Posted by: rcottrill | April 3, 2011

Confessions of a Male Chauvinist (Or maybe not!)

Some editors of our newer hymn books seem insistent on–perhaps I might even say obsessed with–pursuing gender equality in our sacred songs. Everything has to come out evenly, so none feel neglected, or slighted. But is this revisionism justified, or even helpful?

Why change the venerable line “Faith of our fathers” to “faith of the martyrs”? Or, as The Seasonal Missalette has done, add a stanza about mothers, to balance things out? (“Our mothers, too, oppressed and wronged, / Still lived their faith with dignity.”) The original hymn is not speaking of fathers or husbands. The reference is to our believing forefathers. And were there foremothers, too? I suppose. But the former is a widely accepted term for ancestors.

This editorial tinkering seems to be spreading, at least in some circles. “Sons of men and angels say,” the second line of Christ the Lord Is Risen Today, has become “Earth and heav’n in chorus say. And instead of caroling “Good Christian men rejoice,” we’re now asked to sing “Good Christians all rejoice,” or, “Good Christian friends rejoice.” The classic “Jesu, joy of man’s desiring” has become “Jesu, joy of our desiring.” But are there reasons why this may not be the best idea? I believe so.

1) It is widely understood that masculine nouns and pronouns can be used generically.
Perhaps the human authors of the Scriptures were guided in this by the Lord, to avoid the clumsiness and complications that could ensue by repeatedly including “sons and daughters,” brothers and sisters. In other words, one reason the masculine form may be used there is for simplicity. Can you imagine how it would be, otherwise?

Whoever has this world’s goods, and sees his [or her] brother [or sister] in need, and shuts up his [or her] heart from [him or her], how does the love of God abide in him [or her]? (I Jn. 3:17).

Masculine terms are used of Christians in general, in the Word of God. The Bible exhorts all believers to exhibit “brotherly love” (Rom. 12:10; I Thess. 4:9; Heb. 13:1). And we are to “love the brotherhood,” everyone in the family of God (I Pet. 2:17). The Bible also refers to all Christians as “sons of God” (Rom. 8:14; Gal. 4:6-7). And if we believe in the verbal inspiration of the Scriptures, we need to think twice about assuming we know better what the words should be.

Join hands, then, brothers of the faith,
Whatever your race may be!
Who serves my Father as a son
Is surely kin to me.

It is condescending to think that women are unable to understand this. Are we to assume that they have so little perception that they aren’t aware that such statements include them? That may not be the intent, but it is the implication. Thus, in attempting to give women an equal representation, we may actually be insulting their intelligence!

2) There is merit in preserving our traditions.
Though tradition can be misused, it’s not a bad thing, in itself. The word simply refers to something that is passed on, from one person to another, or from one generation to another. The Apostle Paul spoke of the teachings he received from God, and conveyed to the Thessalonian believers, as traditions (II Thess. 2:15; 3:6).

Using our traditional hymnody gives us a sense of continuity and connectedness with the past. Abandoning or altering the older sacred songs (e.g. removing every “thee” and “thou”) can rob us of that sense of connection. Of course, we are certainly justified in changing the wording (or omitting a stanza or even dropping a hymn) if the original teaches something contrary to the Word of God. But beyond that, alterations seem rarely necessary.

Such editorial doctoring can compound itself. One change often mandates another. In the hymn Jesus, Thou Joy of Loving Hearts, the second line, “Thou Fount of Life, Thou Light of men,” has become “The fount of life, the light of all”–which doesn’t rhyme with “We turn unfilled to Thee again.” So, the latter must be changed to, “We turn, unfilled, to hear your call.” Come again? We turn to hear Your call? What on earth does that mean?

3) The proposed changes further divide the generations.
Some congregations have abandoned the hymn book altogether, in favour of contemporary songs projected on the wall. Another alternative has been to have what is called a “blended” service–which commonly means using mostly contemporary songs, with a few stanzas of an old hymn thrown in. But the latter may be set to an unfamiliar tune. And if the words are changed as well, those who love the songs may hardly recognize them.

Some of us don’t see as well as we used to. But we’re able to sing many of the great old hymns from memory, as we share favourites that have blessed our lives for many years. But I know of churches where most of the hymn singing has been abandoned, or the songs have been so abbreviated, and altered, that some have trouble joining in singing what’s left! This tends to disenfranchise our seniors, a valuable part of any congregation.

4) There is a danger of emasculating our hymnody.
I think that those obsessed with removing masculine references from our hymnody may be subtly emasculating the Christian faith in the minds of many, leaving it, by default, the province of women and children. Since God has given headship in the home, and leadership in the church specifically to men, is it not reasonable to have some hymns that address them, in particular?

What if the male references in our hymnody are taken to heart particularly by men? Is that so harmful? We need men! Men of strong Christian character, to guide our families, and provide leadership in the church. We need a muscular Christianity that connects with them. Don’t omit from our hymnals the call to Rise Up, O Men of God, or other songs of that kind, simply because they’re addressed to men.

5) It’s dangerous to tamper with hymns that quote the Scriptures.
In the soul-stirring gospel song, Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus, the third stanza says:

Ye that are men now serve Him against unnumbered foes;
Let courage rise with danger, and strength to strength oppose.

It’s a fine challenge to the men of the congregation. But that is changed in some hymnals to “Ye that are brave now serve Him.” Not only does the original line have a historical connection to the writing of the hymn (see my blog here). It is also virtually a quotation from the book of Exodus: “Go now ye that are men, and serve the Lord” (Exod. 10:11, KJV). Even though the application to Christian men is at odds with the context (where the words are spoken to the Israelites by a disdainful heathen ruler), it is still the Word of God.

Instead of “Dear Lord and Father of mankind,” we’re now to warble “Dear God, embracing humankind.” The reference to God the Father has been removed, as being too sexist–even though God is spoken of as our Father in every New Testament book but one (the tiny epistle of Third John). Furthermore, masculine pronouns are uniformly used for God in the Bible–and for angels, incidentally. From Genesis to Revelation, God is addressed as “He” (Gen. 1:5; 2:8; Rev. 11:15; 21:3). He is our heavenly Father (Matt. 6:9).

Unless we are willing to reject the doctrine of verbal inspiration (II Tim. 3:16; II Pet. 1:21), there is simply no room for debate here. Yet the political correcters cannot leave even this alone. Another proposes changing 50% of the references to God in our hymns from “he,” to “she.” I was actually in a service where this was done. Song sheets had the congregation alternating “He’s got the whole world in His hands” with “She’s got the whole world in her hands”! (My oh my!)

6) Some changes obscure or miss doctrinal truths.
In a stanza of the hymn In Christ There Is No East or West (quoted earlier), “brothers of the faith” has been changed to “members of the faith,” and “who serves my Father as a son” to “who serves my Father as His child.”

Consider the latter phrase for a moment. The Bible refers to Christians both as children of God, and sons of God. But those who want to do away with what they see as the “exclusiveness” of the latter, often change references to “sons” in our hymns to “children.” On the surface, it may seem an acceptable alternative. However, the two aren’t precisely the same thing.

Through faith in Christ, we are children of God, brought into His forever family, through the new birth (Jn. 1:12-13). But all born again children of God (male and female) are also elevated to the position of sonship, at the moment of conversion. In ancient times, sonship entailed a recognition of certain adult rights and privileges in the family. In the spiritual realm, these privileges of sonship are ours immediately, by adoption (Gal. 4:6-7; Eph. 1:5). Two different ministries of the Holy Spirit are involved, accomplishing two different things. So, let us be both children and sons of God.

Bottom line: There is rarely a valid reason to alter our hymns in this way, and it may actually do more harm than good.


  1. Hello Robert,
    I agree with you on this one. I don’t agree that hymns should be changed for ANY reason – but particularly if the words are based on scripture. “Ye that are men now serve Him…” I have no problem at all with these words – as a child of God I understand that they include me, given the beautiful words in Gal 3v28…
    “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal 3v28)
    As for “She’s got the whole world in her hands…” this is SO wrong (to say to the least!)

    • Thanks for your comments. Sounds as though we’re in basic agreement. But I wouldn’t rule out making some change in a hymn “for any reason.” In effect, that places our hymnody on the level of holy Scripture, which it isn’t. Almost anyone can write a hymn. And if the author’s wrong on some point, it may well come through. I would not sing Faith of Our Fathers, for example, in its original form. Written by a Roman Catholic, it included the line, “Mary’s prayers shall win our country back to Thee.” Since our hymns are to be used for teaching in the church (Col. 3:16), we do need to consider whether they represent biblical truth or not.

  2. Hi, Robert,

    I’ll bet you strike a nerve with this blog post!

    The problems of which you complain are not new. Modern men tend to stay away from church for a variety of reasons. One reason, argued by Leon Podles in Touchstone magazine and in a book called The Church Impotent is that the Church has become (deliberately by “reformers”) feminized. David Murrow has made similar arguments.

    You can read Podles’ Touchstone article at:

    His book is available from Amazon.

    David Murrow has an entire website devoted to “Church for Men”. You can check him out at:

    In general, as a worship leader at my Church, I struggle with this issue in the music we sing. We have a “blended” service, and I find most of the contemporary music to be not worth my while. The hymns that I would like to use, though, elicit complaints such as “too hard to sing”, “not familiar with it”, “never liked that one”, and more such comments. I end up drawing compromises that sometimes work well and sometimes fall flat. Generally, how well my compromises work depends on how much time I spend in prayerful preparation of the song service, as you might expect.

    I do want to take issue with your first point:

    1) It is widely understood that masculine nouns and pronouns can be used generically.

    It once was widely understood that way, and older folks in the Church still have that understanding, but the younger folk in the Church don’t view the pronouns that way, and that changed viewpoint is directly attributable to the liberal-feminist education in language they receive from pre-school through college. You can no longer assume that a person below the age of 30 (or even 40!), even if (or perhaps especially if) educated in a secular Western educational system, understands that the masculine pronoun is a generic that refers to all men and women.

    Thanks for you blog, and keep writing. Don’t get discouraged if you get a lot of negative feedback on this one. Except for your first point, I think you are exactly on target.

    • Thanks for your comments, as always. I do want to take some time, this week, to check out the material you reference. I realize I’m opening a proverbial can of worms with this topic. But more than simply having folks agree or disagree with me, I’m hoping it causes them to think, and not simply slide along with current fads and cultural norms.

      In response to your disagreement with my first point, I’d like to take a moderating (mediating?) position. It could be that the understanding that male nouns and pronouns are sometimes used generically is fairly widespread, but the acceptance of the practice–particularly in the younger generation–is not. (And yes, liberal-feminist lobbying is largely responsible.) Whether the current trend can be stayed is uncertain. But I did want to point out a few of the dangers in dismissing or mutilating any hymn that isn’t stated in gender-neutral terms. Our hymns aside, proponents could end up turning their backs on some great English literature as a result!

      As to encouraging an appreciation and use of hymns in the church, you’ve likely seen my article offering some tips on how to do that. If not you can check it out here.

      • Very fair-minded and well-placed dialogue here, it seems to me. Just one quick addition: despite the liberalism and gender-sensitivity (these don’t always go hand in hand but often do) in higher education, I for one emphasize to my classes that it is still grammatically correct, if not politically correct, to use masculine pronouns as neutral ones. Scholars nearly always write with gender-sensitivity in mind these days, and I tend to avoid issues by using plurals like “their” instead of “his” myself, but this too creates problems in writing–lots of pronouns in the world that are mismatched in number with their referents! This is a thorny issue, and I would emphasize, as Robert has, that it’s an insult to women to think they can’t tell the difference between something written 50 or 200 years ago that assumed something we don’t assume, and something written more recently that intentionally degrades or downgrades women.

        We need not to worry so much about older references in literature. We all accept that women have equal standing with God (not necessarily in all church functions), I should think!

      • Well said, and I think we’re on the same wavelength.

        No doubt it will continue to be a contentious issue, for a variety of reasons. But it seems to me that “political correctness” is too often a vain attempt to “please all of the people all of the time,” and it simply can’t be done. A little moderation, and common sense, is in order. And a sensibility to the value of our traditions.

        One time a comedian on Canadian television delivered what he proposed, tongue in cheek, as a politically correct version of our national anthem. It was hilarious. And it pointed out how ridiculous this revisionism can become, if we’re determined to be consistent with it.

        Another thought. Since the ’70’s (approximately) there’s been a concerted attempt to colloquialize our worship. We are urged to bring things down to the level of the common man…e-r-r…person. To use language with which folks can identify. So, the glorious Lord of heaven becomes “the Man upstairs,” and so on. But there’s value in keeping the words of our worship somewhat unique. In singing, “My Jesus, I love Thee,” and not “My Jesus, I love You, or “How great Thou art,” and not “How great You are.”

        No, I don’t talk that way in everyday speech, but that’s just the point. Transcendent is what God is! And though He stoops to company with us, He will always be infinitely other. By the unique and often exalted language of our hymnody, we remind ourselves of that. Take it away, and we are in danger of diminishing God in the common perception.

  3. For what it’s worth, I agree with you 100%. but I think we’re fighting a losing battle. Here’s why: my children’s generation (late teens) routinely use the plural pronoun “they” in place of “he” when speaking of a single person of unknown gender. They sometimes even do this when the gender of the person is known. Their teachers do not correct this. In fact, I suspect they encourage it.

    Another example: our pastor (early 30s and not particularly liberal theologically) routinely “corrects” scripture when he is reading it to gender neutral language. I’ve discussed this with him — not to criticize, just to tell him how I felt. He says he thinks it is reasonable to do this when the Greek is anthropos rather than aner, which I can kind of see, even though I don’t like it. After all, it is the Greek, not always our English translations, that is the inspired Word of God.
    So, though I don’t like it, I think time will lose the battle for those of u’s who prefer the traditional usage.

    • Thanks for you note. Possibly you are right, that we’re fighting a losing battle. But it’s interesting how what goes around, comes around, sometimes. I know churches that adopted a free-wheeling contemporary style, years ago, that are now seeing some weaknesses in this approach and moving back toward the way things were. And churches that once neglected the hymns, now going back to them. Ya never know! 🙂

      And I’m aware of the practice of using “they” and “their” in a sentence following a singular subject. As a former college English teacher, it grates on me. But it seems to be the accepted thing now. I still try to avoid it in my own writing, when I can.

      As to “correcting” Scripture, if I understand what you’re describing, I don’t see that as such a problem. I will do something like that, once in awhile, in a Scripture reading, basically to remind folks that the masculine word is being used in a generic sense. Example: If I were reading Ephesians 6:10ff, I might say, “Finally, my brethren [and this is for you sisters, too], be strong in the Lord and in the power of His might….”

      It’s interesting that you mention the Greek word anthropos, because I almost included something about that in the article–until I realized how lo-o-ng it was going to be! It’s relevant, because of the angelic announcement of “On earth peace, goodwill toward men [anthropos]!” (Lk. 2:14). The word refers to human beings of either gender. So there is some argument for changing the line in O Little Town of Bethlehem: “And praises sing to God the King, and peace to men [or all] on earth.” Same with the line in It Came Upon the Midnight Clear: “Peace on the earth, good-will to men [or all], from heav’ns all-gracious King.” I say there’s an argument that can be made for it. But I see no problem with retaining the traditional wording.

      Thanks again for getting in touch. Drop by any time.

  4. Hi Robert,
    With regard to my earlier comment about lyrics of hymns not being changed for any reason… I would still stand by this. Firstly, as a writer I would take exception to someone changing what I had written to suit their theology, as I’m sure you would too. If “Faith of our Fathers” (or any other hymn) has its roots in Catholicism – then I don’t believe that it should be edited at all – not because I go along with this system of belief, but I believe that what a writer has written should stand. I honestly don’t think that there is any point in having lyrics (however good) taken from a hymn which has its roots in faulty theology. A completely new hymn should be written – expressing the sentiments which are described in this one, without breaching copyright.

    • H-m-m… You make a good point. I hadn’t given the idea due consideration from the writer’s point of view. However, the vast majority of our traditional hymns (including Faith of Our Fathers) are old enough to be in the public domain. Improving them doesn’t involve a breach of copyright. And if Frederick Faber were still living (he died in 1863), I’d happily write to him for permission to alter his hymn, in order to give it wider appeal. 🙂

  5. […] For a fuller discussion of this issue, I refer you to my topical article Confessions of a Male Chauvinist (Or maybe not!). […]


%d bloggers like this: