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Do we worship a male God?

This post is by Mimi Haddad, at CBE:

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. Let us say “Amen,” rather than “All Men!”

 

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Andy H

    I must say this seems like a pretty pointless article – a classic example of erecting a straw man and then knocking it down. I’ve never come across any Christians today who “suggest that God’s being is somehow masculine”, or who “impose Christ’s gender onto the Godhead”. Nor do I know any Christians who would disagree with any of what Haddad quotes from the early church.
    I assume this is intended as a backhand swipe at John Piper etc., but is anyone seriously suggesting that Piper would disagree with the views of Jerome, Ambrose and Augustine quoted by Haddad? By all means let’s engage with Piper’s views – and agree to differ with him – but let it be on the basis of what he actually says, not some caricature of his views.

  • http://eatwithjoy.org Rachel Stone

    I appreciate the recognition that church fathers spoke explicitly of God –and even of Jesus– in gender-inclusive terms. I think many Christians DO think of God as a man. The mania for hyper-masculinity in certain quarters of American Christianity (which, in any case, is indistinguishable from cultural discourses of masculinity) works at cross purposes to Jesus’ message of radical equality across every dividing line, and it harms women and girls–and men, too. Thanks for these reminders, Scot and Mimi!

  • Sue

    Actually – and unfortunately – I’ve run into several people this week asserting that God is male, based in the growing misperception of what Piper had said (if it is indeed a misperception). This article is well-timed and there will need to ne many more, apparently. Sadly.

  • http://themanisapoet.blogspot.com/ Michael Thomson

    I disagree with the last comment. In many circles the maleness of the church is receding to a more inclusive model of leadership. That the earliest theologians did not see Jesus’ maleness or masculinity as divine while not argued by the likes of Piper…there are plenty of evangelical so-called complementarian theologians who see maleness as essential to leadership…as such a reminder that the earliest theologians have resources as a corrective to an all male leadership is a fine reminder. Paul clearly supported the women in the apostolic missionary movement of the early church, and the early Church Fathers, as products of their own time, had a mixed track record on that front. That the evangelical church in particular (and other traditions where patriarchal structure is the norm) need to be reminded that at root their theological tradition is not inherently patriarchal is all to the good in my mind.

  • PLTK

    Andy, isn’t there two issues? First whether or not people would theologically agree with that God is male and second, whether or not people ACT and SPEAK like they believe God is male. I have an 8 year old daughter would would definitely say yes to the second. That is what she hears and sees at church and she has brought it up numerous times.

  • Gloria

    Whether correct or not, I have always perceived God as male. Jesus, the Father – both males. That doesn’t mean that God has only “manly” qualities. But when I pray to God I am praying to the Father the way Jesus did.

  • http://www.internetmonk.com chaplain mike

    I think the comments point out an important distinction. Piper, et al, may not think that the Godhead itself is masculine, but they certainly believe (and Piper has said it explicitly) that Christianity has a “masculine” feel and that God has revealed himself and his plan in such a way that males are to be in leadership and females are to support that leadership. This is easily understood on the popular level as “God is male.” He is King, isn’t he? (Not Queen!) The question of the theology we may hold in our study is right to be questioned, and I think that’s what Scot is doing here. However, the real impact is that which is held in the popular imagination of the church. We must continue to speak and act in such a way that we counter both with a fuller, more inclusive understanding of God and his plan for the human community.

  • http://stainedglasswords.wordpress.com Kyle White

    I do believe there is a certain masculinity that is involved in the Godhead. The imagery that God often used and uses to describe himself are male examples; you have God as father, king, shepherd, etc; all used as a means of conveying to us the sort of God we worship, his attributes and character.

    Conversely, we can also see God using female imagery as means of description. I think about Jesus saying, “How often I wanted to gather your children together, the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings” (Matt. 23.37).

    When God speaks to Job towards the end of his book and asks the question, “From whose womb has come the ice? And the frost of heaven, who has given it birth?” (Job 38.29).

    There is definitely a feminine aspect to the nature of God. There, in many ways, needs to be for the scripture, “Let us make mankind in our image” to be accurate; for God to make both men and women image bearers of Him.

    The question, however, “Do we worship a male God?” while tricky, is one that I think can be answered by scripture. I don’t believe that God as SPIRIT is emphatically male or female, God in fact transcends both, but I do know that Jesus, the God-Man, is “the image of the invisible God” and “by Him all things were created in heaven and on earth.”

    Jesus provides reconciliation to all, male or female, Jew or Gentile, slave or master, but because he is God and King, I cannot but conclude that we worship a male God.

  • http://www.internetmonk.com Chaplain mike

    Kyle, you need to read Gen 1:26-28 where it says explicitly that the “image of God” involves both male and female. If we worship a male God women are not in God’s image. This is not only unacceptable thinking but poses terrifying dangers for women.

  • Dana

    Kyle –

    How do you worship a male god without worshiping maleness?

    Just asking, not trying to trap you. The question occurred to me as I read your comment. I’m not sure if I have an answer to it myself.

  • Dawn

    In response to Andy H, while I am grateful to have found recently an association of churches who do not subscribe to this masculine view of theology, the reality is there remain a large number of people, denominations and leaders who most definitely do rely directly or indirectly on this view of Christ and the Godhead to support a stance that is not inclusive to women in leadership. While I live in the mid-south where this view is incredibly pervasive (and I must say, while you may not come across Christians who would verbalize those views, it is as common as sweet tea down here), this reality is not confined to the Bible Belt. Perhaps you are not as aware simply because you have never had a reason to encounter it directly. I have. I was asked to resign from a leadership role this past month by a pastor who subscribes to this very perspective. He is a “complementation”, which is a word that has broken my heart and crushed my spirit many times over years of struggle as a female in the ministry. There is nothing “complimentary” about forcing a woman to resign from ministering to God’s people because we simply can’t grasp the concept of a metaphor designed to draw us closer to our Creator, not divide us from His call.
    Don’t assume it is not a reality simply because you have not experienced it. I can say candidly it is a reality that not only does still exist, it just cost me a ministry I loved.

  • Don Johnson

    I have encountered people on the Internet who actually do believe God is masculine and they thought it was obvious and plainly taught in Scripture. So the post is useful and not setting up a strawman.

    When Piper claims that “Christianity has a masculine feel” what he is really claiming is that his version of Christianity has a masculine feel, this is because as a comp, he has made it feel that way.

  • Rob

    From Chaplain mike: “If we worship a male God women are not in God’s image. This is not only unacceptable thinking but poses terrifying dangers for women.”

    Yes! I would go a step further: When we favor *maleness* and privilege it over *femaleness* in our communities (not just viewing God as male) we are communicating something fundamental about girls’/womens’ identity- how females are or *are not* “the image of God.”

    However, in my limited experience, convincing church leaders that this is “unacceptable thinking” and “dangerous” to women is not easy. Of course, if you don’t recognize something as a problem, you aren’t motivated to do anything about it. The ability to ignore or repel cognitive dissonance is a deeply ingrained human skill.

  • Fish

    When I learned through conversation with my daughter that she did, in fact, believe that God was a man, it was the beginning of the end for my support of her involvement with her youth group. Even though the youth group leader — a woman — was shocked to hear of that belief, I would not get past it because it did not emerge in a vacuum. I will not tolerate any culture which even unconsciously teaches my child that a man is in ultimate charge of the world.

  • http://stainedglasswords.wordpress.com Kyle White

    Chaplain Mike, I absolutely believe that both men and women are made in God’s image. I apologize if I had come across as denying that. I was trying to make a point that God has both male and female character aspects as revealed in scripture. “Let us make man in our image” is an indication that both men and women are made in the image and likeness of God, and both men and women together are bearers of that Image.

    Dana, it honestly doesn’t occur to me regarding “maleness.” I believe that God transcends both male and female genders. My last comment regarding God as being male has more to do with Jesus, being the image of the invisible God.

    I know many today, at least seem, to worship the “maleness” of Jesus rather than Jesus Himself. I think Jesus, though being male, revealed Himself as a God who both cares for the sick and rebukes the self-righteous.

    It’s not really about masculinity or feminity in my opinion, but about the character of God.

    Hope that jargon I wrote makes any sense.

  • Rob

    Kyle, you affirm that “both men and women are made in God’s image.” In reference to Jesus being male you also say ” …it’s not really about masculinity or femininity…, but the character of God”

    Am I understanding your position? If so, it seems to me these two statements contradict each other. If Jesus’ maleness reflects the character of God, then God is somehow more male than female. So are you saying that both male and female are the “image of God” but that image is weighted towards maleness?

  • http://stainedglasswords.wordpress.com Kyle White

    I’m not saying Jesus’ “maleness” reflects the character of God. I’m saying that God’s character transcends male and female.

    The title of this article is “do we worship a male God?” Since Jesus is both God and a man, I am simply saying, yes. Since Jesus is God and a man, we worship a male God. That is all. It has nothing to do with masculinity being somehow better than feminity. I already said in my first comment that God as SPIRIT transcends both male and female.

    I write these comments as an igorant 23 year old who still has need of much learning and spiritual growth. I do not claim to have it all nailed down, I simply wanted to try and contribute to the conversation without starting an online argument. Please, forgive me for sounding like a pious chauvinist. I regret even saying anything at all.

  • http://www.soulation.org Dale Fincher

    @Andy H (comment #1)… yes, this view is common and continues to need critique… the Apologist Study Bible published by B&H and “edited” by a series of well known apologists has an article in which they explicitly state that “God is Male.” Too many of our apologists today have not given this issue enough thought. I wrote a review of that (and that particular point) here: http://dalefincher.blogspot.com/2007/09/blog-post.html

  • Rob

    Kyle,

    Thank you for clarifying. I think I better understand what you are saying. My intent was only to clarify what I thought you were saying. I did not intend to be argumentative or suggest you are a “pious chauvinist”. None of us have it all nailed down. I hope you continue to participate and contribute to conversations like this one. Blessings.

  • MG

    Kyle,

    Do not regret engaging in this conversation. Your last post reveals much to be admired (namely humility) no matter what your age. Know that one of the blessings of this blog is the often back-and-forth of comments of those – like you in this particular case – who take the time to openly engage and struggle and converse and wonder and debate aloud. Posting your thoughts – even thoughts that are still in process – take a bit of courage. And that quite oftern blesses more readers than commentors

  • http://www.joshburnett.org Josh Burnett

    I really appreciated this article. As I was preparing for my Mother’s Day message coming up in a few weeks, a woman asked me why was it so hard to find good women in the Bible? I wanted to tell her sorry that there weren’t a ton of great examples but we should be looking to God for a hero instead of created beings. Sure, Mary was great and a few other well-known women did some noteworthy things but men are so much more prevalent in the Bible.

    For my sermon coming up, I want women and men to know that God created man and female in God’s image. I don’t call God Mother when I pray but I hope that those who do say Heavenly Father would understand that God is not gender, God created it.

  • http://www.hierodulia.com/ Paul Duggan

    ” church fathers spoke explicitly of God –and even of Jesus– in gender-inclusive terms.”

    But which ones.

    Why did they not say “she” or “Mother” or “sister” or “daughter”?

    And “womb” is not a gendered term. Its a sexed term

  • Wyatt

    Well, little Hillary was stating her observation of the church leadership not what she thought of God. And her, being only eight years old, was probably ignored by her church leaders because first, she’s eight and not 18 and therefore doesn’t know jack about church leadership or God for that matter. We all know God doesn’t pay attention to people under 18 unless they are told to by Jesus.

    Second, she’s a she. That seals it right there.

    I honestly do not get the logic of the article. Hillary’s response to her leadership is the real article.

  • http://www.internetmonk.com chaplain mike

    Josh (11:35), I think you are downplaying the contributions of women in the Bible. In fact the more I read the whole story, the more I see that at almost every key moment in salvation history, it is women who step up to save the day or play a prominent role.

  • P.

    Dawn – I am so sorry that happened. That pastor is the type to twist the Bible to satisfy his own insecurities. I hope you challenge him. On thing to think about though, is this part of the culture of your church? Is it time to find a more Christ-like one?

    Dale – I hope people challenge B&H over that article. Things like this cause people to reject Christ.

  • Mike DeLong

    I’m sorry that people like Kyle can’t comment and give their opinions without being criticized so strongly for their posts that they feel they must apologize.

    The Bible refers to God as father, not mother. It also uses the gendered term “he” when referring to him. Jesus, who is the “very image of God” was and is a man. It is natural, then, to infer that God, if he has gender, is male.

    One can worship a God who is male without worshiping “maleness.” One can also worship a male God and still believe that all people (both female and male) are created in God’s image. Doing so does not pose any dangers to women, or even an egalitarian view.

  • PaulE

    The question seems almost upside down. I don’t see masculinity as an ontological reality that exists independent of God which God may or may not possess. Rather, masculinity is something God created to communicate his glory. As Paul put it: “A man… is the image and glory of God.”

    I’m also surprised by the attempts here to locate a common blessing in the imago dei. Galatians 3:28 does not read, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male nor female for you are all created in God’s image.” Jews and Gentiles were both created in God’s image; and yet the Gentiles were once without hope and without God in the world.

  • http://johngreenview.wordpress.com John Thomson

    It is true that ‘image’ belongs to male and female (to humanity). It is also true that in some sense within humanity the male images and reflects the glory of God in a way the female does not.

    1Cor 11:7 (ESV)
    For a man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God, but woman is the glory of man.

  • Cindy Larsen

    I wish I could read this, but black font on a fairly dark brown background makes it impossible for me to read.

    Rev. Cindy Larsen
    president, Bunyoro-Kitara Theological College
    UGANDA

  • cw

    @ Josh Burnett
    “a woman asked me why was it so hard to find good women in the Bible? I wanted to tell her sorry that there weren’t a ton of great examples”

    I can’t believe you really mean that. NT alone: Mary, Mary & Martha, Mary Magdalene, Priscilla, all the women who financially supported Jesus and His disciples, the women who followed Jesus to the cross and then were up before dawn on Sunday (might one of them have been Barnabas’ mother?), Timothy’s mother & grandmother, etc, etc,. The Bible is full of examples. Sermons from the pulpit are what are not full of examples. Scot’s Junia is Not Alone is worth the read, too.


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