Theology in 3D

Gender Questions (Part 1)

Layton Talbert | April 5, 2018
New Testament, Old Testament, Theology

I’ve said it before. I get some of my most thought-provoking questions from emails. This emailer raised a number of issues about how Scripture impacts our view of women; questions, she says, “that have baffled me all of my life.” They’re valid, sincere questions that deserve scripturally informed answers.

If we don’t take the initiative to answer honest questions as candidly and thoroughly and biblically as possible, then other answers will come in to fill that void—answers that may be candid and thorough but less than biblical. The church has a history of such failures and it is a failure that Satan is keen to exploit.

Just so you know up front, there’s too much for one post so this will be a two- or three-part miniseries. First question:

When we talk of man being an image-bearer of God, there always seems to be an underlying presupposition that God is male, the terms Father and Son reinforcing that idea. Does God really have a gender or are the male references metaphors to help us understand something about God? There are instances where God applies feminine gender qualities to Himself—why?

This is actually a fascinating question because it raises a counter-question: Is “gender” innate to personhood or is it linked to physicality and/or to createdness? God does, indeed, reveal himself in what we customarily consider “male” terms. And even when he applies what we tend to consider feminine qualities to himself (more on that in a moment), he never refers to himself via feminine pronouns. God made man in his image, not vice versa. God is the original, not man.

On the other hand, God also clearly presents himself as spirit. If we assume that gender is necessarily linked to physicality and/or to createdness then, no, God has no gender (at least in the sense we think of it). At the same time, it’s impossible to dismiss three basic facts: (1) God created humanity with gender distinctions; (2) God chose not to create male and female simultaneously or even in the same way as each other, but to create the man first, and then the woman from out of the man; and (3) God chose to reveal himself not through neuter or feminine self-references, or even a mixture of feminine and masculine self-references, but consistently via masculine self-references. God’s choice, not ours (if you believe that the Bible is divinely originated and superintended self-revelation).

Can those facts be misconstrued, misused, and exploited? In a fallen world, you bet they can. Can those facts be rejected or ignored as insignificant and irrelevant? In a fallen world, absolutely. But biblical facts they remain.

That brings me to the last point: why does God apply feminine gender qualities to himself? First, it’s worth observing that our division of qualities between feminine and masculine may in some cases betray a misperception—especially if by feminine we mean things like sensitivity, compassion, or other qualities that actually transcend gender. In Dt 32:18, where God describes his relation to Israel via birth-language (and such language is very rare), he illustratively employs the kind of ‘(pro)creativity’ that he himself built into humanity when he created us (male and female) in his image. In other words, God’s creative capacity for “giving birth” is the original, not woman’s; it is a capacity that he specifically granted to the woman, but one that still requires both male and female (apart from miraculous circumstances).

Why did Christ become man instead of woman? And what may/should we infer from that? We seem to infer that Christ became man because man was the more important gender (created first, gender of power, headship). Is this valid?

Again, the counter-question would be, what exactly do you mean by “the more important gender”? God created the man first because he chose to, for whatever reason; and NT teachings (including headship) rely on that fact for their justification. Does being born first make one sibling more important than the other when, in fact, both had absolutely nothing to do with the order in which they were born? If by “important” one means “superior” or “more valuable,” then the rest of Scripture (beginning with Genesis 1) keeps reminding us that such thinking is entirely mistaken.

Besides those considerations, there are lots of mundane answers to the question of why Christ became a man instead of a woman. All the OT prophecies indicate the coming Messiah to be a male; the oracle that the seed of the woman would destroy Satan refers to a “he”; the sacrificial requirements for burnt offerings always called for male offerings; the Christ had to be the (male) heir of the Davidic throne.

If you’re asking why God didn’t decide to do it all differently from the beginning—make woman first, structure society so that women were predominantly in charge as the breadwinners and soldiers and monarchs—I don’t know how we can possibly answer that except by simply acknowledging his prerogative as Creator. As a fallen creature whose very instinct is sin, my responsibility now as a believer is simple (which is not to say easy): submit my thinking to the wisdom, goodness, and choice of God.


4 responses to “Gender Questions (Part 1)”

  1. Ken Casillas says:

    Thought-provoking indeed. Some follow-up questions…
    1. Does Genesis 1:27 imply that it takes both male and female to convey the image of God fully/adequately?
    2. How would you define “gender”?
    3. Apart from anatomy, how would you define/describe “male” and “female” (not in terms of roles but in terms of the nature or essence of each gender)? And on what basis, biblical or otherwise?
    Feel free to stretch this out a few more posts. :}

  2. […] gender issues from an emailer. (See Gender Questions Part 1 for […]

  3. […] gender questions emailed to me a while back. (For related issues previously discussed, see Parts 1 and […]

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