There is much confusion outside the church and also within the church about God’s design for gender. Too often we subject ourselves to cultural norms, either in the secular sense, or also within the church. It is important to wrestle with what the Bible says. There's so much that can be said and needs to be said, more than we can cover in this one post. Thus, this post can't be one that tackles all the controversies. The main idea rather, is that God designed for both genders to image Him but we live in a fallen world. The gospel therefore also brings restoration to both genders.
We'll begin first with Gen 1 to understand how God intended for things to be, and then use Gen 3 to see how the world we live in is so different. We'll then try to apply these to some of the issues and questions that commonly arise.
How God intended for things
In the creation account in Gen 1, we learn a few things about the creation of man. After the creation of the sun, stars, sea, land, land animals, sea animals, vegetation, on the sixth day, “then God said,”let us make man in our image, after our likeness” (Gen 1:26). After a series of “ands” and a flurry of activity in creation, the creation of man began with “then”. Mankind was to be separate from the animals, and to be distinctly made in the image of God, to reflect God. In verse 27, we see how both were made in the image of God, and given the same mandate in verse 26 to have dominion over all created things. This was part of the imaging of God, to reflect God’s rule and to tend to this garden.
In Gen 2 we get a glimpse of the way man and woman was designed to interact. At the end of Gen 2, we see the first wedding and the joy of Adam (c.f. Gen 2:23). But what’s the rest of the chapter for? Gen 2:18 showed us a problem, that “it is not good that the man should be alone” and he needed “a helper fit for him”. From the rest of creation, there was no such helper (Gen 2:19-20). Thus God created one like man from man, “at last”, as verse 23 tells us.
When we read Gen 1, we see how God is a generous God who designed all kinds of living creatures. The waters “swarm with swarms of living creatures” (Gen 1:20) and “every winged bird” was created (Gen 1:21). There were also all kinds of vegetation (Gen 1:11) and land creatures (Gen 1:24). This is a God that enjoys diversity. But with man, He created somewhat different. He did not create all kinds, just man and woman. He also didn’t make us all the same, i.e. only Adam. Gen 1 and 2 simply show us that God designed man and woman who are equal in substance (i.e. humans made in the image of God) but also different in type (i.e. gender). After all the word “fit for him” implies that she is not a clone, but complements. Both work together to image God, and yet both play different roles. Both were given the mandate to be fruitful and multiply and flourish in this garden (Gen 1:29-30).
It might be helpful to also spend some time looking at this word “helper” being used to describe woman in Gen 2:18. Perhaps in our contexts, helper has a slightly different meaning, so much so that it jumps out at us from this passage. How do we use it? If you do a quick search on Google, most of the entries turned up pages for “domestic helpers in Singapore”. Merriam-Webster defined it as “one that helps; especially, a relatively unskilled worker who assists a skilled worker usually by manual labor”. Was this what God intended? The word “helper” (Hebrew “ezer”), as the ESV Study Bible explains. is one who supplies strength in the area that is lacking in the helped. It goes on to say that “the term does not imply that the helper is either stronger or weaker than the one helped”. This is not a bad thing. Furthermore, God Himself is often referred to as a helper in the Psalms (c.f. Ps 30:10, 54:4, 72:12, 118:7). Therefore, in making a woman as a “helper fit for him”, God was making another to complement and to aid in order to flourish.
Who is the man that this woman is to help? This is the man to work and keep the garden (Gen 2:15), to tend it for it to flourish. He was to subdue the earth and have dominion over all of God’s creation (Gen 1:28). He is to lead and love this creation that God has so wonderfully and lovingly created. This was how he is to image His Creator. What kind of a man is this? Perhaps we can turn to Aragorn, the long-awaited King of Gondor in the LOTR books. In the movie, Boromir’s parting words were “I would have followed you, my brother... My captain... My king.” In the novel Return of the King, there is an account of Faramir encountering Aragorn: “Suddenly Faramir stirred, and he opened his eyes, and he looked on Aragorn who bent over him; and a light of knowledge and love was kindled in his eyes, and he spoke softly. 'My lord, you called me. I come. What does the king command?” What kind of a leader is this? In the rest of the book, the valour and courage of Aragorn is on full display. He is willing to fight to the end to destroy evil, and is committed to protecting the hobbits Frodo and Sam to help them achieve this aim. He is also the true King of Gondor, and is also tender-hearted to the sick and wounded. This is the kind of leader that caused Boromir and Faramir to respond this way, and in some sense, this fictional encounter with a fictional character helps us to see the beauty of a caring leadership and authority, one that is not domineering, but under whose care, it leads to flourishing.
What will it look like? Perhaps an example from the recently much talked about movie “Black Panther” will be helpful. No spoilers here, but Black Panther drew rave praises not only for its handling of race and political issues, but also how it portrayed women working alongside men. In an interview with Trevor Noah about her role in this superhero movie, Lupita Nyong'o responded that it was a refreshing take on the traditional love interest role because her character had her own thing going on and was in a relationship where there was respect. Describing the dynamics in their relationship, she says, “The man is interested in what the woman has to offer. The man relies on the woman and the woman supports the man.” In a world where man-woman relationships are often complex and complicated, this portrayal in Black Panther offers a tiny glimpse perhaps of what a healthy man-woman relationship was designed to be.
How the world we live in is so different
But we are all painfully aware that the world that we live in is so different. When we read our Bible, we don’t have to go very far to see that when sin enters the world in Gen 3, it wrecks our relationship with God and causes our human relationships to fracture. As a result of sin, guilt and shame entered the world and there’s a constant need to cover up not only physically (Gen 3:7), but also in dealing with sin (Gen 3:12-13). There is blame pushing, there’s going to be conflict in the most intimate of relationships (Gen 3:16b). This is the world that we are more familiar with, with people of all genders, ages, race, etc going against each other. Sin explains the real problem of gender inequality and exploitation, of conflict and strife as genders and individuals seek their own interests above that of others.
Gen 3 also shows us how sin is fundamentally going against God and His design. In choosing to eat of the tree that God forbid, Eve was basically saying that God could not be trusted and His rules were not good. In that moment, she wanted to be god instead of allowing God to be God. Her actions revealed her heart and her desire. And so in the same vein, we see this sinful heart stirring and prompting us to act in many ways, not just in doing wrong things, but also in the way we think about this world. Gender is only one of the many things that we struggle with. Both men and women are prone to go against God’s design, and to also think about the other gender in ways that are not in line with God’s design. We all live under the effects of the fall. But what is natural for us is not what we were made for.
Hence, the gospel. Only in and through Jesus, we have the forgiveness of sin and a new heart that desires to obey God and helps us to live as we are meant to be -- men and women of God. Only through the gospel will we be able to restore our relationships and learn to live in community and treat each other rightly. Jesus came as the fullness of God, and lived the perfect life of Man. In Him we see courage to stand up against sin and injustice. In Him we also see the tenderness and compassion for the hurting. As men and women created in the image of God, Jesus, who is the “image of the invisible God” (c.f. Col 1:15) teaches us many things about how we are to live and how God intends for us to live.
So what does this mean practically, when we live in a world with many problems? As mentioned, this is not an exhaustive list, but we'll begin with just 3:
(1) Man or woman, both genders need God.
As we've seen, Christians need to begin with God and His design, but we also need to go back to Him to help us live out His design! In a world where talk about being a man and being a woman sometimes seem confusing and arbitrary, the Christian is confronted with similar questions. But the question the Christian has to really answer is “What does it mean to be a man or woman of God?” It’s not an easy question to answer, and certainly in churches, our answers can seem more influenced by culture and tradition rather than what the Bible really says. But even just from Gen 1 and 2, we can see that a man is not a woman. A woman is not a man. In a world that tries to blur the distinctions, Gen 1 and 2 does seem to clarify some boundaries. Gender is no accident, and sometimes I do struggle with who God has made me. But I take comfort in the verse in Acts 17:26 that God is sovereign and has determined alloted periods and the boundaries of my dwelling place. He placed us here in this day and age, and in Singapore as part of His plan and purpose.
How then can each gender do what we are all created to do -- image God? This is the hard work and thinking that we need to work out. So how are you growing as a Christian man or woman? This is something that both women and men need to! The recent movement in Hollywood and many other countries against widespread sexual harassment in many industries has also sparked a renewed interest to reconsider what roles each gender plays. Articles have also been written about how men have been confused by what this means because actions and behaviour once dismissed as “boys being boys” are no longer tolerated and acceptable. This is perhaps a good time for the church to step in and consider God’s design, and build a community that helps each other image God. This is our next point.
(2) Both genders need each other, because God has designed it to be this way.
The New Testament describes the church using familial language. In a community of people that have been redeemed through faith in Christ, we are no longer opposed to each other and can show the same sacrificial love that Christ shows us. This picture of relationship in the community is important because it also shows that we are not to think of the other gender as just a potential marriage or sex partner for procreation. This means that we don’t go to church to keep an eye out for good Christian boys/girls to date and marry because it’s acceptable. This also means that though married, we are to cultivate healthy relationships with all people in the church! Paul told Timothy in 1 TIm 5:2 to treat older men as he would a father, “younger men as brothers, older women as mothers younger women as sisters in all purity”.
Growing up in a family of all sisters, I’ve realised how I’ve learnt a lot from the boys in church. Over the years, they’ve become my older and younger brothers, teaching me about random things like NS, and also doing more “important” things like caring and protecting when the need arises. And I’ve also learnt how to help and “be motherly” in the many instances that they need help. And vice versa if you’ve only grown up with all boys.
So how do we cultivate healthy relationships with each other to grow into Christlikeness? What is influencing your understanding? We cannot rely on the media (both western and Asian) to teach us about each other. Porn is not the way, and neither are Korean dramas. Neither is Tinder and the whole host of social media outlets. Find healthy role models in the church and cultivate good relationships.
We need each other.
(3) We need wisdom to navigate some difficult things in a fallen world
We live in a complicated world. It’s a world with real crimes committed against a particular gender, both in the world and also in the church. The #metoo movement has been widely covered in the media, but on Twitter too, the hashtags #churchmetoo and #mosquemetoo was also trending, with people sharing their stories of harrassment and assault in religious institutions. It was heartbreaking to read of stories in the church.
Then there are also issues about how gender is portrayed in the Bible and even how some of the roles are to be played out. These are often questions and even struggles that both Christians and non-Christians have.
What should we do? How should we respond? On issues of clear-cut sin, such as injustice and crime, we know that God does not tolerate evil and injustice. But perhaps in some cases, maybe in terms of the role of women in the church, let’s also come with humility and ask God for wisdom. When God’s Word challenges our natural instincts, let’s pause, take a deep breath and read God’s Word again. Do not be like Eve and focus on just that one prohibition while neglecting the abundant goodness. I have my own struggles and biases, and I’m also learning and navigating through my own mess. But this is why I spent the bulk of this talk talking about Gen 1-3, because from this basis, I can see my own sin and natural disposition, as well as God’s goodness and love.
God’s Word is timeless and true. This means that it challenges all cultures in all times. To the original readers, women had a surprising role and were treated with more respect than they were accorded in their time! We all come to the Word with our biases, so let’s come, not seeking to merely get answers to questions. Let’s not forget how God’s Word is meant to point us to Jesus Christ, in whom there is salvation. This Jesus Christ is not just a good man, but is the image of the invisible God. As men and women, we can only image God if we know Him, and we know Him best as He has revealed Himself in Christ, in whom the fullness of God dwells (Col 1:19).
Written by Bibianna Yeo for the Fellowship Bible Reading Retreat 2018.