When God began to create the heavens and the earth—the earth was without shape or form, it was dark over the deep sea, and God’s wind swept over the waters—
God said, “Let there be light.” And so light appeared. God saw how good the light was. God separated the light from the darkness. God named the light Day and the darkness Night.
There was evening and there was morning: the first day. (Genesis 1:1-5)
Mother God, Holy Spirit
Maybe you’ve heard rumblings of the Holy Spirit as female or woman. Or maybe this is the first time you’ve ever encountered the idea that God can be feminine at all. Wherever you fall on the spectrum of understanding, rejecting, or embracing the feminine side of God, I want to invite you to ponder the idea of what it means to embrace God as Mother while also not rejecting God as Father.
This article is an invitation to the discussion of God as mother through the person of the Holy Spirit, and how the bible gives us permission to see the feminine of God through the activities, actions, and creation that the Holy Spirit initiates. Embracing the Holy Spirit as feminine is an opportunity for hope for many of us.
Hope for those who may be disconnected from their faith through years of teaching heard only about men, from a male point of view, and hope for those who are thirsty for a fresh vision of God as nurturer, protector, and as an approachable-yet-powerful mother who pours out comfort and refuge for her children.
The reality is, God is neither male nor female, but is other. In God’s being, God encompasses all of both genders, in perfect balance with which we have the sacred role of reflecting into the world as God’s human creation. Due to the history of the church, patriarchal cultural traditions, and the telling and retelling of stories, we have a Christian narrative that heavily favors the male over the female, and this is no more evident than in the language we use to refer to God as “He”.
A careful observer will note that I avoid pronouns for God as much as possible in my writing and discussing God because we have become too accustomed to understanding God as male-only. Through centuries of referring to God only as “He”, we have lost the connection to God as “She”. Our English language and the necessity of gendered pronouns have done us no favors but have only perpetuated the challenge of us finding an accurate gender balance in God’s being.
It can be jarring and even feel heretical to some when we hear of God as “she” or “mother” at first, but I encourage you to open your heart and mind and make room for how God may wish to reveal Him/Herself as a God that is bigger than what our gender-focused imaginations have historically allowed for.
First: The Trinity
To discuss the Holy Spirit, we must first establish a foundation of theological agreement on the Trinity. In other words, in an effort to begin on the same page, we will remain consistent with what is considered an orthodox understanding of the trinity in Christianity: the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. All three are equal, mutually interconnected, and interdependent. The Trinity is a reflection of unity, relationality, love, and grace.
With interconnectedness and perfect mutuality, the Trinity is God’s divine nature continuously working together for the redemption of the world, interdependent and bringing about hope, healing, and restoration. The eighth-century theologian, John Damascene, helps us understand the Trinity with his term perichoresis which expresses the concept that the Trinity is a mutual relationship of the three persons indwelling each other in love in a synergy of unity.
Second: The Spirit
As one-third of the Trinity, the Spirit’s role is uniquely a creative one. The powerful force of energy that brought the world into being in creation and who brings life to what is dead inspires, and moves like the wind throughout the earth, bringing creative energy, gifts, and power. The Spirit is uncontrollable, untamable, and is God’s essence and tangible presence with which we are invited to participate.
The Spirit brings the community together through love, the greatest fruit of the Spirit (1 Corinthians 13:13) which binds communities together in unity. The Spirit is working in the church today in many ways to restore broken systems of hierarchy, which have rejected God’s design of unity and have oppressed countless generations of women instead of embracing them as equals.
Our need for harmony in community is reflected in the perfection of the Trinity and the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit existing in complete mutuality and dependence without a hierarchy of leadership importance.
Third: The Spirit as female
As mentioned above, God embraces all aspects of each gender, however, it is with the Holy Spirit that we find a starting point to embrace the femininity of God. We have historically referred to God the Father as “He”, and God the Son as “He”, yet we have avoided using a pronoun for the Holy Spirit, therefore rejecting the reality that in our western english-speaking context, the Spirit is most appropriately referred to as “She”.
The Holy Spirit is symbolized in scripture as wind, fire, light, and water and is “the creative and freeing power of God let loose in the world…”. The Spirit has been translated as masculine in the Latin form of spiritus, but was originally feminine in the Hebrew word ruach, and in Greek is neither male nor female in gender with the word pneuma (from which we get pneumatology, the theological study of the Spirit).
Although these translations themselves do not tell us the gender of the Holy Spirit, the activities of the Spirit as creator, nurturer, protector, a force of nature, seeking out the needs of her children to empower and encourage is remarkably parallel to that of women’s experiences. Spirit also is often mentioned in scripture as having the traits of a mother:
A mother suckling her children and responsible for their care (Numbers 11:12)
A mother who gave birth to the Israelites (Deuteronomy 31:18)
A woman in labor whose forceful breaths are an image of divine power (Isaiah 42:14)
A mother who births and protects Israel (Isaiah 46:3-4)
A mother who does not forget the child she nurses (Isaiah 49:14-15
A mother who comforts her children (Isaiah 66:12-13)
A mother who calls, teaches, holds, heals, and feeds her young (Hosea 11:1-4
“- … a female bird protecting her young (Psalms 17:8; 36;7; 57:1; 91:1, 4; Isaiah 31:5; Deuteronomy 32:11-12)
Like an eagle (Deuteronomy 32:11-12; Exodus 19:4; Job 39:27-30)
Like a hen (Matthew 23:37; Luke 13:34; cf. Ruth 2:12)
Like a mother bear (Hosea 13:8)
Although it is problematic to reduce the Holy Spirit to a mother figure only, (not every female is or desires to become a mother, nor does motherhood define femininity), it seems the writers of scripture found a lot of material in their contemporary cultures about women’s roles in society which helped to articulate the Spirit’s function.
Born of the Spirit
When Jesus meets with Nicodemus and he questions Jesus’ assertion that a person must be born again to enter the Kingdom of God, Jesus provides a birthing metaphor by saying “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit” (John 3:5).
Here the Spirit is explicitly described as a woman who births. There are additional examples from women’s historical life experiences in scripture which further helps us see the Spirit as feminine:
Knitting together of life in the womb (Psalms 139:13)
A midwife who brings forward new creation (Psalm 22:9-10)
A washerwoman who restores people to newness by clearing away blood stains (Isaiah 4:4 and Psalms 51:7).
In addition to feminine imagery, symbolism that involved birds was commonly employed to represent female deities in the ancient near east: (Genesis 1:2; Psalms 17:8, 36:7, 57:1, 61:4, 91:1, 4; Isaiah 31:5; Exodus 19:4; Deuteronomy 32:11-12, and Luke 3:22).
From these resources we are able to build a biblical case that there is room for the feminine in the divine, God as a mother, God as nurturer, and God as just as much female as male, creating room for the spiritual imagination of the church to remain orthodox to Biblical authority while embracing the God-given giftedness of women.
When we advocate for gender inclusivity and female God language, we are actually restoring scripture and taking the bible more literally than those who claim a God who reflects male characteristics alone.
Why is thinking of the Holy Spirit as feminine important?
Understanding God as equally feminine as masculine is a place where we must begin as we seek to uncover truths of women and the importance of God’s intended desire for their equal leadership and giftedness in the Church. When we grasp God’s vision for women, we are more empowered to advocate for women’s rights in the church and at home. We are more equipped to elevate the issue of inequality and fight for women’s rights across the church, home, and society.
When we understand our call to embrace, value, and seek out the leadership characteristics present in women today and in history, we arm ourselves with truth, creating more space for female leaders, gifted equally as men. It is the Spirit that reconciles us and brings us into community together to model perichoresis, the authentic community that we discern in the Trinity. This power of the Spirit empowers us as individuals and as communities to work together for justice in the church and world as the Spirit aligns us with God’s will for creation.
I believe that the Holy Spirit is on the move and is calling to the front female pioneers, prophets, advocates, and apostles. The Spirit is bringing us an awareness of a fuller picture of God’s glory and intention for the work of the church in our time. It is my hope and prayer that as the Spirit blows fresh wind and inspiration, women would respond courageously with male and female allies on every side, to step into new callings and into new places of leadership.