(4th in a series of articles exploring gender-inclusive language issues in church and culture.)
"I will make you fishers of men, fishers of men, fishers of men.
I will make you fishers of men if you follow me.
If you follow me, if you follow me (glory hallelujah),
I will make you fishers of men if you follow me."
This little Sunday School song, attributed to Harry D. Clarke in 1927, was especially popular during the evangelistic eras of Billy Sunday and Billy Graham crusades.
Many children's church songs of that period--"Deep and Wide," "If You're Happy and You Know It," "Climb, Climb Up Sunshine Mountain," "Do Lord," "Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam"--were replete with nebulous lyrics. But "Fishers of Men" at least had a solid scriptural foundation: Matthew 4:19.
I doubt this Scripture would be nearly as memorable except for the popularity of the "Fishers of Men" song. I grew up singing it, and still can't read that passage without hearing the tune in my head.
Unfortunately, the song text quotes the KJV, which is known for its gender-exclusive language. The text and tune of this song are so wedded, it's impossible to substitute gender-inclusive language as a correction of the lyrics and still have a decently crafted song.
Whenever I think of this song nowadays, I remember one amusing incident from several summers ago:
Lisa, my friend and ministry colleague, took a group of fourth, fifth and sixth graders to join other
church groups for a week of camp at a nearby Baptist college. Thursday afternoon of that week I visited the camp, hanging out with our group as they went about their activities. Kentucky
After supper, everyone came together in the chapel for a lively joint "worship" service (actually, more of a "God-themed pep rally"). Then each church group gathered in separate rooms to wrap-up some of the concepts introduced during the worship service.
Lisa first helped the children write thank-you notes to various supporters back home. Then she asked them to sit in a semi-circle in front of her on the floor.
After a few minutes of listening to the children relate what they had learned that day, she began a discussion about using our spiritual gifts to further God's kingdom--one of the themes from the earlier service.
Now, Lisa is an excellent preacher. She preaches at our church several times a year, utilizing her well-prepared manuscripts. She is ordained, uses gender-inclusive language and Scripture translations regularly, and is at ease with extemporaneous speaking and facilitating theological discussions.
However, speaking without a manuscript always carries the risk of having to "think on one's feet." and when one has memorized KJV Scripture and sung gender-exclusive songs throughout one's childhood, these are the words that come to mind when speaking extemporaneously about Godly matters. Old habits die hard.
Anyway, back to the story... As Lisa and the children were well into their discussion about using spiritual gifts, she said to the children: "The Bible says we are to be 'fishers of men.' Now, in order to be 'fishers of men,' what kind of bait should we use?"
One sixth-grade boy immediately raised his hand. “Women!” he blurted, not quite innocently, as his friends giggled.
Caught off guard, suddenly realizing how her inadvertent use of gender-exclusive language had prompted his answer, Lisa threw her head back and belly-laughed at his response.
It is so important that gender-inclusive language be used around children. Children are concrete thinkers, and more often than not they understand words and phrases literally.
Since even "inclusive" Scripture translations use only masculine pronouns for God, it's not surprising that children (and adults) think of God as male.
And since patriarchal grammar rules obscure female gender by absorbing them in terms such as "man," "men," "he," "his," "him," it's not surprising that children (and adults) think that males have priority status over females in both theological and practical matters.
I love the story of the little girl whose bedtime prayers included asking God to bless every family member, friend and pet (current and past) by name. At some point she began to add "and all girls" at the end of her nightly prayers.
Eventually, her father's curiosity finally got the best of him. He asked, "Why do you always add the part about all girls?" She responded, "Because everybody always finishes their prayers by saying, "all men!" Even at her tender age she understood the unfairness of females being left out.
Adults have the power and the responsibility for helping shape the words and thinking of children—concepts that will follow them throughout their lives. What one learns during childhood "comes naturally" later.
Being intentional about using inclusive language will require diligent editing of our words, but it's important and gets easier with practice. And some songs like "Fishers of Men" just need to bite the dust.