Five Reasons I Don’t See Male Authority in Genesis 1-3

I recently recorded another podcast with Dr. Juli Slattery, cofounder of Authentic Intimacy and author of Rethinking Sexuality. This time the discussion was about husbands and wives who control their spouses. The other guest that day was Dr. Ron Welch, a counseling professor at Denver Seminary and author of The Controlling Husband.

Our topic was prompted by this response to an earlier podcast Juli had done with the Welches about how Ron had overcome his tendency to be a controlling husband.

Juli, I would love to hear you discuss this topic, with the added element of spiritual abuse. My husband sounds so much like Dr. Welch, except he also acts as the voice of God in my life. He accuses me of resisting God, of being unsaved and not the kind of woman God esteems, etc. I’m in counseling and have had a pastor friend reach out to him, but he refuses to consider marriage counseling or meeting with a pastor. He says I’m unempowered by God because I’m seeking outside help.[1]

The abuse this woman is experiencing most likely results not only from her husband’s upbringing, personality, and sinful nature, as was the case with Dr. Welch, but also from Christian teachings regarding a man’s spiritual authority. No doubt this man believes he is the spiritual leader of his home and that God will hold him accountable for the behavior of his wife and children one day.

There may be other factors involved, but men who “act as the voice of God” toward their wives have undoubtedly embraced a hierarchical view of the male-female relationship. I know it is argued that male dominance is a perversion of the complementarian position, which is based on the idea of servant leadership, but the fact is that abuse is an all too common outcome.

Teaching men they are the one and only spiritual leader of their home, possessing ultimate authority before God, has the unfortunate result of harming really good men, potentially leading them down a path toward becoming controlling husbands.

What man would want to answer to God for the ways his wife has gone off the rails? None, no doubt.

Better to whip her into shape now.

So, perhaps, he explains how she is wrong and he is right. How, as the spiritual leader, he sees things the way God sees them. She is more easily deceived, like Eve, so she needs to listen to him. He becomes, in the words of this wife, “the voice of God” to her.

When she doesn’t line up with his view of things he may use stronger methods, taking “decisive intervention”[2] through force, coercion, manipulation, and perhaps even verbal, emotional, sexual or physical abuse.

A controlling husband is born.

Sadly, even good men may fall prey to this mindset if they are consistently fed standard teachings on “biblical manhood” which are, in fact, not found in the Bible.

Like the idea that the man is the (only) spiritual leader of the home, the priest of the family, who should direct the family devotions and make the decisions, who ought to be revered and, ultimately, obeyed by his wife.

All of these ideas are inferred from the biblical text; they do not appear directly.

The question is: Are they reasonable inferences?

Complementarian Raymond C. Ortlund Jr. finds this male preeminence in Genesis 1-3, citing five reasons: 1) the image of God has to do with holiness, not ruling authority; 2) God names the human race “man”; 3) God is uninterested in unqualified equality; 4) Adam demonstrated authority over Eve when he named her; 5) the idea of equal rights in an unqualified sense is unbiblical.[3]

Today I will explain how I disagree with each of Ortlund’s points. But as you read I want you to think about the wife suffering under her husband’s spiritual abuse. This is not an academic exercise to me; it is pastoral. Christians will never change our high rate of divorce, or our perhaps even higher rate of unhappy yet committed marriages, until we change how we teach manhood and womanhood.

Here we go.

The Image of God

Ortlund’s first argument is his definition of image-bearing. Even though men and women “display the glory of God’s image with equal brilliance,”[4] Ortlund thinks it…

…probable that the image of God in man [humanity] is the soul’s personal reflection of God’s righteous character. To image God is to mirror His holiness.[5]

My first response here is that personal holiness is an insufficient explanation of what it means to image God. Bearing God’s image has everything to do with authority and rule and very little to do with anything else. Genesis gives dominion as the explicit reason human beings are created in God’s image, so it is difficult to claim that imaging God is about something other than ruling authority.

Yes, we are created as moral beings, with the capacity and responsibility to reflect God’s holiness, but not as an end in itself. We are thus constituted so that we are capable of ruling this earth for God’s glory. It is but a convenient work-around to define God’s image within us in moral terms, thereby removing equal dominion-authority from women and granting it primarily to men.

Naming Humanity

The second reason Ortlund presents in favor of male authority over women is the way God names humanity:

He names the human race, both man and woman, ‘man.’ …Surely His referring to the race as ‘man’ tells us something about ourselves….God’s naming of the race ‘man’ whispers male headship. …God did not name the human race ‘woman.’ If ‘woman’ had been the more appropriate and illuminating designation, no doubt God would have used it. He does not even devise a neutral term like ‘persons.’…Male headship may be personally repugnant to feminists, but it does have the virtue of explaining the sacred text.[6]

The main error of this line of reasoning is that Ortlund’s argument only works because he is sourcing the English text. In Hebrew, in fact, the word is not “man” but adam, a word which means “human being, person, humanity, mankind.” In the plural it means “men + women” or, as we would say, “people.”[7]

So God did, in fact, use a neutral term like “persons.” That is what adam means. There is a different word in Hebrew for “man” – ish – and a word for “woman” – ishah. God used neither of those when he named the human race.

God didn’t name us either “man” or “woman,” but rather “humanity.”

The confusion arises because God created the first adam – the first human being – and he came to be called, unsurprisingly, ha adam – “the human.” And then, over time, adam became his given name.

If we were to translate literally, the first man’s name would not be Adam in English. Instead, it would be Human or Person.

This is akin to what happened with the first man named Smith. He was a blacksmith, that was his trade, and in time his trade became his given name: Smith. In the same way, the first man was a human, that was his identity, and in time his identity became his given name: Human.

Or, in Hebrew, Adam.

So it’s not at all that God named humanity “man,” but rather that the Bible calls the first man “Human.”

Then, as the world became increasingly interpreted from a masculine perspective, essential humanity came to be defined as male, or maleness. The truest expression of what it meant to be human was found in the male; females were but an incomplete, deformed expression of humanity.

So a word that was neutral, that applied equally to male and female, was translated into other tongues with the gender-specific word “man,” losing its original import.

This all happened long before Bible translators understood the importance of translating back into the original language in order to check the wording, a practice regularly employed today. To do this you get a separate team of experts to take the translation you’ve just created in English or Latin or Spanish, for example, and put it back into the original language, in this case Hebrew.

If Jerome or Wycliffe or Reina and Valera or the King James crew had done this they would have figured out their mistake, since they would have ended up with ish (“man”) where the original employed adam (“human”).

Luther got it right, though, when he used Mensch (“human, person”) not Mann (“man, male”) in Genesis 1.

Score one for the Lutherans.

In this case, then, Ortlund’s whole point rests upon an inaccurate Bible translation born out of patriarchy.

Unqualified Equality

Ortlund’s third reason why men’s authority over women makes perfect sense is that God is simply not interested in unqualified equality:

The paradox is this: God created male and female in His image equally, but He also made the male the head and the female the helper. …Consider the obvious: God does not value intellectual or aesthetic equality among people. He does not value equality in finances, talents, and opportunity. It is God who deliberately ordains inequalities in many aspects of our lives….God is not interested in unlimited equality among us.[8]

Here I think Ortlund is confusing God’s sovereignty with man’s inhumanity to man, and equality with the beautiful wonder of human diversity. All human beings, no matter how intellectually or aesthetically lacking Ortlund may consider them to be, stand as equals.

No matter their finances, their opportunities, or their “talents,” all are equally human. All possess the same value, the same worth, and the same ruling authority God grants to all of us as human beings.

This is, in fact, the wildly counter-cultural message of Genesis. Unlike all the other ancient creation stories – yes, every single one – all human beings image God – black, white, rich, poor, male, female, third world, first world, educated, uneducated, urban, suburban.

Therefore every single person who has ever lived fully embodies God-given, God-ordained, God-sanctioned ruling authority. According to Genesis, there’s no sliding scale of dominion authority. That’s an idea popular with bigots, racists, slave traders and the like, not Scripture.

Are we the same? Hardly.

Are we equal? Absolutely, amen and amen.

It is God himself who came up with the idea of equality.

Ortlund then applies his theory of God-ordained inequality to the issue of male and female:

So, was Eve Adam’s equal? Yes and no. She was his spiritual equal and, unlike the animals, “suitable for him.” But she was not his equal in that she was his “helper.”… A man, just by virtue of his manhood, is called to lead for God. A woman, just by virtue of her womanhood, is called to help for God. … We must define ourselves not by personal injury, not by fashionable hysteria, not even by personal variation and diversity, but by the suprapersonal pattern of sexual understanding taught here in Holy Scripture.[9]

Perhaps unlike some who promote the equality of the sexes, I believe in the beauty of male and female as distinct realities. I am a woman, my husband is a man. During 39 years of marriage we have figured out that we are quite different, not only in our personalities but also in the way our respective genders impact how we think.

We find this beautiful.

Fashionable hysteria aside, however, I do not believe the differences between my husband and me lie in a differentiation in the level of our God-given dominion authority, for that is the fundamental identifier of human existence.

Unlike the animals, human beings rule; that is what we do.

For complementarians, in contrast, the “suprapersonal pattern of sexual understanding” is fundamentally about male authority. Other differences between men and women are only secondary concerns.

They may debate whether a mother should work outside the home or if it’s okay for a woman to share during the church service, but the one non-negotiable is that men possess ultimate authority over women.

Yes, the woman was created as the man’s face-to-face-help. Yet a woman can be a helper, rightly understood, without being a “second-in-command.” After all, in the Bible God is called “helper” more often than anyone else.

And God is certainly not our “second-in-command.”

Think of it like this: when you need help running your business, you can either find a partner or you can hire an employee. When God gave Eve to Adam, he gave him a life partner, not an employee.

Naming the Woman

Eve’s naming by Adam is Ortlund’s fourth argument for male authority, the bedrock of the role reversal argument. Here’s how he explains it:

He [God] allowed Adam to define the woman, in keeping with Adam’s headship. Adam’s sovereign act not only arose out of his own sense of headship, it also made his headship clear to Eve. She found her own identity in relation to the man as his equal and helper by the man’s definition.[10]

It is not precisely correct to say that Adam defined Eve. What really happened is that Adam identified the two of them, for the first time, as intricately connected to one another. Up to this time, as you know, the man was Mr. Human – adam – and the woman was Ms. Face-to-Face-Help – ezer-kenegdo.

Now, however, they are ish and ishah – man and woman.

In other words, Adam recognized that he and Eve were made for each other, so he came up with names that demonstrated that fact.

The point, then, is not Adam’s sovereignty, but their interdependence.

Equal Rights

Summing up his discussion of male authority,[11] Ortlund has this to say about human rights:

Does God really grant husbands and wives equal rights in an unqualified sense? Surely God confers upon them equal worth as His image-bearers. But does a wife possess under God all the rights that her husband has in an unqualified sense? …The ideal of ‘equal rights’ in an unqualified sense is not biblical.[12]

This is perhaps the most damaging of Ortlund’s assertions, since it leads godly men to believe their wives do not possess the same rights as them, that women are not their equals, that male-female inequality is God-ordained.

It leads men to think Christian responsibility and authority travel in one direction, from man to woman, so that it is appropriate for husbands to direct their wives but inappropriate for husbands to receive direction from their wives, and good for men to challenge women but bad for men to be challenged by women.

Unfortunately, the teaching that the concept of equal rights is unbiblical ultimately leads to the type of abusive Christian marriage I noted at the beginning of this post. Frankly, I see no way around it.

You can’t teach men their wives are not their equals without causing a great deal of harm.

Marital abuse is a fundamental rupture of the truth of the gospel, which teaches respect toward all. It has happened and does happen and will continue to happen, until we change how we teach the wondrous beauty that we embody as male and female.

Here are the five reasons I don’t see male authority in Genesis 1-3: 1) the image of God has everything to do with ruling authority; 2) God names the human race “humanity”; 3) God himself established equality; 4) Adam demonstrated interdependence with Eve when he named them; 5) inequality leads to abuse, contradicting the gospel.


[1] Comment by A. R., posted 9/13/18 under Authentic Intimacy podcast #48, “My Controlling Spouse,” published 9/10/18. Unfortunately, podcasts older than six months are accessible only to subscribers. Check out more recent recordings and other resources at authenticintimacy.com.

[2] According to Raymond C. Ortlund Jr., Adam’s big mistake in the garden was “allowing the deception to progress without decisive intervention,” in “Male-Female Equality and Male Headship: Genesis 1-3,” in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism, ed. John Piper and Wayne Grudem (Wheaton, Crossway: 1991/2006), 107. I agree that Adam should have said something; the problem is that teaching men they should take “decisive intervention” gives the wrong impression of how men and women should work together and too often leads to abuse.

[3] Ibid., 95-112.

[4] Ibid., 97.

[5] Ibid., 96.

[6] Ibid., 97-98.

[7] See Francis Brown, S. R. Driver and Charles A. Briggs, eds., The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson, 2010), 9.

[8] Ibid., 99-100.

[9] Ibid., 102.

[10] Ibid., 103.

[11] The idea that headship has to do with a man leading a woman is a very common assumption, but it is very likely erroneous. In ancient Greek thought, being the “head” did not imply authority or even leadership, but rather an intimate, life-giving connection to the “body.” Male headship, I am convinced, is not about authority. Rather it has to do with being the source of life to another, in all its various meanings. For further reading see my posts A Husband is Not His Wife’s Shepherd, Jesus as Head of the Church, Heads, Hats and Honor: Man as the “Head” of Woman in 1 Corinthians 11, and Is a Husband Supposed to Be in Charge of His Wife?  

[12] Ibid., 105.

3 thoughts on “Five Reasons I Don’t See Male Authority in Genesis 1-3

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