Perception and Gender Roles

Bob Edwards


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Most people probably agree that men and women are different.  It’s how these differences are perceived that becomes a source of controversy. Here are four questions that can help us discern how well our perceptions align with the Bible.

1. How does our perception of gender roles develop?

Our brains are almost constantly engaged in two parallel processes; collecting sensory input from the world around us, and matching this input with associations stored in our memory.  The two processes working together generate what we call perception.

People model gender roles for us throughout our lives. Boys wear pants; girls wear skirts or dresses.  Some toy stores have “boy” sections, with dump-trucks and footballs, and “girl” sections with Barbie dolls and play kitchens.  Boys who want to play with dolls are made fun of.  Girls who like to rough-house may be described as “unladylike.” Through this process of socialization we develop our perceptions of gender.[1]

This continues into adulthood.  Certain professions have historically been associated with women (e.g. “nurse”, “teacher”).  Others have historically been associated with men (e.g. “mailman,” “policeman,” “fireman”).  But today both men and women can be letter-carriers, police officers, and fire-fighters. These shifts demonstrate how our perceptions can change over time.

2. How does this impact our understanding of the Bible?

Simply put, we “see” words in the Bible, but our perceptions influence the meanings we assign to them. I believe this was true of John Calvin when he “saw” that Eve was described as Adam’s “help” (Genesis 2:18), but “perceived” that this meant she was his “inferior aid.”[2]  When he saw the term “help,” he very likely thought he was reading “inferior aid.”  He may not have been aware of his own automatic interpretation.

Perception tends to view the world selectively, noticing what fits into the norms and expectations we have already internalized.  Contradictory evidence may not even be noticed.  Staying with the example of Calvin, we recognize an apparent oversight.  God is described as a “help” numerous times in the Bible (Psalm 70:5, 115:9, 10&11).  The biblical authors use the same Hebrew word “ezer” to describe both God and Eve.  Evidently, “help” does not indicate inferiority after all.  Calvin’s perception was not evidence-based – he was simply wrong.

Another prominent theologian from centuries past, St. Augustine, observed in the book of Genesis that Eve was taken from Adam.  In other words, Adam was her “source.”  Through a rather complex chain of reasoning, Augustine “perceived” this to mean that Adam was Eve’s “ruler.”[3]  Chronology in the creation process became associated with rank.  St. Augustine doesn’t seem to pay much attention to the apostle Paul, who refuted the chronology/rank association in his first letter to the church in Corinth: “You need to learn, however, that in Christ woman is not different from man, and man is not different from woman.  Woman may come from man, but man is born of woman.  And both come from God” (1 Corinthians 11:11-12, TIB).

3. Does the Bible provide clear descriptions of gender roles?

There are words used to describe husbands like “head,” but what meanings do we associate with this term?  At least one Bible commentary interprets “headship” to mean that husbands are “masters” who are to be “obeyed” by their wives.[4]  When Paul uses this metaphor, however, what instructions does he provide to men?  “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her” (Eph 5:25, NIV).  Is a husband instructed to be his wife’s master?  No, this command is not in the biblical text.

In his book “Desiring God,” well known author John Piper says that male authority may not be explicitly stated in the New Testament, but it is clearly implied.[5]  I can’t help thinking that he is following in the footsteps of Calvin and Augustine—assigning meanings to the text that are not really there. Male authority may be what was modeled for him at home.  It may be what he was overtly taught at church and seminary.  I’m not sure, however, that he has assigned an accurate meaning to what Jesus modeled for us as the “head” of the church:

Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:42-45, NIV).

4. What did “headship” mean to Jesus?

Rather than claiming a position of authority, we’re told that “he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.  And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross (Philippians 2:7-8, NIV).

The apostle Paul seems mindful of this when he encourages all Christians (men, women, husbands, and wives) to, “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21, NIV).  Paul then follows this command with examples of reciprocal love and service between husband and wife (see Ephesians 5:22-33).

It is important to highlight some disturbing changes that have been made to Paul’s letter to the Ephesians in some English translations of the Bible.  For example, my New King James Version (NKJV) adds the heading, “Wives Submit to Your Husbands,” after Ephesians 5:21 (i.e. submit one to another).  This heading does not appear in the Greek text.  My NKJV Bible also adds an additional command, telling wives to “submit” to their husbands in Ephesians 5:22.  The additional verb “submit” also does not appear in the Greek New Testament manuscripts.  “Submit” is used only once in Greek manuscripts of Ephesians 5:21 and 22, and the context is one of mutuality. Perceptions not only dismiss evidence that does not fit with our preconceptions, they may also alter it.

When we consider gender roles, let’s be careful not to project onto God and the Bible assumptions that we have internalized from our own social history.  Let’s not overlook or alter biblical evidence that challenges our preconceptions.  Instead, let’s seek to understand and follow the example of Jesus, who took the form of a servant.  Let us submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.

YOUR TURN: to see how our perceptions of gender roles have changed in just one generation, click on these illustrations comparing the 1931 and 1991 editions of Richard Scarry’s Best Word Book EverThoughts? 


Bio_Bob-Edwards Final


[1] Myers, D.G. (2007). Psychology: Eighth edition in modules. Holland, MI: Worth Publishers.

[2] Trombley, C. (2003). Who said women can’t teach? God’s vision for women in ministry. Gainesville, FL: Bridge-Logos.

[3] Augustine, On John, Tractate 2, § 14. Retrieved from

[4] Wenham, G. & Carson, D. (1994). New Bible commentary: 21st century edition. Downer’s GroveIL: Inter-Varsity Press.

[5] Piper, J. (1986). Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian hedonist.  Colorado Springs, CO: Multnomah Books.

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  • A copy of the commentary citation that was removed was automatically copied to my email. As I read through it, I can’t help shaking my head in wonder.

    Do complementarians really think that promoting gender equality is an attempt to deny that men and women are different?

    Do they really think that in advocating for equality between women and men in the church we are undermining parental authority in Christian homes?

    Do they really think that we are trivializing the gospel and saying that the Bible is not the infallible word of God?

    Apparently some do; at least one commentary author does–all because we disagree with his interpretation of what the Bible says about women.

    Worse than all of these distorted perceptions of us as Christians, however, is the misperception that God created women to be subject to men.

    I plan to continue challenging this damaging belief-—while at the same time I continue to celebrate the differences between women and men, believe in the inerrancy of God’s word, honour the gospel of Jesus Christ and support parents in the challenging yet rewarding task of providing support and leadership to their children.

  • Dan I’m also aware that you’re quoting the NASB regarding submission between husbands and wives. I think it’s important to point out that some of the words and phrases found in the NASB translation actually do not occur in the Greek. The command issued to wives in Eph. 5:22, “be subject” to your husbands is added by the translators. The phrase stating that wives “ought to” be subject to their husbands is also added in by the translators.

    One problem is fairly obvious. In Ephesians 5:22 an additional command is literally added to the Bible. In reality, the Greek text of Ephesians 5:21 and 22 is one sentence, with one verb: “Submit one to another out of reverence for Christ.” The context is mutual; not unilateral. The non-biblical command in verse 22 is unilaterally addressed to wives.

    The second problem is less obvious, but still evident. The statement that wives “ought to” be subject to their husbands expresses submission as an action that wives “ought to” take. The form of the verb used in the Greek, however, is not active or imperative. Rather, it is descriptive. It is describing a situation that already exists.

    To understand why Paul is using descriptive language here requires an understanding of the context of his letter. He is referencing Greco-Roman household codes that were common in that era. In them, the submission of wives was assumed as a simple fact of life. Paul changes the status quo dramatically, however, when he applies the same principle of submission to husbands. To reinforce his point, he directs husbands to follow the example of Christ, who set aside equality with God and took upon himself the form of a “doulos” (e.g. slave) in an act of sacrificial love.

    The additions made by the translators of the NASB actually alter the message. Rather than recognizing how Paul was challenging the customs of his day, the changes suggest that he was reinforcing them.

    Also regarding the evident gender bias in the NASB, Mark D. Given of Missouri State University says the following: “The NASB is popular with many fundamentalist and ultra-conservative Christian scholars because it is extremely literal, even to the point of not sounding very natural at times. Strangely, however, even when the Greek original is grammatically gender inclusive, and would have to be translated that way to be literally accurate, it often uses masculine pronouns instead.”

    Do you see what I mean now when I suggest that worldview can actually alter how someone reads, interprets and translates the Bible?

    • I see your points Bob, your responses are always thoughtful and well written. I guess I should have used the NRSV instead haha. I have read many of your posts commenting on headship and gender roles and you definitely forced me to re-think some things which has been good! I also notice you focus a lot on Eph 5:21-22 and speak about the errors in English translations which is important but Ephesians 5:21-6:9 as a whole points to a different conclusion than your own.The idea of submitting to one another is explained by Paul and, in my opinion, is quite clear from the context. The text sets forth three areas of submission: wives to husbands, children to parents, servants to masters, these roles are never reversed. Does the Bible ever teach that parents are subject to their children or masters to their slaves, I don’t believe so. The context reveals that a wife is to be subject to her own husband, children are to be subjects to their parents, and slaves to their masters. In each case, Paul gives important guidelines for those in positions of authority (husbands, parents, masters). Husbands are to love their wives like Christ loved the church (Eph 5:25-33), parents are not suppose to provoke their children to anger (Eph 6:4) and masters should never threaten their servants (Eph 6:9). The context reveals what Paul means by submitting to one another.

      Also, you speak about the addition of hupotasso in Eph 5:22 but fail to mention that it is mentioned in verse 24.

      I totally agree with you Bob in that Paul is challenging the conventions of the day, the idea of Husbands loving their wives like Christ loved the church is incredible and surely would have been revolutionary for the ancient world, but no where does he demolish the understood and established authority that came with the position of husband, parent and master. Rather, he sets out to establish important guidelines, within the God designed framework, that were revolutionary, especially for Jewish Husbands who could simply divorce there wives if they displeased them.

      Further, the fact that no where else in Scripture are husbands called to hupotasso (be subject to) their wives is telling. If Paul was demolishing the idea of a husband’s authority over his wife than surely in an ancient world dominated by men, Paul would have hammered this point home. Not only does Paul not condemn this idea, he continues to establish the idea that wives should be subject to their husbands (Col. 3:18;Titus 2:5) and even the apostle Peter establishes this, “Wives, in the same way, accept the authority of your husbands” (3:1a,NRSV).

      I am not against egalitarians in anyway, I agree with many of their points but what I am against is claiming an interpretation is merely a result of gender bias and a particular worldview. Its is true that I cannot avoid being influenced by the culture around me and yes my hermeneutic has been impacted, to a degree, by past men who lived in women oppressive times but many brilliant scholars have come to a headship (authority) principle simply by examining the text and context of Ephesians 5 and 6. I could make the same accusation about culture and worldview shaping the egalitarian position, saying something like no biblical scholar before 1968 even considered the idea that there was no unique male headship or authority in marriage.

      Bob, you have invested a great deal of your life to combating the oppression of women in the church and that is an incredibly worthwhile cause. You have opened my eyes to some biblical misconceptions that I held and I am grateful for that. Nevertheless, in regards to the principle of husband headship, I believe the Bible is clear.

      It is sad that this principle has been so abused and misused by Christians through the years and against the abuses I will fight. I also believe that its badly misunderstood and often miss represented, but that is another conversation for another day.

      • Hi Dan, I’m preparing for work tonight, so this response won’t be as thorough as I would like. My apologies. Thanks also for your thoughtful comments.

        I want to point out that I did in fact acknowledge the use of hupotasso in Eph. 5:24. I highlighted that the verb is descriptive rather than prescriptive. More specifically the middle voice is used. The NASB translates the verb as if it is active and imperative. This is incorrect.

        The verse in the Greek text is descriptive of a situation that already exists. The NASB committee made a decision to translate it as a command or instruction regarding what wives “ought to” do. Please feel free to see the list of translators on this version. I believe they are all men, and that many are notable complementarians.

        Regarding changing the social order of the day, Paul does address this in Galatians 3:28. There is to be neither slave nor free in Christ, for example. This verse eventually led to the downfall of slavery in many nations, including the U.K. and the United States. Those who resisted this change said simply that Christians should be loving owners of their slaves.

        In many denominations, Galatians 3:28 has freed women from hierarchical submission to men at church and in the home. Some denominations, however, maintain that women should remain “subject” to men, but men should loving “masters” of their wives.

        Paul does indeed challenge the social institutions of his day regarding race, slavery and gender hierarchy. Some in the church have acknowledged this and responded by changing their social structures. Others have not. For those who have not, I continue to encourage them to reflect on the cognitive framework through which they appear to interpret and even translate the Bible. I believe there is strong evidence of a cultural bias against women embedded in our theological assumptions.

        • Bob, I continue to appreciate your comments and clarity. Please don’t stop your important work vis-a-vis gender equality. You are so affirming of my lifelong pain, not from my husband but from my church-affiliated bosses, of whom I’ve had many. I am a heartfelt Christian woman who has been blessed with several “axial” moments (James Finley terminology). But I’ve learned through decades as a professional woman that I’m much more respected and admired and offered positions of authority and change in secular environments than I am in Christian complementarian environments. Been heartsick about this most of my life and have chosen to move to the secular, where my gifts are recognized and even applauded, instead of the church-related where I could have contributed so much if only I wasn’t viewed as an “uppity” woman and my faith suspect.

          • I’m glad the comments have been affirming Drmarte. I hear similar stories from women in the church on almost a daily basis.

            They are prevented from exercising their gifts to further the gospel and edify the church. They are prevented not because of a lack of competence or calling. They are inhibited because of who they are: women.

            I’m convinced that this grieves the heart of God. I believe the Spirit of God is now working worldwide to “set the captives free,” free to love and serve him according to the gifts he has given.

          • I want to push a “like” button on this, Bob. Thank you, thank you.

          • I also have a little more time to comment on Galatians 3:28 and the social structures of the New Testament era. Often, complementarian theologians will qualify Galatians 3:28, saying that it relates exclusively to equality in salvation. Paul is not intending, they say, to overturn slavery, address social disparities between Jews and Gentiles, or challenge patriarchy. He is simply saying that everyone, no matter their race, gender or social status can receive salvation by the grace of God.

            While I agree with the notion that all may receive salvation according to the grace of God, regardless of gender, race or social class, I do not agree that the scope of the text is so limited. The text itself, for example, does not specifiy such a limited application. The limitation is supplied by commentators.

            Further, the church has not historically limited itself in this way. Is salvation equally available to Jews and Gentiles? Yes. Does this mean that Jewish and Gentile Christians should still segregate themselves from one another as they did in Paul’s day? No. Paul challenged Peter in the book of Acts for doing this very thing.

            Was salvation equally available to slaves and free? Yes. Does this mean that slaves should remain in bondage? No. The gospel has challenged slavery, and in many cases prevailed. Also, of course God would instruct masters to be loving towards their slaves while the institution remained intact. This command, however, should not be taken as an endorsement of slavery. Slavery’s existance is recognized by these passages; it is not prescribed.

            The last remaining inequality challenged by Galatians 3:28, in some churches, is the subjection of women, based exclusivley on their sex at birth.

            I believe it’s also worthy of notice that Paul does not challenge the authority structure that exists between parents and children. Children developmentally require parental care and guidance. Slaves, Gentiles, women do not. There is no developmental disparity between Jews and Gentiles, slaves and free or women and men. Any apparent disparity today exists only where women are denied the opportunities to thrive. An example would be societies in which women are not permitted to obtain an education. Sadly, these social environments still exist. Women’s development is artificially inhibited, so that they remain dependent upon men. This enforced dependence is then used to justify male authority. I’m referring to some Islamic states here.

            Women are entirely capable of co-leading their homes and churches. The only thing standing in their way are theological traditions with a well documented history of cultural prejudice–a history that many authors (myself included) describe in great detail.

          • I either want to sit at your feet, Bob, or in your classroom (except it’s quite a trek to Canada), just as I have with Jim Finley, who was mentored by Thomas Merton, in order to feel whole. There has been a huge gaping hole in my life for decades. In fact, I wrote my doctoral dissertation about, titled “Waiting in the Wings: Women of God in the Evangelical Academy.”

      • Daniel, if you read our About page, you will know that the purpose of this community is to support and encourage those who want to know more about the egalitarian position. This is not a platform for debating this position.

        While you began your comments with respectful dialogue, in your most recent post you moved on to posting material from complementarian commentaries. Your comments are not constructive and demonstrate that your purpose in joining the discussion is to argue against what we believe in. Obviously, you are in the wrong place and so as the moderator I have deleted the lengthy excerpts from outside sources that you posted. It was not helpful in moving this conversation forward, in fact, it was demeaning.

        Any further comments will be evaluated for their appropriateness and authenticity in the future, since your motives for being here are now very clear. It’s unfortunate that the church cannot move forward with more authentic conversations. Until that happens, please find another place to debate your position. Thank you.

    • Dan, I’ve never personally met you but I’ve known you all my life. I respectfully suggest that this particular forum is not the place for your lengthy argumentation against the reasons the rest of us are here.

  • Hey Bob, your old friend Dan here, I wanted to add a few thoughts regarding your fourth point, you ask an important question, what did headship mean to Jesus and you quote Philippians 2:7-8. I believe that you are absolutely right in that Christ viewed his role as servant but it surely would have been one of a servant leader. Jesus came to serve but also to lead, to say that Jesus did not view himself as a servant leader is quite astounding in my opinion. Further, I believe the Bible is clear that Jesus is “Lord”, “King”, “Messiah” (=anointed one/king), “Son of Man” (kingly/divine role – see Dan. 7), and every knee will one day bow down to him. Jesus understood his authority, and yet never once did he force his disciples to do anything, rather he exemplified for them humility and service which I believe is what Paul is referencing in the Ephesians 5 text for husbands to do for their wives.

    Prior to Jesus being arrested, He says in Matthew 26:53 “Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels?” This is a God-Man who understood His authority, yet chose to serve and suffer for the sake of others. Jesus exemplified for us what a Husband’s role (lead, serve and suffer) is and thus he says “For the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ also is the head of the church, He Himself [being] the Savior of the body. 24But as the church is subject to Christ, so also the wives [ought to be] to their husbands in everything” (NASB).

    I know that many who view this website will disagree with me and hold different convictions about the text and I respect that, I love my egalitarian brothers and sisters! Peace and blessings

    • Dan, I didn’t hear in anything that Bob wrote an argument with your point about Jesus being a servant leader or God-Man or that he didn’t have ultimate authority which he chose not to use. You appear to think you’re making a contradictory point, but I don’t see it.

      • Hi Dan, as Drmarte suggests, you seem to be responding to a point I didn’t make. Jesus is of course God. He is the Lord and Master of the church.

        At the same time, Philippians tells us that Jesus did not consider equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he took upon himself the form of a servant and was obedient even to the point of death. In going to the cross, he demonstrated sacrificial love.

        Complementarians seem to assume that the Bible tells husbands to imitate both of these aspects of Jesus’ relationship to the church: his mastery and his servanthood. One of my points in this post is that this assumption is incorrect.

        Husbands are not in fact commanded to emulate Christ’s lordship. They are commanded to emulate his sacrificial love. “Husbands love your wives as Christ loved the church,” is the command we are given. Nowhere are we told, “husbands lead your wives as Christ led the church.”

        There are many aspects of the relationship between Christ and the church that husbands and wives should not emulate. It is right, for example, for the church to worship Jesus as God. It is right for Jesus to accept this worship. If husbands and wives emulate this aspect of Christ’s relationship to the church, both would be guilty of idolatry.

        I’m suggesting that when we read the Bible we need to be mindful of our assumptions. They may suggest things to us that the text itself does not. I think the assumption that husbands are to function as “masters” of their wives is a good example.

        The commentary I mention (one that you brought to my attention) interprets Ephesians 5 as saying husbands are to be “masters” of their wives, and that wives are to “obey” them. This language quite frankly is not found in the biblical text anywhere. It is supplied by the commentators. They see something that simply isn’t there. This says more about their own assumptions and gender-socialization, I think, than it does about God’s plan for husbands and wives.

  • So very well said, Bob! Thank you so much. I just wish those who need to “hear” this truth had “ears to hear”…Lord, have mercy…. Be blessed!

  • You summarized the main point beautifully. It is indeed an explanation of how our social histories shape our hermeneutics. I’m glad that it can be a resource to share with evangelical friends “unfamiliar with biblical mutuality.” Btw, if you don’t write professionally yet, I hope you prayerfully consider it. You have a gift.

  • Thank you for sharing the links Gail. Yes, I often read an English translation of the Bible and simply look at the same passage in my Greek New Testament. At times, they are remarkably dissimilar. I find this is especially true regarding passages about women. Honestly, that disturbs me.

  • Thank you for this! Do you have references for the absence of “submit” applied exclusively to women in the greek text? If you have a minute, I would love if you could share those. Thanks again!

    • Stevie, I saw your comment so thought I’d jump in. I think you are asking about Bob’s observation that the word “submit” has been inserted in nearly all English translations in Ephesians 5:22 even though it is not in any of the original manuscripts. You actually don’t need references for that, just a Greek translation. I like the Bible Hub website which has a variety of translations as well as the Greek and Hebrew.

      Here are links to Eph 5:21 and 5:22 in the Greek:

  • Yes, thank you! A clear & concise explanation of how our “social histories” shape our hermeneutics. This is a great resource to share with evangelical friends who are unfamiliar with biblical mutuality.

  • As a woman, this post makes me happy. Thank you, Bob, for writing so clearly and expertly.

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