Any biblically based position regarding the relationship of men and women under God must inevitably rest on interpretation of the texts dealing with the creation of human beings, that is, on Genesis 1 and 2. While much of the argumentation over the proper service of women and men in the church revolves around writings of Paul—with those who prefer differentiation of types of service focusing on texts such as 1 Corinthians 11 and 14 and those favoring like modes of service for men and women emphasizing Galatians 3—those arguments build on, and thus ultimately rest on, an assumed understanding of the creation narrative. Thus, in order to make an educated choice in regard to these interpretations (referred to here as the “complementary” view and the “egalitarian” view), it is critical to first understand how proponents of each position interpret the Genesis texts.

The Complementary View

This is the view that has been adopted by the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod and is supported by its Commission on Theology and Church Relations in the 2009 document, The Creator’s Tapestry. It is an interpretation based largely on Genesis 2 wherein God creates the woman out of the side of the man. In this complementary view, the order in which the humans are created is very significant; the woman is created second—she comes into the picture only after the man. Based on this order of creation (a key term for this view), Eve, the first woman, is understood as subordinate to Adam, the first man. This order is understood as signifying the proper relationship of men and women for all generations since it was God who created the first humans in this manner. Proponents of this view point out that, prior to creating Eve, God notices that Adam does not have a suitable partner, declares that it is not good for the man to be alone, and therefore decides to make a “helper” for him. This underscores that the woman is created for the man; her purpose is to help the man fulfill his purpose; and while the two are understood as interdependent, they are also, as noted in The Creator’s Tapestry, created “in a distinctive way . . .” (14).

With this structured and ordered relationship between the man and the woman established, supporters of this view turn their attention to Genesis 1. In this account, the text informs readers that “God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” The key word here is image. Therefore, the question regarding what it means to be the image of God must be asked and answered. Analysis of the Hebrew word shows that it carries the same basic meaning as it does in English. An image can be thought of as a “reflection” or a “copy” of an original. Putting this information together with the proper ordering of men and women as established in Genesis 2, LCMS advocates of the complementary view assert that while both the man and the woman were created in the image of God (according to Genesis 1), the woman participates in this (God’s) image only through the man as evidenced by the events of Genesis 2 wherein “The man was held accountable to God for obedience to the Creator’s word given prior to the creation of woman” (Italics added—The Creator’s Tapestry, 12). In this view, it is not that the woman does not bear God’s image—but rather, that as long as she is in this earthly existence, she does so through Adam, that is, through the man.

This basic interpretation of the creation narratives forms the foundation for the complementary view. The woman’s purpose is defined in terms of her relationship to the man, not in terms of her relationship to God. As “helper” to man, she is a necessary being whose creation serves to complete the man—It is through the woman that “the man is enabled to grow in his understanding of himself as man. She is the mirror in which the man will come to know himself as man” (The Creator’s Tapestry, 14). Quite distinctly, the man, is understood as the primary reflection of God whose task is to respect and care for the woman given to him, and the children she bears for him. While many proponents of this view argue for distinct forms of service based on one’s sex and tend to support traditional jobs and responsibilities for men and women both in the world and in the church, the position of the LCMS in regard to proper service of women and men is somewhat more nuanced. Here, it is understood that a woman may hold a prominent leadership position in the community and may even hold certain powerful positions within the church as long as the particular position does not place her in authority over men in regard to religious or theological matters; the realms of which are open to men alone. Since the church is to be the family of God on earth, and since Christ is the head of the church, the maintenance of proper forms of service in regard to headship within that context is understood as especially critical.

The Egalitarian View

This is the view that has gained prominence in the academic community and is supported by many church bodies today. Proponents of this view tend to begin with the creation narrative f Genesis 1 which states that “God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” Once again, image is the key word in this text. However, advocates of this view also emphasize the writer’s use of particular nouns and pronouns. First, they note that the writer chooses to use the word hᾱ-᾿ᾱdᾱm, a broad term that encompasses all human beings—“God created humankind [not just males] in his image. . .”

They also note the parallelism of the two lines that follow (“in the image of God, he created him; male and female he created them”). This parallel structure, they point out, is quite common in Hebrew, with these two lines serving to unpack the meaning of the first line. In this case, the pronoun of line 2 (“in the image of God he created him”) refers to the hᾱ-᾿ᾱdᾱm (the human being) and the pronoun of line three clarifies that fact—“male and female [within that human being] he created them.” Advocates of this view, further assert that such an interpretation is emphasized in verses 26 and 28 (which surround verse 27) wherein God grants dominion over all the earth not to male humans alone but rather to humankind, male and female. Thus, in this view, God is understood as having created the human beings, both of them, equally, in his image. It is not the sexual categories of male and female, but rather, the category of human (male and female) that is primary, that is, that is understood to be in God’s image (as distinct from the animals who do not bear the image of God).

With this egalitarian relationship between the man and the woman established, proponents of this view turn their attention to Genesis 2 wherein God is shown creating the man, Adam, out of the dust of the ground and the woman, Eve, out of the flesh of Adam. In this view, it is also critical that Eve is created from Adam; yet, she is not understood as subordinate. Rather, emphasis is on the intimate relationship of the two which is supported by the writer’s choice of the descriptor, ezer kenegdwo, commonly translated “helper” (discussed more fully below). For proponents of the egalitarian view, God’s literal co-mingling of the flesh of man and woman disallows a graded order based on sex. Rather, an equal and intimate relationship is instituted by God and underscored by the statement that follows at the end of the chapter “and they [the man and the woman] become one flesh.”

This basic interpretation of the creation narratives forms the foundation for the egalitarian view. The man and the woman are understood as equal partners before God, having both been created in the image of God. As human beings who are reflections of their God, they are to love and care for one another as well as for all of the earth and its creatures. In the modern context, advocates of this view argue that proper service should be determined by the God-given talents of each individual and not according to one’s sex. Thus it is understood that while the gifts of some individuals may lead them to follow traditional forms of service; others may be led in different directions, i.e. women may hold top positions in government and corporations, and men may stay home to nurture and raise children. Since the church is to be a model of family and community for the world, it is critical that all members be valued and treated equally in that context with any limitations based only n ability and not on one’s sex. Thus, advocates of this view assert that God calls both women and men to a number of forms of service, including the office of the pastoral ministry.

Making a Choice

From this brief overview, it should be clear that proponents of each of these views draw on and use the creation narratives to validate their interpretations (regarding the relationship of man and woman) and then to claim biblical authority for theologies and practices that stem from those interpretations. Most specifically, while sometimes open to an egalitarian reading of the Genesis creation narratives, faithful clergy and laypeople who have been schooled in a complementary interpretation often raise the specter of the “great elephant” in the room, saying something to the effect of: But what about Paul? Isn’t Paul clear that women should submit? And that women should submit because they were created second? These are valid questions and the responses are not as clear-cut as they sometimes seem. Serious consideration needs to be given to whether Paul’s words are prescriptive (that is, given for all people for all time) or descriptive (that is, given within the context of his own Greco-Roman world). Those coming from a complementary view are likely to argue that Pauline passages such as the above are prescriptive—arguing that, as a model, Genesis asserts a clear structured order. Those coming from an egalitarian interpretation, on the other hand, are more likely to claim that the passages in question are descriptive—that is, that Paul was illustrating how church and family might best function within his own context—but that on a wider basis, Genesis lays out a model of intimacy based on equality, not on sequential order. Included in the study of this question must be consideration of the Greco-Roman household codes—was Paul really using Scripture as his model or was he actually drawing more from the household codes of his day? And more broadly, does the Bible, and Genesis in particular, call Christian churches and families to conform to a particular cultural model or rather, to determine within each culture, how congregations and families might best reflect the love modeled by God? This broad question holds serious implications, especially in terms of mission and evangelism.

Given the above questions (and no doubt many more) it is clearly incumbent on any person who takes the Bible seriously to think critically about the Genesis creation narratives and to decide for him/herself which interpretation reflects the message of Scripture and thus holds greater potential for creating a world most in line with that intended by God. As has already been noted, the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod has adopted a complementary interpretation; however, there may be significant reasons for both ordained clergy and laypersons to reconsider that position. A few of these are outlined below.

Rationale based in grammatical issues:

For reasons explained above, it is significant, and not easily ignored, that Genesis 1:27 refers to human as the category of creature which is made in God’s image; not to the man, with the woman in later succession. In addition, the common (complementary) interpretation of Genesis 2:18 obscures the equality between the man and the woman that is preserved in Genesis 2. In 2:18 God is recorded as saying “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.” The Hebrew term used for “helper as his partner” is ezer kenegdwo. Admittedly, it is difficult to find an adequate English word(s) to render this phrase and yet, “helper” (“help-meet” in some translations) distorts the sense of the text. Perhaps “companion” or “associate” would make a better choice since ezer does not carry the connotation of an assistant or one with inferior status, as seen in the fact that God is frequently referred to as Israel’s helper in the biblical text (i.e. Exodus 18:4; Deuteronomy 33:29; Psalm 33:20). Furthermore, the adjective kenegdwo means “corresponding to,” “adequate to,” “equal to.” Thus, while awkward in English, the sense of the text is that the woman is created as an equal partner with the man; and that the formation of her out of the man’s flesh is not intended to underscore subordinate status but rather, to emphasize the intimate bond that the two humans share. Thus, serious analysis of this Hebrew phrase calls into question the prominent opinion in the LCMS, that woman, as the second human, is created to be passive recipient of the man’s active giving; that is, that God intended separation of the humans with the male as leader and the female as follower.

Rationale based on comparisons of the two narratives:

As noted above, the complementary view places a great deal of importance on the order of creation. Yet, a careful reading of Genesis 1 and 2 does not support an emphasis on sequential order. Certainly, Genesis 1 does portray God as speaking his creation into existence in an orderly fashion: light/dark, water/land, vegetation, sun/moon, sea creatures, birds, animals, humans. Yet, if sequence is so critical to the proper interpretation of these texts, it is curious that the writer of Genesis 2 appears to be so entirely confused; for in that account, God forms the man “when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up” and before he had created any of the animals (see 2:5 & 2:15–19). To suggest that the writers of either account were confused seems the height of hubris. Implementation of the interpretive principle highly respected among Lutherans—that Scripture interprets Scripture—might well be the more sensible route; and when employed, that principle forces recognition that the point of these accounts, when read together, is not sequence. Rather, it seems that Genesis 1 seeks to make known the great power of God as he brings each thing into existence by his very word, culminating with the creature that would bear his own image; while Genesis 2 reveals a network of relationships involving God and creation. Relationships between God and the humans, God and the earth, the humans and the animals, the humans to one another all illustrate the intimacy between God and his creation and the created beings to one another.

Rationale based on the wider biblical text:

Both the Old and New Testaments reveal a pattern whereby God lifts up the lowly (those deemed as the lesser ones in society) and brings down the mighty (those deemed by the world to be greater in terms of status and power). From the Old Testament: God favors Jacob, the younger, over Esau, the elder; Joseph, the younger, over his brothers; Moses over Pharaoh; David, the shepherd boy over Saul, the first anointed king; and Jael, the weak woman, over the powerful general, Sisera. The New Testament follows suit with Jesus calling his followers from the ranks of the poor—fishermen and demon possessed women—and statements like “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs” (Mark 10:14) and to the Pharisees, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you” (Matthew 21:31).

Based on this prominent pattern running throughout the biblical text, an interpretation that privileges the mighty should raise suspicion. Furthermore, the pattern suggests a definite need to question any interpretation of Scripture that claims that those who are second occupy a subordinate position in relation to those who are first. Is the woman’s service to God, her Creator, really more limited than the man’s service to God, his Creator? An affirmative answer to that question runs counter to the wider paradigm of the Bible. If anything, the pattern would lead us to think that the woman, not the man, would be the privileged one in God’s eyes. Even so, that inverted order must also be rejected if one accepts that the creation narratives emphasize intimate, loving and equal relationships between men and women. Likewise, the equality embedded in the relational network revealed in Genesis 2 disallows the possibility that the woman, rather than the man, should be interpreted as the pinnacle of creation on the basis that she is created last in Genesis 2; or on the assumption that the sequence of Genesis 1 moves from the creation of the least to the greatest. In short, the wider biblical paradigm dispels the notion that either the man or the woman should be understood as holding subordinate status to the other. Instead, the paradigm suggests that whoever would make him/herself great will be brought low.

In conclusion, let me assert that theology is never neutral; nor should it be. Theological opinions and statements do lead to real world outcomes. It is therefore critical that leaders in the church take time to seriously study and analyze these formative texts. As Christians, we are all called to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God (Micah 6:8). As leaders in the church, the decision to embrace that call is not adiaphora; it is, rather, the very thing that God requires. It is therefore, not too much to contemplate whether a theology that privileges one person over another on the basis of sex, can possibly reflect the will of God or lead to justice for all.