The Problem with Inclusive Language

Yes, we have a problem about inclusive language. It can become exclusive.

Many years ago when I was at the United Nations working with the Commission on the Status of Women, I had the honour and privilege of meeting and working with women from developing countries. It was a wonderful experience and I learned a great deal about the lives of many women, located mostly in the continent of Africa. The scheme to empower women was to provide micro loans for women to develop their own businesses (which I do not think is a realistic or productive way to increase economic prosperity in developing countries, based on what these women told me, but that is another blog). I met a lot of women, one of whom I grew quite close to.

At the end of one of our encounters one day, she said to me, “Sister, let us pray together.” She offered for me to begin the prayer, so I did. I used only inclusive language and when it was her time to pray, she used gendered language. We then started to say the Lord’s Prayer together, I using “Our Father/Mother in Heaven” and she using “Our Father in heaven.” After we finished praying, she took my hand and said “Thank you. But now I need to teach you something.” She, being my elder, one that I respected, I sat and prepared to listen to the wisdom of this woman. What I got was not what I expected.

The conversation went something like this.

Thank you for praying with me. But I need to tell you that your prayers, while heard by God, are offensive to me. You did not refer to God as Father. How nice it is for you that you have the privilege of thinking about what gender God is. How good it is that you have the time and education to sit around and think about the language you use to describe God. I am very happy that you have the means to study the Bible in a university and to ask such questions. But when you are praying with someone, you need to consider your privilege as a white woman in the world. Do you think I have time to sit around and think about what gender God is with your picture of a blonde Jesus? No. I have to think constantly about how to feed my children and the people of my village. Do you think that when I cry out to God at night for help that I consider what God’s name is? No. While the rest of the world is trying to feed itself, you are thinking about new and clever ways to describe God, being careful to choose the right words. God cares about hearts and what is behind the words, not the words. So, my child, the next time you pray with someone, think about how your choice of words comes from privilege.

I was stunned. She schooled me. I felt terrible.  But she was right. In my effort to be along side her, I had just done the one thing I had not wanted to: negate the bond I had with this woman in an intimate moment of prayer.

Don’t get me wrong. I love inclusive language and we do need to use it, but we need to be aware of it and not just adhere to a policy. When I was in school, our policy was to use inclusive language. In my former and current denomination, we need to use inclusive language. I have an inclusive language Bible that I use frequently. I craft worship services to reflect inclusive language. But this woman’s words have stuck with me for many years. Is inclusive language a sign of privilege? Is inclusive language something that can exclusive? YES. I BELIEVE SO. 

When our inclusive language use becomes a point of exclusivity, it becomes a problem. And yes, inclusiveness can become exclusive. An example is the aforementioned story above. At that point, the language used became exclusive, unattainable, to someone else. It became exclusive because I DID have the time to think personally and professionally about my choice of words, to the point of where a sister in Christ could not linguistically or conceptually access the prayer I had offered on both of our behalf. The language was a barrier. Instead of entering into a sacred space together, the language detracted and concerned her so much that she was excluded.

Why do we use inclusive language?

The spirit behind inclusive language, is just that: that all are included in whatever it is that is being offered: worship, workshops, prayers, ceremonies and gatherings. There are people in life who have not had good relationships with their fathers, have been abused by fathers or not known their father. There are also those who have had equally bad experiences with their mothers. For many, using terms like Mother/Father are problematic, especially when it comes to describing a relationship with God. We are human and we tend to make God in our image. For someone who is dealing with issues relating to their father, hearing God described as a father may mean the person adopts an image of God that is punitive, abusive or worse. On the other side of my mouth, I also realise that many people see God as the father or mother they never had. A lot of the issues we run into are around gendered language. And it is time to move past that.

While my sister in Christ was right, I did have privilege to contemplate the language used, we also must still consider the language we use and not in a privileged way. Mostly, because our language influences our thought and our thought influences our language. On first glace we seem to think that the world is thinking about new language for genders and sexual preferences. While this may seem shocking to some, history shows us that this has already been considered and we are refining the language. For thousands of years, old cultures still present with us today recognise more than two genders. (First Nations people recognise up to five genders, Ancient Judaism has up to six, the Greeks and Romans had just as many, and the ancient Egyptians had numerous numbers as well.) Our concept of two genders has been largely based on genitals and western concepts imposed.

But inclusive language is not just about gender. It is about concepts. For instance, we often say “kingdom of God.” This is two fold: the concept implies male leadership, and, monarchy. For many, a monarchy is a ruling elite outside the norms of society. I have also seen this language reinterpreted as “Commonwealth of God.” This too is problematic as it is a nationalistic term. So what is the answer? Can we change the language of the Bible? Do we change the language we use? Can we do this inclusively? How do we use language about God to ensure that everyone is included?

Another aspect of inclusive language is using language that is ‘insider language’. For instance, if during a worship service, we use words like “M and S Fund” or, “Coffee and Conversation” or, “Fellowship in the narthex after worship” can all be barriers to someone who is new. How is someone supposed to know that M and S means Mission and Service? How is someone supposed to know that “Coffee and Conversation” is a way of saying that the conversation is informal? Or, how is someone new supposed to know where the narthex is, or, that fellowship is another word used to mean gathering? This is especially true for someone who has not been to church in a long time, or, someone whose first language is not English.

A few ways to get the most out of inclusive language.

  1. Recognise that considering these questions are in fact a privilege. Having these discussions with others, ourselves and our communities are a form of privilege, however, if we want change, we have to consider how our language shapes our thoughts and our thoughts shape our language. Recongise the responsibility that comes with this issue: having the leisure to think about it and the education to think about it.
  2. Recognise that the language is for that specific context. Another community may use different language or a specific group may use particular language. Learn each other’s lexicon and learn from each other.
  3. Realise that inclusive language is about much more than gender pronouns for humans and God. It is about accessibility and that includes language about abilities (cognitive, physical, emotional and linguistic). Language, by nature, is exclusive. Different words mean different things to different people. For instance, when my husband first told me his feelings for me, he said, “I have deep sympathy for you.” I took this to mean he had pity for me. To him, sympathy meant a strong sense of companionship, togetherness and harmony. I almost walked out on him when I said, “I don’t want your sympathy!”  and that is when he understood we had two different interpretations for the word. Thankfully, he used language I could understand shortly before I almost stormed out on him. Using language that most everyone can relate to is hard work and takes an exploration, but it is worth it. In one of my workshops, we spend the first fifteen minutes discussing what a particular word will mean to the group so we are all on the same page.
  4. Context. There are some contexts that I would not use inclusive language unless there was a discussion first: for instance, ecumenical circles. There are instances where using inclusive language can be a great point of exploration, but, it can also be a barrier to developing better relationships with other denominations. Slow and gentle is best.
  5. Have the conversation. Discuss with the group first what language is preferred. Some of my congregations that I thought would be opposed to using inclusive language were glad the subject was brought up. Have the conversation about words that the group may have issues with. If they don’t have an issue with certain words, talk about those words and if there could be better ways that using new words might inspire (for instance, the Kingdom of God). Remember, language informs our thoughts, over time.
  6. Be flexible. Recongnise that as leaders, we have our own words that we may not be comfortable with. Personally, calling the Kingdom of God the Commonwealth of God is not something I am comfortable with. For me, it is far too colonial and reminds me of the British Empire. I am less comfortable with Kingdom of God and have yet to find a better word. I also have a hard time offering a male Trinitarian blessing (In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit) but when baptizing people, I don’t have a choice, if their baptism is to be recongised in other denominations. Sometimes, we have to get over ourselves.
  7. Ask first. If working with a new group, or an individual, ask if it is okay to use inclusive language. Ask a person if there is a specific pronoun they would like. “Would it be okay to use the identify God as Father when praying?” Most will not object, but some will. The question then becomes how flexible to be: use the word to accommodate the majority, or, not use the word to include the minority? This is where inclusiveness can become exclusive. It can be a hassle but the conversation needs to be had if inclusiveness is to be meaningful and genuine.  
  8. Balance. Sometimes, there will not be consensus among a group of people. This is where balance is required. Using the language that everyone can be comfortable with will be the most inclusive thing to do when consensus is not reached.
  9. Make sure the identified language is accessible to all: new comers and regular attendees. Yes, this is a lot of effort to use longer terms rather than abbreviations, but inclusiveness is also about hospitality.
  10. Be patient. I love my husband, but he is older than I and very old school. He still refers to his doctor as “my lady doctor” and his minister as “the lady minister preached today.” I often say, “Dear, either drop the lady before the profession or make it equal and put the gender before the profession for men, too. So you could say, ‘The minister preached today,’ or, ‘the man minister preached today,’ but make it equal.”  Personally, I would love it if he just said, “the doctor” but I’m trying to be patient as English is not his first language (despite having a PhD in English) and his native language has everything in gendered terms.
  11. What God wants. Personally, I don’t think God cares what language we use in prayer, as long as it is heartfelt and intimate. But I also think that God wants us to not make God in our own image- limiting God to gender. While the Bible certainly uses engendered language in some passages, there are others where God is plural and gender neutral. This is a message we shouldn’t forget. And yes, God did become incarnate in Jesus, who we identify as male, but there are other aspects of God that are also feminine. Notice we don’t say ‘woman/man, male/female” but masculine and feminine. These are identified descriptors of aspects of God, not a limited to a gender, because in Genesis 1, in the first account of creation (there are two if you read carefully), God says male and female are made in ‘our image.’
  12. Energetic imagery and language.  It is important to point out that energetically, most energies in ancient and modern thought, are fit into male and female. It is widely accepted in many religions, that God acts with male energy and humanity is a female energy, meaning, that God impregnates humanity with divinity, and, that humanity, when we consent to this impregnation, humans become pregnant with possibility, giving birth to God’s desires for all humanity. So, we shouldn’t throw out the baby with the bath water, because these ancient aspects of wisdom and energy knowledge are being lost in language. Which is sad because they give us greater insights into the human condition.

I hope that this wee article has given some pause for consideration and has inspired some thought. Please leave a comment below and feel free to share this article with someone you think may benefit from it. There are lots of inclusive language resources available online,


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