Christmas will sound a little different in some churches this December. Earlier this year the Pilgrim Press published a new hymnal called The New Century Hymnal. It is intended to be a hymnal for the 21st century and it bears the endorsement of the United Church of Christ.
The New Century Hymnal is nearly a thousand pages long but it does not have room for the traditional Christmas carol “Good Christian Men, Rejoice.” Instead, the old carol sports a new title: “Good Christian Friends, Rejoice.” Is that a good change or a bad change?
Change is often threatening. Christians like their traditions to be traditional. The change to “Friends” makes “Good Christian Men, Rejoice” seem unfamiliar, perhaps even uncomfortable. But there is nothing wrong, in principle, with editing hymns to correct their theology or to make their meaning clear. Most of the words we sing in our hymns are not infallible because they are not Holy Scripture. We cannot rule out the possibility that some hymns need to be clarified or even corrected.
The change from “Good Christian Men” to “Good Christian Friends” seems like an acceptable one, although some Christians may disagree. “Friends” fits the metre of the lyric nearly as well as “Men” does, so it would be hard to reject the change on artistic grounds. “Friends” also helps make the meaning clear. The carol was first written in Medieval Latin. It was translated into English during the 19th century, when the term “men” was still used to refer to all human beings, men and women alike. Now the term “men” seems restrictive or even confusing to some. A few well-placed “friends” solve the problem and do what the carol intends to do: invite all Christians everywhere to praise God for the birth of Jesus Christ.
Other changes in The New Century Hymnal are not so welcome. The hymnal's obvious agenda is to replace masculine terms with feminine ones, or even androgynous ones. This agenda has been most rigorously carried out when it comes to God himself. The hymnal rarely describes God as Father or Lord and never as King or Master. Instead, it uses terms like “All-inclusive One,” “Great Spirit,” “Womb of Life,” “Mother,” and even “Partner.”
The changes affect many familiar hymns. To use another seasonal example, “Of the Father's Love Begotten” becomes “Of the Parent's Love Begotten.” The Gloria Patri does not begin “Glory Be to the Father,” but “Glory to the Creator.” The doxology does not end with “Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost,” but with “One God, Triune, whom we adore” (which is bad poetry as well as bad theology). Even one of Isaac Watts’ beautiful lines in “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” has been neutered. The phrase “On which the Prince of glory died” has been replaced with “On which the Christ of glory died.” There the theology is okay, but not the poetry.
Hymns are not the only things which have been turned into “hers” in The New Century Hymnal. A new version of the Apostles’ Creed starts like this: “I believe in God the Father-Mother almighty, creator of heaven and earth.” Jesus is no longer “his only Son,” but “God's only Child.” The Nicene Creed has gone through similar sex changes. Its final section says, “We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Sovereign, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father-Mother, and from the Child.”
The problem with this politically correct hymnal is that it is not biblically correct. It presents a false doctrine of God and a subtle attack on the perfection of Scripture. If the hymnal is where people learn most of their theology, then the people who use this one will be learning heresy.
Does Jesus Christ have a gender? Yes, Jesus Christ was born a man. He is both God and man (Phil. 2:6-8). Hence God calls him his Son (Matt. 3:17) and we call him our brother (Heb. 2:11).
Does God have a gender? No, he is simply God, neither male nor female. Does that mean we can use either masculine or feminine terms, or neither, or both, to describe him? No, because God has revealed himself in Scripture. In the Bible he (notice, I cannot avoid using the gender-specific word “he”) has set boundaries for the words we may use to sing and pray to him. There are one or two feminine images for God in the Bible (e.g. Isa. 66:13; Matt. 23:37), but the overwhelming majority of biblical words and pictures for God are masculine.
If God is neither male nor female then why did he reveal himself to us in predominantly masculine terms? God has not answered that question. But we know that our Father knows best. We can only conclude that we understand God best when we address him in masculine terms.
Jesus Christ knew God best of all and he called him simply “Father.” When Jesus prayed to God in John chapter 17 he called him “Father” over and over again (vv. 1, 5, 11, 21, 24, 25). That is also how Jesus taught us to pray: “Our Father in heaven” (Matt. 6:9). The New Century Hymnal—by the way—didn't let that one go unscathed, either. “Our Father-Mother,” the Lord's Prayer reads, “who is in the heavens.”
God is not our “Father-Mother.” Such terminology is confusing, contradictory, even nonsensical. The only God who deserves a hymnal is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Pet. 1:3). Whoever does not worship the only God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit is not a Christian, for our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ (1 John 2:23).
[For a helpful review of the hymnal, see Donald G. Bloesch, “Hymns for the Politically Correct,” Christianity Today, July 15, 1996, pp. 49-50]
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