Christians for Biblical Equality

The most important text on the relationship of the sexes in the whole Bible, Genesis 1-3.

In discussing what the Bible teaches on men and women no text in the whole Bible is more important than Genesis chapters 1–3. Here God creates man and woman as the apex of his creative work and sets them in an idyllic world where everything is good. Tragically, however, the Devil enters and both the man and the woman fall into sin and as a consequence are banished from the Garden. All Christian theologians see this story as foundational to the whole Bible. It tells us that God made the world ‘good’, but the sin of man and woman destroyed their good relationship with God, each other and with the creation itself. It thus explains why a saviour and a ‘new creation’ are needed. The story is given in two forms. In Genesis chapter one in grand poetic language God creates everything in six days with the apex of his creative work coming in the creation of man and woman who are said to be ‘made in God’s image and likeness’. Chapters 2-3 give a different account of the beginning, this time in picturesque narrative form with a number of scenes. In the so called ‘second creation story’, after the earth is created Adam appears first and then God provides for him water, vegetation, animals and a partner in woman.

Because the creation stories are absolutely fundamental to all of Christian theology in general and all Christian thinking about the sexes in particular there is no more important text to study. This is where we should begin because this is where the Bible begins. What God puts first, we should put first.

The hierarchical-complementarian interpretation of Genesis 1-3.

In Gen 1:27-28 man and women are created in God’s image and likeness. They are thus equal before God – equal in dignity and equal in salvation – ‘spiritually equal’.

However, Genesis 2-3 adds that woman was

  • created second which means she is second in rank;
  • Adam named the animals not the woman and this shows he was in charge of the Garden from the beginning;
  • Eve was created as man’s ‘helper’ which means assistant
  • and it was Eve who succumbed to the devil’s temptation. This indicates that women in general are more prone to sin and error and thus need man’s protection and guidance.

On this basis they argue that in creation before the Fall God set the woman under the man. This hierarchical social ordering of the sexes is, they tell us, the God-given ideal which can never change. It is thus pleasing to God when Christians insist that men should be in charge.

The egalitarian-complementarian interpretation of Genesis 1-3

The majority of contemporary scholarly commentaries on Genesis written in the last thirty years1 and Pope John Paul II2  categorically reject the interpretation given above. The Pope’s interpretation, grounded on the best of Catholic biblical scholarship, is binding on the one billion Catholics. This means that what follows is not an idiosyncratic egalitarian reading of Genesis 1–3 but in broad terms what the vast majority of contemporary scholarly commentators conclude and what all Roman Catholic theologians teach.
First, Gen.1:26-28 is taken as the primary and foundational comment on the sexes in the whole Bible. Here we are told four highly significant things:

  1. Man and woman are alike made in the image and likeness of God. They are equal in dignity and status. This means that any denial, subtle or otherwise, of the fundamental equality of all human beings on the basis of sexual identity, race, age, social status, caste or anything else, is a denial of the what the Bible says first of all about man and woman.  (The text is not speaking merely of ‘spiritual equality.)
  2. To both man and woman alike is given the command to rule over God’s world. In other words, to man and woman God gives authority over all creation. They are joint rulers, one does not rule over the other.
  3. They are told to be fruitful and multiply. The family mandate is given alike to the man and the woman.
  4. Nevertheless one is man and one is woman. Sexual differentiation is one of God’s good gifts. The creating of humanity in two sexes implies that the two sexes complement each other. Men and women together complete what it means to be human.

Genesis 2-3

In the so called ‘second creation story’, a completely different picture of God’s creative work is given in more symbolic and picturesque style. In this the solitary Adam finds himself in an idyllic garden where there are no plants or animals and step by step God supplies what he needs. I use the pronoun ‘he’ but Adam at this point is not fully man in distinction to woman because man can only be man/the male in distinction to woman/the female when man and woman both exist. God sees that Adam alone is help-less, incomplete, and brings the animals before him. He names them but none of them are suitable partners. God then creates the woman as his perfect “partner’, one other than him but his counterpart. Only at this point is man, man in distinction to woman, and woman woman, in distinction to man.

It is hard to find anything in this chapter that might suggest that in contrast to Genesis chapter 1 that here woman is set under man, the man has ‘headship, but men living in a patriarchal context managed to do this. Some of their ingenious arguments nowadays make most of us smile and all of them have been refuted by biblical scholars but the more imaginative ones still get a good hearing in hierarchical-complementarian literature. I evaluate the four most often heard today, Philip Payne (Man and Woman in Christ, 2009) lists and dismisses eleven such arguments.

1.The naming of the animals. First we are told that Adam’s naming of the animals, apart from the woman, indicates that the man is uniquely ‘head over’ creation. This is unconvincing. In Genesis chapter 1, the man and the woman standing side by side are given dominion and rule over the animals. What is more, naming in the OT does not usually indicate authority over. A name is most commonly given to signify something about the person. Thus Jacob is given his name because he grabbed his twin brother’s heel and his name testifies to this fact. If name giving does indicate ‘authority over’, it is anomalous that women most commonly name children in the OT.

2. Woman is created second. Next it is claimed that the fact that woman was created second clearly shows she is second in rank, or as some say today using modern jargon, she is ‘role differentiated’. However ‘created second’ does not indicate subordination. Man and woman are created last in Genesis chapter 1 and yet they stand at the apex of God’s creative work. Man is created after the earth in Genesis chapter 2 yet he is set over it. Often what is created second is superior, such as in the case of a second model of something. So the old joke, ‘God created Adam. Took one look at him and said. “I can do better than this”, and created Eve’. Nothing in the text of Genesis indicates created second means subordinate. What is more, nothing in the NT dictates that created second means subordinate. Paul once mentions the fact that woman was created second (1 Tim 2:13) but what he meant by this comment is to be found in the literary context in which he made this comment – i.e. in First Epistle to Timothy. In this epistle Paul is countering false teaching in which women are involved. In correcting women who are teaching in error and in a domineering way Paul tells them to desist and he gives two ad hominem reasons. The kind of teaching forbidden is defined by the verb authentein which means to put oneself first without the right to do so; ‘to usurp authority’. In a sharp tone Paul first says to these women Adam was created first. This text does not tell us that created second means second in rank, let alone that Genesis 2 is teaching this.

3. Woman was created as man’s helper. Next we are told that in calling the woman man’s helper (Gen. 2:18) the Bible clearly shows God made woman as man’s assistant, his subordinate helper. However, the Hebrew word ezer, often translated into English as ‘helper’, does not imply a subordinate helper, any more than the English translation does. Parents frequently ‘help’ their children. The Hebrew word ezer in fact actually suggests a superior helper. In the OT it speaks 17 times of God as the helper of his people and three times of armies coming to help those under siege. The text itself, however, tells us that the helper or partner God provides for man is not a superior or a subordinate helper. She is his ‘equal’ helper, or better, his ‘equal partner’. The Hebrew word kenego that qualifies ezer defines the helper as one corresponding to him, a ‘partner’.

4. Women are more easily led into sin and thus need male leadership.  Lastly we mention the oft heard argument that the Devil came first to the woman because he recognized that women are more easily deceived and more prone to sin, and thus needing man’s supervision. Given the premise that women are a subordinate class this seems an understandable deduction for men to make but nothing in the text suggests this interpretation. Indeed, Gen. 1:26-28 that speaks of man and woman alike made in the image of God and alike given dominion over the earth makes it most unlikely. An equally plausible deduction would be that the Devil reasoned, ‘If I can deceive the woman, the man will be a pushover’. What seems to partly explain this mute detail in the story is that in this narrative with several scenes, the writer keeps changing the sequence in which God, Adam, Eve and the Devil come to speak or act. This suggests that nothing at all is to be deduced from who is mentioned first or last in any scene.

Yes, in 1 Timothy 2:14 Paul gives a second reason why women should not teach in an authentein way. He says to them, remember it was Eve who the Devil deceived, not Adam.  The implication being, it is you women who have been deceived. Paul is not teaching that all women are more prone to sin and deception or that Adam is exonerated from responsibility for the Fall. Elsewhere Paul makes him primarily responsible (Rom 5:12-17, 1 Cor. 15:21-22).  This again is an ad hominem argument, not weighty theology.

The consequences of the Fall for man and woman.

So far we have found no evidence at all to indicate that man was set over woman in the Garden before the fall and much to the contrary. The text itself, in contrast to androcentric interpretations, would seem to teach the equality of the sexes, their sexual differentiation as man and woman, and their complementarity. What follows after the man and the woman disobey God confirms this conclusion.

In scene five (Gen. 3:8-13) of this two chapter second creation narrative, after the man and the woman have sinned, God is depicted as ‘walking in the garden’ in the evening (3:8). On hearing his coming the man and the woman 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 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.

In Genesis. 3:14-21 God’s response to the three principle 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 (v 17), the woman will ‘labour’ in childbirth which will cause her pain and yet she will desire intimacy with her husband who for his part will want to rule over her (v16).

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. It is thus something Christians should oppose as sinful.

To conclude this section let me stress that what God announces as the consequences of the sin of man and woman does not prescribe what has to be – an inevitable law of cause and effect that binds humans into an oppressive pattern of living. Men may strive to eradicate the weeds and to find ways of making work more rewarding and woman may seek ways to alleviate the pain involved in childbirth. Given that we humans can seek to make work lighter and childbirth easier it follows that we can also work to make the fallen male-female relationship more equal. Man is not bound to rule over the woman. He can choose to behave in another way.

Indeed, the New Testament indicates great possibilities for the Christian to realize the ideal co-equal relationships of the sexes given in creation by the transforming work of Christ on the cross that broke the power of the fall and the transforming presence of the Holy Spirit. St Paul speaks of Christ as the second Adam who defeated sin and death and on the cross and resurrection inaugurating a ‘new creation’ where ‘everything old has passed away and everything has become new’ (2 Cor. 5:17). The new creation ethic has at its heart agape-love which involves self-giving, humble service, and mutual submission. It is these virtues, Paul insists, that should characterize Christian marriage (Eph. 5:21-33).


Yes, women do suffer the consequences of the Fall and are thus often discriminated against, devalued and sometimes abused. However, Genesis 1-3 never depicts the subordination of women as the creation ideal. The rule of the man over the woman is an aberration that detracts and mars the male-female relationship and is never God’s perfect will. This means that the ideal for which we Christians should strive is gender equality which shows itself in marriage in loving, mutual subordination, in the church by affirming that God bestows gifts of leadership on men and women, and in the world by a concern to see women treated justly, with the dignity that God has bestowed on them and given full equality of consideration.

1 For scholarly support of what follows see, W. Brueggemann, Genesis: A Bible Commentary for Teachers and Preachers (Atlanta, John Knox, 1982) andR. S. Hess, ‘Equality with Innocence: Genesis 1-3’, in R. W. Pierce and R. M. Groothuis, eds, Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity without Hierarchy (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2005).

2 Mulieris Dignitatem: On the Dignity of Women (Homebush, St Pauls. 1988)