The most logical place, I originally thought, to start a Bible study on gender roles was the place where gender roles are most explicitly discussed. We all know those landmine verses of Ephesians 5, 1 Timothy 2, 1 Corinthians 11 and 14, and more.
Even leaving the verbiage at the most surface interpretations and traditional translations, I still wondered as many do about their intention. These teachings on gender roles are certainly purposed for their time and place, but what about ours? How universal are Paul’s commands on this topic, really? Given the reputation and rights of women in Jewish and Greco-Roman cultures, how do we apply such instruction in a time and place where it now feels degrading? And how do we maintain appropriate respect for the authority of the Scriptures in seeking to color them with their historical backgrounds? Again, a total minefield.
The strongest evidence of universal male headship is found, I think, where Paul references Adam and Eve’s creation circumstances as support for his thinking. And it was here, having found nothing too clarifying in the epistles and returning to Genesis yet again, that I realized where we often spin our wheels. When wondering: Why do we understand Paul to mean XYZ about all men and women? The favorite answer is: Genesis says so. And when wondering: Why do we understand Genesis to mean XYZ about all men and women? The favorite answer is: Paul says so.
So let’s get back to where it all started. The gender role conversation makes most sense to me using the creation account as the primary text, isolated for now from the NT passages which serve as commentary. This is far from all my thoughts on Genesis 1-3, but I hope to provide some fruit for thought in these highpoints.
Up to the middle of Genesis chapter 2, the creation story rambles on comfortably, giving humanity an introduction steeped in unity and interdependence.
When we wonder: Who are we? Genesis resonates: You are MINE. You are living, breathing, walking, talking, loving, feeling, thinking idols of the One True God, and you are good. You each are gifted in your own ways, as groups and individuals, and you’re meant to be a diverse, mutually benefiting body.
When we wonder: Where did we come from, and where are we now? Genesis answers: You are the purposefully planned works of My hands, formed from My works and from each other, sustained by My works and by each other, and dwelling with My works and with each other. You are altogether for each other, and you and your home are very good.
When we wonder: What are we here for? Genesis says: As higher beings instilled with My breath of life and made as My delegates, you are set as the peacekeepers and perpetuators of My creation. Your authority is given for the population, prosperity, protection, and harmony of the world. And your gifts, strengths, and weaknesses are brought together for the continuation, prosperity, protection, and harmony of humankind.
Alongside those big anthropological questions, there’s also a running theme of equality between men and women for questions of gender relations. Men and women are introduced as:
– Equal in species
– Equal in essence
– Equal in authority over the earth
– Equally blessed for their joint mission
– Equally responsible for guarding and cultivating creation
– Equally necessary for supporting one another in the human mission
Here at 2:15-17, the basic equality of the sexes in essence, purpose, and value scoots over to make room for a bit of functional hierarchy. This is the moment where God and Adam are depicted alone, and according to complementarian interpretation, God entrusts the man with the moral law of human life. The central question of responsibility I posed in Part 1 finds its answer here: Adam set the pattern of men as the spiritual authorities in homes and churches when he is positioned as keeper of God’s law before Eve’s creation.
Factually, there’s no avoiding the plain events. God delivered the command to Adam first, using singular pronouns for him alone. Eve just wasn’t around. For this moment in human history, the man (if you can call the undifferentiated earthling that) had a spiritual equipping the woman didn’t.
Still, it’s the significance assigned to such circumstances that I’m calling a sour fruit of hierarchical interpretation— so sour that we can’t see straight. Such a lens for Genesis is one that only focuses on the no-no of 2:15-17. Its mistake is not in noting Adam’s primacy (a deeper topic for another day) but rather in positioning God’s rule of limitation as the most important thing He had to give in that moment… and glossing over the most lavish gift ever given: all creation as man’s playground and as his mission, and within that, an especially lush garden for his personal home. There’s that whole first chapter and a half of Genesis, and we still get hung up on the one place God says no despite the many, grandiose ways He says yes.
Walter Brueggeman has our number: “These three verses together provide a remarkable statement of anthropology. Human beings before God are characterized by vocation [v. 15], permission [v. 16], and prohibition [v. 17]. The primary human task is to find a way to hold the three facets of divine purpose together. Any two of them without the third is surely to pervert life. It is telling and ironic that in the popular understanding of this story, little attention is given the mandate of vocation or the gift of permission. The divine will for vocation and freedom has been lost. The God of the garden is chiefly remembered as the one who prohibits. But the prohibition makes sense only in terms of the other two.”
Taking the three gifts of 2:15-17 as a linked set raises an issue of interpretive soundness… if we’re willing to argue that Adam was anointed the unilateral spiritual authority over his wife (and more broadly, church brothers over sisters) because God entrusted him alone with the law prior to her creation, per v. 17, then we should also be willing to argue that he is a higher executive authority over creation per v. 15 and is primary owner of the garden and its food per v. 16. The gifts of vocation and freedom were also explicitly stated to man without woman present, so shouldn’t those too be as weightily interpreted as specially entrusted to men and delegated from them to women? The same way a complementarian approach expects Adam to be Eve’s spiritual leader in teaching and enforcing the law, shouldn’t we expect that it’s also his duty to instruct her in cultivating and guarding the earth, and to give her permission to eat of Eden’s trees? But Genesis 1:26-29’s rendition rules out any such delegation as man and woman are blessed and commissioned directly as God’s living idols.
The application issue in tunnel-visioning on 2:17 is the mischaracterization of God as rule master rather than caring counselor. Rules matter, certainly, but not as the maniacal manipulations of a madman deity. God’s limitations on human conduct are protections, not cheap thrills. To Brueggeman’s point, His prohibitions can only be properly understood with equal emphasis on the bone-deep satisfaction of productivity and creativity gifted through humanity’s vocation, and on the pleasure and adventure gifted through a beautifully ordered creation. It’s these things, and the community in which they’re enjoyed, that the prohibition protects. Anything that divorces the law from the lovingly-designed purpose and freedom for humanity that it protects risks centering our relationship to God on fear of misstep and the drudgery of obedience rather than on His fondness and generosity toward us.
Any ideology that highlights Scripture in ways that reinforce legalism rather than balance our checklist-loving humanness with a heaping load of grace is an ideology worth reevaluating. Ruthlessly so. Losing sight of our Papa Bear God will break us down at the core— more a catastrophe to our faith than a stumbling block. Fittingly, it’s precisely that kind of catastrophe that’s set to strike in the creation narrative.
On to Part 3…