Biblical Egalitarianism (Part 01) - The Creation Accounts

08/03/2009 07:31


Why a study about women? In many conservative Christian circles, the mere mention of considering women in ministry beyond traditional roles may be met with disapproval. “The Bible is clear,” they declare with memorized “proof” verse. Even merely reviewing the issue may receive a charge of teetering on the brink of heresy.

But surely this must be an overreaction, isn’t it? We are not discussing biblical inspiration, the deity of Christ, the virgin birth, the atonement, the resurrection—all vital doctrines for which denial would warrant a charge of heresy. We are discussing women in the context of biblical Christianity. And any issue discussed within that context, and holding fast to the vital doctrines (especially, in this case, to the inspiration and authority of the Word of God) should lead to a better understanding of Scripture and, therefore, a better relationship with our Lord.

Part of the explosion of nerves, I believe, is that orthodox Christianity has viewed this issue one way for so long. But there are differences in our world today that cooperate to enhance our revelational understanding. Many of the early church fathers seriously argued against women being made completely in the image of God and surely not with the same value or worth as a man. From that mindset it is rather easy to see why the five primary New Testament passages, seemingly limiting women’s roles in ministry, were accepted so readily based on surface-level reading. There was a reason (i.e., women were not made in God’s image) leading to the conclusion deduced from the limiting passages that women were not fit to occupy roles of leadership in either the home or the church. Even into the 1500s, reformation leaders were still convinced that women were inferior with regard to intellect. Therefore, the pattern held—a reason (i.e., lack of intellect) supported the easy, surface-level read that women were not fit to occupy roles of leadership in either the home or the church. But after the next few hundred years passed, a significant change occurred in how we view men and women.  In today’s society, the vast majority of Christians (scholars included) view women on equal footing with men not only in the possession of God’s image but also in intellect. This recognition of equality in being has altered the pattern previously relied on. No longer is there a reason of being that lends support to the conclusion that the limiting passages regarding women prevent them from occupying roles of leadership in the home and the church. And that has forced many conservative Christians to work past the surface-level read to look for purpose from our thoroughly purposeful and reasonable God.

In other words, surely if the Bible dictates the limitation of the roles of women in church and home, biblical Christians must embrace such a view. But the impetus toward the study is the bewilderment of why God—most significantly a God of reason and purpose in all His undertakings—should make such an unlimited, unending decree without purposeful Godly reason directing His choice. In other words, is the traditional assumption of the limitation of women’s roles in actuality biblical? Could we have missed something? These are questions that should drive any true child of God back to the Bible, searching the Scriptures with vigor to know God certainly. And so we begin this study.

Our study is not about radical, secular feminism. A goal or motive that promotes women’s rights does not work well in a Christian arena. Our focus is on Christ, not women or men. As such, our motive and goal in this study is to promote Christ—his will and his way.  Understanding God, knowing His Word, endeavoring to increase our love relationship with Him are the purposes for which we study.

So, then, how do we get started in this discussion? Certainly, we know that the New Testament includes some passages directly related to the issue. Appeal to 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2 is often made in a bumper-sticker attempt to end the discussion before it begins. Both those passages mention women keeping silent—one in church, the other in relation to teaching men. A quick read of 1 Corinthians 11 and Ephesians 5 tell us that husbands and/or men are heads of their wives and/or women, which plays well to many people’s predisposition of implied authority (especially in our contemporary concept of the implications of the word “head”). We suddenly, however, hit a wall with Galatians 3, which argues that there is no more man and woman distinction in Christ. Therefore, the battle often engages, having been outfitted with predispositional ammunition, before a reasoned background can even be developed.

So let’s take one more step back. What influences our predispositions? Culture? Tradition? Historical perspective? Well, all of those are certainly true. We should look at culture—both ours and that of the biblical context. We must consider tradition both inside and outside the church. Are the tensions between men and women, which come to light in an analysis of history, manmade creations or established by God? This, I think, is the core question with which to begin. If God, from creation, established specific roles in which the man and the woman should function, then we most assuredly will find reason for them and should see these as essential to maintain.

Did God create a hierarchical order in male-female relations? If any one of three specific scenarios proves true, our answer would have to be yes. Here are the three scenarios: (1) the creation accounts show that one gender has more intrinsic worth than the other, (2) the creation accounts state specifically or demonstrate God’s intent for the authority of one gender over the other, or (3) the order of creation implies order in authority. Let’s examine these scenarios one at a time.

First, do the creation accounts show that one gender has more intrinsic worth than the other? I pluralized “creation accounts” because two exist. The first is in Genesis 1:26-31.

“Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.’ So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them. And God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.’ And God said, ‘Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the heavens and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.’ And it was so. And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.”

From this passage we learn that God did indeed create humankind in His image—both males and females. The structure of the passage, in fact, indicates equality in image bearing, as shown in verse 27: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” Furthermore, the passage goes on to charge both the man and the woman together with dominance over the rest of creation. This first creation account is chronological—intent on showing God’s power in creation. God is called Elohim in this account. Elohim means God of power. His name changes as we begin the second creation account in chapter 2 verse 4. Here we read “Lord God,” which is translated from Yahweh Elohim. Yahweh indicates existence or being. Thus God here is known as the God of power and being. This modification in referring to God, of course, has meaning for the passage. The focus of chapter 2 shifts from the power of God in creating to the image of man that is being created.

Notice how the structure of this second creation account changes to accommodate this new emphasis on the image. The first obvious, even startling, difference is that the creation order seems reversed. Man seems to be created before the plants. Verses 5 and 7 when taken together read as follows: “When no bush of the field was yet in the land and no small plant of the field had yet sprung up…then the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature.” Likewise, a little later, it appears that Man was created before the animals. Verses 18 through 19a read: “Then the Lord God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.’ So out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens….”  This seeming reversal of chronology is really not reversal at all. God is not giving us a chronological account in chapter 2, but rather he is emphasizing the development of his image bearers. Image bearing is his focus, and thus Man stands at the forefront of the account as we are told how they relate to the rest of creation.

Now, notice that God sees Adam as unfulfilled while he is alone. And immediately God does not discuss the creation of Eve, but rather the rest of creation. God parades the animal kingdom before Adam’s gaze, telling Adam to name the beasts. Names were given as descriptors of the type of creature. God does this not because he is curious as to what Adam will call them. Our omniscient God already knows the names Adam will present. God has Adam perform this task so that Adam will learn that among all the other creatures, there is not a single one like him—not one with whom Adam can share his soul in satisfaction of relationship. And as soon as he learns this lesson, God puts Adam to sleep, while he makes a woman from Adam’s rib—from part of him so that she is shown to be someone who is like him and not like the rest of creation. Adam awakes and realizes immediately this oneness he has with this women. He realizes she is not like the rest of creation. He is overcome as he cries out, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.” She is not like the rest of creation that he will dominate. She is like him.

Very interesting, then, is the next verse in the passage. What God inserts in verse 24 is not a description about this event because God references mother and father, which Adam and Eve did not have. So verse 24 is, not a description derived from this event but rather a principle established for all time. We read: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” Notice the “therefore.” This is a result of Adam’s outburst of joy at finding the woman who is like him and not like the rest of creation. Therefore, God says, the husband and wife will hold fast and stand together. God tells us that the husband-wife relationship is a picture of the ultimate in human relationship. It is greater than anything with the rest of creation itself, and it is greater than that of parent to child, for the verse states that a person will cast off the child to parent relationship to establish this husband-wife union. This principle sums up or concludes this section on the unity—the oneness—of the man and woman in creation. This principle is what we take from this section. There is no hierarchy of authority, but rather an emphasis and established principle is taught on the unity in creation, image, and purpose that God has endowed.

Returning now to our scenario question—did these accounts show that one gender has more intrinsic worth over the other? The answer is absolutely no; these accounts show the exact opposite—that man and woman were created of equal being and worth, demonstrated through their identical image bearing and purpose.

The second scenario asks whether the creation accounts state specifically or demonstrate God’s intent for the authority of one gender over the other. Certainly, as we have just seen, the Scriptures do not specifically so state an order of authority. Furthermore, the joint charge in Genesis 1:28 to rule over the rest of creation argues against any demonstration of the authority of one over the other.

Finally, the third scenario asks whether the order of creation implies order in authority. In Romans 5, Paul provides some reasoning for Adam to be a representative for all humanity based on being created first and all humanity (including Eve) issuing from him. But that is representation in the endowment of the guilt of sin, not in authority. Nowhere do we see this as a rule for Adam to be an authority over any other person subsequent to him. The order of created things does not extend authority from one thing to the next. The artist molds a pot from clay. His next pot is not subject to the first in any conceivable way. God created the heavens, the sun, the stars, then the earth, the plants, and the animals. No implication of authority is involved from one to the next. God made Adam after the animals, but Adam, the subsequent creation, is to have dominion over that which was created before him. That Eve follows Adam in created order bears no statement or even implication from the text that he inherited a right of authority over her. To say so not only adds to the text, but must necessarily discount chapter 2’s true emphasis on the unity of Adam and Eve apart from the rest of creation.

Even were one to misunderstand the text and conclude erroneously that Adam had endowment of authority simply by virtue of order in creation, by what logic does that endowment pass to succeeding males? In other words, why would I, as a man, have authority over my wife or any other woman simply because Adam was created before Eve? Those who want to insist on an authority structure must first attempt to overcome the insurmountable obstacle that the text says nothing about authority, but then also have to create a reason out of nothing for why this authority passes to all males over all females. God never tells us this anywhere in his dual accounts of creation.  

But why, then, did God create the male first? There are two reasons, I believe, for why Adam was created first. One is simply that God had to stagger their creation in order to teach the unity lesson of chapter 2. The contextual sense requires the stair-step approach in creation. The second reason relates to the gender distinctions, which we have as yet not discussed. We will discuss that in our next installment.

Thus, the creation accounts not only show equality of being between man and woman in both creation and image but also show unity or oneness in being. This, however, of course, does not provide a final conclusion on role relationships. And so we will move on. Genesis 3 provides some astounding changes of direction.