A reader named David writes:
I find myself deeply entrenched in one debate about God and how God created us in God’s image (male and female) and what, if anything, that reveals about God. Some men I have run into believe that manhood is a trait designed by a masculine God and that certain characteristics (ordained by God, in a sense) of manliness are exclusively specific to masculinity. I guess that so their argument goes there is no spectrum of gender, only masculine & feminine and if you fall in between or share some qualities of each than that’s on you and not something Godly. This line of thinking always ends up with chivalrous expectations of manhood and that bad men are either not chivalrous or less than manly (or both and women are to be passive & rescued).
I’ve always contended that God is neither male or female or, in fact, God is both. Though we gender God as “father” and “He”and Jesus is referred to as “He” and “Son of Man” the Holy Spirit is often referred to as having feminine qualities in the Old Testament. Thus, since God is “3 persons in 1” and those 3 persons make up God then how can we be created wholly in God’s image? Are we to be three persons in one or simply have full range person-hood like God?
Not for the first or last time, let me first recommend the many resources on this topic available through the website of Christians for Biblical Equality.
I’m not a theologian. I’ve read theology, talked about theology, studied theology (medieval Franciscan scholasticism was a doctoral field of mine at UCLA), but I’m not a theologian. Others have wrestled with these questions for centuries, and feminist theologians in particular (one notes at this point the passing eight days ago of the important, if controversial, Mary Daly) have offered critical analyses of our reflexive habit of referring to God as male.
Jesus, however, certainly was physiologically male. In his human aspect, he was a man (the early church fathers struggled against those who could not bring themselves to acknowledge that Jesus pooped and peed). And from my standpoint, the maleness of Jesus Christ matters because in his life and ministry and relationships, Jesus himself embodies a full and complete manhood. Traditionalists, desperately seeking biblical support for archaic gender roles that have nothing to do with faith, like to emphasize Jesus as warrior. Jesus chasing the moneychangers out of the temple always gets mentioned by those who promote the “Muscular Christianity” agenda, even though it is only in the last gospel, John, that the story gets embellished to include the use of a whip. (The synoptic gospels don’t mention the weapon at all.)
Jesus got angry, clearly. Jesus also wept publicly, but we rarely hear my traditionalist friends using His example to repudiate the “big boys don’t cry” ethos. Jesus allows Himself to be anointed by a woman, infuriating his disciples who are upset about the cost of the perfumed oil — but perhaps also upset by what seems, to them, like an almost feminine vanity on His part. The examples of Jesus engaging in tender and nurturing behavior far outnumber those in which he behaves as the muscular He-Man of conservative traditionalist teaching.
For me, as a man, it matter that Jesus was a man. When Christ came into the world, the world already knew of women’s capacity to nurture and care for the vulnerable. The rigid gender roles of a broken world meant that empathy, intuition, and compassion were rarely, if ever, associated with men. If Christ had been a woman, come as a servant to heal the world; to insist on the primacy of Love over all else; to die for others — She would have fulfilled an expectation that we have about women’s supposedly innate willingness to serve and sacrifice. The religious authorities expected a proper, muscular king; what sort of messiah behaves as Jesus behaved? What sort of messiah dies on a tree without lifting a finger to fight back? What sort of messiah allows women who aren’t his wives to touch him? (Women were, of course, allowed to touch other women.) The answer is, of course, an unexpected messiah, one who comes in the body of a man to teach all of us of each male’s potential for full, radical humanness.
Many women in the church struggle with Christ’s maleness. Those who have been betrayed and abused and exploited by men find it difficult to believe that a man, be-penised and be-Y-chromosomed as Jesus was, could prove worthy of trust, prove capable of both selflessness and non-sexual intimacy. I understand that reluctance to embrace the male aspect of God, particularly when one has known little that is good from men. At the same time, I think that one of the countless ways in which the story of Jesus is redemptive is in His maleness — by coming in a man’s body, the God-made-flesh offers the world a radically revisionist model for what it means to be a man. In his commitment to non-violence, in his courage, in his capacity to resist formidable temptation, in his willingness to display his own emotion fearlessly but never destructively, he serves as a model for all of us — but in a very real sense, for men in particular.
When Paul writes in Galatians 3:28, “there is no male or female in Christ”, he’s referring to the notion that relationship with God through Jesus is available to all. But there’s another way of reading that passage that I find helpful. Jesus was physiologically a man, but He lived fearlessly unchained by traditional gender roles; he could be both masculine and feminine, and in that sense, he transcended gender categories themselves. For men who outsource their self-control and their own emotional maintenance to mothers and wives, girlfriends and daughters, Jesus’ life — upon which Christians are called to model their own — is a stern rebuke.
I live as a man, in a man’s body, but I refuse to be bound and limited by the straitjacket of culturally-constructed gender roles. In my own imperfect efforts to slip from that straitjacket, I have many wonderful role models, both living and dead. And as a Christian, I have Jesus too.