Changing Church: JoMae Spoelhof, Christian Reformed Church Laywoman, Writer

JoMae Spoelhof

“Mine is an ongoing quest. It is very personal, admittedly imperfect and often lonely. But I believe there is a direct relationship between how we view, speak of and understand our Divine Parent, and how we view ourselves and each other. Language is that important. As long as Godde is known and worshiped as if only male; as long as the female reflection of Godde is absent, women will struggle against being treated and viewed as ‘lesser’; will struggle against feeling ‘lesser.’”

This quote comes from JoMae Spoelhof’s story which she sent in response to the invitation on my blog. I invite people, both lay and clergy, to send me their stories of changing the church through inclusive/expansive divine imagery as a foundation for equality and social justice.

JoMae Spoelhof, a life-long active member of the Christian Reformed Church, sent a story she had “poured out” at a recent writers’ class, where she was prompted to “address something” she “was passionate about.” Here is the story JoMae sent in its entirety.


The letter came in the mid 1970s and sounded dangerously feminist to me. It was an invitation that would eventually lead to a paradigm shift in my life. But that came later. At the moment my days were full and I was content. Raising five of our own plus assorted foster children left little time or inclination to question the values I was passing on. Values deeply rooted in my childhood and the teachings of my Christian faith. I loved my family and clearly was loved in return—first as a daughter, then as wife and mother. My friends from church would chuckle that I was spoiled rotten!

My love affair with my Heavenly Father was steeped in awe and trepidation. The concept of a Mother God did not exist. I’d never noticed that Christians were a motherless family and it would be many years before I saw a link between this view of God and traditional attitudes toward women.

I sometimes chafed that men held all the power, or hurt for women whose husbands might belittle them; still, life was good. I might not like it that the female was designed to be lesser, but who was I to question God? It hadn’t yet occurred to me that God’s designs were understood through male interpretation and translation. Through givens born of ancient norms.

In 1959 I had gladly given up my identity to become Mrs. John Spoelhof. Later it was “The John Spoelhof family.” Somewhere, hidden with the children under the veil of John’s name, stood JoMae Keuning. There came a point when I began to feel constricted and wanted to get out and grow up. Not out of marriage, but out of anonymity; into more autonomy for myself and women everywhere.

Yet when that letter came from a new movement in our denomination seeking gender equality within the church, I was afraid. It was an invitation to an annual conference on ordaining women. I recognized the justice, yet sensed that any interest would open a Pandora’s Box and change my life forever. So I tucked it away. I feared offending God.

A lifelong bookworm, I began to read more and more on the subject. Slowly the sentiments of feminism began to ring a bell. During the 1980s, I did start to crack open the box. I dug out the letter and attended conferences to study the issues and question traditional interpretations of the teachings in the Bible. In the King James Version of my youth I mainly saw myself referred to as a son of God. One day it struck me that if a “son,” I was a female son! What a difference that made! Meanwhile new translations changed the wording and confirmed my identity as a daughter on those pages. 

I wondered, “If sons could mean sons and daughters; brothers, brothers and sisters, how long would it be before one could catch a glimpse of a Mother lost within the identity of our Heavenly Father?” I pondered such questions until after much reading and prayerful study, I learned to know God in a new way. I began to relate in a manner that recognized both the feminine and masculine face of God. If my sisters, mother and grandmothers—along with all God’s other daughters—were created in God’s image, there must be a feminine face to reflect, I reasoned.

I found it increasingly difficult to worship with only male leaders, with masculine language for humanity, and as if God were only male. I toyed with pronouns. Translated the hymns while singing. Until going to church became exhausting. I longed for childhood’s simple understanding of God. When God was my beloved Father; before I’d noticed there was no Mother. But you can’t go back.

Gradually our church did move forward. After a long and painful struggle in the ‘90s, it now ordains pastors and other leaders who are female. It has become more sensitive concerning language for humans. However, to this day, only masculine pronouns are used for God—albeit a bit less redundantly than in the past.

Today I still trust the God of my childhood and worship in the same church. The same faith—but with a fresh paradigm. The difference is a new understanding of who Godde is, and a new confidence in who I am. Godde is my complete Parent. My mind’s eye even sees this Mother/Father Godde spelled in the ancient English manner to de-emphasize the maleness.

Mine is an ongoing quest. It is very personal, admittedly imperfect and often lonely. But I believe there is a direct relationship between how we view, speak of and understand our Divine Parent, and how we view ourselves and each other. Language is that important. As long as Godde is known and worshiped as if only male; as long as the female reflection of Godde is absent, women will struggle against being treated and viewed as ‘lesser’; will struggle against feeling ‘lesser.’

JoMae Keuning grew up in a Christian Reformed Church (CRC) parsonage, attended Calvin College, a CRC school, and then married, John Spoelhof, also a CRC pk (preacher’s kid). She has remained a faithful member of the Christian Reformed Church, even though her increasing awareness of exclusively male language and leadership has made it difficult for her to worship.

In 1988, JoMae Spoelhof wrote an article entitled “God’s Word in Man’s Language: A Journey,” published in The Banner, the official magazine of the Christian Reformed Church. This article reveals the beginning of her metamorphosis. During her first decade as a confessing member of the Christian Reformed Church, she was not bothered that she couldn’t vote because of her gender. She was afraid to accept the invitation that came in the late  ‘70s to participate in a Women in the CRC conference on ordaining women. “What if I mustered up the energy to question?” she writes. “What if my parent church has misunderstood a major teaching all these years? How could I then be sure of anything? And who was I to challenge theologians?” During the 1980s, she did begin questioning traditional “interpretations men have given Scripture” on the role of women.

As she writes in her recent story (“Gender Equality and God” above), JoMae continued to question, to read, to study, and to expand her biblical and theological understanding. She became an advocate for women in church leadership, writing articles in support of women’s ordination. She also advocated for inclusive language for humanity, and gradually began to see the importance of including female, along with male, language for the Divine and to discover biblical support for this language in books such as Virginia Ramey Mollenkott’s The Divine Feminine: The Biblical Imagery of God as Female. JoMae expresses gratitude that her CRC church moved forward to ordain women and to be more sensitive on language for humanity. But she laments that her church still uses only masculine language for God.

Although JoMae does not yet get to experience the Divine Feminine in her church, she now experiences this inclusive/expansive theology through Evangelical & Ecumenical Women’s Caucus-Christian Feminism Today (EEWC-CFT):   She writes: “I first read Virginia’s The Divine Feminine in 1997, but it was after re-reading it last year that I found CFT and joined. It is a great blessing to me!

In the following blog article, JoMae expresses her longing for her church to include the Divine Feminine.


 A little boy’s baptism. A first born son. The occasion brought much reflection to my heart on what it means to be heirs in God’s Covenant. For boys. For girls. From childhood we learn to worship God as our Father—through prayers, music and in the messages we hear. So too, Bobby was baptized into the name of the Father.
The children’s message that day taught something of the meaning of the sacrament. Small boys and girls absorbed the familiar story of being part of the family of God and having a Heavenly Father who loves them so much. I watched as they turned to look at the sleeping infant and then at the child’s Dad, as the point was made that God’s children have not just one, but two Fathers. Did they think it strange that God’s family has no Mother? Or that Bobby’s Mom did not seem to have any significance in this story? Or were they already so conditioned to patriarchal thinking as not to notice the omission?
There sat the lovely young Mother who carried this child nine months before shedding her blood to give him birth. Between the couple on that front pew were three proud little sisters—future Mothers in God’s family. Would their generation continue to be invisible as to the image of God reflected in them?
So much of the Christian message is about birth. About being born again. About being born of the Spirit of God. Even little children know that the one who gives birth is called a Mother. Yet we never mention God as Mother. We never use this honored name to celebrate the one who gives us second birth.
Why are we so reluctant to use the name Mother in relation to God? Is the idea of Mother demeaning for God? Is Mother somehow a lesser name for the Most Holy? There was a time when I thought so. When addressing God as Father/Mother felt blasphemous. I wonder why. It has been a prayerful journey.
At Bobby’s baptism I saw a sincere and loving couple, each created in the image of God. Yet the link we emphasize between our earthly and heavenly Fathers carries a powerful patriarchal message that blinds us to the link between our Mothers and our God.
I wonder. One day when we see God face to face, will we only see the face of a loving Heavenly Father? Or will the faces of our Mothers be reflected there as well?

For more of JoMae Spoelhof’s creative, prophetic work, see her blog:


4 thoughts on “Changing Church: JoMae Spoelhof, Christian Reformed Church Laywoman, Writer

  1. Another great post Jann. I just delight in the work you are doing in the world. It is so cool how you get the idea of inclusiveness out there using stories, just “these little stories!”

    JoMae, eloquent.


  2. Hurray Jann and I commented on Facebook so more of my contacts hear Good News in a world of hurt and need.

  3. Dear EEWC friends,

    I nearly cried reading this. When I think of so many women with deep, deep, lifelong love of Creator God who are just coming to feel HER presence, it makes me feel that we have been walking on one leg, or seeing with one eye.
    Your dedication to sharing these stories fill my heart, despite living in a world in which arguing and competing is the masterstroke of huMANity in the world of work and politics. Oh, thank you, thank you Jann and Letha, and Virginia, and JoMae and every one of you ( US) who opens our spirits more completely so that we can walk with two legs and see with two eyes – metaphorically- of course, there are many who walk on their wheels and see with their

    Kathleen Fogarty

  4. Jann, I like this very much, and I’ve shared it on my page. What a thoughtful and brave woman. This is thought-provoking and timely.

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