The Most Important Text in the Bible: The Genesis of Equality

By Rev Dr Kevin Giles*

In any debate, defining exactly what is the issue in contention is the most important step. In the painful and divisive debate in our churches over the status and ministry of women this is critical. As I have already said,

  • It is not about whether women can be ordained or be the senior pastor of a church. Why they can or cannot be ordained or in church leadership is the issue.
  • It is not about male-female differentiation. No one denies God has made us men and women.
  • It is not about the complementarity of the sexes. All agree man and women together complete what it means to be human – that’s why we need each other.
  • It is not about male and female “roles”. No one denies that on a biological level women get pregnant, men impregnate, and socially women characteristically do certain things and men other things.

It is the question, Has or has not God permanently subordinated women to men? Is leadership male? [1]  The answer to this question can only be yes or no. There is no middle position.

For “complementarians” who reply “yes’ to this question no text is more important than 1 Timothy 2:9-15.  What makes Paul’s prohibition in 1 Timothy chapter 2 on women teaching and/or exercising authority in church universally and transculturally binding is the premise that in creation, before the Fall, God set the man over the woman. The importance for “complementarians” of this appeal to the creation stories as the basis for women’s permanent subordination cannot be overestimated. In putting the “complementarian” case, Daniel Doriani says that “nineteen of the twenty two authors” in the definitive collection of essays putting the “complementarian”case, Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood,[2] argue for the subordination of women “on the basis of creation, or the order or creation, on at least eighty one pages”.[3]

What this means is that although 1 Timothy 2:9-15 is the text most quoted by “complementarians” what is fundamental to their distinctive interpretation of this passage is their interpretation of Genesis chapters 1 to 3. For them, the Timothy text grounds women’s subordination in creation before the Fall and is thus the God-given ideal. Egalitarian evangelicals entirely agree with “complementarians” that what is taught in Genesis 1 to 3 on the man-woman relationship is foundational and primary for understanding everything else said in scripture on this matter.

What then do Genesis chapters 1 to 3 teach? 

Genesis chapter 1

Genesis chapter 1 is rightly seen as a prologue to the whole Bible. We may presume with confidence that it is put first in canonical order, [4] because what it teaches is of first importance. It tells us that everything we see is created by God, that  what God creates is good and that the apex of God’s creative work is humankind, man and woman, standing side by side; one species, two sexes. In Genesis 1:27 we read:

‘So God created humankind (’adam),[5]
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.’ (1:27)

The pre-eminence of humankind is suggested by them being created last as the apex of God’s creative work, by the fact that  only man and woman are said to be made in ‘the image and likeness of God’ (1:26), and because God gives to them dominion over the earth and all living creatures (1:28).

Exactly what is meant by saying that man and woman are made in ‘the image (tselem) and likeness (demuth) of God’ has aroused much debate. It is a very bold assertion in light of the prohibition in the Old Testament on making images of God. Images were proscribed because to make an image of God identified the Creator with his creation (Ex. 20:1-4). The most widely supported view is that to say man and woman are made in the image and likeness of God indicates that they have been given dominion or lordship over the world. Together they have been created to exercise God’s rule as his vice-regents. This is suggested not only by ancient Middle Eastern parallels where an image of the king represents his dominion, but also because immediately after stating that man and woman are made in the image and likeness of God,  God gives them ‘dominion’ (radah) over all living creatures (1:26), commanding them to ‘rule’ (kabash) over all the earth (1:28). Note that rather than being differentiated in authority, Genesis1 gives to man and woman the same authority. One does not rule over the other. They rule conjointly. A “complementarian” theologian, Andreas Kostenberger, comes to the same conclusion:

By placing his image on the man and the woman and by setting them in a particular environment, therefore, God assigns to them the mandate of representative rule. This rule is the joint function of the man and the woman.[6]

In addition to the command to subdue and rule the earth, man and woman are together commanded to ‘Be fruitful and multiply.’ No mention is made of any separation of “roles” in being ‘fruitful.’ Ruling and procreating are ‘roles’ or ‘functions’ given to men and women alike in God’s good creation.

Thus what we have in this primary and definitive scriptural comment on the sexes is the strongest imaginable affirmation of the equal status of man and woman (‘in the image of God he created them’), of male-female differentiation (‘male and female he created them’) and of their conjoint authority over creation (‘let them have dominion’). Their equality cannot be taken simply to be a spiritual equality, an ‘equality before God’. The man and the woman are depicted as standing side by side, head erect in the world God has created and it is over this world they are to conjointly to rule. We could accurately say Genesis 1:27-28 speaks of the equality of man and woman in being and in function.

It also speaks unambiguously of male-female differentiation. Raymond Ortland, another “complementarian” theologian, writes, “male-female equality does not constitute undifferentiated sameness. There is a profound and beautiful distinction” between the sexes. [7]  All evangelical egalitarians would completely agree with him. Male and female equality and differentiation are both creation givens. It thus follows that both equality and differentiation are to be honoured, maintained and seen as God’s good gifts.

Likewise, egalitarians would agree with “complementarians” that although the term “complementary” is not found in the text of Genesis 1 the idea is unmistakably present. Man and woman complete what it means to be human. The writer of course assumes that every one of his readers will know that man or woman alone cannot procreate. Each needs the other to fulfil or ‘complete’ this divine mandate. Their complementarity would, however, seem to involve more than just the biological. The fact that the two sexes are made joint rulers over God’s world may imply each makes a distinctive contribution to this task; they complement each other in serving God. 

On the interpretation Genesis chapter 1 evangelical egalitarians and ‘complementarians’ are basically in agreement. The opening chapter of the Bible speaks of the equality of the sexes, their differentiation as man and woman and their complementarity. We are agreed that there is nothing in this chapter that speaks of the subordination of women. This is not the case with chapters 2 and 3. On the interpretation of these chapters evangelical egalitarians and “complementarians” come to opposing conclusions.

Genesis chapters 2 and 3.

Genesis 2:4-24 gives a very different account of creation than Genesis chapter 1. How this “second creation story” is to be rightly understood is hotly disputed. I suggest the following hermeneutical guidelines should be followed.

  1. Because Genesis chapter 1 is given first we may assume it has a certain priority. Thus no interpretation of anything said in in chapters 2 or 3 should be taken to contradict or correct anything clearly taught in chapter 1. Or to put it positively, chapter 1 should be taken as the best guide to how chapter 2 is to be interpreted.
  2. The text of Genesis chapters 2 and 3 and the traditional interpretation of details in these chapters are not to be equated. All evangelicals can agree on the authority of the text itself. What is disputed in this chapter is the interpretation of the text given by some commentators in the past and by “complementarians” today. Brueggemann speaking of Genesis chapters 2 and 3 says,

No text in Genesis (or likely in the whole Bible) has been more used, interpreted and misunderstood than this text. It has received from the dogmatic tradition such an overlay of messages that the first and perhaps most important task of interpretation is to distinguish between the statement of the text and the superstructure laid upon it.[8]

  1. New Testament quotations or allusions to Genesis chapters 1-3 do not prescribe the interpretation of these chapters, [9] any more than what Paul says on the image of God prescribes how the image of God should be understood in Genesis 1:26-27,[10] or the historical meaning of the many other Old Testament texts quoted in the New Testament.[11] The Genesis text, and other Old Testament texts quoted in the New Testament, must be interpreted in terms of what they actually say and how they would have been understood by the authors and the original readers in their own historical setting. Notwithstanding what has just been said, there is no reason to dispute any reference Paul makes on these chapters from Genesis. The Apostle says in his first epistle to Timothy, ‘Adam was formed first then Eve’ (1 Tim. 2:13), and then adds, ‘And Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor’ (1 Tim. 2:14). In these words Paul reflects what is said in Genesis, although the Genesis text has Adam also deceived. Why Paul alluded to these details in the second creation story and what they are supposed to imply in his interchange with the Christians in Ephesus in the first century AD is not a question the exegete can discover by studying Genesis chapters 2 and 3. Their force and application is to be discovered by a close study of 1Timothy. It would seem that Paul appeals to these details in the creation story to rebuke the women in Ephesus who were putting themselves ‘first’[12] when they had been ‘deceived’ by the false teachers who Timothy had been sent to oppose.[13] 1 Corinthians 11:8 also raises no difficulties. Genesis 2 does have woman being made ‘from’ man and ‘for’ man, as Paul notes. However, on mentioning this fact Paul then adds, ‘Nevertheless (plen)[14] in the Lord’ (that is in the new creation) woman is not independent of man or man independent of woman. For just as woman came from man, so man comes through woman’ (11:11-12).
  2. And lastly, in seeking to hear what Genesis chapters 2 and 3 actually say, the term ‘role’ must be absolutely excluded. In sociological texts this term is used to speak of characteristic behaviour that can change. If this is how the word is being used by ‘complementarians’, as a novice to this debate might conclude, then it suggests that “complementarians” believe that human beings are called simply to play the ‘role’ of being a man or woman. Sexual identity is not God-given.  The novice would not know that “complementarians” in fact use the word ‘role’ in a way endorsed by no dictionary to speak of power relations, who rules over who, that cannot change. These ‘roles’ are allocated by birth to men or a women respectively. Why we might ask speak of ‘differing roles’ when speaking of differing authority, that is, who rules over who?  The term ‘role’ should not be used in interpreting Genesis 1-3, and indeed any biblical text for at least three reasons. First, because both creation stories are given to make the point that God has made us men and women; sexual differentiation is not a ‘role’ open to change.[15] Second, because the way ‘complementarians’ use this word obscures what is really being said. Instead of saying plainly that God has subordinated women to men we are told ‘God has given differing ‘roles’ to men and women. And third, because using a word originating in the theatre, then utilised by humanist sociology, to interpret the Bible is bound to corrupt the work of exegesis. I agree with Professor Werner Neurer, an Old Testament “complementarian” scholar, who says ‘in the cause of truth we should give up talking about the roles of the sexes” in the exegetical enterprise.’[16]

What Genesis chapters 2 and 3 actually say and teach.

In Genesis 1 God’s creative work takes place in orderly succession, culminating with the creation of man and woman. In contrast, Genesis 2 and 3 is a narrative, an unfolding story, in seven scenes. In Genesis 1 we find the repeated refrain that everything God made was ‘good’ (1: 4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25, 31). What God created was perfect and complete – ‘very good’ (1:31). This is not the case in chapters 2 and 3. The narrative begins by allowing that at first some things are missing and God has to complete his creation. On the earth there were initially ‘no plants of the field,’ no rain, and ‘no one to till the ground’ (2:5). There is incompleteness, imperfection.

The unfolding narrative tells how God step by step put all this right. He creates the solitary Adam to till the ground, and he ‘plants’ a garden, giving to it vegetation, trees and rivers. But something is still missing. The narrator has God himself tell the reader what this is. ‘It is not good that Adam should be alone’ (2:18). To meet this deficiency God first creates the animals which Adam names. However, none of the animals prove to be suitable as a ‘partner’ for him.

‘Partner’ is a good translation of the Hebrew ‘ezer kenegdo, commonly translated ‘helper.’ A helper (an ‘ezer) can be a superior, an equal or a subordinate.[17] In fifteen of its uses in the Bible it is used of God ‘helping’ his people; a superior coming to the aid of a subordinate. In this case, the qualifying Hebrew word kenegdo makes clear what the author intended to be understood.  Adam needs a helper, says Wenham, ‘matching him’, his complementary counterpart.[18]  In other words, ‘a helper’ who is his equal and counterpart. The narrator is thus implying that God is the helper superior to Adam; the animals are helpers inferior to Adam; woman is the helper equal with Adam.

To meet Adam’s need for a true partner, God takes the initiative by creating the woman. The making of the woman by God from  Adam’s ‘rib’, more exactly from his ‘side’,[19] makes the point that the woman like Adam is directly created by God. On seeing the woman Adam jubilantly exclaims in Hebrew poetic form, ‘This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called woman (’ishah), for she was taken out of man’ (’ish) (2:23). The words, ‘flesh of my flesh …’, reflect biblical ideas of kinship; shared status. On seeing the woman Adam recognises another human being like himself; a person made of the ‘same stuff’ as he is. He does not name her but jubilantly exclaims, she is ’ishah/woman having been taken from ’ish /man and thus his counterpart. These are the customary words in Hebrew to differentiate man and woman. Neither term is a personal name. Adam names the woman ‘Eve’ after the Fall (Gen. 3:20). What Adam says on seeing the woman implies the substantial equality of the sexes and their God-given differentiation as man and woman, not the subordination of the woman.

In a very similar word play in Genesis 2:7, Adam/’adam is said to be made from the earth/adamah and in this case the one who comes from the earth is to rule over the earth.  Derivation does not imply subordination. As a postscript the narrator adds a comment about marriage. ‘Therefore a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife and they become one flesh’ (2:24). The notion of complementarity cannot be missed. From the ‘two’ something new is created, a partnership, a complementary union, in which the man adds to the woman’s life and the woman adds to the man’s life, and procreation is made possible.

Only at this point in the story is Adam man in distinction to woman, and only at this point do man and woman stand side by side in reciprocal and complementary relationship. There is no hint here of any hierarchical ordering of the sexes. How their co-equal relationship was lost is next explained.

On beginning to read Genesis chapter 3 we discover that in the Garden is a force opposed to God, yet created by God, and that sin and punishment for disobeying God are possibilities.[20] The narrator begins this scene by introducing someone new to the drama, ‘the serpent [who is] more crafty than any other wild animals that the Lord God has made’ (3:1). He speaks to the woman, first getting her to doubt what God had commanded, ‘You shall not eat of the tee of the knowledge of good and evil’ and then to disbelieve what God had said, ‘For the day that you eat of it you shall die’ (2:17). She succumbs to the temptation and eats of the fruit of the tree and ‘gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate’ (3:6). Together and in partnership they disobey God’s command.

Immediately following their mutual disobedience and sin they hear ‘the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden’ (v. 8). Both of them hide. Both know they have disobeyed the owner of the Garden. When God asks Adam why he has eaten of the tree (3:11) he blames ‘the woman whom you gave to be with me’. When God addresses Eve she says, ‘the serpent tricked me’. (I am sure you have heard the joke, ‘Adam blamed Eve, Eve blamed the serpent and the serpent did not have a leg to stand on.’) Confronted with their sin both the man and the woman try to pass the blame to someone else, but God does not accept this. He holds them both personally responsible. No excuse can minimize their solemn, personal and direct answerability to God which is the burden of both man and woman. They are not only equal as fellow human beings but also equal in responsibility for their sin.

God’s word of reproach to the three principal actors, now in the order serpent, woman, man is given. The judgment on the serpent opens with a ‘curse formula’ (3:14) but this is not the case with the words addressed to the man and the woman (3:16-19). God does not curse them but announces the dire consequences of their disobedience. The man will ‘labour’ and work in the fields and not feel he has achieved much (3:17).The woman will ‘labour’ in childbirth. This will cause her pain, and yet she will desire[21] intimacy with her husband who for his part will want to rule over her (3:16).

Note carefully; this is the first and only time in Genesis 1-3 the subordination of women is mentioned and it is seen as a consequence of sin. It is not good; it is not the creation ideal. Before the man and the woman disobeyed God there is absolutely nothing said about the subordination of women and much which would seem to exclude this idea.

The traditional interpretation of Genesis 2-3.

The conclusion that Genesis 2 to 3:12 does not subordinate women to men before the Fall is now endorsed by almost all contemporary scholarly commentators.[22]  This is a sharp break from how Genesis 2 and 3 were almost universally interpreted until the mid twentieth century. In times past when patriarchy prevailed, Genesis 2 and 3 were interpreted as a corrective to Genesis chapter 1, adding something not mentioned in the first account of creation. It was argued that the first creation story spoke of the equality of the sexes before God, a spiritual equality, and the second creation narrative spoke of woman’s subordination in God’s good creation before the Fall. Many mute details in Genesis chapters 2 and 3 were taken to indicate that before the Fall the man was set over the woman. In a cultural context where the subordination of women in all spheres of life was assumed and taken for granted, these arguments were thought to be self-evident and irrefutable.

In contrast, in a cultural context where the substantial equality of the sexes is assumed and normative this is no longer the case. Most modern commentators do not think such arguments are even worth mentioning. They are generally ignored. The most common of these arguments were:[23]

  1. Adam is put in charge of the Garden not the woman. Reply: yes, Adam appears first in the Garden but the whole narrative is about how Adam alone is ‘help-less’. The story reaches its climax when the man and woman stand side by side. To conclude that Adam was in charge, that is head-over the woman, because God spoke first to him after the Fall (3:9) is unconvincing. In the dramatic telling of the story in seven scenes the order in which the ‘actors’ appear or are addressed changes constantly. If who appears first or second in each scene is highly significant then some weighty point would need to be discovered in each instance. This cannot be done.
  2. Woman was created second; therefore she is second in rank, subordinate. Reply: In Genesis 1 humankind is created last and yet is yet supreme and in Genesis 2 man is created after the earth and yet rules over it. Chronological order does not imply second in rank or subordination. John Calvin with is characteristic sharpness of mind said, the ‘argument that woman is subject because she was created second, does not seem very strong for John the Baptist went before Christ in time and yet was far inferior to him.’[24]
  3. It was Adam who named the animals and the woman and naming implies dominance/authority over. Reply: it is very unlikely that naming signifies authority-over,[25] but even if it did, the woman did not exist when Adam named the animals. In regard to the woman, Adam only ‘names’ her after the Fall (Gen. 3:20). What is more, this understanding of naming would make Genesis 2 directly contradict Genesis 1:26-28 where God gives dominion over the animals to man and woman.
  4. Woman was made for man, not man for woman. Reply: yes, woman was made ‘for’ Adam because he was ‘help-less’, inadequate on his own. And yes, Paul says this in making his argument that women should cover their heads when they lead in prayer and prophecy in church. However, he then says, almost as if he is correcting himself, ‘For just as woman came from man [in the Genesis 2 narrative] so [now] man comes through woman’ (1 Cor. 11:12).
  5. Woman was created as man’s ‘helper’ and helpers are subordinates. Reply: As noted previously, a ‘helper’ can be a superior, an equal or a subordinate. In this case the Hebrew of Genesis 2:18, as pointed out above, implies an equal helper and thus is best translated a ‘partner’. And,
  6. The Serpent tempted the woman first because he recognised she was more prone to sin and error. Reply: possibly a more convincing inference would be, the Serpent reasoned if he could tempt the woman to sin the man would be a pushover and he was right. It took a superhuman being to lead the woman into sin; the man only needed another human being to suggest the idea and he sinned.

Speaking specifically of these tendentious interpretations of mute details in Genesis 2 and 3, Walter Brueggermann says, ‘such exegesis betrays the text and is a good example of the ways our values and presuppositions control our exegesis.’[26]

Despite the fact that the vast majority of contemporary scholarly commentators reject all of these insupportable impositions on the text, most contemporary ‘complementarians’ support all or most of them, often adding one or two more.[27] They have to do this; they have no other option because their whole case for the permanent subordination of women is grounded on the premise that in creation, before the Fall, God set the man over the woman. The subordination of women is the creation ideal and thus continues even after the advent of Jesus Christ.

Before moving on two crucial observation must be made. First, if women’s subordination is predicated on the subordination of the first woman before the Fall then this means all women are subordinated to all men. Women’s subordination cannot be limited solely to marriage and the church. It is prescriptive for all of creation. It speaks of how the created world should be ‘ordered’.  This was well-nigh universally believed until very recent time. Christian men opposed women rulers, women having the vote, entering politics or the professions, and their access to higher education, because they believed God had created woman as the subordinate sex as a class.[28] The ‘complementarian’ argument that women’s creation-based subordination only applies to marriage and the church is entirely novel and counter to their own most fundamental theological premise, that the subordination of women is grounded in creation.

Second, if Genesis 2-3 subordinates woman to man before the Fall, then it directly contradicts what the first creation story explicitly says. Man and woman are both created in God’s image and likeness and both are given authority to rule over God’s world. Genesis 1:27-28 speaks unambiguously of the essential and substantive equality of the two differentiated sexes, not just of their spiritual equality, and of their conjoint authority as the rulers over God’s creation.

The Roman Catholic interpretation of Genesis 1 to 3.

Most ‘complementarians’ reject outright any criticisms of their position. Grudem gives the most common reason for the absolute rejection of the egalitarian interpretation of the disputed texts on women. He says it represents a denial of the authority of scripture. It is the path to theological liberalism.[29] What this assertion implies needs to be made clear. Those who give another interpretation of the disputed texts are not just opposing ‘our’ ‘complementarian’ position, they are opposing scripture itself. What ‘we’ teach reflects the mind of God; what ‘you’ teach does not! The result of this dogmatic position is that the debate is now completely stalemated. Evangelical egalitarian interpretations of the key texts, no matter how cogent or well supported they may be, are ruled out of court without any need to consider them. In an attempt to get my debating opponents to listen, I now bring a third voice to this crucial matter of the interpretation of Genesis 1 to 3.

In his binding encyclical of 1988, Mulieris Dignitatem: On the Dignity and Vocation of Women,[30] Pope John-Paul II, following the advice of the best of Roman Catholic biblical scholarship, ruled that Genesis taught the ‘essential equality’ of the two sexes, [31] ‘their fundamental equality’ in marriage,[32] and that the subordination of women is entirely a consequence of the Fall to be opposed.[33] On this last matter he says, ‘the overcoming of this evil inheritance is, generation after generation, the task of every human being, whether woman or man’.[34] By endorsing the scholarly contemporary interpretation of Genesis 1-3, the Pope broke completely with the traditional interpretation of Genesis 2 and 3 that had prevailed for centuries. His interpretation of Genesis 1 to 3 is now binding on 450 million Roman Catholics. No Roman Catholic commentator can argue otherwise without acknowledging he or she is contradicting the official teaching of the Catholic Church. What should also be noted before moving on is that this Roman Catholic interpretation of Genesis 1-3 is virtually the same as that held by most Protestant exegetes and by all evangelical egalitarians.

Again, like evangelical egalitarians, the Pope not only emphatically endorses the ‘essential equality’ of the sexes, but also their indelible, creation-given differentiation and their complementarity.  He speaks of ‘the creator’s decision that human beings should always and only exist as woman or man’.[35]  In his exposition of Genesis chapter 2 he says the creation of the woman supplies what is lacking in the solitary Adam, a partner ‘in common humanity,’ yet woman and not man.[36] Then referring to the penultimate verse in Genesis chapter 2, the Pope writes, ‘the biblical account speaks of God instituting marriage as an indispensable condition for the transmission of life to a new generation.’[37] In marriage there is a ‘unity of the two’, a reflection of the trinitarian communion of love that is God.[38] ‘In the unity of the two, man and woman are called from the beginning not only to “exist side by side”, or “together”, but they are also called to exist mutually “one for the other”’.[39]

The hermeneutical guidelines the Pope lays down for rightly interpreting Genesis 1 to 3 are important to note. He first of all rules that in interpreting Genesis 1-3 ‘no essential contradiction between the two texts’ (i.e. Genesis 1 and 2-3) can be allowed.[40] And second, to ensure this is the case, Genesis 2:18-24 should be interpreted in ‘the light’ of Genesis chapter 1 which unambiguously speaks of the ‘essential equality’ of the sexes and of their ‘shared dominion.’[41] When read on this basis, he says, Genesis 2:18-25 ‘helps us to understand better what we find in the concise passage of Genesis 1:27-28’.[42] We see ‘even more profoundly the fundamental truth’ that man and woman are essentially equal before the Fall.[43]

What Roman Catholics have now concluded is the right interpretation of Genesis 1 to 3 is hugely important for all Christians. It means that on this question, most scholarly commentators, all evangelical egalitarians and all Roman Catholics are basically of one mind. Genesis chapters 1 to 3 speak of the essential and substantial equality of the sexes, their indelible differentiation, and their complementarity, seeing the subordination of women as entirely a consequence of the Fall.

Unfortunately, when Pope John Paul II comes to the ordination of women to the priesthood he lacks consistency. In response to the pressing calls to open up this issue he published in 1994 another encyclical, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis: On Reserving Priestly Ordination to Men Alone.[44] He ruled that only men could be priests. The reasons he gives are, 1. ordaining men only to the priesthood is the constant tradition of the Church; 2. Jesus appointed men only to be numbered among the twelve apostles; 3. the twelve apostles formed a ‘ministerial priesthood’, as did those they ‘chose [to be] fellow workers who would succeed them in their ministry’.[45]  He asserts that appointing men only to the priesthood on this basis in no way denigrates women or indicates their subordinate status.[46] Most people think it does both these things. It would seem that the Pope wants to endorse on the basis of Genesis chapters 1 to 3 the essential and substantive equality of the sexes in the home and the world but when it comes to the church he cannot allow women to be priests, the highest honour in the church.

What the Pope and ‘complementarians’ teach on women in leadership in the church is to be contrasted not compared. First, they categorically differ on what is to be denied to women. The Pope excludes women from being priests because he cannot allow women to preside at the Eucharist, the centre and most important aspect of Catholic worship. ‘Complementarians’ exclude women from being pastors because they cannot allow them to preach/teach in church, what is most important in church worship for them. And second, they categorically differ on why women must be denied these things. For the Pope, women cannot be priests and thus preside at the Eucharist because he holds that the twelve apostles were the first priests and they were all men. For ‘complementarians’, women cannot be pastors and thus preach/teach in church because women are the subordinate sex. They should not lead a congregation. For the Pope, women are not subordinated to men, the two sexes are essential equals; for ‘complementarians’, the pastor is not a priest and the Lord’s Supper is not a sacrificial offering to God. The question these observations raise is this. Is the opposition to women in church leadership predicated on an agreed undisclosed premise, namely that women should be excluded from doing what is thought to be most important in church gatherings, and then theological reasons for this are found in Catholic and Protestant  theology which sound plausible?


The evidence is compelling and the support far reaching. The majority conclusion based on the information outlined above indicate that Genesis 1 to 3 speak of the substantial and essential equality of the two sexes, the subordination of women being entirely a consequence of the Fall. This is a devastating disclosure for contemporary ‘complementarians’ who have grounded their entire case for the permanent subordination of women on the premise that before the Fall woman was subordinated to man. According to their interpretation of Genesis 2-3 the hierarchical ordering of the sexes is the creation-given ideal that is universally and transculturally to be endorsed by Christians.  If this conclusion is exegetically mistaken and untrue then the ‘complementarian’ position is an impressive edifice without any biblical or theological foundation. It is bound to collapse.

From this conclusion a hermeneutical rule is implied.

All comments in scripture that speak of or imply the substantial equality of the sexes, speak of God’s creation ideal; all texts in scripture that speak or could imply the subordination of women to men reflect either fallen existence or a situation where what some women are doing is disrupting the life of the church.


[1] As part of their strategy to make their views sound acceptable to modern ears “complementarians” always speak only of the subordination wives in the church and the home where they argue the man is “the head”. However, before 1970 this idea was unknown. It was generally believed that men should have precedence in all spheres of life. It is also not an honest argument because “complementarians” ground women’s subordination in creation. If women are subordinated in creation then all women, not just wives, must be subordinate in all creation, the home, the church and society. We should also note that “complementarians” are as hostile to single women in leadership as they are to married women. If they only wanted to subordinate wives they should be open to single women in leadership. They are not. They are opposed to women in general in leadership.

[2] J. Piper and W. Grudem, eds (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 1991).

[3] In Women in the Church: A Fresh Analysis of 1 Timothy 2:9-15, A. J. Kostenberger, T. R. Schreiner, H. S. Baldwin eds (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1995), 258, note 180.

[4] The discipline of  “Canonical Criticism” supports this conclusion. How the Bibles story is told is part of divine revelation.  See R. Schultz, ‘What is “Canonical” about Canonical Biblical Theology?’, in S. J. Hafemann ed., Biblical Theology: Retrospect and Prospect (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2002) 83-99; B. S. Childs, Old Testament Theology in Canonical Context (London, SCM, 1992).

[5] No longer can the Hebrew word, ’adam,  in Genesis 1:26 and 27 be accurately translated into English as ‘man’ because the English word ‘man’ has become identified with the male sex. In Genesis 1 to 3 this Hebrew word ’adam is used in three ways: of humanity which is either male or female, of the solitary ‘man’ of Genesis 3:7-20 who is depicted as incomplete, ‘help-less’ apart from woman, and as the personal name of one man who is the husband of Eve, a name implied in Genesis 3 and made explicit in Genesis 4:25. Nothing should be made of the fact that the Hebrew ’adam is a masculine noun. Grammatical gender is not prescriptive of sexual identity and Hebrew has no other word for humanity.  See further. R. Hess, ‘Splitting the Adam: The Usage of ‘ADAM in Genesis i-v,’ 1-15 in J.A. Emerton ed., Studies in the Pentateuch (Supplements to Vetus Testamentum XLI; Leiden: Brill, 1990).

[6] God, Marriage and the Family (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2004), 34. Italics added.

[7] ‘Male-Female Equality and Male Headship Genesis 1-3’, in Recovering Biblical Manhood, 99.

[8] Genesis: A Bible Commentary for Teachers and Preachers (Atlanta, John Knox, 1982), 41.

[9] For more on the appropriation of Genesis 1-3 in the New Testament see V. P. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis Chapters 1-17 (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1990), 182-185.

[10] Let me explain this comment. Modern scholarly commentators are basically agreed that how Paul may understand what it means to be made in the image of God does not prescribe the historical meaning of Genesis 1:27-28.  Paul speaks of the image of God at least 6 times. Once he speaks of man (the male) bearing the image of God and woman the glory of God (1 Cor. 11:7). This could be, and has been, taken to mean woman does not bear the image of God, which would contradict Genesis 1:26-27. In 2 Corinthians 3:18 and Colossians 3:10 he speaks of Christians being renewed in the image of God, whereas in Genesis even after the Fall humankind is still considered to be made in God’s image (Gen. 9:6). And then twice Paul speaks of Christ as the image of God (2 Cor. 4:4, Col. 1:15), something Genesis 1 does not envisage.

[11] Paul often gives an interpretation of an Old Testament text or passage that is counter to the historical meaning of the original. See for example, 1 Corinthians 10:1-6, Galatians 4:21-31, Ephesians 4:8, etc. Then we have the problem that often one text or story can be interpreted by New Testament writers in more than one way. Abraham and his faith is a classic example (See Rom. 4:1-24, Gal. 3:1-18, Heb. 11:8-12, James 2:18-25.

[12] The exceptional verb ‘authentein’ in 1 Timothy 2:10 speaks of usurped authority and thus bears the force of putting yourself first. See P. Payne, Man and Woman in Christ: An Exegetical and Theological Study of Paul’s Epistles (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009), 385-394.

[13] See on this passage see, Payne, Man and Woman, 291-360.

[14] This Greek word signifies a break with what has just been said to give another perspective; what is central to an argument. See P. Payne, Man and Woman, 189.

[15] I am of course not suggesting that how our sexual identities are expressed at differing times and in differing cultures cannot change or differ. In the second part of this essay I will consider the inappropriateness of the term ‘role’ to speak of male-female differences in more detail.

[16] Man and Woman in Christ in Christian Perspective, translated by Gordon Wenham (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1988), 30.

[17] So G. Wenham, Genesis, 1-5 (Dallas: Tx: Word, 1987), 68. Wenham is a ‘complementarian’.

[18] Genesis, 68.

[19] The Hebrew word tsela actually refers to the side of man. Men do not have one less rib than women!

[20] This reminds us of the eschatological nature of salvation history. The perfecting of creation lies in the future in the consummation of the new creation on the last day. We do not look back to the first creation to find God’s perfected world but to the future when there will be a new heaven and a new earth.

[21] A huge amount of ink has been spent by ‘complementarians’ in arguing that women’s ‘desire’ after the Fall is to rule over her husband. I am very sceptical of this argument based on linguistic parallels. Like the ‘complementarian’ commentator, Wenham, Genesis, 82, I see it as only a possibility, not able to be proven. However, even if accepted it is not an interpretation inimical to egalitarians. They believe the creation ideal before the Fall is an equal relationship. If after the Fall the woman desires to rule over the man, that is as much a reflection of sin as is the man ruling over the woman.

[22] In post 1980 commentaries see, W. Brueggemann, Genesis (Atlanta: John Knox, 1982); J. J.  Scullion, Genesis: A Commentary for Students, Teachers and Preachers (Atlanta: John Knox, 1982); V. P. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis Chapters 1-17 (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1990); R. F. Youngblood, The Book of Genesis, second edition (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 1991); M. Maher, Genesis (Wilmington, Del.: M. Glazier, 1982); C. Amos, The Book of Genesis (Peterborough, UK: Epworth, 2004); T. L. Brodie, Genesis as Dialogue (Oxford: OUP, 2001); T. Fretheim, ‘The Book of Genesis’ in L. E. Keck et al eds, The New Interpreters Bible (Nashville, Ten.: Abingdon, 1994); R. J. Clifford and R. E. M. O’Carm ‘Genesis’, in R. E. Brown, J. A. Fitzmyer, R. E. Murphy, eds, The New Jerome Commentary (London: G. Chapman, 1989); W. S. Towner, Genesis (Louisville, Ken.: Westminster John Knox, 2001); M. Kessler and K. Deurloo, A Commentary on Genesis (New York, NY: Paulist, 2004); D. S. Briscoe, The Communicator’s Commentary on Genesis (Waco, TX: Word, 1987); D. W. Cotter, Genesis (Collegeville, Minn.: The Liturgical Press, 2003); L. A. Turner, Genesis (Sheffield: Academic, 2000); J. E. Hartley, Genesis (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 2000); J. McKeown, Genesis, Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2008), R. Alter, Genesis: Translation and Commentary (New York: W. W. Norton), 1996); B. T. Arnold, Genesis (Cambridge: CUP, 2009); J. Sailhamer, ‘Genesis’, in  The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 1, T. Longman and D. E. Garland, eds, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008).

For the same opinion in pre 1980 commentaries see J. A. Skinner, Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Genesis (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1930);  U. Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Genesis, 1, trans. I. Abrahams (Jerusalem: Magnes, ET 1961); B. Vawter, On Genesis: A New Reading (London: G. Chapman, 1977); R. Davidson, Genesis 1-11 (Cambridge: CUP, 1973); G. Von Rad, Genesis : A Commentary, trans. John Marks (London: SCM, 1961); E. A. Speiser, Genesis (New York: Doubleday, 1969).

In support of Genesis 2- 3 teaching the pre-Fall subordination of  the woman I found Gordon Wenham, Genesis saw this suggested only in the naming of the animals (68) and the ‘naming’ of the woman ’ishah – woman!(81). He rejects that the Hebrew usually translated ‘helper’ implies a subordinate helper. For a complete endorsement of  the contemporary ‘complementarian’ interpretation of Genesis 1-3, utilising the language of ‘role’ differentiation, see K. A. Matthews, The New American Commentary, Genesis 1-11:26 (Nashville, Ten.: B & H, 1996), 209-222, and, B. Waltke, Genesis (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001).

[23] Payne, Man and Woman, 41-52, lists eleven such arguments and rebuts each one. In my book, Created Woman (Canberra; Acorn, 1985), I list six of these arguments and critically evaluate them in some detail. In my book, The Trinity and Subordinationism: The Doctrine of God and the Contemporary Gender Debate (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2002)145-154, I document the ‘traditional’ case for women’s subordination.

[24] The Second Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians, and the Epistles of Timothy, Titus and Philemon, trans, T. A. Smail (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964), 217

[25]  See R. Hess, ‘Equality without Innocence: Genesis 1-3’, in Discovering Biblical Equality, 79-95.

[26] Genesis, 50.

[27] In support of this assertion I only reference the most authoritative voices for the ‘complementarian’ position. W. Grudem, Evangelical Feminism and Biblical Truth (Sisters, Or.: Multnomah, 2004), 102-109, 293-296; W. Grudem, Evangelical Feminism: A New Path to Liberalism (Sisters, Or.: Multnomah, 2006), 35-42; R. C. Ortland, ‘Male-Female Equality and Male Headship’, In Recovering Biblical Manhood, 95-112;  Women in the Church,  134-146,  202-205, 246 , 259. In documenting this assertion I should remind my readers of Doriani’s boast in Women in the Church, 258, note180, quoted at the beginning of this essay, that nineteen of the twenty two authors in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, predicate the subordination of women in creation before the Fall.

[28] In my, The Trinity and Subordinationism, 145-148, I document this pre- twentieth century almost universal belief.

[29] Note the title of his book quoted earlier in this essay, Evangelical Feminism: A New Path to Liberalism.

[30] (Homebush, Aust., Boston, USA: St Paul, 1988).


[32] Ibid., 37.

[33] Ibid., 32-41.

[34] Ibid., 41.

[35] Ibid., 7.

[36] Ibid., 23.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Ibid., 24.

[39] Ibid., 25.

[40] Ibid., 21.

[41] Ibid., 22-24.

[42] Ibid., 22.

[43] Ibid.

[44] (Homebush, NSW, 1994).

[45] Ibid., 5-6.

[46] Ibid., 6.

Kevin Giles is an ordained Anglican minister who was in parish ministry for forty years. He has studied in Australia, England and Germany, publishing broadly on topics such as the doctrine of the church, leadership in the apostolic age, the equality of men and women, the Trinity and congregational life. Kevin and his wife Lynley have four grown up children and nine grandchildren. They live in Melbourne, Australia. (Source)

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