Exploring the biblical theology of Christian egalitarianism

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Complementarians as diverse as Mary Kassian and Douglas Moo believe that separate and distinct “gender roles,” one for men and another for women, are rooted in creation and are, therefore, fixed and timeless.[1] When they speak of “gender roles,” they primarily mean that men were designed to be leaders and women were designed to be submissive assistants to men.

Complementarians typically interpret the creation accounts found in Genesis chapters 1–3 with Paul’s references to creation firmly in mind, especially the references found in 1 Corinthians 11 and 1 Timothy 2.

In 1 Corinthians 11:2–16, Paul writes about the appropriate appearance of men and women who prophesy and pray aloud in church gatherings, and he mentions concepts found in Genesis 2. In 1 Timothy 2:13–14, Paul provides a brief and accurate summary of Genesis 2 and 3. Furthermore, Paul mentions Adam in Romans 5:14 and 1 Corinthians 15:22, 45, Eve in 2 Corinthians 11:3, and he quotes words from Genesis 2:24 in Ephesians 5:31.

Paul uses material from Genesis 2–3 in various ways to make various points. It’s important, however, to let the creation narratives speak for themselves. It is unsound to let Paul’s use of them in an illustration, or in an example or type, etc, unduly influence our understanding of the creation story. Genesis 1–3 helps us understand some of Paul’s teachings, but it does not necessarily work the other way around. Cynthia Long Westfall expresses this well in her superb book, Paul and Gender: Reclaiming the Apostle’s Vision for Men and Women in Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2016), 62–63.

Dr Westfall writes,

It has been claimed that Pauline instructions based on the creation account must be normative. However, there should be no a priori assumption that any Pauline command, prohibition, or instruction supported by the creation is a ‘transcendent norm’ (or a universal conclusion) as opposed to an occasional or culturally bound application. Confessional traditions agree that all Scripture, including the creation account, is useful for reproof and correction (2 Tim. 3:16), which includes specific applications to problems that are limited to situations and culturally bound issues. Therefore, any assumption that a citation of the creation account must indicate a transcendent norm is a problematic presupposition.

Both Jesus and Paul believed that the biblical account of the creation of humanity as male and female conveys transcendent norms about gender, but Paul also cited it to support his argument for veiling in 1 Corinthians 11:3–16, which is a culturally bound application.[2] It is a logical fallacy to suggest that transcendent norms or universal premises can be used only to support normative or universal conclusions. A biblical understanding of creation may be applied to specific situations involving specific individuals, be embedded in a dialogue, address problematic theology of practice in a Pauline church, or critique the Second Temple or Greco-Roman culture.

Here’s the best bit.

In addition, this erroneous hermeneutical restriction of citations or allusions to the creation account to transcendent norms is inconsistent with the best evangelical hermeneutic and homiletic traditions which attempt to find relevant, fresh, and specific applications of scriptural norms for their contexts in every sermon.

I couldn’t agree more. I don’t believe Paul mentions Adam and Eve to permanently and universally ground the prohibition in 1 Timothy 2:12 in creation. (More on this here.) I also don’t believe Paul taught an idea of male leadership over women in 1 Corinthians 11:2–16 or that he grounded this idea in creation.

Gender roles are not mentioned in Genesis 1 or 2. Rather the first two chapters of Genesis show us that the first man and woman were equal and perfectly compatible. Compatibility, mutuality, and unity among Jesus-followers was what Paul wanted for the church and for Christian marriage, not hierarchies or castes or inflexible gender roles.


[1] For example, Mary Kassian, Women, Creation and the Fall  (Westchester, Il: Crossway Books, 1990), 13; and Douglas Moo, “What Does It Mean Not to Teach or Have Authority Over Men?,” in Recovering Biblical Manhood & Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism, ed. John Piper and Wayne Grudem (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1991), 177 & 178. Westfall provides the example of Thomas R. Schreiner, Paul, Apostle of God’s Glory in Christ: A Pauline Theology (Downers Grove IL: Intervarsity, 2001), 408–409.

[2] I think Paul’s concern in 1 Corinthians 11:2–16 is the hairstyles of the men and women praying and prophesying. See my article, 1 Corinthians 11:2–16, in a Nutshell.

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Explore more

The Significance of the Created Order, in a Nutshell
The Complementarian Concept of the Created Order 
Do women have a special obligation to be helpers?
1 Timothy 2:12, the Created Order, and Bible Women who Guided Men 
Women, Eve and Deception
Is Adam solely responsible for the first sin?
Galatians 3:28: Our Identity in Christ and in the Church
Gender Division Divides in the Church

4 thoughts on “Are Gender Roles Rooted in Creation?

  1. The biggest argument against male headship, patriarchy, biblical roles, or whatever you want to call it, is that Jesus never once referred to it. Jesus gave no indication he was sharing his headship with husbands. Nowhere did he say that husbands were to be over their wives in spiritual or household matters. Nor did Jesus ever say that wives were to submit to their husbands in either spiritual or household matters. In fact, the 4 women Jesus gave the most important messages to were not married (unknown if the Gentile woman with the sick daughter was married). They are: Mary of Bethany who he told could sit at his feet alongside the men; the woman at the well who was told that the Christ she was looking for had arrived; the Gentile woman who was told that Jesus had come for the Gentiles also; Mary at the tomb who was told to “go and tell.” In fact, Jesus established clearly that the Samaritan woman did not have a husband. These women did not wait for instruction or permission from a husband.

    1. Great points, Shirley!

  2. And then there was the woman caught in adultery. Jesus didn’t leave her to the Pharisees. He didn’t ask if she had a husband. He simply told her, directly, “Neither do I condem you, go and leave your life of sin.”
    Jesus always spoke directly to women. He never used the men as a go-between, as some men insist on being in our churches and marriages.

    1. That’s a lovely example, Nancy.

      “In contrast to what Complementarians believe, the Bible contains several accounts where God bypassed husbands and male guardians and spoke to women directly with messages of vital significance. Where God did not speak personally, he sent angels. . . . [There are plenty of examples of] Bible women whom God entrusted with spiritual authority–women who acted without the permission or protection of men.” (From Bible Women with Spiritual Authority.)

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