“Side by Side” is a recognized American colloquialism. It is even the title of a song first written and composed by Harry Woods in 1927 and then rereleased in 1953 by singer Kay Starr on Capitol records. “Side by side” is also the intended relationship of man and woman by virtue of creation and is expressed as such in Genesis 2:18–24.

The Hebrew word, ēzer, translated usually into English as “helper,” refers to a side-by-side partnership of help. “It is not good that man should be alone” (Gen 2:18). Both aloneness and loneliness are only assuaged by an equal partner. That relationship is a sweet one (assuage originating from the Latin suavis and the Old French assouagier, both translated as “sweet.”)

The idea that a woman is to be submitted toward her husband in all things does not originate from the account of creation, but from the account of the fall in Genesis 3. It is strange that the argument for a subordinate role for woman, much less a wife, is based upon the condition of the fall of man. The account of creation found in Genesis 1:27–28 is very explicit in the statement, “Male and female He created them . . . and God blessed them. . . .”

Barnabe Assohoto and Samuel Ngewa, the commentators on Genesis in the Africa Bible Commentary, observed, “God formed her from the man’s rib, close to his heart, to establish the intimate link between them in their very creation. The woman will consider the man as part of her very being, and the man will see the woman as the help he needs, without whom he is incomplete.”1

Within Eastern Orthodox Christianity, man is considered to be incomplete without woman. Eastern Orthodoxy relies heavily on the Greek Septuagint translation of the Old Testament. In the Septuagint’s rendition of Genesis 2:18, the term boethos means both “helper” (substantially in the New Testament) and also “helpful” in some instances. The intent is to convey the meaning of being alongside as a companion and advocate: “So God did as He had planned (Gen 2:18b) and made a suitable companion for Adam and brought her to the man.” Assohoto and Ngewa comment that the choice of the words “brought her to the man” is suggestive of “what appears to be a wedding ceremony.”2 The whole phraseology of ēzer kĕnegdô in the Hebrew is suggestive of the woman standing alongside the man. The term suitable used in English versions does not do justice to the authorial intent of Genesis 2:18b. English readers might take the term suitable to mean “useful” or something similar to connote a subsidiary status for the woman, or wife.

The whole picture in Genesis 2:18–24 is suggestive of mutuality and a side-by-side sharing relationship, complementing each other while also being equal and equally joined to help each other in a unity of purpose. Augustine stated that “woman is as much the creation of God as man is. If she was made from the man, this was to show her oneness with him; and if she was made in the way she was, this was to prefigure the oneness of Christ and the church.”3 Woman is equal in dignity with man while not being the same as man. She complements the man. She gives what he cannot give. He gives what she cannot give. This is understood in the creation account at the very beginning of Genesis. “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them” (Gen 1:27 KJV).

There is no mistaking the wording of Genesis. Consider also Adam’s response: “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” (Gen. 2:23 NKJV). First Corinthians 11:7 reads, “woman is the glory of man.” Since man is made in the image and glory of God, then also the woman herself reflects the glory of God. What I see in my wife is in me: “For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as the Lord does the church” (Eph 5:29 NKJV). In the same passage in Ephesians, the Apostle Paul counseled “submitting to one another in the fear of God” (Eph 5:21 NKJV). This is mutual. This is what makes the conjugal relationship. The very term conjugal is derived from the compound Latin word conugium, meaning “yoked together,” and only those who are equal to each other pull together successfully.

A common error made by scholars is to ascribe the rabbinic prayer found in T. Berakoth 7:18 to ancient Jewish biblical sentiments. The prayer at issue is “Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has not made me a heathen . . . a bondman . . . or a woman.” Both the Talmud and the Mishnah belong to later rabbinic tradition, not biblical tradition. Alfred Edersheim is not the only writer who has read back into the Bible the Judaism of the second, third, and fourth centuries anno domini. When one considers the leadership roles of Deborah, Huldah, and Esther, and the portrait of the “excellent wife” (Prov 31:10) that King Lemuel’s mother gave him, one hardly sees a subordinate person.4

Neither can Hollywood be depended upon to give an actual picture of the women of Israelite lineage and of Judaea. For one thing, despite movie costumes, they did not wear veils, nor did they wear facial makeup except for henna eye shadow. Ten male heads of families may have made up a synagogue, but some of those same synagogues recognized a person referred to as a synagogue “mother.” Interestingly, one finds her counterpart in many Orthodox Christian churches.

The forerunner of rabbinic Judaism was the tradition that began with the return to Judah subsequent to the exile in Babylon. The second temple, constructed upon the return, included a court referred to as the court of women as well as a court designated for Gentile God-fearers. From that time forward to Jesus’ days, a social stratification started setting into Jewish life that had not been present prior to the captivity. Rabbis differed among themselves as to woman’s place in society. Rabbi Gamaliel the Elder, under whom Paul the apostle studied (Acts 5:34), treated men and women equally. In the six sayings of Gamaliel that refer to women, he defended the rights of remarriage after widowhood, the right of midwives to travel anywhere to deliver babies, and the right to testify in court.5

Women definitely held a subservient place in Greek society despite the Greeks’ reputation as the founders of democracy. Hellenistic Jews such as Philo picked up the Greek mentality.6 Plato, Aristotle, Menander, and, later, Plutarch held to a democracy dominated by men. If a woman was of the aristocracy and the upper class in society, she had status, property, and education, but she still had to defer to her husband. Nevertheless, Acts 17:12 records that “a number of prominent women and men” became believers—in that order. Acts 17:34 tells of another woman named Damaris, who, along with Dionysius the Areopagite, became part of the small community of new believers in Christ in Athens.

Virtually all evangelicals agree that men and women are equal in the sight of God and have equality of worth and value in all social relationships. Even the male hierarchical interpretation of Scripture tacitly accepts this. To complement anything is to equalize: what one lacks in an area, the other makes up for, in any relationship as well as in business, athletics, arts and crafts, etc. Most of the arguments about gender relate to leadership abilities and capabilities. Deborah, Huldah, the woman of Proverbs 31, Esther, and Rebekah are but a few of the women recognized in Scripture as exercising leadership skills. Yet, at the same time, an equal number of women accepted a secondary position in Old Testament society.

The same is true for the New Testament. The Fourth Evangelist did not portray Mary, at the wedding of Cana, as a retiring individual, but as one who told the hosts of the wedding, “Do whatever he tells you” (John 2:5 NIV). In Acts 18:26, Priscilla and Aquila invite Apollos to their home and explain to him “the way of God more adequately” (NIV), Priscilla’s name even being mentioned first rather than Aquila’s. There was a side-by-side relationship and shared leadership. On his return to Jerusalem, Paul made a stop at the home of Philip the Evangelist, one of the seven deacons. The author of Acts comments that Philip had “four unmarried daughters who prophesied” (Acts 21:8–9 NIV). By the same token, one also has to take into consideration 1 Corinthians 14:33–35 and also 1 Timothy 2:11–13, both of which picture women and wives taking a submissive role in leadership.

How does anyone explain the apparent contradiction? The cultural contexts of Corinth and Ephesus reveal that the Oracle of Delphi was close to Corinth and may have had an effect upon the society. The temple of Artemis (Diana) in Ephesus may have had similar importance.

A lack of uniformity appears also within the patristic writings. In his Homilies on First Corinthians 26.2, John Chrysostom acknowledged, “Nor was she called to submission when God first brought her to the man.” Why, then, would submission be called for within the new creation when all things are made new in Christ? Augustine also “flip-flopped,” as did others. Gregory of Nyssa, however, in his Against Eunomius (12.2), argued that the submission of woman was overturned when Mary Magdalene became “the first witness of the resurrection.” He went on to write, “Therefore, by ministering to his disciples the words of him who slew the rebel dragon, she might become to men the guide of the family, whereby with good reason the first proclamation of death is annulled.”7

But there is nothing to quibble about when Paul writes in Galatians, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ” (Gal 3:28 NIV). Neither can one quarrel with Ephesians 5:21, where Paul counsels, “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (NIV).

The key, then, is how we are regarded by God himself and how Christ Jesus himself regards us as male and female. We are equal in his sight by virtue of creation. By the new creation in Christ Jesus and the resurrection, there is neither male nor female, but male and (Greek kai in Gal 3:28) female. “Image transcends sexual difference.”8 In the same way, “Image, blessing and responsibility fall upon both genders,”9 as they bear the image of the Godhead upon this earth, side by side.

Notes

  1. Barnabe Assohoto and Samuel Ngewa, “Genesis,” Africa Bible Commentary, ed. Tokunboh Adeyemo (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2006), 14.
  2. Assohoto and Ngewa, “Genesis,” 14.
  3. Augustine, Civitate Dei (City of God) 22.17.
  4. An outstanding written study on the status of women in the Old Testament is John Otwell, Sarah Laughed: The Status of Woman in the Old Testament (Louisville, KY: Westminster, 1977).
  5. Herbert Danby, The Mishnah (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), 311, 190, 244. See also Mishnah: M Glitten 4.2; M Rosh-ha-Shanah 2.5; M Yebamoth 16.7.
  6. Philo, The Works of Philo (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1993), 798–99.
  7. Quotations come from both Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: New Testament IX, ed. Peter Gorday, gen. ed. Thomas C. Oden (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2000), 165–67; and also vol. 12 of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers: Chrysostom: Homilies on the Epistles of Paul to the Corinthians, 1st series, John Chrysostom, Homily XXVI (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1994), 148–57.
  8. Andrew Louth, “Genesis 1–11,” in Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, ed. Thomas C. Oden, vol. 1 (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2001), 27.
  9. Marnie Blackstone, “There is Neither Male nor Female: Diversity and Unity in Christ,” paper presented to the Evangelical Theological Society, Southwest Regional, March 18, 2011, Dallas Theological Seminary, Dallas, TX, 15.