Sometimes when our son is having a hard time calming his restless body at the end of the day, he says, “Mommy, can you do the body thing?”

While I carefully rub his arms and legs in long, soothing strokes, I start a paraphrase of the creation narrative. “After the Creator God created light and sky and land and seas, a sun and a moon and stars, plants with seeds in them, fish in the sea, birds in the air, and animals to hop and walk across the ground, God saw all these things, and God said they were good. But God wasn’t finished yet. The best was yet to come.

“Creator God said, ‘I am going to create something very special now. I am going to create something in my image, a being that I can have a relationship with and that will care for this beautiful creation I have made. I am going to make a unique and wonderful masterpiece.’ So Creator God gathered the dust from the ground and formed it into a body.”

I gently press on my little guy’s tummy like I am packing dirt together to make the shape of a body. I then proceed to gently stroke his head and face and limbs as I talk about how God made each part of the body with a wonderful and unique purpose. We spend a moment in awe of the incredible organs and muscles and bones that God placed inside, and then I say . . .

“When God was finished forming the body, God breathed his very breath of life into the body. The lungs inside the body filled up with God’s breath, and the body came to life. God was delighted with the person God had made. In the same way, God has placed his very breath of life inside you, and God is delighted with you. You are uniquely made in God’s image, and God sees that you are good.”

Admittedly, this narrative is imperfect, but my wiggly boy relaxes under the gentle touch and soothing words and rests in the truth that God has created him in God’s image for the purpose of relationship with God and of caring for that which God has created. It’s a beautiful and significant truth for all of our boys and girls.

Genesis chapters 1 and 2 paint a beautiful narrative of the creation of the world with a remarkable climax that depicts the creation of humans. God created Adam from the dust, breathing his very life into this being. And, while God was pleased with the new creation, it seems God quickly evaluated the situation and suggested, “This is not yet good” (see Genesis 2:18). For, just as God is not alone, this man made in God’s very image could not be alone. God seems to say, “Adam, let me show you everything else I have made. You’ll see there isn’t anything else like you. You are special, and there’s not yet a creature on this earth that could be a suitable partner to you.”

And so God creates Eve, who together with Adam fully reflects God’s image to the world. Adam is amazed and perhaps a bit overwhelmed when he sees Eve. “Aha! This is the one who is like me. This is the one I have been looking for.” And together they weren’t just good. They were very good. They were opposite yet equal. They were relational, physical, spiritual beings in whom God found great delight.

Ever since Adam and Eve were cast out of the garden, the narrative of God’s creation of man and woman has been filtered through the shattered lens of the fall. Ancient texts and current narratives alike illustrate social systems built upon hierarchy and, more specifically, patriarchy. In some cultures, like those we read about in the Bible, the patriarchy is as overt as a woman being denied the right to own property and guaranteed certain destitution should her husband and sons die. In other cultures, it appears more subtly in the form of things like lower wages, decision-making groups made up solely or disparately of men, and disproportionately male homebuyers.

The church has long since bought into this idea of male dominance. And, once the patriarchal system was established, it became comfortable and normal, especially for the gender in power. The reality that men are often physically bigger and stronger coupled with the idea that it’s socially acceptable for men to assert power and force cement the mix. Little boys and little girls are raised with these ideas ingrained in them from the time they are born. It’s a cultural norm that runs so deep, most didn’t think to question it. For generation after generation, we in the church have spun elaborate narratives of “complementarian” marriages naming the husband as the head of the home. In the process, we’ve devalued women and restricted the work of the church. We’ve been willing, albeit perhaps naïve, participants in the brokenness of creation.

Certainly our NIV translation of the Bible doesn’t do us any favors here. In Genesis 2:20, the English translation uses the word “helper” to describe Eve. We’re left with images of a second-class citizen, a household maid, or a handy helper to pass the tools—all worthy of a lower pay grade. But this Hebrew word ezer that is sometimes roughly translated as “helper” is actually a wonderfully descriptive word, often used in the Old Testament to describe God—who comes to the rescue of God’s people. It’s a word that means quite literally strong power or strong helper. In other words, God intended for men and women to be a team, wonderfully balanced, opposite yet equal partners, who together fully reflect God’s relational and multifaceted identity. Wow! What a beautiful image!

The truth is that gender inequality was not a part of God’s original perfect design, but that all came unraveled when Adam and Eve disobeyed God. The relationship between men and women was forever broken in the fallout of original sin. God said to Eve, “Listen, I love you, but as a result of this sin, there are going to be some really big consequences. Not the least of those means you are going to long for your husband, but he is going to exert his power over you. There’s going to be a disparity between men and women like you haven’t experienced before. This beautiful partnership is forever fractured” (see Genesis 3:16). It’s like the very image of God in the world was shattered.

Until Jesus, that is. Throughout the Old Testament we see God use women and men in really wonderful partnerships that belie the cultural constraints of the day. Take Deborah the Israelite judge, for example. And Barak, who followed her wise council and strong leadership as he led the Israelite army into battle against Canaan (see Judges 4–5). Unfortunately, that type of powerful teamwork was the exception to oppressive cultural norms. In Jesus, we again see God breaking into the broken creation in radical ways. Jesus begins to set things right, and he doesn’t overlook the opportunity to begin the restoration of right relationship between men and women.

As already/not-yet people of God who live in the tension between God’s kingdom breaking in and its full realization, we are called to partner with God in his restorative work in the world. That includes feeding the hungry, sheltering the refugee, forgiving our enemies, caring for creation, and restoring right relationship between men and women.

Where men of his day cast out women, Jesus offered life (see Mark 5:25–34). Where men held down, judged, and condemned, Jesus lifted them up and offered forgiveness (see John 8:1–11). Where men refused women the right to own property, Jesus gave them keys to the kingdom (see Mark 14:3–9). Where men refused to give women a voice, Jesus gave a woman the opportunity to be the first proclaimer of the gospel: “I have seen the Lord!” (see John 20:11–18).

As already/not-yet people of God who live in the tension between God’s kingdom breaking in and its full realization, we are called to partner with God in his restorative work in the world. That includes feeding the hungry, sheltering the refugee, forgiving our enemies, caring for creation, and restoring right relationship between men and women. To walk in the way of Jesus means we can no longer align ourselves with the systems of broken relationship, gender inequality, and paternalism that have defined relationships between men and women throughout history.

Here’s where it can get tricky and a little uncomfortable. Being a part of God’s restorative work between men and women means gradually but relentlessly unraveling generations of deeply ingrained assumptions about men and women and who God has created us to be. It means identifying our own biases and asking God to help reshape us into more faithful representatives of kingdom relationship.

For God’s kingdom to come in this way, godly men who have often had seats of power or influence in their homes, churches, and communities must create space for godly women to serve as the strong and equal power that God created women to be. Men have to champion women on purpose. It may even mean stepping aside or sometimes even stepping down to create space for women to partner, lead, and have a voice. It means giving more than lip service to the idea that women matter in our homes, our communities, our churches, and our highest places of leadership.

Recently, my husband offered to step down from a board where he gives significant leadership so that space could be made for women to serve. Could he continue to serve well in that capacity? Absolutely. Can a woman also fill that role? Absolutely. The kingdom-type restoration of relationship is going to require men to serve the church in such a way that they foster different norms in each of their places of influence.

But it also requires hard work on the part of women. Statistically, women are notorious for downplaying their own value, contributions, and certainty. If we believe women matter in a kingdom reality, then women must stop belittling themselves or selling themselves short, whether they do the hard work of running a household, or leading an organization of hundreds of people—or both. It also means women must become advocates and cheerleaders for, rather than competitors with, other women. It means allowing God to shape our dreams and calling so we can live fully as agents of strength and power in the mission of God. It means standing shoulder to shoulder with brothers in Christ to carry on the work of the kingdom.

The idea that women matter isn’t about being a feminist or pushing an agenda. It’s about being kingdom people who recognize that lots of things were broken in the fall of humanity, including our relationships with each other. As men and women who link arms with each other and with God, we have the opportunity to participate in the restorative work of God in the world, one relationship at a time. And, in so doing, we work toward restoring the image of God in all humanity.