Women, Men, and Language: Four Easy Steps to Better Church Leadership

Naming Rights – what’s in it for women and men?

Which of these sounds most natural to you:

  • Women and men.
  • Girls and boys.
  • Ladies and gentlemen.

If you say the last one, you are probably in the majority of English speaking people. The other two are written in the reverse order of their usual appearance, in that we usually hear or read Men and Women or – perhaps not quite as consistently but still predominantly – Boys and Girls. (Don’t get me started on Ladies and Gentlemen; that phrase carries its own baggage we should dump at every opportunity.)

For the sake of God’s people – women and men both – it’s worth coming out of your comfort zone with language about men and women.

language on women and men.jpg

Tips for doing that well in church are coming up a bit later in this post. First let’s take a look at how this plays out in another venue – the courtroom.

Putting the right person in charge

Toward the end of a trial in my courtroom I tell my jurors that the first thing they should do in the jury room is select a Presiding Juror to oversee deliberations.

The jurors might then wonder, “What is a Presiding Juror?” So I explain that this person is what we once called the jury foreman – the man who is in the fore by chairing the proceedings. Why a man? Because if you go back far enough in history there was no need to call the person anything other than foreman because women weren’t allowed on juries.

Then came the time when women started serving on juries. That was a good thing, but we still called the position “jury foreman” regardless of who held it. That was not a good thing.

Then came the time we recognized the propriety of accurately reflecting who is taking the lead and we started calling the person who held the position either the foreman or the forewoman.

So far, so good. But then we added a new word and started calling the position the jury foreperson, and frankly when you say it out loud it gives the impression that there’s a four-person committee running the jury.

Which means Presiding Juror is not a bad evolution of the title.*

Naming right is doing right

Women and men, girls and boys.

Men and women, boys and girls.

Is there anything inherently wrong in either word order? Perhaps not. But there is something inherently wrong in a persistent choice of word order.

One thing we learned in law school is the effect of primacy: people remember what they hear first. That’s why it’s important to lead with a strong argument in court.

It works with word order as well. In a two word list, people often read and hear the first word as being the primary word.

Think of a person leading a church service consistently using the word order Men and Women during a sermon or announcements. That’s not hard to picture, is it? This is how it is usually expressed, after all.

But it carries a subtle message.

Men, then women.

Men first, women next.

Men in the lead, and women follow the men.

This is about more than mere word order, though. It’s about those who have leadership positions being faithful to God and honest with his people.

It’s not hard to do it right.

Four easy steps to better church leadership

1. Start mixing up your word order:

Say women and men at least as often as you say men and women. The same goes for girls and boys for boys and girls. It might take some effort and sound awkward at first, but eventually everyone will stop noticing and then it won’t even take conscious effort on your part to keep mixing it up.

2. Use a Bible translation that accurately reflects the place of women and men in the church:

There are passages in the Bible that obviously refer solely to men or solely to women. There are others that refer to and have application for women and men alike. Those passages are best translated into English in a way that reflects the universal application. Compare these two translations of Romans 12:1, first from the ESV and then from the NIV:

I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.


Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship.

No one reading that verse in the context of the preceding passages would take it to apply only to men and not women, and it is no excuse to say that you are only speaking the word as it was written. Translation means choosing the right words to get the actual meaning across.

3. Teach and preach how Scripture applies to women and men alike.

I’ve heard sermons where a passage such as Romans 12:1 is read with only the word “brothers” and then the preacher goes on to expound on it without even mentioning that Paul also meant to include women. (Even the ESV has a footnote saying it could be read as “brothers and sisters” but the preachers have glossed right over it.)

If you must use a gender-exclusive translation such as the ESV to teach from, then your preaching should also take the effort to explain that these verses apply to women and men alike. Otherwise the sermon is not honestly presenting the word of God.

4. Learn from the experiences of women and men both.

Anyone who is teaching both women and men needs to get to know both women and men. For those teaching the Bible and leading in church ministries, this requires learning from both men and women as well. Seek out people who are authorities on your subject, or have experience with it, or who have written well on it. Rely on people you know personally and on those you know only from their written words.

But don’t rely on just women or just men. That would be as if I tried to make a cheese omelet with just cheese or just eggs. I might get something edible, but it’s nowhere near being as tasty as an omelet. (For anyone who thinks that food analogy is odd I point to Psalm 34:8 “Taste and see that the Lord is good…” which is another passage that applies to both women and men.)

These four tips can be a starting point, and one that I hope everyone can use – whether a church as a whole or a preacher, writer or speaker – to make sure no one is excluding half the church merely by unnecessary word choices.

I invite readers to add their own constructive ideas in the comments.

Women and men both.


* The United States Marine Corps recently acted on the importance of accurate language:

Nearly six months after the Pentagon opened all military combat roles to women, the Marine Corps is making the change official in name — doing away with the word “man” in nearly two dozen job titles … .

The word “man” will be replaced with “Marine.”

The job titles that are changing include: basic infantry Marine, light-armor vehicle Marine, basic field artillery Marine, reconnaissance Marine, antitank missile gunner, field artillery fire control Marine, field artillery operations chief and armor Marine. (NBC News – Marine Corps Is Taking ‘Man’ Out of 19 Job Titles to Create Gender-Neutral Names.)

Their example is one the church – and particularly those in leadership – should follow.


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41 Responses to Women, Men, and Language: Four Easy Steps to Better Church Leadership

  1. Bev Murrill says:

    Yep, you’re right.

    But you know, in terms of Ladies and Gentlemen… the word Kyria in 2 John 1 actually means Lady in the context of Lord and Lady… it’s a governmental title. The word gyne is used in other contexts that refer to a woman, but in this scripture, the word Kuria is the feminine of Kurios. Kurios means a governmental role like Sir, or Lord, or Master, and the female form Kuria, used in this scripture, relates to a governmental role in the feminine, such as Lady or Madam … so … Lady is ok really, if it’s used in its proper context.

    Thanks for your constant advocacy, Tim.

    • Tim says:

      Thanks for the insight on Kuria, Bev. John used the word purposefully, and had a particular person in mind. That’s not my point on the term, of course. When it’s used nowadays it’s hardly ever used in a sense that makes sense.

      • Bev Murrill says:

        You’re right, of course… but then … if you were in the UK, then Lady So and So would be a title, rather than a designation of gender. In the end, we gotta use what we’ve got as best as we can, right?

        • Tim says:

          Precisely. In my post on Ladies and Gentleman I point out that the phrase has its proper use, but that the way we use it so loosely in churches is improper and imprecise.

        • Bev Murrill says:

          yep… true. But there has to be ‘a’ word…. shall we make one up?

        • Tim says:

          I just use women for ladies and men for gentlemen. As one woman told me decades ago, “Use ‘women.’ It’s a good word.”

  2. FW Rez says:

    When commenting in blogs that discuss a certain gender focused organization, I deliberately reverse the M and W: CBWM.

  3. FW Rez says:

    Great article.I often wonder how women can feel a part of worship in a church where no female voices are allowed to speak.

  4. This is a more irreverent suggestion, but I enjoy reading spoofy Twitter feeds like @manwhohasitall because they say things that we are so used to hearing about women but that sound so ludicrous when said about men: like “Can male businesswomen have it all?” and “Get your pre-dad sparkle back.” Makes me more aware of the double standards.

  5. Annabelle says:

    I recently heard a sermon in which the preacher was talking about the verse in Ephesians 1 that talks about being “adopted as sons.” He said that it was particularly important that this not be translated “sons and daughters” because in the context of the original writings, being adopted as a son meant you had full rights and responsibilities. I had never heard this before, and it is quite an important point, and one that still applies today. (Take that, CBWM! Thank you, FW Rez…)

    I haven’t been going to that particular church for very long, and it will be interesting to see what they really believe. They use the ESV, I think, which is the one complementarians prefer. But that seems to be in conflict with the “full rights and responsibilities” of all Christians that the preacher was emphasizing.

    • Tim says:

      I completely agree that is the most accurate way to translate it because of the legal significance in that culture regarding sons as opposed to daughters. Thanks for raising it here, Annabelle.

  6. roscuro says:

    Hmm, I come at this from a slightly different perspective. I am something of a linguistic fan (I’m not a linguist, but I enjoy studying language) and have studied several languages, including one outside the European family. I was just reading a fascinating book titled Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages and I came across this fascinating trivia in the chapter titled ‘Sex and Syntax’:

    …consider that back in the days when English still had a real gender system, it assigned the word “woman” not to the feminine gender, not even to the neuter, but, like Greek, to the masculine gender. “Woman” comes from the Old English wif-man, literally “woman-human being.” Since in Old English the gender of a compound noun like wif-man was determined by the gender of the last element, here the masculine man, the correct pronoun to use when referring to a woman was “he.”

    There is a sense in which ‘man’ used in the generic sense, such as in the KJV, refers not to just men, but to the human species, male and female. An imperfect analogy would be to say the word ‘horse’ refers to both male and female horses. Remember that the first man – Hebrew Ish – called his wife ‘woman’ – Hebrew Ishi – because she was taken out of man. Adam’s joyful proclamation that she was bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh (the words convey a poetic sense, as if he was singing) were a statement of equality – to put it in a different way, woman is man.

    I have a problem with the second-wave feminist objection to what they termed sexist language – I am a woman – simply because their arguments are based on a faulty understanding of how language works. In the book I mentioned above, the author, while speaking of how our language can influence how we think about things, also debunks the theory of language relativity – the idea that the language we speak can alter our perception of reality and our ability to reason. That now defunct linguistic theory was first put forward by overly enthusiastic linguists in the early 20th century who though they had found a tribe who did not understand the concept of time because they didn’t appear to have any words conveying a sense of time (it turned out that the tribe actually had words for time). Language can not alter the reality around us, and changing language will not change reality. Let me give you an example from that non-European language I studied. That language has no gender in its pronouns. It uses the same pronoun whether speaking of a man or a woman in the third person singular. Yet, the roles between the sexes in the society are very traditional – extremely so, to a point that even conservatives in the West would find oppressive. The gender neutral language has not eliminated the difference between the sexes. So, when feminists fuss about the use of the word foreman, for example, they are ascribing the use of the word ‘man’ far more power to oppress women than it has. It is actual abusive men who oppress women, not the word used to denote the male sex in the English language. After all, if we are to liberate women by removing all references to men in job titles, what about the word itself, ‘woman‘?

    • Tim says:

      If a repeated use of a word comes to be taken as carrying a particular meaning, then the word takes on that meaning. It’s not an alteration of reality, but a recognition of changing meanings.

      If using the word “foreman” causes a woman to feel excluded it’s not a denigration of the original meaning of the word “man” but a recognition of the current meaning of the word as no longer encompassing both men and women.

      • roscuro says:

        If that is the case, why is it only positions containing the word ‘man’ which are being changed? Take two another professions primarily associated with male and female divisions, that of physician and nurse. To this day, in a hospital, people tend to view the woman in scrubs with a stethoscope as a nurse and the man in scrubs with a stethoscope as a doctor. Yet, neither the men who are nurses or the women who are physicians have proposed changing the names of the professions because the title of doctor conveys the idea of a man, and the title of nurse conveys the idea of a woman.

        • Tim says:

          Because Doctor and Nurse are not the same as saying Man Doctor and Woman Nurse, just as Welder and Baker are not the same as Man Welder and Woman Baker.

        • roscuro says:

          As I said in my first post, woman is man, so using the term ‘man’ in a position a woman holds seems to me to be perfectly logical.

        • Pastor Bob says:

          To add to the mix with English and Spanish:
          Male Female
          Doctor Doctora
          Enfermero Enfermera (Nurse)

          Oddly enough, in some South American countries the judge is addressed as “Doctor” or “Doctora”.

      • roscuro says:

        I would add that personally, were I ever to lead a jury, I should be honoured to use the title of foreman. To me, that would be a real acknowledgment of equality, rather than having the termed modified because I was of the female sex.

      • roscuro says:

        Perhaps, an example from another language would help show what I mean. In French, everything has gender, nouns (including inanimate objects), adjectives, even the articles are masculine or feminine. The masculine definite article is le, while the feminine definite article is la. In the famous French fairy tale, ‘Beauty and the Beast’, Beauty refers to the female character, and the Beast refers to the male character; however, the title of the tale in French reads ‘La belle (Beauty) et la bete (and the Beast)’. Bete, meaning beast, is a feminine noun in French, so it gets a feminine definite article. Yet, no one is confused by the male character being referred to in the feminine gender. In the text of the tale, the Beast is not only called la bete, but also le monstre, which is a masculine noun. French speakers understand that gender in their language does not always align with actual sex. English speakers once had that understanding, but now seem to have lost it. As feminists swung one way, trying to abolish the use of ‘man’ in words referring to both sexes (human, anyone?), patriarchal complementarians swung the other way, turning the generic ‘man’ in the KJV into a tool for excluding women from spiritual promises. Both were wrong.

        • Tim says:

          Gendered words is not the same as people, though. Borrowed concept, but not identical use.

        • Annabelle says:

          As a former pastor of mine used to say, if you are going to err, then err on the side of grace. Using the term “presiding juror” describes the role and not the person. It is a gracious term, including all people.
          Likewise, in the context of the church, “man” sometimes means one man; sometimes means many men; sometimes means women and men; and sometimes means women, men, girls, and boys. Why not use words that mean what we intend to say, since we already have those words? I’m not sure why this is difficult – or wrong.

        • Tim says:

          Describe the role and not the person – precisely. If you are talking about the position, then talk about the position without limiting it by words (such as woman or man) that are not specific to the position.

        • roscuro says:

          My opinion is that foreman also includes all people. Ironically, the effort to eliminate from words in order that women do not feel excluded would actually eliminate all words referring to women. The word woman has ‘man’ in it, the word female has ‘male’ in it. And, it is not words such as ‘foreman’, ‘chairman’, etc. which are the cause of the oppression of women. That is caused by the sin in men’s (used here generically) hearts. The feminists were wrong in thinking that by eliminating such words, they would eliminate oppression. It hasn’t worked.

          Meanwhile, eliminating such language as was claimed to be sexist has destroyed some of the historical record contained in the language. The generic use of ‘he’ and ‘man’ was a spoken record of Old English, the language of the Angles and the Saxons before the Norman invasion. That is also where feminist were wrong, in saying that the generic use of ‘man’ originated in a patriarchal society, since women – Old English wifmann – were referred to in the masculine gender in Old English. In removing that generic use, and insisting that the word ‘man’ only refers to, male humans, we have removed some of the information in the English language.
          Of what importance is a living historical record, you ask? I will let George Santayana answer:

          Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained… infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.

          As a millennial, I have seen the fruit of the second and third wave feminist movement. All it did was to destroy important connections with the past for my generation. Yes, I am aware that there was sexual discrimination in the ’50s and ’60s which women rightly protested against. But they did so by smashing things, not by building them, and one thing they smashed was the English language. There was a better, more constructive way to go about it. Why waste time and effort changing words which, in historical reality, are generic? As linguists know, changing the words will not change men’s attitudes towards women.

          Men of my generation, more than ever, sexually objectify their female peers. Porn and gaming has allowed them to surround themselves with fantasy women, so that few are willing to engage in relationships with real women. As an example, witness the death threats to women who criticized the violence towards female character in games. It is no coincidence that many of the Western young men who joined ISIS have been reported to have been avid gamers. I feel towards the ‘gender neutral’ or ‘gender inclusive’ job titles organizations pride themselves on using the way Christ felt towards the memorials the Pharisees built for the prophets: “For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the monuments of the righteous, saying, ‘If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ Thus you witness against yourselves that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets.” (Matthew 23:29-31, ESV). Just substitute the word ‘women’ for prophets. Nothing has changed, but the language.

          Of necessity, that last paragraph generalized. I realize there are many fine men out there, of every generation. Nevertheless, the trend is discouraging. Thank you, Tim, for letting me post my thoughts. I hope that nobody took what I said to apply to them personally, as that is not what I intended.

        • Tim says:

          Thanks, Roscuro. One note: the words “female” and “male” are not related etymologically. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Female#Etymology_and_usage

        • Terri says:

          Old linguistic roots that don’t mean anything to most of us anymore should not be used to constrain language as we use it today. Sometime in the past words meant something different–that’s fine. They don’t have those meanings today and we don’t let those customs control our society today.

          Today, gendered words have certain meanings and shades of meaning, and that *is* connected to an unbiblical male-dominated system of society under which both sexes have suffered, and yes words do matter enough to change it.

          I’m a woman and it’s totally reasonable to want to be called one and to be included as one. I’m not a man. Whatever the ancient roots of language may show. That’s not today. I live today. It does matter.

  7. JYJames says:

    Great post.

  8. Zoe says:

    Thanks, Tim. When I hear gender-exclusive language used in the sermon over and over and over again, and I ask about it and am told “That’s just the way the Bible was written, it doesn’t mean only men, that’s just the way the Bible says it” (let’s not get into the big discussion on *that*), I’ve always wondered if the folks saying this to me have a clue the message they are really conveying. “It’s not me who’s sexist, it’s God. If you think it’s sexist take it up with God if you don’t like it.” (Sometimes in basically those words.)

    I came to a crisis of faith over this. Foundationally, is God sexist? If you read the way the Bible is written, God is sexist. If you look at how so many of God’s followers behave (not what they say, but how they behave toward the women in their lives), God is sexist. You have to study harder and come to a deeper, better understanding of Scripture, and pursue a deeper relationship with God over time, to conclude that God is not sexist. If this isn’t a terrible twisting of Scripture I don’t know what is. If even God is sexist, I asked myself during the crisis, then where have I to go?

    • Tim says:

      Your tenacious pursuit of truth paid off, and it’s God’s truth you found in the end.

      • Zoe says:

        Yes. It saddens me that I had to have such a tenacious pursuit–what about those who don’t and we just lose them? It’s easy to blame people, but when people are making it this hard for women to find out the truth about God, there certainly seems no grounds for judging anyone else over it. Well. I share what I’ve learned where I can. Thanks for the blog.

  9. Julie Walsh says:

    Hey Tim. I’m glad to hear your father is improving, and I’ll pray for the Lord to give you all peace in all that needs to be done. When you have a chance, I was wondering if you have any further info on the effect of primacy you mention here? I started working with the idea in the BCE Facebook group (I tagged you on it after someone helped me figure out where I heard it the idea.) I was considering this effect not just upon our words, but also upon our actions. Thanks!

    • Tim says:

      I just remember how the law professors emphasizing the effect of recency and primacy when arguing a case. We remember what we heard last and what we heard first, with the middle bits not registering as well usually.

  10. The Blogging Beth says:

    Can you recommend a better bible version? I’m only familiar with the KJV, NASB & ESV.

    • Tim says:

      I use the NIV more than others, but like to refer to the NASB, NLT, KJV and HCSB to get other translators’ takes on a passage. The Bible Gateway website lets you compare passages in different versions side by side.

  11. Reblogged this on geraldfordcounsel and commented:
    May I share an especially good article by one of the best writers and theologians I know. He says this important information so simply, yet so completely. It is useful for everyone who walks through a church door.

  12. Marg says:

    For some reason, this blog post has escaped my notice until now. I love it. And I’ve enjoyed the discussion too. Using language that is both inclusive and accurate is important to me.

    I noticed that The Blogging Beth asked about Bible versions. I hope you won’t mind if I link to this article that discusses a few English translations and their approach to gender-inclusive language. Perhaps some future readers will find it useful.

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