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

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 blurb correctly states that “God is spirit and is neither male nor female.” However, it then says 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.

It is true that in almost all English translations, 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 (e.g. John 14:7; Rom. 8:16, 26).

The Hebrew (and Aramaic) word for “Spirit” is grammatically feminine, so any words used in relation to the Spirit in the Hebrew Bible will be feminine. The Syriac Church used feminine pronouns (corresponding to “she”) when speaking and writing about the Holy Spirit until about AD 400. (Syriac is a dialect of Aramaic.)

Masculine pronouns have 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, to be clear, God is not male, nor is he consistently spoken of in masculine language in the original languages of the Scriptures. [See postscript 1 below for a sample of feminine words used for parts and attributes of God.] Yet we tend to use masculine pronouns when speaking about him in English.

I usually use masculine pronouns when referring to God and I don’t plan on changing this custom. Though, I sometimes refer to the Holy Spirit as “she.” 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 texts in their 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, every English version that I have seen translates this phrase 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, men and women, boys and girls, 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 use masculine pronouns.

For instance, in Romans 12:6–8 there are 9 masculine pronouns in the NASB 1995 edition, 8 in the NIV 1984 edition, and 6 in the KJV. 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. a singular nominative masculine article and participle). Newer translations such as the CSB, NRSV, NASB (2022) and the NIV (2011) 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, CEB, 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 discussions and sermon 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.

© Margaret Mowczko 2014
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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.

Postscript 1
Feminine words used for parts or attributes of God

God’s Voice (phōnē)

The Greek word for “voice” (phōnē) is grammatically feminine. This word is used of God’s voice in Matthew 3:17, 17:5, Mark 1:11, 9:7, Luke 3:22, 9:35–36, and John 12:28. Plus, a feminine participle that means “saying” (legousa) is used in three of these verses, grammatically agreeing with the feminine phōnē: Matthew 3:17, 17:5, Luke 3:35.

There is no implication, however, despite the feminine words, that God spoke with a feminine voice. God’s voice sounded like thunder according to one account (John 12:29; cf. 2 Sam. 22:14; Job 37:7; Psa. 81:7; Isa. 30:30; Joel 2:11; etc). “Thunder” (brontē) is a feminine word too.

God’s Arm (cheir) 

The Greek word for “arm” (cheir) is grammatically feminine. It is used for God’s arm(s) and Jesus’ arm(s) (e.g., Matt. 3:12; Luke 24:50). But that doesn’t mean Jesus’ arms had feminine musculature. God doesn’t have any arms at all because he is spirit.

Jesus’s Life Force (psychē)

In Matthew 26:38 and John 12:27, Jesus speaks about his soul or life-force (psychē), which is a feminine word.  Psychē is used several more times in reference to Jesus’s life. See also Matthew 12:18 in the Greek.

God’s Power (dynamis)

Dynamis, a grammatically feminine noun, is used in Luke 1:36 where the angel speaks to Mary about her conception: “the power (dynamis) of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore, the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.” (See also 2 Peter 1:3 as another example of divine dynamis.)

Postscript 2: November 18, 2020
Gregory of Nazianzus on Grammatical Gender and God

Gregory of Nazianzus (d. 390 CE) was the archbishop of Constantinople and a famous theologian. He was a native Greek speaker and much admired for his superb abilities in rhetoric. In a discussion on the relationship between God the Father and Son, he poses rhetorical questions intended to show the absurdity of linking grammatical gender in Greek with the actual gender of God. (The answer to these rhetorical questions is “no.”)

Here is my mostly literal translation.

“One must not … suppose that it is necessary to transfer the whole meaning of nouns used below [on earth], including those of family relations, to the divine sphere. Or would you readily suppose, according to this reasoning, that our God is indeed male because he is called ‘God,’ and also ‘father’? And that ‘the Godhead’ is female on the basis of it being a feminine noun? And that the ‘Spirit’ is neither [male or female, but neuter] because it is sterile?”
Gregory of Nazianzus, Oration 31.7; PG 36, 140–141.

Note that the Greek words theos (“God”) and patēr (“father”) are grammatically masculine nouns used for God; theotētos (“godhead, deity”) is grammatically feminine (cf. Col. 2:9); pneuma (“spirit”) is grammatically neuter.

Here is the translation on New Advent.

“For it does not follow that … it would also be necessary to think that all the names of this lower world and of our kindred should be transferred to the Godhead. Or maybe you would consider our God to be a male, according to the same arguments, because he is called God and Father, and that Deity is feminine, from the gender of the word, and Spirit neuter, because It has nothing to do with generation.”
Gregory of Nazianzus, Oration 31.7. Translated by Charles Gordon Browne and James Edward Swallow. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 7. Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1894.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. (Online Source: New Advent)

The following translation is from William J. Abraham’s book, Divine Agency and Divine Action, Volume III: Systematic Theology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), 51.

“Do you take it, by the same token, that our God is a male because of the masculine nouns ‘God’ and ‘Father’? Is the Godhead a female, because in Greek the word is feminine? Is the word ‘Spirit’ neuter in Greek, because the Spirit is sterile?”
Oration 31.7 (Online Source: Google Books)

Postscript 3: October 28, 2023
Pronouns for God in languages other than English

Joshua Barron, a teacher with the Association for Christian Theological Education in Africa (ACTEA)  writes,

For many non-English-speaking Christians around the globe, the debate about pronouns for God is incomprehensible. In many Nilotic languages in East Africa, the word for ‘God’ is grammatically feminine (e.g., Akuj in NgaTurkana and enkÁí in Maa), and so using the local equivalent of ‘she’ to refer to God just makes grammatical sense. When Turkana, Samburu, Maasai, and Kalenjin Christians speak English, they often use ‘she/her,’ to maintain grammatical agreement with their vernacular word for ‘God.’ Yet this does not imply that God is ontologically female. In Armenian “no grammatical gender exists and a single pronoun covers both ‘he’ and ‘she’,” even when referring to God. (Read more here.)

The Chinese language has a special genderless pronoun used in reference to divinity. The Chinese character for “he” contains the character for “human” and so is unsuitable when referring to deity.

Chinese pronouns are generally written as:
他 – male singular pronoun, equivalent to “he”
她 – female singular pronoun, “she”
它 or 牠 – neuter singular pronoun, “it”
For God, the pronoun is 祂.

The pronouns are written with a different “radical” on the left side of the word to indicate something about the referent:
亻- for a male human
女 – for a female human
牜- for an animal
礻- for spirit

The character 礻which indicates “spirit” (on the left side), put together with 也 (on the right side), makes the pronoun for God 祂 which may be understood as “godself.” This pronoun is pronounced in Mandarin and Cantonese as “ta.”

Explore more

The Importance of Using Feminine Words and Images
“Brothers and sisters” (adelphoi) in Paul’s Letters
Is God Male or Masculine?
The Holy Spirit and Eve as “Helpers”
Which Bible translation is best?
The Feminization of the Church
Towards Equality – My Story

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

Here is a short article from Oxford Dictionaries that explains the use of the singular they/ them/ their, and that its use “is historically long established. It goes back at least to the 16th century, and writers such as Shakespeare, Sidney, Byron, and Ruskin.”

17 thoughts on “Why masculine pronouns can be misleading in English Bibles and in the Church

  1. “Fathers provoke not your children to wrath”.

    This verse troubles me because it implies that only male parents are spoken to here…There is no verse like this for women.

    Is it therefore permissible for women to provoke their children to wrath or is “Fathers” like another generic “he”?

    I have seen this verse used to imply that only the father is the priest of his home, and not the mother, despite the teaching of the priesthood of ALL believers…any ancient Greek experts to clarify this?

    1. Hi Judy,

      Ephesians 6:4 specifically addresses fathers, not mothers. There is a separate Greek word for “parents” which is used in Ephesians 6:1. No parent should exasperate or provoke their child to anger, but fathers are probably mentioned here because fathers were more likely to be guilty of this than mothers. This still happens today.

      The Bible does not provide instructions for every scenario and every situation in life. But there are enough guidelines in the Bible to give us an overall idea of how to live, with love, mercy and justice being key. So, just because mothers are not mentioned in this verse does not mean that they are allowed to provoke their children.

      Ephesians 6:4 was written because the author saw a need to make this statement to fathers. Yet as a mother, I have certainly avoided exasperating my children, and it was extremely important to both me and my husband that we bring up our children “in the training and instruction of the Lord.” Our children are grown now, and I still try to nurture their faith.

      Nowhere in the Bible does it say that the father is the priest of his home. You may find this article useful: Leading Together in the Home.

  2. Hi Marg, Great article, I have been noticing some of these inconsistencies in various translations e.g. R.S.V.Rom 16:7 inserts the word ‘men’ when it is not even in the Greek, but in the N.R.S.V.(1989) they omit the word ‘men’ because Junia is a woman. Rom 12 and 1 Tim 3 are other interesting examples.
    I appreciate your research and enlightening comments, God bless, Warwick

    1. Hi Warwick,

      The ESV refers to Andronicus and Junia as Paul’s “kinsmen.” This is an unfortunate translation considering that “relatives”, or something similar, is easier to understand and without a masculine bias. In the context of the book of Romans, however, “fellow Jews” is a better translation.

      Romans 12:6-8 and 1 Timothy 3:1-7 are important passages about ministry, and both are completely free of masculine personal pronouns in the Greek. (However, even if they did include masculine pronouns in the Greek, this would not necessarily rule out women being included.)

      I’ve written about 1 Timothy 3:1-7 here:

      And I mention Romans 12:6-8 in endnote 5 here:

      Romans 12:6-8 has made a big impact in my own life.
      I look at how various English translations render these verses here:

  3. Here’s another article about the singular “they”:

  4. Heresy.
    God is the father. (Matthew 23:9) And the father is only male.
    Unless you want to teach people God making them male and female is also ‘wrong.’ (Genesis 5:2)

    Then there is the greater heresy, denying Christ. Who, as the Bible instructs, existed forever as did the spirit, and the will (Father); all existing as one entity before, and for all, time. Denying the trinity is a denial of revelation, the word of God. Denying Christ, is a one way ticket to downstairs.

    This is the problem of people who worship idols. They will corrupt and pervert the truth to satisfy their own desires, instead of satisfying God’s.

    Repent, or you will burn for eternity.

    1. Take a breath, Jay. No one is denying Christ and no one is denying the Trinity. My beliefs are here: https://margmowczko.com/beliefs/

      And no one is denying that, following Jesus’ example, God is called “Father” in the New Testament. I mention every verse in the Hebrew Bible that uses the metaphor of father for God in footnote 2 here: https://margmowczko.com/is-god-male-or-masculine/

      Yet, God the Father is not male. He is spirit.

      Human and animal fathers are of the male sex. Is God male like human and animal fathers? Does God have male chromosomes or male genitals? This sounds like blasphemy to me. In what way is God male?

      Not sure what your problem is with Genesis 5:2. This verse indeed states that God made humans as male and female: “He created them male and female; when they were created, he blessed them and named them humankind.” Genesis 1:26-28, also states that God made humanity male and female. On the other hand, God never says he is male. Not once.

      In reality, God is our maker. In reality, he is not our actual father. I have a male father and a female mother, and I was conceived and born in the usual way. I’m assuming you were conceived and born in the usual way too, and that a human father and mother were involved. God is our metaphorical Father and he is not male. On the other hand, God is Jesus’ actual father. Jesus was conceived by God the Holy Spirit and Mary (Matt. 1:18, 20; Luke 1:31-33, 35).

      Anyway, throwing out completely unrelated concepts such as “idolatry” and “burning for eternity” helps no one. But I’m guessing your aim was not to help. Your emotional, overblown comments add nothing constructive to the conversation and I won’t be approving any further comments from you.

      I wish you peace.

  5. Hi Marg,

    Thank you for such an interesting read!

    Please could you elaborate on why you won’t use ‘they’ pronouns for God despite not believing God is male? I think it could be just as harmful to speak as if God is male, as it plays into the misconception that men are somehow more similar to God or more suited to leadership in church. So why not just use ‘they’ when you speak about God?

    1. The misconception that God is male is potentially harmful. I agree.

      In answer to your question, many of my readers come from conservative backgrounds, even fundamentalist backgrounds, and I don’t want to alienate them by using “they, them, their” or “she, her.” I want them to keep reading my articles. So I’m sticking with “he, him, his.”

      Also, I’m not overly uncomfortable with masculine pronouns for God because I understand that they are due to the limitations of language. When I use “him” for God, my mind isn’t thinking, “God’s a guy.” Non-English speakers understand that “he” doesn’t necessarily refer to a male.

      I think “they” works very well for a generic person, but if I know a particular person is a male or female, I will usually use masculine or feminine pronouns.

      This video, with a focus on the Spirit, explains why it’s dangerous to do theology based on the gender of nouns.

  6. How does the use of pronouns impact eldership/leadership qualifications in 1 Timothy 3? I had a bible professor tell me years ago that most job type descriptions in ANE literature were written from an androcentric perspective even when females could have filled those positions? I have searched for source material on this issue, but come up blank. Any thoughts?

    1. I write about pronouns, and a couple of other points, in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 here: https://margmowczko.com/pauls-qualifications-for-church-leaders/
      Note, however, that there are no masculine personal pronouns in the Greek of 1 Timothy 3:1-7. Zero. Nada. Zilch.

      The original 1st-century author didn’t use masculine personal pronouns in this passage. But translators have used them, including 21st-century English translators.

  7. hello, I just read your post and replies.

    Question: Why do we need to change gender pronouns in our English Bibles?

    Let me quote you:

    “Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature”, is one example of a verse that is likely to be understood by modern readers as applying only to men.”

    If people read this verse and think that it only applies to men, why can’t we just teach them that the verse refers to all mankind just like when the declaration of independence declares that “all men are created equal” refers to all mankind?

    Instead of changing pronouns, why not use someone’s misunderstanding as a teaching moment?

    Just a thought.

    1. Hi Douglas,

      Did the authors of the declaration of independence really believe that all men, or all people, are created equal? Did the authors and signatories treat their wives, or women, as equal partners in life? Didn’t some of them own slaves? Are any women or slaves or people of colour even signatories? I don’t think the authors of the declaration of independence actually had all people (slaves and women) in mind when they wrote that all men are created equal. But I could be wrong.

      The issue, however, isn’t an American document written in English. The issue is the translation of a holy collection of ancient documents, the Bible, which was written in classical Hebrew and ancient Greek, with a smattering of Aramaic.

      There is no Greek word meaning “man” or even “person” in 1 Corinthians 5:17, and there are no Greek pronouns, let alone masculine pronouns. A correct translation of this verse is, “Therefore if anyone, or someone, (τις) is in Christ, a new creation has come …
      See here: https://biblehub.com/text/2_corinthians/5-17.htm

      So how about we translate the Hebrew and Greek correctly and not add masculine words and masculine pronouns where there are none in the original languages? And how about we translate verses that include men and women in a way that indicates it includes men and women?

      The Bible was originally written in a way that ordinary people could understand. This should be the goal in translations too. Few people have the luxury of having someone on hand every day to explain what Bible verses mean.

      Some Bible verses do need a teacher to explain what’s happening. But we shouldn’t have to rely on a teacher to point out that the original authors didn’t say “men” or “he” in certain verses when a correct translation can sort this out. And is a teacher going to list every verse that is gender-inclusive but uses masculine language? People need translations they can rely on.

      If translations get it right in the first place, there’s no reason to change.

  8. Love your post, Marg! And can I just say, the Youtube was delightful?

  9. Love what you are doing. Keep it up! You got my 100% support!

    1. Thank you, Debbie. Your encouraging comment has come soon after I replied to a tedious and frustrating comment from “Erid” (here). Your comment has cheered me up. 🙂

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