The Genesis of Gender and Ecclesial Womanhood

Article
07.01.2010

Men and women are different.

To some readers, this is obvious. To an increasing number of people, however, these are fighting words. The idea that men and women are basically, essentially different is passé.[1] To argue further that these differences carve out different roles for men and women which include the “submission” word—let’s just say that won’t win you many friends at a dinner party.[2]

CREATION AND DESIGN

Yet when we turn to Scripture, we find right from the start that God’s own hand fashions men and women differently and for complementary purposes. Both men and women are made in God’s image and likeness, and both receive the dominion mandate (Gen 1:26-28).[3] Yet God made the man first, and he gives Adam a leadership role by asking him to exercise authority over the animals by naming them (Gen. 2:19). Adam has much to do, and the Lord notes his need for a “helper” (Gen. 2:18). The Lord takes Eve from Adam, forming her from his rib (Gen. 2:21). Her substance proceeds from his, an elegant reality which underscores that Eve’s physical safety derives from Adam’s masculine strength.[4]

Adam fills the role slated for men by taking Eve as his wife (Gen. 2:24). The one who gives his flesh to Eve in a sense recovers his physical wholeness through one-flesh union with her. Adam is in every respect the initiator, the leader, the one who bears the weight of responsibility for himself and others before God (Gen. 2:24-25). All this God pronounces “very good” (Gen. 1:31).

Everything falls apart in the fall. Adam fails to lead and protect Eve. Eve is deceived by the serpent and assumes the role of leader (Gen 3:1-13). In short, the fall itself involves an inversion of God’s plans for men and women.

The curse, in turn, is a gendered curse. Everyone draws a stiff sentence, one related directly to their role in life. Eve’s “childbearing” will be marked by “pain” (Gen. 3:16). She will desire her husband’s role, which means he will have to fight to “rule over” her (Gen. 3:17). And God certainly doesn’t let Adam off the hook. Since Adam abdicated his God-granted responsibility to lead, the ground which he must work is “cursed,” and the body which labors will “sweat” until the end of the age (Gen. 3:17, 19).[5]

Don’t miss the point here: gender is front and center in creation, the fall, and the curse.[6]

These first three chapters of Genesis provide the fundamental shape of biblical gender roles, what many Christians call complementarianism—meaning that the sexes are equal in dignity and value yet distinct and complementary in their roles.[7] For the purpose of this article, it’s important to note that women have a complementary role in relation to men. God created Adam first, and created Eve to be his complement.

In the wise and gracious design of God, women are “helpers.” They are to be wives and mothers, the bearers of children. While men lead, protect, and provide, women come alongside and support them. Sadly, after the fall the two vie for each other’s roles, men either becoming abusive or seeking to divest themselves of leadership, while women elbow for the primary role and threaten dissension.

These different roles depend, we should note, both on divine fiat and on the different constitutional and physiological realities which this creative force brought into being.[8] Generally speaking, God made men physically stronger, analytically inclined, and the initiator of the childbearing process. Women are often physically weaker and more emotionally and linguistically attuned than men, and they require physical initiation to bear children. The very bodies of women show that they are designed to nurture children, even if our culture wants to overlook these basic bodily realities. The wisdom of God’s will is embodied by the men and women who bear his image. What God has called women to be in spirit he has made them to be in body.

THE STRENGTH OF SUPPORT: WOMEN’S ROLES IN SCRIPTURE

These roles, with all their complexity and drama, play out over the whole of Scripture. We see throughout Scripture that:

  • Men take the leadership positions in the Israelite theocracy, with precious few exceptions. Consider the patriarchs of Genesis, the prophets of Israel, and the Levitical priesthood (Lev. 6 ff.).
  • Men fight the wars of Israel; women in most cases do not. The failure of men to lead Israel in battle in Judges 4 is considered deeply shameful.
  • Women like Moses’ mother, Ruth, and Esther work in a spirit of submission within patriarchal settings to accomplish good for themselves and others.
  • Women attend to the affairs of the home, as in the preeminent example of the Proverbs 31 woman, a chapter which shows homemaking to be a holistic and many-sided calling.
  • Jesus evinces a special gentleness and care in many of his interactions with women, and women respond in many cases with strong faith and trust in him (e.g., Luke 7:11-15; 13:10-17; John 8:33-39).
  • Men fill the roles of the twelve apostles, as well as being the pastors and elders of local churches (see Matt. 10:2-4; Acts 1; 1 Tim. 2:11-12).
  • In the New Testament, women fill all kinds of serving and helping functions, such as financially supporting the apostles, hosting the church’s assemblies, and providing hospitality (see more on this below).
  • Wives are called to submit to their husbands as an image of the relationship between the church and Christ, showing the beauty of complementarity and submission (Eph. 5:21-31; Col. 3:18).
  • The New Testament straightforwardly prohibits women from teaching and holding authority over men in the local church (1 Tim. 2:11-12).
  • Women are called to “work at home,” a New Testament reaffirmation of the Proverbs 31 calling of godly women (Titus 2:5).
  • Women are called to submit to and richly esteem their husbands even as Sarah “obeyed” Abraham and called him “lord” (1 Peter 3:6).

How can we synthesize these scriptural realities in order to define the essence of biblical femininity? Pastor-theologian John Piper has done important work on this point. “At the heart of mature femininity,” Piper writes, “is a freeing disposition to affirm, receive and nurture strength and leadership from worthy men in ways appropriate to a woman’s differing relationships.”[9]

As we have seen from our brief survey of Genesis and the sweep of Scripture, women are called by God’s design and direction to serve under men for the promotion of his gospel in the family, the church, and society.

GENDERED DISCIPLESHIP

Biblical womanhood clashes with prevailing notions of femininity. The Bible insists that women will find freedom, joy and liberation not in casting off God’s design, but in embracing it. Of course, this is true not just with gender roles, but in our whole lives as Christians: we find all that our hearts seek not in rejecting biblical wisdom, but in allowing it to reshape us.

The gospel leads directly away from libertarian notions of freedom and identity and offers better ones.[10] In dying to self and trusting Christ as Savior and Lord, we live. Here there is “no male or female,” as Paul puts it (Gal. 3:28). But once freed from the shackles of sin, men and women both are free to fulfill what God distinctly intended for them in creation. After all, biology does not change upon conversion. The gospel is at the center of biblical womanhood (and manhood) and, in saving women from sin and hell, it empowers them to live in the fullness of God’s good plan for them.[11]

When we turn to the pages of the New Testament, we find many examples of women freed in the gospel. Women served the church and its leaders in diverse and creative ways. Here are a few of the most significant:

  • Joanna, “the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza,” likely contributed generous sums to Christ and his band of disciples (Luke 8:3).
  • Prisca helped her husband Aquila disciple Apollos, a learned and eloquent preacher (Acts 18:26).
  • Timothy had both a godly mother and grandmother (2 Tim. 3:15).
  • Tabitha was “full of good works and acts of charity” (Acts 9:36).
  • In a climate hostile to Christianity and thus dependent on home fellowships, Lydia and Mary each hosted gatherings of Christians (Acts 12:12; 16:13-15, 40).
  • Phoebe was a “servant of the church at Cenchrae,” a “patron of many and of myself as well,” Paul noted in his letter to the Romans (Rom. 16:1-2).
  • Junia (Rom. 16:7) and Appia (Philemon 2) seem to have partnered with their husbands in gospel ministry, whether through evangelism in the case of Junia or hosting a church in the case of Appia.
  • In the examples of Mary, Anna and others, we find women of persistent, reverential, bold, effectual prayer (Luke 1:46-55; 2:36-38).

What can we take from these portraits for women in our churches? In other words, what should we say the ministry of a woman who has been transformed by the gospel looks like on the ground?

Most fundamentally, godly women should serve the local church by supporting, helping, encouraging, and affirming the ministry of the elders as the elders promote the gospel in the church and the world. For many women, this is accomplished under the leadership of a husband. However, women may fill this “supporting” role whether married or not. All women of God may contribute in major ways to the ministry of God’s church.

Biblical womanhood in the local church is fundamentally oriented to service, support, and strengthening. Men have been created and commanded to lead the church’s mission, expose Scripture, shepherd, and give oversight. Women have been created and commanded to submit to the church’s mission and to buttress the ministry produced by the male leaders. At the most basic level, this involves encouraging and affirming their elders, embracing “support” ministries, and modeling a spirit of affirmation and encouragement wherever possible.

This sort of ministry is nothing less than essential. Just as a family is incomplete without a wife and mother, so the church is incomplete without the ministry of women. Most of us have heard countless anecdotes of how women have “filled the gaps” in our churches. Offering counsel to struggling people, teaching the next generation, taking meals to new mothers, writing encouraging notes to the elders, organizing special events—in these and many other ways, women show themselves to be the buttress of the church.  We’ll look now at a few hands-on practices of the “ecclesial woman.”

THEOLOGICAL AND PRACTICAL WAYS WOMEN SERVE THE CHURCH

Modeling Godliness

First, women have the opportunity to serve the Lord and his church by embracing the gospel and living according to it in every sphere of life, including the life of the local church. That might sound like a virtue for all Christians, and it is. But women have been specially gifted to model for all believers what pastor Mark Chanski calls being a “submissive learner.”[12]

Discipling the Next Generation of Godly Women

Most churches are in great need of more older women who will disciple younger women for service in the local church.

One woman I am aware of devotes herself to just such a role. In a given day, she meets with a lonely single woman, takes a gift to a young couple cherishing their first child, and teaches a class on biblical femininity. Through her work, her church is more vibrant and healthy, like a garden cared for by a diligent gardener.

Praying

Women contribute hugely to the gospel ministry of God’s assembly by praying for it. “Prayer warriors” may sound like a cliché, but it is not. When we reach heaven, it is doubtless true that many faithful prayers whose names we do not know will be honored for their faithfulness in prayer.

Missions

For centuries, women have been a major part of the evangelical missions movement, with figures such as Lottie Moon and Amy Carmichael inspiring many to sacrifice for the spread of the gospel.[13]

Hospitality

Another major way women spread blessing to their fellow church members is to host meals, wedding showers, teas, and birthday parties as part of a loving ministry of hospitality.[14] More significantly, married women should work with their husbands to make their homes available to struggling or weary souls. Single women can make their homes available to other single women.

It’s not without reason that both the elders of the church and older women are recognized for their hospitality (1 Tim. 3:2; 5:10). Hospitality presents a small picture of a gracious God who gives life to a people who were strangers to him. It shows how practical acts give tangible shape to love among the members of the body.

Teaching

Some people think that complementarians do not believe that women can teach in the church. But that’s not right. Women are very much needed to teach other women and to teach children.[15]

Giving

Women can participate in the life of the church by giving generously to it.

Visiting a Christian institution a few years ago, I encountered an older woman who was quiet and humble. I was awed when I learned later that she was worth billions of dollars and had in large part supported the work of the institution, which struggled to keep a gospel witness solvent in its spiritually dark context.

THE DISTINCT DUTY—AND GLORY—OF WOMEN

As Christians, we believe in the distinct but complementary roles of the Trinity as the Son submits to the Father. And as Christians, we believe in the marriage between Christ and his church, a marriage of two distinct partners that each treasure the other. So as Christians, we understand that the uniqueness and distinctiveness of women and men displays the glory and wisdom of God.[16] Whatever criticism the culture offers on this point must be considered in the light of these foundational biblical and theological truths.

To be a woman is to support, to nurture, and to strengthen men in order that they would flourish and fulfill their God-given role as leaders. Men may well veer into sin from their own weakness. But they gain a considerable buttress when supported by godly women in the church. Women enable men to flourish and to lead others to do the same.

Perhaps there is more strength, more glory, in “support” ministry carried out by women than one might initially think. If modernity misses this irony, we must not.

Owen Strachan is Instructor of Christian Theology at Boyce College. He is the author of the five-volume Essential Edwards Collection (with Doug Sweeney; Moody, 2010).

[1] See Jennifer Finney Boylan, “Is My Marriage Gay?,” New York Times, May 11, 2009; Ilene Lelchuk, “When Is It OK for Boys to Be Girls, and Girls to Be Boys?,” San Francisco Chronicle, August 27, 2006; Karin Venable Morin, “Caveat Parens,” National Review, May 4, 2009; Al Mohler, “Gender Confusion in the Kindergarten,” albertmohler.com, published October 18, 2006.
[2] Mary Kassian has suggested that the drive to redefine gender roles will extend even to conceptions of God. Historically, Kassian writes, “Feminists believed that women would find themselves through the destruction of sex roles and stereotypes. They would become transcendent when they discovered “God” as a personal experience of wholeness and meaning….In order to unleash their power, feminists argued that women need to perceive it as residing in themselves. Then they will be able to channel and release it purposefully in order to change reality.” (The Feminist Mistake: The Radical Impact of Feminism on Church and Culture [Wheaton: Crossway, 2005], pp. 178, 190).
[3] For a definitive treatment of man, woman, and the image of God, see Bruce A. Ware, “Male and Female Complementarity and the Image of God” in Wayne Grudem, ed., Biblical Foundations for Manhood and Womanhood (Wheaton: Crossway, 2002), 71-92.
[4] Ware suggests that “there is a priority given to the male as the image of God, for she is created as the glory of the man who is himself the image and glory of God.” (88)
[5] For elaboration on the roles laid out here, see Wayne Grudem, “The Key Issues in the Manhood-Womanhood Controversy, and the Way Forward” in Grudem, Biblical Foundations, 40-41.
[6] For helpful exegetical commentary on the roles laid out here, see Grudem, “The Key Issues,” 25-36.
[7] John Piper offers a succinct articulation of the meaning of the term in “Chapter 1: A Vision of Biblical Complementarity,” in Piper and Wayne Grudem, eds., Recovering Biblical Manhood & Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism (Wheaton: Crossway, 1993), 52-53.
[8] Those who would argue against this point should pore over the stimulating chapter by Gregg Johnson, “The Biological Basis for Gender-Specific Behavior” in Piper and Grudem, 280-293. To give a few examples: “At age eighteen, girls have almost twice the body fat (about 33 percent) of boys. Boys at age eighteen have about 50 percent more muscle mass than girls, particularly in the upper body” (283). And: “Because [women’s] nerves interact with more neighboring nerves, they are able to integrate more sensory and stored memory information to derive more complete analysis and assessment of a particular circumstance.” (289) Johnson is professor of biology at Bethel College. See also George Alan Rekers, “Psychological Foundations for Rearing Masculine Boys and Feminine Girls” in Piper and Grudem, 294-311.
[9] Piper, “A Vision of Biblical Complementarity,” 36. The entire chapter is a must-read on this topic.
[10] For more on the modern conception of the individual and its own limitations, see chapter one, “The Idolatry of Love,” in Jonathan Leeman, The Church and the Surprising Offense of God’s Love (Wheaton: Crossway, 2010), 39-74.]
[11] Piper has said this well: “What we have seen so far in those three texts (and there are many others that could be used to supplement them), what we have seen so far is this: masculinity and femininity, manhood and womanhood, belong at the center of God’s ultimate purpose. Manhood and womanhood are not an afterthought of creation. They’re not an afterthought of the cross. They’re not peripheral to the design of what is being said when Jesus dies to magnify the grace of God. They’re right there at the center at Calvary.”  From his address at the 2008 True Woman conference, accessible at http://www.truewoman.com/?id=336.
[12] Mark Chanski, Womanly Dominion: More Than a Gentle and Quiet Spirit (Birmingham: Calvary Press, 2008), 194.
[13] New Testament scholar Tom Schreiner notes that “Women have advanced the gospel in missions, are advancing it, and will continue to advance it”. See “The Valuable Ministries of Women in the Context of Male Leadership: A Survey of Old and New Testament Examples and Teaching” in Piper and Grudem, 223. Schreiner’s chapter will repay reading on the subject of women’s ministry.
[14] See J. Ligon Duncan and Susan Hunt, Women’s Ministry in the Local Church (Wheaton: Crossway, 2006), 110-12 in particular.
[15] Beyond the local church, the people of God need godly women to follow in the line of extra-congregational teachers such as Elisabeth Elliott, Nancy Leigh DeMoss, Carolyn Mahaney, Mary Kassian, and Susan Hunt. This is to say nothing of countless other ways that women can edify and have edified their brothers and sisters. See William Weinrich’s chapter on “Women in the History of the Church: Learned and Holy, But Not Pastors” in Piper and Grudem, 263-79. I enjoyed the section on women hymn-writers ,especially page 269. That’s merely one example of many that show that women have creatively served their churches and fellow Christians for millennia.
[16] See Bruce A. Ware, “Tampering with the Trinity: Does the Son Submit to His Father?” in Grudem, Biblical Foundations, 233-53.

July/August 2010
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