The beauty of mutual image bearing
by Colleen Ramser
When I was younger, I would often seek out sitting with the stinky kid just as much as I would the popular kid at school. At the time, I wasn’t able to put words to this posture toward others. But I consistently remember being interested in who people were more than their status or how they looked. Even from a young age, I remember listening to their sometimes painful stories, but also seeing value in who they were despite what could have diminished them. I believe this came from my own story of suffering growing up. I knew what it felt like to be devalued.
As I grew in my faith, I realized that I was seeing people as made in the image of God, with equal dignity and worth. There was and still is something beautiful about being in dark places with others and fostering beauty. It’s almost like collaborating with the Holy Spirit on a painting with another person. We co-create a picture of what God invites and intends through restoration for an image bearer to reflect His glory.
As a therapist journeying with women, I have a front row seat into seeing women’s image bearing destroyed. It’s as if something, or someone, has died inside of them.
These women in my office have bruises all over their hearts and souls. You can’t see them externally, but my soul gives witness with theirs that those wounds are there. Far too often, women in abusive marriages hear from their church that they just need to try harder, submit completely (even to evil at the hands of their husbands), pray more, and change themselves to be what their husbands wants them to be. Women who have leadership gifts are told to be silent or to use their gifts in the children’s wing. When this happens, I wonder: does anyone see that these women are dying? Even as I write these words, I feel in my chest the crushing pain of the many women I’ve walked with on this journey.
I teach my clients that they can’t be where they aren’t. Remember God’s question to Adam after the fall: “Where are you?” (Gen 3:9). The question isn’t about physical location but internal and spiritual space. We can only move forward by being honest with ourselves, others, and God. This, I believe, is the beginning step for most women to live into their image bearing. Through journeying with many women, not only in the deep woundedness of their image bearing but also as they are dismissed by their church, I began to see a pattern. We must examine ourselves and ask how we view women's image bearing.
Aimee Byrd quotes a popular yet somewhat disturbing definition of masculinity and femininity within the church in her book, Recovering from Biblical Manhood and Womanhood:
"At the heart of mature masculinity is a sense of benevolent responsibility to lead, provide for and protect women in ways appropriate to a man’s differing relationships.
"At the heart of mature femininity is a freeing disposition to affirm, receive and nurture strength and leadership from worthy men in ways appropriate to a woman’s differing relationships.
"I find these definitions troublesome. They are one-dimensional. The “heart” of masculinity and femininity provided here is all about male leadership. Nowhere does Scripture state that all women submit to all men. My aim in life is not to be constantly looking for male leadership."
This definition of “mature femininity” seems to deny that women have any God-designed authority. Worse still, it appears to affirm that women’s image bearing looks more like bearing the image of someone else! It’s as though women are unable to be persons separate from bearing someone else’s image. Are women not able to discern the Holy Spirit and make Spirit-empowered contributions as well as men?
Aimee Byrd goes on to say:
"Do women have a task to join God as “agents of truth and joy,” or is their agency directed toward coddling the male ego and supporting her husband’s “God-given call on his life”? Shouldn’t we encourage both men and women not to have fragile egos and to look to the Lord for strength as we jointly serve one another under the mission of God?"
As co-heirs and co-laborers both made in God’s image, we - both men AND women - are invited to find our identity in Christ living fully and individually into whom God has called us to be. Let me pause for a moment. I don’t believe women are to rise up and take over the church and all the men in it. I’m simply asking us to examine ourselves to see how we have historically discouraged women from finding their voice in the church. We must make room for them at the table if we are to grow in ministry and all areas of life, knowing that their perspective is valuable and cannot simply be assumed.
As we seek to repair damage done to image bearers, we should have conversations of what it could look like and should look like for men AND women to bear God’s image collectively in our marriages and singleness, churches, friendships, and communities. And as we grow in dependence on one another, we foster humility, strength, courage and selflessness - all things we are striving for in Christ!
Scripture gives us this command (Hebrews 10:24-25a): “Let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another.”
How might we collectively spur one another on toward love and good deeds rather than avoid or dismiss? Can we see our women for more than administrative tasks and child raising? In what ways are you cultivating God’s image in the women near you or in your own life?
What a beautiful picture of God’s glory this would bear forth.
Colleen Ramser is a licensed professional counselor, Trauma Specialist and founder of Colleen Ramser Ministry: empowering Christian women through education about trauma and spiritual formation.