“A good father is one of the most unsung, unpraised, unnoticed, and yet one of the most valuable assets in our society.”
– Billy Graham, Christian Evangelist
The Image of God and Gender
By Dr. Glenn S. Sunshine
Published Date: June 16, 2010
From the beginning
In the first two articles of this series, we have seen that the image of God refers to humanity’s dominion over the world as God’s stewards, and that it is the basis for the unique dignity of human beings, for equality, and for human rights. In this article, we will look more closely at the issue of gender.
Gender is specifically mentioned in the first passage in Scripture dealing with the image of God:
… God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them. (Gen. 1:28 ESV)
Notice that the text very pointedly identifies the image of God with both male and female. Men and women are thus equally image bearers of God, and this means that they are intrinsically equal in worth, in their rights, and in their call to exercise dominion in God’s name over the earth.
It is impossible to overstate how revolutionary this idea was in the ancient world. We sometimes hear the argument that paganism is far better for women than monotheism, because in paganism there are goddesses along with gods, thus providing women with a claim to status and even authority
This argument is great in theory. In practice, it’s total nonsense.
Women under paganism
In the real world, paganism almost inevitably placed rigid restrictions on women’s roles. Essentially, they were only permitted to do things that the goddesses did. And generally speaking, this meant that they were responsible for the domestic sphere and often little else.
In Greece, for example, “free” women did not leave the home even to go shopping—that was handled by the men or by slaves. In places like Ephesus or Corinth that were dominated by temples to goddesses, the priestesses had more public roles, but they also doubled as prostitutes. And in general, only a small number of wealthy women, priestesses, and prostitutes had any roles or responsibilities in public life.
Further, women were considered intrinsically inferior to men in almost all ancient cultures. Aristotle, for example, considered women to be essentially the result of birth defects—they were “misbegotten men,” incomplete and inferior physically, morally, and intellectually.
Women also were not valued as highly as men, an attitude that persists in many parts of the world today. In Rome, wives came in a distant third for their husbands, behind parents and sons. As for children, Romans typically kept all healthy boys and their first daughter; the rest were discarded and left to die.
And these problems were not limited to the Greco-Roman world. All major civilizations in the ancient world and the vast majority of minor cultures held women as distinctly inferior to men, with far fewer rights, privileges, or opportunities.
Things were quite a bit different in Judaism, largely due to Genesis 1:28. Women were seen as being equal to but different from men because of their common creation in the image of God.
Spiritually, women were seen as setting the tone for the entire family, so much so that it was believed that a pious man who married an evil woman would become evil, and an evil man who married a pious woman would become pious. Women were seen as more intuitive than men, and some scholars argued that the wives of the patriarchs were superior to their husbands as prophets.
Women were also highly respected. In the Ten Commandments, we are told to “Honor your father and your mother” in Ex. 20:12, but to “Honor your mother and your father” in Lev. 19:3. The fact that father comes first in one case, but mother in the other, was taken to mean that we are to honor both parents equally.
Although women’s primary role was as the mother and keeper of the household, they were not limited to the domestic sphere. Women had the right to own, buy and sell property and to engage in business, following the example of Proverbs 31. They also had more rights with respect to marriage than in most other cultures, and under no circumstances could they be beaten or abused by their husbands.
To be sure, the Talmud says some negative things about women, with some rabbis describing them as being lazy, gluttonous, gossips, and prone to witchcraft; of course, they also describe men as being prone to lust and sexual sin. Overall, though, there can be no serious question that Jewish women were far more highly regarded and far better off than their pagan neighbors, stereotypes to the contrary notwithstanding.
Christianity carried on this tradition of honoring women. Women played important supporting roles in Jesus’ ministry and were the first witnesses of the Resurrection. Spiritually, the distinction between men and women is erased in Christ (Gal. 3:28). Women converted to Christianity in large numbers, in part because of the respect and freedom it gave them. Some of these even became leaders in the early church, sponsoring churches in their homes (e.g. Col. 4:15) and serving as deacons and prophets (e.g. Acts 21:9).
Moving into the Middle Ages and beyond, women continued to play important roles in the church, including powerful abbesses who ran women’s convents and sometimes double monasteries (that is, two monasteries close together, one for men and one for women), founders of religious orders such as St. Claire, mystics and visionaries such as Hildegard von Bingen and Theresa of Avila, all the way to modern women religious leaders such as Mother Theresa.
Christian ethical standards also raised the status of women. Husbands were commanded to love and take care of their wives as Christ loved and took care of the church (Eph. 5:25), an unheard of idea in the Greco-Roman world. The impact of Christianity on family life is important enough to deserve its own article, so we will return to that topic later in this series. For now, suffice it to say that here again, Christianity markedly improved the marital conditions for women compared to the pagan world.
Christians also joined the Jews in rejecting abortion and infanticide, but went further in rescuing abandoned babies—mostly girls—and raising them in their own households.
At the same time, it must be said that the Church has not always been true to its foundations in its treatment of women. A great deal of the problem here comes from the influence of Greek misogyny on early Christian writers, who imported negative ideas about women from Aristotle, from Neo-Platonists, and from other pagan sources. It certainly does not originate from the Biblical concept of men’s and women’s shared creation in the image of God, nor from Jewish theory or practice.
Despite stereotypes to the contrary, Judaism and Christianity have had a more positive impact on women than any other movement in history. The image of God in both male and female was the foundation for women’s rights and the ultimate source for modern ideas of gender equality. Scripture affirms that though men and women are different, they are equally valuable before God, equally worthy of honor and respect, and spiritually and morally equal in Christ.
For more insight to this topic, get the book, Male and Female, by Dan B. Allender and Tremper Longman III, from our online store. Or read the article, “The Father Almighty, Maker of Male and Female,” by Paul C. Vitz.
In addition to Phoebe (Rom. 16:1), the Roman writer Pliny the Younger wrote a letter to the Emperor Trajan asking him how to handle Christians and noting that he had arrested two female slaves who were deaconesses. See http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/pliny.html.