The Origins of the Debate (Women in Ministry pt. 3)

“To the woman he said: “I will make your pangs in childbirth exceedingly great; in pain you shall bring forth children, yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.”

Genesis 3:16 (NRSV)

This blog post is the third of a few entries on the topic of women in ministry leadership.

I recommend that you read these posts in chronological order. If you haven’t yet checked out the posts that have appeared in this series before this one, I’d start there. Click on this link to read the first one: What about Junia?

A Look at Genesis 3

What you believe about women in ministry leadership is largely determined by how you understand Genesis 3:16.

Is this passage prescriptive? Is it descriptive? Does it refer to a new permanent reality that humanity will now face because of sin? And, if it is describing an effect of the Fall, what was the original norm this has now replaced?

Genesis 3 tells the story of creation’s undoing. The first couple falls for the temptation to “be like God” (Genesis 3:5), and in doing so, disobey the Lord’s command. Eve sides with the serpent. Adam and Eve eat from the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. God’s created world conspires against Him. Sin enters into creation.

After God confronts the first couple for their actions, He then lists several consequences that will take effect because of their irresponsibility. The serpent is cursed to slither on its belly and to eat dust for the rest of its days. There will also be great tension between its offspring and the woman’s offspring. God curses the man by introducing toil. Tilling soil will no longer be easy; sweat will be involved. The ground itself will now produce thorns and thistles to further hinder the process. God curses the woman by increasing the pain of childbirth. And, in the midst of these curses, God also decrees this:

Your desire will be for your husband,
yet he will rule over you.”

Before we tackle the specifics of Genesis 3:16, it’s important to notice the function of this portion of Genesis 3 as a whole.

In Genesis 3:8-19, God is declaring pedagogic punishments. He is uttering curses, but these curses have the purpose of reminding the created world, and inadvertently all humans, about what was lost when sin entered into God’s good world. 

The serpent did not respect the harmony that existed within the created order between humans and animals; now, he will learn to respect this boundary by way of the enmity between the woman and the serpent’s offspring. And more, because the serpent overstepped its bounds in revealing to the first couple that their “eyes would be opened” if they ate from the tree, the status of the serpent has now been lowered as far as it can go. It will crawl along the ground eating dust.

Because Adam chose to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil despite the direct command not to, and in spite of the abundance of provisions that the Lord provided for them in Eden, God cursed the ground. Now Adam, when feeling the sweat on his brow, will always remember what he once had. The soil use to produce food without toil. But because the first couple spurned the gift of food, gathering food will become much more difficult.

In Genesis 2:17, God told the first couple that they: “must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for on the day you eat from it, you will certainly die.” Adam and Eve knew this, but they deliberately chose to ignore God’s warning. And as a consequence, God decrees that Eve will never forget the gift of life. There will be great pains in childbirth from now on.  

In Genesis 3:16, the Lord is doing something similar.

There once was harmony in the garden. Man, woman, and the creatures of the earth co-existed in a peaceful state. However, after committing their first sin in directly disobeying God’s command, they sin again. When the Lord questions Adam, he shifts the blame to Eve (Genesis 3:12). When the Lord then question Eve, she shifts the blame to the serpent (Genesis 3:13). No one takes responsibility. Everyone turns on one another. The harmony that once existed in the garden has been lost. It has been replaced with a distorted desire for power and control.

And now, every time there is a quarreling between the sexes, Adam and Eve, as well as the rest of humanity, will be reminded about what once was but is no more.

Adam and Eve’s Relationship in the Garden

What was Adam and Eve’s relationship like before the Fall? If this curse is a distortion of something that used to be perfect, what exactly was distorted?

Some hardline complementarian traditionalists do claim that Genesis 3:16 is God’s declaration of a new design for women and men. That is, because of sin, women are now subservient to men and men are commanded to rule over women. However, this is not the view of the majority of complementarians today. Instead, most complementarians claim that Adam already had a gentle, good-natured headship over Eve in Genesis 2 as her husband. This curse in Genesis 3:16 is to be understood as a distortion of that reality. Sin has corrupted the natural ordering of the world. Wives will now desire to control their husbands, and husbands will rule harshly over their wives.[1]

Egalitarians, on the other hand, read this text differently. They do see the curse of Genesis 3:16 as a comment about the power dynamics between husband and wife, male and female. But they disagree with complementarians about Adam and Eve’s relationship before Genesis 3. Adam does not have headship over Eve. Their relationship is one of total equality, both in being and in role. 

What causes this difference? It’s that “helper” language in found in Genesis 2:18-22:

“Then the Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper corresponding to him.” The Lord God formed out of the ground every wild animal and every bird of the sky, and brought each to the man to see what he would call it. And whatever the man called a living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all the livestock, to the birds of the sky, and to every wild animal; but for the man no helper was found corresponding to him. So, the Lord God caused a deep sleep to come over the man, and he slept. God took one of his ribs and closed the flesh at that place. Then the Lord God made the rib he had taken from the man into a woman and brought her to the man.”

What does it mean for Eve to be Adam’s helper?

It was not good for Adam to be alone (Genesis 2:18). In some way, he was deficient by himself but we aren’t told the origin of this deficiency within this text.

We can assume, however, that it has something to do with the command “to be fruitful and multiply” in Genesis 1:28. But what Adam needed, according to the Lord, was an ezer,[2] a helper. We should not read this as a derogatory word. The Hebrew word ezer is neutral in status. It is actually a word that is used to describe God in several places (Genesis 49:25, Exodus 18:4, Deuteronomy 33:7, Psalm 20:3, 146:5) which means that it cannot be read as a title of inferiority. In fact, as the word appears in Genesis 2:18, we cannot read ezer here as meaning anything but equally competent. In this verse, ezer is paired with the prepositional expression kenegdo[3] which means “compatible” or “match.” She has everything that God has already invested in Adam.[4] The pair are equals.

In reality, in every single place you look in Genesis 1-2, Adam and Eve, or the biological sexes in general, are portrayed as equal in form and function.

Humanity is first mentioned in Genesis 1:26. There, the adam, not just a biological male but unified humanity, is created in God’s image and likeness. Humanity in general is then told to “rule…on the earth.” And if it wasn’t clear that this command was given to both men and women, Genesis 1:27 makes it so. Humanity’s status as made in the image of God is reiterated and both biological sexes are mentioned in relation to this phrase.

And yes, woman was formed second as Adam’s helper, but helper doesn’t indicate female submission or male headship. It actually does the opposite. The word ezer further validates the equality of the sexes in both being and role.


Nowhere in Genesis 1-3 do we find any indication that males have headship over women in the house or within ministry leadership. A complementarian reading of Genesis is foreign to the text.

In order to conclude the opposite, one would have to start with their interpretation of certain New Testament passages, like 1 Timothy 2:12-15, and then read them backwards into the creation/fall narrative. But even then, I am not convinced that reading male headship into passages like 1 Timothy 2 is the best way to understand Paul.

That will be the topic of the next blog post.  

[1] Raymond C. Ortlund Jr., “Male-Female Equality and Male Headship: Genesis 1-3,” in John Piper and Wayne Gruden, Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism, (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Publishing, 2006), 109.  

[2] עָזַר

[3] כְּנֶגְדּוֹ – Walton notes that this prepositional expression appears nowhere else in any Hebrew writings. This means that it’s meaning is hard to understand. It’s made up of two separate prepositions squished into one. Ke, which is the word “like” in Hebrew. Neged, which is a preposition that denotes that something is in opposition to another thing. Kenegdo is a “like-opposite,” a “counter-partner.” Adam and Eve correspond with one another and the were formed to serve the other. No where in this phrase can you find any hint about gender roles. See: John Walton, Genesis: The NIV Application Commentary, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001), 176-177, 191.

[4] [4] See: NET Bible (2nd ed.) note 58 on the translation of this prepositional expression in Genesis 2:18. Accessed through Accordance software.

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