December 28, 2020 Update: When I first published this article it created a bit of controversy. The idea that it takes some combination of women and men to fully image God seems to be pretty entrenched on all sides – by those who believe in the functional equality of the sexes but perhaps even more by those who assert functional inequality along with ontological equality. I believe this is an error that leaves the identification of the imago Dei up to the whims of the interpreter, resulting in passionately espoused yet mutually exclusive theories. Although I see beautiful differences between men and women and therefore the reasons we must, as God commanded, rule and subdue the earth together, I do not believe those differences reside in the imago Dei. Below is the original article.
Original Post dated December 14, 2016:
Practically everywhere I go I hear that it takes the combination of male and female to image God. God is not a man or a woman, it is argued, so it’s only logical that neither gender can fully image God by itself. While this might sound reasonable on the surface, what are we saying when we claim that neither sex is a complete image of God? That men image the “strong,” “decisive,” and “manly” side of God? That women reflect God’s “soft,” “compassionate,” and “nurturing” nature? That sounds like we think women are indecisive and weak and men are neither compassionate nor nurturing. When we assert that it takes both genders to image God, we are also claiming that each gender lacks part of the image.
And I don’t believe that is our intention.
A little history may help us understand how we got here. Up until the last century it was commonly assumed that God could be understood as “masculine” in the human sense of the word. God is greater than human beings, of course, but he is nonetheless “male.” Thus it is only male humans who properly image him. Sure, women are like God in their ability to pursue holiness, but females are incapable of imaging God’s essential “manliness.” Jewish writers of the intertestamental period went so far as to teach that the command to rule and subdue the earth was given only to Adam. Eve’s part was to help Adam by being fruitful and multiplying. In spite of the fact that all the Genesis commands – of ruling and subduing, being fruitful and multiplying – are clearly given to both, this idea persevered in one form or another throughout much of Christian history.
A generation or so ago, however, a few evangelical scholars began to rightly argue that classically “feminine” traits like gentleness, kindness and compassion also pertain to God’s character. God is not only “masculine” but also “feminine,” and women image God too. As a means of explaining this new thought it was proposed that it takes the combination of male and female to fully image God. This suggestion seemed to dignify women and became an argument for including women in church leadership positions. Although I’m in favor of women taking a more visible role in church leadership, I’m not convinced this idea is dignifying of women.
Neither do I believe it is accurate. The image of God statement in Genesis 1:26-28 does not explain what it means to be male or female, but rather what it is to be human. According to Genesis 1, this image-of-God essential humanity consists of everything it takes to rule and subdue the earth for God’s glory. Human beings have the right, responsibility and ability to make real decisions, to play a real part in stewarding the earth. But there’s also an often overlooked and odd little pronoun shift in the original Hebrew that emphasizes that each and every person, whether female or male or black or white or brown or right-brained or left-brained or introvert or extrovert, is a complete image of God. Literally Genesis 1:27 reads:
So God created humanity in his own image, in the image of God he created him [singular]; male and female he created them [plural].
It didn’t take the combination of the first two people to image God; the first one imaged God on his own, the second one imaged God on her own, and so has every person since. The imago dei describes the essential sameness of all human beings, not our gender differences or any other distinctions that may exist, however real those may be. Yes, differences come into play in Genesis 2 and yes, they can remind us of the beauty of the various aspects of God’s essence. But it does not follow that we each possess only part of God’s image. The purpose of the “male and female” statement was not to imply that it takes the combination of the two to image God, but to ensure that we didn’t start to think that only one sex imaged God, that only one was created to exercise dominion over the earth.
But that’s exactly what happened, isn’t it? According to Philo, men and women were fundamentally different. One was full of leadership and activity (everything it takes to rule and subdue the earth), and the other of obedience and passivity (nothing that has to do with ruling and subduing). You can probably guess, savvy as you are, which gender landed which role. Chrysostom explained that females and males both image God, but they do so in different ways. Women show forth God’s image in their human nature but not through exercising dominion. That part of godlikeness belongs to men. The image has different parts, you see, that pertain to different types of humans.
Which sounds pretty much like what I’m hearing today. One contemporary idea suggests that men image the Father in their authority and women image Jesus in their submission. Both image God, but they do so differently. I don’t, however, see in the Genesis account where submission is included as part of what it means to be in God’s image; as far as I can tell, being image-bearers of God has to do with ruling and subduing the earth as God’s stewards.
Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule… (Genesis 1:26).
The sad part is that as soon as we parse God’s image into pixels of our choosing, allocating them here and there as we see fit, we lose the big idea of Genesis 1: that every human being – rich, poor, powerful, powerless, brown, black, white, old, young, educated, uneducated, male, female – possesses God’s image in the same way and to the same extent. It is this fullness of God’s image that makes us human, strong and compassionate and decisive and nurturing and everything else it entails.
Genesis doesn’t say it takes the combination of male and female to image God. Neither should we.