The Roles of Men and Women
Being made in God’s image as male and female is not a matter of one’s own autonomous preferences. Rather, it is a part of God’s beautiful design and plan.
Two primary approaches to understanding the Bible’s teaching regarding the roles of men and women have emerged—egalitarianism and complementarianism. This essay provides an evaluation of both perspectives.
Christian reflection on the Bible’s teaching about men and women reached a new departure in late modernity, especially in the wake of the sexual revolution in the West. Feminism combined with expressive individualism has totally reordered the way many people think about what it means to be male and female. It is common now to think of gender as a social construct with no necessary connection to the body’s organization for reproduction. Modern technologies such as the birth control pill and elective abortion have allowed men and women to think of themselves as “freed” from the social consequences of their own fertility. As a result, feminists have been arguing for freedom from the traditional arrangements of family and home.
Such innovations have presented Christian theology with a new set of challenges to the traditional understanding of scriptural texts dealing with male and female roles. Liberal theology has tended to accommodate the spirit of the age by sidelining the authority of Scripture. But among evangelical theologians who wish to honor the authority of Scripture, two primary approaches to understanding the Bible’s teaching have emerged—egalitarianism and complementarianism.
Unlike liberal theology, egalitarianism claims to uphold the authority of Scripture while also embracing a feminist understanding of equality between men and women. Not only do men and women share equally in the divine image, but they also share equally in leadership roles in the church, the home, and beyond: the Bible does not assign leadership in any sphere of life based on gender.
Egalitarians do not deny complementarity between the sexes. They do deny that hierarchy has any role to play in biblical complementarity.
Egalitarians seek to ground their point of view in scriptural teaching and have jettisoned traditional interpretations of key texts in favor of revisionist alternatives. Egalitarian interpretations of Genesis 1–3 argue that male hierarchy is rooted in the fall and not in God’s original good creation. On this account, Genesis 1:26–27 teaches that men and women were created equally in the image of God, and God gives both male and female equally the responsibility to rule over God’s creation. Egalitarian Richard Hess concludes, “There is nothing in this first chapter to suggest anything other than an equality of male and female.”1 In Genesis 2, egalitarians deny that the order of creation establishes Adam as the leader in the first marriage, and that Eve’s being called “helper” involved a subordinate role. God himself is called a “helper” elsewhere in Scripture (e.g., Gen 49:25; Exod 18:4; Deut 33:7, 26, 29), so the term cannot be interpreted to imply subordination. On this reading, hierarchy appears only after the Fall as a part of God’s curse, “To the woman He said… ‘Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you’” (Gen 3:16). Thus, the man’s rule over the woman is a part of what has gone wrong with the world and that needs to be put right. It is definitely not God’s original intention in creation.
Redemption in Christ aims to remove these oppressive social inequalities. Thus, Galatians 3:28 is a central text for egalitarianism. For in this text, Paul declares, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28). Just as the gospel breaks down social hostilities between slave and free, Jew and Gentile, so also it breaks down fallen social hierarchies between male and female.
Egalitarians have pioneered a variety of hermeneutical innovations to explain biblical texts that do not seem to fit their paradigm of equality. For example, the command about wives submitting to their husbands in Ephesians 5:21–22 is really about mutual submission not husbandly authority. Likewise, when Paul says that the husband is the “head” of the wife in Ephesians 5:23 or 1 Corinthians 11:3, the Greek term for “head” means either “source” or “preeminent one,” but it does not mean “authority.” When Paul writes, “I do not allow a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man” (1Tim 2:12), he means to prohibit women from teaching in a domineering fashion or perhaps teaching with an undelegated authority. But he by no means wishes to say that women cannot teach or exercise authority per se. He simply wants women to engage in teaching and leading in the right way. The words commanding women to “keep silent in the churches” (1Cor 14:34) are most likely not even Paul’s words but were added by a later scribe and can be cast aside. Many egalitarians adopt trajectory hermeneutics, which view the Bible’s apparent restrictions on female leadership not as the final word but as temporary cultural accommodations that we can now safely move beyond.
Through these kinds of readings, egalitarians conclude that men and women are equal before God not only in their image-bearing but also in their respective vocations.2 God does not assign leadership based on gender, neither in the church nor in the home. All positions of leadership—both formal and informal—are open to women as well as to men.
The term “Complementarianism” was coined in 1988 to refer to the teaching of the Danvers Statement, which says that while men and women are created equally in the image of God and have equal value and dignity, they nevertheless have different, complementary callings both in marriage and in the church.3 In marriage, God calls the husband to be the “head” of his wife (1Cor 11:3; Eph 5:23), which requires him to provide self-sacrificial leadership, protection, and provision for his wife and family (Eph. 5:21–33). In the church, although redemption in Christ gives men and women an equal share in the blessings of salvation, some governing and teaching roles are restricted to men. The different callings of men and women in the home and in the church are grounded in God’s good creation design and are not a consequence of sin or the Fall.
Equality in Nature and Redemption
Complementarianism teaches “both equality and beneficial differences” between men and women without the differences cancelling the equality.4 In what sense does complementarianism teach that women and men are equal? They each individually possess the full imago dei and, accordingly, possess equal value and dignity as divine image-bearers. Danvers says it this way, “Both Adam and Eve were created in God’s image, equal before God as persons . . . .” This follows the scriptural teaching that, “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Gen 1:27). This image-bearing distinguishes human beings from every other creature. Some writers locate the imago dei in male and female relationship, but complementarianism holds that both male and female are each individually created in God’s image. God assigns this dignity to both irrespective of their sexual difference or marital status. They share in this status equally. Because of this, they each individually have an inestimable value and worth. No person—neither male nor female—can claim that some people are “more equal” than others. Male and female have equal value and dignity because they share equally in the divine image. This biblical doctrine of the imago dei is why mere complementarianism eschews any notion of male superiority or female inferiority. As Danvers states, “The Old Testament, as well as the New Testament, manifests the equally high value and dignity which God attached to the roles of both men and women.”
This equality also has implications for God’s redemptive work among his people. The apostle Peter writes that men and women are co-heirs of the grace of life (1Pet 3:7). Likewise, the apostle Paul writes in Galatians 3:28, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” As Danvers affirms, “Redemption in Christ gives men and women an equal share in the blessings of salvation.” This means that there is no distinction between men and women with respect to the benefits of salvation. According to God’s grace, they share equally in the grace of regeneration, justification, sanctification, indwelling, and every other benefit purchased for us through Christ. There are no second-class citizens in the kingdom of God.
Male and female also share equally in the assignment to rule over God’s creation. God commands male and female to “be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it” (Gen 1:28). God addresses this command not only to the man but to the woman as well. That means that the mandate to rule over creation extends to men and women equally. This is not to say that they have no differences whatsoever in extending God’s dominion, but it is to say that God gives the command to both. The reason for this is clear; mankind’s rule will extend by means of multiplying and filling the earth. Thus, man and woman both have a necessary share in the procreation of humans and in the fulfillment of the dominion mandate. Man and woman are each vice-regents in the rule of God over creation.5
Differences in Design and Calling
God assigns deep and abiding equality between men and women as image-bearers, as co-heirs of the grace of life, and as vice-regents in the creation mandate. Complementarianism insists, however, that this equality does not rule out the differences in design that God gives to both male and female. That is why Danvers says that male and female are “equal before God as persons and distinct in their manhood and womanhood (Gen 1:26–27, 2:18).” Scripture and nature reveal that these differences between male and female are biological, social, and good.
Biological Difference. The foundational biological distinction between male and female is the body’s organization for reproduction. We know this not only from the obvious differences between male and female bodies and how those differences enable procreation, but also from how these basic biological realities are confirmed in Scripture. In Genesis 1:26–28, “male and female” are not social constructs but designate biological realities. God commands the man and woman to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth” (Gen 1:28). Procreation depends on the biologically different but complementary bodies of the man and the woman. God designs a procreative system that requires two bodies to become one, and he designs for the system of complementary differences to be united only within the covenant of marriage.
Social Difference. Complementarianism teaches that social roles for male and female stem from biological differences. In complementarianism those social differences relate most explicitly to the home and the church. Danvers addresses those two spheres explicitly in Affirmation 6.1–2:
In the family, husbands should forsake harsh or selfish leadership and grow in love and care for their wives; wives should forsake resistance to their husbands’ authority and grow in willing, joyful submission to their husbands’ leadership (Eph 5:21–33; Col 3:18–19; Titus 2:3-5; 1Pet 3:1–7).
In the church, redemption in Christ gives men and women an equal share in the blessings of salvation; nevertheless, some governing and teaching roles within the church are restricted to men (Gal 3:28; 1Cor 11:2–16; 1Tim 2:11–15).
In the home the husband is called to be a loving and sacrificial head, and the wife is to affirm and support that leadership. In the church only biblically qualified men are called to fill certain leadership and teaching roles, and the whole congregation is called to recognize and respect that leadership. Paul’s words in 1 Timothy 2:12 are a touchstone for this teaching, for Paul prohibits women from teaching or exercising authority while grounding the prohibition in the order of creation.6 Although the wider cultural implications of these social differences are not developed at length in Danvers, Danvers does say that “a denial or neglect of these principles will lead to increasingly destructive consequences in our families, our churches, and the culture at large” (emphasis added). Without spelling out the wider cultural implications, Danvers nevertheless says that there are implications of this teaching that reach beyond the church and the home.
In the modern, secular West, this teaching about the social differences between male and female has been fiercely contested. And yet, scriptural revelation clearly teaches that God himself has woven these differences into his distinct design of male and female. The foundational text on this point is Genesis 2:18–25:
Then the LORD God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.” . . . So the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the LORD God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.” Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.
In verse 18, the word “helper” corresponding to Adam designates a social role for Eve within her marriage to Adam—a role that is inextricably linked to her biological sex. As a helper, she must affirm her husband’s leadership in their common vocation of subduing the earth. Adam’s creation before Eve designates a social role within his marriage to Eve—a role that is inextricably linked to his biological sex. He is to be the leader, protector, and provider within this marriage covenant. And these social roles within the covenant of marriage are not only creational realities; they are also commanded in Scripture.
Complementarianism teaches that God intends for a principle of male headship to exist not only in the home but also in the leadership and teaching ministry of the church. The entire congregation should affirm that leadership joyfully and willingly for the glory of God.7
Good Difference. Even though God’s good design in creation may be marred by the Fall and by sin, God’s good design is not erased by the Fall and by sin. As the apostle Paul writes, “For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer” (1Tim 4:4–5). Adam and Eve are indeed paradigms of difference even after the Fall, and those complementary differences have been pronounced “good” by God, and they are still good today.
Paul wishes to emphasize that his teaching about male-female difference is not something that is good for some people but not for others. It is not merely a cultural construct. It is a part of God’s creation design, and it is the pattern that must prevail in the life of every individual and of every church. Because this is true, God’s image-bearers are obligated to honor the headship norm and to beware of any attempt to denigrate this teaching as a mere cultural construct that can be set aside. Because this teaching derives from the word of God, Christians are duty bound not only to uphold it but also to cherish this teaching.
God created human beings for his glory, and his good purposes for us include our personal and physical design as male and female. Being made in God’s image as male and female is not a matter of one’s own autonomous preferences. Rather, it is a part of God’s beautiful design and plan. Whereas egalitarianism tends to downplay key differences between male and female, complementarianism reflects the biblical teaching that God has designed male and female as both equal and different. They are equal bearers of the divine image, equal partakers in the grace of life, and equal partners in the creation mandate. None of this precious equality diminishes at all the biological and social differences that God has woven into his design of male and female. These beautiful differences are not contradictions but complements. They are a part of God’s magnificent plan to make his glory cover the earth as the waters cover the sea (Isa 11:9; Hab 2:14).
- Anderson, Ryan T. When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Moment. New York: Encounter Books, 2018.
- Burk, Denny. “Mere Complementarianism.” Eikon 1, no. 2 (2019): 28–42.
- ———. What Is the Meaning of Sex? Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013.
- Fee, Gordon. The First Epistle to the Corinthians. NICNT. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014.
- Grudem, Wayne. Evangelical Feminism and Biblical Truth: An Analysis of More Than 100 Disputed Questions. Sisters, OR: Multnomah, 2004.
- ———. “Personal Reflections on the History of CBMW and the State of the Gender Debate.” The Journal for Biblical Manhood & Womanhood 14, no. 1 (2009).
- Grudem, Wayne A. “Should We Move beyond the New Testament to a Better Ethic?” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 47, no. 2 (2004): 299–346.
- Köstenberger, Andreas J., and Thomas R. Schreiner. Women in the Church: An Interpretation and Application of 1 Timothy 2:9–15. 3rd ed. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2016.
- Piper, John, and Wayne Grudem, eds. Recovering Biblical Manhood & Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1991.
- Reaoch, Benjamin. Women, Slaves, and the Gender Debate: A Complementarian Response to the Redemptive Movement. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2012.
- Schreiner, Thomas R. “William J. Webb’s Slaves, Women, & Homosexuals: A Review Article.” The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 6, no. 1 (2002): 46–64.
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