Though Hilary was only eight years old, she was old enough to notice the “masculine feel” of her church. As the congregation ended their prayers with an “Amen,” Hilary blurted out “All men!” A friend seated next to her asked “Why did you say all men?” She said, “Well, look at them,” pointing to the church leaders. “They are all men!”
For Hilary, the face of Christian leadership was male. Her assertion is based on a child’s limited experience, but those with greater learning have recently raised their voices for the “all men” quality which they believe is both intrinsic to Christian faith and an attribute within the Godhead. How do they arrive at this conclusion?
Because, they say, Jesus, as male, invited his followers to call God “Father”; because the twelve disciples were all male; and because a large number of male leaders are cited in Scripture. Based on this evidence can we assume there is something about God’s nature that is, in essence, masculine? Should we, like Hilary, pronounce an “All men” quality of God?
While some Christians today suggest that God’s being is somehow masculine, the early Christians did not believe that Christ’s gender imposed a masculine quality onto the Godhead. Instead, they emphasized several themes.
First, that God is spirit; second, that Jesus’ two natures—fully human and fully divine—are never comingled or confused; and third, that despite the gender of Jesus, Christ’s sacrifice on Calvary atones for both males and females.
Furthermore, the early church often used gendered metaphors for God not to create God in our image, but to grasp specific qualities about God. For example, feminine metaphors for God helped the church understand God’s immanence, or closeness, to humanity, whereas masculine metaphors were used to emphasize God’s transcendence—that God is beyond the created world and our ability to perceive God. Though willing to speak of God using gendered metaphors, the early church was clear on one thing: gender is part of the created world, whereas the one and true God is spirit (John 4:24), as Jerome (340-2 – 420 A.D.) insisted. But Jerome was not alone in this understanding.
Ambrose (340-397 A.D.), bishop of Milan, said though Jesus was male, gender was not attributed to the divine nature but to the human nature of Christ. Ambrose used feminine metaphors of womb and breast to emphasize God’s nurture and closeness to us. The bishop also spoke of Christ coming from the “womb,” or substance of God, to emphasize Christ’s divine nature. Similarly, Christ was born of Mary and thus also shares our human substance. Christ is therefore fully human and fully divine.
Augustine (354–430 A.D.), Ambrose’s student, picks up this discussion to stress that Christ, though male, represents both males and females. He said that God's “temporal plan ennobled each sex, both male and female. By possessing a male nature and being born of a woman, Jesus further showed by this plan that God has concern not only for the sex He represented but also for the one through which He took upon Himself our nature.”
These few examples show that the early church did not impose Christ’s gender onto the Godhead because God is spirit and Scripture warns against the worship of earthly images (Exodus 20:4). Because the early Christians viewed Christ’s sacrifice as representative of all people, Christ’s gender was not viewed as essential. The point of the incarnation was that Christ represents your flesh and mine. Perhaps for this reason, Christ’s self-appointed name was most frequently Son of Man (anthropos—humankind) not Son of Male (aner). Gendered deities were part of the Greek dualistic system, which Jesus, as your flesh and mine, stands against. So let us say “Amen,” rather than “All Men!”