Complementarian Interpreations of Creation

Over the past week or so we have been revisiting the creation narratives of Genesis 1-3. In reading them, I suggested several indications of how especially Gen 1 but also Gen 2 could be read as indicating a basic equality between male and female. They share in the rule of God in Gen 1, the woman is “helper” to the man as God is “helper” to Israel.

But the NT reflections on the creation narrative tend toward a hierarchical reading.

In 1 Corinthians 11 Paul appeals to creation. Echoing Gen 2, the passage reads:

7 A man shouldn’t have his head covered, because he is the image and glory of God; but the woman is man’s glory. 8 Man didn’t have his origin from woman, but woman from man; 9 and man wasn’t created for the sake of the woman, but the woman for the sake of the man. 10 Because of this a woman should have authority over her head, because of the angels. (CEB)

Conflating the two creation stories, 1 Cor 11 assigns the image language to the man in particular: he is God’s image and glory, derived from God, as God’s son, it would seem. The woman, derived from the man (made from his rib) is created for the man’s sake (an allusion to her as “helper”) and is his glory.

In this passage, Paul uses Adam’s being “first” in creation as the basis for an argument that dress in public worship should reflect the hierarchy of God/Christ over man, and man over woman.

Thus, Paul gives significant weight to a hierarchy based on creation order here. But even as he does so, we should notice that the role of the “subordinate” is considerable: man is God’s glory. Woman is the man’s glory.

But more significantly is that Paul is not willing to give creation the last word. Even more important than creation is life “in the Lord,” i.e., the life of the redeemed community in Christ:

11 However, woman isn’t independent from man, and man isn’t independent from woman in the Lord. 12 As woman came from man so also man comes from woman. But everything comes from God. (CEB)

More significant than hierarchies is mutual interdependence on one another, and mutual dependence on God.

While Paul has used a complementarian reading of Gen 1-3 to argue for certain dress codes in worship, he does not give that reading the last word. There is a mutual interdependence that comes into the narrative both because of creation (both the idea of man’s birth through woman and our mutual dependence on God) and because of our having been united to Christ.

Two things are significant here, as we think about how the Adam and Eve story helps us understand how the world is versus how it should be.

First, Paul himself does not give merely a hierarchical reading of Gen 1-3. He also gives an egalitarian reading when he appeals to birth and mutual dependence on God.

But even more importantly for those of us who are committed to reading the Bible as a narrative, it is the Gospel that finally will not allow hierarchy to stand. Who we are “in the Lord” transforms our understanding of mutual interrelations, so that it no longer makes sense to say, “Here is man, who simply rules over his wife and family.” Now mutual interdependence and dependence come to the fore, such that both depend upon the other–a kind of relationship in which there can not, for long, be any sense of one ruling the other.

This picture of a redeemed humanity, of an order of new creation that does not simply affirm a first-creation subordinationism, is the picture in which fits Paul’s statement in Gal 3:28: there is no longer “male and female”–a precise echo of Gen’s statement that God creates them “male and female.” In the Gal 3 context, the paragraph is undermining hierarchies of superiority whereby one would have to become like the other to be fully a part of the kingdom of God.

Paul’s new creation theology will not allow him to give a creation-based hierarchy the last word. Even if he does not work it out with full consistency in his own letters, he tells us how the story is supposed to play out. If male is first and therefore female is his subordinate based on creation order, then in new creation we must affirm that something has been transformed–there is no longer “male and female” in this hierarchical sense.

Thus, even if the NT contains complementarian readings of Gen 1-3, the very gospel story it tells demands that we reread the eschatology anticipated by those stories as an end in which male and female are not only of equal worth, but equally positioned to serve as God’s under-rulers in God’s Kingdom.

10 thoughts on “Complementarian Interpreations of Creation”

  1. Just to make sure I understand, you’re arguing that the gospel leads us to overturn aspects of the pre-fall creation narrative? Are you also arguing that Paul knew this is where we should go but didn’t go there himself?

    To ask it another way, is it accurate to say that the Bible does not have the last word, the Church does? Does this mean that the Bible’s story points us in a direction that the early church never fully went?

    If that’s the case, then that would be why the NT doesn’t sound overly egalitarian in places, is that correct?

    I really want to go here with you, Daniel, and verses 11 and 12 help get me there a bit, but I need to flesh out some of this a bit more.

    1. A couple of things here, Will. First, I think that the evidence in Scripture itself is ambiguous. There are pieces that cut both ways.

      Then, I don’t think the Bible has the absolute last word. Our job isn’t merely to say what the Bible said, but to say what we must say on the basis of what the prophets and apostles have said (K. Barth).

      Especially when we have divergent pieces of information, different ways of interpreting something, what are we supposed to do? I think this reminds us that our job is to figure out what faithfulness looks like today–and that the way to do that is by determining what best fits the gospel story that the NT tells.

      I see movement toward equality, I see liberation, I see the gospel turning the economy of the world on its head.

      So when I see data pulling in two different possible directions, I ask which seems to be the truer embodiment of the gospel. I think there are some issues (such as slavery, to take a clearer example) where the full impact of what the gospel of “no longer Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female, rich and poor,” means was not yet felt because it too radically cut across social norms.

  2. First, I have enjoyed reading your thoughts this week on Adam–very thought provoking.

    As I read your post here, I looked back over 1 Corinthians 11 myself, and I have a couple questions:

    First, This section begins in verse 1 with the charge: Be imitators of Christ…but I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man (and so on in verse 3). What does the imitation of Christ have to do with the issue of hierarchy? Should verse one and two be taken with the previous passage?

    Also, I am curious to hear your thoughts on whether Paul is using any sarcasm here. Verses 13 and following seem to feel different as I read them, as if Paul is writing sarcastically or with a strong sense of absoluteness. It seems that he is either mocking the idea of natural order or endorsing it quite strongly. Is sarcasm possible here?

    Third, is there another option that can be a “both/and” solution. Is it possible for us to both believe in natural hierarchy (modeled after Christ’s sacrificial love) and equality of position?

    Finally, I am curious about how a passage that we largely ignore concerning the covering of our heads gives us much information to base our studies on. We have proven (in mainline and evangelical circles) that we have no desire to ask women to wear a covering for their head. Does this show us that we already stand on the side of equality, but are uncomfortable admitting so in a doctrinal manner?

    I thank you for your candor, thoughtfulness, and ability to connect the dots biblically.

  3. Daniel, I appreciate where you’re knitting these narratives together. Russ Spittler considered 11:11-12 one of the “reversals” that characterize Paul’s writing in 1 Corinthians: “not that, but this” moments. 1 Cor 7:4 has another culture-shaking reversal, regarding whose body belongs to whom in marriage.

    One thing I’d note about this section: Paul’s new creation theology will not allow him to give a creation-based hierarchy the last word. Even if he does not work it out with full consistency in his own letters, he tells us how the story is supposed to play out.

    ISTM that Paul wrote a lot in proleptic voice regarding the churches he pastored. There seem to me as if there could be 2 parallel narratives:
    1) This is who you are & are called to be “in Christ”, now, in new creation.
    2) This is where you are acting when you do X. I address that reality as your pastor, and I call you to be #1 over & over, again.

    Might varying levels of maturity & immaturity among members of the Body factor into inconsistency you perceive? It’s certainly a common problem for pastors in communities! I don’t perceive Paul having the same inconsistency as you, so I’m trying to understand your perspective (!) a bit more.

    (My POV: I see Paul’s words building a lot on creation, just as you noted here, while also playing with Greek meanings in his text. cf. God creating somethings out of nothings in 1:26-31, esp’ly v. 28 in the Greek, not to mention making a nothing out of somethings in ch. 9!)

  4. Daniel, great post! Especially this, “More significant than hierarchies is mutual interdependence on one another, and mutual dependence on God.” Yes.

    With the patriarchal model in churches today, many communities perpetuate a more subtle, “civilized” (supposedly biblical) form of the hierarchal order. For example this video of John Piper talking about submission and domestic abuse; both verbal and physical. His take is very typical, see video:

    I have seen so many men who grow up being fed this patriarchal ideology tie their sense of dignity and self-worth to their status as “men” in that hierarchy. This means that they have a strong motivation to secure their status, ensuring that their wives accept their subordinated position. But when a woman’s natural desire for equal dignity (and often ministry) somehow breaks through, he will have a motive to want to “put her back in her place.” And in a community where the patriarchal subordination of women is promoted, she can expect that a proposed solution will involve her more meekly and quietly accepting her subordinated role. And while her abuser will almost certainly be counseled not to physically abuse her and encouraged, perhaps, not to exploit his privileged status (to be benevolent with his power) the very process itself promotes the sense of “male dignity” and its privileged status will be strengthened. What’s the alternative? The first step is to admit the theology is wrong. And maybe second, as you say, to consider the N.T. idea of MUTUAL submission both to Christ and one another. 

    In a mutually submissive marriage (not Piper’s hierarchical notion of submission) where husband and wife are equal in worth and role and expectation, abuse is a problem WHENEVER it shows up, not possibly acceptable because of husbandly lordship. 

    I believe PATRIARCHY IS A CULTURALLY RATHER THAN THEOLOGICALLY DETERMINED DEVELOPMENT of the original prominence of Adam. And that what emerges from the perspective of new creation is the EQUALITY of men and women in Christ. When Paul says that in Christ Jesus there is no male or female (Gal 3:28) his words must be taken in some sense as a cancelation of a passing (cultural) distinction that evolved over time. However, at the same time, Paul is being practical about the very real limitations in first century patriarchal tradition and culture and the necessity for careful transition.

    If Paul regards the authority of the man over the woman not as a theological absolute but as a given cultural reality, should not the pattern of, say, leadership within the church be viewed in the same light? Would it be unsurprising if the structures of authority, like in Paul’s day, are adapted to the circumstances of culture? And isn’t this part of Paul’s theology in the New Testament?

    Maybe it’s more important to end by using an example Paul gives in Ephesians 5:22-31 as corrective teaching; it provides a counterbalance to a given situation, that is, the passage begins with the image of the man as head but ends with the image of man and woman as one flesh.

  5. Dear Daniel

    Thanks for this, and for making these connections. I agree with your conclusion, though I don’t think myself I am quite so convinced that Paul *is* starting off with a hierarchical reading of Gen 2. ‘Woman was made for the sake of man’ could be pointing equally to the man’s incompleteness without the woman, and it is interesting to note that Thiselton comments (in his long commentary on 1 Cor,p 833) that in the language of ‘image’ and ‘glory’, ‘the emphasis falls less on hierarchy as such (although this has a place) than on relationality.’

    Are you aware of my comments on these passages at and and ? I have also written them up in a Grove booklet ‘Women and Authority.’

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