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When, why and how do we change the words of choral music, hymns and liturgy to use inclusive and expansive language?

By: Rev. Larry D. Ellis

The author's thoughts on this issue are evolving as a result of reading and dialogues with others and theological positions developed throughout his lifetime. He welcomes your comments and thoughts about this paper in hopes that our dialog will bring us to a deeper wisdom on this matter.

Prelude For the Question

Why is this subject a point of conversation, a controversy and even a source of pain and hostility for others? For some persons, changing the words of liturgy, hymns or choral music has never been considered. If it was written down and we want to sing it, we sing it the way it was written. We don't change the notes; we don't change the words. Such editorial "censorship" or at best "license" would be both a violation of the integrity of the composed or authored work and without question be a violation of all copyright laws. Others embrace, even promote affirmative action changes in gender-referenced texts because they feel women are marginalized or excluded from their full stature in our earthly experience of the kingdom of God. To these brothers and sisters the continued use of only a male God the Father and the use of male gendered words when referencing humanity in music and liturgy and for some even scripture itself represent the perpetuation of an injustice against women. Jesus' earthly ministry initiated the liberation of both women and men from the narrowly defined roles in the Hebrew and Arabic cultures. Some people are neutral on this gender language issue, but very few people. In my experience the vast majority of persons either passionately promote the agenda driven rewriting of texts to their liking or resist changes from the familiar texts out of the identical motivation - they want conformity to their own long-term personal preferences. While that is understandable, personal preference should not be the compelling issue.

I desire to be theologically driven, not primarily culturally driven. Political correctness should have no place in our worship intentions. For me, cultural values are definitely subordinate to unambiguous theological issues. However, there is no call to alienate anyone on a cultural level, absent the need to be both theologically accurate and a prophet at the same time and place. Clearly, to sacrifice scriptural truth in order to not offend or to gain acceptance is not a desirable posture. The Kingdom of God is not democratic and what we think appropriate does not carry any weight, if it defies a significant unambiguous theological truth. For instance, God chose a woman, a particular woman, Mary, and then caused her to conceive in her womb, which delivered their son, Jesus. Jesus was a man not a woman. Jesus had a physical bodily resurrection following his crucifixion and death. We are restored into a personal relationship with God by grace through faith. We cannot redeem ourselves through any amount of our own humbly motivated selfless good works. For me, these are examples of unambiguous theological issues. I would vigorously resist any textual changes that go against these clear theological truths.

In order to speak to the issue of inclusive language, we are challenged to formulate and clarify our understanding about God, ourselves and the human creation of God - both men and women. I see two primary areas of consideration on this subject. The first is what is God's gender? Is God male, female, both or neither? The second area deals with whether or not there are any gender specific ways that God relates to us his creation. When the scriptures refer to man or men, is the intent of God to include women along with the males in these passages? Does God relate to us differently depending upon whether we are male or female? At this point some would like our discussion to include the role of men and women with each other. I do not see the roles of women and men with each other in the church and the family to relate to this particular discussion. I will cover my thoughts on this very important subject in a separate writing. The focus here will be on the nature of God and the means by which we men and women are called to worship God. However, affecting all the above will be how much and what kind of authority we place on the scriptures in our value formation. It is my desire to promote the thinking process on this subject so that we can have good reasons for the position that we take on this issue. At the conclusion of this article I will also state how I have come to grips with this issue and how I have decided to operate with this issue as the director of music in a local church.

The Authority of Scripture

We are compelled to state our views on the reliability of Holy Scriptures. Are they God's word only in the original texts, which humanity no longer possesses? Does God's Holy Spirit preserve the biblical truth throughout the translation processes? Which translations most closely follow the best Hebrew and Greek texts that we do have available? How much do we allow our Western cultural values or our political preferences to influence our interpretation of scripture? There is a widespread opinion that there are many conflicting themes in the bible. Some say, "You can prove anything with the bible." There is also a tacit presumption that the best manuscripts have been translated, retranslated and widely edited over the centuries. Therefore, they now have been molded and even remolded and now need to be updated with modern vernacular to reflect enlightened theological thinking of today. In particular, some believe that they must be viewed through feminist theology in order to remove the perpetuation of injustice by no longer oppressing the marginalized groups of humanity such as women, minority races and homosexuals.

We all use copied and translated texts of scripture. The English language has many
words, whose meaning change over the years. Some changes are only a slight shift in nuance of meaning. Other changes can be produce dramatically different meaning for the exact same word. In the most extreme cases, the meaning can be the exact opposite of a much earlier meaning. For example in the King James translation of Romans 1:13 the Apostle Paul said, "Now I would not have you ignorant, brethren, that oftentimes I purposed to come unto you, (but was let hitherto,) that I might have some fruit among you also, even as among other Gentiles" The word let used here in the 1611 translation meant prohibited. Now it means permitted. The meaning when originally translated was the exact opposite of today's usage. For centuries the word "cleave" meant to adhere to or cling fast. Webster now lists a meaning of "to split apart or separate" such as with a meat cleaver. This is just another example of how the meaning of English words can dramatically change over the years. These dramatic shifts in the meaning of words in English are very rare in the scriptures, but they are present.

All of us would know that a "guy" means a male gendered person. In the vernacular the expression "you guys" does not imply any particular gender. Women or men would use it without hesitation for any gather of others irrespective of the gender makeup. Many times in early English translations the words "men" or "man" are used when the intent was clearly both men and women or more unambiguously people, humanity or humankind. English is one of the very few languages that have evolved to have a separate set of neutered words made as variants of words used for centuries (such as humankind from mankind, gentlefolk from gentlemen and chairperson from chairman) to describe references that are made corporately to both men and women. This distinction is a relatively new phenomenon. Until the mid 1970s this practice was unheard of. In almost every other language the meaning of the plural word for men means a group that includes both men and women or on occasion a group of all men or even is some cases all women. The single word for man has predominantly meant humankind. The precise meaning must usually be read in context. It is important to understand that this inclusive use of the word "men" has been understood in vernacular English for over four centuries and today is still understood by many students of the scripture to be inclusive of both genders. These irregularities are a result of the changes in the English language not in any sense errors in either the scriptures or the translations. The point is not that the scriptures is wrong, rather that vernacular English has changed. The reason for any change in an English translation of the scriptures would be to restore the translation to its original intended meaning - not to update a text to current vernacular with a shifted meaning from what was originally penned.

In other languages this similar usage goes back for thousands of years. However, today if one wants to be intentionally inclusive of both genders in English it is much more clear to state "ladies and gentlemen" or "all of us" or "each of us". The plural third person male pronoun is also being used for both men and women and has remained very prevalent in the Spanish language. However, during the year 2000 presidential campaign in Mexico, one heard "ciudadanos y ciudadanas" (translated male citizens and female citizens) being used by the politicians there. It seems that when we want to make certain that both genders are being addressed, it is wise to be unambiguous with our inclusivity.

History records the precision and extreme attention to detail with which the scribes and monks treated their copying of the holy writ. When the proofreaders discovered errors in the copying, the copy was usually discarded. When, instead, corrections were to be made on a manuscript, there were no erasures. There were no strike-throughs. Corrections were written in the space above where the error was made, just below the line above. Below the error five dots were placed identifying the location of the correction, but never covering up the mistake, so that it could be clearly observed. Maintaining the highest accuracy and quality of reproduction was very important. In the last fifty years here have been many new translations from the best ancient texts that we have available. What is encouraging is that they all bear an amazing consistency in their final product. This consistency is remarkable because the discovered Dead Sea Scrolls are at least a thousand years older than any previously known biblical manuscripts and even predate the canonization of the Hebrew Bible. Many of these biblical manuscripts are very close to the text found in the Hebrew Bible, which was compiled by Jewish authorities centuries later between 600 A.D. and the middle of the tenth century.

The idea that there is wide divergence within various English translations is unfounded. However, what you do find is that there are different theological camps that view the historical impact and significance to bring them to varied inferences from those scriptures. One who is a dispensationalist will just as easily support that "doctrine" from the King James and the New American Standard version. Still, many Christians do not embrace that "doctrine" no matter which translation they read. The charismatic Pentecostals will discover the same doctrine of the "baptism of the Holy Spirit and speaking in tongues" no matter which translation they study. Baptists will find congregational government, baptism by immersion and saved by faith alone while Presbyterians will find ruling elders and reformation theology in all the translations. The differences in these theologies seem not to result from the bible translations giving conflicted counsel, rather the use of certain cultural filters and theorized systematic doctrines which can bring to light very different emphasis. This diversity of doctrines, which even sometime conflict with each other within the Christian community seems to be developed from within the various theological traditions, but is not linked to any alleged divergence between different translations of the bible.

Since the 1980s within the bible translating arena there has developed a standard move to change singular masculine pronouns to gender-neutral forms when the intended reference is understood not to be specifically male or female. This can be seen in the New Revised Standard, the New Living Translation, the Contemporary English Version and the New International Version in its British version. There has been some significant resistance to this along with heated debate in conservative circles, when the NIV was about to bring its American Edition into line with the British edition. After this controversy, they backed down on this issue, leaving in tact some of the male gendered text, when it was not referring exclusively to male gendered persons. This widespread change for English translations has been done in simple recognition of the fact that "man/he/him" is used differently today from what it was in the past. English is changing in this regard. Clearly, when someone like Dorothy Sayers used such forms for general reference fifty years ago, she never felt she was excluding women. It is different today.

If you approach scripture with the belief that it is our authoritative guide for faith and practice and that it is given to us by God as the primary portion of his revelation of himself to us, you are compelled to study, understand the cultural background of the authors, pray for personal guidance and you strive to apply the truths that you learn from it. When you translate from any language to another, you cannot translate word for word. You must translate precise idea from one language and culture to another. It requires knowledge of both languages and cultures. If you have a very different view of scripture, meaning that it is a valued document from which we can learn, but that it is not an authoritative guide for faith and practice, then you can comfortably change some words and contexts without sacrificing what you believe to be the overall meaning. You can also expect to come to very different conclusions from time to time. I fall into the first category.

What is God's gender?

God was so reverenced by the Hebrew people that they would not speak his name. The Hebrews did eventually have the word Yahweh. He was called Jehovah and God. In Psalm 68:5 God is described as the Father to the fatherless. In scripture, God is repeatedly referred to as our Father, but He is never called our mother. Jesus repeatedly called God his Father, never his mother. Jesus taught his disciples to pray, "Our Father, who are in heaven." Jesus used the word Abba (which translated into English means daddy, a very personal and intimate name.) Jesus had a mother - Mary. He had an earthly father, Joseph. But Jesus addressed God as his Heavenly Father. When we think of God the Father, Jesus the Son and the Holy Spirit, the Holy Spirit is sometimes referred to as the feminine portion of the Trinity. However, Luke 1 records that it was the Holy Spirit that "caused Mary to conceive in her womb." That sounds much more like male than female. However, no one would argue that the Holy Spirit has male anatomy any more than they would argue that God the Father has male anatomy. If God has feminine gender or feminine anatomy, why did he need Mary to conceive a son? There is no doubt that Jesus, the Son of God, was male. However, in the Incarnation of God in Jesus, the fact that he was fully human is more significant than the fact that He was male in gender. Scripture absolutely affirms something about the maleness of the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit. Scripture does not affirm male gender for God the Father or the Holy Spirit.

However, scripture by no means limits describing God with images that we normally attribute to male gender. It gives us many allusions about the personality and character of God that our culture traditionally attributes to femininity. Isaiah 66:13 says this about God: "As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you." Isaiah 49:15 referring to God says, "Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb?" Isaiah 42:14 - "now I will cry out like a woman in labor, I will gasp and pant." Matthew 23:37 - "How often I have desired to gather your children as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!" Hosea 13:8 - "I will fall upon them like a bear robbed of her cubs." In Luke 15:8-10 Jesus uses a parable to teach that God is like a woman who lost a silver coin. The scriptures, indeed, attribute to God many characteristics that we attribute to femininity. Scripture does not attribute feminine gender to God.

I have come to believe that some persons feel it is helpful to focus on assigning a gender to God. If one had an excellent relationship with their father, it would feel very comfortable to address God as Father, especially if they did not have a great relationship with their mother. On the other hand, if you had a great relationship with your mother and not so great with your father, you might feel more comfortable with seeing God as your mother. I would point out that because we are comfortable with a theological concept, does not render it appropriate absent support from scripture. Perhaps we are better served by acknowledging God's uncompromising character and unconditional love, rather than using any gender based filter to relate to him. In addition to all the above references we learn that after examining all these references, I find that relegating God to exclusively male gender, in the sense that we humans know gender, imposes limits on God that scripture does not impose. Our western scientific mindset finds ambiguity unsettling. We are either Jew or gentile, a college graduate or not, honest or dishonest, male or female, gay or straight, sick or well. God does not require such rigid categorization in order to know the truth about us.

The next level of discussion is that there is a very small constituency who want to make certain that God is understood to be feminine in gender. Our mother who is in heaven… Some would go so far as to impose feminine pronouns when talking to and about God and are very comfortable with changing scripture to reflect this imagery. For some persons this seems to be an attempt to do so at the expense of any maleness at all, unless they alternate between male and female. To the defense of these persons, they understand the references to "Him" to be to the exclusion of femininity. They have difficulty in relating to maleness that contains no femininity. Therefore, they cannot embrace God who is without femininity.

It is fundamental to recognize that, absent clear unambiguous biblical guidance, defining God to be either feminine or masculine would seem to be taking away God's sovereignty to be and do what He wills. This should never be done lightly. As humans, we have difficulty comprehending being personal or intimate with any being that is not either male or female. God is a Spirit (John 4:24). Scripture does not support that God the Father or the Holy Spirit have sex organs. John 1:18 states that no one has seen God at any time. God has specifically chosen not to reveal what he looks like, except in part to Moses through the image of a burning bush that was not consumed by the fire. However, God is not inanimate or impersonal. He is not an it. He is intimately personal; his personality embodies characteristics that we attribute to both male and female. These characteristics all originated within God. Although both men and women are made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27), we are not the incarnation of all he is. We are an imperfect reflection of part of who He is. Women as well as men are made in God's image. Woman was not made in man's image. Thanks be to God! It is my conclusion that our Heavenly Father is not male-gendered. Neither is He female-gendered. Our truly human mindset finds it difficult to be intimate with another being without relating through gender. We have no way to personally relate to genderless objects. Almost all of our known individual earthly living organisms have one gender. Inanimate objects are not capable of being intimate. Jesus had an earthly mother and therefore, saw God as his Heavenly Father. We, like Jesus, can benefit from the use of gender in being intimate with God. This does not preclude God's much larger reality of who he is.

If we experience the scope of both God's feminine and masculine characteristics and we are growing to embrace these characteristics in our lives, I see no significance to the discussion of sexual gender of God. I believe that even trying to answer the question about God's gender with male or female imposes a finite limitation of human frame of reference that does not describe God. Clearly Genesis 1:27 states, "So God created humankind (in Hebrew Adam) in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. We are made in God's image, not He in ours.

God Approaches His Relationship to both Men and Women on the same terms.

God loves all his created beings. God commended His love toward us, in that while we were sinners, Christ died for us. Galatians 3:27-29 says that there is no difference between the Jew and Greek, slave or free person, male and female in how God loves us. Whosoever believeth in Him will not perish, but have eternal life. (John 3:16) Romans 10:12-13 says "For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved." Fundamental to scripture is that Jesus came and was the sacrifice for all humanity (both men and women) for our salvation. Jesus offered forgiveness to women and men on precisely the same terms. The vast majority of gender-neutral themes are truths that are to be applied to all of humanity.

When the scripture speaks of the people of God, at times there are gender specific uniqueness. As a result of the fall of humankind, women are destined to have pain in childbirth (Genesis 3:16). Men are destined to have to work for their provisions. While Genesis 1 tells us that both men and women are created by God in His image, Genesis 2 states that man was created first. Woman was made by God second, using a part of the man. Some draw theological significance to this chronology; some do not. However, none of these gender uniqueness brings any gender based limits or preferences on God's love or the process by which we inter into a personal relationship with God. We are well served to seek out images about recipients of God's love that include both male and female. I do believe we do an injustice to force any gender issue at the expense of those characteristics, which are commonly attributed to one gender or the other. Protector, provider, gentle, loving……. These personality styles and character qualities are characteristics of God and to be a part of who we are all to become, NOT gender predisposition that we apply back to God. We do a great disservice to relegate protector and provider to male and gentle and loving to female. The scriptures certainly to not support this gender restrictive view of these examples of Godly behavior to which all Christians are called.

Some specific questions:

Do we feel the freedom to change the texts of Shakespeare? Must it be translated into contemporary English to be understood? What about Chaucer? What about the King James English translation? At what point is an "English text" so non-understandable that we must translate into contemporary language so that its meaning will be communicated?

Assuming we don't change portions of some musical texts, are their pieces that we would choose not to sing, for the reasons that the language was not inclusive or worse yet teaches an inappropriate gender based exclusion in our Christian faith? Perhaps Rise Up O Men of God and God of our Fathers have served us well, but should be retired from use in our congregations. After all, who could object to Rise Up Ye Saints of God, or Faith of Our Parents? These revised texts would work rhythmically with the same tune.

What do we do with foreign language texts? Do we take offense at the lack of the inclusion of the feminine in these Latin, French or German texts? Can we understand those references to men to be inclusive of both men and women?

Do we have the agenda that music and the text that it supports is prepared by artists and that we do not have the freedom to edit or change it without permission of the artist (composer or writer)? That certainly is the law in the United States.

There certainly are pieces of music whose texts are not theologically sound and we should choose to exclude these from our normal fair. There exist certain Christian musical idioms that promote no-theology or non-biblical theology. Are the texts of our pieces theologically defendable or are the texts in clear contradiction to our theological track? Don't send out conflicting messages with your music. Don't sing Psalms about raising your hands in praise of God and then prohibit that very action in your worship. Some would argue that self-deprecating themes should also be removed from our common worship experience, because many persons have such low self-esteem. Are the texts appropriate for the occasion? Will those hearing the work understand the spoken or sung text? Is our choral diction clear enough for any of this to matter? Is comprehension of the precise text critical to the actual worship experience? If you change the text, are you certain to preserve the original meaning of the text?

God's Word and Liturgy or Art forms

There is a big distinction between music texts, scripture and liturgy that we use in our worship and similar forms of art that are not commonly used by Christians within the scope of our worship of God. Our scriptures are the authoritative word of God, which has been translated into English. Choral works, hymns and other liturgies are men and women's expressions of their theology in sacred works of art that they created. These are written for our use in Christian worship. They are written as an expression of communication between God and the people of God. I feel that God speaks to us in a special way through the Bible, worship music and liturgy, in a way He does not speak to us through Shakespeare. If we see a text as a relevant message from God to us today, as opposed to seeing a text as a piece of literature, we are moved to make certain that there is no gender exclusion imposed within a translation. Within the Church, most that are moving for changes in this area are concerned that contemporary Christians hear God speaking to all his people. We are not concerned that contemporary society might feel unhappy that Shakespeare used terms in his general comments on society that seem (to us) to exclude women.

I believe we are to be stewards of these gifts of music and liturgy in the church, not curators. Each one of these should be experienced as fresh and empowered by God as we participate with their use in corporate worship. The more we think of the artistic element, the more we want to preserve it as it was created. We don't change Blue Boy's attire to green, just because we favor green clothing over blue. However, the more we think of God speaking to us in our society today, the more concerned we are that all be included in our translated scripture, liturgy and musical texts.

Some Closing Opinions

I would not want to dumb down either the scriptures, structured liturgy or texts set to music. I do not change many of the words of published choral works. If I feel that a text should be changed, usually only one or two words need to be changed to restore inclusiveness. A little change goes a long way. If the text is a non-English text I never change it. If it is a text that has been translated into English, I have and would again alter some of the texts to make them gender inclusive, but I would weigh the negative impact of any change against the value of broadened inclusiveness. I have no agenda of making all sung or spoken texts inclusive. It is fine to speak of men or to speak of women in a text. For example, in the hymn As With Gladness Men of Old, the phrase men of old should not be changed, because is refers to the kings who followed the star to the baby Jesus. My desire is to be inclusive in texts where it makes sense to be inclusive.

For example in the Bach anthem Sing Praise to God the text appears as "I sing aloud Thy praises, that men may hear the grateful song." I have changed the word "men" to "all". The hymn, Once to Every Man and Nation, could be enhanced by understanding that when the word nation is used, it did not mean what we think. The Greek word translated nation actually was ethos, from which we have the word ethnic group. I would like the text to be changed to "Once to every culture's people…" I think, today, this would better communicate the challenge before us presented in this hymn. Matthew 6:24 has historically been translated "No man can serve two masters." The New Revised Standard Version now more properly states, "No one can serve two masters." If it were an archaic English translation of scripture, I would be inclined to change the English text to reflect the original meaning. If the text was originally written in English, I am inclined to change from what was written if the text is over forty or fifty years old. However, at times I prefer to preserve the work of art unaltered. For example, consider Handel's Messiah chorus no. 46 is entitled Since By Man Came Death. This is taken from I Corinthians 15:21 which reads, "Since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead." Theologically, I would say that the point of Jesus' death and bodily resurrection was not that he was male but that he was truly human. But I would not change the text from man, because I can find no word that better fits the music. In that case, I would probably include a note of explanation in the printed program if I felt it might better communicate the meaning of the text.

It is the author's practice to include an English translation of the non-English sung texts in the bulletin or printed program. This then helps the uninitiated understand and appreciate the beauty of music sung in its original language. After all, many choral works do not translate well nor fit the meter when put into English. Singing Vivaldi's Gloria, Mozart's Ave Verum or Schubert's Mass in G in English would do a great disservice to these exceptional works. The Latin text cannot be improved upon when sung to the composer's music.

Certainly what literature we have is not all that we may have. I believe that contemporary hymn and choral writers are the key to both expansive and inclusive language in the future. The deliberate choice by composers of language that cannot be used to exclude others would do a great service to strengthen our worship experiences and draw those who do feel minimized into a closer fellowship with God. That is what we are about. I would hope that writers and composers would retain the theology of scripture. Don't proclaim that God has feminine gender and don't mandate that God be male either. Finally don't limit the proclamation of God's love and the promotion of effective ministry of God's people to male gendered humanity.

Copyright 2000 by Rev. Larry D. Ellis, Denver, Colorado

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