Q&A: Do Genesis 3 and Ephesians 5 make men spiritual leaders? (Part 1)

Q: Bronwen, I notice that twice in Genesis 3, God addresses Adam about the broken commandment, but doesn’t mention it to Eve. This seems to imply that God doesn’t hold her accountable as the leader, but instead holds Adam responsible as the spiritual leader. Looking forward, just as Eve was not trusted with the responsibility for upholding God’s commandment, wives aren’t trusted with the responsibility to pursue sanctification for their husbands in Ephesians 5. The husband is responsible to pursue sanctification for the wife. Have I understood this correctly?*

A. I can see how this interpretation seems to have a certain logic. But there are a number of assumptions and misunderstandings that we need to unpick here.

In this post, we will look at Genesis 1-3 to consider whether God (a) has given Adam the responsibility of being Eve’s spiritual leader and (b) whether there is some significance to who God addresses and about what in Genesis 3.

Is Adam given a leadership role before the Fall?

Let’s start by going back to the creation of human beings in Genesis 1, a key text in understanding who God has created us to be:

26 Then God said, ‘Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.’

27 So God created mankind in his own image,
    in the image of God he created them;
    male and female he created them.

28 God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.’

Nothing in this passage suggests any level of inequality between the sexes. On the contrary, the writer goes out of his way to depict them equally. Unlike in the creation stories of other Ancient Near Eastern cultures where women are depicted as being very much inferior to men, man and woman are both depicted as being made in God’s image. Both are God’s good creation. Both are given the mandate to rule over the earth, faithfully stewarding its resources. Man and woman are depicted as co-regents, ruling the world together. Bottom line: God created men and women as equals, and he said it was very good.

Genesis 2 tells the creation story from a different perspective – one which highlights the interdependence of human beings. In this version, the man is created first. Verses 16 and 17 say,

“And the Lord God commanded the man, ‘You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it, you will certainly die.'”

Notice that God is not giving this command to the man in preference to the woman, because at this point of this version of the creation story, there is as yet no woman. It would be illogical for God to be giving the man authority over something that was completely non-existent at that point in time. The man needs this command to ensure his safety in the Garden of Eden – it is appropriate therefore that God did not wait until the woman had been created to give this essential information.

While the man seemingly had everything he could possibly need in the lush garden, it did not take long for him to become aware that something very vital was missing from his life. He was lonely for deep and intimate companionship with one who was like him. God therefore promised him an ezer kenegdo – a “helper corresponding to him.” Many have interpreted this to mean that God placed the man in authority over the woman – man as the leader, woman as his assistant. But is this the case?

When we examine the use of ezer (helper) in the Old Testament, we observe that out of 21 instances of this word, two refer to the woman in Genesis 2, three to nations who give military aid to Israel at times of great need, and the remainder to God. Never does the helper have a subordinate role. Instead, these helpers come from a position of strength, providing something the person needing help cannot do for themselves. God is never our assistant! Likewise, when God provides the woman as an ezer to the man, he is not bringing a subordinate assistant into the man’s life. Instead, the word ezer suggests that the woman was to be a strong rescuer.

Hmmm…does this then make the man inferior to the woman? You will have noticed above that ezer is joined to another word – kenegdo. Kenegdo means ‘face-to-face with’ or ‘equal to’. Notice this – the text is explicit in stating that the woman as man’s helper would also be his equal. In this situation, the man was lonely for genuine companionship and an intimate relationship that the animals could not provide. The woman rescued him from this loneliness. Men and women, in an equal and mutual relationship, are both capable and gifted to provide their strength to one another in the various situations that life brings our way. There is no reason not to understand the role of ezer kenegdo as inherently reciprocal in nature.

Others say that the fact that the man came first is an indication of the authority of men over women. There are two important reasons why this doesn’t hold up logically:

(1) To argue that the “order of creation” makes man pre-eminent is faulty, unless you also want to consider caterpillars, rocks and stars – all things that were created before people – as in authority over humans. (Daft, I know.) Humankind collectively is the pinnacle of creation, not one gender of humanity.

(2) The technical term for belief that the first-born (or first created) inherits rulership is primogeniture. While that has been a common way that human society has functioned, it’s not God’s way. One need only to consider Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers, David and his brothers, and Solomon (who was not David’s firstborn son), among others. Primogeniture is a human rule, and one which God persistently disrupted throughout the Old Testament. There is no logic in asserting that a rule for which God demonstrates no respect would be the reason why God would permanently subordinate women to men.

In this pre-Fall time, before sin enters the world, there is no suggestion anywhere of men being placed in a position of leadership over women.

Does Genesis 3 indicate that Adam was placed in leadership over Eve?

Sometimes, we can really go to town with ideas that just aren’t in the biblical text. Nowhere does it say or even remotely hint that God addressed the man first because he had a position of leadership – a position that had never been given to Adam. It makes no sense for God to hold Adam accountable for failing to uphold a role he was never given.

Certainly, God speaks to Adam first. But what are we supposed to take from this? If God speaking first to one person indicates him placing that person in permanent leadership over another person, then we should reasonably expect this principle to be upheld throughout the Bible. Let’s consider some other conversations between God and humans.

  • In Judges 13, the angel of the Lord (or the Lord himself – see v. 22) appears to the wife of Manoah to tell her she would become pregnant, to give instructions for the way in which the child was to live and to explain the child’s calling in life. When Manoah does not fully accept the message from his wife, God again sends the angel to his wife. It is only after speaking with her that the angel speaks to Manoah.
  • The angel Gabriel brought God’s message to Mary, speaking directly to her (and not to her father or, at this stage, to her fiancee). Mary made a life-changing decision to allow the Holy Spirit to conceive in her a child, with no man’s permission. Was Mary to be the leader over her father and husband?
  • Jesus travels to Sychar in Samaria and speaks to a woman by the well, and only later to the men and other women of the village. Was the Samaritan woman therefore to be the leader of the man who was not her husband and perhaps of all the men in the village?
  • When Jesus left the tomb, he spoke to Mary Magdalene and at least one other woman, and instructed them to share the good news with the male disciples. Does that mean that the eleven apostles were to be permanently subordinate to these women?

God spoke to both Adam and Eve in Genesis 3, giving each of them an opportunity explain themselves. The text gives no hint that there is any significance in the order of this conversation. If God had spoken firstly to Eve, do you think complementarian commentators would take this as indicative of God giving authority to women over men? On the contrary, I strongly suspect that their argument would be along the lines of, “Well, you usually go to the secretary first before you speak to the boss.”

In this passage, God is somewhat like a police officer interviewing his suspects. He asks each separately to give an account for their actions. In the culture of the time, women were not considered valid witnesses. Yet God equally approaches the woman and the man to testify about the events of that fateful day.

Does creation order place men in leadership over women?

Complementarian commentators commonly believe that “creation order” places men men in a position of leadership and women in one of submission. If this is the case, oughtn’t a wife’s submission to her husband be blessed by God, and a lack of submission punished? However, the Old Testament gives no indication that this is the case.

  • When Abigail acted in clear opposition to the wishes of her foolish husband, was she in any way censured by God? Not at all – in fact, she appears to have been blessed because of her actions. Her decisiveness saved her entire household from retribution by David and his men. Her abusive husband died shortly thereafter, and her beauty, courage and intelligence had attracted David’s attention. She went on to become a wife of the future king.
  • God directly instructed Abraham to “listen to whatever Sarah tells you” in regard to Hagar and Ishmael.
  • Hannah made a vow to the Lord that if she was blessed with a son, she would dedicate him to the Lord. Her husband Elkanah did not berate her for failing to consult him, or demand that he should make the decisions. Rather, he encouraged her to go ahead and fulfil her promise to God.

A clear ruling for women to respect their husbands through obedience is found in Esther chapter 1. However, this command is not made in accordance with the worship of the Lord. Rather, it is a law enacted by a pagan king.

Stories of women being submissive to their husbands are scarce in Scripture. One exception is the story of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5. Because she followed her husband into sin, Sapphira equally shared the consequence of that sin. Ananias’s leadership did not provide his wife with protection or excuse.

What Genesis 3 Tells Us About Men Ruling Over Women

In Genesis 3:16, we read, “Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.” Ah, at last – this appears to be a statement supporting the leadership of men over women. But is this the correct way to understand this verse?

You know the old real estate maxim – “location, location, location.” And when reading the Bible, our maxim should be “context, context, context.” From Genesis 3:14-19, God is outlining the negative consequences of the Fall. These are not things we should seek to perpetrate or promote. They are not things God requires of us, otherwise we would need to ban pain relief in childbirth and send all those men who work in comfortable, air conditioned offices out to do sweaty, physical jobs. Jesus came to redeem humanity from the effects of sin. The imbalance between the sexes, with men ruling over women, is an effect of sin in this world. From this point forward, the Old Testament quite openly depicts the negative effects of the imbalance of relationships between men and women – polygamy, rape, giving away a daughter in marriage as a prize – in many narratives, women are depicted as suffering because sin has led to them occupying a secondary place in society and in marriage rather than flourishing in the role of co-regent given to them by God in Genesis 1.

In Summary

What we can see from Genesis 1 and 2 is that men and women were designed to be equals  who would use their strength to support one another to fulfil God’s commission to them both. Arguments about the order of creation don’t hold up when taken in the proper context, and when viewed against God’s continual disregard for the cultural notion of primogeniture. Furthermore, the biblical record does not demonstrate that women’s submission was blessed or required by God in the various narratives of the Old and New Testaments. Men’s rulership of women is an outcome of the entry of sin into the world, whereas equal partnership was what we were originally designed for and is what we should aspire to.

The question of Ephesians 5 will be tackled in Part 2.

*This question arose from a post in the Facebook group, Biblical Christian Egalitarians.

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2 thoughts on “Q&A: Do Genesis 3 and Ephesians 5 make men spiritual leaders? (Part 1)

  1. Hi Bronwen, this is fantastic! The old ‘order of creation’ and ‘male headship’ arguments have – as you probably know – been re-ignited with the Lutheran Church here in Australia to discredit and undermine the work towards ordaining women … I would like to share this with our online proWO network, but of course am seeking your permission to do this, and would want to promote your work and website while doing so …. I’ve attached a lengthy statement of the Streams in the Desert Community and it’s goals etc … we have a mailing list of some 230 people in support of gender equity and the ordination of women in the LCA/NZ.

    Would it be possible to share this material? More and more people are gradually coming on board, but there is still some confusion in people’s minds around this question …. and it would be great to start the year off with this post!!

    What do you think??!!

    Kind regards and blessings on all your work,

    Brenda Jericho

    for the Streams in the Desert Community.


    1. Hi Brenda, of course – you are more than welcome. You know that I’ve been a keen on-the-sidelines supporter of women’s ordination in Australian Lutheran churches for quite some time. By the way, the attachment didn’t come through – could you email it to godsdesignperth at gmail dot com?


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