What about gender roles and equality in Genesis 1-3?

by Jacob Allee

Genesis 1-3 sets the tone for God’s purpose for male and female, and perhaps more specifically husband and wife relationships. The account begins with forming both man and woman in the image of God: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”[1] This fact automatically separates men and women from the rest of the created life forms as unique and special, and assigns both male and female human beings a certain kind of dignity and value that is not given to the rest of the things God made. In value, men and women are equal on the grounds that they are image bearers of God.

With the question of equality of value being settled in Genesis 1, this is not to say that it is God’s design that men and women have no distinction in roles. In fact, the portrait given us in Genesis two is very much that of a man who was in need of a companion to complete him.

18 Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.” 19 Now out of the ground the Lord God had formed every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens and brought them to the man to see what he would call them. And whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. 20 The man gave names to all livestock and to the birds of the heavens and to every beast of the field. But for Adam there was not found a helper fit for him. 21 So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. 22 And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. 23 Then the man said, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.” 24 Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. 25 And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.[2]

God made for man a woman as a helpmate, someone who would meet his needs and he would meet hers. This is a Complimentarian view of the male/female relationship that says while men and women are equally valuable (fully deserving of dignity and respect), they are designed with complimentary purposes so that they might fulfill what the other lacks. Seen in this light, it should be understood that neither men nor women are superior to the other because we mutually benefit from the other sex by God’s design and purpose.

The Evangelical Feminist (i.e. Egalitarian) view argues that in Genesis 3, when the fall occurs, sin causes a distinction in the roles of men and women that was not previously there. In other words, in the Evangelical Feminists view, prior to the fall man and woman shared total equality not only in value but in roles also. The fall, then, is considered the culprit of why today so many people see women as inferior to men and, in the feminists view, Jesus Christ came to redeem what has been lost at the fall and restore women to equality with men in every way (e.g., women can now be pastors and equally the spiritual head of the home, etc.).

However, it does not seem to be immediately obvious that the fall is what brought about gender distinctions. Consider the following from Genesis 3:16 where God is describing the curse of sin and its effect on the relationship between men and women (husband and wife). “To the woman he said, “I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children. Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.” [3]

Particularly we look at the statement, “Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.” This, the Evangelical Feminist would say, is where gender differentiation comes from, the curse of sin. When God pronounced this judgment due to sin it was then that women started to be deemed different from men. But is this really as clear as they make it to be?

It seems preferable, in light of the rest of what Scripture has to say on the subject of men and women, that what God has described here is how gender roles (that already existed) would now be strained and abused due to the curse of sin rather than to say that gender roles were created because of sin. This is apparent in light of Ephesians 5:22-33:

22 Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands. 25 Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, 26 that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, 27 so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. 28 In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, 30 because we are members of his body. 31 “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” 32 This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. 33 However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband. [4]

It is no small thing that Paul uses the differentiation in gender roles and the relationship between men and women (husbands and wives) as the portrait of the relationship between Christ and His church! The teaching of the Apostle Paul, God breathed Scripture (written after the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ no less), does not seem to make any attempt to get rid of gender roles in the church or in the home. In fact, the roles of men and women are reinforced and compared to Christ and His church!

What is addressed in Ephesians 5 is the need for wives to submit to their husbands and for husbands to love their wives. This teaching appears to address the specific problem between the genders that was caused by sin; namely, that women would have “desire for their husband” and men would “rule over their wives.” It is important to understand that the “desire” for a woman’s husband that is being referred to in Genesis 3:16 is not a healthy desire that a married person should feel for their mate, but rather a desire to rule over or dominate. The same Hebrew word that is translated “desire” is used again in Genesis 4:6-7 concerning Cain. “The Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? 7 If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.”[5] Here desire is used negatively to mean “to seek control of.”

In light of that, Genesis 3:16 tells us that because of sin women will try to rule over (lead) their husbands. The teaching of Ephesians counters this by telling wives to submit to their husbands. This is hugely important, because if the Evangelical Feminist is correct then Ephesians should simply tell women not to try to rule over their husbands but to share equal status with them, and it would tell men the same; but this is not at all what Ephesians 5 says! Paul teaches women to correct their sinful impulses in their relationship towards their husbands that came from the fall, but he does not say “stop recognizing gender distinctions” or “share equally the role of leadership in the home and in the church.”

No, instead Paul says “wives submit to your husbands” and “husbands love your wives,” which adequately responds to the problem that came with the fall where, because of the curse of sin, women started to seek control of the marital relationship and men started to brutishly lead their wives. God intended women to submit to male leadership in the home and in the church, but God also intended men to lead with love, honor, and respect towards women, putting her needs before his own.

When Genesis 1-3 are lined up next to Ephesians 5 we see that God’s word is not teaching that gender roles are a result of the fall, but rather they were His design from the beginning. Christ did not come to destroy gender distinctions but to repair them so that they might operate in such a way that shows His glory. Wives are to submit to their husbands rather than seeking control in the home and the church, and husbands are to love their wives, leading with grace and greater care for their wives than themselves. This was God’s intent from the beginning that was strained at the fall and was reconciled at the cross.


[1] The Holy Bible : English standard version. 2001 (Ge 1:27). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.

[2] The Holy Bible : English standard version. 2001 (Ge 2:18–25). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.

[3] The Holy Bible : English standard version. 2001 (Ge 3:16). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.

[4] The Holy Bible : English standard version. 2001 (Eph 5:22–33). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.


About The Author

Matt Slick is the President and Founder of the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry.