The following is a talk/sermon I gave in February at a ladies luncheon and in a service at our church.
I used to think that teenagers were the only ones who struggle with identity issues, as they are expected to be “finding themselves,” questioning authority, pushing boundaries, etc, but I’ve discovered that the search for identity can continue beyond adolescence, and even be a lifelong journey.
The reason we struggle so much with our identity is that the Enemy seeks to steal, kill and destroy us, constantly using lies that tell us to find our identity:
We are what we do.
We are what others say about us.
We are what we have.
As long as we are experiencing success and people are saying good things about us, or we are living comfortably and enjoying good relationships, we can feel OK. But when we face failures, when others disapprove of us, when we lose people and things that are dear to us, then we may experience an identity crisis. We may discover that we’ve been finding our identity in what we do, or in what others say about us, or in what we have.
We can be laid flat when an identity crisis comes, and may feel like the fool who built his house on sand instead of a firm foundation. Or it can feel like we are standing face-to-face with a wall that doesn’t want to budge, and we have to push through by sheer will or just give up and walk away. And that’s what many people do – they drift away from the Church or their faith when they lose their footing in one of these crises.
When I was in high school, one of my best friends became a Christian and I went through a Bible study with her about core doctrines of our faith. And then we went off to different colleges and she messaged me that she was doubting her faith. I had no frame of reference for doubt, I had never had a single doubt in my 19 years of Christianity at that point. So I had no idea how to meet her where she was. She was having an identity crisis. A couple years later, she died tragically, and I found myself having an identity crisis. I was angry at myself for “letting” her drift from God. I was angry at God for letting her die before I “fixed” her. I didn’t walk away from my faith, but instead this was a catalyst for spiritual growth for me. I learned that God was a loving Shepherd who pursues his lost sheep. He didn’t need me to save my friend, so I lost my Savior complex.
This is what an identity crisis can do – it can be a time of spiritual growth as God chips a lie from the Enemy off our identity. These crises are a natural and necessary part of our spiritual development as we mature and are sanctified more and more to be like Jesus.
God laid out a vision for his sons and daughters, so that we could live by the firm foundation of the identity that he intended for us. Living in a fallen world, that vision is obscured by the lies of the Enemy. But it is right here in Genesis chapter one and two.
One of the first aspects of our identity is that we bear the image of God. That means we are representatives of the character of God on earth. We are the eyes and ears, hands and feet, and the voice of God. As such, every voice matters in the church. Every one of us has a unique aspect of his character to share with the church.
Before Jesus ascended into Heaven, he left his disciples with a Great Commission, to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:18-20). Here in Genesis, God lays out the first Great Commission – our mission to manifest God’s kingdom here on earth.
The essence of God’s mission for human beings can be boiled down to four words:
Fruitful – Jewish scholars decided that in order to fulfill this command, men and women should marry and have at least two children. By this standard, Jesus failed, because he never married or had any children. And if you divided the worlds’ population by married and unmarried, you’d discover that half are unmarried, and one in four couples struggle with infertility. As we see in the perfect life of unmarried and fatherless Jesus, who demonstrated perfect image bearing for us, this command is not only about procreation, but goes along with the biblical theme of the “fruit” that comes from being a faithful witness. A faithful life bears good fruit. And Jesus never faltered, even when tempted by Satan to believe the same lies he tries to tempt us with. Jesus always drew near to His Father and prayed for His Father’s will to be done.
Multiply – We multiply image bearers through creative action, as representatives of the character of our Creator God. We must allow our imaginations to draw us into doing unlikely and beautiful ministry for God. The Night to Shine is a great example of creative action that puts God’s loving character on display for the world to see and multiplies image bearers in the process. In Jesus, the perfect Image Bearer, we see creativity on every page of the Gospels. His stories and parables drew crowds. His miracles never ceased to surprise.
Rule – God has given us authority over all Creation. Again, this is a mission for both men and women, boys and girls to fulfill. We are God’s eyes and ears, his hands and feet, and his voice in this world. It is a position of authority to represent God. Every one of us is a born leader in God’s kingdom. That manifests through our different gifts, talents, and callings – and it looks like servanthood and humility, as our perfect image bearer Jesus demonstrated. But we need to root our identity in that fact. We are kings and queens!
Subdue – This is about pushing back against the lies and destruction of the Enemy to God’s good creation; to be activists for the redemption of his creation. Jesus was not passive when he saw people hurting – he was moved by visceral compassion and then he acted to heal, to feed, to teach. As God’s representatives, we too need to be moved to ACT. We need to “Let our hearts be broken by the things that break the heart of God” ( as Bob Pierce said, the founder of World Vision and Samaritans Purse). If we begin to imitate Jesus, the perfect Image Bearer, in small ways each day, our capacity to be fruitful, to multiply, to rule and to subdue will grow.
Not a small task! This is the mission for all image bearers – male and female, young and old – to be fruitful, multiply, rule and subdue. God knit each of you together while you were in your mother’s womb, giving you everything you need to accomplish the good works he planned for you to do (Ephesians 2:10)! Often times we can get too comfortable and busy here in America, and are content to worship God, to spend time with God each day, to lead a “good” life, and we may miss that God has a MISSION for us to do!
That was the chapter one creation account. The focus there was vertical, about the relationship between human beings and their Creator. In chapter two, we see a horizontal focus, on how males and females relate to each other and function together as partners.
Not good for man to be alone –
- He was alone in his relationship with God, no other creation called to live by faith
- He was alone in his mission to be God’s image bearer and to build God’s kingdom
God is Trinitarian, three-in-one, so Adam’s aloneness meant he missed a big part of image bearing and was impeded in revealing God in the world.
“God is entrusting his reputation to our male/female relationships. We are telling the world what God is like by how we interact, value one another, build his kingdom together, and move towards Trinitarian oneness” (Carolyn Custis-James).
If God is entrusting his reputation to our male/female relationships, we need to unpack what it means for women to be “suitable helpers.”
And here, I’m going to remind you that the Enemy attacks our identity with lies. Lies that make us feel less-than, unworthy. The Enemy tells us we “should” find our worth in our accomplishments, appearance, education, femininity or masculinity, occupation, race, spirituality, wealth, etc. He lies to us, telling us we are what we do, we are what others say about us, we are what we have.
And these lies get ingrained in our psyches through SOCIALIZATION.
We live in a Fallen world, where the Enemy prowls around looking to steal, kill and destroy. And he’s been very effective, even in spreading lies even in the church.
We are socialized to believe certain lies about our identities through three processes:
- Modeling (how we observe others behaving)
- Overt Instruction (how we were instructed to behave)
- Reinforcement (positive or negative responses to our behavior)
Then, our socialization results in cognitive lenses, like bifocals or rose-colored lenses, that impact the way we understand the world and ourselves. The Apostle Paul says that now we see as through glass, in heaven we will see face to face.
Socialization is POWERFUL. Through our cognitive lenses, we learn to associate or assign meaning to words in a process that happens nearly instantly, in one-seventh-of-a-millionth second.
I want to do an exercise with you. I’ll say a few words, and I want you to pay attention to your immediate association. CHURCH; WORSHIP; LEADER; WOMAN
You may have thought “helper,” because every Bible translation you’ve ever read of Genesis 2:18 and 20 render the Greek word ezer there as “helper.” The Holy Spirit inspired the word ezer to be used here to describe God’s daughters, so we want to understand it properly. And sometimes, our modern English just doesn’t convey the same meaning as the original Hebrew. This word ezer is a pretty striking example of this.
“The word ezer is used twenty-one times in the Old Testament. Twice it is used in the context of the first woman. Three times it is used of people helping (or failing to help) in life-threatening situations. Sixteen times it is used in reference to God as a helper. Without exception, these biblical texts are talking about a vital, powerful kind of help. Yet when ezer is applied to the first woman, its meaning is usually diminished to fit with traditional and cultural views of women’s roles.” – Marg Mowzcko
Every instance where ezer occurs, it is in the context of warfare. And the Garden of Eden is no exception. God intends for his daughters to be a “strong help” in the war against the Enemy and in building his Kingdom!
Similarly, the Hebrew word kenegdo that is translated “suitable” or “meet” actually means “corresponding to, signifying equality. God has not created a subordinate assistant for Adam but rather, a strong equal. Men and women are neither inferior nor superior to each other. Both bear the image of God, both share the mission of human authority over creation.
Our final passage doubles down on the equality of male and female:
Like the translation of ezer, the word translated “Rib” here doesn’t actually refer to a bone, but means “good portion of Adam’s side.” Some theologians have argued a strong case for this meaning that the first human was divided in two.
Oneness is the point here, with God at the center of their oneness.
So as we see in these Creation stories, our true identity is as image bearers, here in Appomattox to represent God’s character and mission. As his representatives, we are at the center of what God is doing in Appomattox—not as spectators but as kingdom agents and as leaders responsible for what is going on around us. We are God’s eyes and ears, his hands and feet, and his voice in the world. We are ezer warriors, and as his representatives, we need to see the world through his eyes, love what he loves, grieve what he hates, and join his cause.
He gave us Jesus as the example of a perfect image bearer, showing us exactly how we are to be fruitful, multiply, rule and subdue. Everywhere he went, Jesus was the embodiment of love, mercy and justice. We too must embody the gospel in our relationships and work. And I believe this little army here today can be a catalyst for revival in Appomattox!
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I was reading Carolyn Custis-James’ book, “Half the Church” when I prepared this talk, and her influence is all over it. I would highly recommend you read her book!
The ending quote was: “My advice to Christian women is to marry a man who will be a friend, not a ruler.” Why must it be *either/or*? Why not marry a man who will be a friend AND a ruler. After all, earthly marriage is the very image of the ultimate marriage which is between God and His bride, the church. God is our ruler AND our friend. Works beautifully. He, laying down His life for His bride, edifying His bride, lifting her up, purifying her, etc. While ruling the union with love, truth, grace, and strength… while she sees Him worthy of her love, trust, respect, service (help) and submission. Why not allow the earthly image God created (human marriage) truly reflect the ultimate heavenly reality? That’s the way it was designed by Him after all.
Nancy is quoting a pastor’s wife, Andrea, who had commented on the Girl Defined article and then I pasted her words at the end of my post. After years of counseling Christian women in abusive marriages, she began to study the Bible to better understand God’s design for gender roles, and came to the conclusion that God designed men and women to be equals. My initial response to Nancy was to share a link to this excellent article by Bob Edwards to learn more about the origins of the headship/submission marriage model:
Seeing Male Authority as God’s Design: Where Did This Idea Come From?
Edwards shows us how Plato influenced Augustine, who influenced Calvin, who influences complementarian theologians today, like John Piper. The pipeline of patriarchy in Christian scholarship. Many are unaware of the Platonic lens that they are reading their Bible through, and the inferences these gender teachings come from rather than clear Biblical directives. I highly recommend reading more of Bob and his wife Helga’s work!
Egalitarians believe that husbands and wives are created equal and are both called to love and submit to their spouse. This involves treating each other respectfully, helping each other, trusting each other and all the other “one another” directives that Paul gives to all believers. In the Ephesians 5 passage that pastors often teach “Men need respect, women need love” from, it is all part of a larger section that involves instructions to love one another and submit to one another, “…wives to their husbands” (the verb “submit” does not occur in verse 22 as a directive to wives but the idea is linked from the earlier verse saying “submit to one another”).
In the creation narrative, God created mankind (both man and woman) in His image and gave both dominion and authority over creation. “Help” is an inadequate translation of the Hebrew word ezer, as it connotes a subordinate position in our English language but more literally means something like “counterpart” God is often referred to as Israel’s ezer throughout the Old Testament, and is clearly not a subordinate in relationship to His people. It is in the curse in Genesis 3 that the Bible says men will rule over their wives. As Carolyn Custis James says, “Patriarchy is the cultural backdrop of the Bible–not the message of the Bible.”
Love this image from Amber D’Ann Picota
Another word that is misunderstood in English is kephale, translated “head.” The problem with this translation is that “head” has more than one meaning. In modern English, we hear “head” and immediately think “CEO,” “boss,” or “authority.” But in ancient Greek, kephale did not connote authority. On a body, the head did not appear to have any use except as the place where we put food, the source of life. In ancient Greek culture, husbands were the “head” in the sense that their households were completely dependent financially and socially on the patriarch, just as a body is dependent on the head to receive food. The body metaphor also teaches mutuality rather than authority/submission because every part of the body is dependent on each other, and directives come straight from the head, who is Christ, and is not channeled from one part to another. Jesus is our “umbrella” and women have direct communication and covering from our Messiah, not from any male human. Marriage is often elevated as the glue of the Church but in fact, Paul teaches us not to marry for the sake of the Gospel.
There is a great podcast on mutuality in marriage by Nick and Allison Quient that I recommend checking out:
Split/Frame of Reference Podcast: Episode 4: Ephesians 5:18-33, Mutual Submission, and the Mystery of Marriage
And an article by Egalitarian scholar Marg Mowczko that I link to all the time on women as ezers:
A Suitable Helper (in Hebrew)
As Nancy points out, it is a common teaching in complementarian
churches that Christian marriage is meant to mirror a heavenly relationship between Christ and His Church, so that the world can better understand the Gospel with this tangible metaphor. We are taught by complementarian pastors that wives’ submission to their husband and to “Biblical gender roles” point the secular world to the Good News. But the early Church was striking to ancient secular society as counter-cultural by defying patriarchal gender roles. In a society where women were property, Christian husbands treated their wives as equals and loved their wives as their own bodies. Women were elevated to equality in the early Christian Church and ministered alongside the men. The modern conservative Christian Church has swung back to patriarchal teachings in reaction to the growing egalitarian values of our Western culture, who now look at the Church and do not see anything “good” in the way Christian women are subjugated.
Here are the “Biblical gender roles” for women that are actually in the Bible:
25 Biblical Roles for Biblical Women – Marg Mowczko
And an excellent article from Kristen Rosser:
Is Marriage Really an Illustration of Christ and the Church?