Egalitarians often claim gender roles result from the fall. They’ll acknowledge the husband appears to be the “head” of the wife in some biblical texts but that such texts reflect an imperfect situation. Male leadership in marriage, then, isn’t rooted in the order of God’s good creation but in sinful human pride. Richard Hess’s comments on Genesis 3 are apt:
There is neither explicit nor implicit mention of any authority or leadership role of the man over the woman, except as the sad result of their sin in the fall and their ensuing judgments. Even then, such hierarchy is not presented as an ideal, but rather as a reality of human history like that of the weeds that spring from the earth. (i)
According to this view, there’s no evidence of male and female roles in Genesis 1-2. Ideas of leadership and submission only enter the picture after Adam and Eve sin. Male headship, then, is a feature of the curse God seeks to overturn through the redemptive work of Christ. That’s how egalitarians understand it.
But is it really true? Is that what Genesis teaches? A closer look reveals the egalitarian reading of the text is quite misleading. (ii) Before sin enters the world, Genesis 1-2 presents man and woman as equal in their essence as divine image-bearers but unequal in their social roles. The first man Adam acts as the leader in this first marriage, and Eve is called to follow his leadership. God’s appointment of Adam as leader comes out in at least five ways in Genesis 2.
1. The Order of Creation
First, God creates Adam before Eve. In the modern world in which egalitarian notions of humanity dominate, the order of creation would seem to make little difference for social roles. But that wouldn’t have been the case for the original readers of Genesis, for whom primogeniture was a common feature of family life. (iv) The firstborn would often have special authority over those born after him, and Adam and Eve’s relationship is similar. God forms Adam first and then Eve. Thus Adam is given the position of authority. As Kenneth Matthews observes, “The priority of the man’s creation is important for recognizing leadership-followership in the garden.” (v)
Certainly by the time of the first century, readers of the Old and New Testaments would have been deeply familiar with primogeniture (vi)—so much so that Paul grounds his views of gender roles and church leadership in the order of Adam and Eve’s creation: “For Adam was formed first, then Eve” (1 Tim. 2:13; cf. 1 Cor. 8-9). Paul views Adam’s prior creation as significant for establishing Adam’s leadership, and Paul’s interpretation of Genesis is binding and authoritative. God made Adam first, thereby establishing him as the leader of the pair.
2. The Order of Accountability
Second, God holds Adam accountable first for breaking God’s Word. In Genesis 2:15-17 he speaks to Adam, commanding him to “cultivate” and “keep/guard” the Garden of Eden (v. 15). God forbids Adam from eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (v. 17) and warns him that disobedience leads to judgment. The word of God comes to Adam before Eve is even created (v. 22). This suggests that Adam, as Eve’s leader, was tasked with conveying God’s commands to her. This interpretation is confirmed when God seeks out Adam—not Eve—after the couple sins. Even though Eve was first deceived by the serpent and first ate of the tree, God pursues Adam first and interrogates him alone before turning to Eve:
Then the LORD God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you? . . . Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” (Gen. 3:9-11)
God delivered the word to Adam first and called Adam to account first after the couple sinned. All of this points to Adam’s unique role as leader in the first marriage.
3. The Designation of the Woman as ‘Helper’
Third, God designates the woman to be a “helper” to Adam. To this end, the woman alone will be “suitable” for the man (Gen. 2:18, 20). The word translated “suitable” comes from a Hebrew term indicating “correspondence” or “complementarity.” (vii) Unlike the newly created animals—none of whom corresponded to Adam—the woman God formed from Adam’s side would complement him (v. 20). But she wouldn’t be like Adam in every respect; her unique calling would be to serve as his “helper.” The Hebrew term translated “helper” simply denotes one who offers “help” or “assistance.” (viii) Eve is called to come alongside Adam to assist him in the vocation God had given him to work and keep the Garden. To be sure, “helper” is elsewhere used of God (e.g., Gen. 49:25; Exod. 18:4), so it would be wrong to say the word always indicates a submissive role.
But since the word isn’t only used of God but also of those who are “helpers” in a submissive role (e.g., 1 Kgs. 20:16; 1 Chron. 12:1, 22-23; 22:17; 2 Chron. 26:13), the context of a passage must determine whether the “helper” in view is submitting to the one being helped. David Clines may be correct in contending that in one sense even superiors become subordinates when they serve as “helpers.” They’re subjecting themselves to a “secondary, subordinate position” in order to assist another, though they themselves may not actually be a subordinate. (ix) In that sense, every “helper” functions as a subordinate of some sort. (x) In Genesis 2:18, Adam and Eve’s roles cannot be exchanged. Eve’s helping is oriented toward Adam’s leadership and thus highlights her submissive role. (xi)
4. The Man’s Naming of the Woman
Fourth, Adam names Eve. After God fashions her from his side, Adam responds with poetry: “This now bone of my bones, And flesh of my flesh; She shall be called Woman, Because she was taken out of Man” (Gen. 2:23). At the end of the poem Adam names this new creation God has given him. That Adam would name her is significant in the context of Genesis 1-2, for the one who names is the one who leads. In Genesis 1, God exercises his own rule by naming. He calls the light “day” and the darkness “night” (1:5), and the sky “heaven” and the dry land “earth” (vv. 1:8, 10). He then entrusts to Adam the authority to name the animals:
And out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the sky, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called a living creature, that was its name. And the man gave names to all the cattle, and to the birds of the sky, and to every beast of the field. (Gen. 2:19-20)
In naming the animals Adam exercised his authority as vice-regent over God’s creation. Likewise, when Adam “called” her “Woman” (Gen. 2:23; and later “Eve,” 3:20), he was exerting a leadership role God gave to him alone. (xii) As Clines observes, “The name of the woman by the man, on both occasions, I conclude, signifies his authority over her.”
5. The Order of Satan’s Temptation
Fifth, the serpent’s attack represents a subversion of God’s pattern of leadership. As we’ve seen, there is a clear ordering of authority in Genesis 2:
God speaks to the man, and the man speaks to the woman. The serpent, then, subverts this order God has established. He doesn’t confront the man first or even God himself. Instead, he approaches the woman so that God’s order is reversed:
The serpent speaks to the woman, the woman speaks to the man, and the man evades God. And now the attack on God’s rule begins from the bottom up by overthrowing the order. In fact, Paul indicates that the undoing of this order was the basis for humanity’s fall into sin (1 Tim. 2:13-14). (xiv)
In all of these ways, Genesis 2 establishes Adam’s leadership role with his wife. This ordering appears before sin entered the world, and is thus part of God’s good creation to be embraced as the norm for all marriages. Genesis 2 presents our first parents as the paradigm for all marriages that follow. That’s why both Jesus and Paul always quote Genesis 2—never Genesis 3—when explaining the meaning of marriage and gender roles (e.g., Matt. 19:5; Eph. 5:31). The man is the leader, and the wife is the follower. Her submissive role does absolutely nothing to diminish her equality with him as an image-bearer. In her humanity, she is his equal. In her role, she is submissive. In this way the Bible holds both equality and submission together. Though well-meaning people today may deny it, Scripture teaches equal value isn’t undermined by unequal roles.
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