4 Biblical Perspectives on Women and Gender Roles

Updated May 21, 2024
4 Biblical Perspectives on Women and Gender Roles

While feminism is well represented within Christianity, feminists have frequently argued that the Bible relegates women to second-class status. Yet biblical teaching on women is not only defensible but is based on absolute truth.

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Arguably, feminism is the most influential cultural development in Western civilization of the twentieth century. In general, feminists hold that women must not only be regarded as “equal” in dignity and worth but also must be “equal” in opportunity to participate in every institution of human society at every level. While feminism is well represented within Christianity, feminists have frequently argued that the Bible relegates women to second-class status. Yet biblical teaching on women is not only defensible but is based on absolute truth. Far from an embarrassment to the Christian faith, the biblical view of women properly understood is one of Christianity’s greatest assets.

Is God Male?

How one views God has profound ramifications for one’s outlook on life. Many people think that the Bible presents God as male, implying that women are inferior to men. But the Bible does not teach this.. The Old Testament explicitly denies that God is either male (Num. 26:9, using a Hebrew word referring to an adult male) or human (1 Sam. 15:29, using a word referring to human beings). The Bible reveals God to be an infinite Spirit whom the universe itself cannot contain (1 Kings 8:27; John 4:24; Acts 7:49; 17:24).

The Bible does give God masculine titles such as King and Father and uses masculine pronouns for God.. Referring to God as “Mother” and especially as she is without precedent in Scripture and intentionally evokes feminine associations. This was not done by the biblical authors since it would inevitably evoke images of God giving birth to the world and associate God with fertility cults. If we want to remain true to God’s self-revelation in Scripture, we should not use feminine titles or pronouns to refer to God.

Women and Creation

Some people assert that the Bible affirms that only men, not women, were made in God’s image. Yet right after God announces, “Let Us make man in our image, according to our likeness” (Gen. 1:26), the text tells us, “So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female he created them” (v. 27). In both of these verses the word translated “man” is ’adam, a Hebrew word which can mean “Adam” (the first man), “human being,” or “humanity.” In verse 26 ’adam clearly means “humanity” since after announcing his intention to create ‘adam, God says, “let them have dominion.” Verse 27 then makes it explicit that the ’ Adam who was created in God’s image includes both male and female.

That both men and women are created in God’s image confirms that God is not male. Nor is God both male and female. If this were the case, it would imply that the image of God is incomplete in any single human being. Some feminists have suggested this, but surely the example of Jesus, a single man, is enough to show that the image of God can be fully realized in a single human being — whether male or female.

Further, Genesis affirms that men and women are equal. Both were created in God’s image, both were given dominion over the earth and its creatures, and God spoke to and blessed both (Gen. 1:26-28). Even if their roles are differentiated, they are of equal worth. Both men and women are created primarily for relationship with God, and both are entrusted by God with stewardship of Creation.

The Creation of the Woman

Chapter 2 of Genesis elaborates on the creation of the man and the woman, revealing that the man was created first, followed by the woman, who was created from his rib. The account of the creation of woman is prefaced by God’s statement, “It is not good that man should be alone; I will make him a helper comparable to him” (Gen. 2:18).

There is considerable debate over the significance of the word “helper” (’ezer). Egalitarians point out that it is almost always used in the Old Testament with reference to God (e.g. Ex. 18:4; Deut. 33:7, 26, 29; Ps. 20:2; Hos. 13:9). The word occasionally refers to human beings as “helpers” who really cannot help (Is. 30:5; Ezek. 12:4). Egalitarians conclude that the word “helper” cannot mean an inferior or even a subordinate helper and thus that Genesis 2:18 means that women are equal partners with men.

But this conclusion goes too far. Several passages use the related verb ’azar (“to help”) to refer to supplementary or subordinate help (e.g. 2 Sam. 21:17; 1 Kings 1:7; 1 Chron. 12:1, 17, 18, 22; 2 Chron. 26:13). Context, not the word itself, determines whether the helper is an equal, subordinate, or superior.

Three clues in the context help (!) us understand what is meant by the term “helper.” First, immediately preceding this statement we are told that the man was placed “in the garden of Eden to tend and keep it” (v. 15). This implies that the woman was created at least in part to help the man fulfill the charge to steward of the earth and its creatures. One vital way in which she would help with that task was to bear children who would populate the earth (1:28), but nothing in the passage suggests that her role was limited to this.

Second, in Genesis 2:18, God says, “it is not good that man should be alone.” After the woman was created, the man’s response was to rejoice over the woman because she was “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” (v. 23), and the passage concludes by noting that the two became “one flesh” and “were both naked . . . and were not ashamed” (vv. 24, 25). This shows that the solution to man’s being “alone” was that he needed a companion who complimented him.

Third, the same word for “helper” is used in verse 20, which says that among the animals brought to the man “there was not found a helper comparable to him.” This statement shows that what the man lacked was a companion since it is doubtful that the animals were brought to him as candidates for helpers in tending the Garden! The emphasis here again is on the woman’s essential equality and compatibility with the man — her being “fit” for him (vv. 18, 20).

Though Genesis 2 seems to view woman as equal to the man, aspects of the passage do suggest that woman’s relationship to the man is in some respect a subordinate or supportive one. The apostle Paul points out that “… man is not from woman, but woman from man. Nor was man created for the woman, but woman for the man” (1 Cor. 11:8-9). Elsewhere Paul says that a woman should not exercise authority over a man because “Adam was formed first, then Eve” (1 Tim. 2:13).

Paul’s reasoning in these verses has been attacked as inconsistent. For example, it is claimed that 1 Timothy 2:13 argues that Adam had authority over Eve merely because he was created before Eve, yet animals were created before Adam, and they were placed under him (Gen. 1:20-25). But this misunderstands Paul’s point. The order in which two creatures of the same essential nature were created is evidence of the first creature’s priority in rank. That creatures of a lower order were created before Adam does not invalidate Paul’s point.

Similarly, 1 Corinthians 11:8-9 has been construed to base Adam’s authority over Eve merely on the fact that Eve was made from the substance of Adam, yet Adam was created from the dust of the ground and he was not subordinated to the earth (Gen. 2:7). This objection again misunderstands Paul’s argument. Eve was created from Adam and shared his nature (Gen. 2:23), whereas Adam did not have the same nature as the dust. Paul is reasoning that since Eve, a creature of the same nature as Adam, was taken from Adam specifically for the purpose of being his complement, Adam had a natural priority in relation to Eve.

The Fall of the Woman

Paul’s teaching on women also touched on the Fall of Adam and Eve: “And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived, fell into transgression” (1 Tim. 2:14). Paul is not here blaming the Fall on Eve. If anything, Paul held Adam, not Eve, primarily responsible for the entrance of sin into the world and contrasts his sin with the gift of righteousness which came by “the one Man, Jesus Christ” (Rom. 6:14-15). Paul draws the same contrast between the man Adam and the man Jesus Christ in 1 Cor. 15:21-22, 45. This does not mean that Eve was not responsible for her own actions, but that Adam bore a greater responsibility consistent with his leadership role.

But is Paul saying that because Eve was deceived and Adam was not, women, in general, are more easily deceived? There are some good reasons to think otherwise. In another passage where Paul comments on Eve’s having been deceived, he expresses concern that the entire church might be similarly deceived (2 Cor. 11:3). Since Paul is addressing the Corinthian church as a whole, his warning applies to men as well as women. Further, if Paul regarded women as particularly susceptible to deception, why would he allow women to teach other women (Titus 2:3-4)? Surely if women were more prone to deception, having women teaching other women would be asking for trouble! Paul’s concern, then, must be something else.

In 1 Timothy 2:14, Paul points out that Eve was the one who had spoken directly with the serpent and listened to his deception, whereas Adam had been encouraged to eat by Eve (Gen. 3:1-6). His point is not that women are more easily deceived, but to warn that deception is likely when a man abdicates his responsibility for leadership., Eve was deceived, not because she was more gullible, less intelligent, or less spiritually discerning, but because she chose to make such a radical decision without bringing the matter to Adam.

Paul, therefore, forbids women to exercise authority over a man, not because women are less capable, but because such a violation of the created order between men and women is precisely how spiritual deception got a foothold in the human race in the first place.

The leadership role of man, particularly in the marriage relationship, is based on creation, not on the fall of Adam and Eve into sin. However, some interpreters have thought that male authority in marriage came about as a result of God’s judgment after the Fall when he told the woman, “Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you” (Gen. 3:16).

The words “desire” and “rule” in Genesis 3:16 are also found together in Genesis 4:7, where God warns Cain about sin: “And its desire is for you, but you should rule over it.” In both Genesis 3 and 4, the words are being used pejoratively: “Desire” means lusting or out-of-control desire, and “rule” means to dominate, subjugate, or conquer. Thus, in Genesis 4:7, God is warning Cain that sin wants to get him, but he needs to conquer it. Likewise, Genesis 3:16 means that because of the Fall women will tend to be obsessed with their men, and men will tend to be domineering over their women.

In other words, Genesis 3:16 is not a prescription for marriage, but a description of one of the effects of the Fall. Notice that the rest of the words spoken by God in this passage are descriptive and prophetic, not prescriptive (vss. 14-19). All the judgments describe what will happen whether or not the serpent, woman, or man cooperates. The husband’s “rule” is not a command but a description of the domineering fashion in which men have typically exercised leadership.

Still, there are functional and relational differences between men and women. The creation account teaches that men and women are essentially equal and that the woman was created to play a subordinate role to her husband. Women’s functional subordination is a creational ordinance that has been characteristically abused by men because of the Fall.

Despite God’s judgment, men and women can and should do all in their power to ameliorate the results of the Fall, whether by eliminating thorns and thistles from fields or by easing the pain of childbirth. Likewise, God does not expect women to accept abuse from their husbands. Indeed, Christians in whom the blessings of God’s grace and love have been realized should seek to overcome the sinful effects of the Fall in their relationships.


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Kenneth Boa

Kenneth Boa equips people to love well (being), learn well (knowing), and live well (doing). He is a writer, teacher, speaker, and mentor and is the President of Reflections Ministries, The Museum of Created Beauty, and Trinity House Publishers.

Publications by Dr. Boa include Conformed to His Image, Handbook to Prayer, Handbook to Leadership, Faith Has Its Reasons, Rewriting Your Broken Story, Life in the Presence of God, Leverage, and Recalibrate Your Life.

Dr. Boa holds a B.S. from Case Institute of Technology, a Th.M. from Dallas Theological Seminary, a Ph.D. from New York University, and a D.Phil. from the University of Oxford in England. 

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