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Commentary Theology

Genesis 3: The Birth of Patriarchy

When did patriarchy–the system that puts men in authority over women–begin? Complementarians argue that patriarchy is embedded into creation. If that’s the case, then we should joyfully embrace it because it’s what God designed.

I’ve tried to show in my posts on Genesis 1 and 2, however, that hierarchical gender relationships are not embedded in creation at all.

What about Genesis 3, when sin enters the Garden?

Complementarians argue there are two main things going on here:

  1. The Fall itself was an inversion of hierarchy and that the serpent’s scheme was to subvert the man’s headship over his wife.[1]
  2. The Fall did not introduce hierarchy between men and women, but rather a harmful hierarchy.[2]

Complementarians maintain that Christianity brings male-female relationships back into proper order (men over women) but should work against harmful hierarchy through servant leadership.

In this post, I’ll make the case that the Fall is not about an inversion of male authority or the introduction of a harmful hierarchy. Rather, Genesis 3 is where we see the birth of patriarchy.

Seeing What Genesis Does Not Say

Genesis 3 is a strange world. Complete with a talking serpent. It’s interesting that while the serpent seems to play a main role in the Garden, the Old Testament doesn’t spotlight him (it?) at all after this episode. Instead, the Old Testament chooses to focus on the chaos and evil that is ushered into God’s world. (See note 1.)

The text records the woman as the one the who talks to the serpent because he addresses her. But it doesn’t tell us why he initiates with her.[3] It’s conjecture to claim that the serpent talks to the woman to subvert male headship, as Piper and others have written.[4] That could be the case. At best, though, it’s a guess.

This kind of interpretation projects back onto Genesis how Paul uses the passage for application with struggling churches. We’ll focus on this when we get to Paul.

Some complementarians argue that it was the man’s job to relay the command to the woman.[5] But the woman cites God in 3:3 as the one who gave them the command. That’s evidence she did hear the command from God, not via her husband. Of course, the addition of “you must not touch it” reveals she’s communicating her own version of the command.[6]

From verse 1 on, all the Hebrew verbs are plural, even when the serpent speaks to the woman. Her use of “we” also shows the couple is together. The phrase “who was with her” in 3:6 likely means the couple was together during the temptation.

Why didn’t he step in and speak up? Why didn’t he choke the serpent to death? We could argue that he wasn’t doing the male-leader thing he ought to have done. Perhaps this was an inversion of male authority, after all.

We could easily argue, however, that both people abdicated their priestly roles by not guarding the sacred space.

We can’t answer these questions with 100% certainty, because the text leaves them unanswered! A subtle hint that our modern gender debates are missing the point.

As the narrative unfolds there are clues that a hierarchical inversion is not what’s going on in the Fall but something else.

A Couple Acknowledgements

Before we get into curses, I need to acknowledge two things. First, God does seek out the man first and asks him, “Where are you?” (“you” is singular here and in 3:11). The text doesn’t tell us why God seeks out the man first. This could point to some kind patriarchy in the Garden. But it could be a foreshadowing of the curses and patriarchy that will result. (Everything at this point is happening after sin had entered the sacred space.) It could also be a function of the narrative structure.[7]

A decent explanation that’s worth considering is that the primacy of the male here may have more to do with the author and audience than with the people in the Garden. Remember, this was written much later (traditionally by Moses) for an Israelite audience, which was very much male-centric.[8]

Nevertheless, I’m willing to concede that this may tip the needle a tad toward the complementarian position. Yet, this argument depends on a lot of assumptions not directly addressed by the text.

Second, there’s this little bit about the man “listening to/obeying the voice of his wife” in 3:17. Certainly that shows the woman was created to be subservient to the man, right?

I acknowledge this seems like God is cursing the man because he abdicated leadership by listening to the woman. But the text doesn’t demand we read it that way. Remember, leadership isn’t the issue at hand here. This aspect of the curse is connected to the eating of the fruit (the second half of v 17).

The problem is not that the man listened to the woman because she was a woman, but that in listening to her, he disobeyed God. Like the woman, the man should have known better. (They both knew God’s command, see above.) Since he was with her at the temptation. He was also morally culpable.

On to the curse.

Cues from the Curse

Sin did not introduce a harmful hierarchy, but an original one.

Genesis 3:14-19 is a “curse oracle.” A curse oracle is a part of Scripture that uses powerful words to pronounce woes or harm on someone or an entire a nation. These are spoken by God or a human.

Now, several features of the curse oracle give us clues that hierarchy appears after the Fall–that sin did not introduce a harmful hierarchy, but an original one.

The features I find compelling are: 1) curses bring a change in status, 2) curses bring conflict, and 3) curses don’t prescribe, they pronounce.

Curses Bring a Change in Status

William Webb shows that in Genesis the blessing/curse formula carries a change in status on an individual or community.[9] Let’s look at three curses:

  • Noah pronounces a curse on his grandson Canaan, Ham’s son. Canaan would be “lowest of slaves” to his brothers, while Shem and Japheth are blessed/raised (Gen 9:25).
  • Isaac pronounces a curse on Esau, the firstborn, and indicates that he will serve his younger brother Jacob, who had already been blessed/raised (Gen 27:39-40).
  • Jacob pronounces a curse on his son Reuben, lowering his status from firstborn, and blessing/raising Judah in the process (Gen 49:3-4).

The woman is then cast down beneath her equal, the man. She is now subject to her source, man. The man is also cast down to be subject to his source, the ground.

Webb notes that the subordination in these curses “usually does not involve any particular abuse or distortion of hierarchy” but rather the formation of a hierarchy that was nonexistent before.[10]

In Genesis 3:14-19, we see this same thing throughout the curse oracle as all three involved parties are “lowered.”

The serpent is first cast down among the rest of the animals.

The woman is then cast down beneath her equal, the man. She is now subject to her source, man. The man is also cast down to be subject to his source, the ground.

Alice Mathews, a theologian at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, agrees:

This was the moment of the birth of patriarchy. As a result of their sin, the man was now the master over the woman, and the ground was the master over the man, contrary to God’s original intentional in creation.[11]

Curses Bring Conflict

Curse oracles often introduce a new tension of conflict between the one who rules and the one in submission.[12] We see this in 3:16 when God says there will be conflict between the woman and the man. Recall, too, that 3:15 says there will be ongoing hostility between the offspring of the serpent and the offspring of the woman.

Let’s zoom in on Genesis 3:16, when God curses the woman. The important Hebrew word for us to know is tešuqa (pronounced tesh-oo-kah’), translated “desire.”

To the woman [God] said,

“I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing;
    in pain you shall bring forth children,
yet your desire shall be for your husband,
    and he shall rule over you.” (NRSV)

Tešuqa is only used three times in the Old Testament: here, Gen 4:7, and Song of Songs 7:10.

In Genesis 4:7, God approaches Cain, right before he murders his brother, and says, “Sin is lurking at the door; its desire (tešuqa) is for you, but you must master it” (NRSV). Here, it’s obvious that “desire” is a negative: “Sin wants you, Cain!”

Most complementarians take this understanding from Genesis 4:7 and use it to interpret Genesis 3:16. Susan Foh was foundational in advocating this view, saying that “desire” means the woman would “contend with [her husband] for leadership in their relationship. This desire is a result of and a just punishment for sin, but it is not God’s decretive will for the woman. Consequently, the man must actively seek to rule his wife.”[13]

But is male leadership even the point of the curse or wider context? It doesn’t seem so obvious to me.

Wendy Alsup, who is a complementarian, points out that this way of using Genesis 4:7 projects onto Genesis 3:16 something it does not say.[14] Tešuqa is a neutral word that means “to desire or long for,” and we need the surrounding context to help us understand what it’s communicating.

Let’s look at the Song of Songs reference. In 7:10 it says, “I am my beloved’s, and his desire (tešuqa) is for me” (both ESV and NRSV; the NIV also translates the second half as “and his desire is for me”). The context here is positive. It means the desire for romantic/sexual love. The woman knows her husband wants her.

So we have one negative use and one positive, both of which have to do with a basic desire–or instinct.[15] Sin’s basic instinct is to enslave someone. A husband’s basic instinct is his sexual drive toward his wife. What about the woman in Genesis 3:16?

The context is not leadership at all. In fact, there’s nothing in the text about leadership! The context is actually childbearing which will be painful to the woman (see v 16a).

It’s obvious that not only was there no conflict in Genesis 1-2, but that the man was never told to rule over the woman at all.

Taking this into consideration, “desire” in here may refer to the woman’s basic maternal instinct to have children.[16] John Walton points out the symmetry in the curse. “Just as chapter 2 established the basis for the man’s need of woman, chapter 3 establishes the basis for the woman’s need of man. Her needs [of childbearing] will put him in a position to dominate.”[17]

One more thing. It’s possible that tešuqa shouldn’t be translated as “desire” in the first place. Some believe “turn” is a better translation.[18] The idea behind this is that in giving in to the serpent’s temptation, the woman did not turn from her husband, but from God. Because of that, the curse pronounces that she would continually turn away from God toward her husband, who would “lord it over” her. This possibility is very compelling to me. (See note 18 below for more on this.)

Even if we are a bit perplexed by tešuqa, it’s obvious that not only was there no conflict in Genesis 1-2, but that the man was never told to rule over the woman at all.

Curses Don’t Prescribe, They Pronounce

Finally, it’s worth mentioning that the text never says men should rule their wives. It tells us what will happen. That’s typical of curse oracles. They don’t prescribe what humans should do. They pronounce the woes or harm that will be present as a result of sin, but may be avoided through worship, obedience, repentance, reconciliation, etc.

Consider the curses pronounced on Israel if they fail to keep the Law of Moses in Deuteronomy 28:15-68. Verses 56-57a say, “The most gentle and sensitive woman among you….will begrudge the husband she loves and her own son or daughter the afterbirth from her womb and the children she bears” (NIV).

No one in their right mind would say this is what a wife and mother must do! It’s simply what will happen as a product of the Fall. The underlying idea is that sin destroys families by turning its members against each other.

Curses don’t prescribe activity, they pronounce impending harm that is outside of God’s ideal. Genesis 3:14-19 is no different.

Summing It All Up

Genesis 3:14-19, as a curse oracle, displays a change in the status of the woman and the man (and the serpent). This change in status is typical of curse oracles in Genesis. The woman was once equal with man, but was then lowered beneath him because of sin.

The curse also introduces conflict between the man and the woman. The sin in the Garden was not a result of the woman subverting her husband’s leadership. It was a result of the woman turning away from God and going her own way. One aspect of the curse is that women will turn away from God toward their husbands. Another is that husbands will dominate their wives.

Finally, the curse does not prescribe what humanity should do, but pronounces what is as a result of sin.

All this leads me to conclude that patriarchy is a result of the Fall. The patriarchy we experience today is a result of the curse and something we must work against. We’ll come back to this idea in the future.

Even if you aren’t convinced by my interpretation of Genesis 3, I hope you’ll acknowledge there are other options than complementarian explanations–which depend on a lot of assumptions not in the text! My interpretation is still faithful to Scripture and the cultural context.

The next post won’t be as nerdy or detailed. We’ll scan the Old Testament to see how God has worked through women to move his people from the patriarchal norm toward a better gender ethic.


Notes

[1] John Piper, “Satan’s Design in Reversing Male Leadership Role,” Desiring God blog, December 19, 1983. Piper’s article makes the case that it was Satan’s design to attack God’s created order and subvert the gender roles God gave to the man and woman. Never mind that Genesis never identifies the serpent as Satan. That is a New Testament development (Rom. 16:20; Rev. 12:9; 20:2) that would have been foreign to the original audience. I should take this opportunity, then, to mention that the original Israelite reader, the serpent would have been considered a “chaos creature” from the non-ordered (i.e. morally neutral) realm who promoted chaos. Compare this with the chaos of the “deep waters,” an ancient symbol of chaos, in Gen 1:2, which God begins to put in order in Gen 1:3ff. (Later on, Isaiah 27:1 makes the connection between serpents and the chaos of the sea.) Now, I’m going way beyond the scope of this post–even this note! But the point is interesting to ponder: what if, as a chaos creature, the serpent did not bring “harmful hierarchy” into an already hierarchical world, but “disordered chaos” into a world that did not have hierarchy to begin with? If you’re interested in exploring this idea, see John Walton, “Proposition 14,” The Lost World of Adam and Eve (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2015).

[2] As an example, see Owen Strachan, “The Gender of Genesis and Ecclesial Womanhood,” 9Marks, July 1, 2010.

[3] John Walton comments, “Why does the woman do the speaking then? Because she is addressed (v. 1). Why does the serpent address the woman? The text does not say. Why does the man not correct the woman’s statement? Again, the text offers no explanation.” See John Walton, “Adam’s Role (3:6),” Genesis, NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001), on BibleGateway.com.

[4] See Thomas R. Schreiner, “May Woman Serve as Pastors?”, 9Marks Blog, July 1, 2010.

[5] Dave Miller, “Genesis 3: Temptation, the Fall, and Gender Roles,” SBC Voices, January 14, 2011, is representative of how most complementarians explain this.

[6] Walton, “The Temptation (3:1b-5),” Genesis.

[7] Notice the serpent-woman-man / man-woman-serpent / serpent-woman-man pattern in Genesis 3:

  • Serpent talks to woman.
  • Woman eats the fruit.
  • Man eats the fruit.
    • God speaks to man
    • Who blames woman
    • Who blames serpent.
      • God curses serpent.
      • God curses woman.
      • God curses man.

[8] This doesn’t mean what is written didn’t happen! But the author may have emphasized certain aspects of the story because of the audience to whom it was written. The Gospel writers did this often and that’s why we see multiple accounts with divergent details that appear contradictory at first glance.

[9] William J. Webb, Slaves, Women, and Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2001), 117-118.

[10] Ibid., 119.

[11] Quoted in Beth Allison Barr, The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2021), 29.

[12] Webb, Slaves, Women, Homosexuals, 119.

[13] Susan Foh, “What is the Woman’s Desire?” in WTJ 37 (1974-75), 383. Even though this is from 1974-75, it has had incredible influence in the evangelical complementarian community over the past several decades. Piper says something similar here: “When it says, ‘Your desire shall be for your husband,’ it means that when sin has the upper hand in woman, she will desire to overpower or subdue or exploit man. And when sin has the upper hand in man, he will respond in like manner and with his strength subdue her, or rule over her” (Piper’s emphasis).

[14] Wendy Alsup, “Problems with a New Reading of an Old Verse,” TGC Blog, September 17, 2012. You can read another opposing, yet complementarian, view of Genesis 3:16 here.

[15] Walton, “Woman” (3:16),” Genesis.

[16] This doesn’t mean women only want children. It also doesn’t mean all women will want children.

[17] Walton, “Woman” (3:16),” Genesis.

[18] “Turn” is how Kaiser understands the word traditionally translated “desire” in Genesis 3:16. He notes, “It is in a curse passage that predicts what will happen when women ‘turn’ toward their husbands instead of turning to God.” See Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., “Correcting Caricatures: The Biblical Teaching on Women,” Pricilla Papers 19/2, 2005. Allison Quient also observes that tešuqa was translated as “to return/turn” in the Septuagint (the Greek copy of the Old Testament, which was used by Jesus and the Apostles). In fact, there are seven uses of tešuqa in the non-biblical portions of the Dead Sea Scrolls and each time “turning” or “returning” makes more sense than “desire.” See Allison Quient, “Defining Desire,” CBE International, December 4, 2014.

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Commentary Theology

Interlude: Answering Questions on Creation & Gender

In our journey through Genesis 1 and 2, I’ve looked at how the creation of humanity as male and female can help us understand the current gender debate in the church today.

Genesis 1-2 is important because it is the only picture we have of God’s ideal before sin. What I’ve tried to show is that man and woman were coworkers in the Garden who had equal status, function, and authority as God’s representatives on earth.

I don’t see any hint of hierarchy in the Garden before the Fall, but some Christians do. You may be one.

Almost all complementarians find their foundation for gender roles in Genesis 1-2. If someone accepts what I proposed in the first two posts, then likely several important questions arise. I want to briefly try to answer those before moving on to Genesis 3.

Isn’t There Such a Thing as “Biblical” Manhood and Womanhood?

We need to know some background to answer this. John Piper and Wayne Grudem are the fathers of the modern biblical manhood and womanhood movement. Back in 1991, they released the first edition of their book Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism. Parts of this book influenced me in my late college and post-graduate years. (The link is a PDF where you can download the 2012 edition of the book.)

In chapter one, “A Vision for Complementarity,” Piper writes, “Our understanding is that the Bible reveals the nature of masculinity and femininity by describing diverse responsibilities for man and woman while rooting these differing responsibilities in creation, not convention” (my emphasis).[1]

Piper goes on to define masculinity and femininity this way:

At the heart of mature masculinity is a sense of benevolent responsibility to lead, provide for and protect women in ways appropriate to a man’s differing relationships.

At the heart of mature femininity is a freeing disposition to affirm, receive and nurture strength and leadership from worthy men in ways appropriate to a woman’s differing relationships.[2]

I can’t write a full response to Piper’s claim and definitions (defended over 690-pages!) in a short blog post.

But it’s simply not true that “biblical” masculinity and femininity, as he defines them, are rooted in God’s creation.

The way Piper begins to make his case is not rooted in creation or even Scripture. He fleshes out his definitions with only minor references to complementarian proof texts. Then he provides examples of how women can affirm and defer to men.

Here’s a very odd section of the chapter to give you an idea of how Piper sets the stage.

He writes about women who find themselves in a leadership role over men and suggests how they can do that in a biblically feminine way. He gives the example of a housewife asked by a man for driving directions. According to Piper, the woman (in an authority role here) should give directions in a way that both parties will not have their masculinity and femininity compromised.

“She has superior knowledge that the man needs and he submits himself to her guidance,” he writes. “But we all know that there is a way for that housewife to direct the man in which neither of them feels their mature femininity or masculinity compromised.”[3]

We do?

Piper goes so far to say that a woman should not umpire baseball games. She would have to mediate “heated disputes between men” and this would put strain on their humanity.[4]

Is this really what Creation is getting at? That we can’t have a female calling balls and strikes in the World Series?

Please don’t think I’m building a theological straw man here. This is really how the seminal book on complementarianism begins. This is what evangelicals have been taught on gender roles for the past thirty years.

Piper and Grudem’s entire concept of “biblical manhood and womanhood” is actually rooted in convention, not creation. The problem, of course, is their system sets up an oppressive power dynamic that subordinates all women to all men.

Complementarians can argue that this isn’t true all they want. I used to say this exact thing! Yet Piper writes, “[S]he will affirm and receive and nurture the strength and leadership of men in some form in all her relationships with men.”[5]

It couldn’t be more clear.

This is not Genesis 1-2. The creation narrative actually tells us the exact opposite.

Now I can answer the question. When I look at the Bible, I see that all who follow Jesus–men and women–are to be conformed into his image (Rom 8:29; 12:2; 2 Cor 3:18). If women, like men, are called to become more like Jesus (who was a man) who is the standard for biblical womanhood?

A man?

I hope you can see how this gets a bit wonky. But it took me almost 14 years to see, so it’s okay if you don’t at first.

Women and men are both to be like Jesus. Women and men are both to follow Jesus by living in the power of his Spirit so that we bear the fruit of the Spirit–love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control (Gal 5:22-23). Women and men are both to make disciples, like Jesus. Women and men are both to teach, correct, forgive, encourage, and love one another, like Jesus.

None of this is particular to males or females.

Aimee Byrd is spot on when she says, “I do not need to do something a certain way to be feminine…I simply am feminine because I am female.”[6]

Don’t Some Gender Roles Still Exist?

Complementarians want to put tight fences around gender roles. Genesis 1-2 reveals a capacious arena in which men and women operate together as Yahweh’s representatives. They are kings and priests together in God’s world.

Still, don’t some gender-specific roles exist? Because of biological design, they obviously do! Genesis 4 suggests that Adam and Eve did not have children until after they were kicked out of the Garden. But suppose they had stayed long enough to have children. Even in the Garden, Eve would have been the one to carry a child in her womb, not Adam. During pregnancy and early childbearing years, Eve likely wouldn’t have participated in the provisional tasks of gathering food or landscaping to the extent that Adam did.

These complementary (yes, I used that word!) functions did not subordinate Eve to Adam. Gathering fruit from a tree for dinner is no more a leadership activity than pushing a baby through the birth canal or nursing a newborn.

Outside of these natural, biological functions, what in the Genesis text suggests that Adam led, initiated, and protected Eve, or that Eve affirmed, received and nurtured Adam’s strength and leadership, as Piper and Grudem so confidently assert?

Absolutely nothing.

Doesn’t ‘Creation Order’ Matter for Something?

I’ll deal with this question when we get to 1 Timothy 2. For now, I’ll say that while creation order may mean something in that passage or others, Genesis never suggests the woman is subservient to the man just because she was created second. The text celebrates their equality throughout the narrative.

Isn’t this a Slippery Slope to Gender Confusion, Transgenderism, and Acceptance of Homosexuality?

I’ve heard Stuart Briscoe say, “Calling something a ‘slippery slope’ is what you say when you don’t want to deal with an argument.” I agree.

I believe this argument it’s a scare tactic of Christian culture warriors who need all the ammo they can muster to keep people from asking that powerful question, “What if I’m wrong on this?”

The fact that God made humanity as male and female is in itself an argument against homosexuality, gender non-conformance, or transgenderism. A Christian can (should!) be pro-woman and still affirm the historical Christian sexual ethic of marriage between one man and one woman.[7]

Does this Mean You’re Rejecting the Authority of the Bible?

No. I cherish the Scriptures and want them to shape me as I follow Jesus!

When complementarians use the term “biblical” in relation to manhood and womanhood it puts any other Christian (like me right now) in a no-win situation. Do you have a different interpretation on these texts? You will be called a liberal and accused of being unbiblical, even forsaking the inerrancy of Scripture.

What’s more is that complementarians have often touted their affirmation of the “inerrancy” of Scripture to affirm traditional gender roles. What this means, in a nutshell, is that if you don’t take the Bible “literally,” that is, at face value, you don’t really believe it is truthful and reliable (i.e. “inerrant”) in what it says.

But this is a patently false accusation.

Here’s what is really going on. Complementarians don’t uphold the inerrancy of Scripture as much as the inerrancy of their interpretation of Scripture.[8]

There’s a big difference between the two. And people who want to follow Jesus need to know it.


Notes

[1] John Piper and Wayne A. Grudem, eds. Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood : A Response to Evangelical Feminism (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 40.

[2] Ibid., 41.

[3] Ibid., 60.

[4] Ibid., 62.

[5] Ibid, 59.

[6] Aimee Byrd, Recovering From Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: How the Church Needs to Rediscover Her Purpose (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2020), 114. You should know that Byrd is a complementarian.

[7] I want to be clear that I’m not saying some people, even Christians, don’t struggle with gender dysphoria, which is a real thing. We must be compassionate and welcoming to anyone struggling with their gender and those who are not professing Christians, are LGBTQ+, but are curious about Jesus. We can do this and uphold the historical Christian sexual ethic. If you are interested in seeing how the Scriptures are consistent across the board in their condemnation of homosexual behavior (in all its forms), see William J. Webb, Slaves, Women, and Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2001) and William Loader, Making Sense of Sex: Attitudes towards Sexuality in Early Jewish and Christian Literature (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2013).

[8] This is why the subtitle of Beth Allison Barr’s book is “How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth.”

Categories
Commentary Theology

Genesis 2: Coworkers in the Garden

In my last post, I made the case that Genesis 1 shows us that God created humanity male and female, and that both genders were endowed with equal status, function, and authority to carry out God’s command. As the “image and likeness” of the Creator, humanity served as representatives, or vice-regents, of King Yahweh on earth.

The first chapter of Genesis doesn’t allow us to construct a gender hierarchy. Indeed, to argue that way entirely misses the author’s point.

Now, what about Genesis 2?

In this post, we’ll see that the purpose of Genesis 2 is to show how God provides what is necessary for his mandate to actually be fulfilled. It will also show that the woman is never portrayed as subservient to the man. Instead, we’ll see the beauty of their mutuality as co-priests in God’s sacred space.

Is Genesis Even About Gender Roles?

Let me digress for a moment.

If we’re self-aware enough, we should often ask if our contemporary debates on a particular topic have much to do with what the authors of Scripture were dealing with in the first place. For our discussion, we should ask, “Is Genesis 2 even about gender roles?”

Listen to what Old Testament scholar, and Genesis expert, John Walton has to say:

My own opinion of the contribution of Genesis 2 to the debate is that it offers no establishment or articulation of gender roles. Regardless of what conclusions can be drawn about the issue as a whole once New Testament texts are considered, this text is concerned with human roles, not gender roles. Man and woman serve together. We still have the same problem Christ’s disciples had. While he busied himself proclaiming the spiritual qualities of the kingdom, they were busy arguing who would be most important.[1]

So why I am I spending all this time with the appetizer of Genesis when 1 Corinthians 14 or 1 Timothy 2 looks like the main course? Precisely because it’s part and parcel of the complementarian position.

A case for male “headship” (that is, leadership) is often made by complementarians based on Genesis 2 (and Genesis 1 for that matter). Complementarians argue that while men are not better than or superior to women, they are nevertheless called by God to be the “head” based on several things they see in Genesis 1-2, such as:

  • The man was created first (v 7).
  • The man was given the charge to keep the garden first (v 15).
  • The man named the woman (v 23).
  • The man is the one who leaves his parents to pursue a wife (v 24).[2]

I think Walton is right, however, that the creation account isn’t about gender roles. On the other hand, it displays the magnificent, mutual role humans have in God’s world. That’s what I’m trying to show in these first two posts.

If we can understand the original function and purpose for humanity at creation, won’t it go a long way to helping us peel back the layers of female subjugation that thousands of years of patriarchy have built?

I think so.

Now, on to the text.

Doing Priestly Work in Sacred Space

I made the case in the last post that humanity was created for a specific function/purpose. Male and female were to be Yahweh’s representatives in his sacred space. They were created “in his image”—an ancient Near East way of talking about someone ruling on behalf of a deity.

As we get to Genesis 2, this idea of God creating sacred space is bolstered by the fact that we see God resting on the seventh day of creation,[3] as well as the Garden being placed in proximity to four rivers (see 2:10-14, where the rivers actually flow out of Eden into the Garden). In the ancient world, temples were the place where the divine came to rest–that is, set up residence among its people. Descriptions of temples in ANE literature also contained references to rivers/water, vast gardens, and animals within the larger palace complex.[4]

As long as some Christians use Genesis 1-2 to parse gender roles of leadership and submission, we need to continue to revisit them in their context.

All of this would have been a common scene for the ancient audience of Genesis and they would have associated it with a sacred space for deity.[5]

Right now, you might be thinking, Wait, aren’t we talking about gender? What’s the point of all this ANE stuff?

Yes, we’re talking about gender, but as long as some Christians use Genesis 1-2 to parse gender roles of leadership and submission, we need to continue to revisit them in their context.

When we do, we’ll see the brilliance of God’s design for humanity that makes our question, “What can women do?” look rather silly.

Back to Genesis. Verse 15 says, “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it” (NIV).

The Hebrew words for “work” (‘bd) and “take care” (šmr) are often used throughout the Old Testament in connection to worship or priestly activities in the temple.[6] This is another piece of evidence that the man’s job, as image bearer of Yahweh, was likely a priestly one, mediating God’s presence in whatever he did.[7]

There’s only problem. This priestly work is too much for the man to do alone.

Just a Helper?

In Genesis 2:18, God sees that it is not good for the man to be alone in this garden work.

At this point, most English Bibles do something rather strange. They use the word “helper” at the end of verse 18: “I will make a helper fit for him” (ESV).

When you and I hear the word “helper,” we think of the boss’s secretary or our tiny toddler picking up socks around the house. Aren’t you a good, little helper! Perhaps our minds even drift to a person who serves at the beck and call of another–like the housemaids and servants portrayed in movies like The Help or The Butler.

The problem is that the word translated here, ‘ezer (pronounced ay-zer), doesn’t mean “helper” as we use it in English.[8]

Owen Strachan, one of the most outspoken proponents of complementarianism, says that on the basis of Genesis 2:18, women help men fulfill men’s calling as leaders. “In the wise and gracious design of God, women are ‘helpers.’ They are to be wives and mothers, the bearers of children. While men lead, protect, and provide, women come alongside and support them.” He goes on to say, “To be a woman is to support, to nurture, and to strengthen men in order that they would flourish and fulfill their God-given role as leaders.”[9]

There are several problems with Strachan’s view. First, he’s projecting modern gender roles into Genesis when the main purpose of the narrative is to talk about human roles in the sacred space of the Garden.

Second, this passage has nothing to do with women being wives and mothers. Nor does it have anything to do with men leading, protecting, or providing for a woman. (God actually provides something for the man, who is helpless!)

Third, Strachan fails to see that the use of ‘ezer throughout the Old Testament doesn’t allow for it to be exclusively a term for a subservient person. In fact, 72% of the 128 times ‘ezer occurs it is in reference to someone with a superior-status helping someone of a lesser status who is in need.[10] Quite often, it is used in reference to God himself. Here are some examples:

‘Ezer often refers to Yahweh throughout the history of Israel when he shows up to deliver them from their own sin or their enemies.

  • “And the other [son] was named Eliezer, for [Moses] said, “My father’s God was my helper; he saved me from the sword of Pharaoh” (Ex 18:4, NIV). The name Eli-‘ezer means “My God is help.”
  • “We wait in hope for Yahweh; he is our help (‘ezer) and our shield” (Ps 33:20, NIV).
  • “You who fear him, trust in Yahweh–he is their help (‘ezer) and shied” (Ps 115:11).
  • “You are destroyed, Israel, because you are against me, against your helper (‘ezer)” (Hos 13:9, NIV).

Walter Kaiser, a renowned Old Testament scholar, makes the case that ‘ezer is a combination of two older words meaning “to rescue/save” and “to be strong.”[11] Perhaps this is why ‘ezer often refers to Yahweh throughout the history of Israel when he shows up to deliver them from their own sin or their enemies.

Finally, consider that ‘ezer can also mean “help” in the sense of cooperating together, like in Isaiah 30:1-5 when God pronounces a woe on Judah for attempting to build alliances with nations who had more military might.

This, and more, leads me to be convinced ‘ezer is more than just a “helper.”

You may not be. After all, all of this doesn’t actually prove that ‘ezer in Genesis 2 is anything more than a secretary or servant. We need the surrounding context to help us.

No One Equal to the Task

This is where the word kenegedo comes into play. It occurs right after ‘ezer and qualifies it in this context.[12] It’s often translated as “fit for” (ESV) or “suitable for” (NIV). “A helper fit for him” (ESV) or something similar is what we typically read in English.

Kenegdo literally means “according to the opposite of him.” That’s pretty awkward. It’s essentially someone who corresponds to the strength of another. Coupled with ‘ezer we can roughly translate this like “corresponding strength” or, as Walton puts it (admitting he’s making up a word), “counterpartner.”[13]

The narrative flows like this. God puts the man in the Garden to work it and care for it (i.e. priestly activities in sacred space). God recognizes that it’s not good that he’s doing the job alone, so he declares he will make a “corresponding strength” for the man. God brings all of the animals he has created to the man to name them. He finds no ‘ezer among them for himself.

The text isn’t suggesting that the man is lonely and wishes he had someone to snuggle with. Romantic interest or even reproduction is probably not on his mind here–he wouldn’t have been looking at animals in that way at all! Also remember that he is living in the presence of his Creator and is free from sin. He’s not lacking fellowship.

Instead, the man recognizes what God did back in verse 18: working and keeping the Garden is too much for him to do by himself. Working the Garden is the context of this “account” (recall Gen 2:4). The man is unable to accomplish the task alone, so he’s searching for someone like him (the fancy word for this is his “ontological equal”). He wants a partner who can serve with him as a co-priest in the sacred space.

But he can’t find anyone.

So God finally provides one for—and from—him.

“Hey, You Look Like Me!”

In verses 21-22, we’re told God provides a woman from the man’s side (the word we translate as “rib” in verse 21 is an architectural term used for building projects that really doesn’t really mean “rib” at all).

Just as God forms the man from the ground to display his solidarity with the land he is working and keeping, so God forms the woman from the man to display the solidarity they have with each other. This reemphasizes that she is his “corresponding strength” as they work in the Garden.

The man’s reaction tells us everything we need to know about the equality of these two humans before sin entered the world:

It’s like he’s singing to her, “Hey, you look like me!”

“This finally is bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called ‘Woman,’
because she was taken out of Man” (v 23, ESV).

The man cries out in delight as he has finally found someone like him–bone of his bones, flesh of his flesh. Someone equal to him and to the task of keeping the Garden.

The man calls her “woman.” This is a Hebrew wordplay. The man, ‘ish, calls her ‘ishshah, showing how the woman comes from and is connected to him. As ‘ishshah, she’s elevated to his level, in contrast to the animals who are below him. It does not at all imply that she’s subservient to him.[14] She is, quite literally, from him. She’s his equal in every respect.

It’s like he’s singing to her, “Hey, you look like me!”

Some complementarians have focused on the man’s “naming” of the woman and equate it to the authority he had over the animals when he named them (2:19). But he’s not naming the woman like that or like he does in 3:20.[15] This is a poetic exultation that he’s found someone like him. He identifies her as someone in the same category he’s in–a human he can labor with.

The man and the woman in the Garden were the first team of priests to serve the Lord in his sacred space. There’s no hierarchy here!

What’s with the little bit in verse 24 about a man leaving his parents? The point, as it explicitly says in the text, is that he would be united to his wife and become one flesh with her.

This ties a nice bow on the chapter. The big idea is the unity, solidarity, equality, and partnership of man and woman in God’s creation.

The First Team of Priests

The man and the woman in the Garden were the first team of priests to serve the Lord in his sacred space. Let that sink in. This is incredible. There’s no hierarchy here! To pull out specific gender roles (like leading and following) based on Genesis 1-2, we’d have to import them into the text from our own cultural categories or project them back onto the text from other parts of Scripture.

Simply, the original Israelite readers–who were entrenched in patriarchy themselves–would have never thought about gender roles or headship when reading the creation narrative.

As I’ve already said, Genesis 1-2 is about more than gender roles. It’s about humanity’s identity and their role of being representatives of God and coworkers with God.

When we look down the corridors of biblical history, all the way to the end of the story in the book of Revelation, we see how this partnership in the Garden comes full-circle. All God’s people, men and women, are a kingdom and priests who reign with Yahweh in a redeemed Eden, that temple-garden-city where we will see Jesus’ face and sin and death will be no more (Rev 1:6; 5:10; 21-22).

Indeed, we are that kingdom and priests now. Later on, I’ll try to show that this is at the very heart of what Jesus brought when he ushered in the Kingdom of God and what the New Testament seeks to flesh out.

Still, until God brings the New Creation, we live in a sinful world which brings devastation to everything in us and around us. A significant part of that devastation is patriarchy.

That’s what we’ll consider next as we turn to Genesis 3.


Notes

[1] John Walton, Genesis, NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001), on BibleGateway.com. For anything on Genesis 1-3, just read everything by John Walton. His book The Lost World of Adam and Eve (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2015) has also been tremendously helpful to me in understanding Genesis 1-3.

[2] For a brief article that sums up what most complementarians see in Genesis 1-2 see Denny Burk, “5 Evidences of Complementarian Gender Roles in Genesis 1-2,” The Gospel Coalition, March 5, 2014.

[3] As you probably know, in the original writings, there were no chapter or heading breaks. Try reading Genesis 1-2 without any of those breaks and notice the continuity from 1:31 to 2:3. Since 2:4 begins with “This is the account of…”, it should actually be the true beginning of “chapter 2” and signal the beginning something distinct from the week of creation that runs through 2:3.We see this formula again in Genesis 5:1, 6:9; 10:1, 32; 11:10; 11:27; 25:12, 19; 36:1, 9, 37:2. Every single time this formula introduces a new section in the narrative, focusing on a new individual and/or family.

[4] Walton, “The Garden of Eden (2:8-17),” Genesis.

[5] All of these comparisons to ANE literature may freak you out a bit. But it doesn’t have to. The point is not to bring doubt on the Bible. While we start with the text of Scripture to see what it has to say, we need to read it through the lens of the people who originally read it if we want to be faithful to understand it. Otherwise, we project our contemporary categories and understandings onto the text. The point is to show that God, in his kindness and grace, spoke through the writers of Scripture in a way that would be understandable to them. (Theologians call this “accommodation.”)

[6] The word for “work” can be used in an agricultural sense of landscaping, in general for one’s day job (Ex. 20:9), or for worship (Ex. 3:12). For the word translated “take care,” see Lev 8:35 and Num 3:7, 28.

[7] The pseudepigraphal book Jubilees makes a comment about Adam as he leaves the Garden that fits this idea of priestly service: “And on that day on which Adam went forth from the Garden, he offered as a sweet savour an offering, frankincense, galbanum, and stacte, and spices in the morning with the rising of the sun from the day when he covered his shame” (3:27). While Jubilees is not book we recognize as Scripture and, indeed, it has extra details that have no Scriptural foundation, it does give us insight into how ancient Jews understood various aspects of their history. For more on this see, Walton, “Proposition 12,” The Lost World of Adam and Eve.

[8] “The English word ‘helper,’ because it can connote so many different ideas, does not accurately convey the connotation of the Hebrew word ‘ezer.” See NET Study Bible, Notes on Genesis 2:18, on BibleGateway.com.

[9] Owen Strachan, “The Gender of Genesis and Ecclesial Womanhood,” 9Marks, July 1, 2010.

[10] William J. Webb, Slaves, Women, and Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2001), 128.

[11] Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., “Correcting Caricatures: The Biblical Teaching on Women,” Pricilla Papers 19/2, 2005.

[12] Marg Mowczko, “A Suitable Helper (in Hebrew),” Marg Mowczko blog, March 8, 2010. Also read everything by Marg Mowczko.

[13] Walton, “Suitable Helper,” Genesis.

[14] Webb, Slaves, Women, and Homoseals, 116-117.

[15] Genesis 3:20 definitely suggests the man exercises some authority over the woman when he names her Eve, while his own name remains unchanged. Of course, we aren’t told this is a good thing! Nothing in Genesis 2:23 suggests he is placing himself over her. But even if we assume that the man is showing authority by naming the woman here in Genesis 2, Webb points out that we could see it as a subtle hint of the patriarchy to come through the Fall in Genesis 3. See Ibid., 117. For what it’s worth, I’m not convinced the man is naming her at all. Again, he’s simply identifying what she is.

Categories
Commentary Theology

Genesis 1: Male and Female He Created Them

The first two chapters of the Bible are perhaps as important as any others when we talk about men and women in the church.

Not only do these chapters tell us how the biblical story begins but it’s the only picture we have of what life was like before sin entered the world. These chapters will give us clues to what God’s ideal was (and is) for men and women.

Many complementarians make the case that the major clue for gender roles comes from the “created order.” The argument goes like this: “Because God created men first, they are called to be the leaders, and women are to called follow.”

But Genesis 1-2 gives absolutely no support for that conclusion.

Here’s what we’ll see: Genesis shows us that God created man and woman with equal status, function, and authority to carry out his mandate. In other words, there was no hierarchy or patriarchy before the Fall in Genesis 3.

I will cover Genesis 1 in this post and Genesis 2 in the next.

Humanity: Man and Woman, Together

There’s no shortage of opinion about what is going on in Genesis 1 and how it all happens. Of course, our focus is the creation of humanity and what that means for us as we work through the issue of gender roles today.

In verse 26, God says, “Let us make humankind in our image, after our likeness.”[1] The word translated “humankind” here is the generic Hebrew word adam. Eventually, it becomes the man’s proper name.[2]

Adam is singular, and that’s why a translation like “humankind” (which is singular) makes the most sense. It’s obvious that adam represents more than one person, however. After all, the very next phrase is “so they [plural] may rule” over every other living thing that is not human.

If that wasn’t clear enough, verse 27 is:

“God created humankind [adam, singular] in his own image,
in the image of God he created humanity (or the human) [ha’adam, singular],
male and female he created them [plural].”

God’s image and likeness is incomplete with only one gender.

Yahweh did not make humanity just male or androgynous or asexual. “Male and female he created them.” They stand together, with equal status before Yahweh as his image bearers. No hierarchy, no dominion one over the other.

We’ll come back to “image and likeness” means in a moment. For now, I want to affirm that each, individual person in the world is made in the image of God (imago dei)–whether a person is single, married, divorced, living in community, or standing alone at the top of Mt. Everest.

Genesis compels me, however, to see something more expansive and beautiful than our individual theology of imago dei. Namely, God’s image and likeness is incomplete with only one gender. To fully reflect his nature, character, and activity, God in his wisdom created two genders.

This means that if I am in a room with only men (like so many church elder teams), then the full expression of imago dei is lacking.

Humanity means male and female, together.

But that’s not all.

A Job Fit for Kings and Priests

The purpose of God creating humanity in his image and likeness, according to verses 26 and 28, is that they may rule over the animals, fill the earth with offspring, and subdue the earth. God created humans to fulfill a particular role and function in creation.

God does not tell the male to rule over the female. Again, they are both commanded to rule over everything else that is not human.

“God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply! Fill the earth and subdue it! Rule over…” (v. 28). Two significant things stand out.

First, God blessed and spoke to both of the humans, the male and the female. Both of them, not just the male, received the mandate to populate the earth and bring it under their control. There is humanity–in all its glorious maleness and femaleness–and then there is everything else.

Second, God does not tell the male to rule over the female. Ever. Again, they are both commanded to rule over everything that is not human.

So, we have God giving humans the right and ability to rule over creation.

Just at face value, this is pretty exciting, isn’t it? If we take into consideration the cultural context of the primeval world, however, it’s gets even better.

In ancient times, temples were essential and powerful places. They were the place on earth where the gods lived and met with humans. Temples were sacred spaces where the heavens and the earth kissed.

Genesis 1 (as well as chapter 2) paints the picture of Yahweh creating his own sacred space, the first temple, the place where he would dwell with his people.[3]

How can we know this?

There is an important connection here between “image and likeness” (vv 26-27) and ruling/subduing/receiving (vv 26, 28-30) that was common in the Ancient Near East (ANE).

To ANE peoples, an “image” was believed to contain the essence of whatever deity it represented, and the image was equipped by the deity/essence to carry out its function.[4] To be an image didn’t mean that you physically looked like the essence. Instead, it meant that you represented the essence in your activity.

In ancient Mesopotamia, as well as in Egypt, an image was almost always a king (never an entire people) who represented a deity. The king, then, would carry out the deity’s work in the world, typically on behalf of all the people in his kingdom. As the divine image bearer, the king was the source of the deity’s power and privilege on earth. He was the physical manifestation of the deity, given the capacity and authority to act on the deity’s behalf.[5]

This helps us see what’s going on in Genesis 1 and reveals how the original audience would have understood it.

Our modern debates concerning leading and following wouldn’t have ever entered their minds. Instead, they would have heard, “Man and woman represent King Yahweh on earth as his kings and priests! Wow!”

Both man and woman were created to act on behalf of God in the royal and priestly functions he created them to perform.

As Yahweh’s image bearers, placed in his sacred space, the man and woman represent him in their activity–their role and function. This is what having God’s “image and likeness” means in Genesis 1!

They are his vice-regents, endowed with worth, value, dignity, honor, authority, and power to carry out his commands in the world.[6] Not only were they in charge of all creation. As images, man and woman mediated Yahweh’s presence wherever they went. They are doing thew work of kings and priests in the ANE world.[7] Except they represent the one true God, not a false one.

I can’t say this clearly enough. Genesis 1 gives us no hint of a “male” function of leading or a “female” function of submitting or following. It’s just not there.[8]

What is there is more astounding. Both man and woman were created to act on behalf of God in the royal and priestly functions he gave them to perform. Both man and woman were blessed by God and given the same capacity and authority to rule on his behalf. Equal status. Equal authority. Real mutuality and partnership.

Let’s Recap

God’s creation of humanity in his image and likeness as male and female shows that both genders were created equal in every respect–in their status, function, and authority–since they both served as God’s representatives on earth. The language used in Genesis 1 and its ANE context helps us see that the man and woman functioned as kings and priests in Yahweh’s sacred space.

Consequently, Genesis 1 provides absolutely no foundation to argue for gender hierarchy based on “created order.”

There are many more passages to cover. But if this is true, it has profound implications.

In my next post, I’ll cover Genesis 2.


Notes

[1] “Image and likeness” doesn’t mean two different things. It’s a poetic way (think, “pray” and “cry” in the Psalms) to refer to the fact humans will, in some way, “look like” God in how they live and function in the world God created for them.

[2] While its footnotes make this clear, the ESV unhelpfully translates the beginning of verse 26 as, “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image’. Later this summer, I’ll write a post about the gender-bias of the ESV, and other translations, and how this has caused many of us to tend toward patriarchy.

[3] See Lifta Schachter, “The Garden of Eden as God’s First Sanctuary,” Jewish Bible Quarterly 41/2 (2013), 73-77, for a very short introduction to this idea from a Jewish perspective.

[4] “Image and Likeness,” NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible, on BibleGateway.com

[5] Ibid.; See also John Walton, “Image of God,” Genesis, NIV Application Commentary, on BibleGateway.com.

[6] “Vice-Regent” in old phrase that means someone appointed to rule because the king is absent, too young, incapacitated, etc. I should add that having God’s “image and likeness” likely means even more than being God’s representatives (aka regents) on earth. Others have made the case it means that we are capable of loving, thinking, deciding, feeling, creating, etc. (all things animals can’t do). That’s probably true. It’s just not what this text says.

[7] Walton, “Day 6 (1:24-31): The Blessing,” in Genesis, points out the word “rule” in Genesis 1:26, 28 can be used of priests or kings, as well as administrators or even shepherds.

[8] This doesn’t mean there aren’t differences between genders! William Webb, in his excellent book that I’ll refer to often, Slaves, Women & Homosexuals, writes, “Even from an egalitarian perspective, mutuality and equality do not have to obliterate complementary roles.” He goes on to say that he’ll propose a “type of egalitarianism [that] functions on the basis of equality but continues to celebrate gender distinctiveness and the complementary interdependence that gender differences bring.” See Webb, Slaves, Women & Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis, (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2001), 115-116.

Categories
Commentary Life Theology

Finally Seeing the Blind Spots

Anyone who has had conversation with me on a biblical text or a theological topic knows that I hate the answer, “Well, the Bible says so.” I want to get to the why behind the what. Sometimes it’s impossible to know, of course. But often, “The Bible say so,” is a lazy answer.

When it came to the debate on women’s roles in gender, I often answered genuine questions with, “Well, the Bible says so.”

Far too often I resorted to that rigid, biblical literalism I mentioned in a previous post. And it kept me from seeing an obvious blind spot which produced all kinds of inconsistent–if not awkward–applications.

The glaring blind spot of complementarianism that I missed for so long is fairly easy to explain. Here it is:

Complementarianism holds that women are equal to men, but separate from–namely, underneath–them

Proponents say they value women because women are “created equal with men.” Functionally, however, complementarians devalue women because, in any family or ministry setting, women are separated from men since they are “called” to place themselves under the authority of men–even if the men are not as mature, wise, gifted, or experienced.

We’ve heard “separate but equal” before, haven’t we?

How did that work out for us?

Equal But Separate No Longer

The Civil Rights movement in the middle of the twentieth century in the United States fought against the idea and practice of “separate but equal.” We all know how this produced all kinds of evils against black people.

Women in the church have been fighting against this same kind of thing for a very long time. It’s just harder to notice.

I’m not just trying to shock you by making the link between the struggle of women in the church and racism. Preachers and theologians in the United States used Scripture to argue that slavery and racism was God’s design for black people. They also argued that patriarchy was God’s design.

Complementarianism is simply patriarchy in our modern world.[1]

At some point a shift happened. Any respectable preacher or theologian in America today would say the slavery texts are reflective of a sinful system within a particular culture and should not be repeated today.

Yet the same preachers and theologians will defend the subjugation of women.

Historian Beth Allison Barr makes this exact case in her wonderful new book The Making of Biblical Womanhood.

Barr’s point is clear:

When we rightly understand that biblical passages discussing slavery must be framed within their historical context and that, through the lens of this historical context, we can better understand slavery as an ungodly system that stands contrary to the gospel of Christ, how can we not then apply the same standards to biblical texts about women?[2]

Patriarchy is designed to keep one half of humanity in power and the other half in submission.

Now, I’m getting a bit ahead of myself. I’ll have an entire post soon on how we can know whether a Bible passage is culture-bound or not. So, we’ll discuss the connection between slaves and women.

For now, the point I’m making is that slavery and segregation were designed to keep an entire group of people in submission. In the same way, patriarchy (aka complementarianism) is designed to keep one half of humanity in power and the other half in submission.

This does not reflect the spirit of Christ’s humility, love, and freedom.

We cannot keep saying women are “equal to men” and they must be “separate” from “a man’s work” in ministry. As someone has rightly said, “Separate but equal is not equal.”[3]

Now, please don’t hear something I’m definitely not saying. I am not saying that women and men are the same. Women and men are obviously different. 

And that’s the point, isn’t it? It’s exactly why men need women at the leadership table. If women were the same, we men wouldn’t need them, and vice versa.

But complementarians believe the difference between men and women goes beyond their biological and anatomical differences.

They argue that because of their gender, our roles and functions are different. Men lead and direct. Women follow and submit in the home and the church. In every culture. For all time.[4]

You already know this. That’s why you’re reading.

The reason I’ve gone to such great lengths to talk about my experiences in and observations of complementarianism is to show how these provided the right conditions for me to see how dangerous complementarianism really is.

A woman’s voice is essential for a ministry to function faithfully and fruitfully. Not a token voice, but one that holds the same weight as a man’s. It reminds me of Mary Magdalene, the first person to give voice to the good news of Jesus’ resurrection.

A woman’s testimony had no weight in a Jewish trial. Yet here is the risen Jesus sending a woman to be the first witness to his male friends about the greatest news in history. 

Here is the risen Jesus sending a woman to be the first witness to his male friends about the greatest news in history.

How’s that for weighty? A woman. Authorized by Jesus. Teaching men about the One who is Truth.

But women today aren’t permitted to lead and shepherd and teach people–men–who want to follow Jesus?

There it is. The blind spot, finally, exposed.

Equal but separate no longer.

Inconsistent (and Awkward) Application

Seeing this canyon-sized blind spot opened up the door for my wife and me to ask more pointed questions about the way complementarianism is broadly applied in churches.

Here are many inconsistencies both of us wrestled with. We either noticed these in our own ministry contexts or others:

Can a mother teach the Bible to her 18-year old son at home on Saturday night, but not the next morning in church? 

  • Can a woman lead or co-lead a mixed gender small group that meets in a home? Can a woman teach other men anything about God, the Bible, doctrine, etc. in a small group setting?[5]
  • Assuming our worship songs teach theology and Scripture (and they do), can a woman sing and lead musically in a church?
  • Assuming our prayers teach theology and Scripture (and they do), can a woman pray in a church?
  • Does leadership really just boil down to being the one who initiates and makes the final decision? What is uniquely “male” about that?
  • What do women do with their gifts of teaching, prophecy, exhortation, wisdom, knowledge, and discernment–gifts that are traditionally valued in (male) pastors/elders, leaders, and men in general?
  • What are women who are mature, humble, strong leaders actually allowed to do in a church if they aren’t allowed lead?
  • If a woman can give a short reflection on Scripture at a Good Friday service, why can’t she do the same for a bit longer–say “sermon length” longer–on Easter Sunday?
  • If women can’t teach men publicly because it is “having authority” over them and if “teaching” is a function of the elders, then should a non-elder man ever teach publicly? Wouldn’t he be assuming an authority over the elders that is not rightfully his?
  • Are men allowed to read a doctrinal book written by a woman?
  • Why can a woman teach a man in private conversation (see Acts 18:26), but not many men in a public church gathering? Is the difference that there is a formal service, in a building, with a pulpit?
  • If a woman shares her story in a church gathering and happens to explain a Bible verse or expounds a point of Christian doctrine, is she in violation of 1 Timothy 2:12?
  • Can a mother teach the Bible to her 18-year old son at home on Saturday night, but not the next morning in front of him and the whole congregation?
  • At what age does a boy become a man and is exempt from being taught by a woman? At 13? 16? 18? 21? 30?
  • Why can a woman teach a mixed group of college students in a parachurch setting on a weeknight but not on a Sunday morning in a local church setting? Or are women in parachurch settings not allowed to teach college-aged men?
  • Why can a woman preach, teach, evangelize, disciple, and even start churches overseas but not at home?
  • Why would a group of male-only elders ignore, at best, or reject, at worst, female input on major decisions when, as statistics show, more than half of Christian congregations are female?
  • Does a single female have to submit to any male? Or every male? Or just her pastor? Or just her father? Or her father and her pastor? What if she is 37 years old…or 65 years old?
  • Why would God tell women they can’t lead men simply because he made them female? 

These were inconsistencies I had shrugged off before because I was convinced there was no other way to interpret the most controversial passages on women in ministry. 

I didn’t want to just shrug these off anymore.

But What Does the Bible Say?

The past several posts, including this one, have been about my experiences and observations living within complementarianism. This is my reality.

But I’ll be the first to say that experience is not a valid reason to change your mind on a biblical teaching.

We need to let God’s word have the final say. 

Perhaps what I started to feel as a complementarian pastor was hogwash. Perhaps my inclination that we need women’s voices at the leadership table is just caving to modern culture. Perhaps my desire to honor and champion my wife and daughters–not to mention the many other many women I’ve worked alongside in ministry–is misguided. 

Perhaps I’m full of it.

Only a deep-dive into the entire story of Scripture–and the ancient world in which it was written–can help me find out.


Notes

[1] I’m not trying to be harsh by calling complementarianism “patriarchy.” I’m simply repeating what some of the most well-known complementarians have said. Owen Strachan, former president of the Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, wrote, “For millennia, followers of God have practiced what used to be called patriarchy and is now called complementarianism” (my emphasis). See “Of ‘Dad Moms’ and ‘Dad Fails’: An Essay on Men and Awesomeness,” The Journal for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood 17/1 (2012), 23-26.

Similarly, Russell Moore, former president of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, wrote, “If complementarians are to reclaim the debate, we must not fear making a claim that is disturbingly counter-cultural and yet strikingly biblical, a claim that the less-than-evangelical feminists understand increasingly: Christianity is undergirded by a vision of patriarchy” (my emphasis). Generally, I’m a fan of what Moore says and writes, but not here. See “After Patriarchy, What? Why Egalitarians Are Willing the Gender Debate,” Journal of the Evangelical Society 49/3 (September 2006), 569–76. This article was written back in 2006. I agree with Barr when she says that she hopes Moore has changed his stance. I’m not aware that he has, however.

[2] Beth Allison Barr, The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2021), 34. See 32-35 for her entire discussion on the connection between the struggle of women in the church and racism. You really should just buy this book and read it. It’s truly spectacular.

[3] As far as I can tell, this quote is attributed to Paul Martin, the 21st Prime Minister of Canada.

[4] Even John Piper and Wayne Grudem, fathers of biblical manhood and womanhood movement, teach that women are not designed by God to lead in secular vocations.

[5] Since churches in the first century met in homes, this question is very relevant! As we’ll see in our exploration of 1 Corinthians 11, we absolutely know that there were women who “prayed and prophesied” in house church gatherings in Corinth. The concept of a sermon given by one person in a pulpit or behind a lectern is foreign to the biblical writers. Multiple communicators of biblical truth, not just one, was more typical of worship gatherings in the first century.