Christianity,  Theology/Bible

Why not call God “mother”?

I just read Jonathan Merritt’s interview with Rob Bell, and this bit sort of jumped off the page:

Jonathan Merritt: So it would be totally appropriate to pray to one’s “heavenly mother” as well as one’s “heavenly father?”

Rob Bell: Well, you certainly have Isaiah using a mother image for God and Jesus talks about longing to gather like a mother hen gathers her chicks. But that is a great question, and one we should be asking.

This kind of feminine God-language has long been the mark of feminist revisionists who have moved well beyond the pale of evangelical Christianity. While we don’t believe that God has a gender, we do believe that He has revealed Himself as God the Father and never as mother. That Bell views the matter as debatable says a lot about his own grasp of Trinitarian theology. The self-revelation of God as Father is not an open issue, but apparently Bell thinks that it is.


See also: Randy Stinson and Chris Cowan, “How Shall We Speak of God? Seven Reasons Why We Cannot Call God ‘Mother,'” JBMW 13.2 (2008): 20-23.


    • Brent Hobbs

      Exactly! He says we should be asking the question… but it was just asked of him and he doesn’t answer. Thats the kind of nonsense you get from people impressed with their own insightfulness.

  • Kathryn Elliott Stegall

    The other day 1 was watching an interview on TV. The interviewee was introduced as a progressive nun. In the course of the discussion she referred to “our mother, God.” The interviewer stopped her and asked, “Doesn’t that make you feel just a little uneasy? I’m sure that is not what you were taught.” The nun answered. “Yes, you’re right. But I think it’s important for women to feel respected and included when they worship.”
    I thought to myself, “Oh great! Another woman making us women look bad by trying to make God over in her own image.” I know we cannot rearrange God to suit ourselves with language that is completely unbiblical.
    Then it struck me with great joy. I don’t have to make God over in my own image. He is making me over in his image. I don’t have to call God “mother” to feel valued. God has called me a “son”. And what could be more biblical? “…because those who are led by the Spirit of God are Sons of God. …For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.”

  • Don Johnson

    A few points:

    1) God is spirit and so has no gender.

    2) All of the descriptions of God are metaphors, except perhaps holy. God is beyond Creation and uses these metaphors so that we have SOME conception of God.

    3) It is not too surprising that in a patriarchal society, one main metaphor is that God is metaphorically called our father by Israel and new covenant believers in the 1st century. God is also called by some prophets as Israel’s husband and Israel and Judah are called his wives (plural). This says NOTHING about any supposed gender of Israel or Judah, it is a metaphor.

    4) What MAY be surprising is that there are feminine metaphors for God. Again, this says NOTHING about God’s gender.

    5) Grammatical gender has no necessary relation to physical gender, rather, grammatical gender is a language convention used (differently) in languages that have it. But since English does not have the concept, the use of grammatical gender in Hebrew and Greek can sometimes be thought to mean more than it does by English speakers.

  • John Klink, Jr.

    Some here are suggesting the only reason the masculine metaphors (ie Father) are the primary ones used of God in Scripture are because the authors were part of a patriarchal society.

    Did God truely inspire which metaphors would be used, or did He leave the choice of metaphors up to the chauvinistic patriarchal authors? Is the Bible is ‘errant’ in its use of metaphors?

  • Brian Levie

    “This then, is how you should pray: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name . . . ”
    – Matt 6:9

    “If anyone teaches false doctrines and does not agree to the sound instruction of our Lord Jesus Christ and to godly teaching, he is conceited and understands nothing. He has an unhealthy interest in controversies and quarrels about words that result in envy, strife, malicious talk, evil suspicions and constant friction between men of corrupt mind, who have been robbed of the truth and who think that godliness is a means to financial gain.”
    – I Timothy 6:3-5

  • Scott

    Denny –

    I had posted 2 comments previously. They are now deleted. I hope you know that I am not being nasty, but trying to engage in dialogue (though I’m aware you might not have time to engage).

    You are correct to state that God is neither male or female. And it is both male and female that are created in God’s image – both having unique qualities that image God. There is something about woman that images God in a way that man can’t. And vice versa.

    But I think it is worth engaging with the point that the reason the ancients of thousands of years ago spoke only of God in the male form is because of their patriarchal encultured perspective. Granted, I’d also find it hard to pray to ‘God our mother’. I’d choose not to. But I think there is space to consider that, if God has no gender, which you conclude as well, maybe God is not tied in to the maleness descriptors.

    Another example is this – God is not actually a shepherd, in the sense of how we use the word to then describe God. The word shepherd is a language descriptor to give us an image of him (and an English language descriptor at that). But the [English] Bible uses this word. Or, the Bible uses the imagery of lion and lamb to describe Christ. Yet, the Bible does not use the exact terms of elephant nor postman to describe God. Still, both of these descriptive images have connectors to explain God, to help us grasp the ungraspable One.

    I understand it feels like we are losing something to refer to God in any feminine way. But a) God is not actually male, b) God was revealed in the masculine form because such ancients would have easily connected with such descriptors, and c) there are plenty of descriptors not in Scripture that would actually help us grasp a bit of the character and nature of God.

  • Don Johnson

    God inspired thw words of all Scripture, no question about that. When Scripture defines or refines the meaning of a word, we should use that definition or refinement but most of the words used had a meaning in the culture at the time the words were written, and we should use that meaning and when there is a choice, to do our best to assess the intended meaning.

    As Ken Bailey points out in his studies on Luke 15, in the triple parable of the lost sheep, the lost coin and the 2 lost sons, Jesus goes out of his way to map God (and therefore himself, as a deeper meaning) to a woman seaching for a lost coin. In the lost sheep, he also used the gender neutral term shepherd to map to God (and therefore himself), but also asked his hearers to consider themselves in the place of a shepherd, which in that culture was very insulting.

    I am FOR using all the metaphors for God found in Scripture and not neglecting any of them. Far too many people are familiar with the masculine ones but not as familiar with the feminine ones, but they are all inspired Scripture. Also, when using a metaphor for God, one does not want to take the metaphor too far (or not far enough, for that matter).

      • Don Johnson

        This is one of the common comp. misreadings, because of a choice they often make to not look for feminine images of God in Scripture. When you are not looking for something, it is pretty easy to miss it. See Ken Bailey on Luke 15 if you want to explore the verses outside your paradigm.

        • Johnny Mason

          Parables are open to interpretation, which is their nature, but I find it odd that you claim that I misread the passage because I am not looking for feminine imagery, but couldn’t the reverse be true of you. That you are looking for feminine imagery to support your egalitarian view.

          • Don Johnson

            Actually, I never even figured out that the 3 parables in Luke 15 were linked until I read Ken Bailey. And the implications of the lost coin parable I mostly missed also, I knew there was an intended mapping, but was not sure who was who.

            Bailey does a masterful job of putting these parables in their cultural context, which is easy to gloss over when one does not know it. In other words, one can read these parables in ignorance of their cultural context or with knowledge of their cultural context, once I know the latter exists, I cannot go back to the former.

            • Johnny Mason

              I agree they are linked, but not in the way you suggest. Couldn’t they just be the same story told from different points of view:
              Lost Sheep -> Shephard is Jesus
              Lost Coin -> Woman is Church
              Lost Son -> Father is God

              • Don Johnson

                Any mapping might be in theory possible, so one looks for clues in the text when you understand the cultural context like Bailey does in order to figure out the intended mapping.

                The triple parable in Luke 15 is in answer to one and only one statement from the Pharisees and scribes, “This man (Jesus) welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So they all need to point to why Jesus does this in some way, when one is all done with the analysis. The way Jesus does this is to show that God does this (welcomes sinners and eats with them) in contrast with the Pharisees that taught one was NOT to do this. Then the deeper meaning is that Jesus is following the way of the Father in doing it himself and so he is making a messianic claim and therefore also a God claim and also claiming the Pharisees should be acting like he does. In the thinking of the Pharisees, sinners were those that were PERMANENTLY rejected by God but Jesus says this is not true. Since sinners were permanently rejected by God, the Pharisees thought that they were doing God’s will by rejecting them also, but Jesus says this is totally wrong.

                So the mapping is
                Shepherd -> God -> Jesus
                Woman -> God -> Jesus
                Father -> God -> Jesus.

                There is of course a LOT more there.

                Read the book, I highly recommend it.

          • Don Johnson


            This book explores the intended meaning, as well as the implications and applications, of the three parables in Luke 15 (The Good Shepherd and the Lost Sheep, The Good Woman and the Lost Coin, and The Good Father and His Two Lost Sons). It reflects the author’s immersion in the language, religion, and culture of the Middle East, demonstrating how meaningful the biblical text becomes when a broad background of study and analysis is permitted to illuminate the text. Western readers will gain an array of new insights from this volume and will be fascinated by the author’s nuances of interpretation.

  • Brett Cody

    You are going to have to stand on someone else’s shoulders to make your claim. The history of the church has gone on record referring to God as Father. I don’t think you have many theologians to cite that say the contrary. While your view may sound ‘enlightened’ it fails to hold up when comparing to what wording is actually in the Word of God.

  • Scott Terrell

    You sure do write a lot about a guy that’s “irrelevant.” That’s what, four posts since the promotional video was released?

  • Aaron Meares

    Not only did Bell give a sermon years ago on the ways in which God is our Mother, they actually have had prayers directed to “Mother God” at his former church. On Mother’s Day 2011, his former co-teaching pastor, Shane Hipps, prayed the following (May 8, 2011):

    “And of course, we are grateful that our Bible teaches us that our personal pronouns do not apply to God. And that God gets a whole lot of play as a ‘he,’ but that there are abundant images in scripture that speak of God in images that are maternal and feminine. We learn of a God who is in fact a mother hen or a mother eagle whose wings protect her offspring. We learn of a God who actually went through labor. We learn of a God who gave birth to her children. We learn of a God who nursed her children. We have all kinds of images of a feminine God. So this morning we celebrate the fact that our Mother God is also a very real presence in our lives. And it is because we have a Mother God as well as this Father God that we are even able to know what it means to mother. So we celebrate and thank God for that on this day. Please pray with me and we will get started on our teaching. [Prayer]: Thank you God, Mother God, for the ways you have nurtured us. The ways you have nursed us, the ways that you have protected us, the ways that you have shown wisdom and strength for us. Thank you for our earthly mothers. Now, God, may the meditation of my heart and the words of my mouth be pleasing to you. In your name we pray. Amen.”

  • Dean Chang

    I totally understand why Denny and some others of you would be perturbed by Rob’s answer, but I think it’s the correct answer. First of all, Rob didn’t say he affirmed calling God Mother, but he acknowledged what should be completely obvious to every Christian which is God is neither male nor female, and in fact, he created both in his image. There isn’t anything controversial about that statement in the least. I read the link that Denny posted, it’s totally unconvincing. I pray to God the Father because of tradition, that’s all. If someone else wants to pray to God as Mother, I’m not going to write a whole treatise about it just to prove a point. The fact that you guys are complementarian undermines your position on this even further as it’s clear that the driving force animating this whole discussion is patriarchy, as opposed to theology. Do we really need more irrelevant wedge issues? Anyone check out Roger Olson’s piece on the future of Evangelicals today? Would be far more interested in your thoughts on that than this sideshow. C’mon!

  • CM Roberts

    Because of not knowing God by name, you make a mistake in saying “God has no gender”. He is a Spirit and has NO physical body, that is true… The metaphors that describe God in feminine terms are only so we humans can understand the depth of emotion and tender compassion He has for his people. Make no mistake, Jesus said God was his FATHER (always). If you were able to look at the ancient Hebrew texts you would see that the “tetragramaton” was used throughout the “Old Testament” and you would see this at Exodus 15:3, “Jehovah is a MANLY person of war. Jehovah is his name.”

    • Don Johnson

      Jesus had God as his father in a way that no other human does. For us, both the masculine and feminine depictions of God in Scripture are metaphors, as are the other physical descriptions like rock.

      • Stephen Beck

        Don, I don’t quite see your point. Jesus perfectly submitted to the Father; if he did not submit to God as his mother, why should we?

        • Don Johnson

          I do not understand your question. Jesus went out of his way to map a woman in a parable to God and therefore also to himself. I want to follow Jesus and do the things he did, do you?

      • Shaun DuFault

        So, when Jesus speaks of the Father, is he speaking metaphorically? The problem with your argument is the failure of continuity. To make a claim that the Bible only speaks of the Father metaphorically, one then would have to say Jesus was only speaking metaphorically about God the Father.

        So, if Jesus is not speaking metaphorically, why should we be forced to think we have to take “God the Father” metaphorically? Why isn’t it good enough that when Jesus was asked how to pray, He started, ‘Our Father….’? Does Jesus fail to overcome His culture because of His desire to ALWAYS refer to God as His Father?

        • Don Johnson

          I have already said that God is the father of Jesus in a way that is like no one else. One point of this is that there are different implications when Jesus says, “My Father” and when Jesus says, “Our Father…”. The former is a messianic claim, for example.

          In the “Our Father” prayer, Jesus is using a fairly rare phrase found in his Bible, the Tanakh.

          Isa 63:16 For you are our Father, though Abraham does not know us, and Israel does not acknowledge us; you, O LORD, are our Father, our Redeemer from of old is your name.

          Isa 64:8 But now, O LORD, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.

          These are clearly metaphorical. For all but Jesus, the term Father is a metaphor, just like in the NT when it is written that we are the “bride of Christ”, this is a metaphor and it does not somehow make all believers feminine.

    • Muff Potter

      Isn’t it funny Mr. Roberts, but when young men are dying of grievous wounds on the battlefield, or of scurvy and starvation whilst in captivity, it’s never their fathers or a stern desert god they cry for, it’s always their mothers.

  • Suzanne McCarthy

    I think the usefulness of all male trinity, even if metaphorical, is that it demonstrates that authority and submission is fundamentally between those of the same sex, not complementary sex.

    That’s important. We don’t want a female God sending her Son to die, nor a male God sending his daughter to die. Whether God is male or female, all of the trinity must be the same gender. It is only when the son is the exact replication of the Father that he can be priest and sacrifice.

    For example, Abraham could not sacrifice Sarah, but only Isaac. The submission of the Son is only because the Son is of the same gender as his Father. The notion that the husband could have this authority over his wife, that the Father has over the Son, is the bifurcation of priest and sacrifice, and the placement of Sarah on the altar.

    It is only when the trinity is represented as all one gender that we see that complementarianism does not relate to the two sexes at all, but is a same sex relationship, generational in nature.

    • J O E B L A C K M O N

      It is only when the trinity is represented as all one gender that we see that complementarianism does not relate to the two sexes at all, but is a same sex relationship, generational in nature

      (pats on head) You need to learn the difference between asserting something as being true and proving that it is in fact true. Run along, now.

      • Suzanne McCarthy

        Are saying that the trinity is not one gender? Or are you saying that complementarity is not reflected in the trinity?

        • Suzanne McCarthy

          If the second, then complementarity is a creaturely concept with no eternal significance.

          Afterall, for the new pope the Virgin Mary is the Protectress of Rome.

  • J O E B L A C K M O N

    Johnthon Merrit suggesting something on the left of the theological spectrum? Wow, never would have expected that. He’th juth tho orthodox (gosh it’s hard to write something and make it read as if it was being said with a lisp– 🙂 )

    • Lauren Bertrand

      In the full magnitude of the theological spectrum, Jonathan Merritt is still solidly to the right of center.

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