Exclusive Language in Church

An appealing representation  of inclusion.

An appealing representation of inclusion.

Over the holidays I spent time in my old stomping grounds down in Pittsburgh.  Part of those stomping grounds is my old church.  I’ve mentioned that as much as I criticize the sort of church that mine has become, I actually love my home church.  Love it.  Cherish it.  And like a parent of a cranky toddler or a surly teenager I love it even though it makes me absolutely nuts.  This is about one of the things that drives me nuts about it, exclusive language.

Sometimes conservative Christians get upset about “inclusive” language – language that changes masculine words like “he,” “man,” “mankind,” to words like “people,” “humanity,” and “fellowship.”  Other inclusive language changes make a point of using the proper noun “God” instead of the gendered pronoun, “he.”  There seems no serious change in theology from old to new language.  We can all agree that in Christian tradition that calling God, “God,” is basically appropriate.  Opening up highly gendered language can sound clunky at first (I always get tangled up in the first line of the Christmas carol, “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlefolk”) but after a while we get used to it.  No one is hurt by having language reflect that men and women are equally valued in the eyes of the church (if indeed the church does equally value both men and women, which is of course not always true.)

The opposite of inclusive language is exclusive language.  Exclusive language makes clear that only certain people, or kinds of people, are loved by God, have authority in the church, are worth discussing, or matter at all.  Exclusive language creates a hierarchy of people based on inborn characteristics, usually giving preference (in American churches) to the male, the white, the middle class, and the straight.  Exclusive language is not about valuing some choices over other choices – which is a legitimate use of moral leadership.  Saying that “The Lord loves a cheerful giver,” is different than saying that Jesus was, “pleased as man with man to dwell.”  The first elevates cheerfulness and generosity, qualities that anyone is free to nurture in themselves, while the second elevates maleness, which is not to easy to nurture into existence.

When I spent time in my old church I heard a lot of exclusive language.  I heard people using language that specifically relegated women, non-straight people, and the disabled to second class status.  They said, “In ancient Israel women had no value,” “Gay people shouldn’t push their agenda,” and “You have to speak your faith out loud to be saved.”  My old church does not hate women, non-straight people, and the disabled.  But they don’t seem to understand how words can hurt and push people to the sidelines.  Here they are, saying terrible things that they don’t even believe.  Why?

I believe that many people in this church have come to believe that being exclusive in their language is a way to protect their crumbling cultural hegemony.  I don’t think they’ve come to this decision consciously, because they are not bad people.  But I think they’ve come to believe these things anyway.  They see that the way they’ve structured their own world, valuing straight, white, middle-class, men is threatened when language that values and includes non-whites, the poor, the LGBTQ community, and women is used.  What they miss is that valuing women doesn’t devalue men. It shows value for all people.  Including non-white people doesn’t exclude white people. It includes all people.  Accepting the LGBTQ doesn’t reject gender-conforming, straight people.  It accepts all people.  My church has set up a false dichotomy.  It isn’t an us or them conflict.

When people get their panties in a twist over inclusive language being forced on them, I always think to myself, “If you don’t want inclusive language then you want exclusive language.”  Does the church want to be known as an exclusive organization?  I think that might work against some of their outreach efforts, no?

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3 Responses to Exclusive Language in Church

  1. Megan says:

    Recently I was reading parts an old book about the “Evolution of Man” to Becca. After the first paragraph Becca wanted to know why were only talking about men and not women. I told here that a long time ago people were silly and only said man instead of human. She did not think it was acceptable oversight at all. I changed the rest of man to human during the rest of the reading of book.

  2. Megan says:

    I’m proud to have been at a church that changes the liturgy to inclusive language. We don’t tend to change songs. It’s more complicated to change songs, especially with word length, rhyming, historical integrity, and copyrights. I’m finding more and more that how we say things matters a very great deal. It can give insight into what we really mean or feel even when it isn’t consciously. It’s how so much of cultural attitudes are expressed!!! It’s indirect and insidious.

    • Insidious is a perfect word for it. Sometimes the old language is hard to change, just like you said. But all the more reason to be clearer when we use new or updatable language. Glad Becca will grow up be included.

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