Are men and women equal? I wish I could just say “yes” and leave it at that. But the word “equality” has become so ambiguous and politically charged in our society that a simple “yes” will almost guarantee that half my readers misunderstand me.
A more detailed response drawn from the Scriptures is necessary to answer this question sufficiently. We will look at three areas where the Bible teaches that men and women are equal, and then we will see how in each of these areas the Bible also teaches that men and women have pronounced differences.
(This is a rather lengthy treatment for a blog post. If you don’t have time right now to read the whole thing, you can click here to skip to the conclusion or just scroll down to the end. Use the arrow in the bottom right corner to get back to the top.)
There are three basic areas where the Bible clearly teaches that men and women are equal.
1. Men and women are equal in their humanity; they are equal as image-bearers.
This is not a hard teaching to establish and is likely one of the least-contested doctrines that Christians believe.1Sadly, the teaching of Christ’s atonement on the cross is debated more than this one, which shows how mixed up the values in our society are. We are so passionate about equality and inclusion among people that we value a doctrine of human equality more highly than a doctrine about Christ and salvation. Right at the beginning in Genesis 1:27, we are told that, “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”
From this verse we learn that men and women have both been created in God’s image. They are both equally human, “equally important to God and equally valuable to him,” and they ought to be treated so in every sphere of life.2Grudem, Wayne, Bible Doctrine: Essential Teachings of the Christian Faith, ed. Jeff Purswell (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999), 200.
2. Men and women are equally fallen and under God’s judgment.
In Genesis 3, Adam and Eve both disobeyed God and both fell into sin. Not only this, but Paul teaches in Romans 5:12 that in Adam, we all fell into sin too and are under the wrath of God (cf. Jn. 3:36; Rom. 6:23). Men and women are equally born into this problem of sin and judgment, and they are both equally residents of a fallen world full of trouble (death, disease, natural disasters, and the like).
3. Men and women have equal access to salvation through faith in Jesus Christ.
Thankfully God has provided a means by which sinners may repent and be saved from his wrath. Through faith in Jesus Christ who died on the cross for our sins, we may receive forgiveness and eternal life. Men and women have equal access to this salvation. This is what Paul means in Galatians 3:28 when he writes, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female—for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
When it comes to salvation, God does not discriminate. Salvation is entirely through Jesus Christ himself and not through one’s race, social standing, or sex.
Upon coming to faith, men and women are also equally Christian. Neither is more spiritual or more blessed than the other. In 1 Peter 3:7, Peter instructs Christian husbands to treat their Christian wives “with respect as the weaker partner and as heirs with you of the gracious gift of life.” (See also Eph. 5:21.)
Their equality both generally as human beings and specifically as Christians is also stressed in 1 Corinthians 11:11-12: “In the Lord woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God.”
These are all very important areas where men and women are equal, but it is equally important (pun intended) to recognize how in each of these same areas, men and women have pronounced differences. Let’s take a look at these differences.
1. Although they are equally human, men and women are a different kind of human.
Sex differences ought to be evident from nature, but our society is increasingly suppressing and perverting the witness of nature (Rom. 1:18-32). Now more than ever, we need the witness of Scripture to set the record straight and correct our understanding of what nature is really saying.
The first evidence of sex differences comes from Genesis 1:27 where God creates man “male and female,” thus creating two different types of humans. Furthermore, Wayne Grudem thinks this verse teaches that males and females bear God’s image in different ways that together form a more complete picture of God’s character.3Grudem, Wayne, Bible Doctrine: Essential Teachings of the Christian Faith, ed. Jeff Purswell (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999), 200.
The second evidence comes from Genesis 2. God creates Adam first and then remarks that “it is not good for the man to be alone” (2:18). But instead of just creating another man out of the dust, God creates a different kind of human in a different kind of way, and she is called by a different name: “woman” (Gen. 2:21-23).4When I suggest that God might have just created another man, this would not necessarily be for homosexual purposes. The other man could simply be a friend. The point is that he wouldn’t be alone anymore, and you wouldn’t think the other human would need to be a woman for that. There is something inherently different about the woman that makes her a more suitable solution to Adam’s aloneness than another man would.
Notice also that she contributes more than just reproductive capability to Adam’s life. When Adam sees her, he doesn’t say, “At last I can be fruitful and multiply!” He says, “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called ‘woman,’ for she was taken out of man” (Gen. 2:23).
Certain ideologies in our world seek to challenge or “transcend” apparent differences between men and women. They attribute many long-held sex differences to social constructs that they believe restrict the freedom of our self-expression. But we should not be so quick to dismiss sex differences as mere social constructs. The inherent differences between men and women are more than skin-deep, and reducing them to reproductive roles does not fit the whole picture given in the Scriptures.
The third evidence is in 1 Corinthians 11:7-9:
“[Man] is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of man. For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; neither was man created for woman, but woman for man.”
These are not just abstract observations. These are fundamental differences that Paul uses as a basis for how men and women are to relate to each other. (More on this in the third point below.)
The fourth evidence is in 1 Peter 3:7, where Peter refers to wives as “the weaker partner.” “Weaker” does not imply inferiority but does suggest an important difference that requires husbands to treat their wives with respect. We do not have space here to do a proper exegesis or word study, but “weaker” possibly refers to the woman having a lower cultural status and very likely refers to her being physically weaker.5Davids, Peter H., “1 Peter 3:7: The Weaker Partner,” in Hard Sayings of the Bible (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1996), 712-714. There may be other differences intended by this word as well.
2. Although they are equally fallen, men and women have different kinds of struggles and concerns.
In Genesis 3 immediately after the fall, God punishes Adam and Eve for their sin, but he does not give them the same punishment.
To the woman he said, “I will greatly increase your pains in childbearing; with pain you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.”
To Adam he said, . . . “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of the brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to the dust you will return” (Gen. 3:16-19).
In this fallen world, men and women will struggle with different kinds of things. This pattern continues all throughout the Bible.
In the Old Testament, when the Law is being given, some laws apply to everybody but other laws are sex-specific (e.g. Ex. 21:22-25). In the Book of Proverbs, many verses give sex-specific insight and advice (e.g. Pr. 5:15-20; 14:1; 31:10-31). Between Proverbs and Song of Songs, men and women seem to be depicted as having different kinds of romantic and sexual struggles.
In the letters of the New Testament, there are many sex-specific instructions, oftentimes dealing with sex-specific problems in the church (e.g. 1 Cor. 7; 11; 1 Tim. 2:8-10; 3:1-13; 5:1-16; Titus 2:2-8).
So we should not be surprised if we find that men and women today have different kinds of struggles and concerns. This has been the case since the beginning of the fall.
3. Although Christian men and women are co-heirs in Christ, they have different roles in the church and in marriage.
Here I know I am in controversial territory. I’m quite familiar with egalitarian interpretations of the Bible and have good reason to disagree with them. But I am not going to address those concerns in this post because that will distract from my purpose here. (Maybe I’ll write another post later dealing with that issue.)
We saw above that Christian men and women are co-heirs together in Christ. Neither is more spiritual or more blessed than the other. Even so, the Bible teaches that they are to have different roles in two particular contexts: the church and marriage.
In the context of the church and local congregations of the church, men and women have different roles, with qualified men being appointed as leaders of the church rather than women.
A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety” (1 Timothy 2:11-15; cf. 1 Cor. 14:34-35).
Notice the main reason for this is that “Adam was formed first, then Eve” (v. 13). This means that the principle of men bearing authority in the church goes back to the very beginning. It is a universal principle, instituted even before the fall.
I do not believe this excludes women from all forms of ministry. At the very least, this means that the primary leadership of a local congregation belongs to qualified men (for qualifications, see 1 Tim. 3 and Titus 2). But I do not wish to dive into all the complexities of this issue, so we will leave it at that for now.
In the context of marriage, a similar principle is at play. Husbands have a role of leadership and authority in their marriages, and wives are to submit to their husbands. The husband is the head, and the wife is the body.6I think that many sex differences are designed by God with these roles in mind. That is to say that women are designed in such a way that (even if they don’t get married) they tend to exhibit distinct characteristics that are suitable for the role of submission and picturing the church in relation to Christ. Men, likewise, tend to exhibit characteristics suitable for their role of picturing Christ in relation to the church. This is just a theory. I will not state it as a fact or a biblical principle. But I think it makes sense, and I know I’m not the only person to think of it.
This is because marriage is supposed to be a picture of the relationship between Christ and the Church (Eph. 5:22-33; see also Col. 3:18-19; Titus 2:4-5; 1 Peter 3:1-7). Wives are to submit to their husbands in everything just as the church submits to Christ (v. 22-24). Husbands are to love their wives as their own bodies, just as Christ loved the church (v. 25-33). (I’m not quoting the verses at length here to save space, but please look them up and read them!)
Marriage roles are also intended as a picture of the Trinity, where each person of the Trinity has a different role but they are all equally God. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 11:3, “I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God.”
As Geoffrey W. Bromiley points out, Paul lists three different relationships (man/Christ, woman/man, Christ/God) but does not list them in an ascending or descending hierarchical order. Thus, he is not concerned with the order as much as he is with drawing a comparison between these three relationships.7Bromiley, Geoffrey W., God and Marriage (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980), 72.
Christ and the Father are equally God but have different roles, with Christ submitting to his Father’s will. Likewise, man and Christ are equally human; he is even our brother and co-heir in a sense (Heb. 2:5-18; Rom. 8:17). But Christ still has authority over us, and we submit to him.8Bromiley, Geoffrey W., God and Marriage (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980), 71-73.
Paul constructs the relationship between woman and man as being similar to these two relationships. Man and woman are equal. But they are different, and one submits to the other. Bromiley describes this sort of relationship as an “ordered equality”9Bromiley, Geoffrey W., God and Marriage (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980), 73. or “distinction in unity.”10Bromiley, Geoffrey W., God and Marriage (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980), 2.
So men and women, though equal spiritually, have different roles in the contexts of church and marriage.
But what about in other contexts, such as business, government, and military? To be honest, I am not entirely sure. I would tend to think that women can have leadership positions in these contexts, but I know many good Christians would disagree with me.
I think this is more of a theological question than an exegetical question. Exegetically we can identify some clear universal principles about the relationship between men and women using passages like the ones above. But theologically, should we extrapolate these principles into areas outside of the contexts of church and marriage? After all, they are universal principles.
For now, I will say probably not. The Apostles did not apply these principles in other contexts, and I think we probably should not either (or at least not to the same extent).
But I may revisit this question in a later post because I am not entirely certain about this.
So are men and women equal?
Yes, they are.
1. They are equally human (Gen. 1:27; 1 Cor. 11:11-12). But they are a different kind of human (Gen. 1:27; 2:18-24; 1 Cor. 11:7-9; 1 Peter 3:7).
2. They are equally fallen and under God’s judgment (Gen. 3; Rom. 1–5; 6:23; Jn. 3:36; etc.). But they have different kinds of struggles and concerns (Gen. 3:16-19 and various other verses).
3. They have equal access to salvation, and once saved, neither is more spiritual or more blessed than the other (Gal. 3:28; 1 Pet. 3:7; Eph. 5:21; 1 Cor. 11:11-12). But they are supposed to have different roles in the contexts of church and marriage and possibly other contexts too (1 Tim. 2:11-15; 1 Cor. 14:34-35; Eph. 5:22-23; Col. 3:18-19; Titus 2:4-5; 1 Peter 3:1-7; 1 Cor. 11:3).
I wish there wasn’t so much confusion and hostility in our world right now over these questions. I think there are very specific philosophical and spiritual reasons for this that I may address in a later post. In the meantime, I hope this post will help us all develop and maintain a biblical perspective on gender issues.
To access footnotes, hover mouse over the footnote numbers, or click “+” next to “Notes” below.
Notes [ + ]
|1.||↑||Sadly, the teaching of Christ’s atonement on the cross is debated more than this one, which shows how mixed up the values in our society are. We are so passionate about equality and inclusion among people that we value a doctrine of human equality more highly than a doctrine about Christ and salvation.|
|2, 3.||↑||Grudem, Wayne, Bible Doctrine: Essential Teachings of the Christian Faith, ed. Jeff Purswell (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999), 200.|
|4.||↑||When I suggest that God might have just created another man, this would not necessarily be for homosexual purposes. The other man could simply be a friend. The point is that he wouldn’t be alone anymore, and you wouldn’t think the other human would need to be a woman for that.|
|5.||↑||Davids, Peter H., “1 Peter 3:7: The Weaker Partner,” in Hard Sayings of the Bible (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1996), 712-714.|
|6.||↑||I think that many sex differences are designed by God with these roles in mind. That is to say that women are designed in such a way that (even if they don’t get married) they tend to exhibit distinct characteristics that are suitable for the role of submission and picturing the church in relation to Christ. Men, likewise, tend to exhibit characteristics suitable for their role of picturing Christ in relation to the church. This is just a theory. I will not state it as a fact or a biblical principle. But I think it makes sense, and I know I’m not the only person to think of it.|
|7.||↑||Bromiley, Geoffrey W., God and Marriage (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980), 72.|
|8.||↑||Bromiley, Geoffrey W., God and Marriage (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980), 71-73.|
|9.||↑||Bromiley, Geoffrey W., God and Marriage (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980), 73.|
|10.||↑||Bromiley, Geoffrey W., God and Marriage (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980), 2.|