The issue of women’s roles in marriage, the church, and the workplace is a sharply debated one. What’s right? Patriarchy? Complementarianism? *gasp* Egalitarianism? How do we avoid merely instituting the cultural norms of the Middle Ages, 1950s, or 21st century rather than actually doing God’s will?
As any Bible-believing Christian, when I want to know what God thinks about something, I look at the Bible. And no one can deny that the Old Testament is chockfull of Patriarchy: Solomon with all his wives, Naomi left penniless because she didn’t have a man, Nabal’s abusive use of Abigail. Yet, the Old Testament is filled with other things too: adultery, idol worship, unbelief, lies, and murder. The fact that God found something worthy of recording does not mean He approves of it. In fact, a major portion of the Old Testament is a lesson in what not to do. Hence, Stephen asked his countrymen which of God’s prophets they hadn’t persecuted or killed.
So the fact that Patriarchy and hierarchal relationships between men and women is in the Bible really tells us nothing about God’s will. We need to dig deeper into the Biblical text to discover not just what happened, but what God thought about what happened.
The logical place to start is Genesis. So, we flip to the first chapters of Genesis, which detail those few happy days or weeks Adam and Eve enjoyed when there was no sin in the world. How magical it must have been. What I would give to walk in Eden face-to-face with God.
Complementarians argue that Eve’s creation as a helpmeet for Adam in Gen 2:18 shows that a husband should set the agenda as leader and a wife merely “help” him achieve his agenda rather than having any agenda of her own. They say Adam is the “central character” in the Genesis account. And since God made Adam from dust, but Eve from Adam’s rib, that teaches the doctrine of “headship and submission.” Complementarians call Adam naming Eve an act of “God-given leadership.”
Does Eve’s order in creation mean she was a subordinate being meant merely to complete Adam rather than be a complete person herself? This argument has weight because that is how God worked throughout the six days of Creation. First, God made Adam, and then worked down to primates, then reptiles, then plants.
Oh wait, He didn’t. God seems to build in magnitude through the creative acts of Genesis. First, God created organic matter like the earth, and then the plants, then fish and birds, then mammals, and finally Adam. And Adam and Eve were to rule over the animals, not visa versa.
God said He created male and female in His image. There are things about me as a female that uniquely reflect God’s character in a way that my husband does not. In the Old Testament, God sometimes refers to Himself like a mother to Israel (Is 42:14, Is 46:3, Is 49:15, Is 66:13, Luke 15:8-10, Matt 23:37). There are also, of course, unique things about men that reflect God’s character in a way that women do not. Both traditional male and female character traits are drawn from God’s character.
To those that disagree, where else do you think feminine character traits came from if not from God? Were women made in the image of bears or palm trees? Obviously not. But some will argue, quoting 1 Cor 11:7, that woman was made in the image of man. We’ll get to 1 Cor 11, and no, I don’t advocate wearing doilies in church service, but it says man’s glory, not man’s image.
After all, how could woman be made in man’s image? That would mean men have both masculine and feminine traits. I don’t think Complementarian proponents would like that idea much since they emphasize men having masculine, not feminine traits.
Very good, a Complementarian might say. You have proved that men and women are equal in worth as bearers of the imago dei. We believe that too. But the key distinction is women were made to be helpmeets. In Scripture, the word translated helper is “Ezer” and it means not only helper, but strong power.
“Awesome,” says the Complementarian. “We too believe that a wife is the most powerful helper a man could ever have. But she’s still the ‘helper’, not the leader who sets the agenda.
“Ezer”, the word translated helpmeet, is used 21 times in the Bible. Seventeen of those times refer to God. The Bible tells us God is our “ezer” helper. Does that mean that we humans are the leaders who set the agenda and God merely helps us accomplish our goals? Certainly not! God is the one that creates the goals. It is our duty to strive to accomplish His goals and He helps us.
I also disagree that Adam is the central character in Gen 1 & 2. God creates Adam and then says, “it is not good.” Then He shows Adam every single animal and how, even with all of them in a perfect world, Adam is incomplete. Then, in culmination to this grand teaching moment, God makes Eve. The woman, Eve, is the answer that we’ve been waiting for with baited breath throughout the first chapters of Genesis. She is what finally completes the creation and makes it very good.
Just imagine if Adam and Eve’s roles were reversed. What if God had made Eve first and then told her that she was incomplete. What if God then showed her all the animals and then showed her she was still incomplete. And what if then, finally, God made Adam. What would the Complementarians say then? They’d say, “You see, Adam was the pinnacle of Creation, the last thing made. Just see how Eve was a lonely nothing before she finally got her leader, Adam. This is why we believe in a hierarchy between Adam and Eve.” As you can see when the story is reversed, Eve, if anything, gets the larger role in the Creation drama.
Next, let’s dig into the rib issue. Why did God use Adam’s flesh to create Eve? Does this show Adam as over Eve? I’d argue that, instead of hierarchy, the creation from Adam’s rib is designed to portray the unique intimacy of being one flesh. Throughout the Bible, the intimacy of husband and wife is entitled becoming one flesh. In an era full of coarse jokes about sex, what a beautiful word picture of that intimate relationship, “one flesh.” 1 Cor 6:18 points to this “one flesh” intimacy of the sexual relationship as the reason we should abstain from sexual immorality. But even above the sexual intimacy of becoming “one flesh”, Adam and Eve were “one flesh” genetically. What a beautiful picture of the perfect unity the genders are supposed to have. And how sadly that unity has been marred by sinful cultures.
The reason I believe the rib is designed to portray one flesh rather than hierarchy is because of 1 Cor 11:12. “For as the woman originates from the man, so also the man has his birth through the woman.” This verse concludes a long and interesting passage about head-coverings that I will certainly address in future articles. But Paul has just talked about Eve being created from Adam and all the implications that has. But then, in 1 Cor 11:12, he says that man also comes from woman in childbirth.
If God really meant to establish a hierarchy of women being subordinate because they originate from man, wouldn’t God have made men the ones that get pregnant? After all, if men bore children, then the idea of woman coming from man would continue. A daughter would grow in her father’s man-uterus and be birthed from him just as Eve was made from Adam’s rib, thus continuing the cycle. Yet, this is not the case. God reversed the cycle by making sons be birthed from their mothers’ wombs. Thus, I think the point of the rib is the interconnectedness of the genders.
“But if God really wanted to make Adam and Eve identical, why not just create them at exactly the same time both from the dust of the earth?” a Complementarian might argue. And this is a valid point. I in no way am trying to diminish that there are differences between men and women. God made men and women and they are different. But I don’t believe Genesis teaches that God made one gender clearly in charge or in leadership over the other. I just believe He made the genders unique.
So if there is no gender hierarchy, why did Adam get to name Eve, let alone all the animals too? The point of the animal naming seems to be to show Adam his incompleteness before Eve. After all, in Gen 1:28, both Adam and Eve are given all the animals to rule over. The idea that naming gives authority came from Middle Eastern cultures—cultures that developed after the fall. So, maybe they just made up that naming gives authority because they were sinful just as the curse said and wanted to dominate their wives?
Complementarians often say, “God named Adam and then Adam named Eve. See, chain of authority.” But actually, Adam didn’t get a name. The Hebrew word translated Adam, 120 in Strong’s Concordance, is also the word for a human and the word for a male. In contrast, Adam gave Eve both a gender specific title, woman, and a name, Eve. Does getting no name at all make you superior to someone who gets two names? I doubt it, but I’ll leave that question open for you to debate. Tangentially, the idea that Adam can be translated three different ways is important to remember when interpreting New Testament verses about Adam and Eve. (More on that in future articles.)
So then, before the fall, before everything became corrupt, men and women were meant to work in harmony, not hierarchy. But things changed after the fall. After all, Eve ate that apple first and just look at her curse. Boy is the curse on women a doozy: “He shall rule over you.”
I don’t think a single reader perusing this will disagree that throughout history, and even continuing to this day, men have ruled women. Polygamy?—rampant. Women taking multiple husbands?—not so much. Husbands beating their wives?—so classic we make jokes about it. Wives beating their husbands? Well, Jael killed Sisera with a tent peg, but he was a king, not her husband. (If my example wasn’t clear enough. No, wives usually don’t beat husbands.)
Even today, how many adult men do you know that have been raped by women? Not that it never, ever happens, but I know few men that have nightmares about walking down a dark alley and having a female stripper grab them and forcibly rip off their clothes.
I also think we can all agree that the curse against men, (thorns and thistles, work becoming harder), has certainly come to pass. I graduated right after the great recession of 2008. All in my class who are still working dead-end jobs for way too little pay would agree that work is hard. But none of us feel Biblically mandated to increase the reach of man’s curse by making work harder. Hey, Johnny only worked 40 hours at the office this week. He’s clearly not cursed enough. Quick, turn a few file cabinets upside down so he’ll have to reorganize those.
Farming, the original job, has gotten much easier with machinery. In the 1860s, a full 90% of the U.S. farmed in order to feed the nation. Now, 2% of Americans feed the nation. Wow, American men really aren’t cursed enough. Let’s go grab dandelion seeds and throw them in among the tomato harvest. We could break a few tractor blades while we’re at it too. That will really please God. Er, not.
In men, we see the curse as something to work against. But in women, many have interpreted the curse as the way things ought to be. For example, when pain medication for childbirth was first invented, Christians condemned it. Take away a woman’s pain in childbirth? That’s not Biblical. Childbirth is supposed to be painful. Happily, Christians worked through this illogical thinking and now gratefully accept epidurals. And by the way, despite epidurals, the curse of pain in childbearing is still very noticeable. Take it from a woman who threw up almost all nine months of pregnancy.
Sadly, many Christians still hang on to the curse of men ruling over women as an ideal state rather than something to work against. “But if you overcome men ruling over women, then doesn’t that make God’s words false?” some might argue. “We need to help God out and encourage the curse.”
Don’t worry, even if all Christians convert to Egalitarianism today, they won’t be able to save all women from abuse. This side of heaven, some women will always be disrespected and abused, just like work will never be as easy as pre-fall.
In Genesis 3:15, after Adam and Eve sin and bring death into the world, God talks of the woman’s seed or “zera” eventually crushing the serpent. This is a Messianic prophesy of Christ’s coming and His promised salvation. “Zera”, or seed, can be translated offspring, semen, or descendants. Why does God call the Messiah the woman’s seed, not the man’s seed? After all, seed is translated semen often enough in the Bible.
The ancient Greeks thought that the man’s semen and the woman’s uterus literally interacted like seed and garden. The man gave 100% of the genetic material and the woman merely served to grow the child. Obviously, this has been disproven. God created both male and female to contribute equally to a child’s genetic makeup. Wow, that sounds egalitarian. And to refer to the Messiah as the woman’s seed, not the man’s seed, or even their seed, sounds almost matriarchal.
Additionally, in Gen 2:24 the man (not the woman) is told to famously “leave and cleave.” Every male-dominated culture has reversed this. In patriarchal cultures, the woman gives up her family and moves in with her husband’s family, usually to be bullied by the inlaws. In ancient China, where footbinding and other patriarchal customs abounded, daughter-in-laws moved into their mother-in-law’s house.
The Bible teaches the exact opposite of patriarchal cultures. The manshall leave his family and cleave to his wife. God knows people, so I believe following His commands leads to more functional relationships. Statistically, women who have a “close relationship” with their husband’s family are 20% more likely to divorce, but men who have a “close relationship” with their wife’s family are 20% less likely to divorce.
So we’ve made it through Gen 1-3 and thus far the egalitarian position is looking pretty Biblical. “But what about 1 Timothy 2:13?” the Complementarian says. “That verse seems to lend a primacy argument to Adam being created first, putting her over Eve.”
Thanks for bringing that up. You are absolutely right that we have 1186 more chapters of the Bible to go before making a decision. Luckily, there’s a lot more articles left in this series.