The Biblical record is univocal in considering essential differences between man and woman.
Genesis 2:20 describes an incompleteness in creation when there was no helper (Heb. ezer) found suitable for Adam. The statement immediately following the identification of the problem begins with the vav prefixing a verb: “and so He, Yahweh Elohim, caused…” What takes place in 2:21-25 is God’s direct resolution of the identified incompleteness: the creation of woman. Gender distinction is present as part of God’s design, and the two genders complement one another. God created the woman from man (2:22-23), and because God created her she has great value to Him (bearing also the image of God, as in 1:27). The broad design is that the two genders complement each other in unity, becoming one flesh (2:24). She is, at her core, designed to be a helper to man, and by implication man is incomplete without that helper. In the overall design, men and women do not function independently. Certainly there are specific exceptions in which God has provided a gift of celibacy, if you will, for some men and women to fulfill His plans for them without the marital union (e.g., 1 Cor 7).
How does gender identity by God’s design impact men and women outside of the scope of the marital union?
First, Paul is clear to communicate that there is no positional distinction between man and woman – they are of equal value in the body of Christ: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28). Here Paul emphasizes the positional equality of man and woman in the universal church. He does not deny differences between the two sexes, just like he does not deny the existence of different ethnicities or different socio-economic offices. He is adamant, though, that within the context of the body of Christ these differences have no relevance with respect to position. They do have implication in practice, hence the different directions given for slaves and free, for Jews and gentiles (e.g., Acts 15), and yes, even for male and female.
In 1 Timothy 2:8-10, for example, Paul introduces us to the distinctly different practical roles of men and women within the body of Christ. Men are to conduct themselves with prayer and peace (1 Tim 2:8), whereas women are to do so with modesty and good works (2:9-10). These differences are not jarring, but at first glance, the statement that follows is: “But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet” (2:12). Why would there be such a dramatic distinction in practice?
Let’s look at the ontological “is” in order to understand the ethical “ought.” Paul has already communicated clearly that there is total equality in the body of Christ, and Peter echoed that in his assertion that woman is worthy of honor as a fellow heir of grace with the man (1 Pet 3:7). The issue is not that there is some innate inequality or superiority of one sex over the other. Those that assert, for example, that the female is the weaker sex, based on 1 Peter 3:7 fail to recognize that the passage does not say she is weaker, just that the husband is to live with her in an understanding way “as with a weaker vessel.” She is to be treated with gentleness, but that ethical mandate for man to fulfill is not based on an ontological need on the woman’s part, but rather on God’s desire that she be honored by the man. There are at least several revealed reasons that the woman is important to God and worthy of honor: (1) He imbued her with His image as well, (2) He created her deliberately and with purpose, (3) she portrays a role that is important to God, and (4) she is a co-heir of the grace of life.
Ephesians 5:25-27 explains that in the marital relationship the woman plays the role of the church, whom Christ loved and for whom He gave Himself up, ultimately so that she might be perfected. She should respond to His love by honoring her husband and aligning herself under his headship, as he portrays the role of Christ as head over the church (5:23). In 5:25-27, the husband is called upon to love his wife, following Christ’s example of complete self-sacrifice for the well-being of the woman. These are lofty imperatives, and ultimately they are the expected manifestations within a marital context for “being subject to one another in the fear of Christ” (5:21).
In short, the concepts of subjection and headship have nothing to do with ontological inequality. On the contrary, they are rooted in divinely appointed aesthetic principles that ultimately serve the purpose of God’s glory. In practice, the moment they become oppressive is the moment His design has been abandoned and traded for something destructive. He intends the design for beauty and for mutual benefit and blessing. Often in failing to understand His design we apply something else altogether – something ugly, harmful, and more curse than blessing.
Back to 1 Timothy 2:8-10. Paul had already established a few years earlier the concept of headship (Ephesians was written around five years prior to 1 Timothy), and his earliest discussion of distinct gender roles was related specifically to the application of specific spiritual gifts (1 Cor 14). So if we are reading the Bible in chronological order (as it is very helpful to do), that principle is neither new nor disturbing. One other important observation regarding the context of Paul’s directive gives us insight. Paul identifies the purpose of his letter as “so that you will know how one ought to conduct himself in the household of God, which is the church of the living God…”(1 Tim 3:15). It is significant that Paul uses the term oikos (household) as synonymous with ekklesia (assembly). When Paul refers generally to the body of Christ, he is referring to a spiritual organism comprised of many members (as in Rom 12:5, 1 Cor 6:27, and Eph 3:6, etc.). When he refers to the ekklesia, he is referring to those members coming together and interacting (Rom 16:1, 16, 1 Cor 1:2, 11:16, Gal 1:2, etc.). Note, for example, how the author of Hebrews challenges believers not to forsake or abandon coming together (episunagogen). There are significant practical implications for believers coming together in assembly.
In 1 Timothy, Paul is calling on believers to function in specific ways within the context of body life. He is not advocating, for example, that elders in the church be elders in society or political government (nor is he prohibiting that). Paul is talking about leadership within the formal assembling of the churches as churches. Likewise, he is not prohibiting women from having positions of leadership or authority in society – in fact, he makes no comment on socio-political leadership at all.
In justifying male leadership within the home and the church, Paul builds on groundwork previously laid (as in Galatians and Ephesians). In 1 Timothy 2 he adds to that earlier corpus affirming positional equality by appealing to the order of creation (2:13) and the account of the Fall (2:14). The order of creation reflects a gender based difference in purpose (with woman designed to help man), and the events leading up to the Fall included Eve’s being deceived and falling into transgression. It is worth noting here that in 2:15 Paul is not referencing deliverance for women in general. The verb he uses is singular (sothesetai), and references the woman in 2:14, which is Eve.
One must also exercise caution here, as it is not unprecedented to conclude that Paul is suggesting that because Eve transgressed first, women are under authority and cannot teach God’s word at all. That view presents submission as a type of punishment and prohibition on teaching as a practical result of the order of transgression. However, that is not an accurate assessment of Paul’s statement here. Recall that it was Adam’s sin that was accounted to all humanity, not Eve’s (Rom 5:12-19). Further, the concept of submission is applied to all believers not just to women. All believers are to submit to each other (Eph 5:21) – the woman does so by honoring her husband, and the husband does so by loving his wife (Eph 5:21-33). The gender differences in practice are related not to the results of man’s and woman’s deeds, but rather to God’s. The roles of man and woman in marriage are metaphors for the relationship of Christ and the church, and the roles of man and women in the assemblies are metaphors for the headship of Christ applied in the body of Christ (see 1 Cor 11).
That Paul would seek for the churches to maintain these aesthetics in practice makes perfect sense in light of their significance to God. He ordained these concepts and they should be reflected in Christian marriages and in the practice of the churches (1 Cor 11:16, 14:34, etc.). Yet once again, we see these metaphors carried out in marriage and in the churches, and not necessarily presented as mandates for other societal contexts.
While gender roles in marriage and in the churches are clearly defined, there are contexts where it is perfectly appropriate for women to lead, teach God’s word, and exercise authority. There is Biblical precedent for women in these types of roles. Luke recognizes that at Thessalonica there were leading women (gunaikon te ton proton) who were persuaded to join Paul and Silas (Acts 17:4). Paul mandates that older women are to be “teaching what is good” (kalodidaskalous, Tit 2:3) – Biblical truth – with the purpose that younger women understand Biblical design for their family relationships, so that the word of God may be honored. In Acts 19:24-28 Priscilla participated with Aquilla in “explain[ing] the way of God more accurately.”
Some suggest that Junia (or Junias) is identified as an apostle in Romans 16:7. While it is certainly possible that Junia was a women, neither Junia nor Andronicus are called apostles. They are identified as prominent among the apostles (episemoi en tois apostolois). The preposition en modifies the adjective episemoi. Their prominence was in or among the apostles. Paul is not here claiming that they are apostles. Nonetheless, it is evident that Paul had no problem honoring women in the church, recognizing their significant roles.
Another passage of similar context in restricting the speech of women is 1 Corinthians 14:34 Paul notes that “the women are to keep silent in the churches…” Notice it is the women, not all women. What women? These women have husbands (14:35). Further, Paul restricts the speaking (laleo) of these women, specifically in the context of exercising the gifts of prophecy and tongues (14:27, 29), noting that it is not permitted for women to speak in the churches plural, meaning local formal assemblies of believers. Instead of speaking in these contexts, women are to subject themselves.
In justifying this silence/subjection mandate, Paul refers to another standard: “just as the law also says” – notice the definite article ho precedes law (nomos), indicating it is a specific law. What law? In the context immediately preceding, Paul explains the purpose of tongues as connected to Isaiah 28:11, “by other tongues and by others’ lips I will speak to this people…” In this context, Paul refers to OT prophecy as the law, and unless he has some other OT passage in mind (if he does, he does not specify any other passage in the remainder of ch. 14), it appears that he is connecting the importance of women’s silence in the context of tongues and prophecy to the Isaiah passage. It is also possible that Paul is referring to the creation account as he does directly in 1 Timothy 2:13, but it is difficult to be dogmatic, because Paul simply doesn’t explain his reference to the law in 1 Corinthians 14:34.
In either case, Paul’s 1 Timothy 2:13-15 appeal to creation and the fall demonstrates aesthetic reasons for men and women to function as Paul prescribes. The two genders are playing parts in a grand drama, and the actors ought to understand the significance of their roles by understanding the broader context of what the Bible reveals. In light of these passages, here are a few highlights of gender distinctions and their practical implications:
- Man and woman bear the image of God.
- There is ontological equality between man and woman.
- Man and woman play distinct roles in the created order.
- Before the fall, man and woman were to rule and subdue. Eve was specifically created to be a helper to Adam.
- After the fall, that dominion mandate was redacted, and they were simply to be fruitful and multiply. There is no indication that Eve’s role (as helper) changed after the fall.
- In the body of Christ there is no positional advantage of man over woman, or of woman over man.
- Man and woman play distinct roles in the body of Christ.
- The practices of man and women are shaped and even restricted by these roles.
- Men are to be subject in the fear of Christ, to illustrate Christ’s love and headship – loving with self-sacrifice for the woman’s good, and leading as prescribed in the home and in the church.
- Women are to be subject in the fear of Christ, to illustrate the church’s response by honoring leadership in the home and in the church.
It is evident that there is broad freedom for both men and women in the home and in the church, but there are some revealed guidelines and those guidelines are not artificial, nor are they simply cultural. Roles and their implications matter to God. He was very deliberate in ensuring ontological equality, and He was equally deliberate in creating aesthetically important distinctions. Our behavior ought to reflect a subjection to Him and a willingness to abide by our Creator’s designs.