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Published Date: October 31, 1992

Published Date: October 31, 1992

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Mystical Masculinity: The New Question Facing Women

A few years ago I took a course entitled “Women in Religion” at a state university. The purpose of the course was to survey major world religions with regard to how they valued women. We started with the pagan religions and ended with Judaism and Christianity.

A significant feature of the pagan religions, we noted, was that all their deities had a sex. Most interestingly, the sexual identity of these gods and goddesses was not limited to their names or titles, but entered into their strengths and weaknesses and was mocked in their foibles. I could not help thinking how superior the Christian religion was.

So when class discussion arrived at Judaism, I was unprepared for the professor’s matter-of-fact statement that the Judeo-Christian deity was male. I protested, offering the explanation mat I had been taught since childhood: God is spirit; Gad’s being called “he” is simply a necessity of human language — only abstractions are called “it.” The name “Father” is meant to communicate specific attributes of God and describes our relationship to him —not his sex.

My explanation fell on the ears of the professor as so much technical “inspeak.” She could hardly bear to hear me out. When I turned to my classmates for support, I found complete agreement with the professor. The Judeo-Christian deity was male.

I dropped my campaign at that point because the purpose of the class was to survey the position of women in various religions — not debate Christian theology. Furthermore, since most of the participants were either Jewish or Christian, their perception of their own religion was as valid as mine.

Culture vs. Revelation

Our culture is filled with illusions to God’s maleness. I couldn’t help but be familiar with the idea. Popular references to God most often imply a certain masculinity, but I had always interpreted them as playful anthropomorphisms, endearments meant to humanize God just enough so people can speak comfortably yet respectfully about him in secular circles. We all know who The Man Upstairs is meant to be.

Sylvia’s prayer in Children’s Letters to God is always good for a smile: “Dear God, Are boys better than girls? I know you are one, but try to be fair.” There is a genuineness to Sylvia’s prayer that forces the reader to mentally answer her. I had always supplied her with a bemused but tender parent gently explaining that God was neither male nor female. Now I had cause to doubt the commonality of my response.

My own girlhood had been free of any concern about God having a sex, as far as I can recall. My parents believed in the dignity of children and never allowed childish ideas to go uncorrected. God, from my earliest understanding, was Spirit. Any attempt to clothe him with sexuality was the utmost profanity.

“But God is our Father,” I can imagine some readers bursting to say at this point; and truly he is. Jesus himself taught us to pray, “Our Father who art in heaven.” The privilege of calling God “Father” was granted to believers in the New Testament, and since then the father/child relationship has been a fundamental expression of the relationship between God and believers.

But even though God is truly our Father, we cannot move immediately from that fact to conclusions about God and masculinity. It remains for Scripture to define what God’s Fatherhood does and does not mean.

The Fatherhood of God

The Scriptures are consistent, from beginning to end, in teaching that God is not our Father in any physical sense. Pagan myths understood the world and its inhabitants as products of a climactic act between the sexual forces at work in the universe. In Genesis, however, we learn that we are created, not procreated. We are not products of God’s body nor are we extensions of his substance. The world and its inhabitants were created from nothing by an act of God’s will. He is our creator, not our progenitor.

Calling God “Father” is the privilege of believers alone. One of the many places this is taught in Scripture is the bitter confrontation between Jesus and the unbelieving Jews of John 8:31-58. The Jews said, “The only Father we have is God himself.” Jesus’ answer is a sober rebuke. “If God were your Father, you would love me … you belong to your father the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desire.” In John 1:12-13 we read, “Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to be called children of God — children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God” (NTV).

This father/child relationship that we enjoy with God is clearly removed from the physical. That is not to say that the relationship is less real or less important because of that fact; the Fatherhood of God simply does not need any of the physical attributes of males to accomplish it. In fact, the Fatherhood of God is quite frequently described with the maternal imagery of giving birth (i.e., born of God or born of the Spirit) rather than the paternal description begotten of God.

Neither do the behavioral attributes of males (commonly called masculinity) characterize the Fatherhood of God.

What does God as Father do for his children? He gives an inheritance. “And since you are a son, God has also made you an heir” (Galatians 4:7). In patriarchal society only males had ownership of property, so inheritance in biblical times was presented in terms of the father/ son relationship. But ownership of property is not a natural trait of males; it is a matter of custom. Today, the ownership of property is no more masculine than it is feminine.

Interestingly, the fact that in Bible times it was usually only sons who received inheritances may be why the Holy Spirit led writers to use the phrase “sons of God” to describe women believers. If God had said, “You will be my sons and daughters”, a claim could be made that women receive less from God — since they were only daughters and as such would have fewer rights under the patriarchal laws of inheritance in effect in Bible times. Instead, Scripture declares, “You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus … neither male nor female. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed and heir according to the promise” (Galatians 3:26-29).

What else does God our Father do for us, and is it specifically masculine? He provides us with tender care. Just as our Heavenly Father watches over the birds of the air and feeds them, so he cares for us (Matthew 6:25-34). While it is the custom in our culture to associate nurture with a mother’s work and to assign fathers a more removed responsibility such as looking out for the family’s “big picture,” God’s fatherhood is demonstrated by his watchful attention to our most intimate needs. Some might call this feminine.

Because God is our Father, we have uninhibited intimacy with him. Years ago the nation was charmed by pictures of Caroline Kennedy playing in the oval office and holding the President’s hand while he walked with dignitaries. She could intrude on the most auspicious occasions and call that important man “Daddy.” This is the intimacy that God is offering to believer, and intimacy is not masculine — it is simply personal.

Biblical feminist Mary Hayter, in The New Eve in Christ, offers the following insight: “When the biblical images of God as Father, bridegroom and other masculine metaphors are rightly interpreted, it is clear that there is nothing ‘sexist’ about them. Just as the Kingdom of God does not look like a mustard seed nor taste like yeast but acts like both, so the metaphor of God’s Fatherhood does not teach a ‘natural’ relationship between a divine male progenitor and his offspring. When Israel is called God’s son or his unfaithful wife, these parables do not imply that the character of God is predominately masculine…. They are expressions of Yahweh’s infinite love for his chosen people, expressed in terms of a patriarchal society.”1

Popular Opinion

But let’s return to the college classroom. While the discussion was by no means the first time I had heard an assertion of God’s maleness, it was the first time I heard educated adults, serious about their beliefs, say God was male, and it finally caught my attention; it caused me to wonder what was being taught in churches other than my own.

My first inclination had been to dismiss the professor and her class as a special case. After all, hadn’t some feminists been telling women for years that Christianity was a male dominated religion and that the Bible is written from a male perspective, with male assumptions about God? This professor and her students were heavily into secular feminism, and I attributed their position to hostile radical feminist disinformation.

But once sensitized to the issue, I began to listen and read with fresh attention. I found that far from being unanimous, opinions on God and sexuality fall into three categories. The first, found largely among the unchurched, is that God is male — without any qualification. This was the opinion I met in that college classroom.

Mainstream Christian Opinion

The second category of opinion holds that God, being Spirit, is neither male nor female. Persons of this persuasion are not particularly vocal on the subject and react with some surprise when the matter is raised, almost as if to say, “Where on earth are you coming from?” These people express themselves confidently because their position is backed by centuries of Christian theology. The idea of God having a sex is totally absent from the creeds of virtually all Christian denominations.

That is not to say that there have never been orthodox Christian groups in cultures particularly vulnerable to masculine imagery where a feeling that God was male might surface and find expression, sometimes on a level not entirely conscious and far from explicit. But if pressed to define God as male, even these persons quickly back off.

John Calvin’s statement on biblical anthropomorphisms has been the classic response to any such abuse of biblical metaphors: “For who, even of the meanest capacity, understands not, that God lisps, as it were, with us, just as nurses are accustomed to speak to infants? Wherefore such forms of expression do not clearly explain the nature of God but accommodate the knowledge of him to our narrow capacity; to accomplish which, the Scripture must necessarily descend far below the height of his majesty.”2

Many of us fall into this category. We assume that picturing God as an old man with a beard is simply a childish stage in one’s process of growing up and not worth taking seriously. Since our own concept of God is far above such notions, we assume that the same is true of every adult.

But something has happened to shake complacency on that subject. It is inclusive language. The attempt by radical feminism to get the Christian community to adopt names such as God/dess, Parent, and S/He for God has produced a debate of predictable heat but an entirely unpredicted line of argument. Instead of assuring radical feminists that their perception of God as male has been a misunderstanding of the Christian’s use of the name Father — along with an explanation of biblical metaphors and the limitations of human language — some anti-feminists have expressed profound indignation with inclusive language for the reason that God would lose his masculine identity.

Protest from the ranks of ordinary Christians against inclusive language are particularly revealing in this regard. The following letter to the editor recently appeared in my local newspaper: “The ridiculous question in last Sunday’s Pittsburgh Press (‘God: He, She or It?’) is a question which could have been posed only by an idiot. One need only read the first book of the Old Testament, ‘Genesis’ to know that God was a man. How do I know: The Bible tells me so.”3

Anti-feminist Opinion

Of course, no serious Christian scholar believes that God belongs to the male sex, but there are signs that, to some, the suggestion is not entirely absurd. This position falls into the third category: God may not be male, but he is masculine. For example, Donald Bloesch writes: “God is not man, but, for the most part, he chooses to relate himself to us as masculine.”4

Duncan Lowe, a newly appointed professor at the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh, writes: “The distinct and emphatically male imagery which God uses of himself in Scripture is not to be discounted as mere cultural accommodation but is to be recognized as his free and deliberate self-revelation and therefore properly foundational in our thinking about him and our relationship to him.”5

Lowe’s position is controversial in his denomination, as it would be in most Protestant denominations; but neither is he a lone voice. Quite frequently now, scholarly speculations of evangelical theologians engaged in anti-feminist debate assert a special association between God and maleness.

For instance, J. I. Packer uses the fact that the Incarnation took place in a male body to say that women are less appropriate than men to image the life and work of Christ. “That one male is best represented by another male is a matter of common sense; that Jesus’ maleness is basic to his role as our incarnate Savior is a matter of biblical revelation.”6

The idea of there being a link between masculinity and the role of Christ has found expression for centuries in the Anglo-Catholic tradition. From an Orthodox Church study regarding the community of men and women in the church we have the following statement: “Jesus’ holiness is not only human; it is masculine as well.”7 The masculine nature of Christ has been the theological argument behind the exclusion of women from the priesthood in the Orthodox and Catholic Churches. Now this idea is being seriously advanced by persons of stature in the evangelical Protestant community. Therefore, it is not only proper but necessary that we strive for a precise understanding of what is meant by this claim and what it implies about the nature of God and the place of women.

From where has this idea come — and where will it take us? Will it become a fundamental doctrine of Christianity?

The Historic Christian Position

Mainstream Christian teaching has been fairly clear on the issue of God and sexuality, forbidding the slightest association between God and the sexual nature of his creatures. We will let the venerable Westminster Confession of Faith (11:1) typify the position of most creeds on the matter. It states: “There is but one only, living and true God: who is infinite in being and perfection, a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions….” As Carl F.H. Henry wrote in God, Revelation, and Authority:

Masculine and feminine elements are excluded from both the Old Testament and New Testament doctrine of deity. The God of the Bible is a sexless God. When Scripture speaks of God as ‘he’ the pronoun is primarily personal (generic) rather than masculine (specific); it emphasizes God’s personality — and in turn, that of the Father, Son and Spirit as trinitarian distinctions — in contrast to impersonal entities. Walter Brueggemann stresses that biblical religion is quite disinterested in any discussion of God’s sexuality (masculine or feminine) or God’s asexuality, but freely uses whatever images are appropriate to advance its central interest in God’s personal covenant-relationships with Israel (“Israel’s Social Criticism and Yahweh’s Sexuality,” pp. 739-772). The question of the defense of God’s masculinity, or of the promotion of his femininity, is therefore to be detached from any discussion of his divine sexuality. Scripture does not depict God either as ontologically masculine or feminine. The God of the Bible is pure spirit, incorporeal. The masculine or feminine imagery that the Bible employs of deity carries no androgynous ontological connotation, nor does it imply that God in some or most respects is a male deity and in other respects, a female deity, The irreverent references to “the Man Upstairs” have no precise ontological intention; such profane usage in fact usually has in view only a phantom deity. (emphasis mine)8

Roman Catholicism has also been adamant in its formal doctrine that God is not male; it has been less clear about his masculinity. For example, Cardinal John J. O’Connor of New York, who in his 1991 Father’s Day sermon reminded his listeners that God must be described only with male terminology, had to make a public clarification when feminists charged him with saying that God was a man. God is not male, O’Connor said, that idea would violate church teaching, But his explanation leaves the ordinary person wondering just exactly what he meant.9

A similar haziness regarding God and sexuality is entering evangelical Protestantism, and the notion that God is indeed masculine has gained a powerful following at the grassroots level.

No one person can be held as totally responsible for trends in the widely diverse community that calls itself evangelical, but within evangelical Protestantism C.S. Lewis can be credited with popularizing the idea that God is masculine. The special relationship between God and the Creation is a constant theme in Lewis’ writings. Lewis sees God and the Creation as being bound together in a male/female relationship. The entire universe, in fact, is a swirl of masculine and feminine forces all demonstrating great and unutterable truths. Male and female human beings are commissioned by God to give utterance to the unutterable by living in a masculine and feminine manner. In God In The Dock, Lewis writes: “One of the ends for which sex was created was to symbolize to us the hidden things of God.”10 In That Hideous Strength he writes that sex is merely the adaptation to created life of the larger truth of gender.

Once the reader is alert to the issue, it takes only a quick re-reading of Lewis’ works to find a solid vein of teaching on the subject. It pervades them and, while not always explicitly defended, is the implicit assumption behind many of his conclusions. For example, when arguing against women priests Lewis makes this assertion, “Only one wearing the masculine uniform can represent the Lord to the Church.”11 At first reading a person would simply absorb the idea that Lewis opposes women priests. It takes a second reading to catch his underlying assumption that God is masculine.

And now, it is being expressed in the pews. A friend of mine was dismayed to receive a letter from a woman in her church, a close friend in fact, with whom she had shared her faith and trials over the years. In this letter my friend was berated for her lack of submission to God. So strongly worded was the rebuke that it could have been interpreted as questioning my friend’s faith. What had caused this letter? It seems that their adult Sunday School class had been discussing how people visualize God. One class member had stated that he pictured God sitting on a throne. My friend had asked, “What color is she?” This was not a class of newborn Christians, but a mature group that had searched the Scriptures for years together, a class where sophisticated discussion was possible and mutual trust a byword. “How could she,” my friend later asked me in deep distress, “not understand that I was prodding the discussion so we reached the point that God is Spirit, not defined or limited by a physical body?”

Experiences such as this can stun unsuspecting Christians who hold traditional views about God. We learn the need to be cautious when the subject touches on sexuality and God, because what was once treated as an immature but tolerable view of God is now gaining ground and finding expression among the more sophisticated.

A God of Both Sexes?

An important development in the debate with radical feminism has been an attempt by some evangelicals to rectify some of the obvious inequities that emerge when one envisions God as exclusively masculine, and so a feminine principle has been added by some anti-feminists to God’s “masculine” image. For instance, Elisabeth Elliot sees God the Father as masculine and God the Son as feminine.12

Donald Bloesch also adds femininity to God: “The masculine symbolism for the divine in the Bible is not sufficient, however, without the corresponding feminine symbolism that completes the divine activity.”13 But he sees it differently than Elliot does. Bloesch claims that it is not correct to assign each person of the Trinity a single sexual role, i.e., exclusively masculine or exclusively feminine, but would rather we understand each member of the Trinity as combining masculinity and femininity within his personality. For example, he writes, “I believe that Christ in his role as Wisdom who nurtures and guides the people of God can be thought of as feminine, but Christ in his role as Lord and Savior of the world, Christ in his inseparable relationship to Jesus, must always be envisaged as masculine.”14

At first glance it may seem that these American evangelicals are considering an egalitarian motif for God, that he is both masculine and feminine. But as with the Anglo-Catholic approach to gender, if God does possess both masculine and feminine traits, it is still the masculine that remains the vital force. As Bloesch argues, “Indeed, masculine images predominate for all three persons of the Trinity.”15

Having given the dominant role to the masculine, Bloesch attempts to equalize the situation for women by offering the mystical Catholic solution — Mary. Bloesch says that Mary is the “essence of femininity in the biblical sense: fidelity, servanthood, meekness.”16

Here in all fairness we must point out that most Christians who use the word “masculine” with respect to God generally do so only after carefully disassociating masculinity from biological maleness. Vernard Eller in The Language of Canaan and the Grammar of Feminism makes this quite plain: “We are replacing the word male with masculine so that we can speak of God’s gender without ascribing to him anything like physical, biological sexuality.”17

Technically speaking, a case can be made for distinguishing gender from sex,because gender at one time meant nothing more than a grammatical classification. (In many languages gender is assigned to broad groups with only token regard to their actual biological roles.) Even so, this argument is weak because in English gender is assigned strictly on the basis of biological sexual classification, and English is the language in which this discussion about the nature of God is being conducted. Furthermore, in Modern English the word gender has moved from the bookish vocabulary of grammarians into popular speech as a synonym for sex, the latter having gained too much association with frank sexual activity to be comfortably used in polite situations. Gender is, in fact, rapidly replacingsex. We now discuss “gender relations,” items are “gender specific,” and we cannot “discriminate on the basis of gender.” Modern dictionaries are beginning to catch up with this usage; anyone insisting on anything more than the slightest nuance between gender and sex is insisting on something that no longer exists.

The supposed bright line between male and masculine is equally problematic. The case for God being masculine without being male car. be fleetingly grasped on an intellectual level, but cannot be sustained in rigorous discussion. The Anglican conservation E.L. Mascall is a good example. He writes, “The application of masculine terms to God does not imply that he has male sex organs or indeed any physical organs at all.” Yet after taking pains to assert that God does not have sexual organs, Mascall says, “…the notion of maleness is appropriate to God in a way that the notion of femaleness is not.”18 But if God is not male, what does Mascall mean by God’s “maleness”?

Even the most careful theological writing breaks down into confusion over masculinity and maleness, because theologians are attempting something that cannot be done — speaking of masculinity in some disembodied sense. No matter how perfectly the distinction between masculinity and male might possibly be maintained, the root question remains: Why bother talking about masculinity at all if it is not going to be tied, in the end, to persons with male bodies?

Women and Masculinity

When I was young, one of my schoolmates had a grandmother who dressed in men’s clothing. Wandering was another of her eccentricities so she was a frequent sight around town and in our school building. Coming in from recess, it was not unusual for us to catch a glimpse of her in the hallway waiting to have a word with her grandson. She was considered harmless, and he was allowed to talk quietly with her until she left, satisfied to have accomplished whatever was on her mind. We all felt extremely embarrassed for our friend’s sake. It was not her dropping by that seemed so strange to us, but her hat, her suit, her tie, and her wing tip shoes. This grandmother was masculine. The inappropriateness of her behavior was distressing to all.

Indeed, that is the problem for women. For if God is to be masculine, or, as some say, more masculine than feminine, then there are attributes of God that men are to image but would be inappropriate if found in women. Women are left to find their feminine model in the distaff side of God’s nature (whatever that may mean) or look to Mary.

Even if the significance attributed to God’s “gender” is limited merely to the Incarnation, we are still treading on treacherous ground. As Rebecca Ann Martin says, once we teach that men represent Christ better simply because they are male, we are relegating all women to a place of ontological inferiority. If women are less like Christ than men are, they are less than men. They are inferior in essence, not just function.19

As Myron Augsburger points out, “The significance of the Incarnation was that God became human, not that God entered the masculine wing of humanity”20 (John 1:14,1 Corinthians 15:45-49; I Timothy 2:5). Jesus always referred to himself as anthropos(human), the generic word inclusive of both sexes —never as aner (male). Even his messianic title. Son of Man (anthropos), is properly translated Son of Humankind or Mankind.

Dividing the Image: By Whose Authority?

We have reached the point where it is necessary to examine what these authors mean by masculinity and femininity. Bloesch tells us, “The masculine refers to the movement of God going out of himself to other members of the Trinity and to the world. Here we see creativeness, initiative, and aggressiveness. The feminine refers to the movement of God returning to himself in the role of the Spirit embodied in the church. Here we see receptivity, openness, spontaneity, intuitiveness.”21 Elsewhere Bloesch says, “The essence of femininity in the biblical sense is fidelity, servanthood, meekness.”22

To label servanthood and meekness as feminine spiritual qualities is certainly a convenience for men, but is it biblical? And what about fidelity? Is it not insulting to men to label that a woman’s trait, implying men have difficulty with faithfulness?

Elliot sees masculinity as possessing initiative. In Let Me Be A Woman she warns women not to be like Eve who wanted to be “like God — and she took the initiative.”23 Femininity for Elliot is submission. She commends to women the submission of Mary as the “archetype” of truly feminine behavior “for it is the nature of women to submit.”24

If, on the basis of Mary’s believing response to the angel’s announcement, we are to make submission the province of women, then what do we do with Isaiah’s “Here am I. Send me”? Was he feminine? Lewis claims that we are all feminine in relation to God, but that is not a sufficient reply. By whose rules is any behavior to be labeled “feminine” if God requires such behavior of all human beings?

Karl Barth has had some influence on the growing acceptability of the idea that human sexuality is a reflection of God’s nature. Barth interpreted Genesis 1:27 as teaching that God himself is the prototype of human sexuality (and community) because of the statement that “male and female” are in his image.25 His interpretation evolves, in the hands of others, into the idea that human sexuality is a division of God’s image into two halves: masculine and feminine.

Ann Atkins, in Split Image, is a good example of this thinking. She believes that men image one half of God’s attributes and women are created to complement men with a corresponding set of attributes. For example, men are to image God’s justice while women image God’s mercy; as men and women unite in marriage, or work, they restore God’s split image into the perfect, complete image of God.

There are problems with this interpretation. Traditional Christian theology has always understood the mention of “male and female” in Genesis 1:27 as simply a declaration that both sexes are created in God’s image. The ultimate teaching on the image of God comes in the New Testament, and there is no division of that image along the lines of sexuality. Indeed, there is no division of that image at all. Jesus alone, without a female partner, is the complete (perfect) image of God, and the only image to which we, men and women, are to be conformed (II Corinthians 3:18, 4:10; Romans 8:29; Galatians 4:19).

The Long Arm of Paganism

Finally, there is a troubling appeal to pagan thought by many who talk of sexuality and God. Thomas Howard in his influential article, “A Note from Antiquity on the Question of Women’s Ordination,” frankly acknowledges that speculation about God’s sexuality is tenuous if the argument is based on Scripture alone. So he invites Christians to consider the pagan myths and their abundant use of sexual imagery. He then makes the disturbing claim that “a Christian would tend to attach some weight to this.”26

Lewis has gained a reputation for his skillful use of mythological motifs to express Christian thought, but his introduction of pagan sexual motifs brings questionable results. InThe Four Loves he says: “In the act of love we are not merely ourselves. We are also representatives…. In us all the masculinity and femininity of the world, all that is assailant and responsive, are momentarily focused. The man does play the Sky-Father and the woman the Earth-Mother; he does play the Form, and she the Matter.”27 That Hideous Strengthconcludes with its character paired off in celebratory sexual embrace.

Pointing out these pagan undertones is not a “trivial pursuit” on my part, but identifying a problem that lies at the root of the discussion. Clear and unequivocal support for a sexual nature for God, metaphorically or otherwise, cannot be found in Scripture. On the other hand, a rich mine of pagan lore, replete with sexual imagery and sexual dynamics, awaits anyone wanting to find support for the idea.

We see exactly this kind of appeal to pagan sexual concepts illustrated in a quotation from Atkins: “Earth may be seen as feminine and sky as masculine; or the moon as a woman and the sun as a man. We can perhaps understand this better by borrowing from the notion of the yin and yang…. As we shall see, there is a suggestion that God has made differences, which we call feminine and masculine as the Chinese call them yin and yang, but which are far larger than mere differences between a woman and a man. It is as if God has made principles of femininity and masculinity to express different things about himself.”28 Elliot, inLet Me Be A Woman, also appeals to the pagan yin and yang to support her masculine/feminine argument.29

Traditionally, the Bible has been interpreted as making a clean break with paganism on both sexuality and God. In his commentary on Genesis, Nahum Sarna explains, “Paganism was unable to conceive of any primal creative force other than in terms of sex…. The sex element existed before the cosmos came into being and all the gods were themselves creatures of sex. On the other hand, the Creator in Genesis is uniquely without any female counterpart and the very association of sex with God is utterly alien to the religion of the Bible.”30

Traditional Christian theology has held that sex belongs to the created realm along with other aspects, needs, and limitations of our creaturehood such as food, sleep, and time. These are all “very good” and created for our enjoyment but are not a part of God’s image. Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen says, “Although Christians have often forgotten it, our bodily limits — including our maleness and our femaleness — were given us as the media in which to develop the gift of God’s image.”31

Susan Foh asks, “Who is to say what our culture defines as masculine or feminine is ultimately or meta-physically masculine or feminine?” And again, “The Bible does not define Christian men and Christian women but Christian persons. The goal for Christians, men and women, is conformity to the image of Christ (Ephesians 4:13), which is not sex-specific; both men and women can be equally conformed to Christ’s image.”32 Neither sex is encouraged to become gifted in a particular virtue because of a natural disposition nor excused from any virtue because of a natural weakness. Each person, regardless of sex, is commanded to pursue all aspects of holiness.

The Question

I am reminded of an incident in the Sunday school class taught by my niece and her husband. As they were preparing to act out the day’s Bible story, there was general good-natured confusion while the children claimed their favorite character. The roles were awarded without regard to sex since the characters in this story were all men and the class was evenly divided between boys and girls. So when Jesus was announced it was no surprise when a girl asked to play his part. Immediately a boy called out, “You can’t be Jesus —you’re a GIRL!” Before the teachers could intervene the girl shot back, “A girl can be Jesus, a girl can be Jesus!” She wasn’t exactly crying but her rising voice managed to convey such emotion that the noisy room fell silent and all eyes focused on her.

This little girl and her adversary are not fictional characters dreamed up for illustration, but real children who for one moment crystallize a profound theological debate going on in the church. Consider for one moment: If you had been the teacher, would you have had any hesitation in awarding the role of Jesus to that little girl?


  1. Mary Hayter, The New Eve in Christ (London: Latimer Trend & Co, 1987), pp. 33-34. Her final sentence is a quotation from A. Dumas, “Biblical Anthropology and the Participation of Women in the Ministry of the Church”, Concerning the Ordination of Women, p. 23.)
  2. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, I, xiii, 1.
  3. Pittsburgh Press, Letters to the Editor, July 7,1991.
  4. Donald Bloesch, Battle for the Trinity (Ann Arbor, Michigan: Vine Books, 1985) p.33.
  5. Duncan Lowe, Unpublished Special Report to Atlantic Presbytery, Reformed Presbyterian Church North America, March 4,1989, p. 3.
  6. J.I. Packer, “Let’s Stop Making Women Presbyters,” Christianity Today, February 11,1991.
  7. Women & Men in the Church (Syosset, New York: Orthodox Church in America, Department of Religious Education, 1980), p. 23.
  8. Carl F.H. Henry, God, Revelation, and Authority, Volume V: God Who Stands and Stays(Waco, Texas: Word Book, 1962), p. 159-160.
  9. Cardinal J. O’Connor as quoted in the Philadelphia Inquirer, June 30, 1991.
  10. C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1970), p. 238.
  11. Ibid, p. 239.
  12. Elisabeth Elliot, Let Me Be A Woman (Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale House, 1982), p. 60.
  13. Donald Bloesch, The Battle far the Trinity (Ann Arbor, Michigan: Vine Books, 1985), p. 37.
  14. Ibid., p. 47.
  15. Donald Bloesch, Is the Bible Sexist? (Crossway Books: Winchester, Illinois, 1982), p. 69.
  16. Ibid, p. 38.
  17. Vernard Eller, The Language of Canaan and the Grammar of Feminism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982), p. 37.
  18. E.L. Mascall, Whatever Happened to the Human Mind? (London, 1980), pp. 144,149.
  19. Rebecca Anne Martin, A Response to “Let’s Stop Making Women Presbyters,” by J. I.Packer (Unpublished Manuscript).
  20. In personal communication.
  21. Donald Bloesch, The Battle for the Bible, p. 37.
  22. Ibid, p. 38.
  23. Elisabeth Elliot, Let Me Be A Woman (Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale Books, 1982), p. 24.
  24. Ibid, p. 64.
  25. See G. C. Berkouwer, The Image of God (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1962),pp. 72-74, for a discussion that challenges Barth’s interpretation of Genesis 1:27. He labels Barth’s opinion as “constructive interpretation” which leads to ambiguities.
  26. Thomas Howard, A Note From Antiquity on the Question of Women’s Ordination,Churchman: Journal of Anglican Theology, Vol. 92, No. 4,1978, p. 323.
  27. CS. Lewis, The Four Loves (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1960), p. 119.
  28. Atkins, op. cit., p. 29.
  29. Elliot, op. cit., p. 59-60.
  30. Nathan M. Sarna, Understanding Genesis: The Heritage of Biblical Israel (New York: Schocken Books, 1966), pp. 12-13.
  31. Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen, Gender and Grace (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1990), p. 76.
  32. Susan Foh, Women and the Word of God (Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1979), pp. 175,176.