Loving and Serving a Non-gendered God

The role of women in the church often brings heightens emotions and differing views. Why does the issue of women’s role bring so much angst and division? Perhaps for some, as was for me, the idea of opening myself up to further/new understandings of long-held paradigms felt almost heretical, bringing the thought, “If I am wrong in this, then what else?” Would my foundation crack?  My paradigm-adjusting hermeneutical journey over the last seven or eight years has felt scary, but oh-so-rewarding. Over these years, I have tirelessly researched “both sides and in-between” concerning the possibilities of the role of women in the church. My long-held view that men had authority over women, which I had been taught and had taught for many years, shifted because of my studies. I am sure I still hold, in more ways than I realize, many  presuppositions of many understandings that still need adjusting. We all hold these, no matter how hard we try to free ourselves from them. Though my understanding has changed significantly, my foundation of Jesus as Lord and love for His Word did not crack.

Often, women in the church have been taught for decades that men carry a God-give role of authority in the church and in the home, and thus they have heard more lessons on this subject than have the men. I had taught this for years. As I have tried to open my mind and heart to what I believe God wants to teach me, I have come to realize the power of our (my) presuppositions as I read the Bible. Not only do we carry biblical, cultural, and family presuppositions and biases, but life traumas also play a part in our fears. For many women, trauma has most often come from men and has unintentionally fed into their lack of confidence in personal agency. In response to examining the roles of women in the church, I have heard men and women share fears of women “taking over,” though no Christian women I have ever spoken with have ever expressed such desires. I can wonder why there is not a same fear of a man “taking over.” Perhaps loss of control is at the root of many fears. Despite varying fears and presuppositions, my studies took me down an exegetical and hermeneutical path that surprised me.

My fifty-six-year journey as a Christian has afforded me countless opportunities to read and study the Bible. As a child, I could whip off the names of the books of the Bible, find passages in record speed during Bible drills, tell what happened on which days of creation, list the sons of Jacob, plot the missionary journeys of Paul, share the “plan of salvation,” and many facts and details.[1] However, I did not know how to meld God’s redemptive love story told throughout the Bible. Though I knew about God’s grace, I still held an “I better get this right” mindset about pleasing God. I learned to be a “hard fighting soldier bringing souls to Jesus”… as I “walk right, and talk right, and sing right, and pray right on the battlefield.” Not that I think it is unimportant to live a holy life, but in retrospect the relationship became more functional and transactional than grace-filled. I learned a rational, practical, way to “do” my faith. Though I learned many good and right things and hold much gratitude for my heritage, I have also learned that some of my thinking has not been as accurate as I once thought. I have been intentional about learning, which requires theological study and large doses of humility. When I was younger, I had hoped to attend graduate classes along with my husband at theology school, but it was deemed inappropriate and meaningless for women. Only men could have this investment of money and time. This was reflected in many ways, including the restriction of women for studying theology in many of our Christian colleges. So, I cleaned houses and typed my husband’s papers. Perhaps this is why he was so happy and eager for me to pursue my masters and doctorate as he slipped away from this life.

Over the last few years, I also learned much about my nation’s history that I did not previously know. I did not, and am sure I still cannot fully know, the extent of the systemic racism which was bred and nurtured in my country, because I was taught an adjusted and revised history. Over the last several years I have educated myself by reading books and having conversations. How did I miss so much of this part of history? The realization that I did “miss much” brings me a sense of regret and sadness, but also repentance. I also realized I had missed much concerning church history.

I began studying the Restoration Movement history several years ago out of curiosity for facts about my heritage, and I also needed this background to address my dissertation topic. I soon realized I had a very limited understanding of our church history and ways that this history affects me (and us) today, both for the good and the not-so-good. I came to understand that the Restoration Movement founders began with a commitment to unity amid diversity, something we seem currently unable to attain in our churches. During this past decade, I also diligently studied the women’s role, because I had not known how to answer questions I had tabled for years. I took classes on hermeneutics, pursued further education, and learned how to approach and read the Bible in ways I believe lead me to a more accurate understanding. These have challenged, but ultimately strengthened my faith and love for God.   

Journeys of growth and change involve humility, courage, and even grief. I have felt fear, sadness, and exuberance, sometimes all at the same time. While we don’t all need to get further schooling, we do need to keep learning, reading, growing, questioning, staying curious, and finding safe places to ask and discuss questions. In my search I have needed to become more comfortable with not knowing some things and appreciating mystery, which is hard for the rational mindset so deeply rooted in my heritage. I am learning to become more graceful and less judgmental, learning that unity doesn’t mean uniformity. In fact, only in diversity can we even practice unity. I hope and pray we can do this. It is hard, and we have not yet been successful.

Recently, at a conference, I was deeply moved by thoughts from Sherie Gayle who spoke about our non-gendered God. I cried as she spoke, as her thoughts tapped into numerous underlying personal wounds. This lesson is now available in print in the “Teleios Journal.”[2] Learning that I serve a non-gendered God does not mean that I am to simply add some female attributes to a male God, but involves really believing that God is non- gendered. This is a hard concept. I’m not advocating for God to be referred to as “she,” but our patriarchal culture often tempts women (and men) to feel that women are not fully created in the image of God and are not corresponding to the man, but rather created from a rib to assist him. In this view, woman reflects man who reflects God. Just this week I listened to a video on marriage where the man stated that biblical roles show that man represented the one made in the image of God and woman represented the one made in the image of the church. This creates the one-step-removed-from-God’s-image that many women in our fellowship have been taught rather than the powerful image of unity between a husband and wife described metaphorically in Ephesians 5 and emphasized in Genesis 2.

I have come to understand and believe that patriarchy was/is not the desired plan of God, but simply the culture in which the Bible was written and the result of the sinful desire to dominate which has been in place since the inception of sin after the fall of humankind in Gen 3. While many fear that re-thinking the women’s role is a response to postmodern culture, perhaps instead, centuries of patriarchy have informed our current culture more than we realize. (For a thoughtful study of patriarchy and its effects on both men and women, I highly recommend the book Malestrom by Carolyn Custis James.)

I was recently surprised by my response to an imaginative, contemplative exercise called imaginative prayer. At times, I use an app that leads me through a guided prayer time meant to help engage the senses in prayer. The goal of this “imaginative prayer” is to place yourself in the narrative of a scripture to better understand and experience the context and meaning. As I read Mark 6 before this prayer exercise, I encountered Jesus napping in a boat while a great storm brewed and the crew grew afraid. As I observed the boat and desired to join Jesus there, I pictured in my imagination a pile of sandals left beside the shore. Whether or not shoes would have been left behind is not important to my thoughts, but what was significant was that in my mind the shoes all belonged to men. In my mind’s eye, I envisioned Jesus inviting me to join him in the boat, but I felt stuck. I began to cry as I imagined, “These shoes by the shore all belong to men. Am I not allowed in the boat? What if I can’t get there, but must remain only an onlooker?” Yet, as I remembered Jesus’ many encounters with women I realized that I was reaching an imagined conclusion that the story did not tell.

 I also realized that my former understanding of a male God and a few situational, occasional verses in the Epistles limited my experiences of God-given dreams and gifts I’ve longed to use. For as long as I can remember, I have used leadership and teaching gifts God gave me in settings outside the church, but these same leadership and teaching gifts were often restricted in the church, certainly limited to other women. While women’s ministry is a great need, and I am grateful for opportunities to teach to women, my visceral, tearful reaction to Sherie’s message of a non-gendered God bore witness to this “lack of inclusion and of equal value” wound. I knew in my head I was invited into the boat. I felt that Jesus wanted me there, but probably not the others. So, I found myself digging deeper into the imaginative prayer than I had anticipated.

As a now-single woman, the knowledge that I am as much created in the image of God as anyone else feels deeply important. I realize my thinking and emotions have been affected by the common assumption by many, including me, that God is male. Perhaps this belief has influenced the church’s view of women far more than we realize. When I believe that God is, in fact, non-gendered it dramatically changes things for me. God’s image requires both male and female, as expressed in Genesis. Interestingly, the Spirit is usually referred to in feminine language and wisdom repeatedly is feminine.

 I think it is not fully possible for a man to resonate with the challenges of an assumed context of a male God, so perhaps consider this reversed situation. If you are a man, try to imagine what it would feel like if all of your Bible reading and teaching throughout your entire life had understood God as “she,” and male significance in the church and in relationships was always seen as secondary, or beneath, or one-step-removed from God’s image. What might that feel like?

 I have known for years the rational fact that I am made in the image of God, but within the deeper recesses of my heart rings the oft-taught (and yes, by me for many years) and misplaced understanding that the scripture “woman was created for man and bears his glory,” means that I am really one step removed from the direct image of God—a reflection of a reflection. Creation order has been used often to assign an assistant status or subordinate nature to woman, which I now believe has been misconstrued in meaning. As Paul continues in 1 Cor. 11 he states, as if to show the reversal of the world’s understanding, “In the Lord, however, woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. For as a woman came from man, so also man is born from woman. But everything comes from God.”

With the former train of thought, if there is no man for a woman to reflect God’s image because she is single…then that’s a bummer for her. I have come to the pragmatic realization that it was through my beloved husband that I gained/had a voice in the church. I don’t think, until he was gone, that I grasped the difference this made. He was eagerly attuned to my voice, feeling incomplete without it and desired that it be heard. But his presence gave me voice. Honestly, my “voice” is likely heard as loud as any woman’s voice in our fellowship, but it has been and is far less equal to a man’s. If this is the way God intended it, I believe I would truly accept it as I did for many years, because I trust Him. But I don’t believe this is God’s will or what the Scriptures teach.

 I think there are likely more aspects of this one-step-removed engrained in our thinking than we realize…from teachings that men are over women to failure to learn from women’s gifts or truly desiring to hear and take their thoughts and convictions seriously. I have often heard leaders question/challenge other men about whether they could/would control or lead their wives. I have heard well-respected leaders advise that strong-willed wives would need to be given “longer leashes”…and then, everyone laughed. Think about that.

The patriarchal mentality tempts all sorts of domineering and empire ways of thinking that, throughout history, have had horrific consequences. The long-held cultural acceptance that patriarchy is God’s intent results in many implications and presuppositions in how we interpret Scripture.

During a teaching day a few years ago, I desired to help the brothers understand some ways patriarchal thinking can affect women. (Yes, I taught a class of men and women training for ministry, and it went well though did not happen without significant resistance and drama.) 

I carefully presented various conflicting ways to interpret various scriptures on the topic at hand, desiring to be respectful of others’ views. Before one of the lessons, I conducted an exercise where I asked the men and women in the ministry training class to line up on one side of the room. I then asked them several questions. If they identified with the question, I asked them to take a step forward. The first questions were mostly applicable to situations in the world rather than the church. The last questions were more applicable within the church. I realize these questions could also be used for other “isms” besides sexism, but these questions fit the purpose for our discussion and teaching on women’s roles. For the exercise, I asked each person, man and woman, to take a step forward if in secular life in the world:

  1. You have had to think about your route when walking or jogging for fear of danger of being assaulted.
  2. You have been whistled at or called out in sexual ways while walking.
  3. You have had to think about where to stand or sit in public transport to avoid being fondled.
  4. You have been followed by someone of the opposite sex.
  5. You have experienced inappropriate advances at work from the opposite gender.
  6. You have been the target/recipient of molestation in some way by the opposite gender.
  7. You have been paid less than someone of another gender doing your same job.

In the church:

  1. You have been told that your role is to obey, or be submissive.
  2. You have been unable to use a spiritual gift you possess because of your gender.
  3. You must think carefully before you speak publicly to ensure you won’t be perceived as being too passionate.
  4. You have been unable to teach because of your gender.
  5. You feel your voice is not easily heard because of your gender.
  6. You have felt condescended to because of your gender.
  7. You have been left out of numerous leadership possibilities for which you feel qualified to contribute…because of your gender.

At the end of the exercise, all of the men were standing against the wall while the women had walked all the way across the room. A few men had tears while standing against the wall, embarrassed. One older gentleman was not sure this was an appropriate exercise. Most of the women were in tears, many feeling and identifying on a deep level. A few said they felt their bodies begin shaking while they were taking steps forward. The women conveyed that the part that was by far the hardest for them was the second part—what they felt in the church. They expressed that they did not feel a “less than” view from God, but they felt it in the church. Many felt their leadership gifts were appreciated and used everywhere but in the church. They expected to take the steps in the first section, thinking of the world. The hurt came from what they experienced in the body of Christ. Let that sink in.

The beautiful thing I realize, now that I understand that I truly bear God’s image without it being “once removed” is that I can, as a confident woman, choose to lay down the authority given by my imago Dei for the sake of others and become a servant to all, regardless of gender. I do this because of Christ, striving to follow His example as described in the beautiful hymn of Philippians 2. I have that agency and that choice. But I have only recently believed that man is not a step-in-between God and me. The view of God’s maleness and me as a woman being one-step-removed in function has been built in me over my years as a Christian helped create a distorted view of God’s teachings. I am thankful I see things changing, slowly in some places.  

Over the past year and a half, I have been invited to be in several gatherings that have been predominantly male, but the men had adjusted their views concerning the women’s role. The first few times I participated in a few of these meetings, tears filled my eyes. For the first time, I felt I was viewed as and treated as a complete equal in a group of men. It felt oh-so-different, and a beautiful thing. I have since been given several teaching opportunities with men and women in an outside of communal worship and it has felt normal and freeing. I realize this is not the case many places where women still cannot teach where there are men or if they do speak, it must be in a sharing role with a man standing beside them. I realize I have a non-gendered God standing beside me and the Spirit within me.

But, back to Sherie’s message on viewing our non-gendered God. A friend of mine texted me during Sherie’s message, also feeling emotional. She wrote her thoughts which I share:

“When we envision God as male, the female has no point of origin in the Divine.” 

I have struggled with this perception for years, that both outside and inside the church, men (and some women!) see women as appendages of men, that they have no true personhood without a male by their side as the foundational, true, embodied creation of the male God. There is lip service paid to both being the imago Dei, but in practice, women will always be secondary and peripheral. There is much discussion around “roles” of men and women, but if a man cannot hear a woman speak at church– speak, teach, and yes, preach– if he cannot bear to learn from a woman and sees a gifted woman sharing her gifts as some type of authority being usurped, he will carry in his mind and body a physical and emotional sense that he is fundamentally superior, that he is the true creation of God and that women are trying to “take his place” in the God-ordained order. This is tragic for both women and men, as we’ve seen countless examples of men reacting in rage to women attempting to have their own personhood. For years, I feel that we’ve excused the rage of men, even in our churches, by telling the women that this wouldn’t happen if they were more respectful. I believe this is false– and dangerous– because it is based on the false and dangerous translation/idea of ‘ezer’ as ‘helper’, meaning secondary, peripheral, inferior being created only to serve and “respect” the superior being of the male. Whew. That made me emotional.

Another sister, a ministry leader, sent me these thoughts after a freeing conversation with a church leader where she had recently moved. (The church leader felt she was holding back, being too tentative):

I’ll never forget that recent freeing moment when I felt that ALL of me was welcome in the church.

I became a disciple just as I was entering college as a young, confident, strong thinker. My university nurtured and valued these qualities in women, but the church ….. not so much.  But I loved God and was willing to follow His commands as they were taught to me, even when I didn’t fully understand the “whys,” out of my submission to Christ. 

For many years I had painstakingly navigated every interaction with brothers to make sure that I spoke with a submissive spirit, not stating my opinions too strongly for fear of being “overbearing.” When I spoke publicly, I had to measure every word to make sure I didn’t say anything “preachy,” regardless of the deep conviction and passion I felt for what I was saying. 

I had effectively buried any excitement I felt about a subject to allow room for the brothers to “lead” and quickly deferred to any male in the room when any decision needed to be made. When asked a question, I would warily give my thoughts and then immediately check with the brothers in the room and ask, “what do you think?” lest I came across too confident in my answer and offend their pride. 

One late night this week, after a leadership discussion where I had clearly exhibited these ingrained behaviors, a brother I had not seen in many years pulled me aside and shared concern for how he had seen me change from the confident campus student of my youth, ready to change the world for Christ.  He told me that he felt I was holding back and that he wanted me to feel free to bring ALL of me to the table without reservation. His strength and confidence assured me that he would not feel threatened by my strength. He did not need to “keep me in my place” to be confident in his. He was eager to hear ALL of my thoughts, valuing them equally in the room.  

The feelings of relief, release, and empowerment which that short conversation produced in me frankly shocked me. I had not realized how restrained I had felt all those years until someone called me to use ALL of my gifts to serve the kingdom. It felt like a dam had been broken and I felt free! I think I had nearly lost some parts of myself. Other parts felt rusty and out of shape.  But that one conversation reminded me that “the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline (2 Timothy 1:7).” I needed to use any gift I had to serve God, speaking God’s words with confidence, “as though speaking the very words of God” and serving with ALL of his strength (1 Peter 4:10-11).  Anything less would not be pleasing to the God who made me! God made and loves ALL of me and to have ALL of me WELCOME in the church was a beautiful feeling!

God, ungendered, brings me other surprising thoughts. Most of us picture freshly-created “Adam” as a dude. However, the creation account tells us that God created adam (which, since translators started capitalizing after Eve was created and named, lends one to think this refers to a guy with the first name, Adam). The Hebrew word  אָדַםʼâdam,  sounds much like the word for “ground,” (adamah) and is simply a generic word for humankind. Gen 1: 26 summarizes the creation story told more specifically in chapters 2 and 3. Then God said, “Let us make [hu]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,[fn] and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”

If God is indeed non-gendered and formed humankind (adam) in their image (meaning the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit), then perhaps the first human adam would have been a non-explainable by human biology image of the union of their image until God took a side (the word that has been at times translated “rib” more accurately means side)[3] of the human made in God’s image and then fully created them male and female. Different genders, but corresponding to each other and now fully reflecting the image of the Godhead. Truly, a mystery of unity, as depicted in Ephesians 5.

In Gen 2: 7, if we were to read the the word “human” rather than capital “A” male-name  Adam, it would likely offer a different emphases.

Then the Lord God formed a human from the dust of the ground and breathed into the human the breath of life, and the human became a living being.

This new being, soon perfected in two distinct but completing-each-other genders became “very good,” now reflecting the image of them, the triune God. God is non-gendered, though we refer to Him as Father. He is also cast as mother in various biblical references, and the Holy Spirit, sometimes referred to as wisdom, is often written in feminine language.[4] Images of the Father and the Spirit as female or non-gendered often startle us. Not because they are unbiblical but because we have not integrated the biblical imagery of the divine feminine into our religious vocabulary and culture. But it has been there all along. All that humanity is (male and female) is reflected in the Trinity.

This understanding offers me different emphases when reflecting on both creation and writings of Paul, leading me to believe they are much more about unity than hierarchy. How grateful I am to my non-gendered God, that He encompasses both male and female attributes, but mostly that He in His grace, created me in His image. May I reflect His glory in all my days. This is my prayer.

[1] The genre of Genesis 1-11 suggests that it be read literarily rather than literally. The poetry and symbolism in Genesis contain many similarities to the Mesopotamian epics and myths concerning creation that would have been familiar to the author(s) and hearers of the Genesis creation account. The Ancient Near Eastern readers would have noted the vast difference in the one God, Yahweh, introduced in Genesis, who loves and seeks relationship with His creation as compared to the numerous and egocentric gods they worshipped. When a reader does not appropriate the correct genre, it is easy to misinterpret scriptures not meant to be read or interpreted literally or rationally. For more on these thoughts I recommend Origins by Paul Copan and Douglas Jacoby, Misreading Scripture through Western Eyes by Brandon J O’Brien and E. Richards, and The Epic of Eden by Sandra L. Richter

[2] Sherie Gayle, “Hiding in Plain Sight: Finding the Feminine in the Person of God,” Teleios: A Journal of Holistic Christian Spirituality, vol 3, no 2 (Spring Valley, NY: Crossroad Publishing), 2023.

[3] Rabbi Samuel bar Nachman states,They objected to him: But it says, “He took one of his ribs/ts’laot_…” [Genesis 2:21]! He said to them: [It means] “[one] of his sides/_sit’rohi_”, just as you would say, “And for the side/_tsela of the Tabernacle/mishkan” [Ex 26:20], which they translate [in Aramaic] “for the side/seter”.

 [4]God is not ontologically male or female but whatever humanity is, male and female, it is created in the “image” of God. Unlike in Greek, the word for “Spirit” in Syriac is … feminine (it is neuter in Greek). The Holy Spirit is “feminine” and is referred to as a “she” in almost all early Syriac Christian writings.

 

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About Jeanie Shaw

After retiring from forty-five years in full-time ministry, Jeanie Shaw went back to school to earn her master’s and doctorate in spiritual formation and discipleship. She also serves as a certified Christian life coach who loves helping people discover the joy, peace, and purpose that come from finding and following God’s plan for their lives. She has taught classes and workshops all over the world and has written numerous books. She has four grown children, eight grandchildren, and a golden retriever who thinks he is human. When she is not reading, writing, coaching, teaching, or enjoying her family she might be found walking along rivers, learning new lessons about life.

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