The Bible opens up with this grand picture of life—there’s nothing, and then there’s everything. And topping it all off, there’s God creating people in his own image, his own likeness. Adam and Eve. Man and woman. Both of them have this thing inherent in them called God’s image. Theologians and normal folks have spent a lot of time talking about what exactly that image is, but there is important cultural clue that can help us get at what it means to be made in God’s image. In the world where the Old Testament was written, this word “image” referred to little statues that kings would fashion that looked like them, and they would set them up around their kingdom. They were placed at the very edges of the kingdom as boundary markers to show that the land the “image” was on belonged to the king. These statues were also placed in other spots around the kingdom, all with the intention of showing the people that the king was, well, the king. They reminded the king’s subjects who their lord was.

So, when the Old Testament uses this word “image” to talk about the creation of humans, it has in mind at least the idea that the image bearers—humans—would remind everyone else who owned the kingdom. They were, in a very real sense, extensions of the King who created them, and wherever these images were, they extended the King’s rule to that place. Thus, being created in God’s image sets humans uniquely apart from the rest of creation, for they are the representations that the King made to demonstrate his rule over his kingdom. And more importantly for our own cultural moment, it sets men and women in equal relationship to each other. They both bear God’s image—not one more or less than the other—as his representatives on earth.

 This probably sounds elementary to you, but it’s changed everything about my life. How I talk to my kids, the way I interact with my wife, the food I eat, the films I watch, the websites I visit. All of it. I knew that people are made in God’s image, but I didn’t really know it until an 8 a.m. lecture one day. Searching for some sort of way to help my students understand the significance of God’s image in all people—all my attempts at pop culture woefully dated me—the lightbulb finally turned on. Pornography. That was it. If humans are made in God’s image, then the problem with pornography goes far beyond the boogeyman of lust that I learned to fear during my years in youth group. The problem, the real problem, was not that guys like to look at naked women or that they were visually stimulated or that they needed some sort of outlet for their sexual longings or that “that’s someone’s daughter.” And it most definitely wasn’t that women should dress modestly.

I’d grown up with this morass of justifications, battle language, and torture strategies (throw away your computer! snap yourself with a rubber band!) to finally conquer (there’s the warfare imagery again—it was always some sort of violent metaphor describing the “fight” against lust) the sin of looking at pornography. I’d always heard the problem of pornography framed in terms of 1) men lusting and fighting against that lust, and 2) women needing to be considerate of their “brothers,” who cannot help but to see them as a means to gratify themselves.

Maybe you’ve never heard porn talked about this way. I hope not. That day in my Old Testament class, though, standing in front of a bunch of bleary-eyed teenagers, I realized that what I’d thought about pornography and sexuality and women’s bodies and men’s bodies was completely wrong. The problem, the real problem, was that I hadn’t seen women as fully human, as created in God’s image and therefore a living, breathing representative of the living God.

If that’s true—if “in the image of God he created them. Male and female he created them”—then the problem with pornography is that we are using for our own pleasure a human being created by God, in his image, whose purpose is to know and love him. The pixels on a screen that we’re staring at for sexual gratification are not just pixels—they are people. Real, flesh-and-blood people. That is the problem with pornography—it devalues humans made in God’s image, turning them from unique, relational, rational beings into objects to be consumed.

I didn’t realize it then, but I’d later have to hold on to this idea that women are created in God’s image if I was going to make sense of two unrelated but intimately connected events in my life: the sex abuse crisis that a Houston newspaper uncovered and my own resignation from my full-time teaching position at a Southern Baptist college.

Valentine’s Day, 2019, I entered the chapel of the school where I was then teaching. It was the Thursday after the Houston Chronicle published the first few installments of their series “Abuse of Faith,” which blew the lid off of a decades-long sexual abuse scandal in my denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention. Along with the harrowing stories of sexual violence and cover ups, the Chronicle also compiled a database of 263 “officials and volunteers convicted of sex abuse crimes.” Four offenders were from that state where I lived. And two of those had attended the Southern Baptist school where I was teaching Old Testament and Hebrew.

The speaker’s sermon started out well enough—it was about romantic relationships and what to look for in a spouse, apropos given the holiday. Toward the end of the sermon, though, the speaker addressed the “ladies” in the room, offering his own advice for how to attract a mate. He said that women should consider themselves like a house, and if they’re phones aren’t ringing, that’s because they aren’t caring for their house. Specifically, women should “mow your lawn.” My mouth fell open, and soon after I started receiving text messages from others in the room. “What in the world??!” “no no no no no no no.”

The speaker paused for a moment while the laughter in the room quieted, then (buoyed by the crowd’s response?) he pressed on with his analogy. Women, he said, should be careful who they let into their “houses,” because we all know what we call houses with people coming in and out of them all the time: crackhouses. Not just unattractive—repulsive.

I sat in my seat, dumbfounded and deeply sad. I had just learned that hundreds (thousands? who knows?) of women and children—people created in the very image of God—were abused by men who pastored and volunteered at churches in my own denomination. My thoughts turned again to Genesis 1, that passage I’d been turning over in my mind and that had been shaping my life for the past few years.

This type of theology that I’d just heard, this type of preaching, this way of viewing women as objects intended to sate the desires of men is exactly what enables abuse and covers up that abuse. In this line of thinking, women are not image bearers of the almighty God who by that very creation have intrinsic value. No, in this view they are sex toys whose value rises and falls on their sexuality.

I’ve written about what happened when I raised objections to the sermon, and it’s been covered in the media. There’s no point in rehashing it all here, except to say I soon resigned. If it’s true that God created all people in his image—and it is—then I couldn’t stay at a place that refused to teach the same.

I’ve met a lot of survivors of sexual abuse since I unwittingly found myself swimming in these waters. One of my friends was raped by her father, a pastor and student at a Southern Baptist school, who told her that her role in life was to please him, and that by pleasing him she was pleasing God. Another friend was raped at a Southern Baptist school, whose leadership treated her as if what happened was her fault and then covered it all up. Someone else was driven down a dark road by her youth pastor, who pulled the car over and asked her to “suck my d***.” One friend has spent years trying to get justice for herself and several other women who were sexually abused by the same man—a Southern Baptist pastor whose abuse was covered up by other powerful Southern Baptists.

I know that all of these things can—and do—happen in other denominations. But this was my denomination, and it’s been difficult to make sense of the depths of darkness that have swirled around me—without my knowing—these past twenty years I’ve attended Southern Baptist churches. Even as I write this my stomach churns and my hands shake. What I’ve learned, though, is that there’s a common denominator in these stories of sexual abuse and the coverup of that abuse: a refusal to believe that “in the image of God he created them. Male and female he created them.”

The larger culture, particularly the #metoo movement that has exposed rank misogyny and sexual abuse in Hollywood and corporate culture, has done much to dismantle this view of women as objects. The church—or at least my brand of the church—has lagged behind the broader culture on this issue, just as it lagged behind on the Civil Rights Movement. Where the church should have been a leader of cultural change, it has instead clutched its rotten ideology close to its chest.

I knew about the Southern Baptist convention’s history in the Civil Rights Movement, and of course its role in staunchly defending slavery, so I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised by the sex abuse scandal. But I was surprised, and so I did what I’d learned to do as a teenager trying to figure out how to love a God who had let my stepfather wreak his havoc in my life: I turned to the Old Testament.

I’m not a sexual abuse survivor, so I am not going to pretend to speak for survivors or offer up some solution to the unspeakable trauma that survivors have experienced and continue to experience. But I can talk about how I’ve held onto faith in spite of the damage I’ve seen the church do.

In trying to make sense of the betrayal of so many by the church—first by the abusers themselves, who have often been pastors or other church leaders, then by the leaders who covered up or excused or explained away abuse—I found myself returning to that verse in Genesis: “in the image of God he made them. Male and female he made them.” It profoundly impacted my view of sexuality, it made me question women being compared to crackhouses in a chapel sermon, and I held onto it as I was threatened with being fired, sued, and asked about my familiarity with ancient devices of execution. And it’s been my grounding as I have searched for a way to process my own experiences and the experiences others have shared with me.

Genesis 1:27 is significant for those of us who once were blissfully unaware of the depths of abuse in our churches, for it secures our understanding of who and what people are. Despite any theology or ideology or actions to the contrary, people are people. They are not objects. Being convinced in our bones that this is true means that when we see the exploitation of the weak and the protection of the powerful, we know that it is not how the Bible envisions things: a person’s value lies in their creation in God’s image, and that doesn’t rise or fall according to how much power they have. Our experience of abuse in the church does not dictate our view of who humans are according to the Bible. And that’s key, because the more you listen to survivors of abuse in the church, the more you’ll struggle, or at least the more I struggle, with holding to the same faith professed by abusers and enablers of abuse.

Not only does Genesis 1:27 ground us in a biblical view of humanity, it also gives courage for speaking plainly against abuse and the systems that enable it. So when we hear sermons or podcasts or songs or lectures that degrade people, that present them as anything other than image bearers of the almighty God, then we can dismantle that teaching with the confidence that our view of humanity is grounded not in what a pastor or some other person says, but in Scripture. Such confidence in the fundamental reality of who humans are gives us courage to stand up with and for survivors of abuse—and all people—because we know that, regardless of the consequences, and there will be consequences, our stand is righteous.

Finally, as we reckon with sexual abuse in the church, I think Genesis 1:27 is fundamental to both how abuse survivors view themselves and how other Christians relate to them. Survivors are human beings made in the image of God. They’ve been treated just the opposite, like objects to be used and then thrown away. And they have been used. And they have been thrown away by the very people who claim the name of Christ. So, part of loving people who have experienced trauma must be helping to restore their sense of personhood and creation in God’s image. A key part of doing that is found in ourselves seeing others as fully orbed human beings. They are not the things that were done to them. Trauma survivors are much more than a series of horrific sins committed against their bodies and souls. So, it will not do to proffer up theological niceties about forgiving and forgetting. Instead, we must weep, mourn, love, laugh, embrace, listen, think—in short, we must do all those things that make us humans in the first place. 

I realize that not everyone who sees people as objects is an abuser, and not every person who preaches a degrading or misogynistic sermon is covering up sexual abuse. However, this theological residue denies the image of God in all humans and thus reduces people to things. That creates a straight line to abuse, because at the root of abuse is the de-personing of a person. That de-personing doesn’t start with the act of abuse. It starts long before the grooming process or the violent assault. It starts in the heart and mind, where somehow the thought got lodged that all humans are not actually human, that they are not images of God reminding us of his rule over all the earth. That is why confronting the sexual abuse crisis and holding on to my faith in the midst of that has meant grabbing on to Genesis 1:27 with all I am.

Russ Meek

Associate Professor of Old Testament at William Tennent School of Theology