Gender-Inclusive Language and Christian Love

December 30th, 2009 / 20 Comments

Communication is a two-way street.  It involves the communicator’s choice of language and a recipient’s interpretation of that language. The call for gender-inclusive language sometimes causes tension in Christian circles.

A great deal goes into the choices a communicator makes when choosing which words will be used.  The communicator’s life-experience, which includes culture, environment, and bodily structure, heavily influence those choices.  Some words will be chosen, because they seem to express perfectly what the communicator wants.  Other words will be bypassed, because their connotations create obstacles to clarity.

The recipient of communication makes choices when interpreting. Those choices are also heavily influenced by the recipient’s life-experience.  This life-experience acts as a lens through which the recipient interprets messages.

The biggest obstacles to clarity come when a communicator uses words hoping to be clear only to find that the recipient interprets those words to mean something quite different.  The obstacles create injury when the recipient interprets the words to mean something offensive.  Communicators are morally responsible to use language that tries to avoid injury while communicating effectively.

Communication problems are rampant not only because communicators and recipients have varying lenses of interpretation.  Problems also arise because the meanings of words change over time.  In addition, some words get attached to ways of thinking and acting that have a history of being offensive.

Take, as a prime example, the use of masculine language in writing and speaking.  While the communicator may mean to refer to all people when using the word “men,” the recipient may interpret the word to refer only to males.  Or, when the communicator uses “he” any time to refer to a male or female, the recipient may interpret “he” as referring only to males.

The obstacles in the case of gender-inclusive language are not merely about lack of clarity.  The obstacles can become moral ones. 

If I write, “Tom is having a claprocitex day,” I will not be making myself clear.  My interpreter will not likely know what “claprocitex” means.  But this will not be a moral issue, because the recipient will not likely know of any uses of “claprocitex” that have caused pain or injustice. 

The problem with using only masculine language, e.g., “he,” “him,” “men,” when referring to people in general is that these words carry a variety of histories.  Some of these histories includes marginalizing or silencing women.  And when an interpreter who knows that history hears a communicator using this language, the interpreter can find the language morally offensive.  It can be especially offensive to women who have found themselves personally treated unfairly because of this use.

Someone who inadvertently offends others through language may say, “If they would just give me a charitable interpretation, they would see that I don’t mean harm.”   But this retort cannot characterize a responsible ongoing dialogue.  As soon as the communicator discovers that the recipient of the message has been offended, the communicator must ask about the moral implications of his or her language.

Unfortunately, the issue of gender-inclusive language has been ridiculed as an attempt at political correctness.  The issue is more than about trying to meet the linguistic standards of contemporary culture, however.  The issue is sometimes a moral one.

The use of gender-inclusive language is especially important for Christians.  After all, Christians should heed the words of the Apostle Paul who wrote, “Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear” (Eph. 4:29). 

Christian communication should nearly always be about building up others in love.

We would likely not consider a Christian loving if he or she insisted always on referring to others who express happiness as “gay.”  Although the word can mean “happy,” most people in contemporary Western culture use this word to refer to homosexual men.  Insisting on calling happy males “gay” seems uncharitable.  If Christians intend to love in their speech, they would want to be careful in the use of “gay.”

In a way similar to the change of the word “gay,” many today interpret the word “men” as referring only to males.  In the minds of many, “he” is not equated with “person.”  “He” and “him” are masculine titles.  Some women find it uncharitable to be referred to using this masculine language.

Or consider the word “nigger.”  The word has been used throughout the history of the United States to keep those of African descent (and others with dark skin) from enjoying the privileges supposedly afforded all “men.”  At one time, in fact, African-Americans used the language of themselves in a nonderogatory manner, and most were not offended when “whites” used the language in reference to them.  But over time, this word has become a taboo.  We would not consider a Christian loving if he or she insisted upon using the word and arguing that everyone else ought not be offended.

In a similar way, using “men” when intending to refer to people in general has become offensive.  Just as “nigger” could be used to keep African-Americans from enjoying equal privileges with whites, using masculine language can – often inadvertently – keep women from enjoying equal privileges with men.

In short, Christians who become aware that gender-exclusive language can offend ought to use gender-inclusive language so as to express love and “give grace to those who hear” them. 

Of course, one of the difficulties of adopting gender-inclusive language is that it requires a change in the way we communicate.  Change is rarely easy.  But love often demands that we change. 

Changing one’s way of communication by choosing words that are gender-neutral seems to be what love now demands in our society.

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Comments

Bet Hannon

Thomas, thanks for your reflections.  While my own liberal mainline tradition wrestled with this a while back, I know that it’s getting wrestled with anew in more evangelical circles.

While you deal in this post only with inclusive language for referring to people, it’s just this same point you make that made me really examine the language for God that I use.  While “Father” for God flows so easily for many of us, not everyone hears that as loving and comforting. When two different women who were survivors of incest from their fathers shared how father-language for God made them fearful and anxious about coming near to God, I realized that I had to choose language carefully.  If I am going to build up others in love and help them grow closer to God in Christ, perhaps in some contexts, I might need to refrain from using father-language for God.

Later, I realized that I had made an idol out of father-language for God, and that set me on a journey of discovering an amazing diversity of images/metaphors for God (whom we can never fully capture in language) that are in the Bible.


Steve

Amen, amen and amen.


useful tips

At last, I found this article once again. You have few useful tips for my school project. This time, I won’t forget to bookmark it. smile


Andrew Firestone

Before I get into what I have to say let it be clear that I am not against gender inclusive language. I understand the importance in many situations.

I don’t believe the moral issue is as common in day-to-day conversation. Women just as frequently as men use gender exclusive language. It is common, possibly natural, for people to use a descriptor that correlates with their gender. I do feel that there are times, not many, when people tend to get over sensitive to the use of gender specific language and I feel it as much the moral responsibility of those interpreting the message to understand the culture of the communicator as it is the communicators responsibility to understand the culture of the interpreter.


Craig Wolfe

It was great to read this blog, for its topic is one that I struggle with daily! For me, the application of this message can be summarized with one statement, “But love often demands that we change.” When astute attention is paid to the happenings of this world, God’s hand is revealed. We are given daily opportunities to draw closer to others and God if we are only receptive to the idea of change.


Jason Montgomery

I completely agree that we should be conscious of the impact that our language has on others. We should also remember, however, that our intentions are equally important. Christians should not use gender-inclusive language because it is “politically correct,” but because they do not want to contribute to a culture of misogyny and inequality. How can love be fostered in a community where women are “separate but equal” to men in countless areas? Our language is the first necessary step to fixing these problems.


Allison Dietz

I agree with Andrew in that while I am not “against” gender-neutral language, I don’t think that saying mankind instead of humankind is offensive. I think that it is important to consider who one is talking to and the culture they come from. However, times are changing and when the Bible refers to men as both males and females, it is now common knowledge what is meant.


Sam Boydstun

The significance of the masculine heavy language mostly comes from basic parts of the language not changing over centuries. During the period the Bible was written only men were actually seen as a contribution to society. As women’s suffrage has reduced the social gab between the two genders, language has not changed to keep up. Were this the case there would be words that would be gender neutral commonly used.


Doug Mowry

Thank you so much for voicing this opinion from a solid Wesleyan perspective.  This should never be about what’s “politically correct” (which sounds like a conspiracy).  It is first to last about loving our neighbor.  Well done, Tom!


Alan Besherse

I had an assignment once where I had to “coach” an employee when he had written an e-mail that was gender exclusively written. I basically told him he was fine but to watch it next time. The problem I see, with most of the “inclusive language” craze, is that it is far to focused on singling out words that are used, instead of accually trying to understand the body of what is said. Using inclusive language is fine, but teaching it accually damages our ability to communicate because it teaches us to focuse on our own thoughts, experinces, and opinions instead of learning from what is being said. It teaches us to think critically about HOW things are said instead of WHAT is said, and can be a distraction or even impair our ability to learn from what is said. If the person speaking or writting is chauvinistic the body of the work will show that out. I think that is where we need to focus. Because by this they(the world)will know that you are my disciples, that you love one another. The whole of our lives must proclaim the work of Jesus in us not just our words.


Christina Uehlin

I have always said that people give advice based on what they’ve experienced. I often feel that there are many people who don’t acknowledge the truth of this and if we only realized why everyone’s advice is different, we would listen to them differently. What a blessing for communication that would be.


Allea Meza

Using gender exclusive language can become a habit. I agree that the meaning behind words is so much more important, but I think that in order to get to that meaning we have to constantly paint our ideas together- meaning when a statement is given, the reciprocate repeats it as he/she understands it, and the communicator edits it again. This method is tossed back and forth to derive the meaning. If we don’t work on creating gender-inclusive language I think it will eventually ingrain in us the idea that one sex is superior. This is kind of like saying negative things to yourself all the time-eventually you’ll start to believe what you keep repeating.


Arielle Askren

This presents an interesting topic both of Christians and general members of the human race. As a principle I feel that we should all respect each other and while we may not always see eye-to-eye this should not limit the amount of respect that we give a person. By changing the way that we communicate to include those around us, it allows our ministry to reach more people. This is the same reason why I do not swear. While I do not have any real issues with the use of profanity I have several close friends that do, so out of respect for them I try to use language that will build them up and encourage them through their walk. Both men AND WOMEN can do and change the ways that they communicate to help and support those around them as a form of respect!


Andrea Hills

I agree that it best to try to communicate in the most loving way and think about how our words might be interpreted by those hearing or reading them.  However, I also think it is important for those receiving the words to offer some level of grace to the person stating them.  It is impossible for people to be able to predict how every single individual is going to interpret and respond to specific words.  Some words may be obvious, but others are not, and in these cases I think that it is more important to look at what the person is trying to get across, rather than on the specific words they use.


jerry carr

THANK YOU for this excellent and much appreciated blog on the use of inclusive language.
My life vocation has been communication-oriented, in printed media and public speaking. I am not an expert in either but have been a Christian for
this time and remember my grandmother saying the words of Jesus, “From the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh.”
Though I have resorted to the use of “proof-texting” I believe this a great verse for Christian living and seeking for our hearts to be filled with the love of God.

I enjoy reading your blogs but this is my first attempt at expression. I hope it may help someone.

I keep looking for you in early church so I can show you my new WSB


Domingo M

It is a fact that as Christians we should never seek dominance over each other regardless of our own or our neighbor’s physical station or situation in life. We as Christians should submit readily to one another. Dominion and Glory belong only to God.

We must acknowledge the purposefulness of God in both creating Gender and developing and electing to use non-gender neutral languages in scripture.

This of course begs for a much better interpretation of scripture than has been traditionally offered, and not to mention stricter adherence to scripture than both sides of the gender argument have presented.

Gender can only be understood when it is applied for the express purpose that it was intended which is to illustrate the relationship between Christ and His Church. This is no relationship of equals. Between humans of any degree of gender there is no spiritual differentiation. We are all desperate unworthy sinners.

Thank you


Braeden Gray

I am of the stand that gender inclusive language is an unnecessary politically correct issue. For the most part I believe that when the Bible refers to mankind, people know that it is inclusive to both men and women. I have a hard time arguing over issues such as this that for me at least, carry no real spiritual weight. It does not matter whether or not we are politically correct. I think that sometimes we get so caught up in saying things so that we avoid offending people, we lose sight of the real issues or importance of what is being discussed.


Katie Thompson

For all the reasons listened I believe it crucial for believers to learn effective communication skills. It is no surprise that incorrect wording so easily upsets individuals. When you enter into a church service there is a sense of reverence and vulnerability. We, as the church body, should try our best to make our intensions clear. When that trust is gained it will be easier to avoid tension.


Mark Wilson

Your post speaks of the offense some take as a natural cultural reaction, but where I teach students are often taught that they should be offended by gender exclusive language. Most undergraduates don’t take offense until they have first been trained to detect and resent sexist language.

Yet Paul says love “is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered . . .believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” Teaching women they should be provoked, should assume sexist intent, and should resent the wrong is inconsistent with love.

I agree that in our communication we should express love—but I have female students complain that their Gender Studies courses are teaching a hatred and resentment of men. God’s love does not just flow in one politically correct direction.


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