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Genesis 1:27 - God's Purpose for Man and Woman

In Christian circles there has been a century or more of debate about the roles of men and women in church, in family, in society, etc. Such debates have tended to be:

"Woman is subservient to man."
"No she's not; woman is equal to man."
"No she's not; woman is subservient to man."
"No she's not; woman is equal to man."

This page tries to take a 'new view', in which both men and women are meant to represent God to the rest of creation.

Most of the above debate is centred on the Bible verses in the letters of Paul, which speak of the relationship between husband and wife ("Wives submit to your husbands ... Husbands love your wives just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her" Eph. 5:22,25, and "women should remain silent in churches ... If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home" I Cor. 14:34,35) and sometimes on the account in Genesis 2 of woman being a 'helper' for man. These passages tend to support the inequality view.

At which, other passages are cited to support equality, such as that God blessed Deborah as a leader, and Paul seemed happy with a church led by a woman (Priscilla) who is not simply 'wife of Aquilla'. And Jesus entrusted a woman to be first witness of his resurrection, when women were not allowed to be witnesses.

But a 'New View' might take a different approach, and centre on a different Scripture: Genesis 1:27,28:

"So God created man in his own image; in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. God blessed them and said to them [male and female], 'Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over ..."

The Fundamental Cosmic Equality of Men and Women

Notice: both male and female, man and woman, represent God, and both rule (radah.

Genesis 1 is a key passage. Unlike most of the rest of Scripture, it is an overview of God's cosmic plan. (John 1 is another overview.) It contains the fundamentals of God's plan, and God's plan is that men and women equally represent God and equally rule. Men and women are equal, in terms of God's cosmic plan of creation and salvation and final Destiny.

So how do we square this with the other passages cited above which seem to suggest otherwise?

I believe, from this fundamental Scripture, that men and women were originally intended by God to be essentially similar except in one thing, biology. (Women are the ones who give birth.) However, thousands of years of enculturation have driven a deep difference between masculine and feminine perspectives. The difference was not what God intended, but God graciously works with this. And we can work with it too, by ensuring that feminine as well as masculine perspectives are listened to - and also the perspective that respects rather than ignores children.

Let us see how this approach works out in relation to the passages above.

Women Leading and Speaking in Churches

"As in all the congregations of the saints, women should remain silent in churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the Law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in church." I Cor. 14:34,35

Very strong language; one might almost believe that Paul was rather exasperated with the Corinthian Christians by the time he was writing this. And, indeed, in the surrounding text we can find further signs of exasperation.

Moreover, the phrases "As in all the congregations" and "it is disgraceful" strongly suggest Paul is writing into a particular cultural situation. Moreover, it is difficult to find Scriptural 'law' that says clearly and unequivocally that women should be 'in submission', but it can be found in the Jewish Law that was an accretion to Scripture and which Jesus condemned as 'laws of men' which distorted the Law of God.

Since this passage goes against the cosmic equality of Gen 1:27 in a major and strong way, I find this passage very difficult to accept as a Universal Law that it is a Sin to go against. But I can accept it might have been culturally useful at the time in Corinth at the time.

Husband and Wife

"Wives submit to your husbands, for the husband is head of the wife as Christ is head of the church ... Husbands love your wives just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her" Eph. 5:22,25

This passage is hated by feminists, who see only the word 'submit', and point to how 'Christian' men have for centuries ill-treated their wives. They cite novels etc. but, as Wilberforce [====] tells us they have been written by those who misunderstand Christianity. Then some thinking Christians point out "love your wives just as Christ loved ... gave himself" and - rightly - point out that this is far more strenuous a demand than that of submission. Husbands should even die for their wives!

But, while I agree with it, I do not find this argument very helpful. It is too abstract: how many husbands have actually died for their wives, or even 'given themselves up for her' without going as far as dying? Very few, in my experience.

That the husband is head of the wife, and that this implies submission and self-giving love I take to pertain generally across all cultures, for the reason that Paul likens it to the universal relationship between Christ and church. (In this sense it differs from 'women leading churches'.) But what does this 'headship' mean? And how does it square with the cosmic equality of Gen. 1:27? Someone recently suggested it was to do with responsibility. By the nature of social institutions (of which the marriage is one) one person must bear responsibility, and that person is the husband. "The buck stops here" - at the husband.

(Note: this notion of headship aligned with cosmic equality is a corrective to the Hindu idea that woman is to be treated as a goddess, to be pampered and even worshipped. Some of this can also be found in Greek thought and has infiltrated the European mediaeval society in the form of courtly love.)

But, the problem is that the way we have come to understand this headship it is a result of many cultural accretions that distort and even hide this core principle. Here are some accretions, which are not necessarily implied by the core principle, but are merely cultural, along with some counter-examples found in Scripture.

Cultural accretions that distort the core principle
Accretion Cultural Source Biblical Counter-example
Husband is Breadwinner; wife stays at home Greek idea that husband's main sphere is outside the home in the 'public arena' Proverbs 31:16,18,24
Husband is the one who thinks and should make decisions; wife only feels Pagan Greek idea that men think, women only feel Nabal and Abigail: I Samuel 25:3
Husband is warrior, defender, protector Pagan Nordic culture Deborah
Husband is above wife in hierarchy of being Aristotle It has been said of Genesis 2: "The woman was not taken out of man's head to dominate him, nor his feet to be dominated by him, but out of his side, near his heart, to be equal to him and cherished by him."
Husband has right to get his own way Selfishness Eph. 5:21
Man is important; woman is less so Pagan cultures It is the daughters of Job whose names are recorded, not his sons, once Job is put right with God.

All these accretions distort the basis notion of headship based on the social reality of one person having responsibility. They all go against the cosmic equality of Gen. 1:27. So they are suspect, especially since we can trace their non-Biblical cultural sources.

Genesis 2: Woman as Helper for Man

"The Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being. ... The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. ... The Lord God said, 'It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.' ... He brought them [animals and birds] to the man ... But for man no suitable helper was found. So the Lord God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep and while he was sleeping he took one of the man's ribs and closed up the place with flesh. Then the Lord God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man and brought her to the man. The man said 'This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called 'woman' because she was taken out of man.' For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh." Genesis 2:7,15,18-24.

This passage is often used to argue that man has a role from God, and woman is merely something to help man fulfil that role. This notion of woman as nothing more than a helper is made worse by the mis-reading from the King James version, which says "an help meet for him", where 'meet' is an old word meaning 'suitable', but which many Christians today lazily and wrongly telescope into "an helpmeet for him" which sounds too like "an helpmate for him".

The connotation is that she is, as it were, an afterthought, and only came into existence because no animal or bird was suitable as a helpmate. The strong implication of this is that woman is very much inferior to man, being an afterthought, and that it is man's role to take care of the creation.

But woman as nothing more than helpmate, and as an afterthought, goes directly against Gen. 1:27, which clearly states that both man and woman were created together, and equally given the role of taking care of the creation (radah, it is argued, means to take care of rather than dominate). So how do we square this inconsistency? Genesis 2 is very unlikely to be a cultural modification, since the whole of Genesis 1-3 seems to be a universal statement about the state of the cosmos.

This can be resolved if we consider the relationship between Genesis 1 and Genesis 2. Genesis 1 is the summary which contains the fundamental principles of God's cosmic Plan. Genesis 2 takes a small part of that and add some details. Now, whether the details (such as creation from dust, rib, etc.) are literal or figurative is not the point here. The point is that any interpretation we make from the detail must be secondary to the plain teaching of the summary. The interpretation that woman has a subsidiary role is clearly against the statement that God said to both "Rule over...".

The practical significance of this is as follows. It is common in Christian ministry to assume, because of the 'helpmeet' idea, that in a marriage the man is the one whom God calls and is given a ministry, and that the woman is merely there to help him in it. Also that if two people marry, and both feel a call from God then the wife's call must be abandoned in favour of the husband's (example: Ruth Bell Graham). It can go as far as the man thinking "My ministry is what matters; the wife is to stay at home and keep a nice home for me so that my ministry is not hindered", or even "My ministry is what matters; my wife should stay at home, while I can gallivant around to my heart's content, ignoring her." The wife then becomes nothing more than a servant or even less than a servant since she does not get paid, and has no dignity of her own. Her only dignity is be married to 'a great man'. This is completely at variance with the cosmic equality of Gen. 1:27. So Genesis 2 does not mean that, and it was not intended to lead to that.

So, how does Genesis 2 square with Genesis 1:27? As mentioned earlier, it has been pointed out that "The woman was not taken out of man's head to dominate him, nor his feet to be dominated by him, but out of his side, near his heart, to be equal to him and cherished by him." Also, woman cannot have been an afterthought, but always in God's plan. Moreover, the Hebrew word for 'help' in this passage is ezer, and this does not allow the connotation of mere helpmate. In the other places it is used, it speaks of God's help, how God helps those who are unable. So, if anything, the help that woman provides man is something superior, like God's help. This is much more in line with the cosmic equality of man and woman in God's Plan.

So What?

If men and women are equal in their role in God's cosmic plan, whereby humankind represents God to the rest of creation, then how does this work out?

First, Gen. 1:27 is not only about marriage and the husband-wife relationship. It is about men and women across the board. In only two fields must their roles be different: in the social institution of marriage, where husband is where the buck stops, and in the family, where the woman bears the children. But in all other things, men and women are called to exercise radah in love for the furtherance of God's plan, so that a wonderful creation can be completed in Christ Jesus and be his inheritance.

This works itself out even in marriage, in that the wife's 'ministry' can be different from the husband's. The demands of neither ministry should jeopardise the other, except when both agree, with God, that both should be involved in one of the ministries. But, the default position should be, not that the wife gives up her call, but that both follow their calls in harmony until God indicates otherwise.

It also means that - as is a little more common today in the West than heretofore - the wife can be the breadwinner and the husband can stay at home. This is not to be seen as an aberration, but as perfectly OK in God's eyes. (However, it might be a problem culturally.)

It also means that ('Christian') women should be able to lead churches, engage in business and politics, without any feeling that they are doing something 'not quite right'. Whether they do or not must depend on culture and capability and call, without any feeling that it is 'not quite right'. There is not to be 'male' and 'female' occupations as such; which occupations men and women go into must depend on capability. It might, of course, be that our culture has affected the capability of men and women differently, but there is nothing fundamental in this, only cultural. Notice that view does not come from a false libertarianism but from the Word of God. It is not very helpful in the long term if women seek to occupy seats men now do just for the sake of it. All should be done for Christ and not for ourselves.

Finally, perhaps this could be a key to overcoming the image-problem among men that 'church' has? Men-of-today (especially in West and Africa) want a meaningful role in life; new view's notion of 'shepherding' could offer that. See So What Can Men Do?.

May the Living God bless all women and men in their attempts to represent him to the rest of creation and bring it under their loving control for the sake of their Saviour and Lover, Jesus Christ.

These pages present 'New View' theology. Comments, queries welcome.

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Part of his pages, that open up discussion and exploration from a Christian ('xn') perspective. Written on the Amiga with Protext in the style of classic HTML.

Created: 6 January 2008. Last updated: 24 July 2008 men link. 10 October 2010 more links. 29 April 2019 added the essential similarity of men and women.