The year is 1996. A sixth-grade boy (Boy-Number-1) was on a school bus, and other students were filing on one-by-one trying to find a seat by a friend or at least in a spot that wouldn’t ruin their day. Another boy (Boy-Number-2), trying to explore what it was like to express an opinion like a man, overconfidently asserted something about women’s proper roles that illuminated much about the general level of sleaze he was being exposed to by the adults in his life.
Quiet, confrontation-phobic Boy Number 1 uncharacteristically spoke up and loudly challenged Boy-Number-2, decisively proclaiming the self-evident truth that women could do whatever they wanted with their lives and had just as much right and innate ability to do it as men (Boy-Number-1 very likely said it in much simpler terms than this). Boy-Number-1 would probably not have spoke up if he had realized his own view was not the universal view by any thinking person as he probably assumed it was at the time.
Bus driver, a woman, heard Boy-Number-1 and exclaimed, “You’re a ‘90’s kind of guy, aren’t you?” thus alerting him that his view was, in fact, a sickeningly novel concept not held by everyone everywhere. He blushed and didn’t reply.
As you probably guess, I was Boy-Number-1. That day was the first time I learned that not everyone believes men and women are equally valuable, equally competent to live life. I later learned that many people use the Bible as their basis for believing, teaching, and militantly defending their stance of a hierarchy between the sexes of subjugating women under men, explicitly in authority, implicitly in worth. While my belief in the equality of inherent value and dignity between the sexes has never wavered, my understanding about appropriate and God-ordained roles has undergone many stages of transformation.
I once wrote for an assignment turned into my 10th grade, feminist English teacher about gender roles in marriage, claiming an “equal but distinct” viewpoint. She graciously (and I’m sure mustering all the professional restraint she could) graded me on writing skill and thoughtfulness rather than whether she agreed with the content, and she gave me a good grade and positive comments.
By my first year of college at a conservative, Christian university, I was writing a paper on Paul’s view of women in ministry, and fell decisively on the side of egalitarianism, using cultural context to explain the particularity of meaning for some of the difficult passages to explain away that would contradict that view if read without any exploration into history or language that should always inform in-depth Bible interpretation.
By the time I was at my conservative, Evangelical seminary, I firmly claimed the title of an Egalitarian, and understood that it mattered strongly enough to me that I could never belong to a church that taught or practiced distinct gender roles. However, the term ‘feminist’ still carried stigma in my mind from having grown up in a conservative political climate where “Femi-Nazi” was a commonly heard slur, and it took several more years until I was willing to explore exactly what actual feminism might mean. I now happily claim ‘feminist’ as a fully appropriate descriptor for myself. And yes, I believe it is fully biblical.
Are distinct gender roles biblical? Yes, of course. So is polygamy. Just because it’s in the Bible doesn’t mean it’s what God intends or desires for us. Gender roles don’t appear until after the fateful eating of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. We understand and are changed by Scripture by immersing ourselves in the whole of it. I have spent time steeping in verse after verse from Genesis to Revelation. I don’t have much memorized word for word, but I know it deeply. It’s part of me, and it speaks to me when I encounter life. And it speaks through me as I live.
If you’re willing, I’d like to show you some of what I hear. Look back to Genesis with me.
“God created humankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them, male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27).
This, to me, is super meaningful. I see in it validation for both men and women and dignity and responsibility and connectedness for every single person. Both male and female are explicitly described as image of God. The image of God inherently includes diversity and relationship. The creation of God’s image was not complete until there were more than one and they were in a mutually dependent and mutually responsible relationship. And I don’t really think it’s limited to the male-female pairing. I think it absolutely affirms the equality of worth and dignity between the sexes, but I also think it’s about the necessity of holding differences in tandem with each other. We need each other, and we explicitly need each other to be different from ourselves.
The second chapter of Genesis absolutely continues that thought. It’s not good for Adam to be alone. It’s not good for any of us to be isolated. Solitude is one thing, but being alone is deathly. God made creation very good. It was filled with life and light. Nothing of death could be permitted to stay. Connection and relationship were essential. And intimate, mutual knowing between the two was at the root of it. Vulnerability without fear. Absolute transparency without shame.
“The Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a companion for him who corresponds to him.” The Lord God formed out of the ground every living animal of the field and every bird of the air. 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 named all the animals, the birds of the air, and the living creatures of the field, but for Adam no companion who corresponded to him was found. So the Lord God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep, and while he was asleep, he took part of the man’s side and closed up the place with flesh. Then the Lord God made a woman from the part he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man. Then the man said,
“This one at last is bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
this one will be called ‘woman,’
for she was taken out of man.”
That is why a man leaves his father and mother and unites with his wife, and they become a new family. The man and his wife were both naked, but they were not ashamed” (Genesis 2:18-25 NET).
What have you heard taught from this passage? I’ve heard some strange teachings that, to me, miss the point. They don’t leave it in place within the creation narrative connected to the Gospels, connected to the story of Israel and the eventual new creation. So you get emphatic teaching that the Bible commands that once you’re married, you’re not supposed to live with your parents anymore to the biblical basis for a subservient wife stemming from God’s intention in creation.
Yes, that last one is supposed to be embedded in the above passage. Look for it again.
Maybe this will help (throwing in a little King James):
“And the LORD God said, It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him an help meet for him” (Genesis 2:18 KJV)
What you probably don’t see is the result of a whole chain of misunderstandings. The King James Bible was published in 1611, and ‘help meet’ was two words. By 1673, some people were writing it as ‘help-meet’ (and eventually ‘help-mate’) and treating it as a particular term with a distinct meaning that included subservience.
The Hebrew words are entirely separate. In the King James, one is an adjective “meet” (which is an archaic English word meaning ‘appropriate’ or ‘corresponding’ and the Hebrew word (kenegdo) it translates comes from the word for leaning two boards against each to the support each other up), and the other is a noun “help” (which would now be translated ‘helper,’ since it refers to a person). The Hebrew word for ‘helper’ (ezer) is used many times as describing God helping people.
That’s where the whole concept of women being created to serve their husbands as an inherently lower position-holder in the God-ordained hierarchy comes from. It makes me really sad (on a good day. On lesser days, it makes me angry), and I want to do what I can to help us move toward life-giving truth. Misogyny is harmful for everyone, not just women. Men lose much when they gain that power.
So, we have dogmatic teaching that is used to subjugate half the church to the other half. And it’s claimed to be handed to us by God in the Bible, which is so damaging because you can’t argue with it. You should be ashamed for questioning it. You should repent from wishing it were otherwise. The truth though, is that the repentance (changing one’s mind and the actions that flow from it) must come from the tradition that teaches this unjustified inequality.
But what about the curses? Maybe we were created equal, but doesn’t Genesis 3 describes God punishing Eve by placing her beneath Adam?
“To the woman [the LORD God] said,
‘I will greatly increase your labor pains;
with pain you will give birth to children.
You will want to control your husband,
but he will dominate you’” (Genesis 3:16).
I admit, the wording here lends itself to interpreting the subjugation of women as what God wants. First, though, even if it’s true that God decided to impose inequality, in no way can it be justified to teach that God wants men to enforce it. Nor for women to enforce it on other women. I contend that it’s not true that God wants the inequality in place to teach a lesson. God grieves that it’s the reality we live.
Context. Context teaches us this. Read the rest of the Bible. 1 Peter is a good place to show what I mean. Living in the way of Yahweh, as taught through the whole Bible and most clearly in Jesus (see Hebrews 1:1-3) shows us that self-giving love, raising others up, and loving others as we love ourselves are all universal imperatives. They are expected of us in every relationship. The marriage relationship was intended to be the starting point and example of such living. We read Genesis 3 in that context.
Something else to know about the Bible in general is how it uses the concept of curses. They are not used as a punishment imposed from outside by an angry deity. They are always used to describe what naturally follows within the order of the world that God has created in response to bad decisions and actions that go against the wisdom of God’s character. So, while the wording is “I will” at the beginning of Eve’s curse, it has to do with the way God made the world, not that God is enacting something outside of the natural order of things.
“You will want to control your husband, but he will dominate you.” These are both dysfunctional approaches to relationships. And the truth is that men have dominated women in nearly every culture throughout all of history. Yahweh was right. But why is that? Because things aren’t the way they’re supposed to be. The call for Christians is to live in line with the call we were given to reflect God to creation. We are supposed to be living as ones created to help each other. But we all strive to control others in a futile attempt to protect ourselves from every potential harm. If we are learning to reflect God’s character, we will serve each other with love, not anyone attempt to control or dominate anyone else. We will all try to be each other’s ‘corresponding helper.’
There is so much more that can and must be said about the relationships between men and women and all sorts of people in relation with each other throughout the whole Bible. Whole books can be (and have been) written on just portions of it. More could definitely be said about these first three chapters of Genesis, but this is a start. I’m happy to continue the conversation in person or in comments or wherever and however you like.
In the meantime, what has your experience been as a man or woman or human person relating to these ideas? Where do you find yourself disagreeing or hesitating? What brings life to you?
The more I grow as a person and understand the heart of God, the more I am convinced there is only death in separating ourselves from other people (I’m not talking about healthy boundaries, especially if someone is abusing you). The more I learn of Jesus, the more I am sure that acting from fear or self-preservation as our starting point will only lead us in the wrong direction. We are meant to be guided by light and love and presence. Nowhere is this truer than in marriage and between men and women in general. I can certainly apply these principles to friendships, and I must. I can apply it with my wife, and I can apply it in the church and with strangers. Remember, we are all the image of God, and we are called to live it every moment and view every person as inherently deserving to be be treated as God’s representative, no matter how they are alike or different from us.