Anna Catherine Pistor, Author

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In the Beginning... The Genesis of Gender roles?

On page 54 of Women’s Gifts, Women’s Roles, I noted that Genesis 1—3 is one of the main passages that complementarians and egalitarians debate. That this is so isn’t surprising. Consider the following verses:

· “The Lord God said, ‘It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him’” (Gen. 2:18).

· “Now the Lord God had formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. So the man gave names to all the livestock, the birds in the sky and all the wild animals” (Gen. 2:19–20a).

· “Then the Lord God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man” (Gen. 2:22).

· “When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it” (Gen. 3:6).

· “To the woman he said, ‘I will make your pains in childbearing very severe; with painful labor you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you” (Gen. 3:16).

Notwithstanding the fact that “in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Gen. 1:27), complementarians see in these verses a universal principle of male headship. Conservative complementarian Raymond Ortlund is quite clear about this:

Man and woman are equal in the sense that they bear God’s image equally. . . . In the partnership of two spiritually equal human beings, man and woman, the man bears the primary responsibility to lead the partnership in a God-glorifying direction. . . . God did not name the human race “woman.” If “woman” had been the more appropriate and illuminating designation, no doubt God would have used it. He does not even devise a neutral term like “persons.” He called us “man,” which anticipates the male headship brought out clearly in [Genesis 2], just as “male and female” in [Genesis 1:27] foreshadows marriage in [Genesis 2]. Male headship may be personally repugnant to feminists, but it does have the virtue of explaining the sacred text. . . . God did not create man and woman in an undifferentiated way, and their mere maleness and femaleness identify their respective roles. A man, just by virtue of his manhood, is called to lead for God. A woman, just by virtue of her womanhood, is called to help for God. . . . [T]he woman was made from the man (her equality) and for the man (her inequality).[1]

In what manner is “male headship” brought out “clearly” in Genesis 2? Complementarians see this in several places:

1. First, Adam’s act of naming the animals demonstrates his leadership role. As Albert Baylis writes, “Adam initiates rule over the creation by naming [the animals]. In the ancient world the right to name indicates rule. As God’s agent, Adam begins to organize and order the creation.”[2]

2. Second, Eve is provided to Adam as his counterpart—his helpmate. The fact that Eve was created last doesn’t counter Adam’s headship: “In Genesis 1 the order [of creation] was ascending with humanity as the climax—and order was not the only indicator of this. In Genesis 2 the distinctive context of gracious provision for the newly created man who has needs (including a mate) on his level is often overlooked. Order is actually climactic here, too. As Adam affirmed in poetry [Gen. 2:23], last is best. In Genesis 2—the greatest provision was the woman—a creation appropriate to him.”[3]

3. Third, Adam was judged after Eve: “[T]he satanic attack is an attempt to reverse the divine order. This, as well as the order of God’s confrontation and judgment, suggests that the narrative views Adam as having the final responsibility for moral leadership and accountability.”[4]

Of course, egalitarians have offered rebuttals to these arguments. For example, Richard Hess provides the following responses:

1. “[Conservative complementarians like Thomas Schreiner argue] that when the man named the animals he exercised authority over them, and thus when he named the woman he exercised authority over her. This is unconvincing for several reasons. First, the text nowhere states that the man exercised authority over the animals by naming them. Rather, he classified them and thereby continued the work of the first three days of creation in [Genesis 1], where God divided the elements of matter. Second, there is no obvious way in which the man exercised any authority over either the animals or the woman.”[5]

2. “[T]he text nowhere suggests that the snake approached the woman in order to subvert the man’s authority over her. There is no mention by any of the characters of any such authority having been given. The challenge of the snake is not directed against the man’s authority. It is against God’s authority. . . . The argument that God approached the man and addressed him first because he was the responsible party for the two has little merit. It is derived from a predisposition to see hierarchy in the text rather than from a study of the text itself. . . . [T]he interrogation of Genesis 3:9–13 reverses the sequence in which the characters are introduced in Genesis 3:1–8. Such concentric or chiastic constructions are prominent in Hebrew narrative and especially in Genesis. The chiasm is completed in Genesis 3:9–13 with the reverse appearance in sequence of the man, woman and snake. In the center of this chiasm is the figure of God, on whom the narrative and subsequent interrogation hinge.”[6]

We could also spend time looking at the meaning of the word “helper” and Eve’s curse. However, a more important question looms before us: What, if anything, does this have to do with the role of women in the local church?

Absolutely nothing.

The complementarian-egalitarian debate concerns not just the proper role of women in the local church, but also the proper role of women in marriage. On its face, Genesis 1—3 clearly pertains only to marriage and not to the local church.

With Adam and Eve, we have a first husband and a first wife: “That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh” (Gen. 2:24). What we do not have is a first pastor and a first female congregant.

Conservative complementarians try to import Genesis 1—3 into the local church setting using 1 Timothy 2:11–14. This passage reads:

11 A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. 12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve. 14 And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner.

Verse 14 is the key justification for complementarians. As Ortlund explains, “Paul in 1 Timothy 2:14 cites the woman’s deception as warrant for male headship to be translated from the home into the church.”[7]

In offering this explanation, Ortlund tacitly admits that Genesis 1—3, on its own, has nothing to do with the local church setting. Rather, conservative complementarians need to justify the application of Genesis 1—3 within the local church setting, and they do so by appealing to their reading of 1 Timothy 2:11–14. In other words, complementarians like Ortlund approach Genesis 1—3 with their interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:11–14 already in mind, utilizing their gloss on Paul’s words to read into Genesis 1—3 principles of male headship applicable to the local church.

This approach is flawed for many reasons, so I’ll conclude by mentioning just two. First, as egalitarian Craig Keener explains, 1 Timothy 2:14 doesn’t warrant the application of Genesis 1—3 in the local church setting:

In this case, Paul is drawing an analogy between the easily deceived Eve and the easily deceived women in Ephesus. Since Paul elsewhere uses Eve as an analogy for the gullibility of the whole Corinthian church (2 Cor. 11:3)—the men no less than the women—it is clear that he does not simply regard Eve as a standard symbol for women, any more than the consequences of Adam’s fall apply only to men in other Pauline passages (Rom. 5:12–21; 1 Cor. 15:45–49).[8]

In other words, Paul’s mention of Eve was for analogical purposes, not to “translate” the rules of male headship from “the home” to the local church setting. Nowhere does Paul suggest that any such “translating” is occurring, whereas we do have examples of other analogies involving Eve.

Moreover, such a “translation” would be fraught with conceptual difficulties. Ortlund seems to miss that what he envisions as a smooth translation would be similar to pounding a square theological peg into the proverbial round role. As any married person knows, the dynamics of married life are very different from that of the local church; an easy mapping between the two is not forthcoming. Press the “family” analogy too far, and it quickly breaks.

More significantly, Ortlund’s reading misses a fundamental component of trying to understand the Genesis text. As philosopher William Lane Craig explains, although in a somewhat different context, when approaching Genesis “we should adopt the hermeneutical approach of trying to determine how the original author and audience would have understood the text. . . . [W]e want to read the account as it would have been understood by the original people who read it. That requires us to bracket our knowledge . . . and put ourselves in the shoes of these ancient Hebrews.”[9]

Quite simply, Genesis was not primarily written or intended to tell us about male and female gender roles. Rather, its purpose was polemical and far different. Consider the following quotes:

· Old Testament scholar Albert Baylis: “[The Israelites] had passed through the sea without muddying their feet. But had they really become the people of Yahweh in heart and mind? How do you prepare a people to avoid the degrading tentacles of a deteriorated culture? How do you lay a foundation for a worthwhile life? . . . The answer is torah. Torah simply means instruction. The Torah came to be the name for the first five books of the Bible.”[10]

· Astrophysicist Hugh Ross: “The gods of other creation stories bear little resemblance (if any) to the God of the Genesis account. The biblical Creator exists discretely apart from His creation. He possesses unlimited power and goodness. He is a personal being, not just a force or an abstraction. He is the deity who controls all nature, who is in no way confined or limited by nature, though He is also personally present throughout it. He is not some deified part of nature or even the deification of nature itself. He manifests none of the moral weaknesses of humanity. . . . The Enuma elish [the Babylonian creation story] unabashedly advances the cause of Babylonian supremacy over Mesopotamia. . . . The biblical Adam, however, is simply ‘man’; Eve, ‘the mother of all humans’; and their dwelling place, ‘a garden in the east.’”[11]

· Apologist John Lennox: “Genesis clashes head-on with the Babylonian, Canaanite, and Egyptian polytheisms much as the Gospel of John contradicts their Greek and Roman equivalents. In particular, ancient Near Eastern accounts typically contain theogonies, which describe how the gods are generated from primeval matter. These gods are, therefore, mere deifications of nature and its powers. . . . Genesis tells us that God is primary, and the universe derivative. This worldview is the exact opposite of ancient polytheism.”[12]

The point is hopefully clear. The opening chapters of Genesis were written in large part to counter the false creation accounts of Israel’s pagan neighbors. This purpose is polemical and meant to proclaim God alone as the Creator. This is how an ancient Israelite—surrounded by worshippers of Baal and Marduk—would have understood the Genesis story.

The Genesis narrative is meant to tell humanity its origins and, just as importantly, its worth as God’s image-bearers (Gen. 1:27). However, application of Genesis 1—3 to the local church structure is not just anachronistic but also at odds with the purpose of the text. [13]

[1] Raymond C. Ortlund, Jr., “Male-Female Equality and Male Headship: Genesis 1–3,” in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism, eds. John Piper and Wayne Grudem (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2006), 95, 98, 102.

[2] Albert H. Baylis, From Creation to the Cross: Understanding the First Half of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996), 42.

[3] Ibid., 60n25.

[4] Ibid., 48.

[5] Richard S. Hess, “Equality With and Without Innocence,” in Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity without Hierarchy, eds. Ronald W. Pierce and Rebecca Merrill Groothuis (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2005), 87.

[6] Ibid., 89–90.

[7] Ortlund, “Male-Female Equality and Male Headship,” 106.

[8] Craig S. Keener, Paul, Women and Wives: Marriage and Women’s Ministry in the Letters of Paul (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1992), 117.

[9] William Lane Craig, “Concordism,” Reasonable Faith Q&A #343, November 11, 2013, accessed July 31, 2018,

[10] Baylis, From Creation to the Cross, 25.

[11] Hugh Ross, Navigating Genesis: A Scientist’s Journey through Genesis 1–11 (Corvina, CA: Reasons to Believe, 2014), 83.

[12] John C. Lennox, Seven Days That Divide the World: The Beginning According to Genesis and Science (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), 94–95.

[13] Credit on this write up goes to Randy, too. My current state of health prevents much in the way of cogent writing and he has graciously pulled this together from our research.