Fathom Mag
Short Story

The Rise and Fall of the Imago Dei?

Assessing Evangelical Theology and Practice.

Published on:
June 1, 2022
Read time:
24 min.
Share this article:

Author's Note:
I gave this lecture at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary on February 10, 2022, at a conference on Exploring Personhood sponsored by the L. Russ Bush Center for Faith & Culture, funded by the Templeton Foundation. My talk is available in video form on the Bush Center's website, along with presentations by Fr. John Behr, Dr. Amy Peeler, Dr. Jeff Schloss, Dr. Justin Barrett, and our respondent, Dr. John Hammett, from Southeastern. My current book project with IVP on the image of God (provisionally titled, Being God's Image: Why Creation Still Matters) should be available in Spring 2023.

Evangelicals all agree that human identity and vocation are rooted in the creation accounts of Genesis, but the particulars are often a matter of debate. I’ll consider the recent work of several evangelical scholars on the imago Dei—Ryan Peterson, John Kilner, Catherine McDowell, and Richard Middleton—each of whom has clarified Old Testament teaching in profound ways. Building on their work, I will reassess the priorities of the contemporary evangelical church and suggest ways of embodying practices that align with Scripture’s clear teaching on the imago Dei.

I accepted this invitation not because I am an expert in theological anthropology, but because it would push me to keep learning. Being the first to take the stage at this conference is daunting. I have yet to hear the insights my fellow presenters have to offer. I have yet to discern their tone or their focus. I am also new to Southeastern. Until yesterday, I had not walked your campus or sat in your classrooms. I know very few of your faculty. I am not a Southern Baptist, have not attended the SBC, have not been educated in a Southern Baptist seminary. I am in many ways an outsider. 

However, I am also an insider. I was born and raised in the Protestant evangelical tradition. My entire education has been in Christian schools. In my childhood home, the radio was always tuned to the Christian station, where we regularly heard Focus on the Family, Chuck Swindoll, and even John MacArthur on occasion. I attended Multnomah, Gordon-Conwell, and Wheaton Graduate School—all conservative evangelical institutions. I have been a member of ETS for thirteen years. I have inhabited SBC-adjacent spaces my entire life. Judging by my Twitter feed, the majority of the people I follow care very deeply about what happens in the SBC, as do I. That’s why I was honored to receive this invitation to address you today and why I have taken seriously the opportunity to contribute to dialogue here.

My task today is twofold: First, I intend to survey and summarize salient insights on the Old Testament doctrine of the imago Dei in Genesis from evangelical scholars. Then, with those in mind, I intend to reassess evangelical practice, with a particular focus on the SBC.

What you’re about to hear from me might be off by a certain number of degrees, but it is honest. I am attempting to hold up a mirror so that you who are insiders will be able to see what the SBC looks like to a sympathetic outsider.

My blend of ignorance and proximity may have its advantages. What you’re about to hear from me might be off by a certain number of degrees, but it is honest. I am attempting to hold up a mirror so that you who are insiders will be able to see what the SBC looks like to a sympathetic outsider. I hope that my outside perspective is a gift. If it stings, I hope these are the wounds of a friend. Please take my admonition not as a final word, but as a prompt for deeper community reflection. Again, I’m not party to the conversations already happening on this campus, so forgive me (or celebrate!) if I’m preaching to the choir.

First, evangelical Old Testament scholarship on the imago Dei. My contention, which I hope is not controversial, is that if we want to understand human personhood, we must begin with the creation accounts in Genesis. They have much to teach us about what it means to be human. So let’s start at the very beginning.

Traditional teaching on the image of God usually revolves around the question of what makes humans different from the rest of creation. Interpreters often consider what capacity humans possess that sets us apart from animals—our rationality, our self-consciousness, our relationality. One problem with this approach is its thin exegetical basis. Focusing on human capability also carries some unintended negative consequences for those on the margins.

What about humans who are less rational, less relational, or less self-conscious, whether from birth or as the result of injury or disease? Another problem with focusing exclusively on human capabilities is that we still know so little about the animal world. Scientists keep discovering higher levels of sophistication among animal communities—communication, collaboration, and relationality—that threaten to muddy the distinctions between animal and human life. [1] I don’t mean to suggest that there is no difference between humans and animals. Our intuition tells us there is a difference and the Bible is absolutely and repeatedly clear that humans are the crown of creation. I’m saying that it may be hazardous to attach the doctrine of the imago Dei to any particular perceived difference with animals, since there is still so much we don’t know about the animal world and since Genesis 1–2 is simply not explicit about what that difference is.

Is there another way? I think there is.

Traditional evangelical theology on the imago Dei has often failed to adequately consider

  • ancient Near Eastern context (tselem),
  • literary context (kinship/stewardship), and
  • theological context (divine council/relation to the Fall).

I’d like to highlight the recent work of four evangelical scholars to address these deficiencies, summarizing their key points. I would be remiss if I did not explain why I did not include Marc Cortez. He is an evangelical and he has produced a number of very important books on the imago Dei in which he talks about Genesis, among other things. However, his paradigm is rooted in New Testament Christology, which makes it a different sort of project. He is also here with us and can speak for himself. So I will focus my comments on the work of Ryan Peterson, Richard Middleton, Catherine McDowell, and John Kilner. I hope that Marc can add his voice to the mix, if not in his lecture, then in the Q&A.

Ryan Peterson is an evangelical theologian who wrote his Wheaton dissertation on the image of God. He examined traditional explanations of the imago Dei and found them wanting. Building on the exegetical work of Old Testament scholars in canonical perspective, Peterson concluded that the imago Dei is not a capacity we possess or a function we fulfill, but rather our human identity. 

He employs “a strong, corporate conception of identity, which implies that the imago Dei is a common identity shared by all individual human beings. ‘Human identity’ refers to that which uniquely identifies humanity as the particular creature that it is, defined by its relation to God. This identity is real whether or not an individual human being knows her identity since human identity is determined by the transcendent God who makes each creature, and all of creation, what it ultimately is.”[2] So our identity as God’s image should lift our gaze to God, since he is the one who defines and determines this identity.

Genesis 1:26–27 reads, “Then God said, ‘Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness . . . So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”

The Hebrew word tselem—usually translated “image”—is not something amorphous or spiritual in nature. A tselem is quite concrete. Tselem (or its cognate tsalmu in Akkadian) denotes an idol or statue, a physical representation of a king or a deity. Attention to the ancient Near Eastern context makes this clear. 

A king who conquered a vast territory could not be physically present everywhere, so he would set up images of himself at the far reaches of his kingdom. These statues were not the king, but they represented him, serving as a reminder of his rule.[3] This is Hadad-Yith’l, the king of Guzan. The inscription on the statue is bilingual—both Aramaic and Akkadian—and refers to the object as both a tselem/tsalmu (image) and demuth (likeness).

Similarly, ancient Near Eastern temples contained an image or images of the god or gods to whom they were dedicated. In elaborate ceremonies, the idols were ritually consecrated to make present the deity in that location.

Richard Middleton suggests that the entire complex narrative of Genesis 1–11 is written as a polemic against Mesopotamian ideology, calling it “one of the most daring acts of theological imagination within Scripture” (231). Genesis 1 presents the cosmos as a temple and humanity as the image in the temple (87). 

Middleton notes that our identity as God’s image has implications for our actions, namely, that we express it by ruling creation on God’s behalf. Rulership is just one of many functions implied by our status (see also Peterson, 74–75). 

Returning to our key text, notice that the announcement of God’s image is followed by its implications:

“Then God said, ‘Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground. So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.’” (Genesis 1:26–28)

In Middleton’s words, “the imago dei designates the royal office or calling of human beings as God’s representatives and agents in the world, granted authorized power to share in God’s rule or administration of the earth’s resources and creatures” (27). The words for “rule” (Genesis 1:26) and “subdue” (1:28) imply that the image includes an exercise of power, and “rule” connotes kingship (52). Benevolent stewardship of creation is an essential implication of our status as God’s image. We mimic God’s creative activity by cultivating and naming creation, by maintaining order that provides for its flourishing.

Middleton also makes a more controversial observation about this passage. While some attribute the “us” in “Let us make humans in our image” to the deliberations of the Trinity, Middleton calls this anachronistic. While he affirms the doctrine of the Trinity, Middleton feels it is unlikely that the writer of Genesis could have intended such a meaning. He suggests instead that “let us” refers more naturally to the divine council, the angelic host that participates in God’s rule. Middleton is not alone in seeing the divine council here, but he presses it a step further to consider what it might mean that humans are made “in the image” not just of God, but of the angelic host—the Elohim more broadly construed. The presence of the divine council suggests a communal exercise of power (60).

To be clear, the exercise of power is not the essence of being God’s image, but is an implication or entailment of human identity. Whether or not we function in this capacity, we are God’s image.

Most scholars locate discussions of the  in Genesis 1:26–28, but Catherine McDowell is convinced that the image of God is also the focus of Genesis 2. McDowell is professor of Old Testament at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Charlotte. In her Harvard dissertation, she considers the ANE context of Genesis 2, comparing it with the Babylonian mīs pî pīt pî, or “Opening of the Mouth” ritual used to inaugurate a new consecrated cult statue, or image. Similarities between this ritual and the Genesis 2 account of humanity in the garden include the setting in a garden temple, the animation of the senses, “the installation of the image in sacred space,” the feeding of it and the opening of its eyes (207). The cumulative effect of these similarities between Genesis 2 and the Babylonian rituals suggest the “ritual birth of [humanity as God’s] image” (204). That is, Genesis 2 presents the first human in a way analogous to a cult statue. 

Image and likeness language also express the parent-child relationship elsewhere in the ANE. We are God’s family. That’s our identity. We “image” God like Seth “images” Adam.

From this, McDowell draws several conclusions about the nature of the imago Dei. I’ll highlight two. Along with Middleton, McDowell emphasizes our role as rulers. Central to her argument are expositions of the first humans’ mandate to fill, subdue, and rule over the earth in Genesis 1 as well as human responsibility to exercise law and justice in Genesis 9, following the Flood. As beings made according to God’s image, humans are “designed to manifest his presence in the world” (137). 

Second, McDowell argues that the Bible’s portrait of human identity presents us as God’s kin. She pays close attention to Genesis 5, where Adam’s son is said to be “according to his likeness.” Seth’s likeness to Adam is placed alongside Adam’s likeness to Yahweh, offering an analogy that helps define image as kinship (125). Image and likeness language also express the parent-child relationship elsewhere in the ANE. We are God’s family. That’s our identity. We “image” God like Seth “images” Adam.

Our fourth and final evangelical conversation partner is John Kilner. I heard John Kilner speak on the imago Dei at my first ETS annual meeting—2009 in New Orleans. The strength of his argument was convincing. If you’re interested, you can read his paper in JETS or dive into his full-length monograph on the topic, entitled Dignity and Destiny.[4] Kilner is a theologian and ethicist who teaches at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. His argument in that plenary session was simple, but I found it surprising: the image of God was not distorted or diminished or destroyed at the Fall. It is commonplace for theologians and pastors to talk as though the Fall ruined everything, as though some essential component of what it means to be human was lost when Adam and Eve sinned. However, the text says nothing of the sort.[5]

Some point to Genesis 5 to justify this reading. Although Adam was made in God’s likeness, Adam’s son was made inAdam’slikeness—the divine imprint has been replaced. However, it doesn’t work to see this as a diminishment of the imago Dei because in Genesis 9, after the Flood, God instructs people to honor the sanctity of human life by not murdering fellow humansbecause humans are God’s image. Post-Fall and even post-Flood, the image is apparently intact (38).

For Kilner, much is at stake in this claim that every human being is still the image of God. Without it, we lose our grounds for proper treatment of our fellow humans à la Genesis 9. If the imago Dei is rooted in a capacity such as rationality or relationality or self-consciousness, what happens when someone is in a coma? What happens if someone is born with a disability? Are they no longer fully the image of God? Kilner insists, along with Peterson and Middleton, that “image” cannot be defined by attributes that people have such as reason, rule, righteousness, or relationality. God bestows dignity on humans that does not depend on our abilities and is not lost due to sin (120, 314). Rather, it requires renewal.

Back to Peterson—He explains that because of our identity as God's image, it follows that we are most fully ourselves when we imitate God. Since we are created in God’s image, we naturally take on the characteristics of the one we worship (171). This is one reason it is crucial that we do not worship idols. We are God’s image, so the worship of idols not only dethrones God, but it also unseats us from our God-given status as his royal representatives! 

Peterson explains that “humanity retains its created status as the creature made in the image and likeness of God. However, after the fall . . . humanity practices a form of life that amounts to a lie about the Creator. . . . [That is,] humanity continues in its vocation as God’s image but fails to image God in truthful ways” (194–95). That is, because of our sin, “humans misrepresent God” to creation (195).

My working hypothesis is that to talk about being God’s image (rather than “being made in God’s image”) reinforces the concept that the imago Dei is human identity rather than a capacity that can be lost.

Perhaps an illustration will help. I have three children. Say one of my daughters stops talking to me and rebels against my instruction; she remains my daughter. Our relationship may be broken or strained, but her status as a family member is unchanged. There is simply no way to erase the biological connection between us. I will always be her mom; she will always be my child. 

The same is true with theimago Dei.Every human being is made as God’s image. As we learned from Catherine McDowell, that status implies kinship, or is at least analogous to kinship. We’re God’s family. Many humans are estranged from their Creator and do not live in light of their true identity as God’s children. However, their family status is unchanged. In Kilner’s words, “Christ constitutes a complete picture of what God intends for people in God’s image to be and to do” (60).

 I should add that evangelicals disagree over whether every human being is the image of God. Of the four scholars I’ve surveyed here, Peterson and Middleton insist that humans are the image of God, and Kilner and McDowell assert that only Jesus is the image of God—the rest of us are made in the image of God. The answer seems to ride in part on how you interpret the preposition in Genesis 1:26—is it a beth essentiae?Or a preposition that indicates distance? In terms of practice, I see no difference. All of us agree that our human identity is grounded in this affirmation, that our ethics rely on viewing every human in this light. We also agree that Jesus is the human par excellencewho models for us how God intends for us to live as humans. However, my working hypothesis is that to talk about being God’s image (rather than “being made in God’s image”) reinforces the concept that the imago Dei is human identity rather than a capacity that can be lost.

Let’s pause a moment and take stock of these insights:

  1. The imago Dei is not a capacity, but our human identity.
  2. Every human being, regardless of faith, is God’s image.
  3. Being God’s image implies that we are God’s family.
  4. Being God’s image has implications for our vocation. We are to rule over creation on God’s behalf, as stewards of its flourishing.
  5. Every human being, by virtue of their status as God’s image, possesses dignity and should be treated accordingly.

I’d like to extend these insights further by considering more carefully the vocation of women at creation. In Genesis 1, it is worth noting that man and woman are both told to rule. The objects of their rule are fish, birds, livestock, wild animals, and creatures that move along the ground. Humans are given the task to rule over creation, but not over each other. Their rule is one of partnership. 

Ah, but didn’t Adam name Eve? And doesn’t naming imply an exercise of power? Yes, Adam names Eve, but not until after the Fall. If naming implies an exercise of power, which is possible but by no means certain, it could be an unfortunate result of the disruption to the partnership God intended in Genesis 2—to put it more strongly, Adam could be overstepping his bounds, since God commanded both sexes to rule and subdue the earth.

That’s a woman’s vocation, to come alongside men so that we can together accomplish our God-given responsibilities as his image—ruling and subduing, guarding and keeping. We are meant to be a team.

Genesis 2, the second, more anthropologically focused account of creation, portrays the man alone and in need of a partner to fulfill his vocation. Adam cannot succeed in the work God has given him to do without a partner that on the one hand corresponds to him, and on the other hand is different, complementary. God made woman as his ‘ezer. Here is what I find fascinating: ‘ezer never describes what a servant does in the Old Testament. The woman is not the cleanup crew or the cheerleader. She is the man’s ally.[7] The word ‘ezer occurs over ninety times in the Old Testament. Half of these refer to God as Israel’s ‘ezer,[6] and the other half refer to a military ally. If you’re in battle and you’re about to be stomped, you need an ‘ezer to come to your aid. That’s a woman’s vocation, to come alongside men so that we can together accomplish our God-given responsibilities as his image—ruling and subduing, guarding and keeping. We are meant to be a team.

To state the obvious, the man will be unable to “fill the earth” without the partnership of woman. Together they will be fruitful, filling the earth with men and women of the next generation who will carry on this work of ruling and subduing, guarding and keeping. As Greg Beale and others have argued, the goal was to expand the boundaries of the garden so that sacred space would eventually encompass all of creation. This gargantuan task would require the energies and yes, the bodies, of both male and female.

This reading of Genesis 2–3 does not necessarily erase distinct gender roles or even a godly form of male leadership. After all, we’re still in Genesis and there is a whole lot more Bible to be read. But it’s worth noting that God designates “rulership” that involves “subduing” for both man and woman to do together and that the rulership of man over woman is a consequence of the Fall, not God’s original creation design. We might question, then, whether it ought to be our MO.

And so, to add to my summary: 

  1. The imago Dei is not a capacity, but a human identity.
  2. Every human being, regardless of faith, is God’s image. 
  3. Being made as God’s image implies that we are God’s family.
  4. Being God’s image has implications for our vocation. We are to rule over creation on God’s behalf, as stewards of its flourishing.
  5. Every human being, by virtue of their status as God’s image, possesses dignity and should be treated accordingly.
  6. Women share in this human vocation to rule over and subdue creation. Men and women are intended to be allies, partners

We could further distill this list into just three focus areas by which we may assess evangelical practice:

  • Sanctity of Human Life
  • Stewardship of Creation
  • Partnership of Men and Women

How are we doing in these areas? When the world looks in on the church, what do they see?

Let me say again that I speak as a conservative evangelical. My conviction is that the teaching of Scripture ought to inform our practice. As someone who is SBC adjacent, I am concerned about signs that all is not well. When prominent SBC pastors and leaders are leaving the denomination because they no longer see hope for change in these areas, it strikes me as a problem of crucial importance. 

Shouldn’t conservatives be the first to acknowledge the possibility that human sin might have affected institutions and laws?

First, let’s consider the Sanctity of Human Life. We have argued for humans’ place as the crown of creation, for our difference from animals. This has had a profound and positive impact on education, health care, and international aid. However, as evangelicals we are prone to a curious and tragic disconnect between our theological anthropology and our support for public policies that ensure access for all people to quality education and health care. Let me be more specific:

  • Evangelicals have often been among those arguing against the creation of legislation or programs to ensure affordable health care or accessibility of buildings and programs. The argument goes that the government is ill-equipped to efficiently steward tax dollars, so these services ought to be provided by private corporations or churches fueled by charity giving. However, the huge gap between the rich and the poor in access to health care shows that this approach isn’t working. At the same time, Christians have lobbied for exemptions to legislation such as the Affordable Care Act or the Americans with Disabilities Act. A brief survey of our church buildings will show that by and large churches are the least-accessible buildings to those with physical disabilities, and this is because we argued that we shouldn’t have to be accessible. Secular institutions are leading the way in serving the needs of those with disabilities. If we took the doctrine of the imago Dei seriously, shouldn’t we be right out in front? Don’t we believe that every human being matters?

  • Another example: We have fought valiantly for the unborn, including lobbying for legislation to restrict abortion—as well we should!—but the church has often remained silent when our fellow adults have been victims of unjust treatment. We regularly refuse to address the inhumane practices of our policing, our criminal justice system, and the disproportionate rates of arrest and incarceration among communities of color. The same crime committed by a white man is far less likely to result in arrest. Isn’t it our human responsibility to lead the way in working toward a society ordered for human flourishing that sees every human being as God’s image? Instead, evangelicals have opposed attempts at criminal justice reform.

  • We are the people who say we believe in human depravity, and yet as soon as someone wants to talk about how that depravity has affected institutions or social structures, evangelicals call foul! Just about everyone in this room would probably agree that at least some tenets of critical race theory are incompatible with the teaching of Scripture. However, the current climate is such that any mention of social or systemic injustice is met with an accusation of being a Marxist or Critical Race Theorist—a distraction from the important work of reform. Shouldn’t conservatives be the first to acknowledge the possibility that human sin might have affected institutions and laws? Shouldn’t we be putting more energy into rooting out racism than we do to critiquing the efforts of others to do so?[8] Can we agree that racism is still a problem on some level in some places in the world? Given that the Bible clearly teaches the dignity of every human being, Dr. Ralph West says, “A general condemnation of racism is insufficient in a time when there are specific instances of it that go unaddressed. . . . You cannot claim to uphold equality without attacking the very systems undermining it.”[9]

  • The Scriptures were the foundation of our founding fathers’ conviction that all men are created equal, but our society is fraught with evidence that we have not yet achieved this ideal. 

Is it getting hot in here? Let’s move on to a less controversial subject: the environment.

Somewhere along the way, the bottom line became more important to us than sustainable stewardship.

How are we doing as stewards of creation? This is, after all, the immediate command connected to our identity as the imago Dei

  • We preach God as Creator and bristle at the mere suggestion that our world is the result of time and chance, but we have left almost entirely to others the task of developing sustainable technologies to steward creation.

  • In large numbers, evangelicals have elected candidates whose express purpose is to reduce environmental restrictions (for the sake of business and industry) rather than to consider more carefully the collateral damage of our way of life. Not only are we bequeathing to our children and grandchildren oceans clogged with plastic, a growing list of endangered species, waterways poisoned by mountaintop removal, farmland depleted of nutrients, and entire swaths of land made barren through shortsighted deforestation, but today the communities adjacent to this environmental degradation suffer disproportionately from the effects of our mismanagement of resources.

  • In spite of this dire situation, some (most?) of our churches are lazy about recycling and sustainable use of resources. Environmental stewardship is not a factor in most churches’ decision-making and planning.

  • Genesis 1–2 is clear that the fruits of the earth are to be shared by both humans and animals. Yet most of the animals we eat are treated inhumanely—our chickens and hogs are caged, our cattle never eat grass, our oceans are overfished. The situation is dire. Where is the church in this conversation? Somewhere along the way, the bottom line became more important to us than sustainable stewardship.

Finally, how are we doing on the vision God laid out in Genesis 1–2 for the partnership of men and women as allies, both bearing the imago Dei, both carrying out God’s commission to rule creation on his behalf? 

Women’s free labor is valued more than women’s voices.

  • In some evangelical circles, women are often treated as temptresses rather than allies, as liabilities rather than co-laborers. 

  • We have argued ad nauseam for male headship but have been the last ones to advocate for male accountability in cases where that power has been abused. We have acted as though Genesis 3 lays out God’s vision for human identity and vocation, rather than Genesis 1 and 2. As a result, SBC and other conservative leaders have told abused women to go back to their abusive husbands, putting themselves and their children at risk—all in the name of male headship. Where is our doctrine of total depravity now? Since when does the doctrine of male headship take precedence over biblical commands not to exploit, dominate, or abuse? Since when did it become a first-order doctrine?

  • In large numbers, evangelicals have voted for politicians at every level of government who are known to have been unfaithful to their wives and who have sexually abused women. What does this say to the world about evangelicals’ views of women? And what does it say that we have tolerated the leadership of men in our churches and schools who objectify women, fail to protect them from harm, and then don’t take their testimony seriously?

  • We have built entire denominations on the backs of women’s volunteer labor while failing to educate women theologically. Here’s what conservative women tell me directly: they don’t pursue theological education because it seems irresponsible to go into debt for an education that will not lead to an income. These are women who are bright, with servants’ hearts, who possess the aptitude for further study and are in fact hungry to learn and grow. They are passionate about Scripture and theology. But their churches—our churches—have no place for them to invest unless as a volunteer, and so they sell essential oils or handbags or makeup or Tupperware instead. This is a tragedy.

  • We have championed marriage and the nuclear family so long and so loud that singles have had a difficult time feeling like full-fledged humans. Every one of us starts out single. Some remain single their entire lives. Most of us become single again at some point. We have got to develop a theology of personhood that embraces singles as vital members of our faith families. If we don’t, we will lose a significant percentage of the next generation—those identifying as SSA and their friends. We cannot on the one hand say “The Bible calls you to stay celibate” and on the other hand fail to include singles in the life and teaching of the church.

  • Women are not in the places where decisions are being made in our churches. Women’s free labor is valued more than women’s voices. More than half of those in our congregations are women. The men who lead are missing out on the perspective, gifting, and wisdom of half of the church. This seriously breaks my heart.

Maybe this assessment does not describe you personally. Maybe your church or this school is the exception. But if the shoe fits...I hope you’ll consider finding a new pair of shoes.

I’m speaking in generalities, without naming names, quite on purpose. Maybe this assessment does not describe you personally. Maybe your church or this school is the exception. But if the shoe fits...I hope you’ll consider finding a new pair of shoes. 

There is, in short, a radical disconnect between the priorities of Scripture and the priorities of conservative evangelicals. Is it because we assume that the imago Dei was lost at the Fall? Does God’s vision at creation no longer pertain to the world in which we live? Do we feel we are simply doomed to live in a Genesis 3 world—our relationships with each other, with the land, and with God characterized as adversarial—until the whole thing goes up in smoke?

That seems a very poor reading of Scripture to me. When I read Genesis, a different picture emerges: one of hope for the seed of a woman who will come and crush the serpent so that the purposes of creation might be realized—purposes that include partnership, stewardship, and dignity—and that make it possible for us to live together in the presence of God again.

I have a dream that as evangelicals we can recover this vision of our identity and vocation. Could our doctrine of the imago Dei be resurrected to new life? Imagine with me . . .

What if male church leaders saw women not as fragile or dangerous and instead viewed women as allies and partners, persons whose insights, energies, and gifts were vital to the work of the ministry? 

What if the SBC and other conservative denominations renewed our commitment to providing access for women to seminary education so that women’s participation in the life of the church was nourished by time spent in theological reflection? What would this mean for future pastors who attend seminary? They would have lived experience of learning alongside women—and yes, learning from them. I applaud Southeastern for inviting me and Amy Beverage Peeler to speak on the topic of theological anthropology—I’m glad you took this risk. I applaud you for offering scholarships to women, for forming the Biblical Women’s Institute and the Society for Women in Scholarship. Without the voices of women, we would be impoverished.

What if those in leadership used their position to protect the most vulnerable members of our communities rather than to justify those who abuse their power? What if the SBC became known as the denomination with a zero-tolerance policy for sexual abuse? What if women flocked to the SBC because they knew that they would be able to bring all of who they are to kingdom work? And they knew they would be safe? What if instead of #sbcToo the hashtag was #sbcThriving?

What if instead of throwing in the towel because the system is broken, the church led the way in fixing the problem?

What if people who are same-sex attracted found our churches’ vision of the family of God captivating and knew they would find loving community even in celibacy?

What if we took seriously our mandate to rule creation and saw creation care not as a distraction from our vocation but as a way of leaning in to what it means to be human? What if churches and Christian colleges and seminaries led the way in recycling and sustainable use of resources? What if we pooled our resources to address these problems in our community? What if we took to heart that consumerism without regard for the environment disproportionately harms the world’s most vulnerable populations?  

I can hear some of your objections echoing in my head. This is what some of you are thinking (I know because it’s what my dad would say to me): Recycling doesn’t work. Didn’t you know that our plastic recycling ends up in landfills in China? That is precisely my point. What if instead of throwing in the towel because the system is broken, the church led the way in fixing the problem? But Carmen, you say, that is not a gospel issue! I simply refer you back to Genesis 1:26–28, where it seems very clear to me that creation care is at the very heart of our God-given human vocation. I applaud Southeastern for being a Great Commission Seminary. What if everyone who goes blessed the communities where they served with more sustainable practices to promote human flourishing?

What if our belief in the sanctity of human life extended past birth? What if our church buildings were the most accessible places for people with disabilities to fully participate? What if we had wheelchair ramps up to our platforms and not just to our pews? 

What if evangelicals were known as the ones most likely to work for access to health care and education, who insisted on equal pay for equal work, and were the first to stand up against racial discrimination? What if people of color knew their voices would be most highly regarded in the SBC? Hear me out—what if they knew that their faces would not just end up in glossy promotional brochures, but that they would be treated with dignity as full participants? What if students of color flocked to our seminaries because they heard it was the place to be? Because they saw people of color in leadership and they felt confident that their education would empower them for ministry to diverse communities?

Call it a midlife crisis or call it a manifesto or call it both. I’ve spent almost four and a half decades as a deeply engaged member of the evangelical church. I’ve read the books and listened to the radio shows and attended the conferences. Yet the more I read Scripture with the global church, the more I am puzzled by the ways the white American evangelical church has flat out missed some of the most central dimensions of our human vocation—creation care, the partnership of men and women, and the affirmation of human dignity of all people, without regard to race, nationality, class, sex, or gender.

The fall of Adam and Eve was not the fall of the imago Dei. It was rather a breach of trust resulting in a family crisis.

As Russell Moore put it, “We now see young evangelicals walking away from evangelicalism not because they do not believe what the church teaches, but because they believe that the church itself does not believe what the church teaches.”

I believe with all my heart that the imago Dei was not lost in Genesis 3. The fall of Adam and Eve was not the fall of the imago Dei. It was rather a breach of trust resulting in a family crisis. However, judging from the evangelical movement today, I fear that we have lost sight of the imago Dei. That’s why I’m so glad that the topic of theological anthropology is front and center today. We have a lot to recover.

Carmen Joy Imes
Dr. Carmen Joy Imes is associate professor of Old Testament at Biola University. She is the author of Bearing God's Name: Why Sinai Still Matters and a forthcoming book entitled Being God's Image: Why Creation Still Matters, both published by IVP. Carmen is a fellow for Every Voice, a center for Kingdom Diversity, and she serves on the board of the Institute for Biblical Research as Program Chair. When she's not teaching or writing, she's creating YouTube videos for her Torah Tuesday channel and reading as many books as possible.

[1] See also John F. Kilner, Dignity and Destiny: Humanity in the Image of God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015), 110.

[2]  Peterson, 54.

[3]  E.g., the ninth century BC statue of King Had-yisi at Tell Fakhariyeh, which uses both the Aramaic slm and dmwt and the Akkadian tsalmu to describe it. See Kilner, Dignity and Destiny, 125–26.

[4] John F. Kilner, “Humanity in God’s Image: Is the Image Really Damaged?,” J. Evang. Theol. Soc. 53.3 (2010): 601–17; Kilner, Dignity and Destiny.

[5] It may be worth noting that Catholics take a mediating position, saying that the image is retained, but the likeness is lost (from Ed Curtis). However, this distinction seems to be a distortion of Hebrew poetic grammar. 

[6] See, for example, Genesis 49:25; 2 Chronicles 32:8; Psalm 10:14; Isaiah 41:10-14.

[7] See, for example, Joshua 1:14 or 1 Chronicles 12:1-22.

[8] Dr. Jemar Tisby notes that “the impact of the statement is to put all the energy and focus behind critiquing efforts at racial justice, when the energy should be put toward rooting out the racism in their midst.”



Next story