Full disclosure, I’m an egalitarian. I believe that men and women, though biologically unique from one another, are not required by the Bible to be relegated to specific roles within the church or in the home. The church for which I work comes from the Church of God, Anderson movement and is also egalitarian in its approach to ministry. Women may be lead pastors in a congregation. I have, though, some wonderful and faithful friends who are complimentarians. A complimentarian holds that the Bible teaches that men and women are relegated to different God ordained roles within the church and, for some, within the home. The spectrum within this camp ranges from those who believe that women should be silent in church, submissive to their husbands, and relegated to western traditional roles within the home to those who believe that women and men are to be mutually submissive with men as the head (as Christ is the head of the Church), women may participate actively in ministry under the authority of a male pastor, and there is a great deal of mutual respect for both genders and their gifting. Thankfully most of my friends approach complimentarianism from this second, very respectful, camp.
In a blog that I frequent from time to time a discussion on gender roles caught my attention. In the comments I asked the question:
If male headship is a result of the fall (Genesis 3:16) then why wouldn’t the liberation of Christ require us to move away from those categories?
The reply from the article’s author, Tamie, offered some great categories to explore but the comments ended there. I would like to explore these categories here. She said:
I think the two big questions in the debate are:
1. Is male headship a result of the fall or does the fall distort good male headship?
2. If it is, does the NT move away from it and towards liberation of Christ or does it seek to restore male headship, but in the image of Christ?
My goal here is not to debate the Pauline passages on women. That is for another post. I would like, instead, to focus on Genesis in relation to Christ’s work on the cross. Let’s first take a look at the passage in question (emphasis mine):
Genesis 3:16-20 16 To the woman He said, “I will greatly multiply Your pain in childbirth, In pain you will bring forth children; Yet your desire will be for your husband, And he will rule over you.“ 17 Then to Adam He said, “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten from the tree about which I commanded you, saying, ‘You shall not eat from it’; Cursed is the ground because of you; In toil you will eat of it All the days of your life. 18 “Both thorns and thistles it shall grow for you; And you will eat the plants of the field; 19 By the sweat of your face You will eat bread, Till you return to the ground, Because from it you were taken; For you are dust, And to dust you shall return.” 20 Now the man called his wife’s name Eve, because she was the mother of all the living.
My first temptation after reading this passage is to classify male headship as a result of the fall. This, in my mind, puts it in the same category as sin. Is this a fair assessment of male headship? Of course, one could also say that this puts male headship in the same category as clothes but I’m not so quick to say that as a result of the freedom Christ brings we should all become nudists. Clothes aren’t explicitly defined as something that are brought into the equation as a punishment for sin so I think we can safely assume that wearing clothes does not fit into the same category as male headship or sin.
Now there are three caveats to this issue that need to be explored: 1, Is male headship a God ordained and timeless instruction for all believers for all time? Or 2, is male headship primarily a cultural institution and therefore not binding in every culture? Or 3, does male headship come from both a combination of culture and providential ordination? After these three questions are explored we can address the two questions asked by Tamie, which get to the heart of the issue.
Let’s start with question 1. Is male headship God ordained and timeless? What can we learn from the Genesis passage? Well, I feel comfortable saying that male headship is a consequence of the decisions made by Eve but I could be misreading the text. In God’s comments to the serpent he states a cause – “Because you have done this.” In God’s comments to the man he also states a cause – “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife.” However, to the woman he does not say “because.” I tend to assume from the text that there is a cause which is stated earlier – “because” the woman was deceived and ate. Is this a fair assumption? Or am I implying too much? Maybe the fact that there is no “because” means that it is a simple reality of life from here on out. Maybe a break in communion with God cannot happen without an increase in the pain of childbearing and the institution of male headship. Which one seems most faithful to the text? Is there a third way to understand the lack of explicit causation?
By asking if male headship is timeless I mean, is headship something that exists in the original order of creation to be applied for all of time? We’ll explore that later.
Question 2: Is male headship primarily a cultural institution? As an egalitarian my short answer is yes, of course, but I recognize that this doesn’t further the conversation. What does male headship look like? For some it means a world of very specific gender roles and responsibilities. I was once turned away when I offered to help clean up after dinner at a Southern Baptists pastor’s home deep in the Appalachian Mountains. A few seconds later a female associate of mine offered the same help and was welcomed into the kitchen. It was culturally insensitive of me to even offer the help but it was culturally expected that she would participate in clean up and all because when these people read the words of Paul and the Genesis 3 passage they projected their traditional gender roles onto the text.
When we examine gender through fields like psychology, anthropology, human development, and even missiology (my field of study) we find reason to examine all of our previous assumptions about gender roles. Although I have explored the idea that gender is cultural nothing I have written proves that it is primarily cultural. I’m not certain I would defend gender as solely cultural but I think it is an important element. Here is how the Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines Gender:
“the behavioral, cultural, or psychological traits typically associated with one sex”
Psychologists now categorically define sex (biology) and gender (cultural/psychological) differently. Of course it is not possible to completely distinguish between the body and the mind because they are two parts of the same whole, but we can distinguish between human beings and culture. In Australian culture, for instance, it is less acceptable for a male to be openly sensitive (unless of course it has to do with sport) than it is in America. This is not a biological phenomenon but a cultural one that is deeply rooted in what it means to be a male in Australia (Though there are exceptions and I found many Christian males to be more open to their sensitivities than their not-yet-Christian friends). Not being a psychologist I can only examine this anecdotally rather than in-depth but I imagine that we all agree there is a great deal of what we consider “gender” that has been shaped by our culture, if not all of what we consider gender. Our biology deeply affects our gender as well though. Men and women have different amounts of different hormones that affect how we think, behave, and experience.
Question 3: does male headship come from both a combination of culture and providential ordination?
Here is where complimentarians and I part ways. I believe that when we read Paul’s advice on women we are seeing culturally defined gender roles rather than timeless truths to which Christians should always submit. I think back to my experience in Appalachian culture. The director of our ministry site was a female. She was not in charge of teaching or even involved in direct hands-on ministry but took care of the organizational side of the ministry (housing, finances, etc.). We learned very quickly that when interacting with locals, and in particular Christians, with whom we hoped to partner we sent a male to do the talking. Some people would not even consider talking to a female or working with a ministry that put a female in her position. If I were to write a letter to the staff who would be taking our place the following summer it would not be beyond me to borrow a sentence from Paul: “But do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet.” This is not because our director was incapable but because this was the most profitable approach to ministry in this community. Again, this is anecdotal but demonstrates my point. Even if Paul was a child of his culture and bought into the ideas of his culture that does not make them necessarily applicable to our own. After all, even he admitted that there is no male or female when it comes to Jesus.
I promised this would be about Genesis 3 though and not about Paul so let’s continue down that path by asking Tamie’s questions:
- Is male headship a result of the fall or does the fall distort good male headship?
This is really two questions: Is male headship a result of the fall? Or, does the fall distort good male headship?
The first question is what I asked originally. When we read Genesis 3 does it teach us that male headship is a result of the fall? The second question implies that male headship was in place (timeless) and that the fall reoriented, and therefore distorted, it. So if male headship was not initiated at the fall from where does it come? In her blog Women in Ministry, Cheryl Schatz covers common answers to this question. Here are a few reasons she has discovered why people believe that male headship was in place before the fall:
- God’s design in Genesis 1
- Adam names Eve which implies authority (he calls her both woman and Eve)
- Eve usurped Adam’s authority (but this is only true if it is previously established that he has authority over her)
I’ll only address the first one as the other two seem to be dependent on a previously established authority. God’s Design in Genesis 1:
Genesis 1:26-31 26 Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” 27 God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. 28 God blessed them; and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” 29 Then God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the surface of all the earth, and every tree which has fruit yielding seed; it shall be food for you; 30 and to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the sky and to every thing that moves on the earth which has life, I have given every green plant for food”; and it was so. 31 God saw all that He had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.
This is the key passage for this claim. You can see though that there is no authority given that places the man above the woman here. They are given mutual responsibilities. One might claim that the Genesis 2 passage more clearly defines a hierarchy between the genders but it isn’t in the text.
Genesis 2:18 – 3:1 18 Then the LORD God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone; I will make him a helper suitable for him.” 19 Out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the sky, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called a living creature, that was its name. 20 The man gave names to all the cattle, and to the birds of the sky, and to every beast of the field, but for Adam there was not found a helper suitable for him. 21 So the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then He took one of his ribs and closed up the flesh at that place. 22 The LORD God fashioned into a woman the rib which He had taken from the man, and brought her to the man. 23 The man said, “This is now bone of my bones, And flesh of my flesh; She shall be called Woman, Because she was taken out of Man.” 24 For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife; and they shall become one flesh. 25 And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.
Here we see that man had a relational need and the female was created to join him. There is nothing that implies submission or hierarchy here. In fact Adam’s own words imply mutuality. He says she is of the same essence as he is, and that when they join together they will be one flesh. You could, of course, retroactively interpret these texts by first reading Paul and then interpreting Genesis through his words but I think that would be putting the cart before the horse. Paul isn’t reinterpreting Genesis he is writing letters to churches and church leaders. If anything we should first work to understand what the relationship between genders was before the fall and then work to understand Paul.
- Does the NT move away from male headship and towards liberation of Christ or does it seek to restore male headship, but in the image of Christ?
I can’t express how well this question is worded because it is truly the heart of the issue. As an egalitarian I hold that male headship is a result of the fall and that the work of Christ liberates us from these categories. But Tamie’s question gives cause to stop and reflect. Does the work of Christ restore male headship as it was intended to be?
As I see no evidence that male headship existed before the fall, I cannot adequately address this question. I welcome my complimentarian friend’s insight here. Please feel free to address the claims I have made in regards to there being, in my understanding, no pre-ordained/timeless hierarchy in gender relations. For that matter please feel free to clarify, correct, or explore any of the ideas I’ve presented here. My plan was not to write so much but as I’ve read through this I can’t think of anything to take out and wish that I could add more (sorry!)! If I have misrepresented complimentarians please feel free to correct me. I think this conversation is helpful for all of us even if it only serves to reinforce the stance of people from both parties!