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The Dignity of Woman

Updated: Nov 7, 2020

Veliky Novgorod, Russia – August 17, 2017: Antique Russian orthodox icon. The Annunciation painted on wooden board, Mid-16th century

Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. God blessed them; and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it…” Genesis 1:26-28a

Sunday is Mother’s Day. When I first started in ministry, I preached on the importance of women and on the unique gift of motherhood every year. As it turned out, I didn’t know all that much about mothering, so I stopped doing that, though I did all the “mother” recognition – newest, oldest, most offspring, most grandchildren, and the like. Several years ago, a friend asked if I would teach a class on raising grandchildren, a not-infrequent circumstance in many churches these days and a recurring role in my own life from time to time. I refused on the grounds that the only thing I knew with any confidence about mothering is what not to do. My first suggestion would be to throw out conventional wisdom, which seldom has anything to do with godly wisdom, and revisit what God called woman to be in her creation and what that means for motherhood – an incendiary suggestion, to be sure.

Yet, I cannot imagine an image of woman with greater dignity, greater beauty, and greater meaning than the one God designed. I wish I had trusted God more than human authorities when I was a young woman. In the past months, I’ve read quite a bit about male and female, gender and desire, the meaning of marriage, and the history of the rise of feminism, our search for equality, as it were. Thus, I repeat – not as any great authority, but as one more informed than I used to be – I cannot imagine an image of woman with greater dignity, greater beauty, and greater meaning than the one God designed. Let us consider this meditation as a bit of a trial run, an introduction to the work I am doing on the meaning of Christian marriage. I cannot write something sappy about mothers and pretend not to have discovered the remarkable creature God fashioned from the man’s side. (Gentlemen, Father’s Day is coming, but for now, suffice it to say that God thinks more highly of man than the caricature to which you are subjected in our culture these days.)

Women are so cool! We are distinct from men in beautiful and powerful ways, and yet, we are gifted with the image of God equal in measure to men. For decades – really, for well over a century – women have fought to be equal with men, and there is much to commend in that struggle. Certainly, our God never quavered about the equality of woman when He created us, for women are made in the image of God as were men. Finding historical instances of inequality or, rather, injustice to women is not hard to do, but finding human sin is never hard to do. The injustice does not originate in God, however, only from sin.

In the passage from Genesis 1, God created male and female in His image, then told them they are to rule over the earth and every living thing. Equality is right there, in God’s original design, yet there is differentiation, as well. This is, I think, our error. We have lost or confused the distinction between equality and sameness. God created male and female in His image, and man and woman both are in His likeness, at least in our creation. But for all our intended equality, God chose two, male and female, to be in His image and likeness. If ever there were a thing we would like to deny in our society, it is the binary creation of God’s image. Last, God blessed them, and this blessing is unpopular today, for the blessing is to be fruitful and multiply. Each time God blessed His creation, the blessing was followed by “be fruitful and multiply.” We Christians in the western world are not much for multiplication, not when we can help it, but that is conventional wisdom again, and we might be wiser if we wary of worldly wisdom. Life is the necessary condition for good.

Not quoted above is the Genesis 2 story of the creation of woman, where more is revealed, and we see something entirely different in our creation. Noting that man should not be alone, and showing the man all of the animals in pairs, God put the man into a deep sleep, then sort of pulled him apart. The translation reads rib, but nowhere else in the Hebrew Scriptures do we find that word translated as rib. Instead, the word is used for side or flank, which is really a great deal more than a mere rib. God fashioned the woman in whole, an entire being, while the poor man was just torn almost in half. The man could never be fully whole again. He’s the one who leaves father and mother to cling to woman in order to become one flesh, whole and complete again.

God is wiser than we want to grant, the essence of human pride. For all that the woman was fashioned complete, she was created out of man and for man, to help him fulfill God’s command to care for the Garden and to bring forth new life. If the side of man was torn out, I rather think he lost his heart and can only find it in woman. Yet, woman, fashioned from the side and heart of man, has little wisdom, less strength and no protection, for man kept those. We are a vision of mutual need and dependency, a vision of equality unconfused by sameness. That brings us back full circle to the celebration of Mother’s Day. To woman alone, God gave the greatest gift, that of co-creator with Him. She can bring forth life as God does through His Word and His Spirit. She cannot form life without the gift of man, but she alone brings life into being. She is the helper of man because she is what makes possible the fulfillment of God’s blessing.

Mother’s Day is the day we celebrate this gift of co-creation with God, the day on which we honor and remember those who brought forth life. However we have experienced mothers and motherhood in our lives does not alter the wonder or beauty of God’s creation, for we all are enslaved by sin in myriad forms. Whether our experience is good or bad, the measured and the measurer are both the product of sin.

The image above is a picture of a sixteenth-century icon of the Annunciation, Gabriel telling Mary that the Holy Spirit will overshadow her, and she will bring forth the Son of God. Mary literally was the God-bearer, the one whose response to Gabriel’s announcement was, “May it be done to me according to your word.” This is the dignity to which all women are called, yesterday, today, tomorrow, irrespective of public opinion (and our own). We are to be bearers of God, although now as bearers of His Spirit, to a world in desperate need of the love and salvation of God. Mary was humble, poor, and obedient, and this is far from the ideal of womanhood today. Be that as it may, she remains the ideal of womanhood for Christian women. Her obedience is the reversal of Eve’s disobedience in Genesis 3. The redemption of the whole of creation rested on the small shoulders of a young, teenage girl, who agreed to bring the Son of God to life in mortal flesh.

This Mother’s Day, whether it is day of celebration, bittersweet memories, or pain and regret for the mother you wish you had or know you will never be, realize this: the essence of the dignity of woman, the image of God in the feminine, is to be the bearer of life to the world. Whether you bring forth children or the love of Christ pours through you to the world, your participation in God’s salvation and redemption is pre-ordained and His call is irrevocable.

God calls women to be the heart of tenderness in a callous world, the heart of compassion for the wounded and broken-hearted, the humble and obedient servant who agrees, “may it be done to me according to your word.” This is a dignity that rests not on public opinion or external appearance, but rather, this is a dignity bestowed on the image of God who has the strength and beauty to give life with God, through God, and in God.

Our world aches for mothers in the image of God. That, my Christian friend, is who you are called to be as women in our world today.

In Christ –

Rev. Elizabeth Moreau – © 2020


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