My pastor did a very subtle thing in a recent sermon. He was preaching on Ephesians 5:18 and was talking about being filled with the Spirit. The sermon and message were fine on their own, but during an analogy he was walking through and throughout the rest of the message he did something that I almost missed.
He personified the Holy Spirit.
He talked about the Spirit’s indwelling and used the analogy of the Spirit coming into the house of your life and he used the pronouns “he/him” when talking about the Spirit.
This is a great and accurate theological subtlety that is missed in most of our discussions of the Spirit in churches. We often think of the Spirit as some nebulous “thing” and not a person. This is not true. The Spirit IS a person. They’re one of the three persons of the trinity. The Father, the Son, and the Spirit. I asked my pastor if he’d done that intentionally after the service and he said that it wasn’t an intentional thing, but rather a natural outpouring of his own doctrine. (That’s not a quote, but it’s what I gathered from his answer.)
I think my pastor did a great thing. But I think there’s one thing he could have done to make it even better.
He could have used better pronouns.
We live in a culture where the discussions about which pronouns you use have become a real conversation. People feel strongly about this topic. Folks who identify as non-gender conforming or non-binary, or as a different gender than their biology might indicate have introduced a number of new pronouns, as well as strongly advocating for "they/them" language to become the default when we speak to and about people in general.
Personally, I think the church should be all over this when we talk about the Spirit.
I mean it. Using gender-neutral pronouns when talking about the Spirit isn’t about capitulation in the culture war, or about giving up ground in social progressivism, it is simple theological accuracy.
We refer to Jesus, God the Son, as male because He was and is male, that one’s simple. We refer to God the Father as male, not because He is biologically male, the Father has no biology, but rather because he reveals Himself to us as male.
One could say God the Father identifies as male.
God the Spirit is something entirely different. Like God the Father, the Spirit has no biology or biological gender, and unlike God the Father, the Spirit does not reveal to us their gender or pronoun. So the question isn't "Should we, then, use "they/them" when speaking of the Holy Spirit?" but rather: "What reason do we have not to use they/them?"
None, really. In fact, there are two reasons that I find particularly compelling in convincing us to use they/them when speaking of the Holy Spirit. Theology, and Evangelism.
Let's start with the easy one: There is no theological or Biblical reason to refer to the Holy Spirit as "he/him" or "she/her". As I mentioned earlier, scripture doesn't identify gender for us, and as a spirit, we don't have biological indicators to draw from. It seems to me, then, that "they/them" is simply the most accurate and logical set of pronouns to use when referring to the Spirit. This reason alone is good enough for me to spend the effort re-training my brain. I do realize, however, that not everyone shares my love of technical correctness and precision. Thankfully, there's a second reason that I find even more compelling.
It's good evangelism.
Don't think that I don't know how odd that sounds, because I do. But hear me out. It's not a stretch to believe that Christians, even well-meaning ones, have done damage to our relationship with LGBTQ+ folks. The newest front in this discussion is questions surrounding gender. Allow me to submit that it doesn't matter whether you hold to secular gender theory or a Biblical worldview, how we speak matters to people. Now I'm not naïve enough to think that simply switching to they/them when referring to Holy Spirit will undo all the damage and ill feelings that have been created by believers, well-intentioned or otherwise, but perhaps accurately using gender-neutral pronouns when referring to a member of the Trinity would disarm someone to whom this is a critically important issue. Perhaps it can make someone who struggles with or even embraces modern gender definitions a little more amenable to hearing the message of the Gospel.
Isn't that the point?
It's accurate, it doesn't cost anything, and above all, it is winsome witness to a world that desperately needs some.