Gregg Allison is professor of Christian theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is secretary of the Evangelical Theological Society, a book review editor for the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, an elder at Sojourn Community Church, and a theological strategist for Sojourn Network. Gregg has taught at several colleges and seminaries, and is the author of numerous books, including Historical Theology: An Introduction to Christian Doctrine, Sojourners and Strangers: The Doctrine of the Church, and Roman Catholic Theology and Practice: An Evangelical Assessment. Gregg and his wife, Nora have three children and seven grandchildren.
As she often and shockingly does, Miley Cyrus recently grabbed the headlines with her claim to be “pansexual.” Apparently, this means she doesn’t relate to being male or female or gay or transgendered or gender-fluid. It also means any sexual partner of hers doesn’t need to relate to being male or female or gay or transgendered or gender-fluid.
So, Miley Cyrus is pansexual: she’s inclusive of all genders.
Can we say that God is like Miley Cyrus, being inclusive of all genders?
No. God is non-gendered. Genderedness does not apply to God.
Gendered words vs. gendered beings.
When my wife and I learned Italian living overseas, we had to learn the (sometimes seemingly random) gender of lots of words. Tavolo, for example, is a masculine word that refers to a table, the piece of furniture in the dining room. Tavola is a feminine word that refers to a set table, the cloth-covered, fork/spoon/knife holding, plates-of-food sustaining surface-with-legs where meals are eaten. The words are gendered, but the tables they refer to are not.
Likewise, when we read the Bible and come across an expression like “God demonstrates his love,” we should not jump to the conclusion that the divine being whom we worship and serve is masculine. The use of masculine words for God should not be confused with the gender of God. We should not confuse the gender of a word with genderedness.
God is non-gendered.
The word God (Greek, theos) is masculine. But the divine person to whom the word refers is not masculine. Rather, God (the divine person) is neither male nor female, nor male and female. He is non-gendered.
Someone will object to this affirmation because the Bible uses the masculine terms of Father and Son when speaking about God and Jesus Christ. Father and Son are titles used to refer to the first and second person of the Trinity, respectively. They are weighty terms, as they present the eternal relationship between these two.
The first person is characterized by paternity: he is the Father of the Son, which means that he eternally begets or generates the Son. The second person is characterized by sonship: he is the Son of the Father, which means that the second person is eternally dependent on the Father for his person-of-the-Son (not for his deity, but for his sonship). The church uses these two words not to affirm gender, but to affirm the eternal relationship between the first and second persons of the Trinity. Father and Son have nothing to do with gender. God the Father is not masculine. God the Son is not masculine.
Jesus is gendered—he is a man.
Wait a minute: Jesus Christ, God’s Son, was most definitely a man!
When the Son of God became incarnate as Jesus of Nazareth, he was indeed a male human being. But it is wrong to imagine that he as the Son of God, the divine second person of the Trinity, was eternally masculine and thus took on a male human nature. He did take on male human nature, but not because he was eternally masculine, or because his divine maleness somehow leaked into his human nature and turned it masculine.
Rather, Jesus took on male human nature to accomplish God’s redemptive plan as the God-man. There is no gender-neutral human nature: a human being is either male or female. So, in becoming incarnate, the second person of the Trinity took on a male human nature to embody the eternal relationship that he, as the Son, experiences with his Father. Additionally, the God-man came as the second and new Adam, to undo the sin of the first Adam, who was a man (Rom. 5:12-19). But the divine Son is not masculine.
We must not make God in our image . . . especially in his gender.
Even if we are able to get beyond the idea that God is not gendered as we are, doesn’t Scripture present God as possessing both masculine and feminine features?
According to Scripture, God is the sovereign King and Lord who fights as a mighty warrior on behalf of his people. God is also compassionate and nurturing. And there are biblical passages that seem to support the idea that God possesses both male and female characteristics:
For a long time I [God] have held my peace; I have kept still and restrained myself; now I will cry out like a woman in labor; I will gasp and pant. (Isaiah 42:14)
Can a woman forget her nursing child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. (Isaiah 49:15)
For you are our Father, though Abraham does not know us, and Israel does not acknowledge us; you, O LORD, are our Father, our Redeemer from of old is your name. (Isaiah 63:16)
But talk of masculine characteristics (e.g., sovereignty) and feminine sensitivities (e.g., nurturing), when applied to God, is improper. It moves from human experience—our perception of what constitutes maleness and femaleness—to attribute human characteristics to God. This direction, from a human starting point to God, is reversed from what it should be. We should move instead from divine revelation—Scripture—to human experience.
What then, do we make of our human gender?
The non-genderedness of God does not belittle or demean human genderedness. Rather, creation in God’s image as either male or female affirms the equal value of men and women as embodied creatures. Embodiment, which is gendered, is God’s good design for us; indeed, gender is a primary characteristic, a fundamental given of human existence. Genderedness, therefore, should be celebrated and enjoyed! Human community, consisting of male image bearers and female image bearers, reflects the dynamic, loving community of the Trinity. Additionally, the dual genderedness of humanity renders possible the fulfillment of the divine mandate for human beings to engage in procreation and vocation (Gen. 1:28).
The heart of the matter.
The concern at the heart of this discussion seems to be the value and significance of men and women. When we misperceive God as male, we may perceive a God-ordained reality for human males to be of greater similarity and value to God than human females. But Scripture teaches that men and women alike are created in the image of God (Gen. 1:26-27). Women and men alike participate in the divine command to build human society (Gen. 1:28). Men and women alike have access to salvation and are one in Christ (Gal. 3:26-28). Women and men alike are endowed with the gifts of the Holy Spirit (and there are no gender-specific gifts) (1 Cor. 12:7, 11). These three great equalities of men and women underscore that they are of equal value and significance, even as they fulfill the different roles in God’s design for their gender.
So, we affirm that human genderedness is a fantastic and significant reality. Unlike the pansexuality of Miley Cyrus, human genderedness is either male or female. And we affirm the non-genderedness of God—an even more fantastic and significant reality!