There are two accounts in the book of Genesis that describe God’s creation of humanity. Genesis 1:26-31 speaks of God creating people in God’s image to have dominion over the earth whilst Genesis 2:26-31 says that God first created man and subsequently woman to provide companionship as they tend and care for the garden. These two passages have been interpreted and used as a foundation from which to maintain societal structures which present men as somehow stronger and better than women. The structures of our churches have for centuries forbidden women to hold certain roles or positions because of the understanding taken from these passages amongst others. So, let us look at some of the words that are given,
So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.Genesis 1:27
Of all of creation it is humanity, both male and female, who are described as being made in the image of God. Over the years this has led to much debate regarding what image of God is projected in humanity. Is it that if we look at one another we see something of a physical representation of God? Does God have a body with head, shoulders, knees and toes? If so, which human body is the most god-like? Is it a well-toned, physically fit and muscular body? In ancient Greece, for example, moral, political and philosophical values were embodied in perfect and perfectly-balanced, rational human bodies. Statues from the era display the ideas of perfection with the most god-like figures being those who embody the values most successfully. This is not confined to ancient Greece, this is an idea that continues today – our society and our churches spend vast amounts of money presenting what we consider to be the ‘perfect’ image. Make-up, fashion, cosmetic surgery, filters and doctoring of photographs are all used to help us present an image that fits with our ideas of what will be attractive, hiding what we consider as blemishes, and promoting our so-called ‘best side’. As a culture we maintain a desire to find the fountain of youth as though youth is somehow more godly than a life well lived.
Such ideas of being made in the image of God and what that perfect image looks like have influenced how people are treated if they have a particular skin colour, disability or physical abnormality. It was August 1964 when Kyle Haselden wrote in the New York Times “11 AM Sunday is our most segregated hour.” It was true then in American and it continues to be true today across the globe. Writing in 2019 about his experience of the UK church, especially churches which have a majority members who are white / Caucasian, Pastor Ben Lindsay says, ‘you experience verbal and non-verbal slights and indignities on a regular basis that, although brief and commonplace, can lead to a deep feeling of isolation and exclusion.’ It should therefore be of no surprise that for the past decade black majority churches are the fastest growing denominations in the UK, having been excluded from church life in the existing churches, Black, Asian and other Minority Ethnic people have come together with those who accept them without racial prejudice.
It is a similar story for disabled people. BBC journalist Damien Rose wrote of his experience of a stranger approaching him on the Tube in London saying that God wanted to heal him. Rose is blind, he describes himself as ‘not religious’, and the message he takes from these frequent and annoying encounters with Christian’s is that he needs to be ‘fixed’, that he is not good enough for the church or for God. This is a common message of church, with theologies that equate disability and sin or lack of healing with lack of faith. Rather, Psalm 139 speaks of God creating, intricately weaving us together when we were hidden in our mother’s womb,
For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well. My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth.Psalm 139:13-15
I am colour blind. I will admit it hasn’t had a huge impact on my life. There are a few jobs that I couldn’t do (thankfully I didn’t want to do them anyway), occasionally my clothes clash, and I can’t see the numbers in those bubbly colour images. For others it causes more issues. If I believe God created me, do I believe there is some kind of fault because I see colours differently that others? No. In a small way I have a different perspective of the world. Other disabilities have a greater impact. Would some people desire to live without those impacts, yes! I also have depression and would happily not suffer with the exhausting and negative consequences in has on day to day life at times. Yet, I am also grateful for the empathy that this condition has given me.
So, if God created us in God’s own image perhaps it is not the physical image that we need to consider. We are not more or less god-like because of physical features, skin colour, strength or abilities. God created us as beings who are formed for relationship. Genesis 1:26 says “The God said, ‘Let us make humankind[c] in our image, according to our likeness” [emphasis added]. In the very first chapter of the Bible we learn that God is not alone – an indication of the Christian belief in God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. God is already in relation with another or others who God will create with to form humankind. God is therefore relational and to be made in God’s image is to be relational. Genesis 2 speaks of God creating a helper, a partner, for man. Whether or not a rib was taken out of the man to create a woman is the subject of debate and determined by whether one has a literal interpretation of the Bible or not. The important thing is that God created. The image of the rib indicates the intimacy of the relationship between humanity. The rib cage is the protective structure of the lungs, that is the mechanism my which humans breathe. God is said to have spoken (Genesis 1:3), or breathed (Genesis 2:7) life into creation and the story of creation speaks of humanities life coming from the breathe of God and the shared breathing of one another. We are created as relational beings who require one another to breathe, to live life together.
If it is as relational beings that we are created in God’s image it is then through the outworking of our relationships that we are witnesses of God. We are not created as robots to fulfil repetitive tasks without question, but as beings who have choices because God has choices. We have choices to work hard or to laze around, to help others or only help ourselves, to care or to hurt, to attack or defend, to seek power or to seek peace. I believe that the Bible speaks of God’s character and choices to create, to seek relationship with creation and to continually put human desires and needs over and above God’s own hopes and aspirations. In this way as humans we might learn by the example of God in our relationships with one another and in how we choose to relate to one another. The Bible speaks of a God of justice, mercy, compassion, love, hope and life. To be made in the image of God should cause those who study the Bible, who love Christ and claim to be filled with the Spirit of God to lay down our lives for the sake of others, speak out against injustice, welcome those who do not look, sound, act or behave like us into our closest relationships. The church should be a people who know we belong together as a wonderful expression of God’s creative diversity of all humanity irrespective of age, disability, gender, sex, race, religion, orientation, education, economic means or marital status.
We may not realise this in its fullness on earth but the vision of God’s kingdom given in Revelation 7:9 speaks of “ a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages”. My prayer echoes that of Jesus which says “God’s kingdom come. God’s will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10) and so that vision of heaven filled with every tribe and nation and language is the vision I seek for God’s church.