Sunday, March 22, 2009

Heresy at a funeral?

I had the blessed privilege of officiating a church member's funeral this past Friday afternoon. I worked alongside of a Methodist minister from the deceased's past. In my experience, I have always been a bit leery of preaching funerals with men whom I have never met. It always proves to be an interesting experience.

Not the first time it has happened to me, but the minister made a pointedly unorthodox statement in the course of his message. He said, "God is neither male nor female; He is simply Spirit." The statement quite literally came out of nowhere, with very little context. Talking about the comfort of God, appropriate at a funeral service, he went from there to make that statement, and the only additional explanation was that "God is just as much a mother as He is Father."

I would hazard to say it is something he must believe, else he would not have made the statement. Perhaps he felt comfortable making such a statement at a funeral, when people tend to have their guards down. I don't know. I had considered talking with each of the folks who are members of the church I serve to correct his statement, but then with funerals, people tend to have short memories anyway.


Luke said...

Well, Tony, that sure is a predicament due solely to timing. Unfortunately, the poor fellow ignored the whole of Scripture that portrays God as the Father. Anyways, the most important thing is if you preached Jesus to the people and the hope He brings to moments like those. I trust that God will honor your preaching of His Word.

Tony said...

Thanks, Luke. I'm glad you commented. I have been reading your stuff (all good!) out at Pete's place though I don't comment.

I trust the same in situations like that; that through the Holy Spirit God will strike from the memory of the people there such statements. I just feel like he took advantage of the situation; that isn't the first time I have heard unorthodoxy preached at funerals.

Karma Shuford said...

If you spoke after he did, I guess you could have spoke a lot about God as a HE and the father, etc. Like every other sentence or so.

But, I too trust that the Holy Spirit can make some thing "remember-able" and other a bit more "forgettable."

Tony said...

I did speak after he did, but I really did not say anything to refute what he said. The funeral service is just not the place for confrontational teaching; I know you're not saying that, but I don't want a family later down the road when they listen to the tape of mama's funeral later (and they will!) that was so purty to recall to mind the dueling preachers.

Rather, I did what I always do at a funeral service; I honor Jesus and I honor the deceased, in that order. That is what made it such a conundrum to me.

Karma Shuford said...

I understand and completely agree.

But, you are a lot more mature than me, and can hold your tongue a lot better, undoubtedly. :P

my verification word -- cootheed.

i like it. now to work it into a sentence somewhere.

Tony said...

Remember Tweety Bird?

"Her don't know me very her?" :-p

Since this is my blog, I don't have a word verification. Takes a lot of fun out of it.

Bernard Shuford said...

The amount of doctrine that I have heard preached at funerals is boggling. The amount of debateable doctrine is pretty high, too. The amount of true heresy is pretty low, due to the fact that most funerals I have attended or participated in were for folks that see the basics of Chrsitianity in the same way I do.

Streak said...

I have to ask, but why is it so radical to not gender God? I understand that the Bible refers to God as a male father figure, but does that require that be the only way we refer to God?

Tony said...

I understand that the Bible refers to God as a male father figure

And that is the only way that God is addressed in the Bible.

All biblical references to him are in the masculine. Jesus refers to him in the masculine. Nowhere is God referred to as a "mother" or in the feminine.

I don't know if that gets at the crux of your question; gendering God has some pretty far-reaching implications, at least in my mind.

Streak said...

No, I understand. But gender seems to be a human concept. Why would a deity need gender, after all, as it has specific "biological" meanings for humans.

And further, why is this so critical that God be defined away from the feminine? Since we lack a gender defined deity, why the need to rigidly define God as the father. I understand why the Bible refers to God that way, but why does that mean we cannot suggest that God is bigger than that?

Tony said...

Gender is a human concept, and God has chosen to reveal himself to us using those same human concepts. To apply a quality or trait to God that He has not revealed himself as is to go beyond how he has revealed himself to humanity. Do you know of any instance where God has revealed himself as feminine?

I think we do have a gender defined deity, and God has chosen to define himself as masculine. I do believe God is "bigger" than a lot of our human conceptions but I am constrained by the Bible only to define him as he has been revealed there. I know that sounds rigid and unapologetic, and to a degree it is.

I think it is critical, because when God revealed himself in the Old Testament, he gender-defined himself apart from the pagan cultures. The deities of the pagan cultures typically had male and female and the male gods typically had female consorts. They were fundamentally no different than humans; immoral and impure. However, God is completely pure--holy.

In the New Testament, God came to earth in the person of Jesus Christ--a man. Moreover, the analogies of Scripture fall apart. In the OT, God frequently referred to Israel as the wife to whom he betrothed himself. In the NT, the church is the bride of Christ. Apart from a male defined deity, nearly everything that has been revealed in Scripture about God rattles apart.

Streak said...

I do not know of any references in the Bible to God as feminine, that is for sure. But I am not approaching this from the perspective of the Bible, but from the perspective of the concept of gender, and the flawed and limited nature of patriarchy.

I suspect we will have to simply agree to disagree on this, but this emphasis on God as masculine is part of the reason that the female has been so disparaged in Christian history. God is masculine and fatherly, women are flawed and secondary. As a feminist, that bothers me. As a historian, I am only too well aware of how that has adversely effected women throughout history. That metaphor may have been necessary several thousand years ago, but seems less useful now. But then again, I am not bound by the Bible here.

I also suspect I am the only commenter that has an issue with this, so I will let this go.

Karma Shuford said...

I've never understood the desire to degender God. Perhaps if I understood that, I could grasp why having a male God is so offensive to some.

IMO, I can understand how God could be genderless, but I can't understand why if He was, he didn't let us know that. Throughout the OT and NT (in English translations, at least) he is referred to in the masculine.

In the original text is he referred to in the feminine at all?

If not, why?

Now, I suppose you can toss the Bible and develop a more PC version of God, but doing that seems a bit counter-intuitive to God and his relationships with us.

(Irony -- my verification this time is mense. Since that is gender specific, maybe it would let me type menses, because gender doesn't matter. >grin<)

Streak said...

PC version? Really?

Karma Shuford said...

streak, we were posting at the same time so my statements about not using the Bible weren't related to yours (or in reaction to yours) at all.

But, in response to you, if we don't use the Bible in learning about God, and his relationship with humans, what do we use?

Streak said...

fair enough.

I am not in the church tradition any longer, so I am not exactly a good person to speak to about this. I left the church in part because of how this issue of gender and equality was addressed in those I was familiar with. Like I said, studying history didn't help there.

But I am also quite aware that while Southern Baptists now often insist on the Bible (sola scriptura?) as the only guide, other historic Christian traditions see the Bible as one of three guides. The other two being tradition and reason.

All of those three legs inform the others, in those traditions, and so would posit a much different approach to the issue of gender roles, or at least could posit a different approach to gender roles.

Karma Shuford said...

As an aside, I've never felt "second class" or, to use streak's word, disparaged by a male God. In reading the Bible, in learning about Christ, it is just the opposite. Even though my "earthly father" wasn't all that great an example of a father the first 10 or so years of my life, the Bible doesn't make me feel limited, in any way.

I know some people who claim to use Biblical authority to push their wives and daughters around, but as is often the case in these situations, they are taking scripture completely out of context and bending it to their own ends. That is not cool.

So, we (you) don't use the Bible, solely, to define God. We bring in traditions and reason.

What tradition and reasoning postulates that God is genderless or even feminine?

Tony said...


No, your opinions and thoughts on this do matter. I see where you are coming from and I know from history as well how a flawed patriarchy has hurt women's roles in the home and society.

I think this boils down to how a lot of our conversations have turned out; our views on biblical authority. I respect your view, though I disagree with it. It doesn't mean I am uncharitable toward women or seek to disparage them in any way. (Heck, I was one of those who criticized the right's embrace of Sarah Palin on the same grounds they were embracing her.)

I don't draw the conclusion in my theology that women are "flawed and secondary;" far from it. I probably am a little more egalitarian than I would like to admit.

The Bible is a complicated document, no doubt. I have spent a good deal of time trying to unravel a lot of its message and how it applies to such issues as we are discussing. When the overwhelming evidence within it however points to a male expression of deity, I cannot easily dismiss that (not saying you are) and concede "genderless" or some expression beyond what is revealed.

I hope that doesn't make me arrogant or elitist in your mind, because my comments aren't meant to be.

Streak said...

As I noted earlier, I am obviously the only one here who thinks this way, so it is probably better for me to not push. But to answer your question, reason and experience make up part of that traditional approach. Historically, women were not considered to be equal to men in their ability, and that included (not even that recently) the assumption that women were emotionally, and intellectually inferior. In fact, the assumption of women containing some moral superiority was new to the 19th century. Before that, women in America (for example) were deemed emotionally, intellectually, and morally inferior to men. Child rearing books were written for men, to give you an example.

Tradition and reason have moved us past that approach to women. We have moved from the legal concept of "covering" where women could not sign contracts or own land (and this was often reinforced not by a few religious zealots, but by the entire religious establishment), and certainly had no say in their relationships. We have moved past those ideas.

I guess the question for me, is that if we value the female virtues that we assume exist, where do we find them since the God we are supposed to worship is exclusively and totally male?

Streak said...

Tony, you commented while I was writing as well. I never intended to imply that you disparaged women at all, and hope that was not communicated in any way.

I don't think I would call you an elitist. That has never crossed my mind. I would also say that it is probably fair to say that I am dismissive toward the masculine-only deity. As you say, it comes down to how we see the authority of the Bible, and I respect our differences on this.

Karma Shuford said...

I guess the question for me, is that if we value the female virtues that we assume exist, where do we find them since the God we are supposed to worship is exclusively and totally male?

Which female virtues? Obviously, the sexes ARE different, beyond the obvious, but just to stay on the same page, which virtues, exactly?

I've got a couple of ideas to try to answer your question from my perspective, but I may be missing the point completely, and would like to avoid that.

Tony said...


OK. I don't know that we will get much farther; we're both pretty hard-headed on this matter. :)

I'm going to stew on that last question you raise (...if we value the female virtues that we assume exist, where do we find them since the God we are supposed to worship is exclusively and totally male?) and I might return to this thread a bit later.

My thoughts initially turn to Genesis 1:27; "God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created them, male and female He created them."

Streak said...

Interesting. If God created females as well in his image, then how is he only male?

Streak said...

Karma, perhaps female virtues was a poorly chosen word. What I was getting at was this insistence of God being male. That has to mean something, or else all of you would not have objected when this minister suggested that God was also female. Why, if God created both men and women in his image is he exclusively male and the thought of him having feminine attributes so problematic?

Tony said...


No, you didn't come across as accusing me of any arrogance, but I know discussions like this can quickly degenerate into snobbery and I don't want that to happen.

The thought of God having female attributes is not problematic; it is referring to him as something that he has not revealed himself as is what is problematic.

We would agree that God has feminine attributes; I think defining what feminine attributes are is essential and that is going to be difficult. If you mean more nurturing, caring, compassionate, then those could easily be masculine qualities as well. However, women can be aggressive, angry, and hostile, often popularly understood as male attributes.

Metaphorically, God is often compared to the feminine in Scripture; a hen (Matthew 23:37), a mother bear (Hosea 13:8), and a mother with a weaned child on her lap (Psalm 121). However, when God is spoken about plainly, it is always in the masculine.

That is where my objection is lodged and also still rests in my first comment; God is fundamentally different from who we are. There are some attributes God chooses to share with us; there are some he does not. In theology texts these are classified as "communicable" and "incommunicable."

God's incommunicable attributes are things such as independence (apart from his creation, God still exists), unchangeableness, eternity (God stands outside of time), and omnipresence. His communicable attributes are things such as his wisdom, love, jealousy, mercy, and holiness.

God chose to create people in his image--male and female. However, God transcends gendering--I agree.

God's image must also be defined; when we say male and female are created in his image, what does that mean? Is it necessarily tied then to gender? It doesn't necessarily have to be, and shouldn't. To be created in God's image simply means that men and women are like God and represent God--apart from gender.

I know this is running a bit disjointed this morning, but one further thought is how Jesus responded to women. He kept company with a Samaritan woman; he allowed a prostitute to anoint his feet; when an adulteress was accused, he released her, when the due punishment should have been stoning. Women were the first ones to discover the empty tomb.

When Paul went to Philippi on his second missionary journey, there was no synagogue for him to begin his mission, which was his custom. It took at least ten men to organize a synagogue. Instead of leaving that city, he found some women by a riverside and shared the Gospel with them.

As I said, a lot of my thoughts are disjointed. I guess what I am trying to say is that though God transcends gender, he has communicated himself to us in the masculine. That however does not hinder his ability to create the female; I see no arguable reason otherwise, if we affirm God's omnipotence.

I think the issue arises not from changing how we define God, but how we relate to each other. Being created in the image of God actually affirms the worth of ALL people.

Streak said...


I have been so busy today, but your comment has me thinking. Maybe tomorrow.

Tony said...

Take your time. I'll be away a good bit of tomorrow, but I'll be here. :)

Steve Sensenig said...

Since your template only shows time for comments and not date, I have no idea how late I am to this discussion. Perhaps everyone has already moved on.

At any rate, interesting discussion. At the risk of potentially offending some here, I have to admit I'm closer to Streak's question regarding the necessity of a male-only deity.

As you mentioned, Tony, God created male and female in his image. I'm not sure I see the basis for disregarding gender completely in that statement.

I'm also not sure that I understand the complete dismissal of the metaphorical references (mother hen, etc.) in the discussion. It doesn't seem fair to me to say that most of the evidence reflects one thing, and then use that to just nullify other evidence.

If anything, I think the fact that God has chosen to use various metaphors, including animal and female metaphors, should caution us against limiting ourselves to only one particular expression. Obviously, I don't pray to "Our mother hen who art in heaven" ;) but I'm just saying that the fact that scripture says things like God covers us with his wings is reason enough to think that the male image (Father, etc.) may be just as inadequate in characterizing God.

Another random thought: For a long time in our own language, male pronouns (and nouns, too, actually) were used to refer to male and female alike. The whole "he/she" format is a very recent invention. We talk about "man"kind, all "men" being created equal, etc. (Of course, one could argue that apparently, the founders actually DID mean just males, but I digress...)

So, perhaps the fact that God is referred to as male was simply a linguistic limitation and not meant to be a limit on God's being.

Steve Sensenig said...

gendering God has some pretty far-reaching implications, at least in my mind.

Can you elaborate on this, Tony? I'm not sure if I understand what you mean. What are some examples of the "far-reaching implications" that you have in mind?

Tony said...


I think you may be carrying what I am saying too far. I haven't dismissed the metaphorical references nor have I disregarded gender completely.

What I have been saying is that God transcends gender (it isn't necessary for him to be neither, either or both); he has revealed himself to us as male; yet he is characterized in many descriptive ways throughout the bible.

I had thought about bringing up the point about linguistic limitations and that the idea of "gender neutral" language as far as I know is a fairly recent invention. However, I have not done a lot of my homework there and didn't want to put my foot in my mouth.

Further, and regarding that same thought, what do you do with Genesis 5:2? "He created them male and female, and He blessed them and named them Man in the day when they were created." It seems to me God himself named them "man" and not "humanity," or "humankind" or "the human race," etc. Yes, some patriarchs have argued for the total exclusion of women in various areas of life based on these thoughts, but as I mentioned already, being created in the image of God, male and female, affirms the worth of all people.

It has more to do, in my mind, with how we relate to people and not how we refer to God.

On the last concern you raised, I should have been more specific, that gendering God as female or partly female has some far-reaching implications, not gendering God at all.

I need to get my thoughts together on this, but two of the first implications in my mind at least, is how we view Scripture [(isn't that a surprise?;)] and does gendering God make him a sexual being, as other gods/goddesses and their consorts?

I'll be gone a good bit of today, so may not be back to this discussion until this evening. Have a great day, everyone.

Steve Sensenig said...

(my word confirmation: "andif" -- is that anything like "as if" when said by a moody teenager? hehe)

Good thoughts, Tony. I didn't mean to press what you said too far. Was just trying to get my brain around what you were saying.

I suspect that the linguistic aspect might be very crucial to this issue. I don't know near enough about it to comment much further, but I just think that the "gender" of God may be something that we're making too much out of.

I do agree with you and Streak that many have misused the masculine references (he, him, Father, etc.) throughout history to demean, subvert, and sometimes downright ignore females.

Paul said that in Christ there is no male or female. Perhaps that statement has some bearing on our view of God.

Tony said...

Hey Steve,

Thanks for participating in the thread; I appreciate you and your thoughts. If I came across as terse and "shut you down" I really did not mean to; honest!

I'm not convinced just yet that we can make too much of the gender issue, but it may be better to let this go for now.

Streak said...

Late back to the conversation, but here is what I have been mulling over.

As a historian, we often talk about ideas and change over time. We don't believe that ideas transcend time and culture--or in other words, that ideas mean the same thing across time. The idea of freedom, for example, means something quite different to the founders than to modern consumers.

Tony suggests that God reveals himself as male, and that revelation is transcendent (or that is what I hear), but that very idea of what it means to be male, or to be father changes over time. Our very discussion reveals that. Tony suggested (and I agree completely) that men can be nurturing, and that to assume that women are the nurturers is a flawed idea (just as an example). But if we back up in time very much at all, the basic narrative of culture would place men as strong and silent breadwinners, with women as soft, emotional nurturers.

We don't see men (or most of us) as John Wayne archetypes any longer, and perhaps that helps facilitate the resistance to somehow gendering God behind the male. If being male includes so many of the emotional and spiritual values that used to be the primary role of the female, then there is no reason to change. If that minister had said, "God is not only the judge, but also the warm embrace who cares about us deeply" (and that is me assuming that might have been partially where he was going), then I suspect there would have been no theological heresy? Perhaps?

I also think that despite cultural conservative antipathy to feminism, the basic ideas of feminism and equality, and challenging gender stereotypes has permeated even this discussion. :)

Tony said...


Thanks for your thoughts and I think we agree more than we disagree here. You are right in your final sentence--I probably have a bit of a feminist in me in that I don't demand women wear dresses all the time and stay home and keep house (among other things, but those two as examples), though that is perfectly acceptable if she wants to do so.

We do live in a much different world than fifty to a hundred years ago, a world where women can become CEOs and rule Germany, and do it very well.

However, meshing that with the biblical truth that God never changes, he is "the same, yesterday, tomorrow, and forever," is the conundrum for me. That is why I fall not on redefining how we look at God, but rather how we relate to each other. As I approach problems of a theological nature, the issue is never God but me; if that makes sense.

Further, you said, If that minister had said, "God is not only the judge, but also the warm embrace who cares about us deeply" (and that is me assuming that might have been partially where he was going), then I suspect there would have been no theological heresy? Perhaps?

You are right. The minister did seem to be going in that direction and though he may have expressed his thoughts poorly for my theological tastes, he knew exactly what he meant and probably meant no unorthodoxy in his words.

Anyway, thanks for a good discussion.

Steve Sensenig said...

Tony, you didn't shut me down at all. :) I feel like I know you well enough "in real life" that we give each other the benefit of the doubt. In this case, I didn't even have to give you benefit of the doubt because I never even took it as anything but dialog :)

Admittedly, and in the interest of full disclosure, at this point in my journey, I get nervous when I hear words like "orthodox" and "heresy"!

I've re-read the other minister's statements many, many times, mulling over them in my head. And I guess I don't see a major problem with them.

God is neither male nor female; He is simply Spirit.

While the "neither male nor female" part sounds like it pushes the boundaries of traditional orthodoxy, I'm not sure it's entirely inaccurate. Part of my comments about the linguistic limitation apply to the fact that it's possible that we put too much meaning into the masculine pronouns and term "Father" that are used in scripture.

In one sense, "father" could just as easily be interpreted as the source of life, not "male figure at the head of the family".

The part of his statement about God being Spirit is definitely within the realm of traditional orthodoxy. Interestingly, the Greek word used for Spirit is the same word as "breath" or "wind", and I don't think we would rush to put gender identification on the wind! ;) From a linguistic standpoint, the "gender" of the word "spirit" in Greek is neuter. (The concept of "gender" in linguistics is not meant to be a correlation to male and female gender, but I'm just saying.)

God is just as much a mother as He is Father.

Notice that he does not say, "God is our mother." In this sense, I think that it flows along with what you and Streak have been talking about with regard to God displaying characteristics (hence, the mother hen metaphor) of what we humans would attribute to a mother as well as to a father.

Streak mentioned ideas changing over time, and let's face it - the concept of "father" is not a very positive one in many aspects of our society right now. For those who cannot relate to a positive image of "father" as a loving, caring, nurturing parent, must we insist that the only see God as "father"?

I also got to thinking about the notion of God being a single parent. If you looked at a family structure where the mother was gone from the picture and it was just a father and children, would you automatically classify that family as "complete"? So if God is only father, who/where is the mother?

In other words, perhaps it is better to look at the Genesis passage as demonstrating that male and female together were created in God's image, and not just the male.

As for the continuous use of male pronouns, "father", etc., could that not be simply that God chose one gender to use instead of constantly referring to himself as "he/she"? ;)

Again, the linguistic aspect comes into play. Words have "gender" associated with them. We talk about ships as "her" and "she", yet no one would dare argue that a ship is female, would they? Likewise, if God is so "other" from us, it would be possible to say that he is neither male or female in the sense that we perceive male or female, but that the "he" concept is simply the linguistic gender we attribute to the person or concept of "God".

I've rambled enough. Sorry! :)

Tony said...


I completely understand your aversion to the words "heresy" and "unorthodox," you being an unorthodox heretic and all. Or a heretical unorthodoc...or uhh...something. I don't know; what ARE YOU??? ;-)

Seriously, those are good thoughts and are definitely coloring outside the lines for traditional orthodoxy, no doubt--but by no means are they "heretical" or "unorthodox" statements.

I think the crux of this discussion may lie in linguistics and not orthodoxy/unorthodoxy. Your thoughts about how the idea of the word "father" has changed brings some more discussion matter to the table.

For those who cannot relate to a positive image of "father" as a loving, caring, nurturing parent, must we insist that the only see God as "father"?

I think it would be precisely because God is those things that we can point someone who has a less than ideal earthly father that we could point them to him. Just by way of illustration, Charles Stanley had a horrible relationship with his daddy growing up and it was the idea of God as a heavenly father that would not harm him and always love him that was instrumental in his salvation.

So maybe yours was not the best illustration, but one worth considering, at least in how the ideas have changed over time--further, I don't think we can assert that dead-beat dads are a recent occurrence. There are plenty of scriptural examples of dads who weren't all that noble. I don't think fatherhood just recently fell on hard times.

But, I see where you are coming from. Thanks for the good thoughts!