Roles – Construct vs Command

Genesis 1:27 “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” (ESV)

Anyone who has spent time researching the Myers-Briggs personality typing system will know that the life of the xNTP types revolves around the question “why?”. To the xNTP, tradition and convention are, on their own, utterly inadequate at providing justification; no number of years of history is sufficient without a reason that is applicable in the present. I am a fairly archetypal xNTP (probably ENTP, but my E/I has proven difficult to determine), and have a strong distaste for the arbitrary. As irrelevant as my personality type may seem to a discussion on gender roles, I begin here for a reason. A large proportion of the roles and conventions taken for granted in society are entirely arbitrary, justified by nothing more than tradition (I am yet to find someone who can explain why a piece of material tied in a particular style of knot around a man’s neck should, objectively, be considered a sign of formality); this is an endless source of frustration to me. So, when it comes to the suggestion that there are fixed, defined gender roles, I am not a witness biased in their favour; I could not even be described as a neutral witness. Due to my personality, I am very much a hostile witness. Nevertheless, as a Christian who strives to place myself under the authority of God’s Word, I find myself persuaded that gender roles are very much part of how we are commanded to live, not merely a construct of society.

Objections to gender roles come from both within and without the Church. Objections from outside of the Church come from a number of directions. For some, it is the traditional nature of the roles that creates the objection. Teaching that men have inherent authority over women, however broad or narrow the scope of that authority may be, is thought to be simply unacceptable. In Part 1 of this mini-series, I addressed some of these objections and why I do not find them persuasive within a Christian context. For others, the problem is bigger; any difference in roles, however small, constitutes an unacceptable inequality between men and women. My response to this objection will come in Part 4. Some Christians find themselves persuaded by these arguments alone; however, some Christians base their objections primarily upon either insufficient Biblical evidence in favour of or sufficient Biblical evidence against gender roles. It is disagreement from this direction that I intend to respond to in this post.

It cannot be disputed that the commands given in the Bible, in both the Old Testament and the New, differ in places for men and women. A number of Old Testament laws treated men and women differently (e.g. the purification period after giving birth, Leviticus 12:1-5); the New Testament epistle writers also distinguished between men and women when giving commands (e.g. marital roles in Ephesians 5:22-33). Regardless of how one believes these commands should be applied today, it is clear that that the differences in commands were very much valid for the original audiences of the Biblical texts. I believe that this places the burden of proof upon those who wish to advocate for a completely egalitarian approach; to adopt egalitarianism, it must first be demonstrated that the Biblical distinctions between male and female are either purely cultural or no longer relevant today.

If God is the God of the egalitarians, he certainly made some rather perplexing choices throughout Biblical history. I have often wondered why it is that God chose circumcision as the sign of his covenant with Abraham. It is, after all, a sign that inevitably creates a distinction between the sexes; the outward, permanent sign of the covenant was exclusive to males. Cultural accommodation (God, in his commands, modifying familiar systems rather than completely overwriting them) is an answer often used to explain gender distinctions in the law, but it fails to explain the institution of circumcision. God could have chosen any number of symbols of the covenant that would have fitted within the culture of the time; circumcision was not in any way necessary to familiarise the covenant with the culture of Abraham. Despite this, however, God seems to have been completely okay with choosing a symbol that would leave a permanent, but seemingly unnecessary, distinction between the males and females of his covenant.
(As a brief aside, I have encountered an interesting argument put forward that the longer purification period for female children [Leviticus 12:1-5] was given in lieu of circumcision, and that the monthly cycle between cleanness and uncleanness due to menstruation [Leviticus 15:19-30] may even have been given as a counterpart to that symbol of uncleanness becoming clean that is circumcision [Romans 2:25-29]. This makes the very appealing case that God did not leave women without a sign of their covenant participation, but it was a very different sign to the one he gave men. Regardless of whether this is true, circumcision remains a sign that draws a distinction between men and women.)

It has also been argued that the Biblical distinction in gender roles is a result of the Fall, not part of the original, very good, creation. When stating the consequence that the Fall would have for Eve, God says that, “Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you” (Genesis 3:16b, ESV). This seems to place male headship as being part of the curse, not part of the original creation. I intend to address this argument more completely in a subsequent post (either Part 4 or a possible Part 5 of this series); the intent of this post is to demonstrate that there is a Biblical difference between men and women, not all the details of how they are different. More relevant, then, is the creation account prior to the Fall. God, in creating mankind, once again acts rather oddly for an egalitarian deity. Rather than creating two humans to begin with, he simply creates Adam (Genesis 2:5-7). Perhaps the argument could be made that this was done to demonstrate unity, such that Adam could later say “this at last is the bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” (Genesis 2:23b, ESV). If this were the case, however, it would be expected that man and woman would be evenly split; the neither of man or wife would be associated with the original human, but both would carry the mantle equally. Nevertheless, God once again chooses an approach that distinguishes between man and woman; Eve is created from a single rib taken out of Adam, leaving Adam as the indisputable source from which Eve subsequently came (Genesis 2:21-22). Even if the beginning of Genesis falls into the genre of creation myth and not history (I personally believe it is the latter), God’s choice to reveal himself through such a story shows that he draws distinction between men and women. In Genesis 2:18, God uses the term “helper” to describe the role of the woman he would create. The same Hebrew word is used elsewhere to describe God’s relationship to mankind; this is not a term for a role of lesser value, but it is a role that implies doing something different that the other cannot do alone. Gender distinctions, beyond those that are merely biological, existed from the very beginning.

In the New Testament, Paul discusses the relationship between the Fall and Christ. While doing so, Paul makes a rather interesting statement about the entrance of sin into the world; he attributes the entrance of sin into the world to Adam, comparable to Christ’s triumphant victory over sin (Romans 5:12-21). This is interesting because, as many have pointed out, the sin of Eve predated the sin of Adam, and yet it is Adam through whom death entered the world. Adam, in Romans 5:14, is referred to as a “type of the one who was to come” (ESV); Adam’s role in bringing death prefigures Christ’s role in defeating it. Christ’s defeat of death came as the representative of the body of people he was to save; debates about the mechanics of predestination and election aside, in Ephesians 1, Paul tells us that God “predestined us for adoption through Jesus Christ” (ESV, emphasis added). If Adam truly was a type of Christ, through whom death entered the world, there must have been a difference between his sin and Eve’s. It was not the first sin that brought death, but the sin of Adam. This suggests a fundamental difference between the role of Adam and the role of Eve, a difference that the egalitarians struggle to resolve. It is true that using Romans 5:12-21 to conclude that the male’s role incorporates authority is potentially stretching Paul’s analogy too far; all that is necessarily concluded is that the way death entered the world through Adam parallels the way it was defeated through Christ, entailing representation, but not headship. Once again though, in this post my aim is simply to show there is a difference; Romans 5:12-21 strongly suggests that there was a difference in the consequence of the sins of Adam and Eve, based on their respective roles.

Any treatment of gender roles would be incomplete without mentioning Galatians 3:28. This was addressed in my first post in this series; in context, Galatians 3:28 states that there is no difference in the status of men and women as heirs to the promises of God. Nevertheless, the lack of distinction between master and slave in Galatians 3:28 does not prevent Paul from issuing distinct commands to the two elsewhere; equal status before God does not entail identical roles or commands in this life.

It seems clear that there is a Biblical distinction between men and women. Because of how alien this concept is to the mindset of the Western world, the natural response is to ask why there needs to be such a distinction. Of course, one only has to read Job 38 to be reminded that we, as finite human beings, don’t always get all the answers. We are not left without any answers at all – Ephesians 5:22-33 teaches that the distinction in marital roles points towards the relationship between Christ and the Church – but there are plenty of differences left unexplained. Through God’s Word, he has revealed that there is a fundamental difference between the roles of men and women; he has not always revealed why, but in that we trust that the one who laid the foundation of the earth knew what he was doing when he created man and woman in his image to fill it.

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2 thoughts on “Roles – Construct vs Command”

  1. Hmmm, it is nice that you are trying to tackle this issue. As a feminist woman, I am curious to see where this would go. From the feminist perspective as I try to understand it, although this doesn’t count for all, saying women wish to be identical is not exactly what it is about. It is more about recognition and having the same rights and privileges. Or removing societal views about gender roles. Certainly some of the traditional views for a man or a woman have had bad ramifications for the individuals who not not want to be placed in them such as a woman wanting to pursue a career or a man wanting to be a stay at home dad. I certainly find some parts of references to women in the bible and their roles quite misogynistic and stereotypical. A common theme of a barren woman wishing for a son, a woman whose husband has multiple concubines, a woman acting with all her pious femininity to tame a king. This constant theme that female patience, submissiveness and the role of mother is where they belong and will change things. Just my two cents.

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    1. Thanks for commenting – you’re the first to do so on this blog 🙂 As a complementarian Christian, gender roles are slightly daunting to tackle in an open forum like the internet. I know the answers that have worked in conversations with friends, including those who would happily identify as feminist, but blogging can be a completely different kettle of fish.

      My wording might not have been sufficiently clear, but I did try to point out in the post that there are different reasons why people (particularly women) might object to the traditional gender roles. One is the particular details of those roles, which seems to be what you’re referring to in your comment. I have also met people (both men and women) who wouldn’t be happy with any objective role difference whatsoever, hence the reference to that perspective. In terms of the particular role differences, I’m not going to try to pretend that there hasn’t been a lot of damage under the guise of men being men and women being women. As I mention in my post on Gender & Power, the power given to men has been greatly abused to control women rather than work for their benefit. Shame has also been employed as a powerfully destructive tool to force people to conform, which is, quite frankly, disgusting. On top of that, the role given to women has been treated as less valuable, almost disposable, instead of that role being valued as equally essential as anything men do. I’d also argue that, somewhere along the line, people got rather confused about what exactly is involved in Biblical masculinity/femininity and what is cultural masculinity/femininity.

      I originally planned for this series to have four posts, concluding with one final post on equality of value versus equality of role while discussing what the Biblical roles are, but I’m finding myself drawn to extend it to five or six parts, with one or two posts specifically regarding what the Bible actually does say about gender roles. Because a) I have a fair bit of research to do between now and then and b) I do plan to address the issue in a future post, I won’t be going into great depth here regarding everything entailed in Biblical masculinity and femininity. Considering the issues you raise, yes, there are negative implications for those who want to stray outside of certain boundaries. This is true of a lot of what the Bible teaches, mind you; the Biblical picture is one of a creation designed with certain boundaries that often are, but weren’t meant to, be crossed. A man who wants to adopt a role in which he does not provide for his family is stepping outside of those boundaries; a woman who wants to pursue a career at a cost to her children is also doing so. Yes, there are people who naturally feel drawn to step outside of those boundaries; every single person is drawn to step outside at least some of the boundaries in God’s law, and no faithful Christian lives a life without denying some of his/her inclinations to step outside.

      Looking at some of your more specific examples, the barren woman wishing for a son is a common theme in the Old Testament. In the Old Testament, the Jewish mindset saw one’s primary means of obtaining a legacy as having children (particularly sons, as daughters could end up married into another family). It’s not that this was a perfectly correct mindset theologically – after all, some of the prophets gave up families as a strong message to their audience that their hope for a legacy was in God alone – but it certainly had a strong hold culturally. It’s natural that, in such a culture, a barren woman would desperately want a son. A darker side was that, in polygamous relationships, husbands would often favour the wife who gave them sons (although, interestingly, this is often inverted among God’s chosen people). Speaking of polygamous relationships, often the first appearance of something in the Bible gives a strong indication of how it will end up. In the case of polygamy, the first recorded case is in Genesis 4, where we meet of a delightful chap by the name of Lamech. In verse 23, he boasts about being a killer. This paints the beginning of recorded polygamy in an interesting light. It was certainly permitted under Old Testament law – alongside things like divorce, which God hates – but that doesn’t mean that it is within the designed boundaries for mankind. When Jesus talks about marriage, in the process of condemning divorce, he refers to marriage as being between one man and one woman, implying that monogamy was the design. As for the theme of female submissiveness, well, that’s absolutely there. I mention in my Gender and Power post that there is a dramatic difference between submission and power as seen by Christianity and submission and power as seen by mainstream Western culture. When power is used in line with the expectations of Western culture, enforced submission is just about the most dangerous position someone could possibly be in; because this is how men have often used their power over women throughout history, that danger is far from theoretical. I could go back over that entire post here, but long story short, Christianity sees the way power should be used entirely differently, and thus submission is not a lesser role, just a different one. However, submission is only safe when it sits within the right understanding of power, and thus Christian teaching on gender roles has little applicability beyond Christianity itself.

      Hopefully I’m able to address some of your questions in subsequent posts – I’d certainly be interested to hear more from you as I work through the series. If there are any points in particular that you’d like me to hit, feel free to ask 🙂

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