In Part One of this series we looked at all Genesis 1 teaches us about the equality of men and women. Now we'll step into how God has made us…different. A slew of books like the bestseller Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus reminds us that pointing out differences is common enough. But while psychology and biology have something to teach us on these differences, our goal is to unpack how God speaks to it. We'll see that God intends a beautiful collaboration through his unique design for man and woman. Also, as a heads up, in one of these posts we'll also be talking about complementarianism and singlehood.
Back to the Beginning
Our view on man and woman, male and female, must begin in Genesis 1. But after these priority points of unity, we need to honestly hear what God speaks in Genesis 2. Here we realize the depth of what is meant that “male and female he created them” (1:27). Genesis 2 says five things which distinguish the man from the woman. These cannot mean that man is superior, for Genesis 1 has already established the equality of the two. But while not a superior-inferior relationship, Genesis 2 does establish a difference between the two and a basic structure in the ordering of the pair. As Ray Ortlund, Jr., says, “what will now emerge clearly from Genesis 2 is that male-female equality does not constitute an undifferentiated sameness.” Here are four ways the man and the woman are distinguished:
1. The Order of Their Creation. The man is made first (2:7), and then the woman from the man’s rib (2:21–22). We know the order is important, because Paul points to it as a reason for a woman not having authority over a man in the church (1 Tim 2:13).
2. Man the Gardener, Woman the “Helper Fit for Him.” The different roles of the man and woman are evident in the work they are first given to do. Both are given “vocations,” which is another way of saying “callings” from God (vocare is the Latin for “call”). But the man’s calling is to “work” and “keep” the garden (2:15), while the woman is made as a “helper fit for him” (2:18). It is assumed that the man won’t be able to accomplish his work alone, which is part of the reason why God says, “It is not good that the man should be alone” (v. 18). We shouldn’t miss that statement in verse 18. Amidst all the assessments that things are “good” and “very good,” here is something which “is not good.” A solitary man is not a good thing when his vocation is considered.
With the word “helper,” we must not think “slave.” This would be an entirely wrong notion to derive from this passage. God himself is said to be the “helper” of Judah using the same word (Deut 33:7; Ps 40:17), so the term itself cannot mean an inferior slave. The point is simply that where Adam is made for the work of the garden, the woman is made to help him succeed in that work. She offers her intelligence, creativity, initiative, energy, and overall support to the vocation (calling) given to the man.
3. The Giving of “the Law.” The man is entrusted with “the Law of God,” which at this point simply meant the freedom to eat from all trees except the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil” (2:16–17). Yet, this invitation to eat from some trees and prohibition to not eat from a certain tree also has a symbolic importance since it constitutes the revealed will of God to humanity at this time. Thus, it is no small thing that this word is spoken to the man before the creation of the woman. Eve, too, must live according to this commandment and he is to teach it to her (see 3:2–3), but this divine word is given to the man first.
4. The Naming of the Animals and Eve. A fourth important difference has to do with the task of naming both the animals (2:19–20) and Eve (2:23). Naming someone or something is an action that typically implies some kind of responsibility for someone and sometimes even authority over them (2:19–20; e.g., Gen 4:25; 17:5). The same is true today. Parents name children, and this expresses their role as authorities over and caretakers of their children. Business owners name their businesses, because they have that right.
Headship and Submission
These are all important distinguishing marks which point to Adam’s headship over Eve. “Headship” is a word meant to describe a position of authority and leadership. It comes from passages like Ephesians 5:23, “the husband is the head of the wife;” and 1 Corinthians 11:3, “the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God.” Unlike a business or the military, where you become the “head” through your achievements or connections, for a husband to become the “head” in his marriage requires simply that he be the husband. “The husband is the head of the wife,” not, “the husband should seek to become the head of his wife.” He might be a rotten or an amazing head in his marriage, but he’s still the head.
But having said that, we dare not miss Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 11:3, “the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God.” Notice that he says, “the head of every man is Christ.” This means so much. It reminds us that no man is an unaccountable leader in his house. He is always an “under-head,” leading as one who himself has a Master, King, and Judge in heaven who is omnipotent, omniscient, and who has spoken clearly what love, service, holiness, and even leadership looks like. The passage also reminds us that if Jesus is the “head,” then we must look to him as the preeminent example of what a “head” is and does. There is no more vivid passage than Mark 10:42–45 to capture this idea:
And Jesus called them to him and said to them, “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. 43 But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. 45 For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:42–45)
The idea of a “servant leader,” then, is no modern invention but is rooted in the greatest of all earthly authorities and “heads,” the Lord Jesus Christ himself. The New Testament’s teaching on what loving husbands are to do confirms this. A husband is to “love his wife as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Eph 5:25). A husband is to “live with his wife in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel [“weaker” like fine china, not an inferior athlete], since they are heirs with you of the grace of life” (1 Peter 3:7). Any notion of a chauvinistic, dictatorial understanding of “head” is thus completely unbiblical and is rooted in sinful perversions of God’s Word and not what the Scriptures actually teach.
Genesis 1–2 really provides the basic framework for the key texts in the New Testament on how a husband and a wife are to relate—note: not how all women relate to all men, but how an individual wife is to relate to her individual husband and vice-versa. Two of the most important statements are in Ephesians 5:22–33 and 1 Peter 3:1–7:
Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.
25 Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, 26 that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, 27 so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. 28 In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, 30 because we are members of his body. 31 “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” 32 This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. 33 However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband. (Eph 5:22–33)
Likewise, wives, be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives, 2 when they see your respectful and pure conduct. 3 Do not let your adorning be external—the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear— 4 but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious. 5 For this is how the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves, by submitting to their own husbands, 6 as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord. And you are her children, if you do good and do not fear anything that is frightening.
7 Likewise, husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered. (1 Pet 3:1–7)
In both of these passages, the wife is called to “be subject to” or to “submit to” her husband (cf. also Col 3:18; Titus 2:5). The verb here is hupotassō, a verb used of servants being subject to masters (1 Peter 2:18) and citizens being subject to governing authorities (1 Peter 2:13) and the church being submitted to Christ (Eph 5:24). In other words, it’s pretty clear from how the word is used in the New Testament that it’s a fairly strong and categorical term. There is a clear sense of one who is in authority and another who is under that authority who is then called to submit to that authority. As Martha Peace and John Crotts express it, “The wife…is to obey her husband in all things unless her husband asks her to sin.” There is nothing demeaning in the term, for even Christ “submitted” to his parents while on earth (Luke 2:51) and was “obedient [to the Father] to the point of death” (Phil 2:8).
Yet, “submission” remains a controversial term—so much so that Courtney Reissig even calls it “the dreaded S word” in her book The Accidental Feminist. She then makes clear some of the common misconceptions of it, “doormat” and “personality killer” being two of the most common. She then goes on to define it as “a willing decision to bridle your strength out of respect for your husband, but ultimately out of obedience to God and reverence for his Word.” “Bridle your strength” is her way of describing the way a wife will bring all of her gifts and abilities and “strength” to the marriage but will seek to bring these under the control of the husband (and ultimately Christ above him) and his loving leadership. But remember what we said above, all earthly authorities are themselves under authority. Every earthly “head” has a heavenly “head” to which all must submit and to which all are absolutely accountable (1 Cor 11:3; Rom 14:10).
Submission is not the only thing commanded in the two passages above, however. The husband’s obligation is just as clear. He is called to “love” his wife “as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Eph 5:25). He is to “nourish” and “cherish” the wife, even as his own body (5:28). He is to live with her with patience and understanding and honor her as an equal heir of the grace of Christ (1 Peter 3:7). He “is the head,” but the Lord Jesus Christ has also infallibly established what kind of head he is to be.
One final point to make here is that the husband’s love and honor and understanding are not a condition for her submission, just like the wife’s submission is not a requirement before the husband loves and leads her. Both are called to fulfill their obligations regardless of how the other spouse is acting. Below we’ll look at ways to respond when one spouse is sinning in ways more destructive to the marriage and the other spouse.
A Beautiful Collaboration
Before we leave the garden’s harmony and peace, we want to see the basic picture of complementarianism that’s given there. The husband is indeed commissioned to lead in the marriage in such a way that the husband and the wife together carry out the commission he is given by the Lord. The wife is to submit to his leadership, obeying his directives (in the rare cases when directives will be ushered) and being sensitive to his needs as an intelligent helpmate. These clearly defined roles are not meant to keep the woman down or sinfully elevate the man. They are meant to be a picture of wise and loving collaboration that leads to greater fruitfulness than could ever be achieved by either of the two of them alone. The word “harmony” implies different things blended together in such a way that there is an increased depth and richness and beauty. Certainly, that fits the way a husband and wife are to relate. They are different! And yet the differences enable the united effort of the two of them to accomplish extraordinary things.
Further, this beautiful collaboration has an even greater significance than the work they can accomplish. In Ephesians 5, Paul compares the husband and wife relationship to that of Christ and his bride, the church: “As the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church” (5:24–25). He even goes on to say that the husband and wife union of Genesis 2:25 “refers to Christ and the church.” This means that when a loving husband leads his wife in a life-giving way, and when a godly wife submits to that leadership and expresses initiative and creativity as his helpmate, they are demonstrating to a watching world how it is that Christ and the church are to relate. The harmony of the couple becomes a gospel presentation to a dead and hopeless world. And when the world’s broken marriages and distorted understanding of marriage are considered, this gospel presentation becomes all the more radical and rare.
But having painted this picture of the ideals of marriage, we need to look honestly at what happened to the first couple and how it impacted all of us. We'll see that in our next post.