A core reality of the Christian faith is the understanding that followers of Jesus are called to grow in Christ-likeness.

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified. (Romans 8:28–30 NIV)

But how does a woman hear this call to be Christ-like? The earthly Jesus was a man. Would there be any obstacles for women in following the call to be Christ-like because Jesus was not a woman?

I have long pondered on this question. The sisters in Christ whom I know don’t seem to be bugged by this issue. At least they don’t raise it up to me. But the question came back to me again this past weekend when, for the first time, I was invited to speak at a women’s retreat. CRU Singapore had graciously invited me to speak on spiritual friendship at their women’s retreat. I agreed to do it only because Bernice would partner me as a co-resource person. We learnt some significant lessons on how men and women respond differently to the call to spiritual friendship. We will share more about this in future columns. I was confronted afresh with the question of how women hear the call to be Christ-like when Jesus Christ is a man.

A few things need to be said up front.

• Humankind was meant to be male and female from the word go (Genesis 1: 26–28).

. . . women and men are both created in the image of God, derive equal dignity and respect from that image, and are called to be God’s earthly regents . . . cooperatively. (Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen, “Opposite Sexes or Neighboring Sexes?” Women, Ministry and the Gospel, edited by Mark Husbands & Timothy Larsen [Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2007], 191)

• Jesus is truly human so He comes not as some androgynous creature but with a gender. He was male.

• Jesus had a high regard for women. No rabbi of the day would have discipled women. But we see him discipling Mary (Luke 10:38–42). Indeed the gospels take pains to let us know that when Jesus was captured, all the male disciples deserted Him but the women disciples did not (John 19:25–27). Keep in mind that the gospels were written in a patriarchal age. The way women were portrayed in the gospels was radical for their time.

But how can women identify with Jesus in their journey to Christ-likeness? Here are some things that may help.

1. The Bible focuses more on the character of Jesus than on any gender specific traits. The call to be holy, to love unconditionally, to serve others, etc., are cross-gender concerns. Indeed I have learnt much about the unconditional love of God from how Bernice loves me. Men and women are called to be Christ-like in character. This is a call that transcends gender.

2. Jesus also demonstrates traits normally associated with women. Here is Jesus, heart-broken over the impending conquest of Jerusalem:

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing. Look, your house is left to you desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’” (Mathew 23:37–39 NIV)

Here is Jesus applying a feminine metaphor for Himself. This raises the question of whether men and women can learn from each other. The Bible is very clear about male-female differentiation. It is because men and women are different that enables us to complement each other. But we can take this one step further. Men and women can also learn from each other.

Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen challenges our understanding of men and women as “opposite sexes”. This implies we are completely different. She suggests that men and women are not “opposite sexes” but are “neighbouring sexes” (Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen, “Opposite Sexes or Neighboring Sexes?” in Women, Ministry and the Gospel, edited by Mark Husbands & Timothy Larsen [Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2007], 171–199). “Neighbouring sexes” respects the fact that men and women are different yet opens the door for men and women to learn from each other. Jesus is truly male yet exhibits some of the strengths normally associated with women: maternal love, here in Matthew 23, willingness to share emotions, empathy (John 11:33–35), etc. Therefore it is possible for women to learn from a male Jesus what it means to be Christ-like as a woman.

3. Jesus knows something about childbirth. If there is one thing that symbolises how women are different from men, it is women’s ability to carry a child in their wombs and the joyful trauma of childbirth. I was present at the birth of son Andrew. I was blown away, and my respect for mothers and indeed women in general took a quantum leap. Women have the capacity to bring forth new life through blood and pain. Yet I often think about Jesus’s death on the cross. In His own way He also brought forth new life through blood and pain. I think He is able to understand something of the trauma of childbirth. The distance between Jesus and women may not be as far as it may first appear.

How can women respond to the call to be Christ-like? There is no escaping the mystery of the incarnation. God came to us in Jesus, truly God, truly human, and truly man. Yet I think the call to men and women to be Christ-like is possible, and women can truly learn from Jesus what it means to bear the character of a God who is reflected in a humankind that is male and female. I am very aware that this is a male speaking. I would love to hear from my sisters what they think. I want to learn from them. I think God’s plan is that men and women learn from each other what it means to follow Christ, what it means to be truly human. Men and women are to follow Christ together.