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.

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