation, "Father-Son-Holy Spirit," is an ancient creedal formula and as such should not be altered. It is deeply rooted in our theological tradition, is shared widely by the church catholic, and is basic to many of our ecumenical relationships. It is not theologically acceptable to refer to the persons of the Trinity in terms of function alone (e.g., Shepherd, Helper, Refuge, Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier). The church needs to seek new terms which refer to the being of the persons of the Trinity (cf. Calvin, Institutes, I.i.3, 5, 16, 17). While the language of the Trinitarian formula should remain unchanged, we must still remember that this formula is not the only way by which we refer to God, and that efforts to express the fullness of our knowledge of God in terms of being and function are to be encouraged. ("Definitions and Guidelines on Inclusive Language," 197th General Assembly (1985))

The precise phrase "Father, Son and Holy Spirit," rarely occurs in Scripture, although its presence in Matthew 28:18 shaped the church’s baptismal practice. Other Trinitarian formulations are also present in the Bible, notably II Cor. 13:13, "The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you." But as "Definitions and Guidelines" note, "Father-Son-Holy Spirit" is the ancient creedal and baptismal formula, deeply rooted in our theological tradition, and shared widely by the church ecumenical. Thus the church requires that baptism must be in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The growing use of functional language for the Trinity (e.g. Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer) is not a theologically adequate substitute. This, of course, does not mean that one cannot ever use functional language to refer to God. Even Calvin called the first two books of the Institutes, "The Knowledge of God the Creator" and "The Knowledge of God the Redeemer in Christ." God is indeed our Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer. The problem arises when these appropriate functional terms are directly identified with the persons of the Trinity, suggesting "one person, one job," obscuring the relationality within God's own being that the doctrine of the Trinity affirms. "Definitions and Guidelines" encourages the church to continue to explore new ways to refer to the being of the persons of the Trinity. Nonetheless, the church must be vigilant lest it lose the heart of its faith unwittingly.

Issues to be Addressed

Among of the difficulties regarding God-language in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A) are the fracture that occurs along a number of troubling lines. For instance, in questions regarding the use of gender-inclusive forms of Trinitarian language, between 5% and 16% of church members and elders approve of these forms while Ministers of Word and Sacrament and faculty response ranged between 28% and 78%. The primary worship planners and shapers in the denomination have significantly different views than worshipers and elders. This helps to explain some of the tension present in local congregations.
However, there is an even more troubling division on God-language: gender. On gender-neutral language for Trinity, female ministers regularly answer in the affirmative at a rate two times higher than their male counterparts. Theologically educated women are far more likely than any other subgroup to prefer gender-neutral language for the Trinity.

By identifying these significant divisions in the church, we can see why discussions of God-language become so difficult. While church members and male ministers overwhelmingly favor traditional Trinitarian language, every single grouping of female ministers, faculty and students prefers non-traditional Trinitarian language. The church must be sensitive in these discussions. This is especially important in a situation where many of the tensions of the discussion may break down on gender lines. The church needs to be open to new ways of thinking even while it attempts to be faithful to the tradition.

As we continue this discussion on language use in the church, we must also pay attention to our obligation to the church’s children. It is vital that we teach our children the ways of God:

Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. (Deuteronomy 6:4-9 NSRV)

We must be able to speak vividly of the biblical God if we are to pass on to our children the fullness of authentic Christian faith. The Bible is a rich and complex story of God’s relationship to us. The more we immerse ourselves and our children in the stories of the Bible, the more images we find to enrich our worship and prayer. When we read the story of the Exodus, we understand how God is our deliverer. When we listen to Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem, we see how God can be like a mother hen. When we feel the rush of the flames of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, we experience the power of God. When we hear the command to baptize all nations in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, that name expresses for us the whole Gospel message. When we delve into the rich variety of biblical language, our faith is strengthened. As we teach the church’s children, we should teach them all the good news of God’s revelation. We have a rich and vital faith to pass on.

  1. The 212th General Assembly (2000) reaffirm "Definitions and Guidelines on Inclusive Language" adopted by the 197th General Assembly (1985), and that it request the Office of Theology and Worship to make "Definitions and Guidelines on Inclusive Language" available throughout the church.
  2. The 212th General Assembly direct the General Assembly Mission Council, through its Office of Theology and Worship, to constitute a task force from January 2001 until December 2002 to study the doctrine of the Trinity in Presbyterian theology and worship, and that the task force report to the 215th General Assembly (2003).
  3. The 212th General Assembly direct the Office of Theology and Worship to review and propose revisions to "Presbyterians at Worship in Mass Assemblies" (1985) and report to the 214th General Assembly (2002).


  • David, Thanks, that is an interesting perspective. I believe that the Definitions and Guidelines was referring to directly substituting Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer for Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, as in the baptismal liturgy. Both the Reformed and Orthodox traditions freely refer to God as Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier (the primary organizational pattern of Calvin's Institutes are God as Creator and God as Redeemer in Christ). In a Reformed/Orthodox dialogue in the 1980's, both the Reformed and Orthodox participants affirmed F, S, and HS as the "proper name" of God, a position that goes beyond what the Definitions and Guidelines document claims. So, I don't see as much distinction as you do. Charles by Charles Wiley PC(USA) Staff on 06/08/2011 at 10:27 a.m.

  • In the quote from '85 Definitions and Guidelines: "The Trinitarian designation, "Father-Son-Holy Spirit," is an ancient creedal formula and as such should not be altered. It is deeply rooted in our theological tradition, is shared widely by the church catholic, and is basic to many of our ecumenical relationships. It is not theologically acceptable to refer to the persons of the Trinity in terms of function alone (e.g., Shepherd, Helper, Refuge, Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier). " Correct me if I am wrong, but implies that the last sentence is also "shared widely by the church catholic..." and in my conversations with Orthodox that is just not so. They are more than comfortable to speak of God in terms of function. The insistence of speaking predominantly of God as persons is, in my view, deeply shaped not only by tradition but by evangelical view of a "personal relationship" with God. This doesn't work as well with the functions of God, but honestly is not biblical. Jewish tradition is not comfortable in individuals speaking familiarly with God. Yet now Jesus is everybody's BFF. "Abba" called out by Paul in Romans it isn't by an individual but by the local body. In Galatians it is the Spirit, not us calling. Our Orthodox brothers and sisters speak of the majesty and mystery of worship and God. This need to use specific, traditional, formulas does not help us. To imply that this is theologically held by the larger church is not accurate. God be with us. by David Moon-Wainwright on 06/07/2011 at 7:05 p.m.

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