Words have power. The power of words can be seen in the biblical story of the creation: "Then God said, ’Let there be light’; and there was light.... God said, ’Let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind: cattle and creeping things and wild animals of the earth of every kind.’ And it was so" (Genesis 1:3, 24).
In the New Testament, God in Christ is called the Word: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God" (John 1:1).
Christian liturgical assemblies are gatherings in and around the Word of God, Jesus the Christ. Because God in Christ is called the Word, the use of words (language) in Christian worship should be given careful attention.
Language both reflects and forms human attitudes and actions. As language shapes and influences human perceptions, the language used in worship shapes and influences our perceptions of God. Because language is created and used by humans, it reflects the imperfections and limitations of humanness. Therefore, no use of language can ever totally describe or represent God.
The Language of Scripture
All of the versions of scripture available for use in worship are translations from the original Hebrew and Greek. The original texts should be consulted before making significant alternations to texts. Some translations of scripture use noninclusive language, even when the original Greek and Hebrew versions do not. Therefore, it may be appropriate, for example, to read "people of Corinth," expressing the meaning of the original Greek, rather than the "men of Corinth" used in some translations.
Not all passages of scripture were intended to be inclusive. We must take care not to alter falsely the writer’s intent. At times, the use of masculine terminology (or other gender-specific terminology) may be key to certain imagery used to convey a specific idea.
Many recent translations of scripture (for example, New Revised Standard Version) have incorporated the insights of the most up-to-date biblical scholarship to produce translations that are more accurate than past translations. They avoid the use of exclusive language not warranted by the original language texts.
Language for Humanity
Language that excludes, alienates, demeans, stereotypes, or misrepresents persons by gender, race, ethnicity, socio-economic class, age, handicapping conditions, or other classifications should be avoided in worship.
The use of masculine terms to describe humankind should also be avoided. While in the past, the "generic masculine" was understood to include persons of both genders, this is no longer true. Generic use of terms such as man, mankind, forefathers, brothers, are readily replaced by human, humanity, people, ancestors, or forbearers, brothers and sisters.
Language Describing God
Language used to describe God is just that — descriptive, not literal. Scripture provides us with rich and expansive images to describe God, including: eagle (Deuteronomy 32:11-12) baker (Matthew 13;33) hen (Matthew 23:27) wind (Acts 2:2) bread (John 6;33-35) rock (Isaiah 17:10) and light (John 8:12).
Assigning male pronouns to human occupations (such as judge, teacher, potter, guard) or to objects (fortress, rock, shield) should be avoided when they are used as metaphors for God.
Language Addressing God
In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus addressed God as abba, "father." This address does not ascribe human male sexuality to God but is an intimate address that is suggestive of the loving and trusting relationship between parent and child.
The image of father used by Jesus draws upon the deepest and most human of all relationships — that of parent to child. God traditionally has been called "father" in worship to convey the intimate relationship between God and the church. The metaphorical use of the term "father" continues to be used in worship, alongside many other biblical metaphors for God. However, because sin can distort even the fundamental relationships of parents to children, the image of a father may be difficult to comprehend for some who have experienced alienation in their relationship to a human father.
Titles that suggest the activity of God may be used to address God. Such titles include Advocate, Healer, Savior, and Refuge. Many biblical titles for God are also available; They include Adonai, Source of Life, Root of Jesse, and Alpha and Omega.
Similes may be used to address God. For example, "God who cares for us as a mother hen cares for her chicks" or "God, who watches over us as a sentinel standing watch by night. . . . "
Second-person pronouns, instead of gender specific and third person pronouns, may be used to address God.
Language Referring to Jesus
Jesus came to earth as a male human being, therefore the pronoun "he" is used appropriately when referring to Jesus. However, the humanness of Jesus has always been viewed as more significant than his male gender. The christological categories used by the church (human and divine natures, humanity and divinity) clearly show that the central doctrines of the faith are based upon Jesus’ humanness, not his maleness. Although the use of male pronouns is appropriate when referring to Jesus, care should be taken to find other ways to speak of Jesus that emphasize humanness rather than maleness.
Language Addressing Jesus
The Scriptures provide many forms of address for Jesus. A significant confessional address is "Jesus is Lord." Many other forms of address using nonmasculine imagery should be used along with masculine forms for balance. Other forms of addressing Jesus include using Christ, Teacher, Emmanuel, Savior, Redeemer, and Word.
Language Referring to the Spirit
The Scriptures use both the Greek neuter word pneuma and the Hebrew feminine word ruach to describe the Spirit. Throughout the history of the church, feminine pronouns have often been employed in reference to the Spirit. Some see this usage as balancing the masculine Father and Son references. Just as masculine terms are used metaphorically, so are feminine. The use of feminine pronouns does not assign human female sexual being to God’s Spirit, which is beyond human gender.
The Language of Hymnody
Some hymns that were written before people became sensitive to the use of inclusive language can be modified to reflect more inclusive terms, but others cannot. Issues of copyright, meter, rhyme, tradition, and poetic integrity of the text are all factors. Each hymn needs to be evaluated to determine whether alteration is feasible. In some cases, new verses reflecting current language sensitivity can be added to old hymns. In some cases, particularly problematic verses can be omitted. In other instances, the traditional weight of certain hymns may necessitate their being kept intact and balanced by other hymns that are more inclusive in language.
The Language of Contemporary Songs
Many newly composed songs still use exclusive language for God and humankind. Many songs come from theological traditions that do not see inclusive language as a priority or concern. Music that is not faithful to Lutheran theology or sensitive to the use of inclusive language should be avoided.
The Trinitarian Baptismal Formula
According to the ecumenically received baptismal formula, Holy Baptism is administered using water and the name of the Triune God — Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America Conference of Bishops, in their 1991 statement on the trinitarian baptismal formula, upholds this name as the name in which this church baptizes.
The ecumenical church is presently engaged in discussions seeking to expand and enrich language used to address the triune God. Such discussions eventually may produce additional formulations. Until then, the current baptismal formula continues to be the only one recognized in the ELCA.