Whether we celebrate it, run from it, long for it, or seek to reconfigure it entirely, most of us would agree that the family is a crucial shaping force in our lives. In family life a whole host of concerns—psychological, political, economic, emotional and religious—converge in powerful ways that affect us directly. Family life can be both filled with joy and fraught with risk. Questions of gender and gender roles are inseparable from all of this, as the family is where most people begin to associate masculinity and femininity with particular social roles. No wonder, then, that as societies have wrestled with competing ideas about what it means to be a man or a woman, the family has been a prominent topic of discussion.
In Christian communities those discussions necessarily include references to Biblical models and mandates for families and for men and women within family structures. What the Bible says about gender and family is often the subject of fierce debate. This article in our Spotlight series takes a look at the Christian family and the role of gender. Specifically, we’ll examine the question of family leadership. We’ll consider some of the most common perspectives on this issue in the modern Christian community, and we’ll cite passages from the Bible along the way to help you begin thinking about this complex and crucial topic.
THE IDEAL OF EDEN
The book of Genesis teaches that the world we inhabit today is not the one God originally designed for human beings. The world God intended for us—before it was tainted by sin—was perfect in every sense, including in human relationships. Adam and Eve in the garden lived in perfect love and harmony with each other, a fact suggested by Adam’s reaction to Eve after he first sees her. In that moment, Adam declares, “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called ‘woman,’ for she was taken out of man” (Genesis 2:23, NIV). The verse immediately following Adam’s statement indicates that the relationship he describes is the model for marriage: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24, ESV). The Genesis account gives no detail of life in the garden before the Fall, but the language of oneness would seem to indicate both closeness and harmony: the first pair are inextricably tied to each other in a union untainted by conflict. The issue of power or hierarchy in their prelapsarian relationship is not explicitly addressed in Genesis. We are told that God gives humans—male and female—rule over the earth and animals (Genesis 1:28), but before sin there is no direct statement in this account that Adam ruled or had some special authority over Eve. However, scholars and lay people alike often point to two things—the fact that Adam is formed first, and the fact that he names Eve—as indicative of a power differential between the two. Some have argued this is a sign that man’s authority over woman is part of God’s original design. Others believe that line of reasoning is an intentionally sexist misinterpretation of a detail in the text. They point to the “one flesh” passage, which is often quoted at weddings, as the clearer and more accurate indication of God’s intent for men and women in marriage: loving communion without domination or subordination by husband or wife.
LEGACIES OF THE FALL
There is no disagreement, however, about one fact: sin changes everything for the worse. Adam and Eve’s disobedience brings immediate and lasting damage to their relationship, and the meaning of God’s specific punishment for each of them is a subject of considerable dispute. Adam’s punishment is hard labor and eventual death: “Cursed is the ground because of you,” God tells him. “Through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field…By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground” (Genesis 3:17-19, NIV). Part of Eve’s punishment is that her “toil in childbearing will be multiplied; in pain [she will] bring forth children”; the other part is this: “Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you” (Genesis 3:16, ESV). There has been much scrutiny over the meaning of the word translated as “desire” in this passage, but there is a good deal of scholarly consensus that it means desire for rule/dominance rather than sexual or erotic desire. (Scholars who hold this position cite another passage in which the same word is used when God tells Cain, Adam & Eve’s son, “If you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it” (Genesis 4:7, ESV).) In this reading, Eve is punished by being placed in a conflict for dominance over Adam. The loving harmony of one flesh becomes warped into the proverbial “battle of the sexes.”
History and personal experience bear witness to the fact that the troubles Adam and Eve brought on themselves are part of human reality: having to work against nature in order to secure food, experiencing pain in childbirth, and facing conflict and even violence within the family have all been part of our collective life on earth. In most cultures throughout human history—although to different degrees and in different ways—women as a group have held less social, political, and economic power than men. But what are we to make of the consequences of sin described in Genesis, and the way these patterns pervade human experience throughout history? Is there indeed a direct line from Genesis 3:16 to the subordination and even the oppression of women in family structures? Does this verse constitute a mandate for all relations between men and women inside the family? Simplistic answers or knee-jerk reactions don’t take us very far, and one of the goals of this piece is to seek what is often termed “the whole counsel of Scripture”—in other words, other statements from the Bible that might have a bearing on these same questions—before moving toward conclusions. Genesis 3:16 is neither God’s first nor final word in the Bible about men and women in family life. Indeed, there is more offered to us in terms of examples and specific instructions.
THE QUESTION OF HIERARCHY
One strain of Christian teaching holds that a gendered hierarchy within the home, with men holding primary authority, is God-ordained, both by the order of creation (Adam was formed first) and by the punishment for sin (Genesis 3:16, discussed above). Chapter 5 of the Apostle Paul’s letter to the church at Ephesus is also cited as endorsement for such a position. In that passage Paul instructs wives to “submit to [their] own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is head of the wife, as also Christ is head of the church” (Ephesians 5:22-23). In its most extreme form, the line of interpretation I outline here places men in positions of absolute and final authority within their own homes: Men make decisions about money, children, sex, and just about everything else. If couples disagree, his opinion carries. For most American Christians in mainline denominations, this smacks of the Stone Age; the position seems absurd and even dangerous, especially because unquestioned absolute authority so often creates conditions that breed emotional and physical abuse. We would be hard pressed to find mainline churches advocating absolute male authority within the home in these terms, not only because it offends most modern sensibilities, but also because autocratic patriarchy seems misaligned with the character and actions of Jesus.
There is, however, a more prominent strain of interpretation that rejects the extreme autocratic model without abandoning the concept of hierarchy altogether. This perspective, sometimes labeled “complementarian,” looks to the same chapter of Ephesians as a model for Christian home life, often citing verse 25: “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave himself for her” (NKJV). Another section from the same passage also informs this point of view, and it is Paul’s reference to the Genesis “one flesh” idea: “Husbands ought to love their own wives as their own bodies; he who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as the Lord does the church” (Ephesians 5: 28-29). In this same chapter Paul goes on to cite Genesis 2:24: “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh” (Ephesians 5:31). Paul calls for both the submission of the wife to her husband, and the sacrificial love of the husband for his wife: he instructs husbands to die to their own needs and desires as Christ suffered and died to save us. Rev. Robert P. Merki, a pastor in the Church of the Nazarene, notes that the call on the husband in this passage seems far more demanding than the call on the wife. Selfless sacrificial love is, after all, no small order, and respect for such love would seem to be warranted. Moreover, as Merki and many complementarian believers would be quick to note, sacrificial love cannot be harsh or demeaning. The famous passage on love—1 Corinthians 13—gives a clear description of what such love looks like. As the passage says, love is patient and kind, and seeks the good of others before the self. Moreover, Christ’s death on the cross offers us the most vivid, concrete example of sacrificial love.
According to this second line of thought, then, husbands do hold positions of authority and primary responsibility within the family, but that authority manifests itself mainly in sacrificial love. Wives are called to “respect” their husbands in that role (Ephesians 5:33). Hierarchy and love in this model are not incompatible, nor is the husband’s authority a license to abuse or demean the wife. From this perspective, Ephesians 5 teaches us that Christ’s example (in his death on the cross for the sins of others) changes the husband-wife contest for power, which is described as a punishment for sin in Genesis 3:16, by transforming the exercise of a man’s authority within the context of family from a curse that causes distress and resentment into an act of love whose ultimate purpose is to draw all members of a family closer to God. Believers in the complementarian model hold that these different roles (husband as primary decision-maker and final authority; wives as essential and important helpers who inform but ultimately defer to that authority) are God-ordained from before the Fall, and that they have implications for life in and outside the family. For example, the complementarian Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW), an American Christian organization (not a church), affirms in their “core beliefs,” that “in the church, redemption in Christ gives men and women an equal share in the blessings of salvation,” but they maintain that, “Male headship [of the family and other institutions] is restored in the Christian community as men and women endeavor to express their common humanity according to God’s originally created and good hierarchical design.” Wives, according to their complementarian view, are called to offer “intelligent and willing submission” to their husband’s authority. The word “intelligent” emphasizes the CBMW’s position that women have God-given minds, talents and gifts, and that wives are not simply robots or slaves who shouldn’t make any decisions at all. In terms of the family specifically, the organization holds that “husbands should forsake harsh or selfish leadership and grow in love and care for their wives; wives should forsake resistance to their husbands’ authority and grow in willing, joyful submission to their husbands’ leadership.” In support of their complementarian position, the CBMW cites several passages of scripture, including 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, and 1 Timothy 2:11-15. The Corinthians passage has to do with behavior in churches, but verse 3 states, “But there is one thing I want you to know: The head of every man is Christ, the head of woman is man, and the head of Christ is God” (NLT). The passage in 1 Timothy 2:12 also speaks of a woman not being allowed to “have authority over a man” (NLT). Both of these passages are from the letters of the Apostle Paul. They also cite Colossians 3:18-19 and Titus 2:3-5. The verses in Colossians state, “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives and do not be harsh with them” (NIV). Titus 2:3-5 exhorts older women in the church to “be reverent in behavior, not slanderers or slaves to much wine. They are to teach what is good, and so train the young women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled, pure, working at home, kind, and submissive to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be reviled” (ESV). Another passage cited by CBMW, 1 Peter 3:1-7, calls wives to “be submissive to [their] own husbands,” and husbands to “dwell with [their wives] 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” (1 Peter 3: 1,7).
Complementarians, like those who are part of the CBMW, often emphasize that although they believe men ought to be authorities within the home, the difference in roles does not imply a difference in value, whether social or spiritual. That is to say, most complementarians do not believe women should be subordinate because women are lesser beings who are somehow not spiritual enough or gifted enough to make decisions or serve God and others. Indeed, one of the ideas behind the concept of “complementary” roles is that the different spouses perform functions that are each necessary to the overall well-being of the family. The difference in roles is simply God’s design, and therefore both necessary and good, according to this view.
THE MATTER OF EQUALITY
For many Christians, both the stark authoritarian model and the loving but still hierarchical complementarian model of family relationships are problematic because the concept of hierarchy itself is problematic. Those who share this belief—often labeled egalitarian—reject the notion that gender roles within the family and in society generally are fixed, and that men alone have been designated to teach and govern. Egalitarians often cite Galatians 3:26-28 as affirmation of their perspective. Those verses read, “For you are all children of God through faith in Christ Jesus. And all who have been united with Christ in baptism have put on Christ, like putting on new clothes. There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus” (NLT). In an opinion piece originally published in Christianity Today, Dr. Sarah Sumner, former dean of AW Tozer Theological Seminary, who identifies herself with this egalitarian perspective, sums up this position in her statement, “I believe that God calls both men and women to serve as pastors, preachers, and leaders of the full congregation. I also believe that Christ, not the husband, should be the leader of every marriage, since Jesus Christ alone is Lord and Savior.” (Non-egalitarians object that the Galatians 3 passage is speaking about salvation—i.e. , all can be saved through faith in Christ, not only those who inhabit socially superior positions—not about roles in earthly society.)
Egalitarians like Sumner and author Rachel Held Evans also point to Genesis 2 in support of their position. Evans writes, “To be ‘created in the image of God’ carries significant leadership implications as well. In the ancient Near Eastern world, kings were considered divine image-bearers, appointed representatives of God on earth. Kings would often place images of themselves, usually statues, in distant parts of their kingdoms to remind their subjects of their sovereignty over the land.” Thus, in Evans’ opinion, “for man and woman to be God’s image-bearers in this context, means that God has entrusted both men and women with ruling the world on God’s behalf.”
“Let us make human beings in our image,” God says, “after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish,…birds, cattle,…all the wild animals…every creeping thing” (Genesis 1:26, ESV). This dominion, Evans maintains, is shared by male and female humans, and there is no fixed call for males to hold authority over females in the context of marriage. Evans and many other egalitarians maintain that although there are some obvious and consistent differences between men and women in terms of biology, those differences do not imply an inevitable hierarchy in terms of essence or roles within the family and society. Moreover, like many other egalitarians, Evans uses Genesis 3:16 as evidence for her position that “it is within the context of judgment, not creation, that hierarchy and subjugation enter the Bible’s story of man and woman. Where there was once mutuality, there is subjugation. Where there was once harmony, there is a power-struggle.” Egalitarians seek to recover this mutuality in the context of Christian marriage, family, & society, and for many egalitarians, any kind of hierarchy of gender roles is problematic. Most egalitarians would maintain that decision-making within the family is to be accomplished by negotiation and discussion between husbands and wives who are equal in status.
It is important to note, however, that the egalitarian position outlined here in very broad terms does not simply assert that no one should submit to anyone else for any reason. Rather, many egalitarians embrace the position of passages like Ephesians 5:21 (“Submit to one another in the fear of God”) and 1 Peter 5:5 (“Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for ‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble’” (ESV). They believe submission and humility are part of the call on all Christians to show kindness, be generous, defend the weak and vulnerable, and serve other people out of love for God and for one another. For them, servant leadership is something both men and women can offer each other.
THE QUESTION OF CULTURE & CHANGE
As 21st-century people, new Christians today can sometimes have a difficult time deciding what examples and instructions apply to the particular cultural and historical context of ancient Israel or ancient Rome, and what applies to all people across time and despite cultural heritage or setting. This is no less true about questions involving gender roles. The worlds in which the Bible writers lived were invariably patriarchal: men as a group (and often as individuals) held authority over women politically, legally and socially, and this manifested itself in family life as well. Although there were clear differences between the cultures of ancient Israel and 2nd-century Greece or Rome, it is quite safe to say that women were subordinate beings in all of these societies. In contrast, many cultures in our modern world are consciously abandoning the patriarchal structures of authority within the family, condemning those configurations as inherently oppressive to women and children (and, some have argued, to men as well). American Christians live in such a culture, so it would be easy in this setting to think, “equality=good,” “hierarchy=bad,” ergo anything that smacks of hierarchy must be rejected.
But culture is not our final authority; God is. The Bible does not endorse a wholesale rejection of all authority in the name of equality (or anything else, for that matter). Indeed, Colossians 3 and 1 Peter 2 and 5 give specific instructions about respecting law, government, and even those who are our elders. Ephesians 6, a continuation of the same Ephesians 5 passage discussed earlier, gives instructions for children in families, servants, and masters. Both the Old and New Testaments show that authority structures are part of God’s loving and protective design (God being the final authority who judges both rulers and ruled when they choose to do wrong – see 1 Samuel 24:5-6 and Romans 13:1). In the context of this discussion on gender and family, one cannot simply dismiss passages on family authority (Ephesians 5, Colossians 3:18-22) on the grounds that they are of another time and culture. Part of our responsibility as Christians is to seek out the truths revealed in God’s word and to pray for the Holy Spirit to give us the discernment and wise counsel we need to make decisions, including decisions about family life and structures of authority.
WHAT DOES ALL OF THIS LOOK LIKE?
In an absolute authoritarian model, husbands make all decisions about larger concerns: church membership and attendance, finances, sex and contraception, and the discipline of children. Even smaller concerns have to be filtered and approved, and there is no room at all for discussion or negotiation between the spouses as equal parties. To most of us that sounds like a throwback to what we imagine life was like centuries ago: wives had to receive “permission” for every action; husbands’ words were law. This model of Christian family leadership is quite difficult to find among mainline Christians today. (It was probably hard to find even centuries ago.) That’s not to say that it doesn’t exist at all, only to emphasize that in both the larger culture and in Christian communities, families who strictly follow that model are a tiny minority. There are, no doubt, Biblical and secular reasons for this pattern: On the secular level, society has been transformed so much by our understanding of individual autonomy, women’s equality, and human rights, that a family dynamic that does not treat women as adults, and refuses wives any say in decision-making strikes nearly everyone as deeply offensive and even morally wrong. From a Biblical standpoint, mainline Christians from both the complementarian and egalitarian perspectives would argue that a husband who treats his wife as a child or slave violates clear scriptural teachings on men and women both being made in God’s image (Genesis 1:26-27); on love being self-sacrificing and kind (1 Corinthians 13); and on husbands loving their wives as they love themselves (Ephesians 5:28; Colossians 3:19). Thus, fully authoritarian family structures based on a gendered hierarchy represent a distortion of scriptural teaching that often proves harmful to the family.
Complementarian marriage, on the other hand, is more common than many Christians might think, even though that model includes a decision-making structure that gives husbands final say. Mandy Meyers, a college-educated Christian wife, mom of three, and educational activist from the Midwest, describes her loving marriage to her husband Ben in complementarian terms: “I do feel like Ben, under Christ’s leadership, is ultimately the head of our household, and that’s become more important for me to verbalize and make clear in my actions since we’ve had children. That doesn’t mean that he’s always right,” Meyers says. But because of the couple’s convictions and “to provide their family stability,” they have agreed to follow Ben’s leadership. They both consciously decided on a complementarian model, which they learned about and discussed both informally and through premarital counseling. Meyers is quick to point out that their marriage “probably looks very different from what a new Christian would imagine it to be. The stereotypes would be that the male dominates, and the good Christian wife submits without question or thought and has to ask permission for everything. I think that is the world’s misconception of what a godly or Christ-centered family is.” Instead, she describes her complementarian marriage of 15 years as “not an oppressive relationship,” but rather “a choice that I make out of love because that’s what’s best for all of us, not because it’s forced. Our relationship is not about dominance or control, but about consideration for one another.” Describing their daily life, Meyers says, “As far things that happen in our house, I don’t think either one of us would make a major decision without consulting the other. We do that out of deference to one another and because things work better that way.” Meyers also notes that she handles the family finances, including taxes and investments, “not because Ben is incapable,” but “because I like doing it, and I’m comfortable with it. Ben has no problem with it.” Ben works outside the home as a college professor, and he remains committed to embodying loving servant-leadership for his wife and family. He praises his wife for her talents and gifts, as well as her daily nurturing of their three elementary-aged children. Reflecting on their family life and on the question of family leadership Meyers says, “If we’re doing things right, it’s driven out of service to each other. I hope that our relationship is the healthiest and most accurate portrayal of a godly family life. That’s what we would strive for.”
Rev. Betsy Carmody Gonzalez, an Episcopal priest, wife, mom, and school chaplain in suburban Maryland, describes her 13-year marriage to her husband Eddie as an egalitarian one in which neither she nor her husband is a designated leader. Gonzalez notes, “There’s a division of labor in any relationship, and ours has fallen in our strength zones and interest zones.” As an example she cites the handling of the couple’s finances: “My eyes glaze over when it comes to money. I can handle it, but it’s not my thing. Money and budgets and spreadsheets—he really likes those things, and that appeals to him.” She adds that much of the care for their daughter falls to her, in part because her daughter attends the same school where she serves as chaplain. She describes one of her jobs as “keeping Ruby’s routine intact. It’s natural that I’m the person who picks her up and drops her off and watches the clock. [I’m the one who says,] I think it’s time to take a bath or go to bed.” Although the couple’s different areas of responsibility in their family life feel more traditional, Gonzalez notes, “It’s really hard for us to buy one another greeting cards because there are many things about us where we don’t follow gender stereotypes. You know how the man is always the messy one. Well, he’s not the messy one, and he loves to cook too.”
Reflecting on the benefits and challenges of an egalitarian relationship, Gonzalez says, “This model is dynamic, so there can be change and growth inside the relationship and over periods of time. That can be positive if that’s something you’re looking for. At the same time,” she adds, “If you’re not regularly checking in with each other on things, then that dynamic nature can create a problem. Since rules don’t feel hard and fast, you have to check in more often. It’s more maintenance.” Of her own marriage, Gonzalez says, “Sometimes we’re good about that, and sometimes we’re not.” Another potential challenge Gonzalez sees is that, “Expectations aren’t always as clear. There are more negotiations, and they are kind of daily,” she says. “People can also be kind of ‘score-keepy,’” she adds. “I did this, so you have to do that; or that’s your thing, and this is my thing.” Gonzalez, who counsels couples considering marriage, also adds that couples have to be thoughtful about their own family backgrounds. “I do think that there are pieces of who we are as men and women, there are still those messages that we’ve been receiving since we were very young about who men are and who women are, in terms of who does what: who handles the money, who does the cooking, and who does the cleaning. There are sometimes assumptions that come out of our family background, and we have to know what those assumptions are. Gonzalez emphasizes that in her own marriage and in her reflections on the egalitarian model, she has found that “It’s a ‘growing thing’ to be able to say, ‘Whatever you choose, I’m OK.’ That’s another piece of the egalitarian relationship that can be difficult. If everything’s a negotiation, you have to really mean what you say.” For her, two key questions for couples pursuing an egalitarian relationship are: “How do we give and take without keeping score?” and “How do you really mean what you say?”
Dr. Zandra Jordan, a college professor and preacher from Atlanta, Georgia, embraces a more egalitarian model of family leadership. Jordan maintains that “Ephesians 5:25 (“Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave himself for her.”) must be read in the context of verse 21 (submitting to one another in the fear of God).” She believes strongly that “Christ is the head of the family, and women and men are to serve each other. In the historical context, women were like property. Contemporarily, we know better…or we ought to know better. In Christ, there is no male or female, slave or free…” Describing the model she would strive for in family life, Jordan says, “I’m for allowing the Spirit to govern our dispositions in every context, including the home. If you’re stronger with finances, lead baby! If I am, thank God for blessing you with a wife who’s strong where you are not.” Jordan believes talents, gifts, and inclinations, not pre-ordained structure, should influence which spouse fulfills what role in family life. In practical terms this means discussion and negotiation lead to a decision, and neither husband nor wife has the “final say” in decision-making. Summing up her position, Jordan says, “I’m for mutual respect that allows spouses, regardless of gender, to exercise their strengths as they both follow Christ. I’m for both spouses striving to out-serve the other.” From Jordan’s perspective, then, there is no single “leader” in a marriage. Rather, each spouse takes on tasks or areas of responsibility as they believe the Holy Spirit and their own obvious gifts dictate.
Since decisions about marriage and family are crucial ones, it is important for us to make them thoughtfully and prayerfully. For Christians, that means not just thinking about what we like or what suits our personalities or backgrounds, but about how God wants us to treat each other. Christians have the benefit of God’s written word, which contains teaching about God’s designs for human families. Searching Scripture, and praying for the guidance of the Holy Spirit to lead us to sound conclusions as we do so, is a crucial part of making right choices about family life. It might also help to ask other Christians, particularly those in healthy marriages, for their wisdom about how to approach these issues. God has not left us without guidance.
Finally, we need to remind ourselves that marriage is about many things, but at its core is love, the romantic earthly kind, but more importantly for Christian marriages, the Godly kind. The Bible speaks to us clearly and often about love for God and love for each other. In fact, Jesus says that the two most important commandments in all of scripture are: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind” and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:36, 39 NKJV). Everything we do, inside or outside of the family, has to be measured in light of these two kinds of love. As we seek Godly models of family life and leadership, we must keep that truth before us.