Male and female in God’s image: Empowerment and challengeWritten by Subby Szterszky
What's inside this article
So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” (Genesis 1:27,28)
These verses in the first chapter of Scripture offer the key to the basic mystery of human existence: Who are we and why are we here? They reveal that we’re made to be God’s image bearers, both male and female, and that we’ve been given responsible authority over his creation as his representatives.
But since we’re fallen creatures, we’ve found ways to distort these essential truths about ourselves, both in the world and in the church, throughout history and at present. These distortions misrepresent God and harm people, often catastrophically so.
As followers of Jesus, it’s incumbent on us to meditate on the implications of these core truths. Doing so will help us to better love the Lord and our neighbour, and to be the ambassadors of his Kingdom he intends us to be.
Complementary image bearers
Throughout the creation account in Genesis, God repeatedly called each part of his work good. In fact, when he had finished the created order, he declared all of it to be very good. So it comes as a jolt when God says for the first time that it’s not good for the man to be alone and creates a companion suitable for him.
This is not an error or an oversight that needed to be corrected, but rather a description of a work in progress. If the man was to be God’s image bearer, he couldn’t be so without the woman. Both are essential, complementary parts of a whole humanity that together reflects the image of God and exercises authority over God’s creation as his representatives. While every person bears the divine imprint, both male and female are integral to reflecting a fully rounded picture of God’s character.
Male and female together are also essential to God’s plan of salvation, which he purposed before he ever created the cosmos. While the man was held responsible for the fall of humanity, the woman was given the first promise, that one of her descendants would crush Satan and redeem the world. As husbands and wives, men and women reflect the love and intimacy between Christ and his church. Together they foreshadow the perfect relationship God’s people will enjoy with him for eternity.
Naturally, being complementary image bearers extends beyond marriage – after all, not everyone is married or called to it. But all women and men are called to reflect God’s image in every sphere where he’s placed them, whether in the church or in the wider culture. Men and women are to work together in relationships of mutuality, using their varied talents as God’s instruments of grace in his creation.
Sharing the Creation Mandate
When God created the woman, he described her as a suitable companion or a helper corresponding to the man. The Hebrew phrase is ezer kenegdo, which can also be translated as a partner or ally who shares the man’s nature but is a perfect counterpart as his opposite number. The two of them, man and woman, are designed to be an ideal fit for each other.
The term ezer (pronounced ay-zer) is used 21 times in the Old Testament: twice in this passage about the creation of the woman, three times about the surrounding nations to whom Israel appealed for aid, and 16 times about God himself. The word carries no sense of subordinate status, but instead suggests a rescuer or a warrior who provides powerful, effective and necessary help.
God’s injunction to be fruitful and multiply applies to both the man and the woman, but so does the rest of the Creation Mandate, to exercise benevolent dominion as God’s emissaries within his creation. Women, no less than men, are commissioned by their Creator to engage in all forms of cultural activity. They’re free to create, to build, to lead, to heal, to fight for justice, for the benefit of humanity and for the glory of their Maker.
Distortions and stereotypes
Much of history is a sad record of these core truths about humanity being distorted, resulting in all kinds of violence, cruelty and injustice. Women in particular have suffered because of this across many cultures, abused and treated as possessions, their rights and even their personhood denied.
There are segments of the church, too, that have not been blameless in this area. Stories of misogyny, marginalization and the abuse of women continue to proliferate and have become a scandal in various corners of the faith community.
Patriarchal attitudes toward women are justified in certain Christian quarters by appealing to patriarchal attitudes in the Old Testament as normative – which is a lot like viewing slavery or polygamy in the Old Testament as normative. God overlooked these sinful cultural practices for a time, while instituting laws that protected women, foreigners and the poor. However, with the coming of Christ, he has called all people to repent of such evils.
In response to the influence of the sexual revolution, some Christian groups have doubled down with stricter definitions of the roles of men and women in the home, the church and society in general – stricter usually for the women than for the men, it must be said.
But often these definitions are culturally biased, drawing on mid-20th-century North American stereotypes of masculinity and femininity more than they do on the teaching of Scripture. Such stereotypes are invariably damaging to women as well as to men. They force individuals into uniform boxes that they don’t fit into, and they flatten the beautiful diversity of God’s human creation.
Empowerment and challenge
The scriptural doctrine of humanity created in the image of God as two – and only two – immutable complementary genders is one of the most offensive ideas to current cultural sensibilities. And for many professing believers steeped in the prevailing cultural ethos, it has become just as problematic.
Nevertheless, biblical Christianity remains the most radically empowering belief system for women and men that history has ever known. This was borne out in the early church, which challenged the patriarchal misogyny of the Greco-Roman world and attracted women – even affluent, upper-crust women – in droves. Centuries later, the Christian emphasis on the intrinsic value and dignity of all people laid the groundwork for universal human rights, including the rights of women.
It remains the same today. Faithful followers of Jesus need to confront the mistaken assumptions within the culture as well as the church. We need to challenge the gender-fluid ideology on the left as well as the patriarchal misogyny on the right. As Tim Keller argues, both sons in the parable of the Prodigal Son – both the religious and irreligious – are equally lost. Only the Gospel offers the third, perfect way. Our identity isn’t in our beliefs about gender, but rather in Christ, which supersedes all cultural identities.
But we need to follow the example of our Lord and do all of this with humility, kindness and respect. As in all things, we want to speak the truth in love. More than that, we want to live it out. The way we treat each other as women and men, in our homes, our churches and everywhere else, will illustrate the beauty and wisdom of God’s design to a fragmented culture that needs to see it more than ever before.
Sources and further reading
Aimee Byrd, Recovering from Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: How the Church Needs to Rediscover Her Purpose, Zondervan, 2020.
Elyse Fitzpatrick and Eric Schumacher, Worthy: Celebrating the Value of Women, Bethany House, 2020.
Rachel Green Miller, Beyond Authority and Submission: Women and Men in Marriage, Church and Society, P & R Publishing, 2019.
Timothy Keller, The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith, Dutton, 2008.
Timothy Keller, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism, Dutton, 2008.
Rebecca McLaughlin, Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the World’s Largest Religion, Crossway, 2019.
Subby Szterszky is the managing editor of Focus on Faith and Culture, an e-newsletter produced by Focus on the Family Canada.
© 2021 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.
If you liked this article and would like to go deeper, we have some helpful resources below.Our recommended resources
Free advice on marriage, parenting and Christian living delivered straight to your inbox