(how to tell the biblical story in a way that makes a difference)

He shall rule over you

Prompted by reading the chapter in Daniel Kirk’s Jesus Have I Loved, But Paul? on the place of women in the story of God, I recently set out my view i) that andrarchy (in this context, mandated rule by the man) is a consequence of the fall; ii) that it is therefore an aspect of the fallenness of humanity, of our bondage to sin; and iii) that a “new creation” people should not perpetuate this state of affairs unless there is very good reason for doing so—particularly in view of the fact that western culture has mostly thrown off this unjust arrangement over the last hundred years.

The argument is quite straightforward. Nothing is said prior to the expulsion from the garden about the subordination of the woman to the man. The question of “rule” arises only in Genesis 1:26, where the man and the woman together are given “dominion over” all living creatures. Part of the judgment pronounced against the woman, however, is that “Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you” (Gen. 3:16). The important parallel with Genesis 4:7 makes it clear that this “desire” is a bad thing—a negative and destructive disposition towards the man—and that conflict is foreseen between them.

What makes me come back to the matter here is that I heard the argument put forward at the weekend that “rule over” in Genesis 3:16 refers to a domineering and unjust rule, not to the sort of Christlike leadership that Paul appears to advocate in Ephesians 5:25-33. The curse is therefore understood not as the imposition of andrarchy but as the corruption of a good and original andrarchy. This, I imagine, is the standard complementarian way of dealing with the text.

The problem—apart from the fact that there is no mention of a good and original andrarchy in Genesis 1-3—is that the word mashal does not have this negative connotation. For a start, “domineer over” is an inappropriate translation in Genesis 4:7: it is right that sin should be mastered, which must have a bearing on how we read Genesis 3:16. But also broader usage does not support the argument. Consider, for example, the following passage:

Then the men of Israel said to Gideon, “Rule over us, you and your son and your grandson also, for you have saved us from the hand of Midian.” Gideon said to them, “I will not rule over you, and my son will not rule over you; the Lord will rule over you.” (Judg. 8:22-23)

The word mashal is used four times here without negative connotations, including with reference to the rule over God over his people. Admittedly, kyrieuō in the Septuagint is more likely to convey the idea of domination but not in every case. Abimelech goes to his family and says, “Which is better, that seventy men, all sons of Jerubbaal, rule over you or that one man be lord over (kyrieuein) you?” (Judg. 9:22 LXX). He is not offering to domineer over his family.

So I think the argument stands. The rule of the man over the woman is a consequence of the fall, part of the curse against the woman, not an aspect of the original created relationship. If we are happy to let Christian women use painkillers in childbirth and Christian men to use tractors in the field, it is difficult to see why we would insist that men should still rule over women.

Paul, on the other hand, was stuck with patriarchy, just as he was stuck with slavery. It would have done more harm than good to the fledgling Christian movement to have attempted to overthrow the social order. Under those conditions, it was right to teach women to submit to their husbands and men to exercise their socially constructed authority in a Christlike manner. But most of us are not under those conditions.


Andrew, you say that “Nothing is said prior to the expulsion from the garden about the subordination of the woman to the man”

How then would you interpret Gen 2:18?  Woman created as a “helper”, “just right” for man.

No mention of domineering control to be sure but certainly the idea that woman was created with mans interest in mind and not vice versa.



Hopefully this goes some way towards answering your question. Thanks for asking it.

Nigel, the same word for “helper” is used in describing God’s role to us.

Is God under us, lesser than us, subservient to us…?

This is complex. You are conflating “now” and “not yet”, and you’re also omitting a key part of the verse.

This is part of the curse, correct. And Jesus came to undo the effects of the curse, correct. However, the effects of the curse are not undone this side of glory. Whilst women still need painkillers in childbirth and men still need tractors, women’s desire will still be for the man and they will still rule over them. What you wrote is neat, but misses the point - we are still living under the curse, even if in society we work around it. In fact, it highlights the fact that your exposition is actually linked to a cultural context.

Which brings me on to the bit you omitted - “your desire will be for your husband”. This is actually about personal relationships, not societal relationships. It’s a fact of (fallen) life that women tend to be more psychologically dependent upon the men they are in relationships with than the men are - their desire is for their husband. It’s also a fact of (fallen) life that men more generally abuse women (“rule over them”). As part of our redeemed nature, it’s right that as christian men our relationships should look different from the world’s relationships - we should be showing the same love to women that Christ did to his people rather than ruling over them (Ephesians - “Husbands, love your wives …”).

What about from a societal point of view? Here, I have no problem theologically with what you are saying - the dominance of men in the past has been a cultural construct; there’s no theological reason for it to be like that. The only exception I’d make is in the context of church leadership, where the pattern is to echo that of the relationship between Christ and his church - but here, the “rule” of men should be the “rule” of a good shepherd - look at how Jesus “ruled” his disciples, and follow that pattern ….

Complex, indeed, Paul.

I agree, we are still living under the curse—you make the point well. The relational conflict or tension indicated in Genesis 3:16 hasn’t gone away, even in Christ—to the extent that Paul sought not to overthrow patriarchy but rather to modify it, and quite radically modify it, by demanding a self-giving attitude on the part of the man. But two things…

First, we are “new creation”, and it seems rather perverse to me, when society has more or less overthrown patriarchy, to insist that men and women should continue to operate under the old sinful régime.

Secondly, even given the constraints of our sinful nature, I think it is right to argue, as Daniel Kirk does, that the church should be a sign of a new creation to come—a sign now of the not yet. I regard healing as a sign of the making new of all things, a final healing of humanity. Healing doesn’t always happen because we are still stuck in the old world, but when it does happen, it is because the eschaton has broken in on the present, it is because new creation (not the kingdom of God, in my view) has come upon us. Likewise, if men and women in Christ are able to transcend the injustice of patriarchy, it is because the eschaton has (partially—I’m not conflating the now and not yet) broken in on the present, it is because new creation has come upon us.

What I like about this line of thought is that it allows us to maintain the tension between the problematic—the curse—of male-female relationships and practically to reach beyond that problematic to transformation, to realize the not yet in the now.

I didn’t, by the way, overlook the bit about the woman’s desire for her husband:

Part of the judgment pronounced against the woman, however, is that “Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you” (Gen. 3:16). The important parallel with Genesis 4:7 makes it clear that this “desire” is a bad thing—a negative and destructive disposition towards the man—and that conflict is foreseen between them.

The statement may suggest psychological dependency, though the parallel with Genesis 4:7 may point in a different direction. But I don’t see that this affects my basic contention, which is that if we have the possibility to be concretely, practically, experientially redeemed from corruption of the male-female relationship, we should take it. The “now” but “not yet” does not mean that we cannot have the “not yet” in the “now”. It means precisely the opposite. We can have new creation now, albeit within the limitations of our fallen state.

I think in broad terms we’re not so far apart - we agree on the impact that the fall had; we agree that our redemption should have a restorative impact - so we agree on sin and salvation! Where there is a potential clash seems to be in how we regard Paul’s teaching. You are arguing that “not perpuating this state of affairs” stretches to contextualising Paul’s teaching, presumably on male leadership. I can understand why people would conclude that this was given in a historical context (such things as him talking about “natural order” when it comes to things like hair length, for example).

However, what makes me nervous about this is that if I make a presumption about the historically conditioned nature of Paul’s teaching (which is a bit where it’s going if you say that we have to go past him when it comes to male headship in church), where is that going to take me? What else turns out to be “culturally conditioned”?I’d rather start from a position of believing that all of the Bible is God’s apostolic, final, complete, inerrant word - a position that has served the church well from its earliest days - and that the teaching of Kirk, Wright, Fernandez or whoever is the culturally conditioned element.

What should I do with male headship, then? How can a congregation reflect the fact that “there is neither slave nor free, male nor female, Greek nor Jew” - which, to be honest, is itself a pretty strong assertion of the restoration of pre-fall relationships, that Paul simply holds in tension with male headship. It’s not as though Paul’s teaching can be said to reflect the patriarchy that he sees around him, and neither was his approach bound by a single culture: given how clearly and consistently happy he was to be “all things to all people” - to adapt the message to the culture - one has to ask why he wasn’t prepared to take this step. Part of the answer is that the basis for the relationship was actually pre-fall in the first place - it was the structure of the created relationship - that woman was a companion and helper - and in fact, it was the overturning of this relationship (the woman being tempted, the woman leading the man) that was part of what went wrong in the fall - and part of what was cursed. When God says “Your desire will be for your husband and he will rule over you” that’s not to do with eating the fruit, that’s to do with the fact that rather than being the man’s helper and companion, the woman led him into sin. So … the restoration of pre-fall relationships should actually lead to the woman taking her place by the side of the man. What does that actually mean? That’s a whole different question - but the point is, it’s not adequate to say that “pre-fall” means a radical feminist paradigm (I am using those words in their correct sense, not with any sense of sloganeering).

So, basically, don’t rush to chuck out the bathwater of male headship if the consequence is that the baby that is Paul’s teaching disappears at the same time. Too much concern with the patriarchy, I would suggest, doesn’t mark you as culturally universal at all but simply identifies you as being part of the post-1900 Western culture.

“(the woman being tempted, the woman leading the man) that was part of what went wrong in the fall - and part of what was cursed. “

As if it would have been any better if it were Adam to be tempted and lead the woman into sin. You are making an assumption that man is not capable of leading woman into sin by virtue of his manhood. Adam was not deceived, he knew what he was doing, therefore Eve did not lead him into anything he did not already know and agree with. Leading in and of itself is not wrong, it is only wrong when one is leading in error. Also, I have yet to see male headship protect woman from error or deception in a way that a woman is not also capable of protecting her husband from error. Gender alone does not make one more righteous and free from error.
Patriarchy is not primarily about leading woman for her own good, it is a system by which a man exploits a woman for his own gain. It seeks to control a woman’s movement and withhold empowerment from a woman economically and legally so that a man can grow his own wealth, have someone do all of the housework for him, and take the fruit of her womb exclusively for his own gain.