Inclusion Starts With Words

When I began serving my first congregation, I didn’t know much about most things. After just two years of seminary, I had no illusion that I had a great theological mind or a grasp on how to lead a church. One thing I did know: all people are equal and should be treated that way. Sounds pretty obvious, but in 1984, it still seemed a foreign concept to many people I came in contact with. I also knew that the words we use matter: they are a force for good or evil, and we need to consider, but not fear, what they mean.

The inclusive language was – and still is – controversial, but it seemed to be one of those common-sense things that we should all do. It has evolved in many ways, and will continue to do so. For me, in 1984, some obvious connections needed to be made, and the most important one was this: the way we speak about God is how others learn about God. I went to this unsuspecting congregation and only used inclusive language in worship and Bible study. The only exception was the Lord’s Prayer – it is rather obvious if you don’t say “Our Father” as you begin. Over time, I began to say “Our God”, but that took a bit of time to work through.

I would speak of God in neutral terms, since it is foundationally heretical to only call God by a male pronoun. As I studied Scripture, I learned that the Holy Spirit is female in Hebrew and neutral in Greek, yet the Gospel of John speaks in terms of “he”, The obvious conclusion, for me, was that the writer of John wanted the triune God to be spoken of consistently. God was seen as Father, Jesus as Son, therefore, the Holy Spirit should be a “he”. Except she wasn’t.

The same with “man”. It may be that, historically, men and women were called “mankind”. This is a bias from scripture, but as I told my congregations over the years, women are not, as Genesis 2 would claim, a product or subset of men. Genesis 1 tells us that the man and woman were both created, individually, at the same time, in the image of God (or the gods – that’s for another time). I have always believed that words matter, so if there is a word for “woman”, it should be used. The implicit sexism in Scripture is no excuse for us, 2000 years later, to continue to be sexists. Words matter, and inclusion starts with words.

I rarely got pushback, because I didn’t make a big deal about it – I just did it. One man did argue furiously with me, so the next week in worship I inserted female pronouns for male. After, I asked how it felt to be mislabeled. He got the point. Inclusion starts with words, and words matter. I have never liked nicknames, mostly because I don’t want other people deciding what to call me. That is my right, and it is yours as well. If we aren’t sure what to call someone, we should ask them. Assumptions lead us to make errors, and errors are hard to fix. If my friend Joe wants to be called Juanita, it is not my place to correct her. Words matter – inclusion starts with words – let’s use them wisely.

Prayer – Holy and merciful God, You have created each person with Your divine spark. Help us to respect Your spark in each person we meet. Amen.

Today’s art is a stained glass window created by Fern Bolduc that is in the Bashaw (American Baptist) United Church in the Chinook Winds Region of Canada.