Not that long ago I was having a discussion with some friends when one of them asked, “What theology is the church not teaching enough?” The answer that came first to my mind was “Imago Dei Theology,” which is the teaching that all human beings are made in the Image of God. It is a theology that is essential for how we worship God, how we understand ourselves, and how we treat others. When talking about human nature and our relationship to God, churches often start by talking about the original sin of Adam and Eve, which we read about in the 3rd chapter of Genesis. Teaching about sin, and our need for God is certainly important, but before we get there, we need to read the 1st chapter of Genesis where God looked over all that he made, saw that it was good, and then…
“God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”
As we read through the beginning of Genesis, a picture is painted of God shaping the whole world to be his temple, the place his glory will dwell. Consider this, in the ancient world once a temple was built the last thing to be placed in it was an image of the god; in most cases a statue. What Genesis shows us is that in the temple of creation it is not a statue or mere object that bears God’s image, rather it is each and every human being. This part of the creation story has huge ethical implications that reverberate throughout the rest of scripture. The first people who heard this story would have known,
how you treat the image of a god is how you treat that god.
Having understood this, it should be no surprise that when Moses receives the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20 they forbid us from making an image as an object of worship. God’s image is already in the world, and we honour God by keeping his commands, most of which have to do with how we treat our fellow image bearers. This connection between proper worship of God and the treatment of our fellow human beings continues in the words of Old Testament prophets like Ezekiel, who rebukes the people saying they “…have become defiled by the idols you have made…” and goes on to say that they ”…have oppressed the foreigner and mistreated the fatherless and the widow. You have despised my holy things and desecrated my Sabbaths.” (Ezekiel 22:3-8)
In the New Testament Jesus reinforces the ethical imperative of the Imago Dei by telling his followers that “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” (Matthew 25:40) In the first letter of John we are also reminded “Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.” (1 John 4:20) From Genesis to Revelation the Bible shows us that in loving and caring for others we show our love and care for God. It is this truth – that human beings are made in God’s image – which should serve as the fundamental orienting principle in our ethics. When we fail to understand this key truth then we are in danger of idolatry, of worshiping God in a way he never wanted, and using his commands in a way that hurts ourselves and others.
We live in an age where it is more important than ever to recognize the inherent value of every human being that we interact with, to recognize the image of God in everyone, regardless of who they are or what they believe. Online forums and social media provide license for people to say increasingly hurtful and hateful things with little consequence. Will we choose to speak kindly, recognizing that the people we engage with are more important that our own ideas and beliefs? As we are increasingly connected to the world around us through smart phones and computers, will we give more attention to the objects in our hands and the images on a screen than to the flesh and blood people that we sit next to at home, in the office, and even at the grocery store? With over 21 million refugees worldwide, will we recognize that our own material comfort is less important than helping those those fleeing war and persecution, regardless of our differing cultures, religions, and citizenships?
The criticism of idolatry by the Old Testament prophets can be summed up by saying that
when we treat mere objects as gods, we tend to treat human beings as mere objects.When we treat mere objects as gods, we tend to treat human beings as mere objects Click To Tweet
It is imperative that in our Churches we root our ethical teaching deeply in Imago Dei Theology, only then will our worship honour God and our witness to others be one in which people will know that we are Christians by our love.