My daughter, who has been reading through the New Testament this year, came crashing into my room with questions.
She had arrived at 1 Timothy—specifically the part about women teaching, the deception of Adam and Eve, and salvation by childbearing—and she was frustrated. I started with the old line, “When we come to a difficult passage, we need to read it in light of the rest of the story,” but she immediately countered with, “This isn’t a ‘difficult passage,’ dad, it just confirms all the other shady stuff in the rest of the Bible! Why is God a man, and Jesus a man, and everything is always built for men and not for women?”
I don’t want to give the wrong impression of her—she is deeply committed to her faith, and her questions have always been genuine and sincere. At four it was, “Daddy, how can I know I am real?” and at ten it was, “If I weren’t born in Texas, would I believe in Jesus?” As she’s grown older and more aware of the world, she has begun to think more deeply and wrestle with complex issues that are increasingly common.
We are reminded almost daily of the pain and confusion many feel around gender and sexuality, and while some of this comes from errors and overcorrections in our wider culture, much of it is rooted in theological errors within the church itself, errors that limit God and God’s people. I even see this in the classroom. I teach a class on trinitarianism, and many of my students enter seminary having absorbed inaccuracies, and it takes some work to untangle them.
When my daughter asks, “Why did God become a man and not a woman? And could we have had a female savior?” I am not so naïve a father to think that her questions are merely theoretical. She senses that society is built for men. She reads the masculine language of scripture. She sees the way the church often operates. She loves Jesus but wonders if his flesh can save hers. And if so, toward what end? A second place, it seems to her. Underneath her original questions lies another: she is asking whether God truly cares about women.
I can’t pretend to fully answer these questions in this space, but I am convinced that Christmas, and specifically the Incarnation, is the sacred and focal place for our understanding of who God is, what Jesus has done, and our own identity as male and female.
God Above All
One day as my daughter was catching lizards, she asked me how to tell if a lizard was a boy or a girl. I turned and said to the screen in the kitchen, “Hey Google, how do you sex a lizard?” This, understandably, horrified my kids. Then I explained to them that “to sex” a creature is to look for particular body parts that indicate their biological sex, whether they are male or female.
As I discuss God and gender with my daughter and son, there are two key truths that I’ve tried to emphasize. The first is that God is neither male nor female, masculine nor feminine. Unlike creatures, the scriptures tell us that “God is spirit” (John 4:4), and therefore does not have a body or body parts. To claim God is male (or female) would be to claim that a being without male parts can be male.
While most Christians would affirm that God is not male, many still assume that God is masculine rather than feminine. This is an understandable error for a child to make. After all, the scriptures use masculine pronouns (he, him, his) to describe God, and many images and titles for God, including the first two persons of the Trinity—Father and Son—are decidedly masculine. There are, of course, several places where God is described with feminine imagery (Prov 8; Isa 42:14; Luke 13:34), and words like ruah (Hebrew for spirit) that are feminine, but we must admit that the majority of the language for God is masculine.
However, in seeking to understand this, we must remember that when God lovingly chooses to tell us about himself, he works through the limitations of our human language. The Bible describes God as having a face, hands, and back (Ex 33:23), but we know not to take those so literally that we believe God has a body. Further, it is important to realize that some of the deepest heresies about God have come from misunderstanding the meaning of the names Father and Son. For example, the fourth-century heretic Arius assumed that language of Father and Son must be so analogous to human fathers and sons that the Father must come before the Son. According to Arius, “There was a time when the Son was not.” To this day, many Christians, including evangelicals, still believe the error that the Son is the first created being. In AD 325, church leaders traveled from what we now call Africa, Asia, and Europe to Nicaea and denounced this claim. They clarified that the Son was “begotten, not made,” meaning that he equally shared in the same substance as the Father. In other words, Father and Son do not mean before/after in time but portray a sharing of the divine nature. Similarly, Father and Son do not mean the divine persons are male or masculine, but that they are eternally in abiding relationship.
Beyond this understandable linguistic confusion, there are some who actively (and wrongly) claim that God is masculine, or that Christianity itself is masculine. This is problematic for several reasons, starting with the difficulty of defining masculinity and femininity. The idea of which behaviors, emotions, and even clothing qualify as masculine or feminine varies widely by culture and even varies within so-called biblical definitions. But let’s assume for a moment that we all agreed on exactly what fits into the boxes of masculine and feminine. The doctrine of divine simplicity teaches us that God is indivisible, which means that he is not like creatures who fit within categorizations like genus or species. Instead, he exists above and outside all that is or will be. How theologically preposterous, then, would it be to say God can be contained within a box like masculine or feminine?
Still, some argue that at its deepest level, masculinity means going toward, while femininity is about receiving. This argument points to the metaphor of Christ and his bride, the church, to say that God masculinely moves toward us, and we femininely receive his grace. As a metaphor, there is some beauty in this (among other images). And yet, if we make an Arian over-extrapolation of this, it becomes deeply problematic for both our identity and God’s.
First, if one is concerned with the “feminization of the church” there is no faster way to do this than to imagine a God who is fundamentally masculine. Even worse, it seems to make God dependent on creation. Such a masculine god is incomplete without his female subject. That god would be closer to a panentheistic being than the triune God of scripture, who existed in perfect self-sufficiency before choosing to create.
If so many of us as humans chafe against the constraints of culturally defined versions of masculinity and femininity, how much more so the God whose “wonders cannot be fathomed” (Job 9:10) and whose “judgments are unsearchable” (Romans 11:33), who is as unstoppable as a mountain (2 Samuel 22:2) and yet as gentle as a hen (Luke 13:34). What a small God we have when we limit him to half his image.
The divine he is not a male he. He is “I am.”
God with Us
And yet, my daughter still wonders, if God is neither male nor female, why did the Son become male? Could the incarnate God have come as a female savior? Doesn’t Jesus the man still mean God values males more than females?
In talking this through with my kids, the second key reality I have tried to help them see is that the incarnation of the divine Son as a male, born of a woman, demonstrates how God values both men and women. To fully see this, we return to the beginning, where Genesis tells us that “male and female” are made in the image of God (Gen 1:26-27), and that all people were called equally to rule and reign together over all that God made (1:28-30).
As men and women work alongside one another, there are two special moments when male and female are intimately united in body and soul. The first is in the act of procreation when the bodies of husband and wife are united as “one flesh” (Gen 2:24), a concept both Jesus (Matt 19:5-6; Mark 10:8) and Paul repeat (1 Cor 6:16; Eph 5:31).
But there is also a second moment when male and female bodies are intimately comingled—when a baby boy is carried by and nourished by a woman. In both cases of male-female union, there is a type of desire that each body has for the other. In the first case, we label that desire as sexual or erotic, a good gift from God for marriage. In the second male-female union, the mother and the baby boy long for one another’s bodies, but in a completely different, asymmetrical way. The boy cries out for his mother and, in a way I will never experience or know, the mother yearns to nourish him.
Paul emphasizes the importance of this second male-female union, writing, “when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman” (Gal 4:4). In the greatest of all mysteries, the genderless, sexless Father so loved the world that he sent his eternally begotten Son to assume a male body sustained, nourished, and begotten by a female body, who consented to be overcome by the Spirit.
The birth narratives in Matthew and Luke are careful to affirm the goodness of Mary’s body while also sealing off any claim that God is male or masculine. In her book, Women and the Gender of God, Amy Peeler explores the exegetical history of these passages in wonderful detail, and she offers the helpful language that God is called Father because he provides what a father provides, but he is not male because he does not do what a male does (in the act of procreation). She writes, “God cannot be called ‘Father’ based on any comparison to human procreation, for God does not create like men, and men do not procreate like God” (98).
Had God become incarnate as a woman born of a woman, this would leave out the male body. Likewise, if God had chosen to create a male body from the dust as he did with Adam, it would leave out the female body. Similarly, the savior did not engage in marital intimacy with the opposite sex, because the savior came for new creation, not procreation. Therefore, in choosing to be enfleshed as a male baby dependent on a female body, God honors both of his image bearers.
What, then, are we to do with 1 Timothy 2’s mention of Eve? The difficulty in understanding Paul’s concern over men in Ephesus who are “angry and disputing” (1 Tim 2:8) and women who are “assuming authority over men” (1 Tim 2:12) is exacerbated by his statement that, according to the New International Version (NIV), “women will be saved by childbearing” (1 Tim 2:15). Almost all interpreters resist any notion that Paul is claiming women must give birth in order to experience receive salvation, and yet most explanations still leave us with unresolved questions.
One lesser-known, but still attested to, interpretation is to understand this passage as referring to the Incarnation. While some translations like the NIV render this passage with a plural (“women will be saved”), the Greek verb here is singular and feminine which means a literal rendering would be, “she will be saved.” If we ask who is the most recent “she” in Paul’s argument, the obvious answer is Eve. But how would Eve be saved by having children? Well, grammatically speaking, it is possible to understand the term “childbearing” as referring not to childbearing in general, but to a specific “childbearing,” the one God hints at in Genesis 3:15. In other words, it’s possible this refers to the childbearing of Mary, the Incarnation of the Son.
Paul’s point, then, is that although Eve was the first to become a sinner, by God’s grace, the type of body through which sin came into the world is the type of body through which redemption would come into the world! Eve, like all of us, will ultimately be saved by the work of Jesus, who began as a single cell in Mary’s womb. Whatever was going on among the men and women in Timothy’s community and whatever is going on in ours, the Incarnation is the good news that Emmanuel, God with us, will save us from deepest sins and heal all our broken relationships.
Paul is not saying that Mary is a co-redemptrix with Christ, and neither should we. But a proper emphasis on Jesus’s relationship with his mother shows us that God cares for both male and female. The tiny baby Jesus, fully divine and fully human, “humbled himself” (Phil 2:8) one day to the cross, but first to his mother’s care. Consider that for 33 days after his birth, Mary would have been considered too unclean to enter the temple (Lev 12:4), and yet the Temple made himself dependent on her body for nourishment. Later, as she guided him and watched him “grow in wisdom,” “she treasured these things in her heart” (Luke 2:51,52).
This Advent, we can look see the story of Jesus with Mary as a celebration of both male and female image bearers of God. The particulars of the Christmas story can help us avoid misunderstanding the metaphors, images, and language of scripture, and instead revel in the goodness of what God has made and the mystery of his power, his wisdom, and his love for all his sons and daughters.
Cover image by Jon Tyson.