Why the Inclusive Language Lectionary?

by Burton H. Throckmorton, Jr.

Dr. Throckmorton is Hayes professor of New Testament language and literature at Bangor Theological Seminary in Bangor, Maine.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, August 1-8, 1984, p. 742.  Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


When it is insisted that only masculine pronouns be used for God, and that it is good to address God as Father but pagan and baalistic to address God as Mother, one begins to suspect that God is not believed to transcend sexuality at all but that, on the contrary, God is being used to legitimize patriarchalism.

The initial reactions to An Inclusive Language Lectionary: Readings for Year A. published in October 1983, have run the gamut from great joy to bitter hostility. All of us who worked on it expected both. We knew that countless men and women across this country would welcome a version of Scripture readings for worship in the church that were not sexist but inclusive of the whole congregation. We also knew that many fundamentalists, antifeminists and the more conservative Christian groups would respond negatively. But two other reactions were less expected: first, the enormous interest in the Lectionary on the part of the “secular” press -- its general appreciation of the complex issues involved in the Lectionary’s preparation and its generally fair and balanced early assessment of the Lectionary’s significance (on the day following publication more than 90 newspapers gave the Lectionary front-page coverage) second, the extent of negative reaction coming from “liberal” religious journals and from “liberal’’ Christians.

The acrimonious rhetoric emanating from nonconservative quarters has shown that the Lectionary touched a raw nerve. Deep-seated fears that cut across the theological spectrum have been exposed. Much more is at stake than the elimination of some pronouns and the loss of some cherished appellations. The anxiety and the virulent clamor are caused, I have no doubt, by the recognition that the Lectionary has put the theological foundations of the status quo under siege, and that traditional perceptions of God, and of the power arrangements of men and women that are sanctioned and confirmed by those perceptions, have been threatened. A quiet revolution is under way all around us, the Lectionary is lending it strong support in the church, and Christians of all stripes are perplexed about what tactics to use to prevent its further advance.

Even before the Lectionary’s publication, and before its contents were known, it was mocked and attempts were made to discredit it. Since then it has been ridiculed as a misguided piece of fluff, easily to be blown away by the “scholarly community.” Another occasion has been provided to attack the National Council of Churches, and some have even suggested that in light of the totally “disastrous” Lectionary for Year A, any further work on Years B and C surely ought to be abandoned.

From the very beginning, the lectionary committee made it known that it welcomes constructive responses and will take them all seriously in its future work. A number of people have made very helpful critiques, and the committee hopes that they will be joined by many others in our common task. I write at this juncture not to defend why particular judgments we have made in the Lectionary for Year A, but rather to talk about what I believe to be an absolute necessity for the church -- namely, that Christians hear their Scriptures in language that includes them all equally.

There are, of course, many different reasons for reading the Bible. A biblical scholar, professional or otherwise, will read or study it only in the languages in which it was written, and will not make a judgment about the meaning of a text on the basis of any English translation, no matter how good it is purported to be. Any translation is always one giant step away from what was written, as one who has read Shakespeare in German or French will readily testify.

But most people who read the Bible are not adept at Hebrew or Greek and, in this country, they will read it in an English translation. Of course, the King James Version may well be read primarily for its literary beauty and its significance in the history of the English language, quite aside from the fact that it is a translation. That translation has its own inherent value. Nevertheless, English translations are read mostly out of necessity, by those wanting to find out something about the history of Israel, or about the historical Jesus or about the theology of Paul. In order to facilitate all such investigations by both Christians and non-Christians, translations as accurate as it is possible to make them must be provided. For such purposes the Revised Standard Version is an excellent tool.

The Bible is also read in the church, by believers and to believers, as the medium through which the Word of God may be heard. When we say “Word of God” we do not mean English words and sentences into which the Bible, or parts of it, has been translated more than 100 times already in this century alone. We do not even mean Hebrew and Greek words from which the English has been rendered. If such words were the “Word of God.” then one could burn it or tear it to shreds. No, the Word of God, as the Prologue to the Gospel of John says, “became flesh.” It is that Word, made flesh in Jesus Christ, that was God’s communication of God’s self to humanity. But subsequent to the crucifixion of the historical person Jesus, the church believed from the very beginning that Jesus was still present, as Kyrios, as the Spirit, as the Paraclete. as Jesus’ words. Those words of Jesus were incorporated into the apostolic preaching of the church -- the preaching of the church’s first witnesses to Christ, recorded in the New Testament. It is that preaching, that witness, that became for the church the Word of God.” the vehicle by and through which God addresses those who believe. The Bible is the Word of God to those believers who hear it as Word of God, and only to them.

When the Bible is read and heard as the Word of God, it is not read or heard primarily for either literary or historical reasons, but in order that it may be appropriated. However, impediments may inhibit or destroy the possibility of hearing the Word -- for example, great physical pain on the part of the hearer, or the pain of recognizing that one is not being addressed by the words one is hearing, or the pain of realizing that one’s beloved is not being addressed. In order to hear the Word of God, one must understand oneself to be addressed by that Word, and one must also feel that the whole community is being addressed equally. This is not required when the Bible is studied for historical or literary reasons.

If the Word of God is not hearable by those who do not understand themselves to be addressed by the biblical language through which that Word is communicated, does it follow that the Word of God cannot any longer be heard by women who feel excluded by patriarchal language, or by men who feel themselves excluded by language that does not include women on an equal basis with them? Is the patriarchalism of the biblical languages. and of biblical faith as originally formulated. inherent in that faith? That is the fundamental question with which the church must wrestle in our day.

From the time of the earliest versions of biblical writings the church has believed that the Bible in translation, and not simply the original Hebrew and Greek texts, is hearable as the Word of God. But if, in translating, one translates patriarchalism out, do we still have the Bible? Or is Scripture so distorted by the deletion of patriarchalism that it can no longer function as the vehicle for hearing and receiving the Word of God? Or, to put it another way, is it true that the God revealed in Jesus Christ and worshiped in the Christian church addresses humanity only in patriarchal language and with patriarchal assumptions about both the deity and the human race?

I am not willing to concede that humanity’s understanding of itself has now outgrown and left behind the Bible’s capacity to function as the vehicle for hearing the Word of God. If I am right, then it appears that what the Lectionary attempts to do is, in principle, justified.

Some argue that what I identify as “humanity’s understanding of itself” pertains only to a small minority of men and women in this country and in Europe who represent a feminist ideology that, with time, will go the way of all ideologies. It is further argued that in any case, the church cannot let itself he influenced by ideologies. But I am convinced that the feminist movement represents a broad- based revolution in our culture which is slowly gathering momentum from many quarters and whose tide will not be turned back.

The lectionary committee has been chastised for producing a distortion of Scripture that is simply propaganda for a particular ideology, and that opens the door for all kinds of special-interest groups to make changes in the biblical text to support their points of view. It has been suggested, for example, that a group representing Alcoholics Anonymous would be justified in changing a well-known text to read, “Use a little orange juice for your stomach’s sake.” It seems to me, however, that this fear has no foundation, for the simple reason that interest in the equality of male and female members of the human race can hardly be said to represent a particular ideology or a special-interest group. Rather, the insistence that women are the full equals of men and must he valued as men are in their personhood represents nothing less than a cry for human equality and human justice. An inclusive-language version of the Bible in no way opens the door for every particular special-interest group to change the biblical text to suit its own concerns.

In sum, then, it seems clear that the church must provide its members with a version of its Scriptures that opens the way for congregations of women and men at worship to hear and appropriate the Word of God.

The Bible is the church’s book. The church has always read the Old Testament from the point of view of the gospel, and the New Testament and the church have been in a dialectical relationship with each other. The church both produced the kerygma and was brought into being by it. The New Testament was created by and for the church, so that we may say that in some sense the Bible brought the church into being, and in some sense the church brought the Bible into being. The relationship between them was and remains reciprocal.

It was the whole church, however, and not ecclesiastical authorities that established the unquestioned. authoritative role the Bible plays in its life. As Bishop Brooke Foss Westcott has said: ‘‘The written Rule of Christendom must rest finally on the general confession of the Church, and not on the independent opinions of its members. . . . The extent of the Canon . . . was settled by common usage, and thus the testimony of Christians becomes the testimony of the church” (A General Survey of the history of the Canon of the New Testament [Macmillan, 1881]. pp. 12, 13).

The Canon belongs to the whole church; and although for most of the church’s history the male portion of its membership has usurped the responsibility for translating and interpreting that canon, the time is long past due for the whole church, including its female members, to assert the right to its translation and interpretation. Patriarchal assumptions not only pervade the various writings of the Bible, but they have also controlled and determined both the form those writings take when rendered in another language and the way in which that rendering is to be interpreted. The argument one hears now presented with some vehemence--that the Bible is an unalterable given to which the church is to be subservient, because it is unambiguously antecedent to the church in chronology and precedent to the church in authority -- clearly has the effect of stifling all opposition to the patriarchal status quo. What has always been is to take precedence -- and what has been most of the time is universal patriarchalism. The Bible just as it is, and just as it has been traditionally translated and interpreted, is appealed to with great sanctimoniousness; but the early church certainly never understood itself to be servile to biblical writings, and the church today is no less justified in appealing to its dialectical relation to Scripture, and in reading and hearing that Scripture in such a way as to allow the whole congregation to hear itself addressed equally.

We might note in passing that while the patriarchalism staunchly defended in our day has been decisive throughout the history of the church, it is also true that the struggle against it is likewise as old as the church -- a fact documented by much recent research.

We must now address the change that accompanies alterations of one’s self-perception -- namely, the change in ones perception of God. That there is a relation between one’s perception of God and one’s perception of oneself hardly needs demonstration. The same correlation exists even in individual Christians’ perceptions of the historical Jesus, about whom we know many details. To a Marxist, Jesus looks Marxist; to a pacifist, he seems a pacifist, and so on. And what is true in the case of perceptions of the historical person Jesus is certainly true in the case of one’s perception of God. A patriarchal society will think about God in ways influenced by and compatible with patriarchy. This is not to imply that one’s understanding of God is entirely subjective; it is simply to affirm that one’s understanding of God is dialectical, that what one believes about God and what one believes about oneself influence each other.

Many voices, however, affirm that God is a given, no way contingent on who one perceives God to be. This view is very congenial to defenders of the status quo, who announce to those of a feminist perspective that who God is is a matter of record -- a record written, transmitted,  translated and interpreted by patriarchal communities. To Interpret revelation as the communication of information about God which is transmitted from one generation to another is, of course, to sew up patriarchy. So we are told that God is what “he revealed himself to be,” and that is male.

It has also been argued that although God is “beyond sex, he revealed himself to be male.” But which revelation of God is referred to? God’s self-revelation in the Old Testament? (But are the images of God always male in the Old Testament?) Or God’s self-revelation in Jesus? (Then it must be assumed that Jesus’ maleness was a substantive aspect of God’s self-revelation in “the Word made flesh.” Is this, however, an indisputable theological fact?) Or is it the fact that Jesus called God “Father”? Then those who say that God transcends sex but that God reveals God’s self to be male would have to argue that when Jesus called God “Father,” he was not addressing God but only what God revealed God’s self to be. What profundity! One becomes engulfed in such sophistry when one assumes that biblical language is propositional and that theology is basically informational.

If the statement “God is Father” is a proposition, then, of course, God cannot be “Mother.” But if “God is Father” is a metaphor, then one may also say “God is Mother” without being contradictory. For metaphors do not exhaust meaning, and a single metaphor does not make all others superfluous. Thus I can say, ‘‘Life is a dream,’’ and I can also say, “Life is a bed of roses,” and one who reads both statements as metaphors and not as propositions will not think that they disagree. Likewise, God may be called “Rock” as well as “Father,” and Jesus may be spoken of as “Lion” as well as “Lamb.” All such appellations are metaphors. Of course God is not a mother, any more than God is a father; and Jesus is neither a lion nor a lamb. But just as surely as Jesus may be spoken of as a “Lion” and a “Lamb,” God may be addressed as “Father” and “Mother,” without any damage being done to the brain. Why, then, the strong resistance to speaking of God as “Mother”? Because of many people’s deep-rooted conviction that the God they worship is male -- even though they will also proffer the opinion that God transcends sex.

It has been said that in the Lectionarys’ the word “Father” takes on a sexual connotation it does not have “in the Bible.” I find that statement curious, and possibly (depending on its presuppositions) very naïve. What is most notable about it, however, is its utterly patriarchal assumption that such images and metaphors as “Father” and “King,” as well as the pronouns ‘‘he, “‘his’’ and ‘‘him,” have no sexual connotation whatever and are, therefore, completely compatible with the belief that God transcends sex -- but that such metaphors as “Mother” and “Queen” and the pronouns “she” and “her” are, on the contrary, sexual terms which, when used in the same contexts as their “nonsexual” counterparts, do give them sexual connotations. So the Lectionary is accused of “imposing sexuality” on God. This is a very good illustration of the dictum that “Words mean what I say they mean,” and not what the community has always understood them to mean.

The Lectionary takes seriously the view that indeed God does transcend sex -- that God is neither male nor female -- but it also assumes that words like “father” and “king” have the same male connotations in the Bible that they have elsewhere, as do the pronouns ‘‘he,” ‘‘his” and “him.” So when it is insisted that only masculine pronouns be used for God, and that it is good to address God as Father but pagan and baalistic to address God as Mother, one begins to suspect that God is not believed to transcend sexuality at all but that, on the contrary, God is being used to legitimize patriarchalism. There is in the church an enormous vested interest in assuring that no one seriously tamper with the perception that God is the great Protector and Preserver of Patriarchy.

An inclusive Language Lectionary is a serious attempt to meet a deeply felt need in the Christian community. While many of the specifics decided on for Year A are open to continuing thought and discussion, inclusive-language renderings of Scripture are needed and are here to stay. This lectionary is not, of course, the first attempt to render Scripture in inclusive language, but it is the most conspicuous attempt, and could not be ignored. No amount of belittling or abuse will dissuade uncounted numbers of women and men in the church from pursuing their course of working for mutuality and justice in the body of Christ. They will continue to bear testimony to the God to whom they believe the Bible bears witness: God who anointed Christ to let the oppressed go free.