“…when God created אָדָ֔ם, God made them in the likeness of God. Male and female God created them, and blessed them and named them“אָדָ֔ם’ when they were created.”

-Genesis 5:1a-2

Intersex and the Imago Dei:

Christian Feminist Essentialism beyond the Bedroom and the Kitchen

There don’t seem to be many ways of talking about gender roles without offending somebody. While we live in a pluralistic society that affords a myriad of views on the subjects of sex and gender, these views are rarely mutually compatible and almost always tend to affect those that hold them in a deeply personal way. This conversation becomes even more complicated when religion is thrown into the mix. Indeed, there may be no group more divided on the issue of gender roles than those that claim to follow Jesus. Is the image of God (the Imago Dei) a solely masculine construct? Or are women also created in God’s image, but somehow subordinate to males? Is it possible to hold egalitarian views in regards to the role of women in society and still hold Scripture in high regard? The purpose of this blog is to explore the concept of the Imago Dei and how it relates to issues of modern gender equality.

The Imago Dei

The concept of the Imago Dei is introduced to us in the first chapter of Genesis, where God creates human beings “both male and female” in God’s own image.[1]Similar language is used in the fifth chapter of Genesis as well.[2] There is exhaustive conversation among theologians as to what it means, exactly, to be made in the image or likeness of God. To go into any great depth on the subject is probably beyond the scope of this current examination, but I think there is one thing that is worth noting: in both Genesis 1 and Genesis 5, the author seems to very purposefully state that the image of God is present in the created state of both male and female human beings.

Of course, this begs the question: why male and female? Why did God not create humankind as a race of asexual beings? God seems to have no need for sexual interaction, so why do humans, as God’s image bearers, need gender at all? To get inside the mind of the Omniscient is beyond my capabilities, but Anthony Hoekema’s assessment seems to hit the mark: “man can’t reflect the plurality of God alone.”[3]God, as the ultimate relational being, is capable of being in relationship with Godself. Human beings, however, are not particularly adept at being in relationship with themselves. By creating a gendered humanity, maybe God is reminding us of our innate need for one another, perhaps even gifting us with an inborn desire for relationship.

Whatever God’s intent, we cannot ignore the fact that we are, indeed, gendered beings. Even if we tried to argue from a philosophical or theological standpoint that we are not, our biology would tell a different story. The question is not whether or not we have gender; we do. Rather, the question (from a theological standpoint) is how or whether each gender reflects different aspects of the Imago Dei and how or whether those differences should manifest themselves in the daily lives of human beings.

Essentialism and Constructivism

Within the feminist[4] movement there is a variety of understanding on whether or not there are human qualities that are essentially female. There are two opposing schools of thought regarding this issue: feminist essentialism and feminist constructivism. Essentialists tend to believe that there are natural facets of womanhood that “cover women’s lives in every place, age, and culture without exception,”[5]while constructivists tend to believe that culture creates womanly values, with gender “being ‘formed’ rather than ‘given.’”[6] Most feminists fall somewhere in the middle, perceiving some non-biological traits as being feminine in their very essence and others as being cultural constructs.

Jesus himself seems to walk this middle ground. On his approach to Jerusalem, while lamenting the future consequences of the city’s violent and rebellious nature, he sorrowfully states how he has often wished to gather the children of the city together “as a hen gathers her brood under her wings.”[7]This statement seems to lend credence to the idea that, from a theological perspective, there are things that are by their very nature female traits. Hence we see the phrasing “as a hen,” and not “as a rooster.” If I were making an argument for a stricter form of essentialism, I would stop there. But there are also shades of constructivism in this passage, as we see when Jesus, an ancient near-eastern male, provocatively appropriates these feminine qualities for himself.

A reasonable biblical case can therefore be made that both female and male human beings were made in the image of God, and that there are some traits that are, by their nature, inherently feminine. These essentially feminine traits do not diminish the Imago Dei, but, being present at creation, are somehow reflective of it. On a surface level, these assertions would seem to be empowering for women. But, as we are about to see, that hasn’t always been the case.

The Danvers Statement and the Complementarian Myth

Perhaps the greatest threat to egalitarianism in modern Christendom comes from complementarians. Complementarian thought is rooted in hardline essentialism. The driving tenet of complementarianism is that, while both male and female were made in God’s image, distinctions in masculine and feminine roles exist “as part of the created order, and should find an echo in every human heart.”[8]

This distinctiveness goes far beyond gendered characteristics. In the complementarian world view, males and females don’t just have different qualities, but different roles. This is especially true in regards to the roles males and females have towards each other. “Adam’s headship in marriage was established by God before the Fall, and was not a result of sin,”[9] they declare in the Danvers Statement, which serves as a sort of complementarian manifesto. Wives are called to “willing submission[10]” in the home, and it is sin that “inclines women to resist limitations on their roles”[11]in the church, which for complementarians, are quite limited.

Although most complementarians would probably argue (quite sincerely) that these differing roles are of “equally high value and dignity,”[12]even a cursory examination of complementarianism’s practical implications shows this to be a falsehood. The “headship” of the male inherently lends itself to the abuse of the female. It assumes the benevolence of the “Christian” husband, pastor, or spiritual leader, and makes no room for his (inevitable) imperfections. As in any hierarchy, abuse tends to increase when accountability is lacking. And the sad truth is that, for most complementarians, checks and balances do not exist inside the home or within the church as it regards male/female relations. In such an environment, “headship” can easily slide into “ownership.”

It is confounding to think that any group could claim that this system, which seems to so completely marginalize women, could in any way promote the equality of the Imago Dei in both sexes. But this becomes easier to understand when the makeup of this group (specifically the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, which drafted the Danvers Statement in 1987) is examined more closely. The group consisted mostly of men, with titles like “seminary president”, “CEO”, “seminary professor”,  or “senior pastor.” Most of the handful of female members in the group had titles like “homemaker” or “pastors wife.”

This isn’t to say that titles like “homemaker” or “pastor’s wife” are inherently pejorative- they aren’t. But when any group starts setting standards that it feels should be adopted by society as a hole, disparity should be noted. In the case of this particular council, disparity not only existed in the amount of representation females were afforded, but also in the perceived “importance” of their careers as opposed to their male counterparts. Disparity also existed in the overall level of graduate and post-graduate education completed by members of each gender. With no female pastors or seminary heads on the committee, and only one female seminary professor, and with a plethora of female committee members whose very titles denoted servitude, the game seems to have been rigged from the start…or at least prone to confirmation bias.

In the end, complementarianism suffers from the same ills as any other system that extolls the virtues of “separate but equal”-separate is NEVER equal. In many complementarian homes, the wife’s role is essentially limited to what she can do in the bedroom or what she can do in the kitchen. Women were indeed created in the image of God, but that image is somehow diminished or lesser than the image the man was created in.

Society, Defined Biblically

It would be easier in a lot of ways if the marginalization inherent in complementarianism was more overt. But complementarians don’t attend “He-Man Woman Haters Clubs” presided over by the Alf-Alfas and Spanky’s of the world. Often, they attend churches with well-meaning pastors who have years of theological training. That the churches they preside over have effectively become such clubs makes complementarianism all the more insidious.

Complementarianism has to be fought on its own terms. Popular society now views gender egalitarianism as the norma normata. In fact, issues like gender fluidity have long since replaced cisgender equality on the cutting edge of gender egalitarian discussions. But citing the merits of societal “advancement” may not be an overly effective method for engaging the complementarian mind. Quite the opposite: complementarianism is prescriptive, and society is the very thing it seeks to change.

Most complementarians see their views on gender as having a sound basis in Scripture and lending themselves to plain interpretation. The Word and logic are held in higher regard than the outside influences of society or scientific advancement. Many complementarians see Christians with egalitarian views as either being misinformed or having a low view of the Bible. The validity of such a statement is clearly open for debate, but it does lend credence to the concept that the most effective arguments against complementarianism, to the complementarian mind must be based on Scripture and plain reason. That will be my chosen methodology moving forward- to argue for true equality in both the male and female Imago Dei, holding logic in high regard and Scripture even higher.

The Secret of the Codes

The centerpiece tenet of complementarian thought, that “Adam’s headship was established by God before the Fall,”[13]is also one of the easiest to dismantle. We will do so momentarily, but first we must acknowledge the elephant in the room: the so-called “household codes,” which are often cited in support of the complementarian cause.

The household codes are complicated subject matter. They make up a very small percentage of Scripture. On the surface, many would indeed seem to prop up complementarianism. They say some things that sound outlandish to modern egalitarian listeners, like “the women should stay silent in church,[14]” “wives, submit yourselves to your husbands[15]”, and “I never put a woman in authority over a man.[16]

These statements seem damning to the egalitarian cause, but there is more going on here than meets the eye. Context matters. For instance, just before Paul commands wives to submit themselves to their husbands, he commands ALL believers to submit themselves to one another in love…[17]and for husbands to love their wives like Christ loved the church “and gave himself for her.”[18]The suggestion that “the women stay silent” is clearly an answer to earlier correspondence that we no longer have access to. We cannot know what question Paul is responding to, but it seems likely that Paul is objecting to a particular group of women who are participating in disruptive speech, or that he may even be quoting his enemies in order to refute them.[19]And Paul, the alleged author of these all of these words, is the very same man who says that “in Christ, there is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave or free, male or female.”[20]

Regardless, these passages make up quite a small bit of material. These are not words spoken by Jesus; in fact, none of these passages, as transmitted to us, is really even hinted at in any of the four Gospels. Their primacy is tedious at best, and their authorship is often questioned.

Before the Fall

The assertion that “Adam’s headship was established before the fall” and “was not the result of sin” seems nearly impossible to prove. There is nothing in the Genesis account to support such a notion, other than the fact that Adam was apparently created before Eve. But if order of creation is what establishes primacy, then fish, cows, and orangutans all have a more legitimate claim to “headship” than Adam, for they were all created before him.

Indeed, as far as we are able to discern from the text itself, God makes no differentiation between the mission of Adam and the mission of Eve. They are both told to “be fruitful and multiply.”[21]According to John H. Walton, God’s desire was for both of them to serve God as priests,[22]with the Garden functioning as the world’s first sacred space. And they would have had to have done this together, as no hierarchy seems to have been established by chapter 3 of Genesis.

Even the oft cited claim that Eve was created to be Adam’s “helper” withers under closer examination. The Hebrew word translated from Genesis 2:19-20, often translated as “helper” is the word “עֵ֖זֶר” (ezer), which is better translated as “helpmate.” Nineteen of the 21 times it is used in the Hebrew Bible it is used in the sense of a military protector or ally. Eve was to be Adam’s fierce ally, a trusted co-combatant.

It isn’t until Adam and Eve have both partaken of the fruit that Eve’s agency takes a backseats to Adam’s, and it is clearly a result of the curse. God even says so- “your desire shall be for your husband.”[23]It isn’t until after the Fall that Eve even starts to display anything that might look like submission, when she apparently allows Adam to name her.[24]Her default essence isn’t submissiveness, therefore it seems like a stretch to suggest that submissiveness is a default, essential quality for all women.

The Intersex Question

There are tons of Scriptural issues with complementarianism. But there are also some logical issues. In order for it to work as a theory, it is by necessity dependent on a simplistic assumption of a biological gender binary (male and female.) So far, I have intentionally avoided talking about gender-fluid or transgendered individuals. This has been on purpose- a complementarian would view the unique gender status of a transgendered individual as a choice and dismiss their argument against the rigid essentialism of complementarianism out of hand. But there is another segment of the population that is in an awkward position if the tenets of complementarianism are true: the roughly one in two thousand individuals who are born intersex each year.[25]

If household codes are essential for people of faith to truly reflect the Imago Dei of their gender, which path does the intersex person follow? If hermaphroditic individuals are made in the image of God (and I think even most complementarians would agree that they are), then is it safe to ask whether or not assuming the wrong household role would be sinful? And if a complementarian would say that assuming the wrong gender role isn’t sinful for intersex individuals, what logic is really being used? Are their female characteristics submissive to their male characteristics?

I know these questions may seem offensive, but I ask them to illustrate this point: although it does appear that some qualities are more feminine and some are more masculine, gender roles are not in and of themselves analogous to gender identity. One can be a Christian feminist essentialist without having to adopt the household codes as the litmus test for what it means to be made in the feminine version of the Imago Dei.

Do Unto Others

When Jesus tells his followers to “do unto others[26]” as they’d have others do unto them, he doesn’t specify gender. How different it would be if Jesus had said “do unto this gender as you’d have them do unto you, but treat this other gender as somehow less human than yourself.” Sometimes it seems as if this IS what Jesus said. Our society still has a long  way to go when it comes to gender equality. But God is on the move. As we love, people’s hearts will be softened. As we love, change begins to happen. As we love, the Imago Dei shines through. As we love, we begin to see a Kingdom where there is no longer “male or female”, but “brother and sister.”


[1] Genesis 1:26-28

[2] Genesis 5:1-2

[3] Hoekema, Anthony Created in God’s Image (Eerdmen’s Publishing: Grand Rapids, 1994)

[4] I should point out here that, as a white middle class evangelical male, my experience as a feminist is basically limited to the understanding that men and women ought to be treated equally. To adopt any more particular feminist view as my own may be patronistic; I do not and cannot have the experience that any woman has. With that understanding, I have decided to tread lightly into this subject area. Any offense from this point on will not be intentional but do to my own clumsiness with the subject. Please forgive me ahead of time!

[5] Jones, Serene Feminist Theory and Christian Theology (Fortress Press: Minneapolis, 2000) p. 26

[6] Ibid, p. 32

[7] Matthew 23:37, ESV

[8] Kvam, Schearing, Ziegler Eve and Adam: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Readings on Genesis and Gender “The Danvers Statement” (Indiana University Press: Bloomington, 1999) p. 389

[9] Ibid, p. 389

[10] Ibid, p.389

[11] Ibid, p. 389

[12] Ibid, p. 389

[13] Ibid, p. 389

[14] 1 Corinthians 14:34

[15] Ephesians 5:22

[16] 1 Timothy 2:12

[17] Ephesians 5:21

[18]  Ephesians 5:25

[19] MacHaffie, Barbara J. Her Story: Women in Christian Tradition (Augsburg Fortress: Minneapolis, 2006)

[20] Galatians 3:28

[21] Genesis 1:28

[22] Walton, John H. The Lost World of Adam and Eve: Genesis 2-3 and the Human Origins Debate (IVP Academic: Illinois, 2015)

[23] Genesis 3:16

[24] Genesis 3:20

[25] This according to the World Health Organization. There is some debate on how to define “intersex.” If every proposed factor were accounted for, it’s possible that the birthrate for individuals born intersex would soar to as high as 1 in every 300.

[26] Luke 6:31