The Bible and gender-inclusive language
by E. Calvin Beisner
This article is provided in response to a discussion on the subject of gender-inclusive language Bibles. It is posted here as a service to the members of the AR-talk mailing list, and provided under these terms.
In response to my comments in a chapel talk, one person - we will call her Mary Smith - states several arguments in favor of gender-inclusive
language as "a necessary tool to be used by Christians because it
reflects the position of women in the creation and in the new covenant
with Christ." Respecting her as my equal in creation as bearing the image
of God (Genesis 3:26-27); in our inclusion in the fall of Adam, in which
we both became sinners (Romans 5:12-14); and in our redemption through
Christ our living Head (Galatians 3:28), I offer the following responses.
Equality of Male and Female
The heart of her argument is that ". . . humans are created equal in God's
sight. . . . Adam was [Eve's] source but she was created to be
his partner, his equal." With some qualifications that I think Miss Smith
will affirm, I agree. Male and female equally bear the image of God: ". . . God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him;
male and female He created them" (Genesis 1:27, nas).
But does this equality in the image of God imply an absolute and
unbounded equality, such that male and female are simply interchangeable?
Is a woman a man's equal as a potential spouse for a woman, or a man a
woman's equal as a potential spouse for a man? If not, then some very
significant differences in roles are compatible with equality in essence.
Scripture tells us that one of the significant differences in
roles is that God made men to lead, provide for, and protect
women - particularly their wives - in a humble and servant-like (i.e.,
Christlike) manner. This cannot be rejected simply by an appeal to our
essential equality, for essential equality permits significant
differences in roles. So far is essential equality from ruling out
authority and submission that Scripture tells us that Jesus Christ, the
Creator of heaven and earth, the King of kings and Lord of lords,
submitted willingly to Joseph and Mary, His essential inferiors (Luke
2:51), and that He submits willingly to God the Father, His essential
equal (1 Corinthians 15:28).
Male Authority Rooted in Creation or Fall?
Supplemental to her point that Adam and Eve were created equal is
her claim that "It was the result of [i.e., the curse pursuant to] the
fall which placed husbands to rule over their wives" (brackets added).
She provides no Biblical reference to support this claim, but perhaps she
has in mind the text most commonly claimed by evangelical feminists to
support it, Genesis 3:16b: ". . . your desire shall be for your husband,
and he shall rule over you." This allegedly indicates that Adam's rule
over Eve is God's curse on Eve. But this neglects two important facts in
First, the creation narrative includes important elements
indicating Adam's headship (godly authority, not source - a point we shall
discuss later) over Eve before the fall.
(1) ". . . it was Adam who was first created, and then Eve" (1
Timothy 2:13). The Apostle Paul uses the temporal order of creation as
one ground of his argument against a woman's teaching or exercising
authority over a man in church (1 Timothy 2:12), indicating - under the
guidance of the Holy Spirit - that the order of creation, through whatever
hidden premises in Paul's (and the Holy Spirit's) logic, betokens male
authority over females in terms of roles in the church. Thus we have it
on the authority of Scripture itself that Adam's being created first and
Eve later (Genesis 7, 18, 22-4) implies that Adam properly had some sort
of authority over Eve instilled at creation.
(2) Adam named both the animals (Genesis 2:19-20) and the woman
(verse 23) whom God brought before him. In Biblical thought, to name
something is to exercise authority over it; thus, as the
nineteenth-century Hebrew scholars C. F. Keil and Franz Delitzsch point
out, "Adam is to become acquainted with the creatures, to learn their
relation to him, and by giving them names to prove himself their
lord." Similarly, Adam's naming Eve meant his exercising authority
over her. (Interestingly, before the fall both the animals and Eve
submitted amiably to Adam's authority. Animals' resistance to human
authority follows the fall, as John Calvin points out in his commentary
on Genesis 1:18-20. Similarly, Eve's resistance to Adam's authority is
also rooted in the fall [Genesis 3:16b; cf. verse 17].)
Second, the feminist interpretation of Genesis 3:16b is mistaken.
The Hebrew translated "your desire shall be for your husband" indicates a
desire to dominate, as seen in the use of the same phrase in Genesis 4:7,
where God tells Cain that sin's "desire is for you, but you must master
it." God's words to Eve are descriptive, not prescriptive; He tells her
not what her desire ought to be but what it will be, and when He adds,
"and he shall rule over you," He tells her not what Adam's response ought
to be but what it will be. Eve will try to dominate Adam, but Adam will
dominate her. But it is not Adam's proper authority over Eve that is part
of the curse on Eve, it is Adam's perversion of that authority. The verb
translated "rule" here is _mashal_, not _radah_, which we have in God's
instructions to Adam and Eve to rule over the earth and its creatures
(Genesis 1:28). As Keil and Delitzsch explain it,
"The woman had . . . broken through her divinely appointed
subordination to the man; she had not only emancipated herself from the
man to listen to the serpent, but had led the man into sin. For that, she
was punished with a desire bordering upon disease ([_teshuwqah_], to have
a violent craving for a thing), and with subjection to the man. . . .
Created for the man, the woman was made subordinate to him from the very
first; but the supremacy of the man was not intended to become a despotic
rule, crushing the woman into a slave, which has been the rule in ancient
and modern Heathenism, and even in Mahometanism also, - a rule which was
first softened by the sin- destroying grace of the Gospel, and changed
into a form more in harmony with the original relation, viz. that of a
rule on the one hand, and subordination on the other, which have their
roots in mutual esteem and love."
Eve's first sin was not eating the forbidden fruit but stepping
out from under Adam's authority to deal with the serpent herself and then
to tempt Adam to sin by offering him the fruit. God's words of judgment
bring her face to face with her insubordination and assure her that she
will not prosper in it.
In short, male tyranny over females stems from the fall and the
curse, but the godly and loving authority of husbands over wives and of
male leaders in the church stems from creation and is restored in
Does Male Headship Indicate Authority?
Miss Smith tells us that only in the Old Testament are husbands
"placed in the position of `masters,' `owners,' and `lords' over their
wives." In the New Testament, in contrast, the Greek word for "head" may
mean either "master" or "source," and - although she does not explicitly
say this, we must assume it for her argument to be complete - when used to
denote the husband's relation to the wife, it means "source."
First, neither Testament teaches that husbands ought to be owners
of their wives. The New Testament, however, cites approvingly the fact
that "Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord" as exemplary for Christian
wives (1 Peter 3:6), whom it exhorts, "be submissive to your own
husbands. . . . For in this way in former times the holy women also, who
hoped in God, used to adorn themselves [with "chaste and respectful
behavior"], being submissive to their own husbands" (1 Peter 3:1, 5).
Second, there is good reason to reject the notion that _kephale_
("head") ever was used as a metaphor for "source" in Greek literature,
and compelling reason against such a sense in the New Testament. In the
last decade there has been significant debate over this point in
scholarly literature, and neither space permits nor my own abilities and
resources enable me to resolve all of that debate here. Instead, I refer
readers to Wayne Grudem's roughly 31,000-word study of every extant
ancient Greek usage of _kephale_ (there are 2,336) in Appendix 1 of
_Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood_, in which I am persuaded
that Grudem convincingly answers all of the arguments in favor of
"source" and against "authority." To summarize, even according to
Grudem's critics who favor the metaphorical meaning "source" for
_kephale_, there are over forty instances in ancient Greek literature,
including sixteen in the Septuagint (which is especially important in
shaping linguistic usage in the New Testament), in which the context
shows that _kephale_ is used metaphorically for "authority" or "ruler,"
but "there are only one possible example in the fifth century b.c. . . .,
two possible (but ambiguous) examples in Philo, no examples in the
Septuagint, and no clear examples applied to persons before or during the
time of the New Testament" in which even these critics claim the context
shows that _kephale_ is used metaphorically for "source"—and in all of
these instances there are good grounds to argue that the word means
"extreme end, terminus," not "source." In light of this, it is no wonder
that not one of the lexicons of New Testament Greek offers "source" as a
metaphorical meaning for _kephale_ in reference to human beings, but all
Third, the immediate context in which Paul calls the husband the
head of the wife (Ephesians 5:23) shows that the sense there is
"authority," and nothing in it hints at "source": "Wives, [be subject
(The verb is imported from the previous verse.)] to your own husbands, as
to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ also is
the head of the Church, He Himself being the Savior of the body. But as
the church is subject to Christ, so also the wives [ought to be] to their
husbands in everything" (Ephesians 5:22-24). (Similarly, the explicit
mention of authority (exousía) in 1 Corinthians 11:10 indicates that the
metaphorical sense of head in 1 Corinthians 11:3-10, where Paul writes
that "Christ is the head of every man, and the man is the head of a
woman, and God is the head of Christ" [verse 3] is also "authority," not
Does Equality in Redemption Imply Equality in All Things?
Miss Smith argues, "In the new covenant, the hierarchical position of men over women no longer exists, for as Galatians 3:28
states: `There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female,
for you are all one in Christ Jesus' (NIV). One does not represent the
Again, does Miss Smith wish to argue that this verse eliminates
all legitimate differences in roles between men and women? Including the
fact that a woman is a proper spouse for a man but not for a woman, and a
man for a woman but not for a man? If not, then we must learn what
differences it does and does not eliminate from the immediate and larger
context. It will not do simply to assert that this verse eliminates
differences in authority and submission.
The context of Galatians 3:28 concerns salvation, with union with
Christ. This, Paul concludes, comes about in the same way for every
one - Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female - namely, by faith
(Galatians 3:23-27). Thus one may continue to recognize the differences
in roles taught, for instance, in Ephesians 5:22-33 without denying the
truth of Galatians 3:28.
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