A couple weeks back I posted “ESS, Slavery, and the Metaphysic of Oppression”. After push back from various folks, it became clear that I needed to defend my claim that I am not an egalitarian while also demonstrating that Complementarianism can and should be divorced from the blasphemy of ESS. So I posted “Complementarity Without Subordination”. Aimee Byrd and Barbara Roberts were kind enough to read and even post fantastic and instructive responses: “Hierarchy and Subordination vs. Headship and Household Mission” and “Complementarity Without Subordination: What Does it Look Like?” I also received very helpful and constructive comments from Rev. Sam Powell and Rachel Miller. I am more than honored to have received feedback from those that I have learned so much from. I’m even more honored to be considered part of the process of ironing out these important issues.
Along with many very generous and gracious words about the piece, the common critique from them all was of my insistence that the phrase “and he shall rule over you” in Genesis 3:16 is to be understood as the delegation of rightful authority rather than a description of oppressive authority. (Both Sam Powell and Rachel Miller had also written great pieces on different aspects of this subject: “Headship Is Not Hierarchy” and “The Desire of the Woman: A Response to Susan Foh’s Interpretation”.) So against my better judgement, I thought I ought to further defend/explain my position. Yes, that’s right, take the one narrow band that all of them disagreed with and make it my whole next post; proof that I am not very intelligent.
So I intend below to first summarize what I believe to be the three broadly complementarian options on the subject and then weigh them, first against whatever textual evidence might be mustered, and then against a representative selection of New Testament passages related to men and women, authority and submission. My hope in the process is that my arguments will be considered as collaborative contributions to the discussion, not as a polemic against those I most respect and continue to learn from.
Position 1: ESS Complementarity
Prior to the Fall, Adam and Eve were ordered hierarchically. Adam had authority by virtue of being formed first, being the first image of God, not being derivative of Eve, and not being formed for Eve, but rather Eve for him. Eve was under submission by virtue of being formed to help Adam, being formed from Adam, and bearing the image of God by bearing the image of Adam.
Upon the introduction of sin and rebellion, largely due to Eve’s usurpation of Adam’s authority, God pronounces curses upon His creation and disordered desires are introduced into the relation between Adam and Eve; Eve is now prone to seek ungodly dominance over Adam (her “desire” is for him) and Adam is prone to respond with ungodly use of authority, domination, and antagonistic rule (“he shall rule over” Eve). Thus, for ESS Complementarians, as also affirmed in the Danvers Statement, headship as hierarchical order of authority existed before the fall and was distorted by the fall. In this position, Genesis 3:16 is entirely descriptive. Wayne Grudem writes,
Genesis 3:16 should never be used as a direct argument for male headship in marriage. But it does show us that the Fall brought about a distortion of previous roles, not the introduction of new roles. The distortion was that Eve would now rebel against her husband’s authority, and Adam would misuse that authority to rule forcefully and even harshly over Eve. (Biblical Foundations of Manhood and Womanhood, p. 35)
Position 2: Headship Without Hierarchy
Prior to the Fall, Adam and Eve were not ordered hierarchically. Rather, Adam acted as an “household manager” with “the responsibility to tend to the mission and the purpose of the household” (“Hierarchy and Subordination vs. Headship and Household Mission”). The prelapsarian relationship was indeed ordered, Adam being created first, Eve being created for Adam as his complementary help-meet, but they are nevertheless one flesh, commissioned together by God and together given dominion over creation by God. There was no order of authority or submission per se as there is no sense in which it was necessary. As Rev. Sam Powell writes,
Before the fall, before sin entered the world, Adam and Eve served God perfectly. They did not live for themselves; their desires were not to have power over each other, but they both lived as they were created – as one flesh, in perfect unbroken harmony. We can have no idea what this was like, since our state now is far different. (“Headship Is Not Hierarchy”)
Now, upon the introduction of sin and rebellion, as with Position 1, disorder of passions and self-serving interests are introduced. Genesis 3:16 is also seen as descriptive, except in this case Eve’s desire for her husband is not interpreted as a contrary desire. Rather, as described by Rachel Miller,
Eve had just been told that childbearing would now be painful. Despite that and despite the now broken relationship between her and Adam, who had moments before blamed her for his own sin, she would continue to desire her husband. (“The Desire of the Woman: A Response to Susan Foh’s Interpretation”)
As for Adam, “he shall rule over you” is to be understood as a distortion of the prelapsarian natural complementarity wherein Adam will exert force and ungodly rule over Eve. As with Position 1, this is fully descriptive, not something that God wants to happen, yet an apt description of sin cursed human relations after the Fall.
Position 3: Complementarity Without Subordination
Prior to the Fall, Adam and Eve were not ordered hierarchically. I fully agree with Sam Powell’s description of the prelapsarian state quoted above. As I wrote before, there was no sense of hierarchy or order of authority. It is almost a category mistake to apply authority and submission to a sinless relationship between two people completely uncorrupted by sin, knowing and living fully according to their created intentions. And in response to Aimee Byrd’s question in her recent post on the subject, I am perfectly fine with referring to the prelapsarian relationship as headship, so long as it is not saddled with the baggage of ESS Complementarity’s definition of “headship”. I also agree with Barbara Roberts that natural complementarity before the fall included (and includes) “man’s duty to protect the woman and the woman’s need for the man’s protection”.
Where I do differ from Position 2 is that I do not believe that Genesis 3:16 is purely descriptive. I agree fully with Rachel Miller’s assessment of “your desire shall be for your husband”, but not fully with the interpretation of “and he shall rule over you”.
Upon the introduction of sin and rebellion, God introduced rightful authority, where it had not existed before. Prior to the fall and disobedience of our first parents, a natural created complementarity functioned in the household without disorder, self-service, antagonism, etc. After the Fall, the passions of men and women became distorted and sinful and relations became disordered. Thus God introduced rightful authority to mitigate the disorder and to carry on the complementary mission that was prescribed before the Fall. In like manner, God eventually introduced rightful civil authority and rightful ecclesiastical authority and for the very same reason.
Now of course all authority can be, and is often, misused. But such wicked use of authority is not sanctioned by God and is contrary to God’s delegated right to rule. God defines for us what godly authority looks like, as discussed before, in Matthew 20:25-28, John 13:1-15, Ephesians 5:22-33, and the like. And, to rehash, (1) this authority is delegated, i.e., not due to one’s subsistence, personhood, or gender (Rom. 13:1); (2) submission is to the Lord, not a duty to persons by virtue of their personhood; (3) just, godly, and rightful authority is never a sanction for oppression and self-service; it is always self-sacrificial service, whether in the home, the state, or the church; and (4) it is always temporary. Authority has been introduced to human relations as a result of sin and will be put to an end by Christ at the consummation (1 Cor. 15:24). Authority itself is not evil. It is a true blessing to fallen humanity, though simply unnecessary and inapplicable to sinless humanity.
Mâshal = Oppressive Authority?
It is assumed by most (if not all) who argue that Genesis 3:16 is purely descriptive that the “rule” in “he shall rule over you” is an oppressive and antagonistic rule resulting from the disorder of sin. Grudem argues that the root word translated “rule” in the passage, viz., mâshal, itself conveys the rule between unequals, by force, and is oppressive. Of mâshal he writes,
This term is common in the Old Testament, and it regularly, if not always, refers to ruling by greater power or force or strength. It is used of human military or political rulers, such as Joseph ruling over the land of Egypt (Gen. 45:26), or the Philistines ruling over Israel (Judg. 14:4; 15:11), or Solomon ruling over all the kingdoms that he had conquered (1 Kings 4:21). It is also used to speak of God ruling over the sea (Ps. 89:9) or God ruling over the earth generally (Ps. 66:7). Sometimes it refers to oppressive rulers who cause the people under them to suffer (Neh. 9:37; Isa. 19:4). In any case, the word does not signify one who leads among equals, but rather one who rules by virtue of power and strength, and sometimes even rules harshly and selfishly. (Biblical Foundations of Manhood and Womanhood, p. 34)
I think most of this is useless information as every word translated “rule”, “dominion”, or “authority” in the Scripture is used with the above sense at various points. But if we stick more closely to the context, we can see that the case for mâshal by itself indicating oppressive rule is at best unconvincing.
Two different root words are translated “rule” or “dominion” in the opening chapters of Genesis and continue to be the most common throughout the Old Testament Canon. The first, of course is mâshal, and the second radah. I was struck while studying these terms that some commentators are certain that mâshal is oppressive and radah is not, while others just as forcefully assert the exact opposite. What does seem to be certain is that as we widen our aperture beyond the context of the Books of Moses we see that the sense of the two terms are often indistinguishable. But in our current context, I believe we can make some positive assertions that contradict the assumptions of Positions 1 and 2.
To begin with, we first encounter mâshal in Genesis 1:16-18:
Then God made two great lights: the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night. He made the stars also. God set them in the firmament of the heavens to give light on the earth, and to rule over the day and over the night, and to divide the light from the darkness. And God saw that it was good.
This is the very first mention of rule, governance, or dominion in the Scripture. In verses 16 and 18 we see the Sun ruling the day and the Moon the night. So right away, it is difficult to see how the word mâshal itself could of necessity carry with it the notion of rule by oppression. It makes little sense to say the Sun oppresses the day by force and the Moon the night.
The very next “rule” we encounter in Genesis is radah in 1:26, 28:
Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” (v. 26)
Then God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” (v.28)
Here we have radah conjoined with the requirement to “subdue” or bring into subjection. We also have a rule or dominion between patent unequals, those created in the image of God are given authority over the rest of creation. The very next mention of “rule” or its cognates is Genesis 3:16. For one reading through the first chapters of Genesis (and beyond), there is certainly nothing indicating that mâshal in Genesis 3:16 represents oppressive authority. In fact, given the associations of mâshal vs. radah in the opening narratives, the exact opposite would appear more likely.
If we widen the context a bit from here to the other Books of Moses, we do see both words being used in similar ways, but it is interesting to note that the very next time radah is used after Genesis 1 is in Leviticus 25, concerning Israelite slaves:
You shall not rule over him with rigor, but you shall fear your God. (25:43)
And you may take them as an inheritance for your children after you, to inherit them as a possession; they shall be your permanent slaves. But regarding your brethren, the children of Israel, you shall not rule over one another with rigor. (25:46)
He shall be with him as a yearly hired servant, and he shall not rule with rigor over him in your sight. (25:53)
In each case radah is an oppressive rule that is forbidden. We next see radah in the curses pronounced in Leviticus 26:
I will set My face against you, and you shall be defeated by your enemies. Those who hate you shall reign over you, and you shall flee when no one pursues you. (v. 17)
Here again radah rule is oppressive.
This is not to suggest that mâshal cannot be used in contexts to express the same ideas as radah, but rather that we ought not make any assumptions from the word itself as found in Gesesis 3:16, for, if anything, the evidence leans strongly in the other direction. Consistent with my interpretation outlined in Position 3 above, mâshal is perfectly consonant with godly authority, although it may nevertheless be perverted as can all authority. As King David hymns of mâshal rule in his last words,
“The God of Israel said,
The Rock of Israel spoke to me:
‘He who rules over men must be just,
Ruling in the fear of God.
And he shall be like the light of the morning when the sun rises,
A morning without clouds,
Like the tender grass springing out of the earth,
By clear shining after rain.’ (2 Sam. 23:3-4)
Mâshal is a true blessing when carried out in the fear of the Lord. Understanding mâshal in this light, as not itself implying oppression, seems also to fit much better with the correct understanding of “and your desire shall be for your husband”. In Position 2 we have a one sided antagonism with the woman desiring her husband like the lover in the Song of Songs while the husband alternatively seeks to oppress and subjugate his bride. If we understand mâshal as not intrinsically oppressive and even often a blessing, we no longer have this one-sided antagonism, but rather a good desire that can become sinful and a rightful authority which also can become sinful.
Mâshal as Descriptive?
The very next place we come across mâshal after Genesis 3:16 is when God warns Cain in Genesis 4:7:
So the Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry? And why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin lies at the door. And its desire is for you, but you should rule over it.”
Here the construction of the last sentence is nearly identical to that of Genesis 3:16, “Your desire shall be for your husband, And he shall rule over you.” Without the need for much argument, I think we can see clearly that mâshal in this statement is in fact prescriptive. It simply cannot be the case that God here is describing what will occur with Cain, for he goes on to murder his brother. It makes much better sense to say that this rule is prescribed, and so most translators follow.
Another interesting passage for this discussion is in Exodus 21:
“And if a man sells his daughter to be a female slave, she shall not go out as the male slaves do. If she does not please her master, who has betrothed her to himself, then he shall let her be redeemed. He shall have no right to sell her to a foreign people, since he has dealt deceitfully [treacherously] with her. And if he has betrothed her to his son, he shall deal with her according to the custom of daughters. If he takes another wife, he shall not diminish her food, her clothing, and her marriage rights. And if he does not do these three for her, then she shall go out free, without paying money.” (vs. 7-11)
In this passage again we have mâshal, and in the precise form as in Genesis 3:16, yim·šōl. In this passage it is clearly used as rightful authority. We know this because this right to authority is lost if there is treachery, deceit, or violation of the marital rights of the wife. It is not merely a description of the husband’s authority since the right to it can be lost through treachery.
Based upon the above textual evidence, I would not so much conclude that “and he shall rule over you” must be prescriptive, but I would say it is definitely not purely descriptive. In reality, I don’t actually believe that the issue between Positions 2 and 3 is so much prescriptive vs. descriptive, but is rather an issue of rightful vs. un-rightful authority. Position 1 argues that rightful authority existed before the fall by virtue of the very creation of Adam and Eve and that un-rightful authority is being described in Genesis 3:16. Position 2 argues that complementary order without authority existed before the fall but agrees with Position 1 that Genesis 3:16 describes un-rightful rule. I argue that it is enough for Position 3 to merely say that rightful authority is intentionally introduced by God in Genesis 3:16, for the purpose of guarding the original natural complementarity which had been corrupted by sin.
Positions 2 and 3 In Light of New Testament Evidence
I believe the best evidence for Position 3 is its interpretive power and consistency when applied to the various New Testament passages regarding men and women, authority and submission. Position 1, ESS Complementarity, has been thoroughly critiqued in previous posts so I will focus primarily on Positions 2 and 3 below.
1 Corinthians 11:3-12
But I want you to know that the head of every man is Christ, the head of woman is man, and the head of Christ is God. Every man praying or prophesying, having his head covered, dishonors his head. But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head, for that is one and the same as if her head were shaved. For if a woman is not covered, let her also be shorn. But if it is shameful for a woman to be shorn or shaved, let her be covered. For a man indeed ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man. For man is not from woman, but woman from man. Nor was man created for the woman, but woman for the man. For this reason the woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels. Nevertheless, neither is man independent of woman, nor woman independent of man, in the Lord. For as woman came from man, even so man also comes through woman; but all things are from God.
Position 2: It seems to me that Position 2 must see the headship being endorsed here, including the from-whom and for-whom order, as descriptive of the natural complementarity and rightful headship (“household management”) endorsed before and after the Fall. So my first question is, when Paul concludes the argument with, “this is the reason the woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head,” is this authority included in the natural complementarity? (Note that the creation account and natural complementarity are given as the “reason” for having the symbol of authority.) If so, then it seems that authority and hierarchy did indeed precede the fall and are in fact concomitants of the very personhood and subsistence of men and women and we are back to Position 1. A second option might be that for cultural reasons a “symbol of authority” is needed to accommodate the wider culture, in order to not hinder the work of Gospel proclamation. But why then would this be rooted in the creation account itself? A third possibility is that this authority is part of the described un-rightful rule introduced by sin in Genesis 3:16; but why then is it endorsed by the Apostle? Or, last, this authority is somehow consonant with the prelapsarian state without implying hierarchy. While difficult to understand, maybe some reasoning could be produced to support this last option. But whatever this reasoning would be, it is shattered by the final verse:
Nevertheless, neither is man independent of woman, nor woman independent of man, in the Lord. For as woman came from man, even so man also comes through woman; but all things are from God.
Why would Paul include this “nevertheless”? He seems to be saying that although this relation of authority exists and is endorsed, it is in principle untrue of those in Christ (Gal. 3:28), understood as eschatologically realized (under the already but not yet). But if he believed this authority to somehow be a part of the prelapsarian state, yet without hierarchy, why would he make the contrast? It seems to make little sense to contrast the state of sinlessness after the glorification (and in principle now) with the state of sinlessness prior to the fall if neither include hierarchy.
Position 3: I would argue it makes much more sense to see the authority described here as not included in the natural complementarity, not necessarily contrary to it, but rather added to it, in order to guard and maintain it against the disordering forces of sin. This allows us to maintain the prelapsarian natural and complementary order without including an unwarranted assumption of created hierarchy. It also helps us to see that the postlapsarian authority described by Paul is indeed rightful and is to be endorsed. And last, it makes sense of the “nevertheless” as this authority is temporary and will be put to an end when the prelapsarian state is restored.
1 Corinthians 14:34-35
Let your women keep silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak; but they are to be submissive, as the law also says. And if they want to learn something, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is shameful for women to speak in church.
Position 2: In order to retain Position 2’s assumption that Genesis 3:16 as purely descriptive, the “law” referred to above must be just the creational order, the from-whom and for-whom, described a few chapters earlier. The “law” cannot be Genesis 3:16 itself, for under Position 2 it is merely descriptive and cannot therefore be appealed to as a prescription. But this again leaves us with some unwanted consequences. First, it was while publicly praying and prophesying that women were required to have the “symbol of authority” in the earlier chapter, yet in this context they are told to be silent. Not only that, but is it really the Apostle’s aim to show that women must be silent because of the natural complementarity, that is, by virtue of their very creation, order, subsistence, and personhood?
Position 3: If we can, alternatively, take the “law” being referenced as Genesis 3:16 itself, i.e., the introduction of rightful authority to mitigate the consequences of sin and continue the joint commission of husband and wife, then we can also maintain that it is not the very subsistence or personhood of women that is leveraged as the basis of Paul’s prohibition. To be sure, I believe that to properly understand this passage and make sense of the prohibition there is much cultural and local contextual interpretation needed; but all of that is ruled out of court if the law spoken of is the very order of creation and the natural complementarity.
1 Timothy 2:12-15
And I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man, but to be in silence. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived, fell into transgression. Nevertheless she will be saved in childbearing if they continue in faith, love, and holiness, with self-control.
Position 2: With reference to “for Adam was formed first, then Eve,” all of the same concerns as discussed above apply and I presume do not have to be reiterated. But here we have an additional problem, the inclusion into the argument of, “And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived, fell into transgression.” 1 Timothy 2:12-15 makes explicit references to the Genesis 3 narrative. If we are to see Genesis 3:16 as purely descriptive, then we must conclude that Paul’s prohibition of teaching and having authority is intentionally leveraged on a description of the events, not a consequent prescription due to the events.
But what would be Paul’s reasoning here if this is so? It seems we would be left with something like the interpretation of those who would endorse the simple metaphysic of “unequal in nature, therefore unequal in authority”. Such propose that Eve (and therefore women in general), showed herself to be easily deceived and therefore naturally not equipped to teach and rule in the church. If Position 2 is maintained, then being prohibited from the right to teach men or have authority over men cannot be understood as due to a prescribed order of authority resulting from the Fall, but must be hinged on the narrative of events itself.
By reasoning from the deception, we must either see the prohibition as imposed as a result of the deception, or see the deception itself as indicative of inability to teach men or have authority over men (or something similar). If Genesis 3:16 is simply descriptive, then a proscription of such duties could not be the result of the Fall; rather, the proscription must result from the nature of Eve.
Position 3: It seems clear to me that all of this difficulty is washed away if this is read with the assumption that Genesis 3:16 declares an intended and rightful authority, delegated to maintain the natural complementarity in the face of the disordering consequences of sin. This passage in many ways parallels Genesis 3:16. Note that it does not say that women should not teach or have authority in general in the church, but rather says they should not teach or have authority over men (“he shall rule over you”). It also concludes with a reference to being “saved in childbearing,” a difficult clause that nevertheless clearly points to Genesis 3:16 (“I will greatly multiply your sorrow and your conception;
In pain you shall bring forth children”). Thus, consequent to Eve’s sin, she is prohibited to have authority over men in the church, as prescribed in Genesis 3:16. This is the only interpretation that can maintain any form of complementarity at all and not fall into either the simple metaphysic of inequality, or the inequality of equals.
1 Peter 3:1-7
Wives, likewise, be submissive to your own husbands, that even if some do not obey the word, they, without a word, may be won by the conduct of their wives, when they observe your chaste conduct accompanied by fear…. For in this manner, in former times, the holy women who trusted in God also adorned themselves, being submissive to their own husbands, as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord, whose daughters you are if you do good and are not afraid with any terror.
Husbands, likewise, dwell with them with understanding, giving honor to the wife, as to the weaker vessel, and as being heirs together of the grace of life, that your prayers may not be hindered.
Position 2: Since we have already covered most of the ground necessary to account for passages like this, I will only note here the example given of Sarah’s obedience to Abraham and her calling him “lord” (we could insert here also the “obedience” commanded in Titus 2:5). It is interesting to note that the root Greek word here translated “lord” is kurios, the same root used for mâshal in the LXX translation of Genesis 3:16. But I don’t intend to make much of this. What is important, as before, is the question: is this due obedience and submission part of the natural complementarity expressed before the Fall? Or is it the described authority resulting from the Fall? If the former, then we devolve into Position 1. If it is the oppressive rule under the descriptive interpretation, why then is it enjoined?
And further, why does Peter add, “Husbands, likewise, dwell with them with understanding, giving honor to the wife, as to the weaker vessel, and as being heirs together of the grace of life, that your prayers may not be hindered”? This produces the same quandary for Position 2 as does the “nevertheless” in 1 Corinthians 11.
Position 3: On Position 3, Peter’s reminder that we are “heirs together of the grace of life” is simply indicative of the temporary nature of this authority, that it is not natural to our creation, nor natural to the created complementarity, nor in principle even true of those in Christ now. But it is nevertheless enjoined and rightful, until the consummation.
What is probably most clear to all readers of this post is that it has become way too long and is beginning to verge on redundancy; I apologize. But I truly do hope that Position 3 can be weighed and judged objectively as an alternative to Positions 1 and 2—as a Complementarity Without Subordination that rejects the Metaphysic of Oppression, and is both motivated by the word of God and in turn clarifies our interpretation of the same. Honestly, I think the most prohibitive aspect of Position 3 is that it allows the word “rule” into the realm of godly headship (blame the rampant “Christian” misuse of authority to justify abuse). But I think I have explained thoroughly in the last post, and in the summary of Position 3 above, what rightful authority looks like. And what is not in accord with that description is simply not rightful nor endorsed by the Scripture or by me.
Further, Position 2 proponents will also need to account for the language of “authority” and “obedience” and “rule” as it is found in the New Testament; but their options are limited. Such language is either applicable to the prelapsarian created complementarity and as such devolves into the Metaphysic of Oppression. Or it is inapplicable to the post-lapsarian state, contra the New Testament witness. Or last, we somehow change the meanings of the terms so that they are applicable to the prelapsarian state as well, but then we can make no sense of the “nevertheless” of Paul or the similar in Peter, nor the temporality of all hierarchy.
Option 3, Complementarity Without Subordination, avoids all of these pitfalls.