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When women get antsy in the church, this is why.
It’s not just one or two snarky sexists, it’s a whole room of cackling voices seeming impressed and egging them on. They aren’t rambling out on the fringe, they are prominent, renowned leaders of large organizations, best selling authors, and public faces of our faith. They don’t put vocal women in their places by just telling them to go back to ladies’ Bible study, they tell them to “go home.” They aren’t content to eviscerate the women out to radically upend complementarian gender roles but also bare their claws at Beth Moore, who writes: “Being a woman called to leadership within and simultaneously beyond those [Southern Baptist] walls was complicated to say the least but I worked within the system. After all, I had no personal aspirations to preach nor was it my aim to teach men. If men showed up in my class, I did not throw them out. I taught. But my unwavering passion was to teach and to serve women.” They don’t just express concern over modern feminism, they discount feminism in general as pure power hunger and thus vilify women who speak out from places of empowerment– specifically, in this snippet, those who preach the gospel and those who share stories of sexual abuse. They claim Scriptural concern but posture and counterattack and turn blind eyes to Scripture like love manifesting as kindness, pride causing downfall, and Jesus’ example to consider those who wage war on darkness with us as allies not to be impeded.
We watch these respected, God-fearing men charge through topics like women’s relationship and obedience to the Lord, women’s gifts, women’s place and purpose in their faith communities, and women’s basic safety like bulls in red-carpeted china shops, and we fear, perhaps correctly, that for every brother as disgusted as we are by this locker room bully display, there’s another finding validation. We’re out here wrestling with questions of purpose and worth, trying to be brave enough for the boldness and vulnerability that are the fuel of community… and statements like this land in our hearts and minds to be the devil’s playthings.
If John MacArthur can say it so plainly on such a platform, why not my elder? Why not my teacher? Why not my friend? If not even Mama Beth is safe from heartless humiliation, why would I expect to be? Writing me off as a power hungry narcissist will be a cake walk if you’ve already made that leap on folks like her…
Yes, the fear will subside. I don’t live daily in paranoia or find it hard to connect with brothers in Christ. Neither will I let fear stifle the possibility that there may come a time that obedience requires Beth-level boldness. I watch her critics, count the costs like Jesus said, and know that, ultimately? That level of healing impact on the world is worth the cheap shots it returns. I will quickly settle back into my normal cheekiness toward the Accuser who won a victory this week through these men’s mouths– back into the belief that being on the receiving end of wickedness means you’re a threat to something wicked. The moment is already passing. *winks Jesusly at Satan*
But before the dust settles… Before I roll my eyes and remind myself this is why I take internet sabbaticals… Let’s name what this is and what this does.
This is misogyny masquerading as righteousness, and it stands a very good chance of alienating an essential half of the Body of Christ. Your family. Your peeps. And all those who could be. It’s a gross, ad hominem attack over a difference in ideas that was self-admittedly developed in a snap judgement and accidentally revealing of dismissive attitudes toward women. And it hurts like the place it originated.
I’m in no position to read John MacArthur & Co. the Riot Act. Our travel budget is pretty spent this month. But what I can do is flag this moment for my brothers and sisters to remember when some of us women seem sensitive.
We may be sensitive, but we aren’t delusional. When we feel shushed and rejected over things that seem small, remember we watched a beloved teacher and encourager be told to “go home.” Told her public speaking skills amount to “hocking” and qualifications for influence cap out at selling jewelry on QVC. That our rising voices– from preaching to hashtagging #metoo— are the alarm bells of a sinful world intruding on the Kingdom, not the roar of the Holy Spirit in us. That any authority we hold is suspect and impurely motivated. That to navigate the sometimes gradient bounds of complementarianism without absolute precision forfeits our right to Christian compassion. And all to auditorium-wide applause.
We bring that with us. Is it fair? Not really. There are plenty of hurt women who start on the offensive in conversations around the women’s roles topic. Some of us still brace for impact rounding every corner. We are responsible for doing battle with fear and defensiveness and for engaging from a position of openness and security. But sensitivity to certain undertones in our church talk and policy formation is understandable. Prudent, even. We know that in exploring our identities and roles as women we’ll rub elbows, somewhere somehow, with someone who harbors such attitudes, and not counting that cost only adds to the shock value and risk of discouragement when it happens. Sexism is real.
So we walk the fine line but don’t desert. We young women especially need community in our maturation, in defining our purpose, in facing our hurts. We need a church that bears with us through flaring fear and anger and lets us ask hard questions.
A great starting point? Hit play. Listen to this panel’s discussion, and then hit replay. Hear these men through our ears, cringe with us, and let it humanize and validate us in our most frustrated, contentious moments. When it seems like we’re teary over a 12-year-old boy leading closing prayer in a service where we’re disallowed, this is the iceberg beneath.
Even in the middle of humanity’s faceplant, God attests to our solution: a future human that’s more than human. Someone that can take the bite of the serpent and survive to crush its head. Flipping to the NT to watch Jesus start rolling out the revolution is just what the heart needs after too much time in a bittersweet creation account.
But however much we’d like it, Jesus doesn’t save us from the Genesis 3 consequences of our broken world and broken selves by retracting the curses/consequences. He brings a way of undermining them, allowing all the curses and consequences and dark things of Genesis to grip us as firmly as ever while gently peeling away the weak, worldly, corrupted parts of us that they’re hanging on to. We’re made Spirit-drenched creatures that can live in a world that still runs on work and sweat and possessions and charisma and social standing, but without fear of devaluation or death. We can now celebrate our losses and weaknesses as shedding our own corruptible power and paving the way for His.
That’s what I love about Jesus’s foot-washing scene. It’s totally appropriate to marvel at the humility and servant-heartedness of our Savior in this moment, but I am more often struck by what an awesome power move it is.
He has absolutely nothing to lose in tying a Gentile servant’s towel around His waist, lowering Himself to the ground, and scrubbing dirt from under the toenails of His sweaty followers. His divine power is sturdier than that. He doesn’t care that He’s taking a disreputable role typically occupied by a lowly, “other” person — those are purely human distinctions of human society. He doesn’t care that He’ll be towered over from His kneeling position on the ground — He made that ground and scooped that towering person’s species from it. He doesn’t care that the job is icky — He is the embodiment of the kind of purity that is unaffected by anything coming onto or going into the body. He is more than human, more than physical, and more than confident enough to make Himself low in the eyes of His easily confounded, merely human disciples. Jesus knows in His bones precisely who He is.
This is the confidence He offers us when He offers redemption by His death and ascension, and remaking by His Spirit. This is how He wants to trademark Christian community. His transformation of us into primarily spiritual beings releases our grip on our honor even in this world telling us that when honor goes, power goes. We hang on to the truth that the greatest kind of power or self-assurance is not something that success or pride or respectability or romance or any human relationship or status could ever give us. It comes only from embracing the knowledge that we are made right and held tight by the Maker of heaven and earth, and that He wants nothing more than to share Himself with us so thoroughly that whatever makes us “us” is lost to His glory outshining our individuality and ego.
All throughout Jesus’s ministry, we see Him uplift and memorialize women who lived out this realization… those who came to Him filled to brimming with faith of who He is and hope in how He saw them. When the women of the Bible came to Emmanuel with twelve years of menstrual problems, He proved sovereign over our troublesome fertility. When they came fearing for their children’s lives or mourning their deaths, He proved sovereign over motherhood and childrearing — the frightening, heart-wrenching thing that it is to watch a piece of your heart grow legs and walk away from you out into the world. When they faced the end of life alone, unsupported, and easily forgotten, He honored their defenselessness by securing them and their legacies in spiritual families. When they grappled with questions about a woman’s place and a woman’s duty, He affirmed that it is first and foremost being discipled at His feet among the men, sitting still and enraptured by His Word.
And my personal favorite: when women collapsed at His feet, too overcome to realize they were being too emotional and too weepy and just too much for the masculine atmosphere… when they cleaned His feet with their hair, their glory, their covering, the symbol of their femininity… when they broke open what was likely their dowries and forfeited their marriage insurance to honor Him… Jesus praised that vulnerable, undignified, seemingly rash outpouring. He set them as examples of surrendering power and pride in recognition of the Savior for the disciples and all posterity to learn from. And even when a woman He had in mind didn’t come to Him, turning instead to man after man for fulfillment and peace, He still went to find her. He left the 99, took His offering of rest directly to her, and re-instituted her into the community as an evangelist, of all things.
When the women of the Bible brought the things that drove them — their idols, their worries, their bargaining chips — and laid them at Jesus’s feet, He didn’t see them as clamoring hindrances. He recognized them as coming forward with an offering of humility, laying down their tools and tactics for navigating their world (the tools Genesis 3:16 warned we’d pick up), and offered them far better ones in exchange. In place of romance and marriage, in place of fertility and children, in place of impressive dowries and sexual prowess, Jesus equips us with His forgiveness for peace, His intercession for protection, and His Spirit for gumption and guidance.
And since Jesus is always up to something, when He declares humanity’s rescue— when he graffitis a giant “VIVA LA REVOLUCIÓN” over human history— He very intentionally chooses Mary Magdalene of all people to deliver the message. As weird and hard-to-digest and vitally important as His news was, Jesus first revealed it to and sent it out with a woman in a setting where women went unnoticed. And not just any woman either– He relied on a female mouthpiece who had a past reputation of being unstable and demon-stricken that should’ve ruled her out as a reliable witness. Except… of course… the Lord’s standards are not our own. Even though she’s just one woman with just a handful of women for backup… even though females weren’t even reliable to testify in the courts… even though none of the male apostles who were present at the tomb at nearly the same time could corroborate her story… Jesus rewarded her faith. How completely on-brand. He chose not huge public appearances… not mass conversions or I-told-you-so’s… not reputability or air-tight historicity… He chose to honor the persistent, smitten hearts of the women who bore witness trial to tomb, and especially the one that sought Him more fervently than the rest.
And by honor, I mean activate.
We find woman yet again hunting through an infamous, angelically-guarded garden for the key wisdom and life eternal (hear the Genesis echoes here). She ends up conversing with a supernatural being who reconfigures her ideas of God and activates her to carry the new way of relating to Him to her male counterparts, who completely miss the boat. And how we commend Mary Magdalene for this! She does not pass Go, does not collect $200— she pursues, learns, and hustles back to share her revelation with a boldness not unlike Eve’s. So how consistent are we prepared to be with the prescription of headship? Not very. We prescribe Eve more supervision, yet don’t critique Mary for not calling in backup to somehow lead her or double-check her conversation with Christ.
A conversation that called her to something problematic in our conservative, headship-driven churches: preaching.
Y’all, Mary Magdalene preached!
She testified what she’d experienced, delivered the word of God, and in conjunction with her girl friends, told some very important men to get off their hindquarters and GET MOVING to Galilee. I imagine her message points would sound very familiar: “Our God is bigger than any worldly authority — He is defeater of death and vanquisher of every dark thing that plagues us. I came face-to-face with Him, and He was so, so good to me. Here are the precious things He says about who you are… See?! He’s deeply fond of you too! If you want to find Him and see for yourself, here’s what He needs you to do. He’s waiting for you.”
Mary Magdalene preached the same gospel message we cradle Christians have heard countless times, complete with speaking authoritatively on behalf of God and demanding that faith manifest in real action. I can’t imagine there was any room for mousy, suggestionish wording when delivering a message from the risen Messiah. And I can’t think of a better term for this presentation than a sermon.
From a woman. Commissioned directly by Jesus. What in the world are we supposed to do with that?
My best advice?
Let’s let Jesus be our filter.
There’s so much more Scripture to filter on for men’s and women’s roles that I won’t even touch in this series, and I know seekers on this topic pore over it heavily. We don’t approach the Word lightly because we esteem the authority of Scripture. We love the Word’s authority because it reveals the perfect will of God for us. We pursue, in trusting God’s will, unity in the Spirit as the Body, the covenant people. We pursue early church structure as the healthiest for the Body. We pore over Paul’s letters as instructions for that structure. I so admire this tradition and its intentions.
But as we strive to be the first-century church, remember the first-century church strove to be Jesus. The Body we are is Jesus’s, the Spirit who binds us is Jesus’s, and the will of God we pursue is Jesus’s. It’s His Word we esteem, telling His mission of redemption. It was His design that willed us and our home into being. It’s His mind that conceived of male and female.
When we come to sticky junctions where Jesus’s example clashes with Paul’s instruction (and I’m so grateful to fellow writers for tackling these) let’s let our Emmanuel and Maker take precedence. If He is Lord of our lives, then let’s also make Him Lord of our study and take a very critical look at any ideology that requires us to twist His actions to conform to the instruction another. Especially when the other identifies as “a slave of Christ.”
Let’s make Jesus the standard, not the exception.
When we need consistency across Scripture, especially on such a tender subject, may our dearest Friend be the filter.
Perhaps most revealing of the depth of the divergence in egalitarian and complementarian thought is the divergence in the very definitions of 3:16’s key vocab: “rule over” (mashal be) and “desire for” (teshuqah ‘el). The two phrases on their own carry little to no inherent connotation— what’s certain in their definitions is simply that they’re:
The most we can say from the vocabulary alone is that man will govern woman and she will fixate on him in the post-fall marriage dynamic. Contextualizing God’s statement to woman within the larger creation account, however, is tricky.
With a hierarchical view of male and female function leading up to the fall, assigning connotation to their desire and ruling is essential. Otherwise, we’re left with what sounds like the introduction of man’s station as head and woman’s submissive followership in disproportionate yearning for him. This would present headship and submission as a post-fall deviation from the ideal. The connotation on these otherwise neutral words must show a perversion of the preexisting complementarian hierarchy to be consistent through early Genesis, so the woman is usually assigned a usurping desire, and the man— depending on who’s interpreting— will either domineer her sinfully, or lovingly reign her in to keep his rightful headship.
But there is a valid reason to leave “desire” and “rule” in vague neutrality: unlike many of the other usages of teshuqah and mashal, 3:16 doesn’t present the clearest context or explicitly elaborate on the concepts, other than predicting divorce from God leads to suffering. How exactly does a governance and a passionate desire equal a corruption of harmonious marriage appropriate for a judgement verse?
And to Wendy Alsup I am eternally grateful for doing the math and pushing woman’s neutral desire into complementarian conversation. Where I struggled to understand how neutral desire could leave us with a distorted version of marriage, Alsup lays it out plainly: “The problem with our desires is always that they are either FOR the wrong thing or FOR the right thing but out of proportion to what is appropriate.”
That is: the problem with woman’s desire is not an issue of quality (what kind of desire? edifying? conquering? good? bad?). We aren’t told that in Gen. 3. Rather, it’s an issue of quantity (how much does she need her husband? how great is her desire for him compared to her desire for the Lord?). And that, to spin off Alsup, is specified immediately: she yearns for man so badly that he governs her life. “The curse is not that women want to dominate the men in their lives. Women’s problem is that they worship the men in their lives and look to them for affirmation and provision emotionally and spiritually for things that God alone is supposed to provide. Their problem is IDOLATRY.”
This connects woman’s curse fluidly with its effects, ties beautifully into man’s judgement, and depicts a complete reversal of the original ideal.
When God first oriented His people for their relationships to one another, He set them off toward harmony, unity, and interdependence. Just when the earthling was set up for an awesome life in his own mini paradise, with peak physical fitness and the world for his conquering, the Lord held an animal parade to demonstrate what he lacked: community, relationship, and emotional intimacy. And just as his mate was set to enter the partnership with the relational and emotional upper hand, having never known loneliness, God formed the female in a smaller body that came with the cumbersome duty of pregnancy and nursing. By pairing the physically vulnerable with the emotionally vulnerable, God undermined each spouse’s independence in complementary ways to produce interdependence and make possible the joint mission of populating and cultivating the world in community.
But now, childbearing duties would make woman even weaker, and her vulnerability plus the farming conditions outside Eden would skyrocket the value of man’s brute strength. The relationships among people and with creation are broken, the power dynamics have tilted, and men pull ahead.
The man had a good desire in Gen. 3:18 (getting food from the earth), but when the Maker of that earth was carved out of the humans’ lifestyle, His blessing for the soil’s cooperation went with Him. His specialization as cultivator in a sin-riddled world is frustrating, painful, and yet consuming because it is also vitally necessary. It rules him. The human relationship with earth is no longer a cooperative held together by the Lord’s providence; it is a battle that consumes man’s energies and defines his life’s purpose: to win out against the resistant soil. And when he does, he is in the perfectly disastrous position to believe that purely by his human strength, cleverness, and willpower, he extracted his own sustenance. Without Jehovah Jireh in his sights, man finds success, confidence, assurance, purpose, and identity in toiling for his dirt-god. He’s an idolater of work. Today, we call these folks workaholics. Today, we glorify busyness.
The woman had a good desire in Gen. 3:16: a husband and children. Family is an excellent object of one’s attentions. But when the Maker of life was carved out of the humans’ lifestyle, His allowance for easy childbearing went with Him. Her specialization as life-giver in a sin-riddled world is heart-wrenching, painful, and yet consuming because it is also vitally necessary. As a result, the human family is no longer based on a cooperative of two equals held together by the Lord’s providence and direction; it is the lop-sided joining of a vulnerable and a powerful — a smaller, weaker woman hobbled by the incapacitating job of childbearing, and a larger, stronger man who produces and controls the family’s food. The survival of woman and her children in this new, dangerous world depends on her maintaining her connection to the more capable man for provision and protection. And when she does, she is in the perfectly disastrous position to believe that it was purely her allure, her personality, her sentimentality, her sexuality, her own performance– that secured her protection and provision. Without Jehovah Jireh in her sights, woman finds security, sustenance, assurance, purpose, and identity in catering to her husband-god. She is an idolater of the man that fulfills her. Today, we call these folks emotionally needy. Today, we’re a casually-dating, frequently-divorcing hook-up culture.
Plenty of opportunity for scathing reviews of the new humanity, and none required narrowing the scope of 3:16 to “usurping wife” and “oppressing husband.”
So what’s this mean for our application? It means a lot. And it gets me amped.
When we interpret the fall of humanity, we define the problems at the root of our frustrations and discord, and that has immense ramifications for how we carry the gospel around our homes, churches, and out into the world. Alsup writes: “We are not going to really understand how the gospel equips us [sic] reclaim God’s image in us as His daughters until we understand clearly what our problem is. I can’t emphasize strongly enough that the problem in women created by the fall is deeper than control and domination. […] If you think that the foundational result of the fall of man in the average woman’s life is a desire to dominate, your ministry is going to miss … well … the vast majority of problems in a woman’s life.”
As much as this position sounds like a dismissal of complementarian ideas, it’s not. The popular hierarchical idea that women are prone to dominate men has its place as a symptom within the more egalitarian interpretation of women’s idolatrous fixation as the causal illness. A common, observable symptom, too. Nagging, nitpicking, control-freaky wives are a dime a dozen (as are harsh, self-important men) but! they’re not the only kind of sinful woman. Presuming that women’s judgement only destines them for hostile pushback misses the other shades of red flags that pop up when we trade God for idols.
More common, I think, are the women that face men’s power in their lives with breathless desperation. Rather than becoming combatants, they become what Alsup calls doormats. Rather than manifesting as arm-twisting her man, woman’s idolatry so often manifests in contorting herself to gain his affection or approval. In the worst cases, a man explicitly demands this of his partner — he’s abusive and demeaning and keeps her afraid of what he’ll do or the support she’ll lose if she doesn’t try to please him. And unempowered by Christ, she’ll allow it and internalize the problem as her own. (Here the complementarian interpretation of domineering husbands has its place, too.)
But even godly men can end up high on pedestals their desperate, insecure women build for them. No matter how much edifying love a good man pours out, he will never fill the cup of a woman not anchored in the Lord. The hole in her soul is a God-shaped one. The power she needs only her Abba can supply. When seeking assurance and sufficiency and identity and self-worth primarily from a man fails, the questions she once directed at him— Am I lovable? Am I beautiful? Do you need and appreciate me? Will you stay with me? — become demands from the combatants — Make me feel loved! Make me feel beautiful! Make me feel worthy! Make me feel secure!– or become desperate whimpers from the doormats — Does this make you love me? Do you find me beautiful like this? Does this make you happy? Will this keep you with me?
All this, when our spirits could be fixated on God’s power and responding with rest. It’s not until we stake ourselves on the firm truth of His power, grace, care, and love for us that the persistent waves of intimate relationship and emotional bonding can refresh us, rather than washing us out to the sea of sin.
And suddenly, Genesis 3:16 isn’t just calling out bratty, manipulative women who war with their idolized men — it’s snapping its fingers at the sexting teenage girl, at the bar-crawling college student, at the small group leader who wants nothing more than to find a guy and get engaged like everyone else. At the new wife running herself ragged with homemaking, at the 30-something hating her slowing metabolism and post-baby body, at the 50-something feeling irrelevant. At the battered woman who blames herself. At all the infatuated girls strung along by non-committal boys.
Instead of addressing just toxic feminism, it slices through diet culture, beauty industry, shiny Instagram veneers, achievement addiction, and the emotional porn epidemic that we call the “romance” genre. It diagnoses the sickness at the core of our desires no matter how they manifest — the idolatry disease behind all the ways women manipulate men and themselves to eek out a sense of purpose and worth from created things rather the Creator. A fresh look at 3:16 leaves us no room to think a woman is doing just fine because she’s reserved and respectful. It convicts of over-correction in the other direction too, reminding us that deference, service, and adoration are only appropriate when given to the right things in the right doses. It reminds us that fear and frantic need were not the circumstances in which God designed companionship, helps us to identify when women’s desire stems from those broken places, and allows us to inject an empowering gospel at the root.
And among ourselves, sisters, when we’re all caught under the same umbrella of idolater, there’s little room for comparing symptoms. There’s no pride in being the iron-willed, outspoken feminist (you know, with some actual self-respect?) if it’s symptomatic of the same condition as that other woman who continues to follow others around “like a whipped puppy,” as Alsup nailed it. And there’s no pride in being a dutiful, agreeable, mild-mannered servant (you know, a real biblical woman?) if it’s symptomatic of the same idolatry as that other frustrated, overcompensating trailblazer. We all self-medicate differently yet against the same insecurity, and remembering this helps us to better judge when to step up and flex our Spirit muscle, and when to step back in humility. Knowing the two directions of over-correction helps us keep our balance.
But maximizing the utility of 3:16 for our ministries and our self-policing depends on carving out some middle ground between the two side of the gender role debate. As is usually the case for hotly debated topics, the truth of the fall of marriage lies between the two extremes. If headship proponents can tolerate the imprecision of 3:16’s language and egalitarians can resist dismissing the power struggle interpretation as totally unfair to women, we come away from Genesis with a helpful, more sweeping diagnosis that makes Jesus all the more relevant as humanity’s spiritual apothecary.
The span of the Good News’ reach throughout womankind and their marriages largely depends on this middle ground. May we encourage in our women toward Christ by both fire-breathing moxie and genteel amenability.
Bless her heart.
That’s the first thing that comes to mind about Eve’s scene in the Fall.
Just bless her heart.
Our leading lady stands in a lush garden that easily produces food for her, even food that grants eternal life. Her design promises to make her the stage to the miracle of new life. She’s surrounded by the splendor of a creation gifted into her authority, where the I AM walks in the cool of the day, having never known life without her perfect match. She’s never overlooked; she’s the piece humanity was missing and makes its mission possible. And she lives comfortably, fully exposed– there is no risk in intimacy when God is so near.
And yet, when the tempter slithers up with his divisive questions, she doesn’t dismiss him. He betrays in his phrasing that he does not ask for information but rather to challenge the information he already has — and she engages. She entertains his contrary message long enough that when this guardian of the garden is met with her first intruder, he slips right by.
It is here at the breakdown between God and humanity and therefore between the humans that complementarian/egalitarian interpretation diverges. Where some would summarize the failure of Genesis 3 as a failure to submit to God’s authority and leave it at that, others also find woman’s failure to invite her husband’s leadership and the husband’s failure to exercise loving authority.
Undoubtedly, what the woman needs at this critical moment is intervention from her partner. All can agree that if he was witness to this exchange, at the very least his level headedness as the undeceived participant should’ve moved him to speak against the lies he heard. Question of hierarchy aside, he failed to be a friend. But can we go further to say he failed his unique duty to uphold the moral laws of the garden as head of the marriage? That depends on how we define humanity’s problem and its solution.
The popular, complementarian prescription here is very telling of our favorite approaches to temptation and our own weakness. We often diagnose Eve’s problem as distractability— perfectly solvable with enough focus and accountability. We see Adam’s role as pep talking her through her weakness— hyping her up to wage war on her own desires with white-knuckled willpower. Maybe we even hope he’ll shout over the both of them and rush her away. The loving leadership needed in the hierarchical interpretation is re-impressing law she’d clearly forgotten, its consequences, and how to avoid breaking it. Isn’t that how we lead ourselves?
Except… Eve didn’t forget God’s rule. Not one syllable. The woman has a clear (even stricter) understanding of what the law says and who issued it, and no longer needs her husband to relay that information, if he even did so at all.
So what’s the disconnect? To be fair to the woman, the serpent presents very sly half-truths, playing her humanity like. a. fiddle. His lies aren’t half-baked out of laziness. They are calculated plays into human pride. He convinced the woman that equality to God was achievable while she stood amidst the gorgeous, overwhelming evidence of God’s unparalleled power. Even if the means made sense– that this extra special, off-limits tree can make a person like God– the goal itself of becoming equal to God should have been glaringly ridiculous. And sure, from a human perspective one could conceive of a jealous god who fretfully shoos his minions away from supernatural power sources, or of a spiteful god who keeps good things from his people just for malicious fun. But again, standing amidst the lavish evidence of God’s love and goodwill toward humanity, Eve had no inspiration for such a caricature of God other than her own free-wheeling mind spurred on by wicked forces. Instead of remembering the power of God’s likeness in her, and instead of asserting her God-given authority over this lowly animal and lowly plant, the woman doubted His character and intentions in limiting their behavior, and she broke the one rule of Eden in a power-grab. At the root of sin, the root of disobedience we find self-centeredness and ultimately, mistrust.
We suffer many symptoms as various sinful behaviors, but the underlying spiritual illness is that of unbelief, and it’s worsened by the remedies we concoct for it. We become certain that we aren’t enough– that somehow our value as living idols of the One True God is at risk– and we devolve into scrambling egomaniacs. We sin seeking pleasure, convinced that adhering to God’s standards won’t bring us as much joy, or seeking human approval, convinced that His approval won’t be as satisfying, or seeking control, convinced that ours is the only way to security and peace. We even sin to spite God, convinced that His perceived misdeeds against us make Him deserving of our rebellion. All this, despite His continual offering of rest and fulfillment and displays of His power and love. We still take the blessings of free will and creative imagination and whip up a false, imperfect profile of our Maker to fuel our selfish, fear-based pursuits.
Even Adam, who was not deceived but rather caught up in his wife’s grand plan, went down in similar fashion. Adam chooses unity with her over unity with His Maker (though ironically the former is made possible by the latter.) By choosing her, knowing full well what she suggested, he discounts God’s ability to perfectly fulfill him. The woman succumbed to the suggestion; the man succumbed to the one who made the suggestion. She abandoned what good wisdom she had (from God) in pursuit of better (though it couldn’t have been), deceived into thinking there’d be no penalty. He abandoned what good relationship he had (with God) in pursuit of a better one with woman (though it couldn’t have been), apparently thinking that the benefits would outweigh the penalty. And don’t we see that played on repeat today? I could put all my deliberate screw-ups in a two-column chart with “Decided It Wasn’t a Sin” or “Didn’t Care That It Was a Sin Because It Made Me Feel Good” categories. (Shoutout to my favorite Nazarene!)
When we grasp that what’s most wonky about us is our imperfect picture of God’s nature and heart, we see what Eve needs is not help remembering God’s warning— it’s help trusting the warning. Before letting Eve outrank the Lord on his priority list, the undeceived husband had an opportunity to inspire her belief by stating his own, by reiterating the abundant evidence of God’s fondness toward them, by reminding her of who she is as the image of Him, by cutting to the heart the trust issues that make our own power seem safest and most satisfying. If Adam has a duty to lead during the serpent’s sales pitch (let’s all agree he does), it’s because of the steadier faith he has in the truth of God and goodness of His will for us. Which is, of course, a situational, non-universal qualification unrelated to his masculinity.
The lesson for us today is that when those questions of “Who am I?” and “What am I here for?” ring in us, we will only hurt ourselves further by turning to created things for answers. This has always been the case. We will only be disappointed when we make God smaller and meaner to make ourselves bigger and better, for our power was designed to function as an avenue for His. It can’t satisfy apart from our Abba, Jehovah Jireh, and Redeemer. Instead, we must first treat uncertainty with a liberal dose of truth and empowerment– that we are expressions of the One True God who called us very good and stays close as we do life in this unnecessarily good world He designed for us to participate in — and then cling to these foundational truths in faith that security and direction spring from them.
Should we ever see the evidence of such core questions dominating our fellow Christians, regardless of how they “rank” relative to us, may we never hesitate to proclaim over them the certainty of their identity and purpose as God’s delegates, and bolster their belief in this deity that craves our hearts. May we take them outside to see the stars and smell the rain and touch the grass and scratch the generosity of the Lord into their doorposts. May we lift their chins and call them powerhouses– dwelling places of the Most High’s Spirit. May we call out and call down the slithering, subversive forces that suggest they are not enough. May we flex our God muscle before any other. And may we never present God’s gifts of wisdom or relationship or work or possessions or willpower or self-discipline or rule-mastery as alternate sources of the confidence that can only come through the wholehearted, transformative belief that we are His and—hallelujah— He has happily made Himself ours.
This is spiritual leadership. A mutual servanthood open to and required of every Christian.
May we foster an openness in our communities that welcomes onlooking “Adams” to speak authoritatively into the lives of wavering “Eves,” regardless of sex.
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…
First, A Note on Responsibility:
Before I ever get into the nitty-gritty on women’s roles, I’m careful to frame the entire topic in the idea of responsibility. We’re essentially in a conversation about whether and how men’s and women’s God-given personal responsibilities differ in our communities. Remembering this keeps both sides fair.
It is my firm belief that conversations around authority, leadership, submission, and followership of all kinds could be drastically clearer if we first defined the power at play. It is with power and ability that we are made influential and/or authoritative over folks in our lives, and because of that influence we have to effect change (with or without a designated position), we are responsible for the outcome of that change. When God grants us power or gifts, He comes calling for results. Recognizing and harnessing privilege for God’s glory is the crux of our Kingdom work.
So first off, treating the complementarian position as one primarily concerned with men’s responsibility is the fairest angle of approach. I’ll not pave the easy road from power to abuse as if having power essentially leads to harming with it. Cruddy argument. To take issue with the abusive practices and perverted mindsets of domineering men who misapply their equipping for leadership is not to take issue with complementarianism itself or headship itself. As headship bastion John Piper puts it: “Headship is not a right to command and control. It’s a responsibility to love like Christ: to lay down your life for your wife in servant leadership.” Same goes for men and women heading up the church family.
The solution to the problem of ungodly men is more of the “God” not less of the “men.”
Secondly, as we look at Genesis for gender role commentary with responsibility heavy on our minds, we’re going to come to many more instances where it’s possible to point out, “Look! Adam is especially responsible for Eve here! He has a unique obligation!” I myself pointed and exclaimed for years.
Every time we think we’ve found some sort of obligation (responsibility/accountability/duty), we must also look for some sort of coinciding ascendancy (power/influence/ability/gifting/station/anointing.) It is power that begets responsibility, and this order is essential to a study on executive hierarchy between the sexes. When God grants us power or gifts, He comes calling for results, true. But the question, “What did you do with what I gave you?” hinges on something having been given. If the greater, unilateral responsibility we find for husbands in Genesis is genuine, then we’ll also find some sort of upper hand or greater ability that makes it possible.
While there is no respected complementarian to my knowledge who teaches that women are made more morally corruptible, with less spiritual depth, or with lower potential to know God and be transformed more like Christ, it isn’t a huge leap to hear such implications in the belief that men (be that husbands or male church leaders) are especially responsible to spiritually lead, develop, and discern for their families in ways women just aren’t. Men and women are different, of course. And thank God for that, because diversity makes the Body stronger. But which male attribute, exactly, is the gift that God grants to men alone that makes them most able to respond (response-able) to a calling to spiritual leadership? (or service, depending on how you look at it.)
Fairness to the egalitarian camp means we validate this question and sincerely investigate the answer with them. We don’t summarize the question as an angsty “How dare you?!” We see the heart many investigators like myself come with: one full of questions like “Who am I?,” “What am I here for?,” and “How do I honor God’s investment in me?”
From here, I’ll start with the best answer complementarianism has offered in its interpretation of Genesis 1-3 to explain how exactly men are made responsible for their respective women: Gen. 2:15-16.