Worldview: Is God Male?

The official doctrine of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons) is that both God the Father and God the Son have physical bodies. Mormons also believe that there exists a heavenly mother who is the wife of God the Father. Thus, in Mormon thought, God the Father and the Son are both males, and the heavenly mother is female.

Biblical Christianity, on the other hand, denies that God the Father has a body and denies the existence of a heavenly mother altogether. God has no body, since He is a spirit (John 4:24a). Understandably, in both his gospel and his first epistle, John asserts, “No one has seen God at any time” (John 1:18 and 1 John 4:12). Having no body, God possesses no gender, since gender requires a physical anatomy.

Walter Johnson

The Bible specifically teaches that gender is a feature of the created order. As Adam observed the animals in the process of naming them, he naturally recognized that there were male and female animals. God then created Eve as a counterpart to Adam (Genesis 2:18ff): As the previous chapter stated, “God created them male and female” (Genesis 1:27b).

That Jesus is a male does not complicate the matter, for in Jesus of Nazareth a genuine incarnation occurred. The second person of the trinity, the Word, took on human flesh. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14a). He “emptied Himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:7-8). In its characteristically biblical fashion, the Council at Chalcedon (AD 451) concluded that Jesus was “perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood; truly God and truly man.” Jesus, the God-man, indeed is male.

That in the Bible God chose to reveal Himself exclusively in male terms does not imply that God has gender. For sure, God is presented as father, not mother; as king, not queen; as husband, not wife. For example, in the Great Commission, God commands Christians to baptize “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19). Jesus taught His disciples to pray: “Our Father who art in heaven” (Matthew 6:9). Moreover, masculine pronouns consistently are used for God: “It is He that made us and not we ourselves” (Psalm 100:3). Such language does not indicate that God is a male.

Some theologians, unnecessarily attempting to show that God is not male, mistakenly have pointed to feminine imagery for God, denying that the Bible speaks of God exclusively in male terms. An example is Isaiah 42:14, which says that God will “cry out like a woman in travail.” Literary critic Roland Frye notes that this is a simile — a comparison of one aspect of something to another. Thus, it is only the woman’s crying out — not the woman herself — that Isaiah compares to God.

Some people mistakenly attribute exclusive male terminology for God to the patriarchal society of the biblical world. Hence, contemporary Christians have a right to abandon masculine language for God, or at least to balance masculine language with feminine language. But God exercises His right to name Himself, and He has chosen to reveal Himself in male terms. God’s choice — not the patriarchal society — is the basis for God’s self-revelation.

The question remains: Why would God choose to reveal Himself exclusively in male terms if He is not actually a male? Theologian Elizabeth Achtemeier asserts that it is because God refuses to allow Himself to be identified with His creation. Religious traditions in Egypt, Babylonia, Greece, Rome, Africa, etc., have feminine deities. These pagan deities are depicted as carrying the world in the womb and giving birth to the creation. The result of goddess religion inevitably is pantheism (that is, the universe is part of God). The distinction between God and His creation is lost. A further result is that there is no personal God who providentially governs the world, who personally relates to human beings, and who has overcome humankind’s sin in Jesus Christ.

To avoid such confusion, God insists on extolling His holiness — His transcendence over all creation. By using exclusively male language when referring to Himself, God avoids both likening Himself to the pagan deities and the theological errors associated with pantheism.

Nor does the fact that God reveals Himself exclusively in male terms imply that men are more in the image of God than are women. Both are created equally in God’s image (Genesis 1:27), and both participate as equal partners in service to the true and living God.

— Walter Johnson is dean of the College of Christian Studies at North Greenville University.