The Disconnect in Conservative Understandings of Imago Dei Part 2

See Part 1 on why the confluence of issues (abortion, Black Lives Matter, immigration, sexual abuse in the church and culture, etc.) in our political/evangelical discourse matters to our understanding of the image-bearing dignity of humankind.

I have been reading through Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology, the Go To theology book for the Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood and drafters of the Nashville Statement, which is also the one that was singularly promoted for theological training at Mars Hill Church in Seattle during my years there. I have found it helpful for understanding conservative evangelical support of Trump, dismissal of Black Lives Matter, disregard for immigrants, and tolerance of patriarchy in the church.

There is much good in Grudem’s Systematic in terms of image-bearing. Chapter 21 on the Doctrine of Man made sense to me, followed Biblical evidence, and ended well with these words on image-bearing.

Yet we must remember that even fallen, sinful man has the status of being in God’s image (see discussion of Gen. 9: 6, above). Every single human being, no matter how much the image of God is marred by sin, or illness, or weakness, or age, or any other disability, still has the status of being in God’s image and therefore must be treated with the dignity and respect that is due to God’s image-bearer. This has profound implications for our conduct toward others. It means that people of every race deserve equal dignity and rights. It means that elderly people, those seriously ill, the mentally retarded, and children yet unborn, deserve full protection and honor as human beings. If we ever deny our unique status in creation as God’s only image-bearers, we will soon begin to depreciate the value of human life, will tend to see humans as merely a higher form of animal, and will begin to treat others as such. We will also lose much of our sense of meaning in life.

Grudem, Wayne A.. Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (p. 450). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.

In this chapter, Grudem said the kind of things that made me want to stand up and slow clap. Yes! Yes! Yes! He explained mankind made in the image of God – mankind was made like God to represent God into the world. This fits the historic understanding of the image of God in man, at least as my low level theological study shows (I’m always open to correction). And I affirm Article 6 of the Nashville Statement that declares the image-bearing worth of those born with sexual abnormalities. These are good starting points!

But the next page of the next chapter of Grudem’s Systematic (Chapter 22: Man as Male and Female) showed me how Grudem’s understanding of biological sex and gender taints the application of the previous chapter’s closing paragraph

The creation of man as male and female shows God’s image in (1) harmonious interpersonal relationships, (2) equality in personhood and importance, and (3) difference in role and authority.    

In Grudem’s Systematic, this chapter is the caveat to the previous one. It isn’t written as a disclaimer to what it means to be an image bearer, but it seems at least to be a clarification. The previous beautiful paragraph spoke of the full dignity of all humans despite the ways they are personally marred by the Fall. Initially, Grudem presents Imago Dei as fundamentally about representation (which he also initially speaks of as the shared humanity of both genders), but when he gets into the specifics of mankind as male/female image bearers, the focus turns to role and authority.

THIS turn in Grudem’s understanding of Imago Dei gives insight into a lot of things. For several key evangelical leaders, there is a stark contradiction (it seems) on how they speak of Imago Dei versus the practical deficit in applying it revealed by their support of Trump. We gain insight when we look at WHY big leaders say they supported Trump. I’ve found MacArthur’s statements particularly telling:

But we also understand this. That God has designed human government. And Romans 13 tells us what His design is. God has designed human government and given human government ultimate authority for two purposes. To protect those who do good and punish those who do evil. That is the role of government. …

So your question is this—which party, which coalition, which collection of leaders and influencers will uphold God’s design for government?

MacArthur gives more insight in this video taken right after events in Charlottesville, which starts incredibly strong but chills me at the end.

If you don’t have six minutes to watch the video, I’ll summarize his thoughts on the three things that restrain evil in society:

  1. Man’s conscience restrains evil, but the current generation hasn’t learned God’s moral law, and now conscience doesn’t function in the masses.
  2. Family discipline also restrains evil. But the breakdown of the family has left the current generation without functional discipline in the home.
  3. That leaves police as the last institution remaining to restrain evil. But society’s disrespect of police (with no indication by MacArthur that the sinful heart of individual police men or women bear any responsibility), has undermined police’s role in restraining evil. MacArthur says at the end that all hell breaks lose when police are stripped of powers, unleashing the human heart at its worst level.

I noted that MacArthur did not speak of the good news of Jesus or the working of the Holy Spirit in ANY WAY as our hope for the restraint of evil.

MacArthur’s thought process is consistent with Grudem’s clarification on the image of God in mankind in his Systematic Theology – “The creation of man as male and female shows God’s image in … difference in role and authority.”

In this view, it seems that image bearers need to respect role and authority to actually show God’s image. Practically speaking, if you are perceived as not respecting either role or authority in life, you go down the priority list for protection as an image-bearer. Folks who see image-bearing dignity mitigated by how well you respect role and authority tend to work in and promote authoritarian systems where people know their role. They dismiss the value and dignity of those who have conflicts with authority structures.

This explains why Trump’s violations of Imago Dei dignity aren’t a deal breaker to such folks but Clinton’s are. Trump can diss undocumented immigrants, because they have not obeyed the rule of law and the authority of our land. Trump can instigate violence against minorities because the perception remains among many conservatives in this country that minorities have not remembered their role in our nation or submitted to authority in our nation. Support of Black Lives Matters is perceived as chipping away at police authority, MacArthur’s last chance restraint of human evil. Black police are valued, but black protesters are not.  The difference is their perceived adherence to authority structures.

Trump is the candidate who protects conservative views of people’s various roles in society and who has authority to constrain them. As Trump famously emphasized in his rallies, “I am the LAW and ORDER candidate.” Authoritarianism is on the rise under Trump, and that fits Grudem’s view of image-bearing and MacArthur’s view of the breakdown of society. This has helped me understand the disconnect I feel between theological words on paper regarding image-bearing and actions in real life.

This explains why many conservative male leaders have accommodated and sometimes even specifically spoken over the top criticism of Hilary Clinton. It explains why sexual deviancy is a deal breaker for the female presidential candidate (who doesn’t actually have a reputation personally for sexual deviancy) and not the male one. Trump’s husband/wife dynamic didn’t violate the perceived image bearing necessity of roles and authority in marriage, while Clinton’s did (as well as her support of transgender political positions). Clinton in particular did not submit to her gendered authority structure. This violation of role and authority threatens to upend all of American society to those who see keeping gendered roles and authority as fundamental to image bearing. If you have that view of image-bearing, Trump’s authoritarian rhetoric is much less offensive, even if he violates the rights and dignity of minorities, women, and immigrants. If you believe that image-bearing is best understood when men and women keep their appropriate gendered roles and submit to appropriate gendered authority, then you can tolerate an authoritarian man who keeps his appropriately feminine wives and equally beautiful children in line (several evangelical leaders made an issue of how well Trump’s children speak of him) in a way you can’t of a woman who doesn’t stay home and bake cookies.

The questions that form as I examine this confluence of issues are these:

Does Imago Dei transcend role and authority, or is Imago Dei mitigated by role and authority? Does Imago Dei transcend gender and biological sex? Or is Imago Dei lost when biological sex is confused or compromised?

There is a way from Scripture to embrace Grudem’s conclusion on image-bearing in Chapter 21 of his Systematic without mitigating it by how well others respect gendered roles and authority as he indicates in Chapter 22. I can still hold to a conservative understanding of the office of elder/pastor being restricted to qualified men. I can still believe in the gospel testimony in marriage of wives submitting to their husbands as the Church does to Christ. I can submit to my pastors and my government, valuing both of their roles in my life, WITHOUT mitigating the image bearing dignity of any people group without similar convictions. Image bearing dignity is based on our creation by God, not our performance of His standards, of which all of us are dependent on Jesus to keep in our place.

This actually is key to the entire point of image-bearing.  If a dog or even a gorilla seriously harms, even threatens, a human, we usually put them down. Though it’s sad for any who cared for the animal, we shouldn’t generally wrestle with this morally. But if a human harms another human, the process of proving their guilt and deciding their fate is sober and time consuming. I would argue it should be even more sober than at times it is in our criminal justice system. Even those who violate the dignity of other image-bearers are themselves still image-bearers.

In this American evangelical culture, the cries of particular groups of image-bearers are discounted and authority over them protected because they are seen as violating their God-given design concerning role and authority and are judged therefore unworthy of dignity. This, I believe, is the place doctrinally to push fellow evangelicals to examine themselves.

In contrast to evangelical Trump supporters, the discussion of this confluence of issues for many of us is about the dignity of all humans as image-bearers of God and our hope in the gospel for them. I note among evangelical leaders supporting Trump, their hope for the gospel seems singularly aimed at Trump. Perhaps God will restrain Trump’s sin.  Perhaps he has come to faith. And I pray that God will and he does. But my greater hope is in the gospel and the power of the Holy Spirit for all men, women, and children.  Because of my confident hope for the gospel both to authorities and those under authority, I don’t see authoritarian measures under Trump as the last ditch effort to restrain human behavior. With gospel confidence, I don’t have to coddle the sins of authoritarian leaders as they violate the dignity of the oppressed.  In fact, my convictions of human dignity in the image of God, Grudem’s Chapter 21, compel me to a different path altogether.


13 Responses to The Disconnect in Conservative Understandings of Imago Dei Part 2

  1. Anneke de Jong September 11, 2017 at 10:53 am #

    Yes – thank you for putting into words what I have been wrestling with.
    “Image bearing dignity is based on our creation by God, not our performance of His standards, of which all of us are dependent on Jesus to keep in our place.”

  2. Adam Shields September 11, 2017 at 6:14 pm #

    I think that even though I doubt they Grudem or similar theological would support the concept of White Supremecy today. His thought on women and roles translates without any real difficulty to understanding African Americans as designed to be subservient.

    I am egalitarian in part because of this point of theology. If one group (women) can be theologically limited (why not another group.)

  3. R.J. Anderson September 12, 2017 at 6:48 am #

    I can still hold to a conservative understanding of the office of elder/pastor being restricted to qualified men. I can still believe in the gospel testimony in marriage of wives submitting to their husbands as the Church does to Christ. I can submit to my pastors and my government, valuing both of their roles in my life, WITHOUT mitigating the image bearing dignity of any people group without similar convictions. Image bearing dignity is based on our creation by God, not our performance of His standards, of which all of us are dependent on Jesus to keep in our place.

    Amen and amen. This is SO well said and, I believe, both insightful and extremely important. I’d never looked at the question of why so many American (and to my dismay, some Canadian) evangelical leaders supported Trump from this particular angle before, but it makes sense.

    • Wendy September 12, 2017 at 12:38 pm #

      Thanks, RJ!

  4. Tamie September 12, 2017 at 7:13 am #

    Fascinating analysis Wendy!

  5. Ron September 13, 2017 at 3:08 pm #

    This is incredibly well-reasoned, measured and persuasive. Thank you!

  6. Mike September 13, 2017 at 4:01 pm #

    Would you be willing to interact with Alastair Roberts’ post from a few years back on Gender Essentialism?

    Would his position be out of step with your conception of the imago dei?

    Many thanks for considering.

    In Christ,

    • Wendy September 13, 2017 at 4:23 pm #

      Oh, I love interacting with Alastair … WHEN I CAN FOLLOW HIS THOUGHTS. He leaves me humbled in the dust quite often. But I’ll definitely attempt it. More later.

    • Wendy September 13, 2017 at 5:22 pm #

      I agree with him initially for sure.

      “The sexes themselves are significantly overlapping bell curves on this spectrum. For instance, although I am very comfortable in my masculinity, and fairly obviously so, I am also in touch with my ‘feminine side’—I prefer cooking and knitting over many more ‘masculine’ activities—so I wouldn’t be at the extreme masculine end of the spectrum.”

      And his 4 dimensions of Biblical anthropology are spot on.

      But he packs SO MUCH in it as it goes and goes. I have to spend some more time thinking about the later parts of the post.

  7. Nicole September 19, 2017 at 10:03 am #

    I discovered your blog this morning after reading your “Of Old Testament Haircuts and Head Coverings” article on CT’s website. I am so grateful to have discovered your voice! There is so much in the several articles I have read that put words to thoughts I either had not been able to put words to or didn’t even consciously realize were bothering me about many of the issues of our day.

    Thank you for sharing yourself, and I wish you peace during your upcoming surgery.

    • Wendy September 19, 2017 at 11:53 am #

      Thanks for your encouraging words, Nicole!

  8. Lenore September 19, 2017 at 12:10 pm #

    Trump does not violate the rights and dignity of women, immigrants, and minorities, in fact he has much support by many. I am a minority woman and there are many like me who support our president.
    Trump has not spoken against immigration, but against ILLEGAL immigration, as do I.
    Do the research on women’s roles in his company. On minorities. There is a lot of information the mainstream media does not tell you, and fully lies and twists information. I’m surprised you have bought into the lies. There is a lot about this in Proverbs as well. And supporting a woman whose family is surrounded by unexplained death. I didn’t choose not to vote for Hillary because of the sexual sins of her husband, but because of the darkness surrounding her life. Her early allegiance to Saul Alinsky. Her extreme liberal views. Her party’s allegiance to Planned Parenthood, and it’s inception with Margaret Sanger, who is as racist as they come. It’s so ironic, the whole thing. I’m beyond amazed any Christian person could support Hillary Clinton if you know what she truly stands for.

    • Wendy September 19, 2017 at 12:15 pm #

      You misunderstand, Lenore. I know very few Christians adamantly supporting Clinton in the same way Christians have supported Trump. But if you don’t see that he is every bit as sinful and flawed as Hilary is, you have some kind of theological blindspot.