My body is mine, and mine alone.
I can say no, or I can say yes.
I deserve to experience pleasure.
I am beautiful.
For a girl (me) who thought it was her duty to give her body to her spouse, no matter how she felt, this new mantra is huge.
I used to think men’s sexual appetites were so massive that if wives didn’t satisfy them, husbands would have to find something or someone else to satiate their hunger.
This meant that if a husband was addicted to pornography, it was his wife’s fault.
If a man had an affair, it was his wife’s fault.
And if a husband was feeling unloved or sad, it was his wife’s duty to “comfort” him.
I am sure you can see how patriarchal and stereotypical this way of thinking is.
Not only does this leave women feeling trapped and used, it also shortchanges men: they could have wives who actually enjoy sex instead of wives who are having sex out of duty.
I grew up when the Evangelical Purity Movement was in full swing.
Dr. Tina Schermer Sellers, a sex therapist, has spent many years exploring the harmful effects of the purity movement.
She explains that, because the purity movement included elements of shame, silence and fear, people who have been exposed to the movement display the same symptoms as victims of sexual trauma:
“This combination of Fear, Shame, and Silence wrapped in a religious context of 'This is of God' is what produces religious sexual shame that can manifest as symptoms of childhood sexual abuse in adults.
The Purity Movement delivered this in spades … and we have a generation of young adults now trying to heal from levels of shame, depression, anxiety and sexual dysfunction unlike we have seen in recent history.”
The purity movement appears to have begun as a reaction to the sexual revolution of the 60’s, which was a result of the feminist movement.
As feminists were asserting women's equality in the work place and in politics, they also began advocating for women's sexual equality.
According to a PBS article entitled "The Pill and the Sexual Revolution", “At the core of the sexual revolution was the concept -- radical at the time -- that women, just like men, enjoyed sex and had sexual needs.”
Feminists in the 60’s advocated especially for the sexual empowerment of unmarried women. They advised women to use birth control and be free.
Whereas, prior to this time, society emphasized the importance of “virginity and marriage”, now society celebrated the “single life and sexual exploration”. (https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/pill-and-sexual-revolution/)
You can imagine how terrifying this was for Christians, who were concerned about sexual promiscuity.
Even before the sexual revolution of the 60’s, Christians placed a great deal of emphasis on women’s sexual purity (aka-be a virgin until marriage, be modest, etc).
How then, should they respond to this increased sexual freedom for women?
Christians apparently felt they needed to affirm sex as pleasurable while also admonishing young people not to engage in sex outside of marriage.
As a teenager, I remember giggling while listening to the song, “I Don’t Want It” by DC Talk.
It was so scandalous; were they really spelling “S-E-X” in a catchy Christian song?!?
Give the song a listen: https://youtu.be/KEpZd6jqmuQ.
Though I enjoyed the song as a teen, now it makes me feel angry:
A message I received from this song was that girls can really lead guys astray with sexual tempation.
I also understood that good guys ought to stand strong because “God has set his standard higher Purity is his desire”.
My question now is, "What is God's purity standard?" I'm not convinced it is what DC Talk hinted at in that song...
I distinctly remember, after listening to the song, feeling hyper conscious about what I was wearing around guys. Was I unintentionally begging them to have sex with me?
Couched in the words of this song is the promise that if you wait until you are married to have sex, then sex will be really really good: “And trust that God will give us something better if we wait.”
In other words, delay your passion until you are married; it will be worth it.
As a young teenager secretly fantasizing about sex and boys, I took this message to heart.
After all, who wouldn't want fabulous sex?
While Christian singers in the 1990’s and 2000’s were putting out songs emphasizing the glories of sex after marriage and the pitfalls of sex before marriage, numerous Christian organizations were promoting the same messages in a variety of ways: through promise rings, True Love Waits conventions, father-daughter dances and an increasing emphasis on courtship over dating and delaying kissing until marriage (I Kissed Dating Goodbye).
Once again, I feel lucky my parents never encouraged me to become involved in any of these movements.
In spite of that fact, I absorbed its basic tenets: sex outside of marriage was bad; if I waited for marriage, sex would be wonderful; girls ought to be modest lest they lead guys astray.
I remember hearing that if you were sexually promiscuous before marriage, you would bring all of your former partners into the marriage bed with you.
Joshua Harris is the author of the book I Kissed Dating Goodbye. He now regrets having written the book, and recently participated in a documentary about its impact as well as that of the purity movement.
The opening scene of the documentary (which was also the opening scene of his book) involves a wedding ceremony in which the groom brings all his former girlfriends with him to the ceremony.
If you want to understand both Harris's book and the purity movement in more depth, I highly recommend watching the documentary here.
I have heard of some youth groups asking girls to chew a piece of gum and then spit it out. After that, the girls were asked, “Would you give this to someone else to chew?”
The message behind this exercise? Don’t have sex with other people before marriage. If you do, you are damaged goods.
And you don’t want to offer “damaged goods” to the man you marry on your wedding day, do you?
What an incredibly shaming message!
Earlier, I shared a quote by Dr. Tina Schermer Sellers in which she shares how the purity movement used “Fear, Shame and Silence wrapped in a religious context” to encourage young people not to engage in sex before marriage.
Writer Linda Kay Klein tells her story and the stories of other women affected by the purity movement in her book PURE.
In this article by VICE, the author shares some of the stories in Klein's book. The stories are maddening. No woman should ever feel this way!
From these examples, can you see the fear, shame and silence invoked by the purity movement?
It is hard for “good Christian girls” who have been told first to dress modestly and then not to be lustful to suddenly become sexual beings once they are married.
For years, I myself felt “naughty” (shameful) after having especially enjoyable sex.
This leads to a few honest questions:
I can't wait to explore these questions next week!
Do you have personal experience with the purity movement? If so, be sure to leave a comment and tell me about it.
She leaned forward, gripping the steering wheel, heavy-footed and radiating positive energy. Every few seconds she turned to me with a new detail, “He’s so wise!”, “He keeps himself so well-groomed”, “He tells such good stories!”
— ”Have you heard the pineapple story? It’s SO good!,” interjected one of my fellow female passengers...—
Every time our chauffeur turned to me with new, glorious descriptions of the amazing keynote speaker, her pupils dilated and sparkled animatedly.
I was a young teen, and I was canister-ed in a humongous van with several other girls from my church. They were all chattering and interrupting, filling me in on the amazing things I would learn at the conference we were about to attend.
I’ve always been annoyed by “people worship”, and I was unimpressed by the flattery. However, I couldn’t help but feel curious about this “great” man everyone was going on about.
The man’s name was Bill Gothard. You can google him if you want to; you’ll find he’s not quite as loved as he once was.
It is here I must interject, red faced, that my motives were not pure; I really could have cared less about the seminar.
I had a crush on a few of the boys in our church, who happened to be brothers to some of the girls in the van, and I was trying to make a good impression.
I remember, upon entering the convention center, feeling as though the vastness of the glass-windowed lobby vacuumed up my breath.
Women roamed the halls in packs, swarming into spacious tiled bathrooms.
Most wore dresses— not cocktail dresses, mind you: hand sewn, modest dresses.
As I navigated the busy hallway, I chuckled to myself— women lined the sidewalk outside, using the convention center's one-way-glass as a mirror, combing their long hair and re-applying lipstick, unaware that everyone inside could see them.
From inside, it looked as though they were silent circus performers repeating a simple routine: comb, apply, comb, apply, comb, apply.
Upon nearing the spacious room where the conference was to be held, I veered left into a restroom; it was bizarrely hushed.
The counter was lined with women soundlessly jostling each other, craning their necks to view their reflections, applying makeup.
I wondered why everyone was so concerned with their makeup and with how they looked. We were, after all, attending a seminar to learn more about God and the Bible. (Um, well, most of us were…)
Why did our appearance matter so much?
I still remember the one fleeting moment during the conference when excitement overtook me: I was handed a pencil and an empty workbook, all my own.
Oh, how I still love new workbooks and studying and assignments!
Now, however,when I recall this seminar and that crackling new workbook, I feel sick.
I want to stomp on that workbook, rip it to shreds and burn it; it was, after all, garbage wrapped in this beautiful, terrifying paper called Religiosity.
Looking back, I’m grateful my parents did not embrace this man or his teachings.
Many of the young women who attended that conference with me were scarred for life; years later, the world learned that Bill Gothard himself (a single man) had made inappropriate sexual advances on several young women who had interned as his secretaries.
It was at this conference I was introduced to the following diagrams:
This diagram illustrates the “Umbrella of Protection”. As long as us young ladies remained under our umbrella, we were told, we would be safe from the devil. Otherwise, he would certainly have us for lunch.
This diagram juxtaposes the “godly” family structure, protected by God, against the “worldly” family structure, governed by Satan. Talk about stretching a metaphor!
One of the most chilling aspects of the second umbrella is the statement (I apologize for the blurriness) that ordering your family incorrectly “disempowers the husband”.
Now, back to my story. Although my bullshit sensors were blaring at this point, and although my parents themselves never became followers of Gothard’s teachings (thank God), I couldn’t shake the fear induced by these illustrations.
Who in their right mind would want to have that dreaded dude Satan leading his or her family?
I wish I would have known then what I know now: that this whole illustration was an example of what I call Christianized patriarchy. And patriarchy has very real and lasting effects on people.
So What Is Patriarchy?
In simplest terms, patriarchy is a system in which men rule over women.
Dictionary.com defines patriarchy as “a form of social organization in which the father is the supreme authority in the family, clan, or tribe and descent is reckoned in the male line, with the children belonging to the father's clan or tribe.”
Imagine with me for a moment what sort of cultural “needs” would lead to such a system. Why would it be important for the father to be the supreme authority in a family or tribe and for male children to inherit their father’s wealth?
Here are three detailed descriptions of patriarchy:
Most scholars agree that though patriarchy has been the basic structure for many societies, it has not always been the chief societal structure.
Remember my question earlier, about what sort of culture would benefit from patriarchy?
Not a hunter-gatherer culture, according to most scholars.
Most hunter-gatherer societies are thought to have been egalitarian: every member was equally important and job-roles were fluid.
People in hunter-gatherer societies, I’d imagine, were more concerned with having enough food to eat and surviving than with anything else.
Many would posit that hierarchical societal structures such as patriarchy emerged when societies became agrarian and began amassing wealth.
Agrarian societies needed to find ways to pass on wealth; what better way than to pass money along to other family members.
The focus on amassing wealth and passing it along family lines gave more authority and leadership capabilities to some (the wealthy) than to others.
What Are The Defining Characteristics of Patriarchal Societies/Structures?
From this short history and definition of patriarchy, what would you say are some of its defining characteristics?
My list includes: power, hierarchy, obedience to authority figures, structured living and rigid roles based on gender and age, dominance of the powerful/wealthy over the weak/poor.
Check out this series of slides, which gives an overview of patriarchy and also highlights how patriarchy manifests in a society: https://www.slideshare.net/nivi88/patriarchy-in-society.
One excellent point this slideshow makes is that patriarchy is a system which affects both men and women.
Men are hurt by patriarchy, and men can do just as much as women to open people’s eyes to the invisible patriarchal rules we follow.
For many years, my husband lived with the heavy burden that he, and he alone, ought to be the sole financial provider for our family: that was his job!
He was not allowed to pursue a career which interested him; he had to pursue a career which would provide.
Furthermore, in much of the church culture we were immersed in, “being a man” was all about speaking loudly, vying for power, jostling for authority, and being invested in sports.
My husband is quiet, sensitive and emotional. He does not desire the limelight. He is not a die-hard sports fan.
Under this patriarchal delineation of manhood, my husband wondered where he fit.
As a young woman, I also received a loud message about how to be a worthy woman, thanks to patriarchy:
It is a constant challenge for me, as a homeschool mom, to educate my son and daughters to see women as equal to men, and to know there are a myriad of ways families can be structured.
I strive to show them they don’t have to think or live according to “patriarchal” norms.
While I do stay home to educate my kids, I treat homeschooling as my job/career.
My husband and I partner on housework.
I am careful to also spend time pursuing my own interests, passions and friendships.
As you saw above, growing up, I had many friends whose parents followed Bill Gothard’s teachings.
I also had many friends and family members who did not follow Gothard, but believed women should submit to their husbands. This meant that in the event of a disagreement, a husband’s word on the matter was final.
I recall hearing a child being instructed by a parent that his parents’ words to him were essentially God’s words to him.
I also remember witnessing a child being punished because, when his father instructed him to do something, he (the child) questioned it.
He questioned what his father told him because his mother had told him something different.
The child was wondering who he was supposed to listen to. When the child queried the father about this dilemma, the child was punished severely.
This was presumably to show the child that the father’s word is always the final word.
As I have been researching patriarchy, I have come across an interesting debate over whether or not America is a patriarchy.
I have also read several online debates over whether or not the Bible is patriarchal (does it promote patriarchy?).
I think this conversation is complicated; it can't be right or fair to summarily label a society, a family, or a book as 100% patriarchal.
Cultures and systems are highly nuanced.
For example, though the family structure Gothard taught about placed fathers above all other family members, it also taught that wives had this special ability to hear a sort of cautioning wisdom from the Lord.
If a wife received this special wisdom from God, the husband was admonished to listen to her.
This gave women a great deal of power over their husbands.
I think arguing over labels distracts us from addressing real problems.
What if, instead of spending our time debating whether or not someone or something is patriarchal, we instead use the “characteristics of patriarchy” as a filter through which to run the “water” of our lives?
We ought to look at our families, churches, schools and governments and ask whether all people are being treated with equal dignity and respect, regardless of their wealth or gender.
We also ought to be asking whether or not all members of society are given equal voice and opportunity.
The Negative Consequences of Patriarchy
Some would wonder why I am making such a big deal about patriarchy.
After all, compared with much of the rest of the world, we American folks (especially us white middle class folks) have SO MUCH.
I have a friend who immigrated from Venezuela to Colombia. Her major life concern right now is figuring out how to get dinner on the table for her two growing boys.
Yet, I believe this conversation is important: it is in questioning and dismantling unjust systems that we begin to help this hurting world— the world needs empowered women.
Let’s apply the “filter of patriarchy” to our modern lives. Where do we see patriarchy at play?
Though I have recently seen some magazines and TV ads promoting a more positive view of women, many headlines and commercials for women are all about how to make a man happy (often by becoming prettier and slimmer).
Here are four examples:
-From Cosmopolitan: “4 Words That Seduce Any Man. Any Time.”
-Also from Cosmopolitan: “Times He Wants You To Be Jealous”
-From Woman’s World: “10 Years Thinner”
-Also from Woman’s World: “Lose up to 130 Pounds”
Do you see how these ads are all about helping women become more desirable?
What a harmful message we are sending women when we tell them their value lies in their appeal!
Something makes me think this is the message the women at the Gothard conference I attended were receiving as well...
Another area in which we can apply our “patriarchy filter” is in the workforce, where men have historically received higher wages and been given more opportunities to hold positions of power.
Take a look at these statistics: https://www.dol.gov/wb/stats/stats_data.htm.
One cannot help but wonder why women are paid less than men for the same jobs?
Is it because men are considered to be more valuable?
Is it because of the myth that only men should provide for their families financially while women stay home?
Is it because of the false notion that women aren’t as good at being leaders as men are?
Wage equality would mean that:
Another area in which we can apply the “filter of patriarchy” is in the area of sexual assault.
Women who are sexually abused are often accused of inviting the abuse, while men are rarely held accountable for their actions.
I don't know about you, but I have heard many of these statements over the course of my lifetime:
Perhaps they (the women assaulted) were wandering in dark alleys they shouldn’t have been in.
Maybe they (the women assaulted) were wearing “slutty” clothing.
Maybe they (the women abused) were not being submissive enough to their husbands, or maybe they weren’t adequately “meeting his needs”.
This list of myths about people who are sexually abused sheds light on many of the cultural assumptions surrounding sexual abuse: https://www.ourresilience.org/what-you-need-to-know/myths-and-facts/
Do you see how often these myths let the perpetrators off the hook?
Do you see how this is about excusing those who hold more power?
I remember being teased by a group of boys when I was a young teen.
The teasing hurt deeply.
I was told, however, “those boys were just being boys” and, “they actually like you” (because if they didn’t like me, they wouldn’t be paying me any mind).
One of the areas in which I see patriarchal injustices in our society (and especially in the church) is in the implication that it is a woman’s duty to satisfy her man sexually, while downplaying or overlooking her right to pleasure.
I cannot help but wonder if, in those agrarian societies which first embraced patriarchy, women who “had a man” were more privileged and protected, and therefore focused on pleasing, and keeping, their men.
I will be writing more extensively on this topic in a future post.
We can apply the “patriarchy filter” to the treatment of men in our society as well as women.
As I mentioned earlier, many boys are taught they must grow up to be the providers and leaders in their families. They are admonished to be strong and not demonstrate too much emotion (“big boys don’t cry”).
Carolyn Custis James addresses the harmful effects of patriarchy on men in her book Malestrom. She warns,
“It isn’t overstating things to say there isn’t a man or boy alive who isn’t a target. The malestrom’s global currents can be violent and overt, but also come in subtle, even benign forms that catch men unawares. The malestrom is the particular ways in which the fall impacts the male of the human species—causing a man to lose himself, his identity and purpose as a man, and above all to lose sight of God’s original vision for his sons. The repercussions of such devastating personal losses are not merely disastrous for the men themselves, but catastrophic globally.”
Read more of her thoughts here: https://carolyncustisjames.com/2015/04/23/the-manhood-crisis/.
These are just some of the many ways in which patriarchy has affected our society in negative ways.
Patriarchy, The Bible, And The Church
As we have seen, patriarchal ideology is definitely at play in our society, and its effects are not beneficial.
As a child, I was taught that a system in which the man is the head of the family is biblical. Does this sound as patriarchal to you as it sounds to me?
Many scriptures were used to support this:
I believed that in order to be a woman of God I needed to be submissive to my husband.
I always wondered about single women, though. They were really not able to be “godly” without husbands, were they?
Guess what many of the single women I knew were taught (overtly and covertly)? That until they found husbands, they were under the authority of their fathers.
As I grew older, I saw so many ways in which "Christianized" patriarchy was harming women with the church:
I was tired of hearing “God’s wisdom is not our wisdom” as an explanation for why this hierarchical power structure must be followed.
What if there was another way to see scripture?
What if patriarchy was a societal structure in which the writers of the bible found themselves but not necessarily a god-ordained system?
I thought about slavery.
Many slaveholders used passages in the bible such as “Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything” to condone slavery as biblical.
Yet most Christians would agree that the only reason Paul wrote these instructions to slaves was because slave-holding was a facet of the society he lived in. They would say there was a general redemptive bent to Paul's instructions.
What if the same thing were also true of the biblical instructions for women, specifically wives?
In other words, what if Paul’s thoughts on women and submission had more to do with the patriarchal cultural system he was writing from than with patriarchy being a God-ordained system?
After all, we can’t ignore other passages in scripture such as Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ.”
As we have discussed in a previous post, Christian complementarians have coined the term “equal yet different” to address this issue. "Yes, we are all equal," they say, "however, we have different roles: leader and submitter."
Yet, what if equal truly means equal?
Thanks again for all your thoughtful comments, critiques and stories, friends. I really appreciate you.
Tune in next week for a deeper exploration of my journey into “what the heck is the Bible saying about patriarchy?!”
Follow me on Facebook to stay up to date on my latest posts. Comment here or on Facebook and share some ways in which you have felt the heavy weight of patriarchy in your everyday life.
Click on the links to catch up on Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.
How vividly do I remember witnessing a childbirth for the first time. I was young, maybe nine or ten.
About thirty minutes before the birth, my dad summoned me, asking whether or not I wanted to see a babe make its grand entrance into the world.
My answer? Of course!
I hopped onto his motorcycle, and we hastened along a dirt path scratched out of the rainforest by some gargantuan finger.
Tall vine-tangled rainforest trees tried to nab us as we rode up and down mountains, bumping and winding and gulping down gnats.
We arrived at the thatched village hut, called a “shabono”, just in time. Ducking through a hobbit-high door frame, our eyes took a few minutes to adjust to the dim light of the smoke-filled interior.
I was surprised to hear no sound, though four or five women were gathered around the laboring woman.
Panting, neck muscles straining, she squatted above a gargantuan green banana leaf.
And just when our eyes had adjusted to the dimness and the stinging smoke, a tiny babe, coated in mucus, slid silently from between its mother’s legs.
For a moment, everyone stared at the babe. The babe had to be deemed worthy; it must be without defect. Otherwise, it would be taken into the jungle and killed.
After investigating the child for defects and finding none, the women began to care for the newborn. Soon, that universal infant cry, so like caterwauling, filled the room.
I will never forget this experience: The miracle of new life coupled with the earthiness of my surroundings and the “other-ness” of cultural customs so different from my own imprinted itself firmly on my memory.
Upon witnessing this birth, I was filled with this great sense of unity which binds all of humanity— new life is new life, whether cradled under the mossy trees of the Amazon rainforest or ensconced in a blue blanket in a sterile American hospital room.
This past week, as I pondered the various ways in which I have read and interpreted the Bible's take on a woman's life work, I could not shake this vivid memory.
You see, in Yanomamo culture, a young woman’s status was lower than a dog’s; she was a man’s property. A man often had multiple wives. Most women were regularly abused and violated.
Before my third child was born, my husband and I lived in Bolivia. While there, I became friends with several Bolivian women.
Women in Bolivia went to school, and some graduated from college even, but they were not allowed to drive cars. Furthermore, there were many jobs which were considered to be women’s work (childcare, cooking, cleaning), and the men did not engage with these facets of life.
Imagine with me an ancient culture not so different from the Yanomamo or Bolivian cultures, in which the men were seen as more valuable and held a higher status than women: this is the cultural backdrop of most, if not all, of the Bible.
Stated another way, when I picture these two cultures’ treatment of women, it helps me grasp why there are so many difficult texts about women in the Bible.
Yet, what is God's vision of "woman"?
In Part 2 of this series, I ended with a quote from Sarah Bessey in which she shared a vision of men and women being “warriors fighting in distinct unity”. This vision of women certainly sounds different from that of the cultures I cited above.
The portrayal of “women as warriors” didn’t make much sense to me until I delved into the meaning of “helpmeet”.
I had been taught that a “helpmeet” was man’s perfect partner, meant to submit to him and help him carry out his mission in this world.
Boy was I surprised when I learned how the two Hebrew words combined to formulate “helpmeet” were actually used in other parts of the Bible; they didn’t have anything to do with subordination.
What is a “Helpmeet”?
I have two precious daughters and one sweet son.
They are my inspiration and the reason I push myself, work hard and face my fears.
I am constantly asking myself what message I am sending my children about women.
Am I telling them women are only good at certain jobs?
Am I communicating through my actions that women are only meant to be “background people” and not leaders?
(I am not saying there is anything “less” about being a background person. I am just saying I don’t want my kids to think women “can’t” or “shouldn’t”. )
Am I working as an equal partner, a warrior, alongside my husband, or am I demonstrating a subservient nature?
This resolve to demonstrate female equality awakened when I finally “got” what a “helpmeet” was.
I’d like to begin by narrating two stories for you (these stories are the main reason I am a feminist woman-of-faith):
Once upon a time, divine love, the Word, breathed God-life into this planet.
And this Word said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness” so that they can rule over creation together.
So God created mankind in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.
Then God told these two image-bearers to “fill the earth and subdue it”.
And God saw all that God had made, said it was good.
Once upon a time, divine love, the Word, formed this man-creature out of dust and breathed life into him. The man’s name was Adam.
God gave Adam some instructions, some “do’s and don'ts”, along with a job— name the animals.
And God noticed the man was alone, without a “suitable helper”. So he put the man to sleep and took out one of his ribs. God used this rib to form a woman. Her name was Eve.
Or, was that the beginning?
Whether or not you take them literally, both of these stories are in the opening chapters of Genesis.
Can you guess from which of these two stories we have gleaned the idea that a woman’s job is to stand by a man’s side, helping him?
“The Lord God said, ‘It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.’” (Gen. 2:18) — Story 2
According to Story 2, the woman was made for the man, right?
At least, this was the narrative I grew up hearing.
But what does the phrase “suitable helper” mean?
The first creation narrative, Story 1, makes it clear that the man and woman were both created in God’s image. Wouldn’t that mean they both demonstrated God-likeness, and so were equals?
God spoke to both of them and gave them a job to do, together.
In the second creation narrative, Story 2, it sounds more as though Eve was secondary, an afterthought. It sounds as though she was designed to help the man do his job.
So why the contradiction?
Many scholars have certainly combined these two stories to affirm the idea that men and women are “equal yet different”.
At first glance, it seems obvious from these passages, doesn’t it?
Yet one glaring problem I see with the “woman-was-created-for-man” interpretation is that there are many women who are either single or do not marry a man.
This whole interpretation leaves them out!
There were many women featured in the Bible, in fact, who were exemplified for their character qualities; we do not even hear mention of husbands, or even men, in their lives, women such as Rahab, Mary Magdalene and Deborah.
To repeat, if the Adam and Eve story was supposed to provide us with wisdom, we need to ask this question: How does the “equal yet different, woman as "helpmeet" to man” interpretation apply to single women or women who aren't married to men?
Let’s dig into the meanings of “suitable” and “helper” in the Hebrew language...
The word translated into “suitable” is “kenegdo” in Hebrew.
The King James Bible translated “kenegdo” as “meet for him”. The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew lexicon translates "kenegdo" as "corresponding to".
I love looking at how other languages translate words; interestingly, in the New Afrikaans Translation , "kenegdo" is translated as "sy gelyke" which means "his equal".
In your opinion, do any of these translations— “suitable” or “meet for him”, "corresponding to" or "his equal" — connote “subordinate” to you?
When I hear “suitable” or even “meet”, I hear “perfect fit” or “perfect complement”.
It was like a half-finished picture: something was missing for wholeness to be displayed; Adam needed a complement, an equal.
Eve was Adam's perfect counterpart.
None of the animals had been “suitable” as an equal to Adam; Eve was.
Marg Mowczko holds an MA with a specialization in early Christian and Jewish studies. She writes extensively about “ezer kenegdo” and what it means.
On her blog, she explains that “kenegdo” means “equal” or “corresponding”. If you enjoy getting into the nitty gritty meaning of words, I highly recommend reading her article on kenegdo here.
If “kenegdo”, then, means “equal to”, or “corresponding”, isn’t the implication behind these words similar to what the first creation narrative implies— that Adam and Eve were both made in God’s image?
Adam by himself was not complete. We can even assert that by himself, Adam wasn’t the full expression of the image of God.
Does this thought make your heart beat faster?
Stop and think about the women in your life. They are divine-image-bearers.
Have you affirmed this in them recently?
Have you told them the world wouldn’t be complete without them?
Are you empowering them to be fully who they are called to be?
My husband has been doing this for me. He does all the “house-and-kid” stuff after his job ends so I can write. He believes my life’s passion is important.
In Sarah Bessey's words, "In the early new light of Creation, God didn't set up a 'masculine' rule as his standard and plan for humanity. No, it was masculine and feminine, together, bearing the image of God." (Jesus Feminist)
Now that we have tackled “kenegdo”, let’s tackle “ezer”. This is the word which has been translated as “helper”.
Ever wonder who coined the complete term “helpmeet”? It was a poet named John Dryden (1631-1700). He decided to hyphenate “help” and “meet” into “help-meet” so as to describe his wife in a poem. Interesting, right?
Before I get into what “ezer” means, I’d like to ask: If someone helps you, does that make them subordinate to you?
In fact, what words would you use to describe a “helper” who is also subordinate? The terms “slave” and “servant” come to mind...
The word “ezer” is used twenty-one times in the Old Testament.
Blogger Rachel Held Evans, explained that “ezer” was used, “[...] twice in reference to the first woman, three times in reference to nations to whom Israel appealed for military support, and sixteen times in reference to God as the helper of Israel.” Read more here.
Wait. Military support? God-as-helper? These uses of “ezer” certainly don’t connote subordination.
Check these verses out. I have highlighted “ezer” in bold.
But you, God, see the trouble of the afflicted;
you consider their grief and take it in hand.
The victims commit themselves to you;
you are the helper of the fatherless.
-Psalm 10: 14
But as for me, I am poor and needy;
come quickly to me, O God.
You are my help and my deliverer;
Lord, do not delay.
Blessed are you, Israel!
Who is like you,
a people saved by the Lord?
He is your shield and helper
and your glorious sword.
Your enemies will cower before you,
and you will tread on their heights.”
God-as-helper, desperately needed, warrior-on-our-behalf, companion-by-our-side, rescuer...
Sit with these meanings for a bit.
The fact that God is an “ezer” for God’s people has been life-changing for me.
If I am an “ezer”, then I am a warrior.
This is so very different from what I previously believed. It means first of all, in marriage, that I ought to be working alongside my husband in everything.
In the larger sphere of society, this means that I ought to be bringing my whole self, all my gifts and talents, to the table, for the good of the world.
This means women should not in any way be valued as less than men.
Women ought to be compensated equally as much as men, and their word should be seen as equally authoritative to that of men. If a woman holds a title, she ought to be addressed by that title, just as men are.
If I am an “ezer kenegdo”, then I am a perfectly suitable warrior, fit to fight beside man- needed, necessary, valuable, capable, powerful and compassionate, bringer-of-aid, rescuer.
Sarah Bessey writes:
If a woman is held back, minimized, pushed down, or downplayed, she is not walking in the fullness God intended for her as his image bearer, as his ezer warrior. If we minimize our gifts, hush our voice, and stay small in a misguided attempt to fit a weak and culturally conditioned standard of femininity, we cannot give our brothers the partner they require in God's mission for the world.
Godself is in fact an Ezer to God’s people.
Before I go any further, I’d like to say I believe men and women alike demonstrate various facets of God’s image; I do not think these bearers of the “imago dei” should be categorized or delineated by gender (as in, "only women are compassionate" and "only men are loud").
Where does the idea that Eve was to be subordinate to Adam come from, then?
The short answer?
In my opinion, it comes from the pronouncements of “The Fall”.
Whether you see “The Fall” as metaphorical or literal, you can see it resulted in the “goodness” of everything God had brought forth getting mussed up.
After The Fall, a “curse” was pronounced on the man, the woman, creation and the serpent. The idea of “curse” implies that things were going to be very different from how they had been previously.
The “curse” for the woman reads:
“Your desire will be for your husband, but he will rule over you.” Gen. 3:16
The subordination of woman, then, in my opinion, was a result of the fall, of humanity’s brokenness, of its “having gone wrong”.
This subordination of woman to man has not exactly born good fruit.
Take a moment to review these stats: https://www.unwomen.org/en/what-we-do/ending-violence-against-women/facts-and-figures.
Need a Kleenex?
I love that God isn’t interested in leaving the world hopeless and fallen. God is about restoration and rescue. God is our ezer.
As my pastor often says, to loosely paraphrase, “God is going to get everything God wants”:
“He [God] will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” Rev. 21:14
What do you think we should be about, friends?
The fall, or “God getting everything God wants”?
Subjugation, or restoration?
Ultimately, we could haggle over words and meanings forever. For every argument one way, there is an equal argument another.
I would say most Christians, regardless of what their view of the meaning of “helpmeet” is, would agree that women are equally imbued with God’s image and should be treated with respect.
Most would agree that women can have careers or pursue higher education.
The difference in perspective, though, is highlighted when we look at the ultimate, highest purpose of “woman”.
Is “woman” fulfilled when she is subordinated to a man, acting as his helper?
Or, is “woman” an equal counterpart to “man”, a fellow image bearer, an important contributor to all the work which needs accomplishing in this world?
Can woman be fulfilled and effective without a man in her life? (A resounding yes! from me...)
Is woman a warrior armed for battle you’d be lucky to have fighting by your side?
"And men, what a gift for you! What a revelation! A man does not need to deny a woman's identity as a beloved and unique warrior in Christ out of misplaced fear or insecurity or a hunger for power. Let's praise God together for this truth. Sons, brothers, husbands, friends, can you imagine? God knew that it was not good for you to be alone, and he gave you your best ally." (Sarah Bessey, Jesus Feminist)
Does woman have valuable insight, wisdom, leadership and skills to contribute to this world? Absolutely!
I urge you to take some time to consider the implications of each of these points of view.
I love how Rachel Held Evans described male-female equality, and how she came to a more feminist viewpoint not by reading feminist literature, but by reading the Bible: https://rachelheldevans.com/blog/accidental-feminist.
"Most of all, if these critics knew me, they would know that it isn't feminism that inspires me to advocate gender equality in the Church and in the world; it is the gospel of Jesus Christ."
I feel the same way.
In this article, Rachel Held Evans mentioned the term “patriarchy”.
Remember my comparison at the beginning of this post of the Yanomamo and Bolivian cultural treatment of women to the treatment of women in the Bible? The word often used to describe this treatment is “patriarchy”.
Patriarchy is another plausible reason some of the Bible seems to be placing women "beneath" men.
I am excited to dig into this thought more in next week's post.
Meanwhile, I love hearing your thoughts! Thanks again to all of you who have followed my Facebook page, leaving comments there as well as on the blog. Your stories and thoughts mean so much.
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I'm a busy mom of three asking hard questions about my faith.