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How Learning About Feminine Metaphors for God Undermines Rape Culture

On February 27, 2017

Recently, my husband wrote about his own journey in realizing that sexual aggression toward women is not about his own moral purity (not all men!), but about the worth and value of women. He was responding to a colleague’s story of a man’s verbal sexual aggression toward her just two weeks ago–in church.

My husband writes: “It took me years to realize that such aggression is embedded in the male culture in which I participated daily at school, work, and church. I cannot begin here to unravel that culture but I know that we very much need to do it. We need men to own their culture and the actions it helps to create. We need to call sexism what it is–abhorrent.”

Sexism is multi-layered, but we can start unraveling it by acknowledging the simple integrity of a human being’s body. Women are human, and the truth and meaning of that fact needs exploration.

Discussing the meaning of women's humanity with men is healthy and vital. When men name and expose toxic masculinity, its power to control men and women is diminished. And having discussions about sexual assault with Christian men is healthy too, because sexism and abuse are rampant in the church.

But it’s not only our sexist culture that undermines women’s humanity. It’s the male-centric lens through which we see and understand God.

Using masculine-only metaphors for God embeds sexism in the pews, and calls into question the worth of girls and women. On any given Sunday morning around the world, women will walk into a church service where Jesus is Bridegroom, God is Father, and “This Is My Father’s World.

Truly, these metaphors can be found in Scripture. But they are often used to the exclusion of maternal images, metaphors, and language for God–also found in Scripture.

Virginia Ramey Mollenkott writes about the consequences of this language rut: “…because God is husband-like, husbands are godlike. Because God is fatherlike, fathers are godlike. The stage is set for exploitation of girls and women.”

But she continues, “The chances for exploitation are severely curtailed if we go further and recognize the biblical images that say God is womanlike and motherlike, so that women and mothers are in turn godlike.”

When we embrace maternal metaphors for God, in addition to the typical paternal metaphors for God, we can appreciate the imago dei more clearly in women, and in their very bodies. Women reflect God just as much as men reflect God (Gen. 1:27).

God is neither male nor female, so we must be careful of making God in our own image as men and women. And yet, God uses both paternal and maternal imagery as self-descriptors in Scripture.

I believe that Jesus is concerned about rape culture. When Saul jailed and murdered early Christians, Jesus asked, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:4). Likewise, Jesus asks men, “Why do you continue to assault, abuse, and treat me like an item on a shelf?”

“But Jesus wasn’t a woman!”, you might protest. True, but Scripture tells us that Saul persecuted women as well as men (Acts 8:3). The risen Spirit of Jesus didn’t differentiate between them when he stopped Saul on the road to Damascus to call him to account. Further, Jesus himself underscored his connection to the experiences of all humans when he said, “I assure you that when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me” (Matthew 25:40 CEB).

Christian men would do well to emulate Jesus, perhaps the only perfectly secure male in history.

Jesus didn’t hesitate to talk about God as a woman who lost a coin (Luke 15:8-10), or to compare himself to a hen longing to gather her chicks under wing (Luke 10:34). Jesus gave the Holy Spirit the role of a birthing woman (John 3:5), and indicated that he saw himself and his disciples as experiencing the pains of a woman in labor when he died on the cross (V. Ramey-Mollenkott; John 16:2117:1).

Jesus’ many uplifting interactions with women in a patriarchal culture showed the world how men should relate to women and think about them: as human beings made in the image of God. I think Jesus would encourage us to explore the maternal side of God, as well as the paternal. I think he would use those maternal metaphors and images to demonstrate women’s embodiment of the imago dei—body and soul—to a world that demeans and undermines them. 

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