We see Adam change his tune about women pretty quickly. In Genesis 2:23 he utters a beautiful poem upon the creation of Eve: “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.” But by Genesis 3:12, as soon as he is confronted for his sin of eating fruit from the forbidden tree, he passes the buck: “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate.”
It’s as if he is saying, “Lord, why did you give me this woman? I could have done better without her.” And let’s face it — even today men may be no closer to figuring out women. I think of Billy Joel’s song “She’s Always A Woman” and concur that we are complicated. But it seems all of us are a bit confused about gender distinctiveness and roles these days. What makes a woman a woman and a man a man? Are we to emphasize our differences or pretend like we are all the same?
While society is trying to figure out if gender is a biological trait or something we feel from within, the church is also struggling with the purpose of our design. We have all kinds of resources now for so-called biblical womanhood and biblical manhood. Some of it is helpful, and yet some of it adds to the frustration. Many women feel sidelined, left to contribute in the nursery, children’s classes, and the nebulous world of women’s ministries.
While society is trying to figure out if gender is a biological trait or something we feel from within, the church is also struggling with the purpose of our design.
Also, many feel like they do not fit into the box that’s promoted as “biblical womanhood.” Single women feel left out because women’s roles tend to focus heavily on being a wife and mother. Women who are athletic, business oriented, or who don’t like crafts and casseroles may not feel like they are feminine enough according to their church’s culture. And what if a woman wants to talk theology outside of the “pink” verses in Scripture? It’s easy to generalize the differences between men and women, and then reduce our roles to stereotypes. We should be careful not to attach mere cultural ideas to womanhood.
And yet, there are real differences between men and women, both biologically and in some of our roles. A man cannot be a daughter or a sister. God created male and female, and it was very good. But sometimes we are left wondering with Adam: “Why did you give me this woman?” Even women are asking, what is our role in the church? How can our differences truly complement according to God’s design? And are we really that different, after all?
Designed for What?
We know the godly answer to why woman was created. It’s right there in Scripture: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27). Together, men and women make up the image of God.
This is profound. Adam and Eve are not given two different missions. They are both responsible to carry out the cultural mandate (Genesis 1:26). They are to expand the garden-temple of Eden, thereby expanding God’s presence throughout the earth.
And yet, men and women are not androgynous beings. We get another angle to God’s design in creation in Genesis 2: “Then the Lord God said, ‘It is not good that man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him’” (v. 18). Unfortunately, this verse has lost some of its helpfulness with the English translation and our own cultural context. When I hear the word helper, I immediately think of the jobs we give our children to make them feel like they are contributing, while distracting and preventing them from getting hurt doing the real work. We’ll tell the little ones to pick up the sticks in the yard, but we aren’t going to turn them loose on the mower. They can wear an apron, fetch some ingredients, and even give them a stir, but we aren’t going to let them use the sharp knives or retrieve the dish from the hot oven.
The Hebrew word ezer is far more meaningful than our interpretation, helper. It is a word used throughout the Old Testament, mostly in a military context, referring to God’s rescue and salvation for Israel. Author John McKinley proposes that “necessary ally” is a better interpretation of ezer, one that takes note of the analogy God shows us in Scripture. This also moves us away from the inferior connotations of “helper” while biblically upholding the value of the woman in her relationship with man. In his work “Necessary Allies: God as Ezer, Woman as Ezer,” McKinley notes:
The issue in ezer is neither equality nor subordination, but distinction and relatedness. She is to be for the man as an ally to benefit him in the work they were given to do. Just as ezer tells of God’s relatedness to Israel as the necessary support for survival and military perils, the woman is the ally to the man, without which he cannot succeed or survive. Unlike helper, that could seem optional, and allow the man to think he’s otherwise adequate for his task without the women, the distinction of ally marks the man’s dependence upon her contribution. This dependence is plain when we consider Israel’s need for God’s contribution as her ally. …
What sort of ally is the woman to the man? She is a necessary ally, the sort without which he cannot fulfill humanity’s mission. Certainly the woman as a necessary ally fits for the mission of family building. The pairing of the two terms ezer and kenegdo brings a meaning that is larger than gender complementarity and union for building a family; necessary ally brings into view the joint Emission for which the male and female are created to rule God’s earthly kingdom.
This interpretation shows the necessity of a woman’s strength, value, and contribution as it corresponds to the usage of the same word, ezer, describing God. It also insinuates how things will go badly if woman is not functioning properly to her design. As Billy Joel’s song warns us, woman can bring out the very best in men, or the very worst. We see this in the beginning of Genesis.
And the effects of the fall throw a major wrench into the way women and men relate to one another. But it doesn’t change the purpose of our design or the value God has placed on us as image bearers. You would think this would all be easily cleared up by the time we reach the Gospels. And yet Jesus’ encounter with the woman at the well is provocative in more ways than one.
“Why are you talking with her?”
Christ’s disciples didn’t dare utter the question that had to be on their minds. The setting is familiar to us, but it was downright shocking to them. Their Master had decided against the regular route the Jews took to avoid passing through Samaria. And when they find Him in this despised location, they see He has plopped down at a well to talk theology with a Samaritan woman.
Their feelings are understandable. Jews of that time despised Samaritans as idolatrous and unclean. And here is the Savior drinking from a Samaritan’s vessel. Not only that, she is a woman. None of this makes sense. Women were not worthy of such discourse. And it was unsuitable for Him to be chatting her up in the middle of the day.
So of course the disciples are silently wondering what’s going on. And yet John notes that they didn’t speak their minds. I imagine, as they wisely held their tongues to let Christ Himself reveal His purpose, their facial expressions said it all.
And I wonder how much of the conversation they heard? I wonder because Jesus’ words are more shocking than the scene itself. After conversing with the women about the gift of God, her own sin, right worship, and the coming of the Messiah, Jesus reveals Himself to her saying, “I who speak to you am he” (4:26b). This is the only place in Scripture that Jesus reveals Himself so clearly before his trial — and it was to a sinful Samaritan woman. Next we read, “Just then the disciples came back” (4:27a).
This revelation caused the woman to drop her pitcher and run to tell the whole town to come and see Him. Many believed because of her testimony. But this woman didn’t merely expound her testimony to the Samaritans, drawing attention to herself. She led them to Christ, “and many more believed because of his word” (4:41).
I love this section of Scripture. Jesus invests in this sinful woman, even while He is physically exhausted. They talked about true worship. This is on the minds of many women today. How can we participate in true worship? Jesus explains that true worship is in spirit and in truth. Notice that He presses her to confront her own sin. How can there be true worship with all this sin? We, too, need to look at our own selfish ambitions and false idols. We need to be called to repentance. But He then reveals the answer in a way she couldn’t have imagined. He reveals Himself. In Christ, this woman can truly worship, “for ‘In Him we live and move and have our being’” (Acts 17:28a). The subject of this interaction has nothing to do with our roles as men and women; it’s about Jesus Christ.
Our Worthy Role
With all our differences, Christian men and women share in the most worthy role I can think of, as the bride of Christ. While it was a great privilege for the woman at the well to discover Jesus in her daily routine, we are in an even better position. Jesus is at the right hand of the Father interceding for His bride at this very moment. He always lives to make intercession for His saints (Hebrews 7:25).
Together, men and women in the church worship and serve in Christ. We depend on one another, reflecting the image of God and carrying out His mission. All believers are being transformed into the likeness of Jesus, as we look forward to that Great Day of consummation when we will eternally reign with Him in resurrected bodies on the new heaven and the new earth. Like C.S. Lewis, I believe our sexuality will continue in the new creation. In “Miracles,” Lewis says, “Sexuality is the instrument both of virginity and of conjugal virtue; neither men nor women will be asked to throw away weapons they have used victoriously.” Our gender will be glorified, not annihilated. So how can woman and men interact with our future goal in mind?
We want to be careful to teach and model male pastoral and elder leadership in the church, as well as headship in the home, but we do not want to foster a male culture. Since Scripture is clear that the offices of pastor and elder are exclusive for particular men, many churches play it safe by keeping an arm’s length between women and all leadership roles. And often, because women won’t become officers, churches don’t invest in them at all.
We value gender distinctiveness and exemplify healthy relationships between men and women in the church when we recognize a woman’s design as a necessary ally in the same mission. In writing about human destiny, theologian Herman Bavinck says, “Covenant also reminds us that full and complete humanity is found in community; humanity as a whole is the image of God — in creation and in redemption.” Adam and Eve shared a mission in creation under the covenant of works. And God does something amazing after the Fall — He points to Christ (Genesis 3). There is a federal head greater than Adam who has come to fulfill the terms of the covenant on our behalf so that we can live under His reign of grace. We can participate in expanding God’s presence through His church, since Christ has done what Adam could not.
What is your expectation for the women in your church, according to our mission? It should be no different than Christ’s expectation for all of us. An eschatological view of the women and men in the church as Christ’s bride will affect the way we relate now. What will our relationships and learning be like on the new heavens and the new earth, and how can that translate into our interaction and service now?
First of all, it should help us treat one another as brothers and sisters in the Lord. Paul gives Timothy an exhortation for how to pastorally relate to the men and women in his congregation: “Do not rebuke an older man but encourage him as you would a father, younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, younger women as sisters, in all purity” (1 Timothy 5:1-2). In this, you see both distinctiveness and equality. We are all to be treated with the dignity of family members, and yet our gender is not disregarded. Would you invest in your sister and your mother? Of course. Practically speaking, this means we should be listening to women in the church, learning from their perspective, hearing the problems they are facing in their different roles, and thinking about how we can serve them better.
It also means we should be asking good questions and making perceptive observations. How are the many different women in the church equipped to help serve under the ministry of Word and sacrament that we receive? Are we recognizing the influence that women have, both in the household of God and in their personal households? And are we equipping them well with this in mind? Are we appreciating their diversity? Whether I am gifted to serve a hot meal or write a book review, I’m always a woman. And what I believe about the person and work of Jesus Christ will be foundational to my everyday thoughts, decisions, praise, and service.
While women’s ministries seem to be the answer to some of these questions, we need to be careful not to treat that as a separate entity with a peripheral purpose, sidelined from the real activity in the church. I have seen too much bad doctrine sneaking in the back door of the church through loosely formed, unofficial women’s ministries. We need to pay attention to what is being marketed to women in the so-called Christian publishing industry. And we should be equipping all church members to be discerning readers and communicators.
So what makes a woman a woman? Much has been written and said in answer to this question. But maybe the better question is who makes a woman a woman? God does. And we are a diverse group of necessary allies. Not all of us may have the so-called feminine qualities that are imposed on us. But a woman is always a woman, so let’s be careful not to reduce her to a stereotype. Like Jesus during his visit through Samaria, let’s invest in women. Let’s engage in conversation with them and equip them with the truth so that they can join in the mission, pointing others to Christ.
Aimee Byrd is a wife and “ordinary mom” of three living in Martinsburg, West Virginia. She is also the author of “Housewife Theologian: How the Gospel Interrupts the Ordinary,” recently published by P&R Publishing.