Biblical Roles of Men and Women

Our starting point is Paul’s letter to the Galatians 3.28, where the apostle writes, in Christ ‘there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.’ In a few moments we will be turning to the roles of men and women in the book of Genesis, but we take Galatians 3.28 as telling us that neither male nor female is superior to the other in the sight of God. All are heirs together of salvation, equal in standing before God, equal in spiritual value, equal in inheritance.

   Does this mean that the ancient distinctions between men and women which appear first in the book of Genesis, that men are to have headship in marriage and in the church, are now abolished? Certainly not, because they are repeated in the New Testament, but it means that within the rules of headship we never forget that our spiritual value and standing before God is equal. When we see the instruction that man is to be head, and the woman is to follow him in that, we do not deduce from that that men are superior to women. We ever keep in mind Galatians 3.28. It is all too easy for people to make hasty assumptions and draw wrong conclusions.

   Turning to Genesis 1.27 we read, ‘So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female.’ Here is a great distinction between men and women, but each is created in the image of God, reflecting in some measure their Creator, endowed with spirituality, given a soul, given the power of reason and various other special characteristics lifting them high above all other creatures.

   Then we read in Genesis 2.18, ‘And the Lord God said, It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him an help meet for him.’ The word ‘help’ is obviously important to us. What is meant by a help? We may be surprised to know that the Hebrew term comes from the idea of surrounding something. So God is going to make for the man a surrounder, or an aid, as it is often translated. One very interesting translation of the Hebrew word is – an ­enabler. Adam will have an enabler, a protector even, a guide, an aid. All these ideas may crowd into the term, making this a high calling. There is the man, but he needs one to complement him and to assist him.

   Right from the beginning there is an order, and Scripture continues to advance that order. The man is ­created first and the woman next; the man first, and the woman to make him sufficient, to enable him, to support him, to assist him, to be with him. First the man, then the woman to complete the design and make it sufficient.

   All this came before the Fall, and the New Testament looks back, and tells us that the man is made for God, and the woman is made for the man. Now there is still no notion, despite the distribution of roles, of superior and inferior. We have to keep that right out of our minds. But the man is made to serve God (1 Corinthians 11), to bring glory to him, and the woman is made to support the man, and to enable him to do that. So we see that the arrangement which relates men and women began at creation.

   Then came the Fall, and in Genesis 3.16 the Lord spells out the consequences. ‘Unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children.’ The first consequence or punishment for the Fall is to Eve. The second, also to Eve is – ‘Thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.’ How does this second consequence differ from the original call of Eve? Was she not created from him to be his enabler, his helper, his aid? Now it is more pronounced. She always was his supporter, but now that sin has entered in, the headship of the husband is established more firmly because an entirely voluntary submission is no longer sustainable.

   We observe that man is punished also, for ‘Unto Adam he said, Because thou hast hearkened unto the voice of thy wife, and hast eaten of the tree, of which I commanded thee, saying, Thou shalt not eat of it: cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life; thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field; in the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread.’ Adam will have to suffer toil and bitter frustrations and difficulty, so both are punished. The reason why Eve is now subject to a form of ‘rule’, is not because she sinned more but because that is the portion of punishment that falls to her, having sinned first.

   Adam for his part has the toil and the frustration of hindrances. But in each punishment God provides an everlasting reminder of the Fall. He wrote into human life things which affect every man and every woman in every land through all generations to remind us of the Fall. Man must toil and labour for his provision, and women must know pain in childbirth and obedience to the husband.

   You could say that the punishments contain a great kindness. It is an immense blessing that there are things written into human life which remind us of the Fall, because the Fall must never be forgotten. It is the foundation of everything we need to know. The Fall of man is the cause of our greatest need. We cannot understand our predicament before God or feel our need of salvation without the doctrine of the Fall. We cannot understand ourselves. Even after conversion we cannot embark upon the work of sanctification without understanding depravity and the Fall. We cannot understand society, or how or why people think and act as they do, without the doctrine of the Fall. So God has seen fit to so order the punishment of men and women that there is a perpetual reminder of the Fall.

   Why must women in marriage and in the church be subordinate to men? Because they are inferior? No. Because they sinned more than men? No. They both equally sinned, one first it is true, but they both equally sinned. Then for what reason does the woman bear her particular punishment and the man his? Because it is the message of the Fall.

   Up until about AD1900, almost everyone in the British Isles understood the Bible’s teaching that subordination in marriage arose from the Fall. It was the mark of the Fall. Equally every man knew that his labour was the mark of the Fall. They may not always have believed it, and may often have been outraged by it, but all knew it. In a sense, every woman in childbirth was preaching the Fall. Every man working was doing the same.

   One of the great campaigns of the devil has been to get rid of the Fall, often by massive attacks upon the Word of God. In the 19th century there arose one of the most vicious of all, the movement for Higher Criticism. This was designed, like a computer virus in a way, to get right into the thinking of theologians, ministers, and Christian people, so that the Bible was undermined and no longer thought to be reliable.

   You could no longer believe in a literal creation account in the book of Genesis. It became described as poetry, as myth, and so on. If Satan could get rid of creation in the book of Genesis he would destroy the doctrine of the Fall. It became, may we say, a Satanic obsession, and the campaign ensnared whole denominations of churches. Without the Fall, there is no need of salvation, there is no need of redemption.

   Why does society today panic to get rid of subordination in marriage, and even to dispense with marriage altogether? What is the real basis of the movement of feminism? What is its engine, its propulsive power? From where does it derive its energy? While it is true that many lean to feminism because of the appalling behaviour of many men, the real foundation is this Satanic desperation to dispose of the Fall. If you can abolish the distinction between men and women, and the great sign of subordination which God has given to remind us of the Fall, then you will have removed the reminder of the Fall and the need of salvation.

   So the reason why God has given subordination of women to men in marriage is to mark the Fall. Similarly it is the reason why women should not be preachers. We should not say to ourselves, ‘Oh, I think God does not appoint women preachers because they are unsuited for that task.’ The biblical reason is to remind us of the Fall. Truth is at stake. God’s message is being communicated, and disobedience is opposition to vital truth. Any ministry of women preachers (to men) is carried out in defiance of God’s own ‘sermon’ on the Fall.

   We turn now to the two well-known passages in the New Testament, firstly 1 ­Corinthians 14.34 – ‘Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the law.’ Where does the law say that the woman must be the hearer and the man the teacher? The answer is – in Genesis 3.16 and 17. (We have to remember that when the apostle speaks of the law he refers to all the books of Moses. So the ‘law’ is the Genesis text just referred to.)

   We then turn to 1 Timothy 2.11‑12 where the apostle is even more explicit. ‘Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection. But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence.’ This is prescribed for the church, then the reasons are given.

   Once again we note the text does not say it is because the woman is inferior to the man, or, as many people suggest, because the role that God intended was reversed in the Garden of Eden, Eve taking the forbidden fruit without first asking Adam. Some say that she bears her punishment because she took over his role. It is an ingenious suggestion and plausible, but it is not actually what the Scripture says. We may believe it if we wish, but it is only an assumption. Scripture says she is punished because she sinned first. She is chosen to bear one kind of punishment, and the man is chosen to bear another, to proclaim to us the Fall.

   Now here is another reason, and it takes us back to before the Fall. Says Paul, ‘I suffer not a woman to teach…for Adam was first formed, then Eve.’ The order of creation teaches that Adam will be the teacher and Eve will be the hearer. There was a message, a ‘law’, in the order of creation.

   Paul says that – ‘Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was in the transgression.’ But we should not conclude that she was first to sin because she was the most naive, or the least discerning, therefore women are unsuitable as teachers. This would suggest that Eve was made an inadequate and disadvantaged being. The Scripture only says that she sinned first, and so was guilty on her own account and deserved her portion of the punishment-cum-message.

Role Relationships in Ephesians

          Having acknowledged the headship of the man in marriage, we must give attention to the terms of that headship, because these are often abused, leading to great unhappiness.

   In Ephesians 5.22 we read: ‘Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord.’ What does submit mean? It is exactly the same word as used in Hebrews for church members submitting to an elder or to a pastor. What does submission to an elder mean? Does it mean he runs your life? Does it mean you have to take all decisions to him? Does it mean total domination? Is it authoritarian? Of course not.

   Every wife has her gifts, her power of reason, her abilities. She has a great many things to do and to determine. We must not allow headship in marriage to be overpowering and overtowering, so as to deny the wife her stewardship of her powers and gifts. ‘Submit yourselves’ means – place yourself behind or under. He is to lead, but the husband should not dominate.

   Says the apostle – ‘Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord,’ or in obedience to him. She will do so because the Lord says it; she wants to please the Lord, so she does it for him.

   Then the apostle says (verse 23) – ‘For the husband is the head of the wife,’ in this heavily qualified sense – ‘even as Christ is the head of the church.’ There is surely no more challenging standard than this! Christ’s headship of the church is a benevolent headship, a loving headship, an upholding headship, a sacrificial headship, a joy-imparting headship (‘that my joy might remain in you’). Husbands should be able to say to their wives, every day, ‘my joy I give to you’. It is a faithful, caring, sensitive headship – ‘For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church.’

   Dare we say, the headship of the husband in marriage is an earned headship. No, people say, it is not. It is by divine right, and in a sense that is true. But if it is like the headship of Christ over the church, which is by divine right, it is at the same time an earned headship. The husband should earn and deserve the love, respect and godly subordination of his wife.

   The apostle also says that the husband ‘is the saviour of the body’. It is difficult to be precise about what is meant here but the most likely sense is this – Christ is the Lord and Saviour of the soul, and the husband is the ‘saviour’ of the body, responsible for the health and earthly happiness and joy and peace of his wife. He must ensure she receives proper human enjoyment and liberties, her access to Christian service and the privileges which are hers in her earthly pilgrimage.

   The phrase, ‘Therefore as the church is subject unto Christ’ is also challenging to husbands. How are we subject unto Christ? We are full of admiration for him and gratitude to him. Do wives have grounds to be filled with admiration for and gratitude to their husbands?

   If there is not enough here to challenge the husband, then the apostle Paul turns the searchlight full on the husband in verse 25, ‘Husbands, love your wives.’ Here is all the affection and warmth, and that must be expressed. Then the added reference to Christ’s love – ‘Even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it; that he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word.’ The husband is responsible for making sure that he sets a holy example that brings light and life and happiness into the home and the family.

In the 28th verse we read: ‘So ought men to love their wives as their own bodies.’ How does a man love his body? Well, he makes sure he gets his meals and obtains what is essential for his survival. And just as he takes care of his body in that sense, he is responsible for his wife’s happiness and access to ­ministry – happiness in every way. ‘He that loveth his wife loveth himself.’ It should be the most natural instinct in the world.

Subordination of Women in Civil Life?

         We have spoken about the subordination that begins in the book of Genesis, and is amplified in the New Testament, concerning men and women in marriage and the church, but what about subordination of women in the state? What about society in general? May a Christian woman be a CEO or a prime minister? Does the rule of subordination extend into secular life? Before answering, there is just one other thing we need to take in our stride – what about the concept of the woman as the homemaker? Some people stress this very strongly even today. They insist that in the book of Genesis, as you read through chapter 3 in particular, you see the man’s role is outside the home and the woman’s role is inside the home. They take this and apply it right across the ages, making it a principle that the woman’s role is in the home and the man’s role is outside the home. Is this so?

It is clearly a wrong line of interpretation to take, because some aspects of life recorded in the Bible are matters of time-bound culture. For example, there are three New Testament texts in which the apostle Paul quite plainly indicates that men should work with their hands, which implies that many of us today are out of line with Scripture because we are working with our heads, not our hands. There are Old Testament commands to fight the battle of the faith with spear and bows, but we understand that this language is time-related. We must be careful not to dismiss as culture or time-related matters that have a theological reason attached to them (like the subordination of wives), but the exclusive home-keeper role is obviously a time-related issue.

In America there are some quite large groups of churches that lay this down as a basic law – a woman should be in the home and that is that. If we were living among the Jews in biblical times, we would very probably have a smallholding, growing food. Now that was the woman’s work. In the book of Proverbs the woman sometimes seeks a potential field, selects and buys it, then farms it to produce food for the family. Another laborious task was that of making bread. She frequently had to grind it with pestle and mortar, and we are told that the making of bread for her family took between two and four hours every day. No wives do that today in the West.

Not only did she have to make the bread, but there were no shops to the degree of later ages, so she went round all the farmsteads and smallholdings and bartered. She grew a little more than was needed for her family and bartered the remainder to buy items she could not grow herself. She also grew enough to provide for the poor and needy, for that was in the law of God.

And then the wife had to be good with a spindle and weaving because she had to make the cloth and be a needlewoman, making all the family clothes, summer and winter, including all fancy things and soft furnishings. The tapestries of the home were invariably made by the housewife. All this was very time-consuming without machines, such as dishwashers and washing machines. The laundry had to be done the hard way, with a board and stone.

We do not have to do any of those things now. There is still much to do in the home, but things have changed radically. The idea that you must be only a homemaker or you are defying the law of God is way off the mark. Today the cost of living and the price of a roof over one’s head, demands that we all, husbands and wives, earn money, and we have to honour the Lord in those circumstances.

We return to the question – may a woman be a CEO of a large company in secular society? If she is gifted and able, we cannot see any reason why not. There are, however, some practical considerations. Can she accomplish this task and at the same time look after her family and also engage in Christian service? Of course, this equally applies to men and women. There are many men who have been offered top jobs in their field, and many have shared this very situation with me over the years. ‘Should I take this on?’ they have asked. I think of some who have been offered the very highest imaginable positions, but they recoiled because they felt that in their case their Christian service and the needs of their families would not permit it. They have decided to go no higher than a certain point.

There are many things in life like this. People say, ‘My whole bent is towards the arts; can I pursue that?’ But they see that while this is a noble and God-honouring realm, it has been severely corrupted, so that principal performances are held on the Lord’s Day, and so much has been introduced that is depraved. This is a matter of Christian ethical stewardship. The answer is often – Yes, in principle, but what are the practical implications? Is the price too high for spiritual obedience? And for women it can be particularly acute, because they may have the high calling of a family. Nevertheless, if the circumstances are right, we give our prayerful support to all Christian women with the special responsibility of high appointment in the working world.

Based on a Bible Study preached at the Metropolitan Tabernacle, 13th November 2019
From The Sword & Trowel 2020, issue 1