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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 Scripture.

      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."[1] 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.[2] 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."[3]

      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 redemption.

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_,[4] 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 offer "authority."

      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 "source.")

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 other."
      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.

Continued ...

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