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

The curse of patriarchy and the hope of new creation

What impressed me most in Daniel Kirk’s discussion of the place of women in the story of God was his argument that the church is called actively and concretely to realize in the present a future new creation in which it will be unnecessary for the man to rule over the woman.

There are two main parts to the argument, and it is interesting that they more or less side-step Paul’s teaching on the matter. Whatever pragmatic reasons there may have been for restricting the activity of women or requiring them to be submissive towards their husbands, they do not invalidate the ultimate and overruling hope, which is that in the new creation the curse of patriarchy will no longer be operative. If that is the case, then the church is under some eschatological pressure to make that a visible reality in the here and now.

The curse of patriarchy

The first part of the argument is that the rule of the man over the woman is a consequence of the fall, part of the punishment of the woman, along with pain in child-bearing:

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.” (Gen. 3:16)

Eric Greene took issue with this in a comment, arguing that “he shall rule over you” is not punishment but a sign of the “mercy of God within judgment”:

God restores Adam to rightly rule over her, for Adam had miserably failed to protect his wife from the serpent; then God rekindles her heart’s desire for him.

There is, however, nothing in Genesis 1-3 to indicate either that prior to the fall Adam was supposed to rule over Eve or that he should have protected her from harm by fighting in manly fashion against the serpent. That is simply reading a modern neo-patriarchal mythology back into the text. I blamed Mark Driscoll (see this recent post by David Fitch on the much discussed spat between Driscoll and Justin Brierly), but Eric attributed the argument to James Jordan’s Trees and Thorns. Eric notes the precise parallel with the warning to Cain Genesis 4:7, but I don’t see that it helps his case:

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.

The words for “desire” and “rule over” are the same in both texts. The parallelism strongly suggests, on the one hand, that the “desire” of the woman for the man is not to be understood positively—in the postlapsarian world the woman and man are at odds with each other in much the same way that sin and Cain are at odds with each other; and on the other, that Adam must “rule over” because of sin, implying that where there is no sin, there is no need for any “ruling over”. Paul puts forward a similar argument in 1 Corinthians 15:24-28 with regard to Christ and kingdom: once the final enemy has been destroyed and there is no more death (cf. Rev. 21:4), there is no need for further subjugation, so the kingdom is handed back to God.

This tension between the damaging “desire” of the woman and the domineering response of the man may partly account for Paul’s teaching in 1 Timothy 2:12-15. The woman is not to teach but to learn, because Adam was formed first and was not deceived, but “the woman was deceived and became a transgressor”.

The verb authenteō in 1 Timothy 2:12 does not mean “have authority over” but something more like “perpetrate, author, exert an influence over”, often with negative connotations—you perpetrate a crime. Paul’s point, I think, is that the woman is likely to be deceived by false teachers (cf. 2 Tim. 3:6-7) and will then in turn mislead or have a damaging influence over the man. But this is a problem not of authority but of formation, and we no longer live in a world in which the woman is unformed or uninformed.1

Signs of new creation

Secondly, we must suppose that a central reason for the existence of the people of God is to prefigure the final victory of the creator God over everything that is contrary to the goodness of creation—in other words, that the church is meant to anticipate a new creation from which the consequences of the fall have been erased. I have argued elsewhere that within a more limited apocalyptic framework the New Testament churches functioned as advanced signs of the coming transition from the age of classical paganism to a new age in which the God of Israel would be glorified amongst the nations and Christ would be widely confessed as Lord. The same argument works for the post-apocalyptic church on the creational level.

The church is a sign in the present of the future renewal of creation, and it will be a much more effective sign of a coming world in which it is no longer necessary for the man to rule over the woman if it acts that reality out and does not merely pay lip service to it. Jesus did not only proclaim the coming restoration of the people of God,he enacted it concretely through exorcisms, healings, the rehabilitation of sinners, and carefully staged prophetic performances such as the entry into Jerusalem and the action in the temple.

There are, naturally, limits. The extent to which new creation may be anticipated in the life of the church is necessarily circumscribed because sin still crouches at the door, creation still waits to be “set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Rom. 8:21). But what I like about the eschatological argument is that it allows us both to acknowledge the social problematic and to give a compelling theological reason to bring a new egalitarian reality into existence.

In different ways Paul’s teaching aims to accommodate the eschatological potential to the complicating circumstances of a deeply patriarchal culture. That is what is going on in 1 Timothy 2:12-15. Ephesians 5:22-33 is a another example: a wife should submit to her husband because that is how the world is, but the husband should not be overbearing but should love his wife sacrificially. It’s an excellent compromise, and if we have good reason to think that because of sinful social structures the anticipation of eschatological freedom would cause more confusion than hope, more heat than light, then perhaps renewal still needs to be deferred.

But whenever churches persist in maintaining such accommodations without the contextual warrant, they risk becoming a testimony to the power of sin rather than a sign of God’s future. Churches that maintain patriarchal structures are a sign to the world of an old creation. Churches that—in Christ, we must stress—transcend the age old, sinful conflict between the “desire” of the woman for the man and the rule of the man over the woman are a sign to the world of new creation.

  • 1. See my discussion of this in Speaking of Women: Interpreting Paul, 136-173; and “What Eve did, what women shouldn’t do: The meaning of AUTHENTEŌ in 1 Tim. 2:12”, Tyndale Bulletin 44.1 1993, 129-42).