In these discussions on women’s roles in church leadership, a favorite little one-off argument by Egalitarians (and a pretty darn good sound bite) is that the very idea of exclusive male headship is part of the curse laid upon humans in the Genesis Eden story. In Genesis 3, this is what God speaks over the woman as a curse in response to her sin:
“I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children, yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.”
I’ll be honest with you. I haven’t done the research on the Hebrew or scholarship on those lines to know exactly what these lines really might mean.
Honestly, both sides could use them. Conservatives could say that the curse is that women will desire the authority that God rightfully gave men. Egalitarians would say that man’s “rule” over women is the curse.
First, my intuition is that this has little to do with modern discussions of gender politics. Secondly, I don’t think the Genesis story is meant to be interpreted or applied or treated in this way. I simply don’t think that the intent of the authors had anything specific to do with whether women should or should not serve formal, ordained, leadership roles in the church.
I was recently listening to a debate done on a British radio show between a Southern Baptist preacher, and a popular Egalitarian writer (both Americans). During this debate, the Egalitarian woman mentioned that hierarchy and gender-based headship was part of the curse of the Fall, and we now live in light of the resurrection. (I’ve made a similar argument before.)
The conservative guy actually let out a laugh and said “Pain in childbirth was part of the curse also! Does that mean childbirth is sin also?” And the moderator moved the discussion along, not giving the woman a chance to respond. I became quite frustrated at this exchange and thought a lot about it afterward.
So let’s look at this. Is male-only ordination a blessing, or a curse? What, if anything might the Genesis “curse” have to say abut male-female leadership positions?
In both Genesis Creation stories, God gives commands to humans. For millennia now, God’s people have believed that these commands are woven into the very fabric of life; to move with these rhythms is to flourish, and to move against them is to diminish one’s very humanity.
From these commands, we can see that flourishing human life is to do and live, together (with one another and God).
(For more on this, see the footnote below)
The “curse”, then, is not about bringing things into the world that were not there before (like work, childbirth, male leadership, or even artificial gender-based hierarchy). It’s about watching a rebellion take place against the truly “natural” way of doing these things.
So being fruitful and multiplying has pain. When trying to subdue the earth, it fights back. And now, male/female relations have deep dysfunction added to them.
The Conservative guy in the debate was wrong in his application of the principle the Egalitarian was talking about. The curse didn’t bring childbirth, it brought pain to it. It didn’t bring work, but brought difficulty to it. And similarly, the curse didn’t create male/female relationships, but instead brought disorder to them.
I wouldn’t say that God imposed gender-based role hierarchy as part of the curse. I also won’t go so far as to say that complementarians are living in “Fall-induced sin”. But still, it’s interesting that in a passage where the writer seems to be talking about what rebellion against the intended order of things looks like, he says “[the man] shall rule over you.”
I would argue, then, that humanity’s natural and historical tendency and drift toward male-headed hierarchy is not representative of the “natural” rhythms in which life was meant to move. It’s actually a symptom of our deep “bent” away from our greatest and deepest flourishing as humans made in the image of God.
Male-only eldership and ordained church leadership, I think, is not a blessing to the church or the world. Rather, it’s a sign of the rebellion of our hearts that makes all the more difficult (and unnecessarily so) the good and glorious work God has for us to do together. With him. And with one another.
It’s generally understood that there are two separate Creation stories in Genesis, one in Chapter 1 and another that begins in Chapter 2. Each story gives a different (complimentary) perspective on what human life on earth is to look like when lived in line with God.
Chapter 1 is “task-oriented”. Here, you see Elohim give three main calls to the two ordained “priests” of his “temple-garden”: (1) be fruitful and multiply, (2) fill the earth, and (3) subdue the earth.
Chapter 2 is “life-oriented”. Yahweh’s only “commands” to humanity is (1) to feel free to eat from all the trees of the garden, and (2) don’t eat from that one particular fateful tree. And why shouldn’t they eat of it? Because they’ll “die”–which ends up meaning alienation from the good (God) and acquaintance with the bad (shame and guilt). And so, in a sense, his command is to “not die”, or “live”.
But there’s another assumption here that none of these “commands” can be accomplished apart from being in relationship with one another and God.