On Imago Dei and Ways Forward Down Winding Roads

“Are women human?” Dorothy Sayers asked the world that question in an essay she wrote in 1947. And the evangelical church, at least in the last century or so, has tried to dodge the issue by pulling a Princess Bride – “Skip to the end – say man and wife!” Conversations, conferences, books and blogs about biblical womanhood abound, but not about biblical person-hood. But there are a myriad of problems in considering the practical implications of womanhood, without understanding their foundation in a woman’s humanity.

The most common model for examining, and then defining, biblical womanhood has been to consider the passages where women are addressed or featured prominently, and then to stretch and pull the applications from those texts across as many groups of women as possible, like so much pizza dough on a peel. Women who fit the demographic in question are privy to a plethora of books, memes, and ministries dedicated to the minutiae of obeying a subset of a single chapter of Scripture. For women outside the demographic – those not yet married, not married anymore, or currently without children – the conversation becomes either about making yourself perpetually ready for a particular season, like some kind of womanhood- prepper, or about supporting other women in it – as though womanhood were some kind of spectator sport only certain women are qualified to play, while the rest stand on the sidelines with pink pompoms and cheer.

I found the beginning of a path through my frustrations with the biblical womanhood framework that was simultaneously confining and full of holes, by way of a book called “Made For More”. In it, Hannah Anderson challenges the “identity myopia” of concentrating our definition as women (and men) on segments of life that are narrow in scope, and temporal in nature. In this “nearsightedness of the soul…(w)e can see the details well enough, but we can’t grasp their significance; and when we glance away from them, even momentarily, everything else is out of focus and blurred.” (pg 12) Anderson argues that the clearest lens through which to view ourselves as women, and then walk accordingly, is not one of temporal roles which last only for a season (if they occur at all), but the lens of the One from Whom, through Whom, and to Whom both women and men live, in every moment of life. Womanhood begins with who God is (in His nature), and what He has done (in the gospel), before it is about the things we do for Him as women. “We forget”, Anderson states, “that we can never understand what it means to be women of good works, until we first learn about the goodness of a God who works on our behalf. We forget that nothing about (our works) will make any sense if they are not first grounded in the truth that we are destined to be conformed to (God’s) image through Christ.” (pg. 105)

For years I had lived with a tension I felt deeply but struggled to understand fully – that my mission to follow Christ was somehow mitigated by my gender, that my ability to be like Christ was limited by the fact that He was and is a man and I was not, and that the real working out of my salvation seemed to be mediated through my identity as a wife and mother. In rediscovering the importance of the doctrine of imago dei to my identity, I began to see Jesus’ incarnation, life, death and resurrection, as not merely about my restoration as a woman, but more importantly, my restoration as a human being. Consequently, the living out of my restored humanity as a woman was as equally about reflecting the full nature of the triune God in my womanhood, as it is for a man in his manhood. And to do so faithfully requires a lifelong pursuit of the triune God whose nature is revealed to us in 66 books about one Person, not just a couple of chapters and prooftexts and characters sketches about women.

In that light, the term “complementarianism”, as it has been traditionally defined, appears be as least one cause of the identity myopia so many women like me have experienced, instead of its cure. In its centering on gender roles, the boundaries of our identity are drawn imprecisely around separate, temporal states (adult manhood and womanhood) and what we are to do in them, instead of more broadly but precisely around the shared state of our humanity – a state that is fixed and constant from the moment of conception to natural death. In its narrow focus on headship and submission, complementarianism distills all of the orbits of the collective creation mandate down to two, and to one relational dynamic within them, in that same temporal season of adulthood. No wonder so much of the current debate has been about what the term “complementarianism” doesn’t mean, or about what 51% of the human race can’t do. A term that is bounded so narrowly doesn’t leave too much room inside it for “is” or “can.”

But the term “ImagoDeian” does.

Inside the meaning of ImagoDeian, there is room for:

  1. The emphasis of Genesis 1 and 2 on male and female’s joint definition as image bearers as the foundation for the way we should see ourselves and every other human being.
  2. The glory of woman being derived from the way in which God makes her – uniquely forming her from one who is already alive with the breath of God, into one who displays the life-giving power of God.
  3. The argument that the order in which God made man, then woman, is about man’s incompleteness, not his supremacy.
  4. The definition of the nature of woman’s completion of man as that of a “necessary ally” instead of the ameliorated “suitable helper”.
  5. Multiple relational pictures of Christ’s oneness with His people: –marriage, and singleness (as depicted by Paul and by Jesus Himself), and the church as HIs unified Bride.
  6. The recognition  because of the Fall,, our bodies to fall short of the glory they were created to display, through aging, disease, sin, and defects whose causes are sometimes known and sometimes yet to be discovered . Nevertheless, as with every other aspect of our humanity, the dignity of our body is found, not in the measure of its functionality, or the degree of its beauty, but in its very existence, which was initiated by God and for God.
  7. The primary axis of conformity to the image of Christ is guided by our common living out of the one anothers, the bearing of the fruit of the Spirit, Who indwells men and women in equal measure, and our common living of the life to which we have been called . The secondary axis of our conformity to the image of Christ is guided by the distinctions of maleness and femaleness through which His image is expressed, the contexts in which those distinctions operate (wife, husband, employee, employer, marriage, home, church) and the specific commands God gives regarding each one. These two axes form the framework inside which we exercise our gifts and callings, in the way God directs, through the power He supplies, with Christ’s life as their source, and His glory as their object, the glory of the One in whose image we are all made.

In viewing a woman’s place in the world, and in the kingdom of God, through the lens of imago dei, a host of things – from the context for submission, to the exercise of our gifts in different seasons of life – fall into clearer focus (too many to begin detailing in a post that’s already too long, but that merit an entire series of their own). I agree with Fred Sanders – in general, because that is the way of wisdom, but also in this particular point- that imago dei does not necessarily make the way from the doctrine of God to the doctrines of human society more direct. But I would argue that imago dei can still serve as a type of true north for the twists and turns of the journey, especially as the winds of a dying secular culture blow harder and hotter in our faces. More importantly,  it can steer us clear of the potholes and rabbit trails that more imprecise terms can, and have, served to steer so many so far off course.

 

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