Why masculine pronouns can be misleading in English Bibles and in the Church

1. Grammatical Gender and God

I was searching for articles about God and gender today and saw this suggestion offered by Google at the top of page 1 of my search. (See screenshot above.) This excerpt mentions that “God is spirit and is neither male nor female”, but then adds that the pronouns for God in Scripture are “consistently male”, and that this is how “God has communicated through Scripture” to us about himself. I used the feedback facility to tell Google that this information is misleading.

In almost all English translations it is true that the pronouns that refer to all members of the Trinity are male (or masculine), but this is not true in the Hebrew and Greek, the original languages of the Old and New Testaments.

For example, the Greek word for “Spirit” (pneuma) is grammatically neuter, and so, for purely grammatical reasons, Greek neuter pronouns [as well as neuter articles, adjectives, and participles] are used in relation to the Holy Spirit to grammatically “agree” with the word pneuma. These neuter pronouns are then translated into masculine pronouns in English translations, mainly because the English neuter pronoun “it” is too impersonal. Moreover, the masculine pronoun has often been used in English in a generic way. So it is reasonable – yet not entirely satisfactory – to use masculine pronouns for God in English translations of the Bible. But, just to be clear, God is not male even if we tend to use, or consistently use, masculine pronouns when speaking about him in English.

I always use masculine pronouns when referring to God, and I don’t plan on changing this custom. I have chosen to be content with the limitations of language on this issue. However, I do not like using masculine pronouns such as “he” when speaking generally about people, which brings me to a second, somewhat related issue.

2. Grammatical Gender of Groups and Individuals

In the Bible, masculine pronouns are also used when referring generically to a person. This is true for both the original languages, as well as for English translations, even when the person being written about, or addressed, could be either a man or a woman. (The “default” grammatical gender when speaking about people in general in Hebrew and Greek is masculine.) The inclusiveness of women is usually (but not always) understood by people who are familiar with the grammar of Hebrew and Greek, and who understand the nuances in the texts. But the possible or actual presence, or inclusiveness, of women is obscured in many English translations of certain verses when masculine pronouns are used and understood literally by the reader.

The famous verse John 3:16 contains a phrase with three grammatically masculine words in the Greek: πᾶς ὁ πιστεύων. Thankfully all English versions that I have seen translate this in a gender non-specific way such as “everyone who believes” (NRSV).  The translators have recognised that, despite the masculine grammatical gender, this verse applies to all people, both men and women, and they have translated this intent clearly.  But in other Bible passages this gender inclusivity has not been made clear by English translators who have chosen to include masculine pronouns.

For instance, in Romans 12:6-8 there are 9 masculine pronouns in the NASB, 6 in the KJV, and 8 in the NIV 1984 edition.  Yet many of the phrases in Romans 12:6-8 that are translated with the masculine pronouns have a similar grammatical construction as that of John 3:16 (i.e. the singular nominative masculine article and participle).  Newer translations such as the NRSV and the NIV 2011 edition have translated Romans 12:6-8 without any masculine pronouns, thus conveying a more faithful and inclusive meaning as intended by Paul, the original author.

In some Bible verses, however, it is not possible to avoid pronouns altogether.  So how can we use pronouns that do not convey a gender bias?

3. Gender Inclusivity and Plural Pronouns

In modern English it is becoming less acceptable to refer generically to a person (who could be either male or female) as a “he”.  But, unfortunately, English does not have a singular third person pronoun that can refer to both a man or a woman; we only have “he”, “she”, or “it”.  One way English speakers and writers get around referring to a person, without specifying gender, is by using plural pronouns such as “they” or “their” or “them” even when referring to one generic or representative person.

Using inclusive plural pronouns, rather than “he” or “his”, is important when we are speaking about people, both men and women, in the church, otherwise it can sound as if women are being left out.  And some English translations of the Bible are adopting plural pronouns to avoid conveying a false gender bias in verses where there is none (e.g. NRSV and NIV).

It is not acceptable to use language that gives the false sense that women are not included in certain Bible passages, or that they are not included in church discussion and sermons illustrations, etc.  It is not acceptable to imply, or assert, that Christianity has a masculine feel.  It doesn’t!  (See, for example, Galatians 3:28 and Acts 2:17-18.) The gospel is equally applicable to men and women, to both our sons and our daughters. So we must be careful that we don’t insert a gender bias where there is none in the original text. Jesus does not have a gender bias.

In this short, entertaining video, Tom Scott explains why we need to use gender inclusive plural pronouns so that we do not imply a gender bias when none is intended.


Related Articles

Is God Male or Masculine?
So why does Mary Kassian think the new NIV is bad?
The Feminization of the Church
Towards Equality – My Story
More articles about Bible Translations here.

Ben Witherington explains the issues surrounding gender inclusive language and plural pronouns in the NIV here.