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.
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.” 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.” 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. 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. 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 Ever. Thoughts?
 Myers, D.G. (2007). Psychology: Eighth edition in modules. Holland, MI: Worth Publishers.
 Trombley, C. (2003). Who said women can’t teach? God’s vision for women in ministry. Gainesville, FL: Bridge-Logos.
 Augustine, On John, Tractate 2, § 14. Retrieved from http://www.womenpriests.org/traditio/august.asp.
 Wenham, G. & Carson, D. (1994). New Bible commentary: 21st century edition. Downer’s GroveIL: Inter-Varsity Press.
 Piper, J. (1986). Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian hedonist. Colorado Springs, CO: Multnomah Books.