What is inclusive language?

Anne Linstatter responds:

Inclusive language is a way of speaking that includes everyone.  It contrasts with male-centered (androcentric) language that addresses the church as “brethren” or other ways of speaking that exclude some people.  For example, if a pastor says, “Rise and sing hymn #235,” he or she is ignoring those who are in wheel-chairs.  Many pastors now add “as you are able” to acknowledge those who will sing sitting down.  In classrooms and in public events, more and more people are making the effort to avoid language that subtly excludes women or minorities of any kind.

In a Christian context, there are two central areas of our language that need to be made more inclusive: 1) words that refer to believers and 2) words that refer to God.  In many Bible translations, such as the NRSV, Hebrew and Greek words that were earlier translated as “the brothers” or “men” (when the intended meaning encompasses both men and women) are now translated into more inclusive phrases: “brothers and sisters,” “they,” “people,” etc.  On the other hand, fewer Bibles and churches change masculine words referring to God (such as “Father,” “Lord,” and “He”). But Christian feminist gatherings avoid this kind of language because of a recognition that God is beyond gender distinctions.  Speaking of God as “She” is just as appropriate as speaking of God as “He.”

Why do Christian feminists care about inclusive language?  Male-centered language is misleading and reinforces the dominance of men in church and society.  Therefore, a congregation of women and men should not be addressed as “brothers.”  Using “He” to refer to God is convenient and more personal than “It,” but “He” promotes the idea of God as actually male, which is completely wrong.  Mary Daly first alerted the church to this problem in her 1968 book, The Church and the Second Sex, saying “If God is male, then male is God.”  Thinking of God as exclusively male makes it seem natural to consider maleness superior to femaleness and to consider it natural to have men as presidents, priests, pastors, and other leaders in social and religious institutions, perhaps even as dominant over wives in marriage.  This kind of entitlement, however, is dangerous; men with unlimited power can engage in domestic abuse and many other forms of oppression.  We need to change our language about God in order to change attitudes.

Even without its social implications, the worship of an exclusively male God is idolatry because it is a failure to acknowledge that gender as applied to God is simply a metaphor.  This masculine god is not real.  To worship “Him” as the only way to think of God is to limit God and worship our own dangerous idol.

For further reading:

Inclusive Language in the Church by Nancy A. Hardesty (Atlanta: John Knox, 1987).

Why Inclusive Language Is Important” by Nancy A. Hardesty

Why Inclusive Language is Still Important” by Jann Aldredge-Clanton

The Divine Feminine: The Biblical Imagery of God as Female by Virginia Ramey Mollenkott (New York: Crossroad, 1993).  Reviewed here.

God the What?  What Our Metaphors for God Reveal about Our Beliefs in God by Carolyn Bohler (Woodstock, VT: Skylight Paths Publishing, 2008). The book is reviewed hereCFT’s interview with Carolyn Bohler is here.

Beyond God the Father by Mary Daly (Boston: Beacon, 1973).

The Church and the Second Sex by Mary Daly (New York: Harper & Row, 1968).

The Inclusive Bible by The Priests for Equality (New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 2007).  More information on The Inclusive Bible can be found here.


Anne Linstatter
Anne Linstatter was present at the founding of the Evangelical Women’s Caucus (now Christian Feminism Today) and attended most of the organization’s conferences. She looks forward to celebrating fifty years of CFT in 2024. A long-time Californian, she taught “Women & Religion” among other courses at California State University, Northridge, and is working on a memoir, Off Track: Confessions of a Feminist Christian.