Our existence as male and female commits us to different responsibilities of leadership in relation to each other. One way to put it is that God wills that men, by virtue of their maleness, have a greater responsibility for personal, directive, spiritual leadership in relation to women than women do in relation to men.
Genesis 1:27 gives the inaugural truth: man and woman are both created in God’s image. Neither is a lesser form of being. With all their differences (which may fit them for far different roles), let there be no talk of greater or lesser value in manhood or womanhood.
But there are at least six observations from Genesis 2–3 which show that God’s primal (pre-fall) will for man and woman was that the man should provide loving leadership and the woman should honor this leadership as man’s submissive helper.
The man was created first, then the woman (Gen. 2:7). What was God trying to communicate here? If his aim was to teach a kind of partnership in which manhood and womanhood are equally fit and ordained to lead, it seems that a simultaneous creation of man and woman would have been a clearer lesson.
Feminists have attempted to make this argument sound ludicrous by saying that in Genesis 1 animals come first, but do not lead man. But this is like saying that the Hebrew custom of primogeniture would be meaningless if a father bred cattle before he had a son. No Hebrew reader would put humans and animals in the same category. But every Hebrew would see significance in the “firstborn” of the original pair.
God could very easily have avoided an order in creation that put the man in a position of headship according to the Hebrew custom of primogeniture. But instead, he chose to create in sequence and thus to communicate some kind of leadership role for the man. (See 1 Tim. 2:13.)
Not only did God make man first; He also gave the man moral instruction and taught him the design of life in the garden (Gen. 2:15-17). God did not repeat this for Eve. Evidently Adam was responsible to provide his family with this moral vision and lead them in its fulfillment.
Woman was created from man in order to be a “helper fit for him” (Gen. 2:18–23). I am aware that God is called our “helper” and we do not lead Him. But the context must decide whether Eve is to “help” as a strong person who aids a weaker one or as one who assists a loving leader. The context rules out construing “helper” on the analogy of God’s help, because in verses 19-20 Adam is caused to seek his “helper” first among the animals. But the animals will not do, because they are not “fit for him.” So God makes woman “from man.”
Now there is a being who is “fit for him,” sharing his human nature. She is infinitely different from an animal, and God highlights her value to man by showing man how no animal can fill her role. Yet in passing through “helpful” animals to woman, God teaches us that woman is the “helper” in the sense of a loyal and suitable assistant in the life of the garden.
Again man’s leadership is implied. It is the fall which causes man to brutalize woman. Man before the fall is thrilled with woman and cherishes her as he does his own flesh (v. 23).
Man names woman (Gen. 2:23). Few acts among persons in the Old Testament involve more significant leadership and authority than giving someone a name. See, for example, Genesis 32:28-29 where God names Jacob but will not tell Jacob God’s own name.
The force of this argument is still felt today. Many feminists resist the male leadership implied in being given their husband’s name. So far, the pre-fall picture of God’s will for how man and woman should relate seem to be one of loving, joyful complementarity between head and helper.
If God had wanted to teach us that man and woman share responsibility for leadership equally it seems that 1) he would have created them simultaneously instead of giving priority to the man; 2) he would have instructed them together instead of entrusting the moral design to the man; 3) he would have presented her as an independently formed associate instead of presenting her as one derived from man and designed as his “helper”; and 4) he would have named them both instead of giving man the responsibility to name the woman.
I conclude that it is not sin that inclines man to assume leadership in relation to women. It is the result of God’s design in creation. This is confirmed when we analyze the fall in Genesis 3.
The fall of man and woman from innocence was accompanied by a dramatic reversal of roles under the influence of the tempter. The serpent was very subtle. He hated God’s beautiful ordering of life for the happiness of man and woman. Therefore, he cleverly repudiated God’s order and blatantly addressed the woman—not the man—thus tempting her to assume the role of spokesman and leader (Gen. 3:1).
The text suggests that Adam was present with Eve during the temptation and that he abdicated his role as leader and protector while she accepted the serpent’s challenge to become the spokesman and leader.
Verse 6 says the woman ate of the forbidden fruit, “and she gave also to her husband with her, and he ate” (NASB). This seems to mean that Adam was with Eve during the conversation with the serpent. He had been a silent partner instead of a strong leader and protector. And so both fell as they reversed their God-appointed roles of Genesis 2.
Another piece of evidence for this interpretation is found in Genesis 3:17. God says to Adam, “Because you have listened to [obeyed] the voice of your wife, and have eaten of the tree which I commanded you, ‘you shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you.” (The only other place in Genesis where this Hebrew phrase is used is 16:2, where Sarai tells Abram to go to bed with Hagar: “And Abram hearkened to the voice of Sarai.”)
What did God have in mind when he said that Adam had obeyed the voice of his wife? Nowhere in Genesis 3 does Eve say anything to Adam. The most natural assumption is that Adam was simply standing there listening to the dialog between Eve and the serpent, and instead of assuming the role of spiritual leadership and attempting to defend and secure his family, he fell right into line with the serpent’s scheme and his wife’s thinking.
Therefore, when God brings down the curse in Genesis 3:17 he faults not only man’s eating the forbidden fruit but also man’s abdication of spiritual leadership in relation to his wife.
This role reversal between man and woman is rooted in the deeper role reversal with God. Eve’s interaction with Satan shows that she had begun to distrust the goodness of God and His design for life.
For example, in Genesis 3:3 she wrongly reports to the serpent what God said concerning the tree of the knowledge of good and evil: “You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.” But God had not said they couldn’t touch the tree (2:17), nor was it said in 2:9 that the forbidden tree was “in the midst” of the garden. Only the tree of life was there.
These misstatements signal to the reader Eve’s budding doubt about God’s goodness. There seems to be a growing resentment that God is an unduly restrictive leader who does not have her best interest at heart. This climaxes for Eve and Adam in a dramatic role reversal with God in which they reject Him as Father and take for themselves the prerogative to decide what is good (3:6), and to be like God (3:5, 22).
The root of the fall is a proud, self-sufficient assumption of divine prerogatives—a rejection of God’s design for life.
The subtlety of the serpent’s strategy is seen in how he sowed the seed of resentment against God’s order by luring man and woman into a reversal of their own roles which God has appointed for their good. The man should have stepped in and taken some spiritual initiative, especially when he saw what was happening between the serpent and his wife; and the woman should have deferred to the authority of God and the leadership of her husband rather than letting the serpent sow the seed of resentment and rebellion in her heart.
Feminine rejection of godly masculine leadership is the mark of the curse. In Genesis 3:16 God sentences the woman with these words: “Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.” This is often taken to mean that feminine flirtation and masculine domination are part of the curse. But the language of the text points strongly in another direction.
The vocabulary and grammar of 3:16 are reproduced in a stunning way in 4:7. God speaks to Cain after rejecting his offering: “If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is couching at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master (rule over) it.”
This is an inescapable parallel to Genesis 3:16: “Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.” But notice the meaning suggested. Sin is crouching at the door like a lion desiring to subdue its prey (cf. Gen 49:9). But Cain should gain the mastery over sin and do what is right. Therefore, the closest biblical parallel to 3:16 suggests that the curse is neither woman’s sexual desire for man nor her personal desire for companionship, but rather her desire to subdue man.
So what God seems to be saying is that part of woman’s punishment for the fall is that now her natural inclination to want man to be a strong leader will be corrupted by an unnatural inclination to usurp the God-appointed place of man as her leader. Yet she will be continually frustrated in this attempt throughout history.
In conclusion, the evidence of Genesis 1-3 does not support the notion that male leadership is an evil result of the fall. On the contrary, Genesis 2 teaches that there was once a very beautiful harmony and co-relation between man as leader and woman as helper, follower, subordinate. With the coming of sin into the world, both roles are corrupted by pride and self-sufficiency.
Men abdicate the responsibility of leadership in silence or abuse it in belittling or brutalizing women. Women may debase their role at man’s side by trivial obsequiousness or reject his leadership altogether. As Susan Foh puts it (Women and the Word of God, p. 69),
“Sin has corrupted both the willing submission of the wife and the loving headship of the husband. And so, the rule of love founded in paradise is replaced by struggle, tyranny, domination and manipulation.”
It will not surprise us then when Jesus brings redemption that the roles of headship and submission are not obliterated but returned to their original purity. “Wives, be subject to your husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church.”
This article first appeared as written by John Piper, “Satan’s Design in Reversing Male Leadership Role,” The Standard 73:11 (December 1983): 33, 35.
Alvera and Berekely Micklesen responded with, “Questions from the Garden: Response from the Mickelsens,” The Standard 73:11 (December 1983): 36.