I have a three-year-old granddaughter who loves to be read too. When I start reading she always pays close attention, but sometimes when we get to the middle she abruptly closes the book, because she already knows how the story ends and is ready to move on to something new.
I realised recently that I have been guilty of doing the same thing when it comes to understanding what it means to be made in the image of God (Imago Dei) and the implications this has for gender equality. That is, my understanding of Imago Dei has been based almost entirely on the creation narratives of Genesis. In these 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 that creator alone, and both are given the mandate to fill the earth and have dominion over it. End of story. Or not?
In the essay “Imaging God, Embodying Christ” theologian Lisa Stephenson makes the case that while being created in the image of God is foundational to a biblical basis for equality, if we stop there our theology of women will not be as robust as it could be. She suggests that we also need to consider the implications of the Incarnation and Pentecost. A closer look at this three-fold framework reveals just how intentional God is about the equal standing of every image bearer.
Imago Dei – women are equal to men on the basis of their creation in the image of God.
“So God created mankind (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 the first chapter of Genesis we read that Adam and Eve are created equally in God’s image (Genesis 1:27), and given equal stewardship of all creation (Genesis 1:28). Though clearly 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 important to note that in Genesis 1 God tells both Adam and Eve to “rule” over the other living creatures, but there is no corresponding command to Adam about ruling over Eve.
The second creation narrative found in 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 that looks him in the face”.
Nothing in the creation narratives of Genesis 1 and 2 supports the idea that Adam is given priority or authority over Eve. The first mention of any kind of power dynamic occurs in Genesis 3, after sin enters the picture. Like every other consequence of the fall, the statement God makes in 3:16 that “he shall rule over you” describes what will be, not what should be.
The man and the woman are equally culpable in their disobedience and both experience a loss of intimacy with God. The imbalance of power that is introduced into the relationship impairs their ability to accurately reflect God’s image. 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 all believers are given a new identity – that of being ‘in Christ”. While the apostle Paul has been maligned through the ages for two 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 who are “in Christ” throughout the New Testament (see for example 1 Corinthians11:11, Romans 8:1, 2 Corinthians 5:17, Galatians 3:28) For our purposes let’s just look briefly at Galatians 3.
When Paul states in Galatians 3:28 that “there is no longer male and female, for you are all one in Christ”, he leaves no room for debate. It is significant that the wording “male and female” does not match the previous pairings of “Jew nor Gentile”, “slave nor free”. Payne believes that Paul was intentional in making this distinction:
“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. We miss something when we quote this verse by itself. 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 that
“Paul depicts the act of water baptism as “a ‘putting on’ or a ‘being clothed with’ Christ (enduo). Christ becomes like a garment that envelops the believer. Those who have been baptised in water are thus imago Christi because they have ‘put on Christ’” (p. 185).
It is this quality of being clothed with Christ that is the underlying basis for gender equality in the church.
To say, as some traditionalists do, 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 of Galatians. 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. Because of Christ’s redeeming work on the cross, all believers are re-made in the image of Christ and are 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 about spiritual gifts profusely (over 70 verses) but never once suggests that any of those gifts are dependent on a person’s gender.
The coming of the Holy Spirit also 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 that 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 envelops the believer. In a sense, those who have been baptized in the Spirit are imago Spiritus because they have ‘put on’ the Spirit” (p. 185).
This “clothing” of the Spirit is what enables us to live together as the New Creation, no longer divided along gender, racial, or socioeconomic lines.
And so as the story progresses from creation to redemption to Pentecost, we see men and women equally restored in their capacity to be image bearers of the Triune God; made in God’s image and now clothed in Christ and the Holy Spirit. Imago Dei, Imago Christus, and Imago Spiritus are characteristics that demonstrate the breadth and depth of our equality as men and women, an equality that is both ontological (applying to our very essence of being) and functional (applying to our roles and abilities).
Yet in spite of the overwhelming evidence for gender equality in the New Testament, the church continues to be conflicted about what it means for men and women to be equal. On one side of the debate you have egalitarian theology, which holds that men and women are created equal and that gender does not privilege or limit a believer’s calling to ministry. Men and women are equal partners in ministry and practice mutual submission in marriage.
On the other side you have traditionalist/complementarian theology, which holds that men and women are created equal but intended by God to have different roles and responsibilities. The distribution of these roles precludes women from ever holding positions of leadership in the church, and requires the unilateral submission of women to the authority of their husbands.
The problem with the traditionalist view is that this permanent subordination of women to men in both the home and the church results in the loss of autonomy and agency, two basic tenets of human equality. It’s an “equal but subordinate” position that 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 once and for all.
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. But we know that’s not true because, like my granddaughter, we know how the story ends.
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.
Gail Wallace, Ph.D. is a co-founder of The Junia Project, an online community that advocates for women in the church. She lives in California with her husband of 39 years, and enjoys spending time with her family, including three adorable grandkids. The focus of her Ph.D. studies was adult development and learning, including spiritual formation.