One of the most controversial issues in the church today has to do with gender. It’s all about whether women should have the right to serve in positions of church authority such as pastor, elder (or as priests in the Anglican and Catholic parts of the church). In line with the strong feminist trend of the last fifty years in western culture many church denominations have also moved in this direction quite arbitrarily, it seems, allowing for the ordination of women and their appointment to positions of authority in the life of the church. Though attempts have been made to justify this modification on biblical grounds it’s often difficult to see the logic on this apart from an attempt to accommodate the prevailing mood of our times.
It seems to me that what has often been lacking in this important discussion is a good biblical theology of gender. The major question, for me, which is often left unanswered has to do with what we understand as to God’s intention in creating the two genders. We might be inclined to quickly answer that the distinction is all about reproduction. And of course, this is a most important consideration. But it has to be asked if that is only what gender distinction is all about. At least for the human species, this most assuredly seems a bit of an oversimplification. Is there something beyond the physiological/anatomical difference between men and women that, by God’s intention, also affects other aspects of their relationship to one another? Simple observation of the respective difference in their behaviours would suggest that there is. But what is it?
In the first instance, based purely on the biblical account in the first two chapters of Genesis, the first Book of the Bible and the original Torah of Judaism, we make the following observations:
- Both men and woman were created in the image of God as the climax of God’s created order, on the sixth “day” (Genesis 1:27). Whatever else this means, it definitely includes the idea that both mirrored equally important unique aspects of God’s nature, character, personality, and abilities. Both were able to relate directly to God in one way or another. Thus, it is implied that right from the beginning, both were equally valuable and important to God. And one other thing that we learn in this first chapter of Genesis is that they were to reproduce prolifically and, together, govern the rest of creation as they lived from the fruit of the land which God had given to them and the animals.
- Genesis 2, however, goes into more descriptive detail of how this creation of man and woman actually took place. From this chapter, we learn the following:
- That there was a sequence for the creation of the man and woman, the man being created first.
- That the man’s essential responsibility was to be a manager of the life of a garden called, the Garden of Eden.
- That he had the additional responsibility of “naming” (identifying, classifying) all of the animals and birds of the original creation.
- That the man did this on his own for a time, without the aid of someone else who might live and work with him in a complementary manner — something it seems for which he yearned.
- That God arranged for a complement to him in the creation of Eve, formed around a part of Adam’s side. (God appears to have done this “surgically” while the man slept.) From 2:18, we learn that God’s intention was to provide a suitable companion for Adam that would perfectly complement his life and work.
- The man was very impressed with God’s creation and upon seeing her for the first time, spoke of her as sharing the nature of his very body and in calling her “woman,” recognized that she was made from him (2:23).
- Taken at face value, theologically speaking, the story of the woman’s creation by God in this way implies both a wonderful sense of complementarity between the man and the woman, but also a definite sense of order in which the woman is given to support the man in the work that God had given him to do. We might think of one as the visionary initiator and the other as the organizing administrator. Their roles were equally important but were given to perfectly complement one another within a certain order.
- Significantly, nothing is actually said in this particular creation account (i.e. chapter 2) about reproduction. It is all about their respective roles in a complementary relationship.
- Chapter 3 of Genesis introduces a whole new element in this relationship. Satan comes to the Garden of Eden in the form of a serpent to tempt the man and the woman to disobedience. Through this experience, they fall away from a gracious and loving relationship with God with far-reaching damming consequences, not only for themselves, but for the entire creation.
- It is noteworthy that Satan’s strategy in this crucial event was to bring down the down-fall of both by first coming to the woman. Based on later revelation (i.e 1 Corinthians 11:10), it’s possible that she was seen as being more vulnerable to “this mighty angel’s” advance, her indiscretion ultimately being the means of also seducing her husband to the ultimate temptation.
- Reflecting on this experience and its implications for role distinction, later New Testament revelation makes it clear that though the woman was first deceived by Satan and thus responsible for its consequence (1 Timothy 2:14), ultimately it was the man, Adam, who is referenced again and again as the one responsible for sin’s entry into the world (i.e. Romans 5:12, 17, 18; 1 Corinthians 15:21, 22).
- This whole experience and its interpretation in the New Testament upholds the role distinction principle established in creation. Though the temptation first came to them by way of Eve, ultimate responsibility for the Fall rested with Adam.
- The whole point of the New Testament is that Jesus’ death and resurrection overcame the terrible judgment of the Fall so that humankind could be restored to God’s design for creation. In Christ, both men and women are restored to their experience of equal value (Galatians 3:28). But their role distinctions as established by creation are also confirmed. Thus, in marriage, the husband is to take the initiative in loving his wife (as Christ loved the church) and the wife is to glory in her husband’s “headship” (Ephesians 5:22-33; 1 Peter 3:1-7). And, evidently, these role distinctions appear to also extend to the manner in which men and women function in the church — specifically respecting leadership and authority (1 Timothy 2:12).
- It seems these distinctions played out in practice both in the ministry of Jesus and that of Paul. Though both affirmed women in ways that were contrary to the popular culture of the time, their ministries reflect the fact of God’s original design for the role distinctions between men and women. Jesus chose twelve male disciples to be the first apostles of the church. While there are many instances in the New Testament of women serving in very noble roles, instructions concerning leadership in the church appear to uphold God’s creation design respecting role distinctions (i.e. 1 Timothy 3, Titus 1).
In summary, I truly believe that both women and men are honoured best when the role distinctions that God appears to have established from the beginning, are upheld. At the same time, it needs to be acknowledged that feminism has negatively impacted the church in more ways than one. It is true that God’s order will always be challenged by a sinful generation. But it is also true, again and again, that women have not received the honour from men that they deserve. When women willingly own their God-given role, and are treated with the dignity deserving of it, they are honoured appropriately, and humankind, both in marriage and the church, is blessed accordingly.