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Neutering Jesus

If you happened to pray the Morning Office in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer on the first Monday of Advent this year, you encountered one of the richest christological poems in the whole psalter, but you may not have realized it.

“Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,” begins Psalm 1, “nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night. He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers.”

Early Church figures like St. Hilary of Poitiers and St. Augustine of Hippo tell us that this psalm is speaking about Jesus. He is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked. He is the one who prospers in all he does. This psalm is a great comfort to us as sinners because even though we find ourselves among the wicked, we know that Jesus has stood in the place we were not able to stand and has paid the price for our sins. We can take comfort knowing that, even though we would perish if left to our own devices, we have been claimed by Jesus Christ. His holiness is flowing into us and transforming us by grace into children of light.

At least, that is what we would know if we were praying the psalm in a historical translation. However, if we pray Psalm 1 in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, we find that it is not a psalm about Jesus at all but rather a psalm about how terrible we are at being good people. “Happy are they who have not walked in the counsel of the wicked,” it begins, continuing throughout to refer to two different plural groups: those who love God and already keep his commandments and those who are sinners who are doomed.

Since it is obvious that most of us are not among the first group, we must be a part of the second. The 1979 BCP takes what ought to be a prayer of great comfort and transforms it into a nightmare of hopelessness for most of the human race, all in the service of making our worship more gender-inclusive.

Cole Hartin wrote recently at Covenant about the problems associated with trying to find gender-neutral language for God to use in worship. His assessment is spot on, in my opinion, and the problem extends even further into the heart of salvation. However we might argue about gendered metaphors for God in Scripture, it is clear that Jesus was a man. His manhood is part of his humanity.

It is not an exclusion of women any more than Mary’s womanhood is an exclusion of men. It is essential to who he is as a human being. When we lose the manhood of Jesus, we lose the unique mystery of the coming together of the divine and the human that takes place in Jesus. When we neuter Jesus in our liturgies, either out of ignorance or out of concern that gender be downplayed as a distinct part of the human experience, we deny ourselves access to the gift of new life that only Jesus can offer us.

This is not to say that there is no merit at all to the arguments of those who advocate for gender-inclusive language in worship. Saying man when we mean human and men when we mean people is, at the very least, archaic. A person need not have an ax to grind in the culture wars to see that a contemporary woman who attends Christian worship for the first time may have trouble with things like Rite I’s version of the Nicene Creed, in which Jesus came “for us men and for our salvation.” Nonetheless, while the perception of devaluing women in our worship is a problem, the loss of a christological focus in our worship is an even bigger problem. We have traded the perceived exclusion of half the population for the very real exclusion of everyone from saving grace.

This “neutering of Jesus” is not limited to the psalms. It occurs in the Holy Eucharist as well. The Benedictus dropped out of Anglican liturgies beginning with the 1552 Book of Common Prayer, but it was restored in the 1979 BCP as an option in Rite I and mandatory in Rite II. In both versions, the congregation says, “Blessed is he who comes/cometh in the name of the Lord,” which comes from the shouts of the crowds in Matthew 21:9, when Jesus was making his triumphal entrance into Jerusalem (cf. Ps. 118:26).

Some people today feel that the use of he here is too exclusive, and they have begun to use the phrase “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord” instead. This usage betrays a serious misunderstanding of the text. It assumes either that the Benedictus is about us rather than Jesus or that, if about Jesus, it need not identify him in a way that refers to his sex. In both cases, the value of Jesus’ place as king and Lord is obscured, and the mystery of the union between humanity and divinity that takes place within Jesus is completely missed. What ought to be an acclamation of our joy at the triumph of our Lord over sin and death becomes instead a statement of our fragile sense of identity.

These two examples only scratch the surface. From gender-neutral formulas for invoking the Holy Trinity that turn Jesus into a function rather than a person (“Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer,” for instance) to the seemingly systematic removal of the word Lord from the collects in the Episcopal Church’s sanctoral calendar, the legitimate concern for a liturgy that is inclusive of all people has created instead a worship that excludes the grace of God. Rather than bringing people to the foot of the cross where Jesus takes on their sins and lightens their loads, we are slowly but surely eliminating Jesus from the equation altogether.

While we must take care not to deny the humanity of women — or of intersex people who are so often forgotten in these conversations about gender — we gain nothing by taking Jesus’ maleness away from him. Jesus does not only stand in the place of humanity before God; he actually is a human being fully realized, the new Adam, a human being as human beings were always meant to be. His maleness is a part of that, not because women are in any way less human than men but because God created us to be male and female and intended that to be a fundamental characteristic of our humanity before the Fall (Gen. 1:27, 2:18-25). Robbing Jesus of his maleness effectively robs him of his humanity and thereby robs us of our Savior. All we are left with after such neutering are prayers that tell us that we need to save ourselves rather than prayers that glorify God for saving us in Christ.

For many people, these are sensitive issues. I do not suggest that we simply table the matter. The conversation about how our language includes or excludes whole groups of people for whom Jesus died is a conversation that has to take place. But we need to be more careful about the effects of any changes we make. Changing words in liturgy is not just a simple cut-and-paste procedure. The words we have inherited in our liturgies are words that have been honed through centuries of prayer and practice. In Anglicanism particularly, much of our liturgy is simply Scripture fashioned into prayer. When we change a word — even one as simple as a pronoun — we affect the whole of the rite. It is the difference between using sugar and salt in your pumpkin pie recipe — a minor substitution that looks almost identical but that yields a very different result.

G.K. Chesterton wrote in The Thing (1929):

In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.”

Let this be our way of approaching all manner of liturgical reform, including that which is focused on gender inclusiveness. Revision should never be done in a vacuum, without careful study and prayer; it certainly should never be done by individuals or by individual congregations or dioceses apart from the life of the Church as a whole. Specifically masculine language in worship may sometimes seem arbitrary — and in some cases it may actually be arbitrary — but as Psalm 1 demonstrates, that is not always the case.

Let us not create a Church so “inclusive” that Jesus himself is not welcome in it.


  1. There are ways to address the gender exclusivity without depersonalizing the text or losing meaning. We also must be very careful to not fall into supercessionist theology and lay bold claims that the Psalms were all written about Jesus – just ask the Jewish people who still pray these texts today. “Blessed is he who comes in the Name of the Lord” was not originally written about Jesus – it was written about King Hezekiah and was later appropriated by Christians to speak of Jesus.

    I agree that we must be careful in our addressing of gender when it comes to speaking of God. As a woman and a priest, I disagree when you state “Man” means “Human”. When first heard by the human ear, one images a male figure. Only through mental gymnastics does one rationalize that it means more than a male figure. It does exclude women and I have spent my entire life having God portrayed as exclusively male. As Mary Daly said, “If God is male, then male is God” – this is a huge theological and ontological problem! Yet this is not solved by merely removing gender entirely or reducing the Trinitarian formula to job descriptions (Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier). Depersonalizing God is not the answer either. Prayer and good Biblical scholarship must be employed to find a path to gender inclusion without the temptation of depersonalization as a “safe” route.

    • I appreciate the engagement. I think you misunderstand me in regards to “man” and “human.” I am quite willing to concede the point that in modern usage, substituting “man” for “humanity” creates confusion. When you say, “There are ways to address the gender exclusivity without depersonalizing the text or losing its meaning,” I would be very interested to hear more.

      That said, I have to disagree strongly with your concern that understanding Christ’s place in the Old Testament is “supercessionist.” There is no denial of God’s promises to the Jews that takes place here, much less of the varying ways in which messianic passages were understood within the context of the time they were written. But it is a very basic creedal point – and one that should not be controversial among Christians – to say that what is written in “Moses and the prophets” is about Jesus. “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” was not “later appropriated by Christians to speak of Jesus.” If it was appropriated by anyone, it was by Jesus Himself who accepted the accolade upon His entry into Jerusalem, as we acknowledge liturgically not only every time we celebrate the Eucharist but also every Palm Sunday. To say otherwise is to posit a different God in the Old Testament and the New Testament, which is something I hope we can both agree is totally outside the bounds of Christian teaching.

  2. I want to point out, as an observation and not as evidence for or against your point, Fr. Jonathan, that this is not much different in substance from C.S. Lewis’s argument against the ordination of women in “Priestesses in the Church?” (God in the Dock, online here: http://www.episcopalnet.org/TRACTS/priestesses.html). If sex distinctions are important—if the fact that Christ came as a *man* is a substantial and not merely incidental one—then the priesthood is properly the office of men, not because of patriarchy or some wrongly supposed male superiority, but because the priest is an icon, a symbol, a representation of Christ. Sheldon Vanauken took the point further: if women may be priests, then Christ isn’t God. That this office could be unjustly denied for centuries would be as strong a case as any against the divine origin of the Church, and since Christ is its origin, Christ could not be divine. Thus the Christological implications of sex differences do not seem to neatly end at liturgical phrasing and Biblical translation.


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