“From the beginning it was not so.”

“Patriarchy is the backdrop of the Bible, not the message of the Bible.” — Carolyn Custis James

One of the common counter-arguments to the egalitarian view is that God would never pander to culture or let it influence His word. Therefore, many of the biblical limitations on or commands to women that egalitarians claim are cultural (women should always be “keepers at home” for example) are seen by complementarians as eternally mandated by God.

I used to think that since the culture of the Bible was patriarchal, then that was how it was supposed to be — mandated by God. It was written mostly by men, mostly TO men (women weren’t educated as well as men for the most part, after all), and with a clear bias towards men. It was just women’s lot in life to play second fiddle, and culture, biblical or otherwise, was a reflection of that law, not vice-versa.

But we encounter a scripture that says the very opposite in Matthew 19:3-10:

Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?”

“Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

“Why then,” they asked, “did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?”

Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.”

The disciples said to him, “If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry.”

WHAT??! It seems incredible that a law that regulated God’s people could be influenced by fallen culture, but it’s there in black and white. And this particular issue is not alone. Polygamy was also allowed and regulated under Mosaic law, even though this was clearly not what God desired or designed.

This passage is just one glimpse into how egalitarians interpret scriptures and gender issues. While we acknowledge that there are “problem” passages that don’t exactly align with egalitarianism, there are also those snapshots of freedom for women that reveal the ideal (Gal. 3:28).

One principle I try to follow, then, is that when we know how things are SUPPOSED to be (the pre-fall equality of Genesis, the equality of Gal. 3:28, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on male and female in Acts 2), then anything that contradicts that ideal is most likely an accommodation to fallen culture. I’ll get back to this idea later.

Egalitarians point to slavery as a parallel example. Anyone could make a clear pro-slavery case using scripture (indeed, many people have), even though most realize that slavery is neither an ideal situation nor a condition that we should perpetuate and encourage. In fact, part of Jesus’ mission on earth, as revealed in Isaiah 61:1 and repeated in Luke 4:18 was to:

“bring good news to the poor.
comfort the brokenhearted
    and to proclaim that captives will be released
    and prisoners will be freed.”

And yet we still see laws and regulations for slaves in verses like Ephesians 6:5 and Colossians 3:22. These passages are not proclaiming freedom at all, but rather affirming the existing culture by insisting that slaves serve and obey their earthly masters AS THEY WOULD CHRIST. These instructions to slaves are identical to the ones given to wives. Why would God allow the results of the fall exhibited in culture to prevail over His intended purposes for women and slaves?

We will look at the answer to that question in the next post. In the meantime, let’s make sure that as ambassadors of God and His kingdom, we are truly doing all we can to answer Jesus’ prayer that His will be done on earth as it is in heaven. In our current culture of equality and opportunity for all, let us not waste the chance to set right all things that “were not that way from the beginning.”

East of Eden – With Apologies to Steinbeck

The Fall of Mankind: Eve’s Consequences

The place is Scotland, the year is 1591, and a woman is burning alive. Her crime? During an excruciating experience while giving birth to twins, she requested something to ease her pain. Her midwife granted her wish. Nothing more, nothing less.

Why the harsh punishment? She had violated the clear meaning of Genesis 3:16:

I will make your pains in childbearing very severe;
    with painful labor you will give birth to children. (NIV)

The interpretations of that day allowed no wiggle room: women were commanded to fully experience all the pain of childbirth due to the consequences of the fall. Tragically, Eufame Macalyane suffered the consequences for violating this “command,” and her twin boys were left motherless. 

Today, most of us would be horrified to witness such a severe punishment for anything, much less such a small “crime.” Most women are now allowed and even encouraged to use painkillers and life-saving medical procedures during childbirth. We don’t interpret Genesis 3:16 as a command from God, but as a curse, or at the very least a prophecy of how things will be in a fallen world that sin has entered. It’s a description of the way things will be due to the fall, not a prescription from God, and something we are free to overcome with painkillers or whatever else we choose.

And yet many of us still perpetuate another result of the fall as an eternal command from the Creator: the second part of God’s words to the woman in verse 16:

Your desire will be for your husband,
    and he will rule over you.

Most complementarians claim that this is just an INCREASING of an already hierarchal relationship, but remember there is nothing in the Genesis text before now that directly speaks to any sort of hierarchy, save the man and woman as caretakers over the rest of the creation. There isn’t any hint in 3:16b of an increasing of an already established rule, either.

Let’s look at the first part: “Your desire (teshuqah) will be for your husband.” Teshuqah means “desire” or “longing.” There are different interpretations as to what this statement means, exactly. Many egalitarians believe it is speaking of a longing or desire for the mutual, equal relationship the two shared before the fall. This would certainly fit the context, as the next line says the husband will, however, rule the woman in this new fallen, perverted relationship.

This also makes sense given that men are, for the most part, physically stronger than women, putting women in a more vulnerable position. And patriarchy has certainly been the prevailing culture all throughout history, true to God’s prophecy.

This leads to another interpretation of what teshuqah means in this context. Instead of the previous view where the woman will long for the once mutual, equal relationship, the man and woman will become entangled in a perpetual power struggle, where she will desire to rule her husband, but he, the physically stronger and culturally privileged, will prevail. Here is Jay Guin’s explanation of that view:

In the King James Version, this verse says that “unto thee shall be [sin’s] desire, and thou shalt rule over him.” The NIV translators have paraphrased this passage to interpret “unto thee shall be his desire” to mean “it desires to have you.” The NET Bible translates: “It desires to dominate you.” Thus, in Genesis 3:16, the virtually identical phrasing, only a few verses away, must mean that woman’s desire for her husband is her desire to rule her husband. God is saying that although the wife may want to rule her husband, under his curse, the husband will rule the wife.

A result of Adam’s and Eve’s sin is strife in marriage. Both husbands and wives will want to be in charge, but in the ordinary case, the husband will succeed in ruling over his wife. And certainly the last several thousand years have proved this to be very true indeed (p. 37).

Adam’s Consequences

Now it’s Adam’s turn. Verses 17-19 spell out God’s description of how the world will change for him after eating the forbidden fruit with his wife:

“Cursed is the ground because of you;
    through painful toil you will eat food from it
    all the days of your life.
It will produce thorns and thistles for you,
    and you will eat the plants of the field.
By the sweat of your brow
    you will eat your food
until you return to the ground,
    since from it you were taken;
for dust you are
    and to dust you will return.”

All of creation feels the awful consequences of what Adam and Eve have done. The earth itself is cursed. Notice that Adam and Eve themselves are not CURSED per se. God instead describes the negative changes that will occur due to their sin. For Adam, that means that the ease with which he gathered sustenance from nature will disappear. Weeds will spring up, and he will suffer in heat and sweat.

Have we taken this part of God’s prophecy as a literal command for all-time? Hardly. It is probably an accurate speculation that the very men who sentenced and killed poor Eufame Macalyane were not taking their part of the fall literally. Theologians who enforced interpretations and religious laws were certainly not earning their way through toiling the fields by the sweat of their brows. This is just another example of the unhealthy rule of men  (coming from a place of privilege and power) over women.

This is also where death itself enters the picture. The dust with which mankind was so lovingly made in the Creator’s own image will return to the ground as dust. Sin, death, and decay go hand in hand.

And on the east side of the Garden of Eden, cherubim and a flaming sword guard the tree of life. Adam is expelled from his perfect world.

Not the End of the Story

Thank God this is not where the story ends! Christians now realize that Jesus’ sacrifice enables His children to defeat death in the resurrection and to be cleansed of sin forever.

But how often do we think about the other ill effects of sin that are also reversed by Jesus? It’s not just death that is defeated, but ALL of the results of the fall. We see how all creation will be avenged in Romans 8:21-23:

For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.

We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies.

We are caught in the middle. We still suffer some of the effects of the fall, but we are eagerly awaiting the day when His kingdom comes to power with a NEW CREATION. 

In the meantime, as we find ourselves in the tension of the “already but not yet,” shouldn’t Christians be the first to jump at the chance at making earth as close to achieving God’s will and ideal as possible?

Of course, this doesn’t explain some of the New Testament passages that seem to conflict with the Genesis account. So we will look at that issue more in-depth next time.

A Perfect World

creation

CREATION

Genesis 1.

The beginning of it all: idyllic, peaceful, and perfect. The animals, nature, and mankind, male and female, live in harmony. So far, so good. Both male and female, according to Genesis 1:27, are created equally in God’s image:

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.

The only mention in Genesis 1 of any sort of hierarchy is in verse 27, where God says to the humans:

Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.

Things are pretty direct and uncomplicated so far. The creation of water, light, animals, and plants leads up to the crowning achievement, a creation made in the very image of the Creator, man and woman, who are charged with caring for the rest.

GENESIS 2

Enter the second creation story. This one gives us more details about the creation of man and woman, and it is also where things get a little more complex. While Genesis 1 makes no mention of the order in which creation of gender occurs, chapter 2 states that adam is initially made alone, realizes he is lonely, and so God makes him what has been translated as a “HELPER” suitable for him (verse 20) out of adam’s own flesh (his rib, to be exact).

I’ll get to the word “helper” next, as I think it’s one of the most important issues within this text. But right now, there’s an interesting little side note, just food for thought. This idea is covered more thoroughly here, but here are the major ideas:

  1. We don’t see the proper noun “Adam” until Gen. 4:25. The references before then to “adam” are better translated as humanity.
  2. Many scholars believe that this “adam” or mankind was split during the creation of Eve. Before then, the two genders were literally “one flesh.”

From the linked article:

The Hebrew word used is “zela” which often means “a component, or more often, a side-wall” (alternatively, a chamber), indicating that more than simply a rib was taken.  Many scholars believe that the entire female essence was removed from man and fashioned into a woman. This would mean that the “mankind” in chapter 1 could have been an undifferentiated or androgynous person, with the blessing of male and female being a declaration in anticipation of the separation of the sexes in Genesis 2.

Strange idea, right? But I think it’s important to acknowledge the facts of the language here and take it for what it is. And it’s also pretty fascinating if you think about it. If mankind was made in God’s image, as Gen. 1 states, then it’s not so far-fetched to believe that the same oneness of the godhead would be present in adam, as well.

EVE AS HELPER

OK, now we can move on to 2:18:

 And the Lord God said, “It is not good that man should be alone; I will make him a helper comparable to him.”

The word “helper” comes from the Hebrew “ezer kenegdo.” Many people look at verse 18 and think that because woman is a “helper” to man, that automatically makes her subservient, a step down the ladder from the male counterpart. That’s because in today’s culture we think of phrases like “Daddy’s little helper,” or see movies like The Help and view the word through that lens.

But where else do we see the same word in scripture? Surprisingly, it occurs 21 times in the Old Testament, usually referring to God Himself as a help to Israel against their enemies:

 

Clearly, the word ezer does not indicate a weaker, subservient role. Jay Guin explains this idea further in his e-book Buried Talents

In current English, “helper” carries the connotation of a subordinate – even a child. Thus, if I were drowning, I’d call out, “Help!” But I wouldn’t refer to the person who rescued me as my “helper.” My rescuer truly helped me, but calling him “helper” would be too condescending – even belittling. But these thoughts are utterly foreign to the Hebrew ‘ezer. There is no condescension in the Hebrew word at all, so that “helper” (or “help meet,” as in the KJV) is truly a clumsy translation to modern ears. In other verses, ‘ezer is used in the sense of “rescuer” or “liberator.” The word is also used in the sense of “one who fights alongside against a common foe.” “Comrade” or “ally” would come close to the sense in many contexts. Thus, the psalmist sings that God is Israel’s help, not a mere helper – but an ally so powerful that Israel must prevail.

Many scholars, then, believe that complement is a better word than helper to truly convey the idea the original language calls for. It also expresses the one flesh idea much more effectively.

SO THAT’S THAT

So far, we see no conclusive evidence from Genesis 1 and 2 that men and women are #1 and #2 in a hierarchy. Everyone seems to be straightforwardly equal and happy.

Where we DO see it is coming up next, in the tragic fall of mankind. Women’s subjection is identified as the result of sin and a curse comes into effect…

 

Let’s Start from the Very Beginning…

I used to pretend that complementarianism and biblical interpretation weren’t that complex. When I was on the complementarian side of things, I spent my time highlighting certain passages like 1 Tim. 2 and 1 Cor. 14:34 and Eph. 5. In my mind, those texts were black-and-white, and clearly meant exactly what they said. Those were my offensive (opposite of defensive) texts.

I was very literal (except when I wasn’t, but that’s coming), even to the point of never talking or expressing my point of view in front of a man in a “church setting.” It said for women to be silent right there in 1 Cor. 14:34:

Let your women keep silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak; but they are to be submissive, as the law also says. And if they want to learn something, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is shameful for women to speak in church. 

Bam! I even thought it was wrong for women to lead in any secular setting, such as being a CEO of a business, a governor, a manager, or a college professor, because 1 Tim. 2:12 plainly said a woman shouldn’t teach or have authority over a man. Period.

On the other hand, I’d have to play defense when it came to texts like:

Gal. 3:28: There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

1 Cor. 14:26: Brothers and sisters, when you come together, each of you has a psalm, a teaching, a tongue, a revelation, an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification.

or 1 Cor. 11: 5, where women are prophesying, a gift given for edification of the church according to 1 Cor. 14:1-5.

I would have to explain subtle, not-so-obvious reasons as to why those texts DIDN’T mean exactly what they seemed to mean on the surface. And Deborah and Huldah, of course, were just anomalies in a long line of  God’s eternal plan of patriarchy.

What was really going on, though, was that I had certain verses that were “trumping” what others had to say. I was looking at Gal. 3:28, “no male and female, slave or free, Jew or Greek,” through the lens of my go-to complementarian verses, trying to make it fit, because if the Bible contradicted itself in any way, in my mind I might as well become an atheist. 1 Cor. 11 COULDN’T mean that women were praying and prophesying in public assemblies, because….. 1 Cor. 14:34. 1 Corinthians 14:26 was, of course, only talking about men because….1 Cor. 14:34. The logic was impeccable.

Except it wasn’t. I started questioning why. Why would God want to preserve an ultimately oppressive law which has made it easier for the stronger to prey on the weaker for several millenniums? Why was one gender’s voice considered “shameful” solely on the basis of not possessing a Y chromosome? Why did some scriptures seem to say one thing and some seemed to say the opposite re: gender? Why were all women punished for all-time because of what Eve did (while her husband was WITH her)? What if every single talent and calling I seemed to have pointed toward a career in higher education? Why did my entire identity have to be wrapped up in my gender instead of my basic humanity?

Still I kept quiet. Maybe I was the only one who felt a bit second-class. Maybe I was just thinking too hard about it. Did nobody else have these questions? Was I the only one?

Fortunately, I found out that far from being the only one, I was actually one of a rising number in the church who questioned the validity of our theories and practices when it came to gender.

And it all started by reading the Bible from the beginning all the way to the end, where prophecies about God’s future kingdom talk about a time when wrongs will be made right, tears will be wiped away, and sin and the curse lose all their power.

And that’s where I’ll pick up next time: right at the beginning.

 

 

Resources for Gender Series

This is a list of just some of the sources that have really helped me during my journey. I hope you find them helpful, as well. Some are primarily egalitarian, some address how to approach and interpret scripture (hermeneutics), but really, all of them are both.

BOOKS

  1. The first book I’d like to recommend is probably the one that had the most influence on me personally. It’s not written by a scholar per se, but by an elder of a church in my denomination. His name is Jay Guin, and his book is available for FREE in PDF form on his blog (pretty cool, huh?). The name of the book is Buried Talentsand it’s one that I pass along to anyone who asks me for an easy-to-understand introduction to egalitarianism.
  2. Another great resource is a newly-published book by Dr. John Stackhouse entitled Partners in Christ: A Conservative Case for Egalitarianism. This is an updated version of his previous work Finally Feminist. 
  3. Scot McKnight’s Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How You Read the Bible is primarily about hermeneutics, as its subtitle suggests. The cool bonus is that McKnight uses the role of women as his case study.
  4. Respected theologian Gordon D. Fee’s Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity Without Hierarchy.  Fee is actually a contributing editor to this book, a collection of scholarly articles from 26 distinguished authors. This is probably not one you would want to read right off the bat, but it is an excellent egalitarian resource.
  5. I Permit Not a Woman: To Remain Shackled  by Robert H. Rowland is different from the others in that it is not entirely egalitarian. I would file it under the soft-complementarian category. It is written specifically to people in my particular denomination to point out the many inconsistencies in our practices regarding the role of women, but I think anybody from fundamentalist backgrounds could identify. Even though Rowland doesn’t argue for all-out egalitarianism, his work was an essential stepping stone in my realization that our arguments and practices regarding women in the church were untenable. Oh and it’s FREE online!
  6. Why Not Women: A Biblical Study of Women in Missions, Ministry, and Leadership by Loren Cunningham, David Joel Hamilton, and Janice Rogers.

ORGANIZATIONS, WEBSITES, BLOGS, BLOG POSTS

  1. Christians for Biblical Equality (CBE International). 
  2. The Junia Project
  3.  Kristen Rosser’s blog
  4. Why I Can’t Be a Complementarian — a recent blog post that expresses my thoughts completely.
  5. Mark Love’s series on gender — this one was crucial in my understanding of seeing scripture through the lens of the big picture.
  6. gal328 — Gender Justice and Churches of Christ
  7. Where the Spirit Leads

 

I could go on and on, really, but these have been the most formative for me, and I hope they will be invaluable to you as well. I would love your feedback if you decide to actually click and tackle some of these ideas head-on!