When the Rev. Linda Spoolstra tends her flock in the small Massachusetts community of Swansea, she stresses the female as well as the male qualities of Jesus. She talks of his traits of gentleness, compassion, and love of children - often more associated with women than men.
The pastor, a Baptist minister, is not a feminist. But she is one of a growing band of clergy - both men and women - across the United States who use ''inclusive'' language (which deemphasizes gender and stresses scriptural equality of the sexes) in their sermons.
Until recently, this has been an informal and little-publicized practice. However, according to the National Council of Churches, about 100 Protestant pastors in 30 states have for some time taken liberties with the biblical letter to place greater emphasis on the feminine.
Now an NCC lectionary committee is pushing for widespread acceptance of this concept by encouraging member churches to adopt a newly published Inclusive Language Lectionary (ILL) to help them ''express the Biblical message to all persons in an unbiased manner.''
However, with the ink of the first of three lectionary volumes barely dry, the idea is already sparking deep-felt controversy. Its detractors see it as a veiled move to influence future alterations of the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, a device to inject politically liberal - and feminist - values into the church, and an effort to distort the ''revealed Word.''
The interdenominational group of scholars, which has put in six years of study on the project, insists that these are unfounded fears. The lectionary is an ''experimental, voluntary worship aid,'' says NCC general secretary Claire Randall. It's not a Bible, she points out, but a cluster of scriptural selections designed to be read aloud by pastors and congregations. The initial volume is keyed for use in the month before Christmas.
The Rev. Dr. Susan Thistlethwaite, professor of theology at Boston University - a member of the committee - stresses that nothing new is being introduced into the Scriptures by making its language more inclusive. ''(It's) something that's already there, integral to the meaning of the Gospel,'' Dr. Thistlethwaite maintains.
Why is the lectionary needed?
Virginia Ramey Molenkott, professor of English at William Paterson College in New Jersey, says that much of the language in common translations distorts the meaning of Scripture and encourages ''agism, classism, racism, and sexism in one devastating package.'' Professor Mollenkott, who is a member of the executive committee of the religion and literature division of the Modern Language Association, comments: ''There are many thousands of women still paralyzed by sexist religious imagery and pronouns. They need to hear the liberating word that they too are made in the image of God.''
The ''liberating word'' offered in the ILL falls into three categories: language about God; language about Christ Jesus; and language about people.
References to God as ''Mother'' as well as ''Father'' are featured prominently throughout the work. Other changes include use of ''Sovereign'' instead of ''Lord,'' ''Realm of God'' instead of ''Kingdom of God,'' and ''Ruler'' or ''Monarch'' instead of ''King.''
In referring to Jesus, the pronoun ''he'' is frequently replaced by the noun ''Jesus.'' Instead of ''Son,'' ''Son of God,'' and ''Son of Man,'' the lectionary uses ''Child,'' ''Child of God,'' and ''the Human One.''
To show that the Scripture intends to include women in many references to ''man,'' the word ''brethren'' is often recast as ''brothers and sisters'' and a person's proper name substituted for ''he'' or ''she.''
The ministerial community gives the ILL mixed reviews. Certain segments are flatly opposed to it. The Lutheran Church of America recommends against using it for worship. The Rev. Dr. James R. Crumley Jr., bishop of North America's largest Lutheran body says ''it is often inaccurate, and sometimes written in a poor and inadequate linguistic style.''
Archbishop Iakovos of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North and South America says his church disassociates itself from the lectionary. Some fundamentalists talk about ''tampering'' with the Word of God. Those who don't use the Revised Standard Version of the Bible tend to be neutral or wary. And even the NCC itself has not officially endorsed the ILL committee's product.
Even pastors who support inclusive language say they would pick and choose from lectionary suggestions. For example, the Rev. Spoolstra says it is not necessary to always change ''Son of God'' to ''Child of God,'' such as the ILL does with John 3:16.
She says that, if St. Paul were writing his letters today, she is certain he would refer to both ''men and women,'' because ''he was very progressive for that age.'' In her sermons about Paul, she uses inclusive language.
Those who back the concept say it has these benefits: It raises the consciousness of many women who have long seen themselves as subservient to men; it broadens one's understanding of Jesus' life and works by including feminine as well as masculine qualities; it helps expand the concept of Deity by seeing God as both Father and Mother.
Other pastors who use inclusive language in some form had the following responses:
* The Rev. Richard Moore, Crossroads Community Church, Lakewood, Calif.: ''We must be careful of a retranslation of the whole Bible. . . . The lectionary helps us think of God as inclusive. . . . (The idea) is important in terms of how people behave in relation to one another. . . . For centuries, men have been persecuting women worldwide. And some women are still not aware of it.''
* The Rev. Dr. Sue Gallagher, United Church (Methodist), in Tallahassee, Fla.: ''It's a very powerful thing for women in the congregation to feel included. The entire understanding and feeling for God increases when one doesn't use exclusively male imagery.'' (Dr. Gallagher still uses ''Our Father'' in the Lord's Prayer, but she says she has adopted a ''nonsexist'' version of the doxology.)
* The Rev. Donna Alora, Southminster Presbyterian Church, Beaverton, Ore.: ''Jesus taught about a 'new creation.' For so long, we have left people out - not only women, but minorities, the handicapped. . . . Neither 'he' nor 'she' is correct. We should use 'human being.' It would be an awakening process to see we are all human beings and we must learn to live together.''
* The Rev. Paula Decker Everitt, associate minister, Hingham Congregational Church, Hingham, Mass.: ''Look at the Bible. Jesus treated women very well. We're reclaiming traditions that have always been there. . . . It gives us a heightened sense of self.''
* The Rev. Ruthenia H. Finley, John Wesley United Methodist Church, Brooklyn, N.Y.: ''God has no gender. We can all relate to God. How can we speak of women in terms of a whole person when we see God as only male? . . . Now men in my congregation see God in a more inclusive light. Spiritually my people have grown.''
* The Rev. Ann Quick, New Utrecht Reformed Church, Brooklyn, N.Y.: ''Most of my sermons center on the inclusiveness of the Gospel - not only for men and women, but for other minorities. . . . When I first started changing the language, the women liked it. Some were a little anxious. Now we're making them think.'' KING JAMES VERSION ST. JOHN 3
16 For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.
17 For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved. ST. JOHN 17
THESE words spake Jesus, and lifted up his eyes to heaven, and said, Father, the hour is come; glorify thy Son, that thy Son also may glorify thee: REVISED STANDARD VERSION JOHN 3
16 For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.
17 When Jesus had spoken these words, he lifted up his eyes to heaven and said, ''Father, not hour has come; glorify thy Son that the Son may glorify thee , 'AN INCLUSIVE LANGUAGE LECTIONARY' Gospel -- John 3
16 For God so loved the world that God gave God's only Child, that whoever believes in that Child should not perish but have eternal life.
17 For God sent that Child into the world, not to condemn the world, but that through that Child the world might be saved. Gospel -- John -- 17
1 Having spoken these words, Jesus looked up to heaven and said, ''[God my Mother and*] Father, the hour has come; glorify your Child that your Child may golrify you,