Women in The Image Of God: Not Just a Creation Story

Gail Wallace


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not just a creation story (1)

I have a granddaughter who loves to be read to.  When I start reading she pays close attention, but sometimes when we get to the middle she abruptly closes the book, because she already knows how the story ends.

I think we often do the same thing when it comes to understanding what it means to be made in the image of God (Imago Dei) and the implications for gender equality.  That is, our understanding has been based primarily on the beginning of the story.  In the first pages of the Bible, there is true equality between the first man and the first woman.  Both Adam and Eve are image bearers who equally reflect their Creator, both are under the authority of their Creator alone, and both are given the mandate to fill the earth and have dominion over it.

End of story.  Or not?

Theologian Lisa Stephenson agrees that the fact that men and women are created in the image of God is the foundation for a biblical basis for equality, but suggests that if we stop there our theology will not be as robust as it should be.  To get the fuller picture we also need to consider the implications of the Incarnation and of Pentecost. In other words, we need to read the whole story.

Imago Dei – women are equal to men on the basis of their creation in the image of God.

“So God created humankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” (Genesis 1:27-28)

In Genesis 1 Adam and Eve are created in God’s image and given equal responsibility for the stewardship of creation. Though different, the woman is not a separate creation; she is made from the same material as the man. Both embody the fundamental qualities and capacities of being human while at the same time having the added dimensions of sex and gender. Clifton is helpful here: “…biological differences do not necessitate substantial functional distinctions.  While it is true that men cannot give birth or breastfeed…almost all other functions pertaining to the health and flourishing of families can be equally performed by either parent, unless, of course, we want to assert that men do not reflect God’s image as nurturer” (p. 64). It is also important to note that God tells both Adam and Eve to “rule” over the other living creatures, but there is no command to Adam to rule over Eve.

Genesis 2 provides more details about the relationship between Adam and Eve.  In Genesis 2:18 God says, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.” The word translated as “helper” is “ezer”, which comes from Hebrew root words meaning strength and power.  The word translated as “suitable” is “kenegdo”, which means facing, corresponding, or equal to.  In English “helper” suggests an assistant or subordinate, but the Hebrew doesn’t carry that connotation.  In fact, the term is used more than 20 times in the Old Testament to describe a superior helper; usually God.  So a better translation is: “I will make him a “strength corresponding to” him, or “a rescuer equal to him”.

I see nothing in the narratives of Genesis 1 and 2 to support the idea that Adam is given priority or authority over Eve at creation. The first mention of any kind of power dynamic between the man and the woman occurs in Genesis 3 after sin enters the picture.  The imbalance of power that is introduced into the relationship impairs their ability to accurately reflect God’s image. Some would say that this new power imbalance is consistent with God’s desire for how men and women should relate today – that because of what happened in the garden women are meant to be under the authority of men.  But I believe that, like every other consequence of the fall, the statement in 3:16 that “he shall rule over you” describes what will be, not what should be.

Fortunately, this is not the end of the story!

Imago Christus – women are equal to men on the basis of salvation in Christ

So in Christ Jesus, you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:26-28).

In the New Testament, the redeeming work of Jesus on the cross reverses the effects of the Fall.  Jesus ushers in a new covenant under which believers have a new identity – that of being ‘in Christ”.  While the apostle Paul has been maligned through the ages for a handful of texts that appear to limit the participation of women in church contexts, it is actually Paul who consistently defends the equal standing of men and women “in Christ” (see for example 1 Corinthians 7, 1 Corinthians 11:11, Romans 8:1, 2 Corinthians 5:17, Galatians 3:28).

Let’s just look briefly at Galatians 3:28. When Paul states that “there is no longer male and female, for you are all one in Christ”, he leaves no room for debate.  Payne believes it is significant that the wording “male and female” does not match the previous pairings of “Jew nor Gentile”, “slave nor free”:

“The reference to ‘male and female’ is different from the previous two pairs, highlighting it as an exact quotation from the Greek Old Testament reference to God creating mankind in his image “male and female” (Genesis 1:27)…Paul’s repudiation of this fundamental creation distinction in Christ clearly points to the new creation breaking barriers between man and woman. Like every other passage about the new creation…it refers to transformation of life, not just spiritual status” (p. 14).

But again, there is more to the story.  It is not just about what Christ has done for us, it is also about what happens to us when we respond to him.  Stephenson notes:

“Paul depicts the act of water baptism as “a ‘putting on’ or a ‘being clothed with’ Christ (enduo).  Christ becomes like a garment that envelopes the believer.  Those who have been baptized in water are thus imago Christi because they have ‘put on Christ’” (p. 185).

This quality of being clothed with Christ is another aspect of being made in the image of God and a core principle supporting gender equality in the church. To say that Galatians 3:28 only applies to our spiritual standing before God and not to social structures (like the church) is to miss the whole point of the book. Throughout the letter Paul addresses practical issues and divisions that had surfaced in the early church; for example, the Jews insistence that Gentiles be circumcised to gain full standing.  He reminds the Galatians that all believers are re-made in the image of Christ and called to participate in God’s mission of reconciliation in very practical ways.

Imago Spiritus – women are equal to men on the basis of Pentecost

“When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place.  Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting.  They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.”  (Acts 2:1-4)

The Holy Spirit is poured out on all believers at Pentecost, enabling them to live a holy life and equipping them with spiritual gifts for ministry.  Acts 1:14-15 provides a description of the men and women who were present on that day. The New Testament makes it clear that the Spirit works in the lives of all believers, that the gifts of the Spirit are given to all believers, and that all believers are expected to use those gifts for the good of the Church.  Paul writes over 70 verses about spiritual gifts but never once suggests that any of those gifts are dependent on a person’s gender.

The coming of the Holy Spirit adds a new dimension to our identity as image-bearers of God.  Stephenson notes that Paul’s reference to being “clothed” (enduo) in Christ is similar to a statement Jesus makes at the end of Luke’s gospel:

“Jesus tells his disciples that he is going to send them what the Father promised and that they should stay in Jerusalem until they have ‘put on’ or ‘been clothed with’ (enduo) power from on high…Therefore, it can be understood that those who have experienced the outpouring of the Spirit are clothed with the Spirit. The Spirit, like Christ, is a garment that envelopes the believer” (p. 185).

This “clothing” of the Spirit enables us to live together as the New Creation, no longer divided along gender, racial, ethnic, or socioeconomic lines. As the story progresses from creation to redemption to Pentecost, we see that men and women are equally created in the image of God, equally restored in Christ, and equally empowered by the Holy Spirit.

In spite of the evidence for gender equality in the Bible, the Church continues to be conflicted about what it means for men and women to be equal. Traditionalist and complementarian theology claim that men and women are created equal but are intended by God to have different roles and responsibilities. However, these roles and responsibilities are defined in ways that preclude women from holding positions of leadership in the church and require the unilateral submission of wives to husbands. It is a permanent subordination that results in the loss of autonomy and agency, two basic tenants of human equality. This “equal but subordinate” position has a striking similarity to the “separate but equal” rhetoric of racism.

It’s time for the church to throw off this distorted view of equality and to embrace the fullness of the Imago Dei, Imago Christus, and Imago Spiritus. Imago Dei, Imago Christus, and Imago Spiritus are realities of being made in the image of God that demonstrate the breadth and depth of our equality as men and women, an equality that is both ontological (applying to our essence of being) and functional (applying to our roles and abilities).

Frederick Buechner writes that “the gospel is not just good news, but knock-your-socks-off, couldn’t have dreamed it up in a thousand years news.”  But an “equal but subordinate” gospel is anything but “knock your socks off, couldn’t dream it up in a thousand years news” for women. On the other hand, an “equal together” gospel that recognizes men and women as co-image bearers without limitations based on gender is good news for the whole church. Anything less infers that Christ’s sacrifice on the cross was not enough to fully redeem humanity from the effects of the fall.



Buechner, F. (1977). Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale. New York: Harper & Row.

Clifton, S. (2009).  Sexism and the Demonic in Church Life and Mission.  In Raising Women Leaders: Perspectives on Liberating Women in Pentecostal and Charismatic Contexts.  Australasian Pentecostal Studies Supplementary Series, Volume 3. APS: Sydney, Australia.

Payne, P. (2012). Galatians 3:28’s Application of Paul’s New Creation Teaching to the Status of Women in Christ. In Male Authority in Context: A Special Edition Journal of Christians for Biblical Equality, 11-16.

Stephenson, L. (2009).  Imaging God, Embodying Christ. In Raising Women Leaders: Perspectives on Liberating Women in Pentecostal and Charismatic Contexts. Australasian Pentecostal Studies Supplementary Series, Volume 3.  APS: Sydney, Australia.

This post was adapted from the original version which appeared on The Sophia Network, a U.K. based organization that exists to empower women in leadership, and to champion the full equality of women and men in the church.

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  • Extremely well put, Gail. I believe that the dynamic shown between the man and the woman has been damaged and disrupted by the effects of sin, but it was never what God intended.

  • to paul: re:Paul’s instructions for wives to submit to their husbands was in keeping with the 1st century patriarchy culture/mores.

    Actually Paul never gave such simple instructions. Ephesians 5:21, though often separated from the next verse by a “title” is the ONLY instruction Paul gave on this matter…the verb for verse 22 is in verse 21, yet translators have deliberately defied Paul’s instruction.

    I believe God has made it clear that there is to be NO OPPRESSION whatsoever by his people one over another…The Bible speaks over 100 times against oppression and in favour of liberty of soul. Only those blinded by the culture of patriarchy are unable to see with their eyes the truth staring at them with power and deliberation. Ruling over one another is the way of the “princes of the Gentiles”…Do you not agree?

    • Judy, I completely agree with you that there is no support for patriarchy as God’s ideal in the Bible and I agree with you about the Ephesians 5 passage. I think the matter is complicated by the fact that similar instructions appear in other NT books (Col 3:18—4:1; Eph 5:21—6:9; Titus 2:1-10; and 1 Peter 2:18—3:7).

      A closer study of those passages shows that they are revisions of the traditional Roman household codes that reflect a developing understanding that Christians are to treat each other differently than society dictates. I think we have to take into consideration the cultural limitations of these passages. For example, all four passages that instruct women to be under the authority of their husbands also tell slaves to be under the authority of their masters.

      Obviously, we no longer believe slavery is something to be defended. Similarly, marriages in which women were considered the property of their husbands and told to submit to them falls in the same category – an unjust system which we should be working to overturn.

      Here is a link to a chart with all four passages side by side. http://catholic-resources.org/Bible/Epistles-HouseholdCodes.htm

      Ian Paul has a great post on the household codes that you might appreciate: http://www.psephizo.com/life-ministry/aristotle-and-the-household-codes/

      • Romans 12:1-10 is written to the church as a whole. The brethren are told ” So we , being many, are one body in Christ, and every one members one of another… Abhor that which is evil; cleave to that which is good.
        10 Be kindly affectioned one to another with brotherly love; in honour preferring one another;”

        I fail to see how these verses compete with the phrases “In honour PREFERRING ONE ANOTHER” and “In Christ there is neither male nor female”. I fail to see how these verses compete with “There is one mediator between God and Man(-mankind: anthropos) “ye shall not oppress one another:” Lev 25:14 and of course the introduction to the Ephesians controversial passage “submit yourselves ONE TO ANOTHER”…ETC.

        In the end we need to address TODAY’S HOUSEHOLD CODES…that differ widely from those of Ancient Greece and Rome. No matter how much men decide they will rule, they cannot rule without a willing subject and daily they are becoming fewer as women realize they have been duped into a lie. How many wise women have fallen under a foolish man, as did Abigail…yet GOD intervened to set her free!

        I claim as my prize from my Saviour that He came to set me free…and that I will forevermore ‘STAND FAST IN THE LIBERTY WHEREWITH CHRIST HAS SET ME FREE and be no more entangled in the yoke of bondage.” Unless I am a free agent under God I have no liberty to choose Christ and this must not be.

        We need to read further than these 4 passages and take in the whole message of God for mankind, for He has said,effectively 4 times: “is not my way equal…is not your way unequal? Will we live God’s way or our own?

  • Something that is often not mentioned is HOW GOD TREATS WOMEN throughout the Bible…it is clear from beginning to end that neither God nor his Angels address women THROUGH men…but always, God addresses women directly. Sampson’s mother, Mary the mother of Jesus, etc., I can find no example of the husband BEING the representative through whom God speaks…can you?

    • Judy, read Genesis chapter 18 where God tells Abraham of Sarah’s pregnancy and she has to listen in. I agree that Hannah and Mary were addressed directly but Sarah was not.

      • That is a good point Joe. It is interesting that God did speak not speak directly to Sarah but did speak directly to Hagar when she was wandering in the wilderness.

        • But God was not addressing Sarah…He was addressing Abraham…In no places did God address a woman in the sense that He was deferring to her husband, brother, father, etc. He was not telling Sarah that she would have a child but Abraham…and she overheard the discussion. He did not say to Abraham…be sure to tell Sarah FOR ME, that she will have a child. LIkewise Jesus also addressed women directly and not through a ‘mediator’. I doubt you will find any case where God (or Jesus) felt the need to have a go-between for Him or His angels. If this is the only example you can find I rest my case. It is simply not a pattern in which God works with women, and one example here or there does not a pattern make. But I await further comments. see 1 Sam, 2:21 also regarding Hannah. God went to great lengths to address Samson’s mother without the husband and only after great effort was the husband included in the dialogue.

          The woman at the well, Mary of Bethany, Martha, the Syrophenician woman, the adulterous woman, the woman with the issue of blood…never did Jesus require a man’s intervention. I feel this lesson is very important for men and women to realize as I was told over and over for 30 years that my husband was my mediator between me and God…and it is not true at all. I have only one mediator, Jesus Christ, and it is the same with all women!!! This is why I am sure the pattern has been established throughout scripture.

  • “This “equal but subordinate” position has a striking similarity to the “separate but equal” rhetoric of racism.”
    THANK YOU!!! I’ve been saying this for a while. Great overall piece too Gail.

  • Thank you for this.

    I wonder (and not a challenge but serious inquires):

    a) What other evidence is there for your comment “”But I believe that, like every other consequence of the fall, the statement in 3:16 that “he shall rule over you” describes what will be, not what should be?” While the grammar may be future indicative, is there any reason to deny that this stated to set precedent?

    b) If the evidence is really “overwhelming” that the Bible supports gender equality, then why do so many in the Church believe otherwise? Put differently, is the way you put this statement perhaps question begging? I think of I. Howard Marshall’s re-publication in the recently special edition titled, “Mutual Love and Submission in Marriage” where he argues that Paul’s instructions for wives to submit to their husbands was in keeping with the 1st century patriarchy culture/mores. See http://issuu.com/mutualitymag/docs/ets2015-web (pp 27ff).

    p.s. I’m a fan and defender of all-things-biblically-egalitarian 😉

    • Hey Paul! I’ll throw in my two pence (which is worth around three cents at current exchange rates). They are good questions to be asking!

      With regards to b – I don’t think the scale of evidence for or against something actually correlates well with its acceptance as a fact. For example, in South Korea it’s widely accepted as scientific fact that sleeping in a closed room with an electric fan on will kill you – despite there being no documented cases of such and no scientific basis for the belief. I’m sure you could come up with plenty more examples of such things with only a moment’s thought!

      Doing a fair amount of health advocacy, its terrifying the number of strongly held beliefs people doggedly hold onto in the face of all the evidence. And very damaging to the health and social lives of people with chronic illness. I don’t think I regularly see weight of evidence being a serious contributing factor in what people accept as truth by which they live life and make decisions. It more seems to be habit and “common knowledge”.

      I’m also not really convinced that the majority of Christians have actually examined the evidence for or against egalitarianism. Having looked into it seriously myself I can’t see how anybody could conclude patriarchy is okay – the evidence does seem overwhelming to me. But of course you could argue a bias there since I became egalitarian entirely through studying the whole Bible in that way.

      Anyway I realise that doesn’t directly answer your question, more sidles around it, but I think it’s a valid point to add to the discussion about why it could be that something with such strong evidence is disbelieved. I imagine a more direct answer would follow the historical narrative of women within culture and Christianity and examine the various biases which would lead to preference for ignoring the weight of evidence.

      • Lydia, thanks for adding your two pence, which is worth a lot in my book! I agree that most complementarians I talk to (not all, but the overwhelming majority) have not studied the issue in depth and have assumed that what they have been taught is the right interpretation. I’m doing some research on women pastors and one interesting thing I learned is that a 2011 study of protestant leaders conducted by the Pew foundation found that large majorities of both the Global South church leaders (77%) and the Global North leaders (73%) think that women should be allowed to serve as pastors, though leaders from the Middle East-North Africa region are almost evenly split on this question (46% yes, 43% no). So sometimes I think we give too much credit to the loudest voices and perhaps the tide has finally turned! http://www.pewforum.org/2011/06/22/global-survey-of-evangelical-protestant-leaders/#about-the-survey

        • Yes Gail! So many sermons from comp preachers all sound the same. I feel as though they all studied the same books and never stopped to critically consider wether those things were so.

        • Thanks for the link to the Pew Survey, Gail. I hope the tide truly is turning regarding the acceptance of women’s being pastors. Hopefully, that view will evolve into greater actual experience and women’s acceptance in others spheres as well.

          According to the same chart in the referenced survey, however, it looks as if equality in marriage and family is still a long way off. The survey states 79% agree that men must be religious leaders in marriage and family and 55% agree that a woman must always obey her husband. I wonder how nuanced the questions were. Do the respondents agree/disagree on whether men and women can hold equal authority and responsibility in marriage and family on topics other than religion or are all topics de facto religious, and therefore, men hold the “final leadership” in all areas?

          The contortions of the comp position always amaze me. The same chart also says 53% agree that men should be [the] main financial provider for family while 63% disagree that women should stay home and raise children. It is OK for women to work as long as they don’t make more money than men. I guess wage parity is still a ways off too.

          • Joan, I really don’t know much about the survey but I believe the respondents were Christian “leaders”. I have never understood this idea that women can be equal in society and in church but but not in their own homes. It just doesn’t make sense to me at all. It seems to stem from the concept of headship deduced from passages that use the term kephale, but I’m not convinced we understand how that term was used in Paul’s time. I did not grow up in a home or church environment that taught this, so I am at a loss to explain it!

      • All good points, Lydia. There is indeed a strong group think in complementarian camps and, truth be told, in egalitarian ones, too. So, listening skills suffer when sitting across the table or, worse and as you intimate, are altogether absent and a kind of denial sets in such that change is difficult if not impossible. We must all avoid hermeneutical myopathy.

    • Great questions, Paul! As far as your point a), what I was trying to say is that there were consequences as a result of the fall that moved human existence away from the original ideal we see in chapters 1 and 2. I don’t see how the statement could be setting a precedent, since from this point on we see a continual downslide away from the ideal – murder, slavery, polygamy, rape – eventually leading to 400 years of silence from God that is only broken when Christ comes to restore all things. I believe part of what Christ came to restore is the broken relationship between men and women. It seems to me that our goal should be to work towards restoring the original plan.

      About point b), first of all, I believe this is a spiritual battle – God said there would be enmity between Satan and the woman, and women are certainly bearing the brunt of injustice in the world today. That said, I think hundreds of years of misinterpretation and poor Bible translations have contributed to a misunderstanding of God’s design for men and women. Cultural influences also favor the continuation of gender hierarchy – it’s still a man’s world, although it is slowly changing. I haven’t read Marshall’s article yet, but while Paul’s instructions may have been in keeping with first century patriarchy, it seems to me that his motives were more about maintaining an effective witness to the secular world than about maintaining gender hierarchy. His instructions about marriage in 1 Corinthians 7 would have been revolutionary in those days.

      That’s all I have time for right now, so have to sign off. Thanks for engaging with the post!

      • Thanks for taking the time to reply and I agree with you.
        If I may add more (apologies for my typing blunders in the original inquiry):

        Re: a), There is no verb in the Hebrew of Gen 3:16 so literally it is “toward your husband your desire.” However, translations supply it for clarity, so God’s pronouncement (not a judgement nor a command) is simply stating by way of prediction the fruit or outcome of the man and woman’s disobedience, namely, conflict between the sexes. At its root, sin divides and destroys relational unity and mutuality. Due to sin, both sexes will seek to control the other and the shalom of the relationships is now lost. In and through the gospel, of course, we find that shalom is restored, which is part of what Paul had in mind in addressing the social classes of Gal 3:28. Mutuality and the resultant shalom is restored through the gospel of peace (Acts 10:36; Eph 6:15).

        Re b) I suggest your comment that the evidence was “overwhelming” was a bit of an overreach. Marshall’s essay is a case in point where he grants a nuanced patriarchy in 1st century Christian circles. You may pick up the entire edition and read Marshall’s essay from pp 27ff here.


        • Yes to all of this, Paul. Especially appreciate the comments about shalom and the gospel of peace. As to b) Personally, I do find the evidence to be overwhelming, and so we’ll just have to agree to disagree on that 🙂

  • “The first mention of any kind of power dynamic between the man and the woman occurs in Genesis 3, after sin enters the picture.” – That is an inconvenient fact for the comps, Gail.

    • Yes, it is, Tim. Anything before that can only be inferred and is on shaky ground!

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