The issue of gender is one that has taken center stage in our culture, it is also one that tends to get a serious reaction. I recently had a high-ranking member of the Canadian Armed Forces share with me a story of how he was told to change the term “man the gate” because it wasn’t gender inclusive.
In a context such as this, discussing gender roles can be somewhat difficult. We may even feel pressure to adopt a certain view. Having spent many years in ministry, I have repeatedly found myself thinking that a particularly trusted and demonstrably competent lady would do a great job leading some ministry. I have spent time re-considering some of the relevant passages related to gender and authority. I have often asked is there a way to be faithful to God while taking a different approach than usual. I was recently reminded in relation to a different topic that scripture was not written in our setting and so we should not expect it to be sensitive to our cultural norms. As it pertains to this subject and every other, we must remember that our allegiance is to the Lord and our aim is to please him (II Cor 5:9).
With that allegiance affirmed, I want to remind you of a phrase found in I Corinthians 14:34, “As the Law also says.” Paul is likely addressing the assessment of prophecy and says that women should not speak in this context because, “they are to be in submission, as in fact the law says.” As I read this, my mind goes back to a class at East Tennessee School of Preaching and Missions. Edwin Jones, one of the instructors mentioned this passage and asked the class, where the Law says such a thing. We all sat in silence as we could tell that it was a bit of a trick question. Eventually, he said there is no such exact quotation in the Old Testament. This didn’t help our confusion. He went on to ask us if we could think of any Old Testament passage that related to males and females. Eventually we arrived at Genesis 1-3. This, of course is the passage he was wanting us to come up with. He and many others both complementarian and egalitarian, have concluded the same. The Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament sure enough lists Genesis 1-3 as the referent of Paul’s comment.
This does raise a rather important question. Does Genesis 1-3 teach what Paul indicates that it does? To be more specific, does Genesis 1, Genesis 2, and/ or Genesis 3 teach female submission and or male authority/ leadership? In fact, it seems like Before saying much about I Corinthians 14:34-35, and a great deal has been said, that we need to give some consideration to these chapters.
Mary Conway at the very start of her article on Genesis 1-3 in Discovering Biblical Equality says that “the creation accounts in Genesis 1-3 constitute the theological framework for the relationship between men and women.”
Edwin Jones on page 20 of his Genesis commentary notes that Genesis 2:18-27 serves as “the basis from which the New Testament draws much of its teaching about the nature of men and women and the relationship they have.” Perhaps a brief outline of these texts, as they relate to gender, would be helpful.
In Genesis 1 we read that after God created and ordered the world and all other living things, He created mankind. Mankind is created in the image and likeness of God and given dominion or rule over all creation that moves on the earth. They are created male and female and told to be fruitful and multiply, to fill the earth and subdue it. We should notice here that mankind is treated as a race. The race is given dominion and told to fill the earth and subdue it. As it pertains to this discussion, woman, as well as man, is to rule and subdue the earth. This does not have great bearing on Paul’s discussion, but it should inform our understanding of gender roles in relation to our place in the created order.
As we move into Genesis 2, we see a different perspective on the creation account. This time, the author is more concerned with relational details. God creates a garden and places man within it. He instructs him not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. God notes that it is not good for man to be alone, he needs a companion that is suitable for him. In this context, God brings every living creature before Adam to be named. No suitable companion could be found. Then, God causes the man to sleep and while he is sleeping God takes a part of Adam’s side and from that material makes woman. God then brings woman before the man. In response to the arrival of the woman the man says, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; this one will be called woman for she was taken out of man.” God further instructs that man and woman are to leave father and mother and become one family. This is stated as a general truth for those yet unborn as neither Adam nor Eve have parents.
These verses raise several relevant points that have a bearing on our discussion:
The first pertains to God’s order in creation: God created the man first and then woman is created from man. This is important in as much as Paul references it both in I Tim 2:12-13 and in I Cor 11:8-9. It is a well-established principal that the first born held a position of leadership in the ancient near east. Linda Belleville in Two Views on Women in Ministry rejects this notion citing Jacob, David, Joseph, and Gideon as examples. The problem with Belleville’s assertion here, is that part of the reason these individuals stand out, is as exceptions to the rule. It is not out of line then, to consider the principle of primogenitor to have an impact on our interpretation of these events. This is exactly what Paul seems to do (a detailed exegesis of the New Testament references will be a subject for a different article).
Now if God’s order in creating people was the only relevant data point, we might be justified in questioning it, but there are other factors that must also be considered.
God deliberately created Adam first and let him experience aloneness, which in God’s estimation was ‘not good’. For that reason, God created Eve to be a helper for Adam.
Now the significance of this is not so much found in the meaning of the word helper since the idea both in English or Hebrew, does not necessarily convey the idea of subordination. In fact, in the Old Testament, the word is often applied to God helping Israel (Ex 18:4; Deut 33:7). I am not suggesting this argument should not be considered at all, because like English the word can be and is used of subordinate helpers as well (I Kings 20:16; Chron 12:1; 22:17). When a word can be used in more than one way, context becomes that much more important.
The context is helpful. Adam was alone, since he was created first, and then Eve was created for him. As Paul points out, Adam was not created for her. (I Cor 11:8-9) When New Testament writers explain Old Testament events, we do well to accept these as a form of inspired commentary and in this case, commentary on what God meant by the term “helper” in Genesis. Thomas Schreiner notes this in his essay included in, Two Views on Women in Ministry
In the third case, the man names the woman. This action has already been observed in Genesis as an indication of the elevated position occupied by Adam over the rest of creation. It is an exercise of authority.
Yet Mary Conway in Discovering Biblical Equality rejects the connection between naming and having authority:
- She points out that man does not give woman a proper name but rather a designation or label “woman.” However, she fails to note that Adam does not give any of the animal’s proper names either. Rather he identifies their kind or species. Also missed is the fact that Adam did name the woman Eve in Gen 3:20.
- Likewise, Phyllis Trible objects to Adam naming Eve as indicating authority on the basis that the typical pattern of call and name is not used. The pattern she is referring to can be found in Genesis 4:17 where Cain “called the name of the city.” Since Adam simply says, “she shall be called woman” Trible suggests no authoritative naming is taking place.
- She seems to miss the context here as Adam has just been naming the animals a clear indication of his place of authority over them. This forms the background to the account of the creation of Eve. The narrative seems purposely organized to show the unique nature of woman as equal in nature to man and above the animals, as well as to continue the theme of Adam’s leadership.
Finally, in Genesis 3, we have the fall.
Here we read that the Serpent came to Eve and convinced her to eat from the tree, whose fruit she then gave to Adam, who also ate. Upon eating, Adam and Eve know they are naked and hid from God.
God comes to the Garden to find Adam and Eve. He rebukes Adam, then Eve and finally the Serpent. The condemnation or curses that He pronounces reverses this order, moving from Satan to Eve and ending with Adam.
Thomas Schreiner identifies two points from before the fall.
- First, The Serpent tempts Eve not Adam. He turns his attention first to the last person created. He also began with the one who received this command second hand. God expected Adam to pass on His instructions and it appears from what Eve said, that he had done so.
- When God arrived, He called Adam to account first before speaking to Eve (Gen 3:9-12). He began with the one whom He put in charge and demanded an explanation.
The actions of both Satan and of God are consistent with the idea that Adam was the leader of the two, and that he would be harder to deceive. It also follows that when things went wrong, he was held responsible for more than his own actions.
The apostle Paul confirms both points when he writes to Timothy that: “…it was Adam who was first created, and then Eve.And it was not Adam who was deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a wrongdoer” (1st Tim 2:13-14)
As pointed out by Schreiner, these two points then, when taken together and in the light of what we have read in Genesis 2, are strong indications of male leadership.
Mary Conway chooses however to focus on the curse noting verse sixteen, where God said to Eve… “He shall rule over you”. She also notes that as God addresses the woman, He says that she will experience pain in childbearing and “Your desire will be for your husband but he will rule over you.”
This for her is the main text relating to male and female role and from these draws the following conclusion: “The fall destroyed the mutuality and harmony between men and women, resulting in millennia of male domination in both the church and in marriage.” I might add that this is the view today of many egalitarians and even some complementarians.
But does this do justice to what God actually said when he cursed Eve?
Notice that in each case the consequences of the fall are not new inventions by God but amplifications of previous conditions.
- The woman was already called to be fruitful, but now that endeavour will be painful.
- Adam was already to tend and keep the garden but now his efforts will yield thorns and thistles and involve hard physical labour.
We have observed that God had already established a hierarchy with the man in a position of leadership. With the entry of sin, that relationship will transition to the woman desiring her husband’s role, while the husband must now rule where once he led. The New English Translation renders the phrase, “you will want to control your husband, but he will rule over you.” They base their translation on the use of the word desire elsewhere in scripture.
If this is not what is meant, then what is the alternative? The alternative is that God was talking about the woman’s sexual desire for her husband. Yet this doesn’t fit the context. Sexual desire did not begin with sin and had been in place ever since the husband and wife were commanded to procreate. Nor does this understanding fit with the phrase “he will dominate you.” It makes much better sense to understand this as a statement about male and female roles placed in a context of rebellion against God.
To summarize, we have noticed several points.
- Both male and female were created in the image of God
- Both are to rule the earth and subdue it
- Both are to be fruitful and fill the earth
- Man is created first
- Woman was created as a helper for Adam who was made to need her.
- Man names the woman
- Man is given the command not to eat of the tree
- Woman is approached by the serpent
- Man is approached and rebuked first by God
- Woman will desire to control man
- Man will rule woman
As we consider this list, two things become apparent. There can be no question that man and woman are equal in status and value. Both are made in God’s image, both are to rule, subdue, and to fill the earth. God has given each a different role. Man is expected to take on the responsibility of leadership and woman is expected to support him as his helper.
As we consider the rest of scripture, especially those passages that relate to gender roles, we must do so with the understanding that this is no afterthought on the part of God who embedded this in His created order.
Two other points by way of clarification:
Inasmuch as both man and woman are to rule and subdue the earth, there can be no restriction on woman working outside of the home or filling any role related to earthly matters.
I have found a common and foundational idea surfacing among those who make the egalitarian case. It is the idea that one cannot have distinct roles without a differentiation in value or worth. This is simply not so.
- It makes the mistake of reading our contemporary ideas about equality back into scripture instead of allowing the scriptures to speak for themselves. The scriptures affirm both of these truths and see no contradiction between them. God has created men and women in his image and both are of equal value. At the same time, he has given distinctive roles to each.
- The egalitarian viewpoint also implies that anyone, whether male or female, who does not lead is second class. The apostle Paul refutes such thinking by emphasizing that the body of Christ is made up of many members of both genders, each of which fulfill different functions. Each has equal value yet assigned different roles by the Lord. (1 Cor 12)
When inspired men penned the New Testament, they wrote and spoke with the authority of God. In the passages that we have cited, they provided divine interpretation of texts like Genesis 1-3 as they bear on the organization and function of the church. Our place is to accept what they said and to honour the will of God by obeying it.
The apostle Paul commanded and encouraged this when he wrote to the church at Rome in Rom 12:2 – “And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect”. Minds transformed by the word of God – accept that in the church, women are to be in submission as in fact the law also says.