Inclusive language represents language intended to refer impartially to all people. In particular, it represents language that affirms women as well as men. Words such as "humanity," "humankind," and "people" convey a greater sense of impartiality than the generic usage of "man" and "mankind." The latter words are thought, more and more, to represent only males. Thus inclusive language refers to any words, phrases, and concepts that affirm both men and women, refusing to ignore or marginalize women in any way.
Why use inclusive language? For some it is merely a matter of clarity. Less confusion occurs when men are referred to as men; women are referred to as women; and men and women together are referred to as people. There are other reasons, of course, why Christians advocate inclusive language. It may involve loving others as yourself (Mark 12:31). It may also involve justice, advocating language that reflects the equal worth of all people, which was established by the creation of both men and women in the image of God (Genesis 1:27) and affirmed among those who are one in Jesus Christ (Galatians 3:28). For reasons such as these, an increasing number of Christians modify their language in ways that fully include women as well as men.
Although inclusive language usually involves references to men and women, it is considered more farreaching. Sometimes inclusive language is described as bias-free language because it does not want to exclude or discriminate against anyone, regardless of gender, race, culture, nationality, or religion. The final purpose of inclusive language is to be nondiscriminatory toward all people, not just women. A special principle lies at the heart of inclusive language: mutual respect. Mutual respect has regard for the value of all people and how we relate to them.
Concern over inclusive language increased among Christians during the 1970s in the wake of the modern feminist movement. Feminists think that male-linked language serves to stereotype and oppress women. Words, after all, can define and shape who we are and who we want to become. So, it is argued, language reflective of a patriarchal society needs to be changed. Patriarchy represents a view of society in which men have authority over women, subordinating them through male-dominated practices and institutions in the family, church, and culture as a whole. Although patriarchy seems to represent the status quo in scripture, Christians increasingly think that scripture advocates greater recognition of the equality of men and women. Thus our language should reflect the equal affirmation of women, not only in the words we use but also the ways we describe them.
Language About God
Some Christians question the adequacy of male-linked language in reference to God. Since both men and women are created in God's image, God is thought to transcend male and female imagery. Although God is usually portrayed as a male in scripture, these Christians use generic terms in their references to deity—for example, God, Creator, and Spirit. They may not reject biblical language about God, but they discourage such usage in contemporary dialogue.
Other Christians think that God-talk should be changed radically. Because male-oriented language in reference to God may be thought to legitimize patriarchy, all male imagery of God should be eliminated, including male references to Jesus Christ. In some instances, it is argued that women, at least, need to reimage God as Goddess. This female imagery for deity is considered necessary in countering the repressive patriarchy of historic Christianity.
Some Christians oppose the use of inclusive language. A common reason has to do with the pragmatic question of whether centuries of male-linked language, generically understood, need to be changed. The requisite modification of pronouns, nouns, and other ideas about women is considered difficult and sometimes awkward-sounding. Thus inclusive language is considered a nonissue, a view which is reinforced by the widespread failure of society to use it.
Another reason for opposing inclusive language stems from those who support a biblical basis for patriarchy. In reaction against inclusive language, these Christians consider it an accommodation to feminism. They argue that greater care should be taken in order to affirm women, but it should not occur at the expense of rejecting the biblically mandated hierarchy of creation (e.g., Genesis 2). Fidelity to the plain and obvious teachings of scripture should supersede Christian beliefs and practices influenced by feminism.
Spread of Inclusive Language
Christians increasingly consider inclusive language an important part of their belief and practice, at least with regard to their references to men and women. They incorporate it into their thoughts, speech, publications, and worship. Christian lectionaries, liturgy, hymnody, choruses, and other worship aids commonly use inclusive language. Several biblical translations also use inclusive language, the most notable being the New Revised Standard Version, published first in 1989.
Most Christians who use inclusive language consider it a matter of conscience. It is not merely a matter of political correctness to think seriously about how language serves to include or exclude others, perhaps trivializing or discriminating against them. Instead responsible phraseology should be used to promote inclusiveness.
See alsoFeminist Theology; Gender Roles; God; Goddess; Matriarchy; Patriarchy; Theism.
Dumond, Val. The Elements of Nonsexist Usage. 1990.
Hardesty, Nancy A. Inclusive Language in the Church. 1987.
Kimel, Alvin F., ed. Speaking the Christian God. 1994.
Thorsen, Don, and Vickie Becker. Inclusive LanguageHandbook. 1998.