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.