Gender Roles

Question
My Bible study is looking at the difference between the man's role and the woman's role, pointing out the different responsibilities and jobs of each. But I'm not fully understanding this concept -- if God made them both equal, why do they have different roles?
Answer
I should begin by saying that there are some ways in which men and women are equal, and other ways in which they are not equal. For example, men and women are both made in the image of God -- this is a way in which they are clearly equal. On the other hand, women can bear children and men cannot -- this is a way in which they are clearly not equal. God has assigned the dignity of bearing his image to both sexes equally, but he has not created them to be physically identical.

Another area in which God has not made men and women equal is in the area of his Law. For example, in the Old Testament, only male Levites were allowed to serve in the temple (e.g. Exod. 28-29), only male Israelite slaves were to be set free on the seventh year (Exod. 21:2ff.). Even in God's covenant with his people, he assigned inequal blessings to men and women. For example, men were to own the family land, and were to inherit that land upon the death of their father. Daughters could inherit the land only if they had no brothers (Num. 27:1ff.). It is important to remember in this regard that the Promised Land was one of the greatest blessings God gave his people in the Old Testament.

The basic point is that God has created and commanded men and women to be inequal in a number of ways. Equality in one area does not imply equality in every area; inequality in one area does not imply inequality in every area.

One very telling place to examine the idea of the unity of certain equalities with certain other inequalities is in God himself. The three persons of the Trinity are all equal in their attributes, but in their relationships with one another there is an authority structure that is not equal. The Son submits to the Father, and the Holy Spirit submits to the Son and to the Father. From this example it is clear that inequality is not necessarily bad. It is just different.

Another place to look at equality and inequality is salvation in Christ. In Christ, men and women alike are counted as having Christ's status as a perfect, covenant-keeping, free, male Jew. This is why people of all nations, status, gender, etc. can inherit the blessings initially reserved for free, male Jews. The blessings belong to Jesus, and he shares them with us. So, the blessings are earned by Christ's superior status before the Father, but because we are all equal in Christ (each being counted as if he/she were Christ himself), believers have an equal status before God and partake equally of the covenant blessings (cf. Gal. 3:25-29).

We might add at this point that not all males are equal in the Bible either. Some are kings, some are servants; some are Levites serving as priests in the Temple, but most are not; some are born with defects and cannot approach God's holy place; some are born first and receive greater portions of their father's estates. But none of these differences imply lesser or greater levels of dignity.

We also see gender-blind inequality in the way that the Holy Spirit gifts believers. As Paul teaches in 1 Corinthians 12:4-7, believers have different gifts from one another, but each has the same Spirit and the same Lord, and each is given his/her gifts for the common good. And these gifts are not just different -- some are actually better than others (1 Cor. 12:28-31; 14:1). But even so, the believers who receive these gifts unequally are themselves equal in Christ. And interestingly, in this context Paul teaches that those who have lesser gifts are themselves necessary, and that we are to treat them with great honor (1 Cor. 12:22-25).

When we investigate specific gender roles and authority in the Bible, it is instructive for us to look at the creation accounts. This is because in the ancient Near-Eastern mind, the way the world was created was the way the world was supposed to be. This view is confirmed in the Bible by what we call "creative ordinances," which are perpetual moral obligations rooted in the way God created the world. For example, Moses claimed that the Sabbath was to be observed because God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh (Exod. 20:9-11). In the same way, Paul insisted that women were not to be ordained to the office of elder because Eve was deceived in the Garden of Eden (1 Tim. 2:11-14).

Following the principle behind these creative ordinances, it is worth noting that God created man and woman with unequal authority. We see this in the fact that God gave to Adam the right to name the animals and to even to name woman (twice! Gen. 2:23; 3:20). In the ancient Near East, naming was a form of exercising authority over another (notice that God himself sometimes renamed people with whom he established special relationships, such as Abraham [formerly Abram] and Israel [formerly Jacob], affirming this principle in the Bible). But it is also important that when Adam named the woman, he gave he names that emphasized her honor and equality with him. "Woman" was simply the marked form of the word "man" (the same root word, but with a slight alteration to indicate that it is not the same thing as man). This emphasized woman's equality with man (again, not in all areas, but only in those areas in which equality really existed, such as dignity). The second time Adam named the woman, he named her "Eve, because she was the mother of all the living." This was a name that recognized the great honor of the role God had given her to play. Adam used his authority to honor Eve and to affirm her equal dignity with him, and this is the same way that men are to employ their roles today.

So then, when the Bible assigns different roles to men and to women (e.g. 1 Tim. 2:8ff.), it does not do so with an eye to some inferior dignity or value of women. Rather, it does so because God has deemed it appropriate and honoring to him for different members of his creation to fulfill different roles within that creation.

Now, I have sometimes been called "liberal" or "minimalist" in the area of gender relations (but only by conservatives -- I'm far more conservative than real liberals), meaning that I see less rigid distinction in the Bible between the roles God has assigned to men and women than most people see. So, I sometimes disagree with certain applications of Scripture made by those more conservative in this area when it comes to explaining the actual roles and obligations of each gender.

Nevertheless, the Bible clearly lays out different roles for men and women in many places, and I believe as Christians we must recognize and acquiesce to Scripture on these points. We don't always like what the Bible says, and we sometimes wish God had said something else instead. Sometimes we feel slighted: Why does God give more blessings, privileges and rights to Jews than to Gentiles? Why does he give more to men than to women? Why does he give more to adults than to children? Why do some Christians receive greater gifts? Why do others receive greater offices? Why do some have more power and money and influence, while others have so much less? Why are some born into countries where they starve to death or die of simple diseases, while others are blessed to live in countries that care for their poor and offer good medical treatment? We don't always have answers to these questions -- God hasn't chosen to reveal everything to us. And I think it might be wise for us to add some other questions to the foregoing for the sake of balance: On what basis do I think I have a right to equal blessings, equal privileges and equal rights? If God is perfect and I am not, then who is wrong when I think he has been unfair?

Finally, I think it is worth saying again that Jesus is the answer to our feelings of being slighted when it comes to issues of inequality. I am not Noah, or Abraham, or Moses, or David; I don't curry the personal favor with God that these men did. But because I am in Christ, I have as great a salvation as they do. It seems to me that the less power we have by the world's standards, and the less the world appreciates our roles, the more valuable Jesus is to us and the more glorious our salvation is. The lower we begin on the ladder, the farther we are raised when he lifts us to the top. As Paul said in Philippians 3:7-9, whatever we have in our favor we ought to count loss for the sake of gaining Christ. We need to adopt his attitude, and that of John the Baptist, who said, "He must increase, but I must decrease" (John 3:30). If God has really called us to roles we don't particularly want, it seems to me that we need to reevaluate the basis on which we don't want them. I think that when we do, we generally find that we need to be more humble, to take less pride in ourselves and more pride in Christ.

Answer by Ra McLaughlin

Ra McLaughlin is Vice President of Creative Delivery Systems at Third Millennium Ministries.