While many Christians insist that initiation is an exclusively masculine trait, the Bible tells a different story.
“Eve could have avoided committing the first sin if she had only asked her husband before she ate the fruit. She usurped her husband’s role as the initiative-taker and led them both into sin.” So I was taught. For half a century in some church circles, men and women have been told that it is the man’s role to take the initiative, and the woman’s to follow. And the trend continues.
For example, Josh Harris’ popular book Boy Meets Girl (Multnomah, 2000) pounds this message home no less than a dozen times, particularly in the chapter, “If Boys Would Be Men, Would Girls Be Ladies?” He contends, “If a man’s biggest temptation is to be passive, a woman’s biggest temptation is to take control. The man isn’t setting a course, so the woman grabs the steering wheel. It might fix things in the short run, but in the long run it only discourages men from playing their God-given role as initiators” (p. 114). So Harris urges men to be the leaders and spiritual pace-setters in their relationships with women. He tells women that they should restrain themselves from expressing their romantic interests, from raising issues that concern them about the relationship, and from planning activities—all in order to make room for men to lead. He even assertively states that a woman who proposes marriage to a man “doesn’t know how to behave” (p. 104). Harris tries to support his case biblically by assuming that the creation of Adam before Eve means that all men of all time should be leaders (and thus initiators) in their relationships with their wives, that the complementary role of the male in the light of wifely submission (Eph. 5) is to lead (and thus initiate), and that 1 Timothy 5:2 somehow “teaches us that our gender roles are important throughout our lives” (p. 107, 108–109, respectively). That’s the best he can do, but Harris is clearly convinced, despite the lack of credible evidence, that male initiating is a foundational biblical norm.
Josh Harris is not alone. In all areas of life, from work to ministry, from the first date to the intimacy of marital sex, Christian authors and teachers encourage men to lead on boldly and women to wait for men to make all the suggestions. As a young woman I assumed that, since my church taught it, this must be the biblical view. Frequently I heard sermons and Bible lessons which glorified risk-taking males like Joshua and David and exposed the evils of initiative-taking females like Eve, Potiphar’s wife, and Jezebel. It all seemed obvious.
Yet then I studied the matter directly from Scripture. Here’s what I discovered: holy men and women are called both to take daring initiatives and to follow submissively. Divine wisdom and guidance determine which course is the appropriate one in any given situation, not stereotyped gender roles. The key is godly choice. And women in the Bible frequently took the lead in taking action.
Ruth proposed marriage to Boaz (Ruth 3). She did so in an audacious manner, and she is praised in Scripture for doing so. She acted outside of traditional gender roles, but this is not the reason she is honored in Scripture. Rather, Ruth is acknowledged for her righteousness; her choice of a husband was based on kindness to her in-laws’ family, and not merely her own selfish interests. Ruth’s gender simply wasn’t an issue for the person God inspired to record the account: godliness was.
Deborah, Israel’s judge, summoned the head of the army and instructed him to go to war (Judg. 4). When Barak failed to respond positively and immediately to the instructions Deborah delivered in God’s name, God deprived him of the honor of finishing off the enemy commander and instead gave that honor to Deborah. This punishment may imply that Deborah’s gender had something to do with Barak’s initial reluctance to take orders. When God speaks, the gender of his messenger doesn’t matter. What matters is obedience.
The five daughters of Zelophehad took the initiative in challenging the Law (given by God!) as inadequate in providing full justice for women in land inheritance (Num. 27:1–11). Moses took their initiative seriously, and the Almighty admitted that they were right. Divine law was amended and women were, for the first time in Israel’s history, given the right to inherit land, albeit in very limited circumstances. They were not heard by Moses nor vindicated by God for their gender, but because of their stand for justice.
Abigail saved all the males of her household by her timely and decisive action against her husband’s wishes and behind his back (1 Sam. 25). There are often times when God calls upon women and men to wait patiently, and Abigail knew that this was not one of them. That she was a married woman with a contrary and dominating husband made no difference. She was more concerned with saving lives and doing what was right than fussing about gender propriety. Evidently, King David found her courage and wisdom attractive, because when she was widowed, he took some initiative of his own and asked for her hand
Both the man and the woman in the Song of Songs take initiative in romantic love (Song 2:10, 3:1–4, 5:2, 8:5–6). There is no textual basis for the NIV’s character designations as “The Lover” for the male and “The Beloved” for the female throughout the book. The woman in no way compromises her femininity by her forwardness—she’s all woman! Nor does the man feel his masculinity threatened when he is pursued, embraced vigorously, and led to the bedroom. Both shamelessly express their love and relish the naked body of the other, as God originally intended for husband and wife. Love and passion are what matter in a marriage, not programmed “roles.”
Women’s initiatives are not difficult to find in the Bible. Michal warned David to flee and orchestrated his escape (1 Sam. 19:11–17). The city of Abel Beth Maacah was saved because a wise woman said, “Listen!” and made the people and the commander of the army see reason (2 Sam. 20:14–22). The Shunammite woman’s decisive actions brought the power of God into her family’s life (2 Kings 4:8–10, 22–30). The mother of Lemuel portrayed the ideal wife as taking initiative in home management, land purchase and supervision, philanthropy, trade, and the instruction of others (Prov. 31:13–27). Esther instructed Mordecai to call a three-day fast for all Jews in the capital city (Est. 4:15–17), and he never regretted doing as he was told. Jesus’ first miracle was performed in response to Mary’s initiative, which was something between a request and a directive (John 2:3–5). Our Lord was particularly affirming of women who took initiatives of faith and devotion, just as he affirmed risk-taking men. What made these biblical initiators outstanding was their faith and wisdom, not their gender.
Some biblical men rightly cooperated with women’s wise initiatives, men such as Barak, Boaz, Naaman, David, Joab, and Jesus. Pilate made his biggest mistake when he failed to heed his wife’s unsolicited warning. Adam and Ahab, on the other hand, ruined themselves by acquiescing to their wives’ initiatives, not because the ideas had feminine origins, but because the ideas were evil. Initiatives by men and women together can be godly (Priscilla and Aquila) or otherwise (Ananias and Sapphira).
There is abundant evidence that God delights in godly initiation and godly submission of all his people. God’s Word never says it’s normative that men be the initiators and women the responders. It’s simply not in the Bible. And next time someone claims it’s there, I am likely to start something!