Gender and Identity, Beginning with the Evangelical Theological Society

By Mimi Haddad.

Did you know that there are twice as many women academics in the secular academy as in the Christian academy? Worse, women comprise only about six percent of the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS). And despite a recent study exposing the shaming experiences of ETS women, some members of ETS passed a resolution that identified gender as the basis of personal identity for Christians.

Without actually defining “manhood” or “womanhood,” the resolution asserts that the essential or fundamental characteristics of gender are more formative and definitive for Christian identity than our spiritual renewal in Christ. It is not our newness of life in Christ, our journey as Christian disciplines, or our corporate service that form Christian identity but the “distinct traits of manhood and womanhood.” The resolution states:

“We affirm that God created men and women, imbued with the distinct traits of manhood and womanhood, and that each is an unchangeable gift of God that constitutes personal identity.”
Given the magnitude of this claim, we must ask ourselves: Can this assertion be sustained by Scripture? Do we find distinct gender traits in the Bible that establish a unique identity for males and another for females? To consider these questions, we will explore the “identity markers” of Bible culture.

In the ancient world, ethnicity (where you came from), gender (male or female), and social class (slave or free) were fundamental identity markers. 

Consider how Jewish men prayed daily, thanking God for their identity as free Jewish males. For the Greeks, males had a distinct identity from females because women (like slaves) were thought to be soulless. Men were therefore entirely different creatures than women or slaves. The best a woman could hope for was to be become male, according to Plato. Notice how Scripture challenges an understanding of gender as identity. Though the Greeks believed that only men were created by God and given souls, Scripture insists that God created both male and female equally in his image.

When we allow our identity to be defined by gender rather than by our renewal in Christ, we not only minimize the impact of Christian regeneration, but we also collude with patriarchy to undermine the agency of women in reconciling the world to God beside men.

Our identity as bearers of God’s image comes with a commission: to care for the world with equal authority (Gen 1:26-28). And, tending the world requires two distinct image-bearers, male and female. Though differentiated by gender, Adam and Eve were given not two separate vocations, but one shared mission in nurturing the world. Sadly, when sin shattered that perfect world, their shared rule deteriorated into male-rule. The post-fall hierarchy distorted God’s commission to males and females, and in doing so, it obscured women’s identity as created in God’s image (Gen 3:16). Devalued and subjugated by male-rule, women were deemed less than human and have been treated as such throughout history.

Throughout the ancient world, gender was identity, and gendered spheres were guarded by the long arm of patriarchy. Yet, notice how Scripture boldly defies patriarchy by celebrating women whose achievements paralleled and often eclipsed men’s in business (Proverbs 31), in political strategies (Abigail: 1 Samuel 25, Esther 4:4-17), in military tactics (Jael: Judges 4:17-22, Deborah: Judges 5:7), in theocratic leadership (Deborah: Judges 5:7), in biblical exegesis (Huldah: 2 Kings 22:14ff, 2 Chron. 34:14-33, 2 Kings 22), and in righteously preserving kin (Tamar: Gen. 38:26, Ruth: Ruth 2:1-4:10).

A prominent identity marker of God’s people is their willingness to challenge gender and ethnic barriers in responding to and obeying God. 

In the New Testament, Christian identity begins with rebirth in Christ and leads to a vocation of reconciliation regardless of gender. John 1:12-13 declares that all who receive Christ, who call on Christ’s name, become children of God, “born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God” (John 1:12-13). Paul urges us to regard no one according to the flesh (2 Cor. 5: 17-21). Though identity was once measured in this way, as God’s new creation, we are no longer blinded or bound by the sin of prejudice and patriarchy that subjugates women and judges them inferior.

We are a new creation with a new vocation–reconciling the world as male and female. This is our new and eternal identity. It began with our own rebirth when we were joined to Christ as equal agents of reconciliation.

The most unexpected individuals are often called to the most extraordinary positions of leadership, because God’s gifts to men and women are not bound by patriarchy but are redeemed through the power of the cross. Therefore in Scripture, we find women, slaves, and Greeks gifted and called to service as apostles, prophets, evangelists, and teachers. Their example is a witness to our shared identity as heirs with Christ.

When we allow our identity to be defined by gender rather than by our renewal in Christ, we not only minimize the impact of Christian regeneration, but we also collude with patriarchy to undermine the agency of women in reconciling the world to God beside men. The Bible does not waste its time delineating gender traits, nor does it assign identity according to the gender expectations of antiquity or an ETS resolution. Rather, Scripture celebrates the creation of male and female: two distinct genders created in God’s image for a shared destiny.

We are made gloriously in God’s image, and we are being remade in the glory of Christ through the Holy Spirit. We were called to govern Eden equally as male and female, just as we are now given spiritual authority equally as agents of reconciliation. Our identity in Christ can never be reduced to puny gender traits that belong to a fallen world that is already passing away.

About Scot McKnight

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