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Commentary Let Her Lead 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.

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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.

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Commentary Let Her Lead Theology

Defining Terms in the Gender Conversation

Before we get going much further in this series, I want to define my terms. Maybe you are new to the “gender debate” in the church. Or maybe you are all-too-familiar with it, but don’t know the lingo.

I’ll try to make this less boring than it sounds, but, we’re talking about definitions here, so I can’t promise much. My goal is not to provide every possible definition of a term or every possible exception to the way a term is lived-out!

The point is just to provide general definitions so that we are all on the same page going forward.

There are primarily two words we often hear in the gender conversation that need defining. They are: complementarianism and egalitarianism.

Complementarianism is the theological position that believes God has created men and women equal in their dignity and worth, but that they are different and complementary in their functions and roles. In this paradigm, leadership is limited to men in the home and the church, regardless of gifting and calling.

Throughout the series, I may refer to this as the “male-only leadership” position.

Egalitarianism is the theological position that believes God has created men and women equal in their dignity and worth, and that there should be full partnership between men and women in the home and the church. In this paradigm, functions/roles and leadership should be determined by gifting and calling rather than gender.

I may refer to this as the “co-laborer” or “full partnership” position.

It’s worth noting, as with anything, that there is a spectrum of belief and practice in both of these positions. The extreme positions usually get the most air time in popular culture. Unfortunately, that leads to all sorts of caricatures and misrepresentations.

For example:

  • There are complementarians who say that a woman should never even be allowed to work outside the home or speak in a public worship gathering.
  • There are egalitarians who say that there are no differences at all between male and female.

Because advocates of the extremes tend to have the loudest voices, those extreme positions are what we typically think of when “complementarian” or “egalitarian” come to mind!

Sidebar: As I move through this series, I will do my very best to not set up a theological straw man for the complementarian position–meaning, I won’t attack the extremes. That’s not helpful to anyone. That said, the most passionate proponents of complementarianism have very influential voices in our public spaces (e.g. Twitter, Instagram, podcasts, etc.). They have nearly become synonymous with “complementarianism” itself, and they exercise undue influence over the average pastor, ministry leader, husband, father, and single man who reads, follows, and listens to them.

Finally, one more thing. As with anything, often one’s practice of a particular belief doesn’t actually align with the belief itself. In my definition of complementarianism, I wrote “men and women are equal in dignity and worth.” I have never met a complementarian who holds this position who said otherwise. But that doesn’t mean functionally their behavior is always consistent with that.

Because of all this, especially the spectrum of belief and practice in each position, I find the terms themselves unhelpful. But I can’t change this all by myself.

And the men who wrote theological dictionaries never asked me to begin with.

In spite of this, for the sake of helping people build categories in their mind to understand my approach, I’m fine with being labeled an “egalitarian.”

But if you really press me, I would prefer to use one of Paul’s favorite terms for his teammates–both women and men–in ministry: “coworkers / co-laborers in the gospel.”

So, I hold to the “Gospel Co-Laborer” position.

Rolls right off the tongue, doesn’t it?

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Reviews

Review: Recovering From Biblical Manhood & Womanhood

I just finished reading Recovering From Biblical Manhood & Womanhood by Aimee Byrd. I read this book because I first learned about Aimee on the Worthy podcast, hosted by Elyse Fitzpatrick and Eric Schumacher. This review is much shorter than it could or should be. I’m won’t be able to cover all of the important content but want to highlight a few important arguments of the book.

Byrd, who subscribes to male-only ordination, set out to confront some of the teaching and application that has come out of the biblical manhood and womanhood movement, the origin of which we can trace back to the book Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood edited by John Piper and Wayne Grudem. Since then, the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW) has been developed and publishes a journal, blog articles, books, and hosts their own conferences.

Byrd’s primary goal was pretty simple. Her book seeks to show that men and women are on equal footing in the body of Christ. They follow the same Jesus, read the same Bible, and are both responsible to be active, faithful witnesses to the faith. Whether you are for male-only ordination or not, if you are a Christian, you should believe and practice this, she argues. I agree. 

Byrd’s overall concern could perhaps be summed up like this: we have segregated God’s word, and therefore God’s people, making certain aspects of it relevant to men and other parts to women. This has created separate discipleship tracks in the church: one for men and another for women.

Byrd examines popular gender-specific devotional Bibles to prove this, focusing on the ESV devotional Bibles for men and women. These publications have perpetuated the fuzzy idea of men’s and women’s “roles” in the church and home. They also give priority and authority to men: there are no women contributors to the men’s devotional Bible, but there are men who contribute to the women’s devotional Bible.

Byrd’s heart comes across clearly. She wants us to realize that the Bible does call us to biblical “manhood” and “womanhood,” but conformity to Christ regardless of gender.

Byrd shows how the biblical manhood and womanhood movement, spearheaded by CBMW, has perpetuated this segregation between women and men in the church. According to CBMW, women exist to support, encourage, and hold up men as leaders (chapter 4). For example, in Piper and Grudem’s book, biblical femininity is defined as “a freeing disposition to affirm, receive and nurture strength and leadership from worthy men in ways appropriate to a woman’s different relationships” (p. 105).

Byrd points out that Scripture simply never states that all women must submit to all men, but the biblical manhood and womanhood movement would make us believe as much. She shows convincingly that this movement believes women are second-class disciples who do not and should not receive the same training and equipping opportunities as men. 

Conversely, Byrd takes us from one Scripture to the next (particularly in chapters 3 and 4) to show how the Bible “takes us behind the scenes and gives us a story behind the story through the female voice…implementing women as tradents of the faith” (p. 73). Ruth, the Egyptian midwives, Deborah, Rahab, and Mary are just a few examples that show “patriarchy is not the Bible’s message…[but that] it is the cultural backdrop against which the gospel message of Jesus stands out in sharpest relief” (p. 56).

One of the primary theological problems Byrd finds in the CBMW is the doctrine of the eternal subordination of the Son, or ESS for short. I won’t take a deep dive into this doctrine here, but in a nutshell ESS is the belief that the Son, the second Person of the trinity, has always been in subordination and submission to the Father. The CBMW uses this as the foundation for their view of gender roles. Of course, this is a doctrine at odds with the church councils of Nicea (AD 325) and Constantinople (381), summarized in the Nicene Creed. Byrd circles back to this throughout the book. Unfortunately, the CBMW has allowed room in their movement on different views of the Trinity, but not how men and women function in the church (pp. 120-121).

As Byrd closes the book, she write beautifully of two women’s co-laborship with Paul: Junia and Phoebe. We meet these women in Romans 16. Phoebe was the courier of the letter to the Romans and Junia is even identified as “renowned among the apostles” along with Andronicus. While churches today are arguing about whether or not woman can make an announcement or pass out bulletins, Paul commends these women for their ministry (p. 213).

Phoebe, as the courier of the letter, was thus authorized to not only deliver but communicate (i.e. instruct) what was in the letter that the Romans may not have understood. At the very least, this reveals Paul’s heart to include women in global, apostolic work. It reminds us that “having a coed team of apostles in Rome sounds wisely strategic in reaching the diverse men and women” who lived there. It’s a lesson we ought not forget today.

I do have two gentle critiques. More like pet peeves that I hope won’t detract the reader from the content of the book.

First, It was much more academic than I expected and wonder if that will work against Byrd in the long run. Why? Because while many of the men who are behind the Biblical Manhood and Womanhood movement are academics, the people who have been influenced by their writings, sermons, and conferences are not professional theologians. They are everyday, ordinary Christians.

Second, Byrd is an Orthodox Presbyterian. And, oh, does that come through clearly! In my estimation, she has too narrow of a view of “the church,” reducing much of her focus to local fellowships and what happens during a Sunday morning liturgy. She also places a very high emphasis on church officers, as a presbyterian would—an emphasis that I think the New Testament doesn’t even give. (But that’s another post entirely).

If you, reader, are the average “layperson,” let me encourage you press in and not get hung up on the academic tone and institutional preferences of the author. Press on and engage with her actual arguments without setting up and destroying straw men (or women).

Overall, I’m happy to recommend Recovering From Biblical Manhood & Womanhood. No matter your position on gender roles in the home, church, or world, if you are a Christian or church leader, you need to wrestle with the issues and problems Byrd brings to light. And I hope you do.