Gender-inclusive terms extended to God, mothers-to-be

NASHVILLE (BP) -- A growing number of institutions appear to be recommending the use of gender-inclusive language, this time extending non-gendered terms to God and expectant mothers.

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Divinity schools at Vanderbilt University in Nashville and Duke University in Durham, N.C., in 2016-2017 course catalogues encourage non-gendered language in reference to God. The guidelines are addressed to students, faculty and administrators.

In the UK, the British Medical Association (BMA) suggests that the term "pregnant mother" no longer be used to refer to expectant mothers. "Pregnant people" is recommended instead, a precaution against offending intersex and transgendered people, the BMA said in an internal document described Jan. 29 in The Telegraph. The document, distributed in 2016, is intended for BMA staff, not advice to the BMA's 156,000 physician members, The Telegraph reported.

Among divinity schools addressing the issue of gender-specific language, the Harvard Theological Review in its current writer guidelines recognizes that while the use of gender-inclusive language is appropriate when referencing people, such a distinction does not always apply when referring to God.

"The editors are aware that it is not always appropriate to employ inclusive language when referring to God or divine beings," according to the guidelines on the university's website. "In such cases, authors should adjust their usage to the historical character of the material studied."

Similarly, the University of Notre Dame in Indiana recommends "respectful and gender-inclusive language" when referencing people, but not God. "The Department of Theology recognizes the ongoing debate and conflicting views about gender-sensitive language for God," the school said in the current Inclusive Language Statement on its website. "As a result, the department currently adopts no formal policy statement concerning language for God."

The six Southern Baptist seminaries maintain the divine Fatherhood of God. "God as Father reigns with providential care over His universe, His creatures, and the flow of the stream of human history according to the purposes of His grace," reads Article 2A of the Baptist Faith & Message. "He is all powerful, all knowing, all loving, and all wise. God is Father in truth to those who become children of God through faith in Jesus Christ. He is fatherly in His attitude toward all men."

Southern Baptist Denny Burk, president of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, described attempts to remove masculine references to God from the English language as "an assault on how God has revealed Himself to us in the Bible."

"The God of the Bible reveals Himself as a Trinity -- Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We must address God in the terms He's revealed to us," Burk told Baptist Press. "A feminist disdain for masculine expressions is no reason to alter God's revelation of Himself to us. We must follow the Scriptures, not the spirit of the age."

While feminists have long sought to remove vestiges of "patriarchy" from the English language, Burk said, "the attempt to remove masculine references to God is more than a linguistic change."

Vanderbilt Divinity School, currently ecumenical but formerly affiliated with the Methodist Episcopal Church South, maintains that the use of gender-inclusive language, "especially in relation to the Divine," is integral to "a positive classroom and cultural climate in which women's self-confidence as scholars and professionals can be nurtured and strengthened."

Duke Divinity School, founded and supported by the United Methodist Church, stipulates that "the exclusive use of either masculine or feminine pronouns for God should be avoided." Recommended instead are such phrasing as "God is parent to us all," "God knew Godself to be great," and "God is the father who welcomes his son, but she is also the women for search for the lost coin." (EDITOR'S NOTE: The wording "women for search for" is in the original.)

The Commission on Accrediting of the Association of Theological Schools (ATS), which accredits more than 270 graduate schools of theology in the U.S. and Canada, recommends the use of gender-inclusive language when referring to people, but leaves the final determination to the individual institution.

"Whenever appropriate, published institutional documents shall employ gender-inclusive language with reference to persons," the ATS accreditation commission states in the General Institutional Standards. "In their institutional and educational practices, theological schools shall promote the participation and leadership of women in theological education within the framework of each school's stated purposes and theological commitments."

Diana Chandler is Baptist Press' general assignment writer/editor. BP reports on missions, ministry and witness advanced through the Cooperative Program and on news related to Southern Baptists' concerns nationally and globally.
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