God – Male or female?

In around late 2014, I challenged myself to properly explore what I thought my theology was, in relation to how those in the LGBTQ+ community could have a relationship with God and still remain LGBTQ+.  That was in the days when I thought being LGBTQ+ as a choice.  How wrong that was!  The more I read, the more I grew increasingly excited as I realised that I could see God not only welcomes the community, but embraces them in love as His own children, just as he had, me.  I discovered there was no difference in His sight, and I have subsequently watched the Holy Spirit working in many of their lives, just as I believed He had been at work in mine. 

As I began to change my mind (in probably early 2016 – possibly slightly earlier), I wrote down what I was discovering not just from the Bible, but books, science, statistics, the verbal stories of those within the community, and, perhaps equally importantly, applying logic.  This formed what eventually became my essay, which I clumsily entitled “Changing Minds:- A Thorough Exploration of the Issues To Reconcile being LGBTQ+ with the Bible”.  As part of this thinking, I also talked about the gender of God, and this month I wanted to revisit that issue. 

At some point I need to create a shortened form of my essay, but every time I try to make a start, I get side-tracked — sometimes losing the motivation as I wonder where to start, whether to use the same framework as before, or to start again completely from scratch and won’t that be a waste of what I have already written?

I was brought up to unquestionably think of God as male – it never occurred to me to think of Him as anything else.  Why would it?  Everyone talks about God as being male, from the Biblical authors, to Bible commentary writers, and also theologians.  To suggest anything different seems to be quite wrong.  Indeed, Jesus himself talks many times about God as being “my Father” — and he should know!  Jesus taught us to pray saying “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name…”  Whenever Jesus prayed or spoke of God, he always addressed God as “Father”.  For example, read through John chapters14-18 and see how many times Jesus refers to God as Father.  And this is typified by the interaction between Thomas and Phillip, when talking with Jesus, in John 14:

5 Thomas said to him, ‘Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?’
6 Jesus answered, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 7 If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.’
8 Philip said, ‘Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.’
9 Jesus answered: ‘Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, “Show us the Father”? 10 Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me?

So, Jesus uses male words to refer to God nine times in those 6 verses.  Why go muddying the water and question something that doesn’t need questioning?  Especially, why question something that Jesus seems to make so clear in so many places?

I think for me I started to ask the question when I was looking at how I viewed the issue of Trans* from a Christian perspective and what defines us as male or female.  I then started thinking about why is it that we think of God as male, and what makes God male?  I realised there was precious little that really identified God as male using the identifiers we use today.  So … is God Male, or Female?

Personally, I think it’s a bad question.  We are immediately trying to put God in a box to allow us to control the narrative.  I feel we shouldn’t assign a gender to God at all.  The genders we have are largely defined by our sex organs.  What is their purpose?  Their primary purpose is to create new life (as they typically fall into two types each with its own function), but they have a secondary purpose in that they allow the removal of fluids the body needs to expel.  

A spirit-being (hoping that’s not too clumsy!), as we understand them, does not need them, so how do we then attribute a gender to God.  In human terms we perhaps should say that God must be physically (however that reveals itself) gender neutral.

(Oh, and if God could be male because someone says he is, even if he has no sex organs, why can’t others identify with a gender not assessed at birth?)

But does it matter whether God is male or female?  Mmmm…, not really, but I think it does help some of us relate to, and imagine God – but I also think that concept has damaged us. To briefly use a massive generalisation to summarise the whole of western human history, our idea of a male conquering God has informed our attitudes and psyche.  We have grown up with male images of God as exemplified by massive paintings in our old churches, with pictures of God sitting on a cloud, or throwing someone into hell (as shown in the Chaldon Doom Mural above, which I visited a couple of times in my younger years), and by depictions of God in movies and on TV. 

In pre-Christian times we had the Greco-Roman pantheon of gods led by Jupiter in the Roman period, and Zeus in the Athenian period, Atum in Ancient Egypt, and Marduk for the Babylonians.  The Judeo-Christian God, YHWH/Yahweh, began to become known during the time of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  Each god was seen as powerful, dominant and conquering, wiping out all those that displeased them — which are all very male characteristics.

If we have a concept of an all-conquering, dominant, debatably violent god who we focus our attention on, the tendency is that we will take on those characteristics ourselves.  God becomes an exemplar.  In Philippians 4, Paul writes:

8 Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. 

What is the point of that verse?  Surely Paul is saying that the more we focus on those things the more we will take on those characteristics.  So logically, the more we focus on negative things the more negative characteristics we ourselves will exhibit.  This principle of focussing on something, is what advertisers rely on to get us to part with our money.  They know it only too well that if we are shown pictures of a new, upgraded phone (laptop, PC, car, holiday, soap powder…), along with depicting how much better we will feel once we have it, the more likely we are to buy the product.

So, when we look back through history, we can see these powerful male supreme beings heading all the major religions of each civilisation.  They present powerful images that may have helped develop, and then reinforce, what we would call today a very male centric society, and perhaps contributes to underpinning our inherent societal misogynistic attitudes.

So, from that perspective I think it is a bad thing to think that God is solely male, as it has prevented us from having a more complete image of who God is.  Within the church, the very male concept of God has helped limit what women can do by way of ministry and has therefore stunted church growth.

As I wrote that, I was reminded of the 1982 Jim Henson film “The Dark Crystal” where the evil Skeksis ruled the lands, under the influence of the damaged Crystal of Truth.  [Spoilers ahead – but if you haven’t watched it by now, you probably never will!] Spread around the land were the peace-loving Mystics.  When a Mystic died, or was killed, a Skeksis would also disappear – and vice versa.  At the end of the film, the magical Dark Crystal was made whole again by a Gelfling (think of something like a very young teen-Hobbit-child from another book/film!).  As the Crystal of Truth is made whole again each Skeksis merges together with it’s alter-ego Mystic, to form a new combined divine angelic being, called an urSkek.  The urSkeks then ascend to a higher level of existence, leaving the Crystal of Truth to the Gelflings in the now-rejuvenated land.

The point I’m making is that just as the Mystics and Skeksis needed each other to be complete and wholly functional – one without the other created chaos and harm, so we need each other.  We need diversity to thrive.  Diversity challenges our ideas and thinking – indeed it challenged my own thinking and deepened my own faith as I tried to make sense of what I read in the Bible, and what I saw around me.

Looking at sexuality, this is something that really didn’t cause much issue at the time the Bible was written, although we know homosexuals and trans* people have existed since the creation of the world, because they appear in the writings, pictures and carvings of the time, but they were generally accepted even if people weren’t wholly accepting.  They seem to have been regarded as “different”, but I haven’t found anything portraying them as predators, which is the way some want to depict them today.  There are predators, but there are many, many more straight predators but it’s almost like they don’t count in listening to much of today’s narrative!

The concept of sexuality, as it relates to human identity and orientation, is a complex and multifaceted aspect of human history.  It is not possible to pinpoint an exact moment or time period when the idea of sexuality was developed, as it has evolved across cultures, and throughout history.

Various societies throughout antiquity had differing attitudes toward sexuality.  We know that ancient Greek and Roman civilizations acknowledged a range of sexual expressions and relationships, including same-sex relationships.  In contrast, other cultures held different norms and beliefs surrounding sexuality.

The modern understanding of human sexuality began to take shape in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  Sigmund Freud, a prominent figure in the field of psychology, contributed to the development of theories around human sexuality.  The emergence of the discipline of sexology, pioneered by figures like Magnus Hirschfeld and Alfred Kinsey, further expanded the understanding of sexuality as a diverse and complex aspect of human experience.  Nevertheless, whilst they may have given the field of human sexuality a push start, many would say some of the early research was flawed by today’s standards, but they shone a light into a new area.

Today we are living through a kind of culture war as we look to encourage the societal acceptance of those who identify as LGBTQ+, whilst others see this acceptance as a threat to deeply held beliefs.  I would like to see those who feel under threat really examine what they believe, and work out why they believe it, having based that theology from scripture.  I would also love them to read the Bible with an open mind – open, not in a vacuous sense, but in the sense of being curious — prepared to accept there is a different and wholly Biblical narrative.  One of the purposes of this website is to assure the LGBTQ+ community that they are loved from the depth of God’s heart, and that the Bible does not condemn them.  Sometimes it is difficult to understand and relate to God’s love because we have grown up with an image of a vengeful God, much like the headmaster, in Pink Floyd’s “The Wall”:

You!  Yes!  You behind the bike sheds!  Stand still, laddie!
(If you don’t eat your meat, you can’t have any pudding!
How can you have any pudding if you don’t eat your meat?)
(You!  Yes!  You behind the bike sheds!  Stand still, laddie!)

At birth, we determine a baby’s gender by whether they have a penis or vagina?  But as they get older, we assess gender perhaps by the toys they play with, the clothes they wear, their hairstyles, and, then from teenaged years we start to look at a person’s appearance and shape, as well as by what they wear.  Sometimes we get that wrong.  But none of this is valid when looking at God!

In human terms, medics would also talk about the chromosomes we have.  Typically, a female has XX Chromosomes and males XY. 

“Because females tend to only have X chromosomes, the egg cells that they produce typically carry an X chromosome, while the male sperm cell can carry either an X or Y. Therefore, the sex chromosome that a male sperm carries determines whether the offspring will develop into a male or a female.” https://embryo.asu.edu/pages/sex-determination-humans.

That article is very good at explaining in a relatively reader friendly way, how fertilization occurs and some of the problems that occur when people are born with other combinations of Chromosomes, like XXY (Klinefelter syndrome); X0 (Turner syndrome); females who are born with XY Chromosomes (Swyer syndrome); males who have XX Chromosomes (de la Chapelle syndrome)

Once again God won’t have any chromosomes, so that can’t be used to assign a gender, but as I said earlier, I would argue that we shouldn’t assign any gender to God because that sets limits on how we perceive God.  We are frequently taught that God is too big for our imagination, but then we put “Him” in this “male” box, or force her into a female box.  Deuteronomy 4: 15-18 says: 

Therefore watch yourselves very carefully, 16 so that you do not become corrupt and make for yourselves an idol, an image of any shape, whether formed like a man or a woman, 17 or like any animal on earth or any bird that flies in the air, 18 or like any creature that moves along the ground or any fish in the waters below. 

Creating an idol in any form to represent God, limits God in our minds.  I would therefore contend that by saying God is “formed like a man”(or woman) limits God, and I think that is wrong.  [I am aware that I have sometimes been forced to use male pronouns in this piece, but only to make it read easier.  I have tried where I can, to avoid pronouns.]

Another question: How does God refer to himself?  When Moses meets God, he asks God what his name is and God enigmatically answers “I AM WHO I AM.  [Or  I WILL BE WHAT I WILL BE]  This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I AM has sent me to you.’” God goes on to describe himself as “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.’  However, we sadly don’t get the story about how God introduced and described himself to Abraham.  Why does God use the description I AM WHO I AM.  [Or, I WILL BE WHAT I WILL BE]?  This is generally understood to mean that God is saying that it is impossible to encapsulate everything that God is with one name because He is Infinite and there is no way to limit or pigeon-hole him as we like to do.  As Job says in chapter 11: 7Can you fathom the mysteries of God?  Can you probe the limits of the Almighty?

As I said at the start, the Bible talks of God in male terms (such as Father and King – particularly in Revelation), but this may reflect the era in which it was written and the ideas of the writers, rather than any true gender.  I also wonder whether Jesus referred to God as Father, because that was the easiest way for his hearers to understand at that time.  We understand that the Holy Spirit is a person (the third person of the Trinity), but we never assign a gender there.  Why not?  Some like to think of the Holy Spirit as female, because the characteristics of the Holy Spirit are more feminine, and it makes it more complete to depict a family.  But there is nothing in Scripture that to my mind validates this concept.

Is it a new idea to want to question God’s gender?  No.  Going back through history there have been others who have been questioning of God’s gender.  In a recent book by Rabbi Mark Sameth “The Name: A History of the Dual‑Gendered Hebrew Name for God” [Wipf & Stock]  The book summary reads: The God of Ancient Israel — universally referred to in the masculine today — was understood by its earliest worshippers to be a dual-gendered male-female deity.  So argues Mark Sameth in “The Name”.  But Sameth traces the name to the Late Bronze Age and argues that it was expressed Hu-He — Hebrew for He‑She.  Among the Jewish Mystics* we learn this has long been an open secret.  [*Early Rabbinic mysticism (early centuries after Jesus) and onwards through Kabbalah (12th- to 13th-century Spain and Southern France).]  Personally, I am cautious because of the difficulty of verification, but it is fascinating, and I have also come across this same thinking elsewhere.

Then there is Julian of Norwich, today known for her writings “Revelations of Divine Love”, which are the earliest surviving English language works by a woman.  She lived in the mid-late fourteenth Century and after some mystical visions from God, wrote about them in the book mentioned above.  In chapter 62 she talks about God being our Mother, a little on the lines of this, which comes from the small book of her writings called “Enfolded in Love”:

God, Our Father and Mother

As truly as God is our father, so just as truly is he our mother.

In our father, God Almighty, we have our being; in our merciful mother we are remade and restored.  Our fragmented lives are knit together and made perfect man.  And by giving and yielding ourselves, through grace, to the Holy Spirit we are made whole.

It is I, the strength and goodness of fatherhood.  It is I, the Wisdom of motherhood.  It is I, the light and grace of holy love.  It is I, the Trinity, it is I, the unity.  I am the sovereign goodness in all things.  It is I who teach you to love.  It is I who teach you to desire.  It is I who am the reward of all true desiring.

As we come to the end, let’s turn back to the Bible and see a couple of things written about God.  We haven’t really time for this, but what can we learn about God’s gender from the way he talks to us?  Let’s briefly look at Exodus 34:6-7a:

And He (The Lord), passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.”

The essence of those words “slow to anger, abounding in love” are also repeated many times, in Numbers 14:18; Nehemiah 9:17; Psalms 86:15; 103:8; 145:8; Joel 2:13; Jonah 4:2 and Nahum 1:3

In Isaiah 42 we have the prophetic passage about Jesus, and, as we saw earlier,  “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father”, so, what is true of Jesus is also true of God. Isaiah writes:

He will not shout or cry out,
    or raise his voice in the streets.
A bruised reed he will not break,
    and a smouldering wick he will not snuff out.
In faithfulness he will bring forth justice;
    he will not falter or be discouraged
till he establishes justice on earth.
    In his teaching the islands will put their hope.”

Then in verse 14 he writes:

 14 “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.

This is not the language of the warrior king.  Instead, our God is one who can be known personally, and is someone who cares passionately for each one of us, wanting the best for us and desiring that we each reach the full potential we are capable of being.

Whether you agree with me or not, I hope I have prompted some thoughts.  Let me know what you think. using the Contact page.

Useful Links:









https://theconversation.com/what-the-early-church-thought-about-gods-gender-100077 (This one I came across as I was writing the final paragraph.  Well worth a read and I loved the final paragraph which says: “It is probably best, then, for modern day Christians to heed the words and warning of Bishop Augustine, who once said, “si comprehendis non est Deus.” “If you have understood, then what you have understood is not God.”