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Does Male-Headship Theology Dehumanize Women?: Part 2

On November 01, 2016

In Part 1 of this series, I promised to further explore two questions related to a core resource on male-headship theology, Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (RBWM):

Does male-headship theology have overtones of male superiority?  

Does male-headship theology dehumanize women in anyway? (As covered in Part 1, dehumanization requires oppressors to rob the oppressed of their human qualities, personality, and/or spirit).  

There is an ongoing debate in the church around the role and nature of women. Two groups aim to answer this question, each very differently: complementarians and egalitarians.

Complementarians believe that men and women are equal in value but called to different roles in the home and church, namely that men are called to leadership and women are called to submission. Egalitarians believe that men and woman have equal value and that they are called to serve one another based on their God-given gifts and irrespective of sex.

RBMW is arguably the male-headship theology or complementarian reference book. It is freely distributed and taught in seminaries and churches. This book is vast, so I will only be exploring a small but critical component of it—the complementarian interpretation of Genesis 1-3. I will specifically critique the complementarian emphasis on Adam’s naming of the animals and the woman.

In Chapter 3 of RBMW, “Male-Female Equality and Male Headship,” the naming of Eve is discussed at length, along with other themes from Genesis 1-3. Written by Raymond C. Ortlund Jr., this chapter is vitally important in helping us understand the complementarian perspective on Genesis, which undergirds its theology on the role of women.

Ortlund states, “Why go all the way back to the first three chapters of the Bible, if our concern is with manhood and womanhood today? Because as Genesis 1-3 go, so goes the whole Biblical debate. One way or the other, all the additional Biblical texts on manhood and womanhood must be interpreted consistently with these chapters.”  

I believe that the complementarian perspective on Genesis 1-3 is soaked in male superiority and contains a dehumanizing view of women. This faulty interpretation robs women of their God-given human qualities.

Ortlund invites readers into the Garden of Eden before the creation of the woman. He writes:

God put His finger on the one deficiency in Paradise. The man needed ‘a helper suitable for him.’ Surprisingly, however, God did not immediately create this helper. Instead, God paraded the animals before the man for him to name them (2:19-20)… In serving God, the man encountered his own need. This is so, because the task of naming the animals entailed more than slapping an arbitrary label on each beast. The task required the man to consider each animal thoughtfully, so that its name was appropriate to its particular nature. Out of this exercise, it began to dawn on the man that there was no creature in the garden that shared his nature. He discovered not only his own unique superiority over the beasts, which the privilege of naming them in itself implied; he also discovered his own solitude in the world.

Note that Adam’s naming of the beasts implies his superiority over them. Though this passage states that Eve will share a common nature with Adam (an equality of sorts), it conversely highlights the “unique superiority” that naming connotes. This statement about the naming of the animals is significant because it will later be similarly applied to the woman.

Let’s move on. God causes Adam to fall into a deep sleep and creates the woman from his side. After the woman is created,

God touches the man and says, ‘Wake up now, son. I have one last creature for you to name. I’d like to know what you think of this one.’ And God leads Eve out to Adam, who greets her with rhapsodic relief: This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called woman, because she was taken out of man (2:23).

According to RBMW, God “paraded” the animals before Adam and then presented the woman as the last “creature” to be named. Remember, naming implies superiority, according to Ortlund. He emphasizes the significance of the “naming” of the woman:

Adam welcomes Eve as his equal (‘bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh’), yet he also names her (‘she shall be called Woman’). God charged the man with naming the creatures and gave him the freedom to exercise his own judgment in each case. In doing so, Adam brought the earthly creation under his dominion. This royal prerogative extended to Adam’s naming of his helper. Nevertheless, the name he gives her, ‘Woman,’ springs from his instantaneous recognition of her as the counterpart to ‘Man.’

Although Eve is said to be equal to Adam, she is still part of the creation that Adam brings under his dominion—through the process of naming. She is a creature he must grant identity to—unlike Adam himself.

Adam is not referred to as a fellow creature in the above passage. Labeling the woman (and not Adam) as one of the creatures also serves to emphasize her connection to the animals, not to Adam.

So what is meaningful about the woman’s supposed ontological equality with Adam (“bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh”) if she is just one more “creature” he must bring under his control?

“Adam brought the earthly creation under his dominion. This royal prerogative extended to Adam’s naming of his helper.”

The complementarian interpretation of Genesis 1-3 is focused not on the equality of Eve to Adam, but on Eve’s connection to what Adam must conquer and control: earthly creation. Surely, if women are part of the wild force (creation) that men are called to subdue, it becomes easier to oppress and subjugate them on a global scale.  

Additionally, the author himself states that the exercise of naming marks the superior being. Ortlund writes,

“He discovered not only his own unique superiority over the beasts, which the privilege of naming them in itself implied.”

Adam names Eve, marking himself the superior, one would assume, if naming really is as significant as the author states. Complementarian theology highlights women’s connection to the animals as man-named creatures. The implication is that woman is man’s inferior and evidently, part of what he must subdue and bring under his dominion. 

Complementarians assure us that they believe women are equal to men, but their theology seems to imply that, despite being of Adam’s same nature, woman is more like creation than she is like man.

Though different than dehumanizing women by labelling them “bunnies, bitches, and vixens,” complementarianism still sets a dangerous precedent. It emphasizes how women are different from men and groups them with the creation men must rule over—the animals and the earth itself. In that sense, women are dehumanized by complementarian theology, and are prime targets for the abuse and exploitation that generally follows that dehumanization.  

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