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Male and Female: One Image, One Purpose

On April 16, 2014

Have you ever wondered why, when friends announce they're expecting a child, your first thought is, "Will it be a boy or girl?" Granted, gender is the most obvious distinction noted in a newborn, but we seem to ask the question as if there is an essential quality to gender, as if biology is destiny. Can we really predict a person's identity or scope of service based on their maleness or femaleness? Some would say yes.

Those who believe that gender is the most important aspect of personhood are called "gender essentialists." For them, maleness or femaleness is an attribute that shapes the fundamental meaning and purpose of life-a view that, sadly, drives gender hierarchy in the world and also in the church. Significantly, gender essentialism is not a biblical idea. It arises from Greek philosophy.

Aristotle argued that there is an essential property or attribute that distinguishes all things, apart from which a thing would not be itself. For gender essentialists, men and women possess a fundamentally different essence—which is fixed and unchangeable—that gives rise to their distinct identity and destiny. Is gender essentialism biblical?

Scripture points to a "human essentialism," which is not associated with gender. The fixed and unchangeable essence of humankind is that both male and female are created in God's image (Gen. 1:26–28)! And, to bear God's image is an identity with a purpose: both Adam and Eve share authority in caring for the world. Scripture emphasizes not the differences between Adam and Eve but their unity and oneness. They share a physical substance, because Eve comes from Adam's body. They also share God's image, an essence that imparts a purpose-caring for the garden with shared authority and ruling over the animals, not over each other!

Sin does not rupture the shared essence and identity of humanity (God's image in man and woman); sadly, however, it does rupture their purpose-their shared authority (Gen. 3:16). To limit women's authority obscures their real identity, fueling a gender essentialist mentality. But Adam's rule over Eve was not God's design. A result of sin, patriarchy opposes and diminishes the identity and purpose of females.

Despite sin, Genesis 3 also teaches that a redeemer will be born of a woman and will reconcile us to God and to one another. Though Eve came out of Adam's body, the second Adam, Jesus, comes through Mary. Just as Eve shared authority with Adam, Jesus-the second Adam-not only affirms women's spiritual authority, but also consistently opposes cultural and religious patriarchy in his teachings and practices. When a woman called out to Jesus, "Blessed is the mother who gave you birth and nursed you," Jesus replied, "Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it" (Luke 11:27–28). A woman's identity resides not in her gender, but in her response to God, and this becomes the standard for all members of Christ's new covenant. Women are now daughters of Abraham (Luke 13:16), a phrase first used by Jesus to welcome women's full authority within his New Creation project. Sitting at Christ's feet, women became disciples, evangelists, and teachers. Women also witnessed every miracle marking Christ's messianic mission. Women are the first to meet the risen Lord, and interestingly, do so in a garden as a new world dawns (see N.T. Wright, The Challenge of Easter).

Strikingly, the events of Easter parallel the creation account in Genesis. Just as God breathed life into our parents in Eden and gave them authority to care for the world, the resurrected Jesus appears to Mary and the other disciples and grants them spiritual authority to forgive and retain sin (John 20:18-23). Renewal in Christ is an identity with a purpose: to exercise spiritual authority equally, as male and female, just as our parents did in Eden.

Paul offers a theological rationale for women's shared authority, which he explains throughout his epistles but summarizes in Galatians 3:27–29. Our identity in Christ, not our gender, shapes our relationships in the church. Greeks, slaves, and women inherit a new identity not of shame and subjugation but of liberation, dignity, and equality. Paul builds the church beside women teachers, evangelists, prophets, a deacon, and an apostle.

In Christ we are made strong where the old creation had become weak, because the gift is not like the curse (Rom. 5:15). Remade in Jesus, we become equal agents of Christ and partners of reconciliation, serving by giftedness, not by gender. Our identity is not in our gender, but in our union with Christ, made possible through Calvary. May we glory only in the cross.

This column was originally published in the Spring 2014 issue of Mutuality, entitled "Masculinity." If you like what you read, subscribe to Mutuality or become a CBE member.

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