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Commentary Let Her Lead Theology

Women Who Flipped the Patriarchal Script

Since finishing my posts on Genesis, I’ve received a few questions about Paul’s use of Genesis in 1 Timothy 2. In my post on Genesis 2, I said we can’t project back onto Genesis how Paul uses Genesis for struggling churches. 

WHAT?!

But Paul!

I know some may worry that I’m saying Paul was mistaken. (I’m not.) I’d love to jump there right now. But I already had this post written. And we’re only a few posts away from 1 Timothy, so please hang with me.

Today, let’s look at some amazing women in the Old Testament who completely break out of the patriarchal norm. William Webb coined the term “breakout” to describe when a biblical author cuts against the cultural grain and does what the original reader wouldn’t expect.[1]

These passages on women flip the patriarchal script on its head. And they prepare us for Jesus who will obliterate all social divisions, including gender. 

I’ll discuss three Old Testament breakouts: The Women in Judges, The Prophet Huldah, and Queen Esther. (See note 2 below for other OT breakout examples.)[2]

The Women in Judges

The book of Judges gives us glimpses of Israel’s leaders before the monarchy. Wickedness, corruption, and cowardice defined this era. Some men are bold and faithful. But what would have stood out to the original audience are the several exceptional women God works through. 

The first, and most obvious, is Deborah (see Judges 4-5). Deborah was a prophet and someone who “was judging” Israel (4:4, ESV). This word for “judging” can also mean “to rule or govern.” In her role, she “held court” or “sat” (i.e. “presided”) as judge (4:5) and authoritatively spoke for God (4:6-7). As a military leader, she gathered up Israel’s troops to defeat the enemy (5:6-8).

In a male-dominated world, this is quite an accomplished woman.

Many complementarians try to downplay Deborah’s role and what it means for us today. Some argue that it was shameful for a woman to lead and Deborah only stepped up because a man did not. The text never says this or implies it.

God flips the script on the gender narrative: Deborah and Jael serve not in spite of their gender, but because of it.

In Deborah’s song (chapter 5), we actually see that Sisera was defeated “in the days of Shamgar son of Anath,” who preceded Deborah as a judge (see 3:31). It seems Shamgar and Deborah had overlapping tenures (notice the flow from 3:31-4:4 without the headings). 

If God wanted to use a man as leader and/or prophet, Shamgar was available. But God did not. He chose Deborah. Consider, too, that Deborah is married (4:4). God could have called her husband to lead. But he did not do that either. 

Deborah gave Barak, a military leader, the opportunity to deliver Israel from the hands of Sisera, the Canaanite general. Barak’s resistance to go alone led to Deborah prophesying that his honor would be taken from him and given to a woman (4:9). This mocking of the lack of male military leadership in Israel isn’t directed at all men in general, but at Barak in particular.[3]

Who gets Barak’s honor? Deborah is likely in view, as shown in her song in chapter 5. Jael, the “most blessed of tent-dwelling women” (5:24), is probably also included. When Sisera sought out Jael’s tent for a hiding place during battle, she put him to sleep with warm milk and then drove a tent peg through his temple (see 4:18-22). 

This story reveals that God demonstrates his power by using the weak to shame and overcome the strong. God flips the script on the gender narrative: Deborah and Jael serve not in spite of their gender, but because of it.

Some complementarians try to get around this breakout by claiming that being a prophet and a pastor are at odds. Here’s an example:

It’s not true to say that because Deborah was a prophet and prophets are leaders, therefore women can be any type of leader including the preaching pastor of a church. The difference between a prophet and the preaching pastor of a church may well be as profound as the difference between a cat and a dog. Therefore the argument simply isn’t relevant or compelling.

What we know about prophets from the Old Testament seems to indicate that they operated outside the formal boundaries of the covenant leadership structure. In fact, the real value of the prophet in the Old Testament is their ability to speak truth to power. The prophet is regularly sent by God to rebuke those in formal office.[4]

Let’s set aside the obvious differences between Old Testament prophets and pastors. The problem with this view is that, in Judges, Deborah, while a prophet, does serve within the covenant leadership structure. She is the person holding formal office—as formal as possible in this era before Israel’s monarchy. She not only speaks for God as a prophet but she rules on God’s behalf as his judge.

Other complementarians imply that Deborah isn’t a precursor to women church leaders because Old Testament prophecy and New Testament gifts of preaching and teaching are not the same. Denny Burk says that teaching is “always authoritative because it instructs people what they are to believe and to do” but that prophecy is spontaneous and not instructive.[5]

But Sam Storms, a complementarian, describes the role of prophets this way: “Their primary role was to make known the holiness of God and the covenant obligations; to denounce injustice, idolatry, and empty ritualism; and to call God’s covenant people, Israel, to repentance and faithfulness.”[6]

Doesn’t this sound like what we’d want one of our pastors to do today? 

Finally, it’s noteworthy that we’re never told what Deborah did was wrong or wicked in the eyes of the Lord. In a time when everyone did what was right in their own eyes (see 21:25), Deborah worshiped the Lord and did what was right in his eyes.

There’s one more woman in Judges whom God uses to upend patriarchal norms. Samson’s mother in Judges 13. In this text, we see that the Lord appears to her, not her husband (Manoah) to announce the birth of her son. The woman believes the Lord’s message but the man questions it.

When the man asks the Lord to appear to him (likely for confirmation) the Lord chooses to appear to the woman a second time. After the Lord appeared to them both, Manoah is afraid and believes the Lord will kill them. It’s his wife who reassures him and says if the Lord wanted to do that, he would have already (see v 23).

God prioritizes coming to a woman, not a man. It is a woman, not a man, who has resolute faith in what God is doing. This is another subversive text showing women are valued, worthy, reliable, and have a primary role in God’s plan. God again incrementally moves the story of humanity a tad bit closer back to the ideal ethic he began in the Garden.

The Prophet Huldah

Huldah is a female prophet and her story is in 2 Kings 22:14-20 (cf. 2 Chron 34). She prophesied during the reign of Josiah (c. 640-608 BC). In Josiah’s eighteenth year as king, during the temple restoration project, Hilkiah the priest found the book of the Law (probably Deuteronomy). Josiah commanded Hilkiah to “go, seek an oracle from the Lord for me and the people—for all Judah” (2 Kings 22:13).

Hilkiah went with four other men and found Huldah, a woman (v 14). She spoke God’s word to them about the coming disaster of invasion and exile. But she told Josiah that he will die in peace because of his repentant heart (vv 15-20).

Here’s the thing. Zephaniah and Jeremiah were both well-known male prophets during this time (see Jer 1:2; Zeph 1:1). Why didn’t Hilkiah go to them?

Why didn’t Huldah seek male confirmation from Jeremiah or Zephaniah, or even her husband (see 2 Kings 22:14) before she prophesied?

The text doesn’t say.

Huldah’s prophetic voice is legitimate as it stands, regardless of gender. With confidence and courage, she speaks the authoritative word of God to Hilkiah, King Josiah, and all of Judah (see 22:13).

These women didn’t serve with asterisks next to their names.

These men did not reject her because of her gender. This shows God again defying and uprooting the patriarchal norm.

Queen Esther

During Israel’s exile, Haman, an advisor to the Persian king, plotted to kill all the Jews. God raised up Esther, a Jew, to become queen of Persia and save Israel from genocide. Without Esther’s intervention, God’s people would have been exterminated. God’s saving plan to redeem the world through Abraham’s line, leading to Jesus, would have ended.

Though Esther didn’t hold a formal religious position, her leadership is exceptional in a world where women were not valued as leaders (and the previous queen was deposed for disobedience!). That God would raise up a woman to save his people—and enshrine it in his holy Scriptures—is completely counter-cultural.

It flips the values of the world upside down.

Summing It Up

God used these prominent women to serve and lead his people in the Old Testament because they were women. They didn’t serve with asterisks next to their names. And they weren’t mere exceptions to the patriarchal rule. Instead, these women led Israel to imagine a better future for God’s people where equality and mutuality are embraced and treasured.

Now, let’s move on to the New Testament. We’ll start where everything starts—and finishes.

Jesus. 


Notes

[1] William Webb, Slaves, Women, Homosexuals (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2001), 91-102.

[2] Some other “breakouts” to explore: 

  • Moses’ sister Miriam (Ex 15:20; Mic 6:4) and Isaiah’s wife (Is 8:3) are both identified as prophets. Micah 6:4 even identifies Miriam as one of the leaders of Israel.
  • Women served at the entrance to the tent of meeting and tabernacle (Ex 38:8; 1 Sam 2:22). The Hebrew word “serve” in these verses means “to fight/wage word” perhaps implying “to guard.” While women were not priests, this showed they played an important role in keeping watch over Israel’s sacred space.
  • Ruth’s courage, strength, initiative, and persistence to find a husband allows the family tree that would lead to David, and then Jesus, remain unbroken.

[3] Webb, Slaves, Women, Homosexuals, 96.

[4] Paul Carter, “What Deborah Does and Doesn’t Say About Women in the Church,” TGC Canada Blog, 7/22/2017.

[5] Denny Burk, “The big mistake egalitarians make when they interpret Paul,” Southern Equip, 7/2/2019. 

[6] Sam Storms, “What Does Scripture Teach About the Office of Prophet and Gift of Prophecy?” TGC Blog, 10/8/2015.

Categories
Commentary Let Her Lead 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 Let Her Lead 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 Let Her Lead 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 Let Her Lead Life Ministry Theology

The Gift of Strong Women

My wife, Carly, is a strong woman. I knew this before we even started dating because we did ministry side-by-side as college students, especially with international students.

Sure, she was on the quieter side, but when she spoke, no one wondered where she stood on an issue.[1]

I was never threatened by Carly’s strength, her candor, her voice. At least I don’t think so. That all seemed quite normal to me because I’ve been surrounded by strong women my entire life.

My mom, my sister, both my grandmothers, my mom’s sister and sisters-in-law, my cousins (most of whom walk with Jesus). The women from our church in New York I mentioned in my last post.

All of them were strong.

Decisive. Fearless. Convicted. Dedicated.

Every single one of them.

So much for biblical womanhood.

This is Carly, too.

Throughout our marriage, Carly has been gracious and patient as I’ve learned to listen to her voice, understand her perspective, heed her warnings, take her advice, and yes, submit to her expertise or opinion often. (I’m still learning, of course. I wish I could say that I always do these things!)

Carly’s devoted to Jesus and incredibly gifted and capable. She’s passionate about serving the church and more than willing. We share similar interests, perspective on biblical issues, and even some spiritual gifts. But in terms of personality, style, demeanor, and how we process and act on information, we’re quite different. In fact, we’re pretty complementary in that way.

When it came to ministering as partners in a local church setting, however, it was somewhat of a mystery that plagued us both.

As a complementarian couple in a complementarian church, what does ministry look like together?

Or should that even be a thing?

We thought it should. Theologically, we were in a bind. What happens when the wife is strong and has spiritual gifts traditionally “reserved” for males?

So during the interim period when our local church was looking for its next lead pastor, Carly and I sensed that role was not for me. God seemed to be calling us to pursue a new ministry together.

As it turned out (terrible story telling, I know, but we have to keep this thing moving), God provided an opportunity for us to join the staff of the organization we were involved with in college–Cru.[2]

Cru, which is not a local church and exists outside the bounds of a particular church denomination, doesn’t take a theological stance on gender roles. Functionally, however, it does: women can lead in any capacity. Currently, the director of campus ministry in the U.S. is a woman.

Serving in a parachurch organization would not only give us both a chance to minister the gospel, but would allow Carly to exercise her gifts, teaching in particular, without violating our complementarian convictions in a local church (which, as I mentioned in my last post, were already crumbling).[3]

Strong women aren’t a problem to be managed or eliminated. They are a gift to the church, especially its men.

As we’ve navigated local church and parachurch ministry as a couple, I got glimpses of what Carly had seen and experienced in the male-dominated church world through her distinctive feminine eyes.

It was like Ben Stein showed up and gave me a drop of Clear Eyes to refresh my theological vision. Godly women aren’t simply called to be silent submitters to ego-fragile men. Seeing this led to thinking long and hard about how the gifts of women–especially leadership, wisdom, discernment, and teaching (those traditionally reserved for men!)–actually fit in most churches today.

As if all that wasn’t enough, God has given Carly and me two daughters who are nothing if not strong. One takes charge; the other will not back down. What’s more is that they love Jesus. They are increasing in their knowledge of the Bible and understanding of the gospel every single day.

I had to ask myself, What if they want to preach? teach? lead? What if they are mature, able, and willing to do so? What would I say to them?

Not only did these strong women prompt these important questions, they helped me see that their gifts, skills, maturity, and passions were necessary and essential in the church.

Strong women aren’t a problem to be managed or eliminated. They are a gift to the church, especially its men.

Having these strong women in my life–my wife being the foremost–opened my eyes to the major blind spots and inconsistencies in the complementarian framework I had failed to see for so long.

We’ll look at these in tomorrow’s post. Then (finally!), we’ll turn to the biblical text to see what it has to say about women in ministry and how we might consider making applications in our context today.


Notes

[1] I certainly didn’t wonder where she stood when she called me out for basically treating her like a girlfriend even though we weren’t officially dating. But that’s a story for another day.

[2] Cru is the ministry formerly known as Campus Crusade for Christ.

[3] “Parachurch” is a term used for ministry organizations that are not a local church. Even a seminary or publishing company associated with a denomination would be considered a “parachurch.” The prefix “para” comes from the Greek word para meaning “alongside” or “beside.” A parachurch ministry, at least in theory, is designed to function alongside or in cooperation with local churches. Still, we continued to wonder: if women weren’t allowed to teach men in a church setting, why should they be able to in a parachurch/campus ministry setting? It’s interesting to note that this idea seems to be unique to Protestants, however. The Roman Catholic Church, it seems to me, considers their seminaries, schools, hospitals, humanitarian ministries, etc. part and parcel of their mission. Read more here and here.