Are Women Human? 2 (RJS)


Last Thursday (see here) I started a short series of posts focused on Dorothy Sayers’ essays published in the volume Are Women Human?. The first essay in this volume is an address given to a women’s society in 1938.  Sayers starts the essay by relating her invitation to speak to the group and noting that she did not consider herself a feminist and did not wish to be identified with feminism.  She did, however, think that “a woman is as good as a man”, but goes on to explain what she means by this phrase:

What, I feel, we ought to mean is something so obvious that it is apt to escape attention altogether, viz: not that every woman is, in virtue of her sex, as strong, clever, artistic, level-headed, industrious,and so forth as any man that can be mentioned; but, that a woman is just as much an ordinary human being as a man, with the same individual preferences, and with just as much right to the tastes and preferences of an individual.  What is repugnant to every human being is to be reckoned always as a member of a class and not as an individual. (19)

Classifications and generalizations can be useful – Sayers does not deny this – women tend to be smaller, Swedes tend to be blond … we can go beyond this to personality traits and abilities. But  such classifications do not define any individual human, male or female,

What does it mean to affirm (for those of us who do) that all men and women are created equal in the image of God? If you don’t, why don’t you?

This question has serious consequences for how we look at many issues of our day, including gender, race, culture, and ethnicity.  Equality does not mean homogeneity – it really means that we all are equally valuable unique individuals and should have equal opportunity to be human. Our humanity is not defined by subdivision and classification.

Sayers continues – and remember here that she was among the first women to obtain a degree at Oxford and fought these battles her entire life:

When the pioneers of university training for women demanded that women should be admitted to the universities, the cry went up at once: “Why should women want to know about Aristotle?” The answer is NOT that all women would be better for knowing about Aristotle – …but simply:”What women want as a class is irrelevant. I want to know about Aristotle. It is true that most women care nothing about him, and a great many male undergraduates turn pale and faint at the thought of him – but I, eccentric individual that I am, do want to know about Aristotle, and I submit that there is nothing in my shape or bodily functions which need prevent my knowing about him.” (20-21)

Which brings us back to this question of what jobs, if any, are women’s jobs. Few people would go so far as to say that all women are well fitted for all men’s jobs. When people do say this, it is particularly exasperating. … What we ask is to be human individuals, however peculiar or unexpected. It is no good saying: “You are a little girl and therefore you ought to like dolls”; if the answer is, “But I don’t,” there is no more to be said. (p. 29)

Classification is constraint – when pushed beyond the immediate purpose it is demeaning, destructive, and counterproductive.  Sayers gives the example of girls and dolls – but we can turn this around as well to say “You are a man and therefore you like football.” Well, the generality is of no consequence if you don’t (and perhaps others can give better examples). This is a real problem in much of the Christian pop literature for men and women as well … the generalizations may well be true, as generalizations,  but for those who don’t fit they are worthless (or worse).

A couple more quotes – and then an observation and a question…

A difference of age is as fundamental as a difference of sex; and so is a difference of nationality. All categories, if they are insisted upon beyond the immediate purpose which they serve, breed class arrogance and disruption in the state, and that is why they are dangerous. (p. 34)

To oppose one class perpetually to another – young against old, manual labour against brain-worker, rich against poor, woman against man – is to split the foundations of the State; and if the cleavage runs too deep, there remains no remedy but force and dictatorship. (p. 36)

Things are changing. Within our society at large there is movement in the right direction – far from uniform, far from perfect – on many of these issues. We may not all agree that the direction is “right” on gender issues – but I think we all agree that the direction is “right” when it comes to race and ethnicity. Scot rails against the rampant individualism of our culture (and I agree with many of the points) but there are aspects of individualism that are “good” – particularly those that affirm all others as equally human individuals.

What are the ramifications of this for the church?  In the Church, as in the State  categories, if taken beyond the immediate purpose, breed arrogance and lead to some form of “dictatorship”. I received an email after the first post in this series that really made the point that I intended (and still intend) to make today. I quote a part –

Its not just women at issue here, its all people. The question becomes do we believe all people are human, each person made by God and worthy of respect and dignity. Once we begin thinking with Sayers its not just women who we see differently but everyone we meet.

There are those on the right and the left who will resist this line of thinking. Once we take this question seriously that means I can’t pigeon hole people as white or black, native or immigrant, generation x or y, rich or poor, red state or blue state. As a pastor I must take the time to know the people I serve and lead, to take their humanity seriously. That’s why I have resisted defining our ministry as a “Generation Y” ministry or an “emerging church” ministry. Our students deserve better than “you are 20 so you must think  . . . . “

This is, I think, where the quote last week of Sayers reflecting on Jesus and his approach to women really comes into play.  As I reflect on the gospels, Jesus treated everyone as a human individual; men and women, tax collectors and sinners, Samaritans and Pharisees, the rich young ruler and the poor blind beggar. This has profound ramifications for our church – ones that we must take seriously on all levels – in the very core of our being as Christ followers.

OK, I’ve had my say – and this brings us back to the question of the day. What do you think?

What does it mean to affirm that all men and women are created equal in the image of God? What does it mean to claim that we complement each other as parts of the body of Christ?

What does this mean for the church?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail [at]

"I was very upset about Rick Patrick's horrible post. He seems to have done a ..."

Thank You Rod Dreher, Shame On ..."
"Steve, Scot hasn’t done a very brief overview of the whole issue that i have ..."

Great Cover To Blue Parakeet 2
"DaisyFlower Do egalitarians assume *their* interpretation of the Bible is fallible? If so, do they ..."

What Women Want (Leslie Leyland Fields)
"ct,"In our household, we tend to dismiss any, and all allegation that are alleged to ..."

Thank You Rod Dreher, Shame On ..."

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • angusj

    “What does it mean to affirm that all men and women are created equal in the image of God?”
    That in God’s eyes we are equally loved and equally valued as his children. There is no “first born son” (apart from Jesus) who gets a greater share of the inheritance.
    “What does it mean to claim that we complement each other as parts of the body of Christ?”
    We all have different gifts and abilities for the mutual benefit of the body, Christ’s church, and everyone is important to the body. (see Rom 12:3-6)
    “What does this mean for the church?”
    If God has given us gifts and abilities, it would be wrong not to use them. Likewise, it would be wrong to discourage others from using any or all their gifts and abilities.

  • RJS

    Yes … but we have a church with a huge cottage industry that:
    (1) defines appropriateness for male and female as separable groups as though all traits are first masculine or feminine – not that most are in fact human, with a continuum for both male and female.
    (2) categorizes by age and divides rather than unites the church – in the caricature it derides the youth straying from the foundations and/or the old fogies unwilling to change and blind to faults.
    Why should anyone outside of the church actually want to enter in?

  • Diane Reynolds

    Paradoxically, I believe we would have less of the destructive, rampant individualism in church (and society) if we treated people as individuals, not groups or classes that are assigned labels. We moved away from corporate decision making and subordinating of the individual to the group when it became apparent that not all people were treated as having equal worth. When people were put into boxes by the group because they were black–a priori “too childlike” to lead–or women–a priori “too childlike to lead” or “naturally maternal and thus Sunday School teachers”–that opened up, rightly, a rejection of the group which imposed an arbitrary and destructive role on an individual based on skin color or gender. Until we are able to see past the labels and preconceptions–and this includes such insidious devices as dividing people into “natural leaders” and “natural followers” in a church– and see each individual as a person with a unique set of gifts and value THOSE gifts, we are going to be dealing with either rampant individualism or destructive groupthink.

  • joanne

    I agree with the above comment. we are who we are as women, men, humans and children of God. We are brothers and sisters, gifted by the Holy Spirit and in a gift-based system, we may do as the Spirit determines.
    We are capable according to our own particular gifts and wiring not as groups in which all men are one thing and all women another. but according to how God has called, gifted and wired each human being.
    I content that the need for categories limits thinking and limits assumptions and I resist them. I think we are physically and emotionally complementary but none of that means that men are more capable as a group and women less capable as a group.
    I believe in freedom for each person to pursue his or her call and use of gifts without group assumptions about roles, and substance.
    Difference does not mean incapable it only means we might do any given thing differently. or respond to any given situation differently. it does not mean incapable.

  • RJS

    joanne –
    But when we define ways in which male and female “are physically and emotionally complementary” what happens to those who do not fit the generalities?
    I think that as individuals we are all complementary – and that there are general trends that define different ways in which humans are complementary as male and female – most of the “psychological” distinctions are generalizations – absolutely not true for every individual, with a varying set in combination not true for many individuals.(leaving marriage and sex out of the conversation for the moment)

  • Travis Greene

    Can we say “person” and not “individual”? I hate to be so semantic, but I think we avoid a lot of modern intellectual baggage when we talk about things like “the dignity of the person” rather than “the rights of the individual”.
    Other than that, right on. As to the question of what it means that women and men are created equally in the image of God, I think it means more than just that each man or woman is equally in the image of God (though it means that too). It means partly that only with the unity-in-diversity of men and women coming together, in marriage and in friendship, is the image of God truly reflected, since He (for lack of a better pronoun) includes and transcends masculinity and femininity.
    Hence, I believe, we don’t need to have women pastors because women are the same as men (as if men are normative) and therefore we shouldn’t stop them. We need women pastors because women aren’t the same as men in many ways, and we need that voice in leadership and decision making, and I as a man need to be taught by more than just other men.

  • Scott Eaton

    Is it OK to think that men and women are equally human, yet different?
    If so, how do we define those differences?

  • ChrisB

    I wondered if someone would grace up with some nice po-mo claptrap about how the emphasis on individual rights was an unbiblical creation of modernity. Thanks for not disappointing.

  • Pat

    Love this post! As I read Dorothy Sayers, I find a friend in her. I see that I’m not alone in my thinking and that’s comforting. I firmly believe in acknowledging each person for the human created in God’s image that we’re all meant to be and I get so angry when Christians insist upon stereotypes, many of which are quite damaging. I suspect one reason we do this is because labels are convenient. Once I can label someone, I can categorize them and put them in a box and I don’t have to do the difficult work of getting to really know them and their concerns. We tend to like nice, neat little packages. But life is far from being that nice and neat yet we insist upon making it that way even if it does harm to another.

  • Scott, why would we want to define the differences? How would it be helpful?
    Given the amount of oppression women have had to bear historically and currently, perhaps it would be better not to even go near any attempt to define the differences for a couple generations.
    Even then I’m not sure how it would be helpful.

  • Jennifer

    Travis wrote: “only with the unity-in-diversity of men and women coming together, in marriage and in friendship, is the image of God truly reflected.” I think that’s central. Relationality is built into the creation of humanity as male-and-female. There is no being human without being male or female. Stereotypes and over-generalities are unhelpful at best, but I also hate it when well-meaning men (and occasionally women), in trying to relate to me as an individual, seem to be trying to relate to me as some sort of neutered human (or even the same way that they relate to men), rather than as a woman. They end up treating me as not-quite-human, and actually reinforce the notion that to treat me as a *woman* would somehow be to denigrate me. Yikes! I’ve always liked Sayers’ essays, but their title has made me cringe. As a woman, I’m certainly not less than human, but I am also more than “merely” human.

  • Diane Reynolds

    I also don’t know why we want to define differences between men and women. The whole point of this post, as I understand it, is that there’s a wide spectrum of men and a wide spectrum of women. While “childbearing” is the first distinctive that comes to mind when “defining” women in opposition to men, we have to bear in mind that a. a women who lives a normal lifespan will only be capable of childbearing about half her life b. not every women bears a child.
    I also wonder, should we define what’s different, say, about men under 5′ 5″ and men taller than 5′ 5″. We have statistics that show that, in general, CEOs of major corporations tend to be tall … do we extrapolate from that that from the get-go shorter men must accept a different path? The point is that we’re all humans and using a physical characteristic, be it childbearing or height to label or limit a person is not what Jesus did.

  • James

    What does it mean to be made in the image of God? That’s the $64,000 question, isn’t it!
    And if we examine how that question has been answered down through church history, we’ll find quite a lot of variation, from very restrained, to pouring everything that comes into our heads into it. Probably the largest modern push has been to devoid that passage from Genesis of meaning, as a means to attack the bible on the whole.
    While for a long time, people were fairly willing to accept that it meant things like creativity, an appreciation of the asthetic, a longing for the things beyond. With the widespread belief in academia of blind random chance being the root of life, there has been a widespread push to show how we are not made in the image of God, but are just very non-special hairless apes. Afterall, don’t birds sing and dance? Haven’t elephants and dolphins demonstrated a certain sense of aethetic creation? Don’t primates exhibit some sense of the cultic, ability to use tools, and even perhaps altruism?
    This has caused people to pare back what this means, and even question whether it has meaning or not.
    I appeal to the text itself and call for caution of being overly firm in the face of a text that just isn’t answering all the questions we’d ask of it.
    “26 Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”
    27 So God created man in his own image,
    in the image of God he created him;
    male and female he created them.
    28 God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” ” (NIV, Genesis 1)
    Given the surrounding context, I think that the image of Godness must have to do with our regency over God’s creation. Not only is it stated as the immediate antecedent to the idea of creation in his image, it’s repeated twice, a strong indicator.
    What else might it mean? I argue that this text isn’t really interested in answering that, and we get on flimsy ground going away from it.
    I also notice that I find myself much more easily agreeing with Sayers than with many commenters who purpose to support what she’s saying. While she rails against people making distinctions and applying them strictly, allowing for no exception (which I also decry), many here are arguing against making the distinction at all!
    I will take my stand with the word of God. The bible makes distinctions that we are fools to ignore. That some people have turned those distinctions into normative and totalitarian rules is a terrible thing, and a wrong thing, but it does not give us warrant to then turn around and ignore those distinctions. Reading the household codes in Ephesians and Colossians should at the very least give sight that there *are distinctions* between men and women. For that matter, it makes distinctions between young and old.
    At the very least, I think that means we should not seek to say that there are no distinctions. How far to push those, and their normative or typological values, and their limits? GREAT things to talk about. I would urge that the final word on that be found in Galatians 3:28 (There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus)

  • Travis Greene

    You’re welcome.

  • I believe that men and women are created in the image of God. All ar created and look equal in the eyes of God. Yet, the church I believe has persecuted women. Many denominations still today limit what women can and can’t do in their churches. I am a member of a restoration movement church that has limited the authority of women. Yet I do see promising changes ahead. I pray and know ministers and elders who are doing what they can to free women and allow them to use te gifts that God Almighty has given them through His Holy Spirit. It is my prayer and hope that all denominations and believers will see women as equals and allow them to do all they can in every way to make the kingdom difference that God so wants them to do. It shouldn’t be up to man to limit and hinder the differece that women should make in Christ’s Kingdom.

  • Your Name

    RJS… i agree with you did not mean that. i think we are different but not like you assumed.
    i don’t know how differences can be accurately tested or determined because i think some are indeed biological and some are indeed socialized. Some differences also develop relationally in that i change in relation to my life stage and what i am doing. I don’t think gender differences are so set in stone that all women must behave in one way and all men in another. In fact, i think that the anxiety around differences and the necessity of defining them is an attempt to keep women in their place and restrict them from leadership in the church and home.(maybe even work)
    that’s why i choose the word capable instead of equal. I think we need equal opportunity to be who we are as gifts and God determine. I don’t think women are less capable than men a leaders or whatever. I don’t think men are less capable than women as parents. hope that clarifies my thoughts

  • dopderbeck

    I have a bit of a problem with the phrase “created equal in the image of God.” It seems to confuse the “image of God” with the 18th Century notion of “equality.” Now, I happen to believe that in liberal democracies men and women should be treated “equally” under law, which is precisely the liberal democratic ideal, and I also happen to believe that this ideal derives in part from a valid basis in the imago Dei. Thus, when the law discriminates on the basis of gender, age, race, etc., without some compelling justification, this is immoral.
    However, it doesn’t follow that “equality” necessarily is the implication of the common imago Dei in every other sphere of life. Gender issues aside, it’s clear that in God’s oikonomia each individual is not “entitled” to “equal treatment” from God even though each individual is equally valuable as a creation in God’s image. God is free to gift people with different gifts, to assign to people different burdens, responsibilities, and blessings, and even to save or not save as He wills.
    I wish, for example, that God had given me RJS’ talent for mathematics, but He didn’t. This is neither merely a metaphysically random result of swimming in different gene pools nor the caprice of a trickster god. This inequality is God’s good will and I have no ground for objection. The fact that I’m also made in the image of God doesn’t give me equal claim before God to RJS’ mathematical intelligence.
    So, I’m not sure that reference to the imago Dei alone is sufficient to answer all our questions about the role of women in the Church. Functions in the Church very often don’t seem to be about merit or equality. To the extent anyone would justify a non-egalitarian stance on women in ministry on the basis of women not fully possessing the imago Dei, that would be heretical, but I don’t think most “complementarians” construct their views on that basis.

  • Travis Greene

    dopderbeck, “To the extent anyone would justify a non-egalitarian stance on women in ministry on the basis of women not fully possessing the imago Dei, that would be heretical, but I don’t think most “complementarians” construct their views on that basis.”
    Interesting point. I think you’re right that most complementarians wouldn’t say that’s what they’re constructing their views on, but I think it is frequently implicitly assumed that men are the standard, women are a derivation of that. Which is, in my opinion, a bad reading of Genesis.

  • dopderbeck

    Travis (#18) — I’ve heard many presentations from “complementarian” folks — I was even a “Promise Keeper” in the 90’s! — and I don’t recall ever hearing anything like what you’re saying here. I agree that, historically, many people have understood the “Adam’s rib” thing in terms of general male supremacy, and certainly we have to make something of the reference in 1 Tim. 2:13 to the order of the creation of man and woman. But even the writer of 1 Tim. 2:13 isn’t assuming (it seems to me) that “men are the standard” and women are a “derivation,” and this isn’t how most complementarians understand this passage today. I don’t think anyone takes this as an ontological statement about what it means to be “human” and to possess the imago Dei. It can be read as a statement of how God assigns and allocates responsibility between men and women, but this disparity in responsibility doesn’t imply any ontological disparity. There’s nothing here to suggest that women are “less human” than men, and I’m certain that no responsible complementarian would ever say or imply such a thing.

  • Patrick

    Picking up on Travis’ point (18) I think it the Imago Dei must also say something about God. If male and female reflect in some way his image, we are reminded he is NOT male, nor are men therefore ‘naturally’ his representatives – as some ideas on priesthood veer towards.
    “What does it mean to claim that we complement each other as parts of the body of Christ?” “What does this mean for the church?”
    That the church should be a radical place where each member of the body uses his/her Spirit given gifts. For most situations this means being blind to gender, except where same sex groups and ministry is appropriate. I’m part of a church where this is closer to being realised than I’ve seen before – and it is great to see such respect and freedom in relationships energise the community.

  • Travis Greene

    I know they wouldn’t say that, and they wouldn’t intend to mean it or imply it. But I’m afraid that’s the effective belief of many. I hope I’m wrong.

  • RJS

    Most don’t say it and many don’t think it.
    Some (a minority) do say and think it.
    Others don’t realize that it is in essence the root of what they do claim. This is why the discussion, as I said at the beginning of the last post, always leaves me feeling sick and a little dirty. It usually comes out when they talk about gifting and what gifts can and cannot be possessed by an individual. It comes out most clearly when people start trying to justify a continuing practice that a woman should not teach an adult male.

  • RJS

    Promise Keepers is an interesting topic – I think that it was quite good in many ways.
    So I have a question for you. How much of what Promise Keepers taught was specifically for men and how much of it was directed toward being a mature Christian (generic)? If it was for men – why? How much of it played on ego and a need to be “better” than someone else?

  • Dana Ames

    There are “bible teachers” out there who believe that the first male was made in God’s image, but since the first female was taken out of the male’s rib, she was made in man’s image and therefore women are not truly made in the image of God. Google around a bit- you’ll find them, if you can stand reading the dreck they put out.

  • RJS – “This is why the discussion, as I said at the beginning of the last post, always leaves me feeling sick and a little dirty”
    just the fact that we are still having this discussion – with debate – disturbs me as a woman.

  • One of the things about the complementarian movement is that so many seem upset about the fact that there are usually more women than men in our congregations. There has been much talk about this “problem” as if there is a godly quota on the gender of disciples that should make up the church. Comps have coined the problem as the “feminization of the church”. In keeping with this theme and with tongue-in-cheek, I created a perfect solution to the problem of low numbers of males in the church. I think you may find it a logical solution to the male-female problem with an appeal to the really “old way of doing things”.

  • Melinda

    Dana #24–
    “There are “bible teachers” out there who believe that the first male was made in God’s image, but since the first female was taken out of the male’s rib, she was made in man’s image and therefore women are not truly made in the image of God. Google around a bit- you’ll find them, if you can stand reading the dreck they put out.”
    I’m asking honestly because this verse has always hurt me, as a woman seeking God, whenever I read it. If women are not somehow one step further removed from God then men are, then what is it that 1 Cor 11:3 means? It seems to connect Christ to men, but connects women only to men.
    “But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the man is the head of a woman, and God is the head of Christ.”
    –1 Cor 11:3, NASB