There is great conflict in the modern church, even among evangelicals, about gender roles in the home and at the church. While there are extremes on both ends of the spectrums, evangelicals tend to fall into two groups. Egalitarians assert that the Bible regards all people equally and does not assign different roles on the basis of gender. Wives are not obligated to submit to their husbands, nor are pastoral or other church leadership roles limited to men. Complementarians believe that while men and women have equal value and standing before God, we have been assigned different roles. Men are to be loving, servant leaders in their homes, and wives are commanded to submit to their husband’s authority. In the church, the roles of pastor or elder are limited to men and women are restricted from holding those roles.
Here are links to the previous posts on this subject.
- Introductory post. (Men, Women, Marriage and Ministry: What Does the Bible Say?)
- Genesis 1 (In the Image of God: Male and Female in Genesis 1:16-28)
- Genesis 2 (A Helper Suitable for Him: Gender Issues in Genesis 2)
I would make the following observations.
1) These passages in Genesis are foundational, but are not really decisive. We tend to form our doctrine from the New Testament epistolary evidence and then read our perspective back into the Creation narratives. We are all going to see certain things in Genesis that are shaped by our New Testament study. In this post, in which I am going to examine Genesis 3, this will certainly be true.
However, it is still incumbent on each of us to attempt to do solid exegesis of the Old Testament passage. We may see them through the tint of our views formed by NT studies, but we must be careful not to do exegetical violence to the OT passages. NT study enlightens OT study, but proper exegesis of the NT never invalidates exegesis of the OT.
2) Egalitarian interpreters work hard to provide explanations for the half-dozen or so key NT passages that seem to teach egalitarianism. The “mutual submission” of Ephesians 5:21 somehow invalidates the call for wives to submit in Ephesians 5:22. Words are defined carefully so that passages like 1 Corinthians 11, when identifying a man as the “head” of his wife, do not really advocate a position of authority. They interpret the stuffing out of some of those passages. But the task of the egalitarian expositor is always to demonstrate that the passage does not say what it seems to say. It is the egalitarians’ duty to show us why the passages do not mean what they seem to mean.
The complementarian has an easier task. We demonstrate that passages mean what they seem to mean. Submission actually means submission. Headship is headship. Servant authority is servant authority.
So here is my fundamental point: there is a consistent complementarian ethic in scripture that runs from Genesis 1 through the passages in Paul (and Peter). The most natural interpretation of Genesis 1, 2 and 3 supports complementarianism. The role of women under the OT law also demonstrates complementarianism. Jesus seems to have been a complementarian. Paul’s and Peter’s teachings on women are most naturally seen in a complementarian light.
So, while my exegesis of gender issues in Genesis 3 will certainly not convince the ardent egalitarian, it is one more spoke in the smooth-rolling wheel of complementarian hermeneutics.
Genesis 3: The Fall and Curse
It is pretty obvious that whatever is going on in Genesis 3 is significant to gender issues in the rest of the Bible. It is here that Adam and Eve bring sin into the world and death because of sin. There are also some fascinating gender dynamics going on in the passage. Then, God delineates the curses on the Serpent, on man and on women. The curse on women in Genesis 3:16 is obviously crucial.
“Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.”
Paul uses this passage as the foundation for his gender teaching in 1 Timothy 2. In verse 11 of that passage, Paul exhorts women to “learn quietly in all submissiveness.” He states in verse 12 that it is impermissible for women to hold authority over men in the church. Paul then gives the theological bases of his pronouncement. In verse 13, he points out that man was first in order of creation. Then, in verse 14 he refers to our passage and says,
“Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.”
This post will be focused on two dynamics in this passage. First, we will look at how Adam and Eve related during the temptation. Then, we will examine the curse God placed on woman because of sin and try to figure out what was meant by those words in Genesis 3:16.
Gender Issues in the Temptation and Fall
The facts of the fall would not be debated by most evangelicals. The Serpent appears and, twisting the words of God, induces Eve first and then Adam to eat the fruit from the tree from which they were forbidden to eat. This is a great passage to show the pattern of Satan’s temptations and develop an anatomy of sin and temptation. That is not our focus here. We are simply examining gender dynamics in the Fall.
I would make the following observations.
1) God spoke to Adam
In Genesis 2, God gave his instructions about the Tree of Knowledge to Adam, before Eve was created. It was evidently Adam’s job to communicate God’s commands to Eve. He did not seem to do that job very well.
When God spoke to Adam, he simply prohibited eating the fruit of the tree. When Satan tempted Eve, she said that they were not allowed to eat the fruit, or even to touch it. Where did she get that idea? God did not say it.
Is it possible that the key dynamic in the fall is Adam’s failure to properly instruct his wife about the commands of God?
2) Adam was with Eve while she was tempted.
Am I the only one who grew up with the idea that the Serpent found a moment when Eve was off by herself and tempted her? Then, after she sinned, she went and found Adam and badgered him until he took a bite. That was the picture I always had.
Then, as I studied this passage I saw verse 6, which says that after the Serpent’s temptation, “she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate.” She ate, then she turned to her husband who was right there with her the whole time.
During the time of Eve’s temptation, when she was being enticed to violate God’s command, Adam was standing there listening. What would have happened if Adam had spoken up? Perhaps if Adam had said to the Serpent, “That’s not what God said,” things might have turned out differently.
It appears that the primary cause of the sin was that Adam failed to accept the role God had given him. Instead of leading Eve, instead of standing between her and the temptor, he blended into the background. It seems to me that sin entered the world partially because the man God created did not take the place of leadership God gave him.
Again, I understand the limits of this evidence. It will not convince the ardent egalitarian. On the other hand, it is simply one more passage that easily dovetails with the complementarian position.
The Curse on Women and Men
Sin has consequences, and in Genesis 3:14-19, God spells out those consequences, first on the Serpent, then on the woman, then on the man. God guarantees the ultimate destruction of evil by the seed of the woman, making this passage (called the Protoevangelion) one of Genesis’ most significant passages. But once again, our concern is more limited and specific. We are looking at the gender issues.
It would be no surprise to anyone that egalitarians and complementarians view this passage differently. Egalitarians say that male authority was not part of God’s original intent and that the Fall and the curse of Genesis 3:16 actually instituted patriarchy and male dominance. Of course, Complementarians say this is not accurate. We believe that gender roles were part of God’s creation. The curse was not the institution of gender roles, but the perversion of them.
Genesis 3:16b makes two definitive statements. “Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.”
The first statement is probably the most difficult to understand. What does it mean that the woman’s desire would be for her husband? The second statement is a little more straightforward, less debated. The husband will rule over his wife.
It is important to note that this is a curse – a consequence of sin. And this statement – both halves – is a declaration of fact, not an imperative. God is not telling us what should be, but what will be.
“Your Desire Will Be for Your Husband.”
This seems to be the key question here – what does it mean that a woman’s desire will be for her husband?
The key word, “desire” is only used three times in the OT. It appears in Song 7:10 and seems to refer to sexual desire. It also appears in Genesis 4:7, just a few verses after Genesis 3:16. This would seem to be the most significant context in determining our meaning, because it appears so close to the verse in context, and because it is also used in contrast to the word “rule” in both passages.
In Genesis 4:7, Cain finds himself jealous and angry at his brother, because his offerings were rejected by God while Abel’s were accepted. God warns him that sin is trying to take him, rule over him. He says,
“If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.”
Sin’s desire is “for you,” as God warns Cain. Sin is desiring to dominate and control Cain. Actually, this meaning is not completely absent in Song 7:10. The sexual desire can have a possessive aspect.
The word “desire” has the connotation of a strong desire to control or master something. Sin wants to possess and control Cain. The Lover has the desire to possess sexually in the Song. And here, the women has a newfound desire to control and dominate her husband.
The man’s response? He now rules over his wife. He does not just lead her or serve her. Now, as a result of sin, he dominates and controls her. The curse is that what the woman seeks (to dominate and control her husband) will be frustrated by the husband’s dominance over her.
So, what am I saying?
1) The original intent of God was that a man and a woman would work together (complementing each other). He gave us different roles, but they were meant to be used in cooperation, love and support of one another. Man was to lead his wife, not to dominate her. Woman was to help her husband, to be his partner and support. God’s intent was for a man and a woman to be different, but not in conflict.
2) The curse is that the intent of God was marred. Men, instead of being loving leaders, would become dominating, controlling, even oppressive. Women, instead of being willing helpers, supporters of their husbands, would seek to dominate and control them.
It is not authority that was the curse, it is the “battle of the sexes.” God designed us with key differences – that predated the Fall and survived it. What the Fall did was corrupt the complementarian nature of our differences and made them competitive.
Men were never meant to dominate and oppress women. We were to be leaders – godly leaders. In the Kingdom, all leaders use their authority to bless and prosper those they hold that authority over. The idea that women were put here on earth to serve the whims and needs of a man is a corruption of the created intent – not a fruit of it. Sin corrupted the complementary roles we were intended to have and created the competitive, oppressive, battle between the sexes.
3) This view, that the Fall did not add something to creation, but corrupted what was already created, is borne out by the first part of the verse. In that, the process of childbirth was cursed with pain. Women were naturally designed to give birth (duh). The curse was not that they would give birth, it was that they would give birth with pain.
The curse in the second half of the verse follows that same template. Authority was always a part of all that God created. The Fall and the Curse did not create authority, it perverted it.
A Word about Authority
Some interpreters have been doing a remarkable thing in recent days – asserting that concepts of authority and submission are contrary to the ways of the kingdom. That is a hard assertion to make from scripture. I’ve been working on a post about this, but I’m not ready to post that yet. Let me give you the short version though.
Authority is a part of everything that God creates. He made the world and gave man dominion. He created the home and put parents over children and gave men a special responsibility to lead. I believe that there is even authority within the Godhead (see a lengthy discussion of the “Eternal Subordination of Christ here.)
The problem is not with authority, it is with our view of authority. Human beings seem to see authority as the right to oppress, dominate, control and use others. It is not such. In the Divine order, authority is always used to lift up and bless the person over whom you hold authority. The Father glorified the Son. Jesus Christ, the absolute Lord of all, uses his authority to save, bless and exalt us to the heavenly places!
So, does the Bible teach that I have authority over my wife? I believe that it does. But what does that mean? Does it mean that my wife exists as a slave to my needs? Am I to use her as I please? Is it my job to “keep her in her place”? Absolutely not. That is not God’s intent. It is a corruption of that intent.
I am to use the authority God has given me to bless my wife. I do not lead her so that I can have the best life I can have, but so that she will have the best life she can have. Authority is an obligation to bless, to lead into God’s grace and mercy.
Yes, authority is a part of everything God creates. But it is a godly authority, not an earthly perversion of that authority.
A Word to the Men
While the main focus here is the statement about women in verse 16, there is an interesting dynamic in Genesis 3:17. Remember what I said about Adam standing there beside his wife and allowing her to fall into sin? He did not use his authority to bless his wife and lead her in the paths of righteousness. He abdicated his responsibility and followed instead of leading.
Look at verse 17. It seems to buttress that idea.
“Because you have listened to the voice of your wife and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you.”
What is Adam judged for here? He “listened to the voice of (his) wife.” No, gentlemen, sorry! This is not an excuse to ignore your “nagging” wife. It is a hint as to how things went wrong. God gave Adam a command and expected him to lead his wife in obedience. But Adam followed instead of leading. Because he did not take up the authority God gave him and lead his wife into the ways of God, she fell into temptation.
Gentlemen, when we do not take up the mantle of SERVANT leadership that God has given us, the consequences in the lives of our families, our churches, our lives is disastrous. The world needs men who lead – not by human standards of dominance and oppression. It needs men who determine that they are going to be servant leaders, devoting their lives to blessing their families and churches by being all that God called them to be.
May it happen, O Lord.