I'm my dad's spitting image. My fair skin, strawberry blond hair, analytical mind, and impatience with all things not just-so come straight from him. Anyone who knows me and knows him knows that I am my father's daughter. The fact that I am made in his image does not get diminished at all because I am female.
The same is true for being made in God's image. Women and men equally are made in God's image, a characteristic and identity that's not tied to our sex: "Male and female he made them," all of us, in his image.
Being made in God's image entails far more significant qualities than our sex.
Being made in God's image means, among other things, that we are moral beings, able to have consciousness of right and wrong, good and evil. It means we share a vocation as vice-regents in the stewardship of his creation. It means that we are eternal, created to live forever. We are creative like our Creator, co-creators in multiplying his image-bearers. Like God, we love and hate and anger and hurt in ways that can't be explained merely by firing neurons and surging chemicals. We have language, and that language shapes us as we shape the world through our words. It means we can recognize and appreciate beauty. We long.
None of these characteristics of God, reflected in the creatures that bear his image, are confined to one sex or the other. I am no less made in my earthly father's image in being female than I am in being made in my heavenly Father's image.
Yet some purport that in order for us to understand the fullness of woman being created in God's image, it's helpful to refer to God "herself." Of course, the call for gender-neutral language has been around for nearly half a century. (I generally favor its use as it relates to human beings, although "I will make you fishers of persons" will never sound quite right to these ears.) In the most recent iteration of the debate over God's pronouns and names, I was surprised to learn that some Christians claim that other Christians are teaching that women aren't made in God's image. I have not been able to find anyone making this assertion. Some interpret this view as an implication of complementarian thinking, though the Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (with whom I disagree on other substantial issues) does not take this position.
So let's be clear: We need not refer to God as female to understand that women are fully made in God's image. The reality of my being made in my father's image—whether my earthly father or my heavenly one—does not depend on my referring to either as "she." By way of analogy, the fact that my husband is more nurturing and romantic than I does not render him "she," nor me "he."
Furthermore, while God, as Spirit, is sexless, his names are gendered. The terms "sex" and "gender" are commonly conflated, particularly by Christians who often are uncomfortable using the former term; "sex" refers to biological function while "gender" refers to socially and culturally constructed roles, in addition to its use in grammar which is also related to the topic at hand. Thus, as my colleague at Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary, Gary Yates, points out, "All language about God is analogical in some sense."
We can know something about everyone, including God, by their names—but not everything. Yet, in our attempt to know and understand one another through language, it is not within our right to change anyone's name, least of all God's. A high view of Scripture, therefore, demands that we address God in the terms used by the inspired writers of his word. Whether their language reflects the gender of the Hebrew language or reflects the patriarchal views or both, God chose these writers in that time and place to record his word.
Even the abundance of lush feminine imagery used in the Bible to convey God's character does not give us license to change the gender of his names. One of the most compelling examples of feminine imagery for God to be found in the canon of Western literature, a text I teach regularly, is Revelations of Divine Love by Julian of Norwich, a 14th-century mystic and anchoress.
Appearing in both a short text and a later expanded work, Revelations describes both God and Jesus as a Mother, using evocative, instructive, but extra-biblical imagery. Julian's poetic descriptions of God's great love are powerful and transformative, but her use of the term "Mother" in reference to God and Christ is not biblically warranted. Nevertheless, Julian's work is an important piece in the history of Christian literature from both a literary and a historical perspective. The work is excellent evidence that the Scriptures are central to a robust theology and that denying access to those scriptures and sound scriptural teaching will leave a void that will not go unfilled. Revelations of Divine Love also demonstrates that women have voices, those voices will be spoken, and to oppress women or hinder their learning or leadership will only set back the church and the world.
If fallen humanity has wielded God's language and character as bludgeons against women (or any people), then such injustices must be corrected. Yet we must not try to remedy injustice with error. If we do we unwittingly strengthen the hands of those wielding the bludgeons. We need not employ wrong-headed—or wrong—strategies to achieve right ends.
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