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.
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 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.