These days, we hear a lot about the need for more inclusive workplaces, especially when it comes to the participation of women in leadership roles. The reasons put forth for why we should include women in traditionally male roles vary. Some base this on basic human rights and equal justice. Others advocate allowing women to experience personal fulfillment and economic opportunity. Still others point to the fact that companies with women joining men in leadership are more profitable than those that are exclusively male at the top (Noland & Moran, 2016).
In this article, I want to approach the issue of including women in leadership from a biblical point of view. Specifically, I want to examine the opening chapters of Genesis. Here, I believe, we find a compelling foundation for a view of human work and leadership that features a profound and pervasive partnership between women and men.
In Genesis 1, God created the heavens and the earth and all that is within them. On the sixth day, God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over [the animals on earth]” (Gen 1:26). The next verse describes this unique act of creation: “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Gen 1:27). Notice that the image of God in this passage is represented by male and female together. This would suggest that the dominion mentioned in verse 26 is something men and women share in together.
This suggestion is confirmed in the following verse, which captures God’s first command to human beings: “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion [over the animals on earth]” (Gen 1:28). Humanity, as male and female, is called to steward the earth, to flourish through working, filling, and caring for God’s creation. The imperative “Be fruitful and multiply” means, literally, “make more human beings,” which is a task requiring male and female partnership. But, when seen in wider perspective, the so-called Cultural Mandate of Genesis 1:28 calls men and women to share together in all of the work and governance God has given them.
Here, then, is the beginning of a biblical foundation for women and men leading together in every sector of life.
“Ah, but what about Genesis 2?” we might ask. “Didn’t God create the man first as the primary worker? And isn’t the woman created second as the man’s ‘helpmeet,’ as his subordinate assistant, to use more contemporary language?”
This interpretation of Genesis 2 is common, both among those who endorse the priority of male leadership and among those who decry it. Yet I believe it falls short in a number of crucial ways. When we read Genesis 2 more carefully, we discover that it reiterates and strengthens what was found in Genesis 1: that man and woman together, created in God’s image, are to work and lead collaboratively, with shared responsibility and authority.
Yes, in the unique narrative of Genesis 2, God created the man first, putting him “in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it” (Gen 2:15). But then, most surprisingly given the chorus of “It was good” in Genesis 1, God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner” (Gen 2:18). The King James Version has, “I will make him an help meet for him,” from which we get the peculiar term “helpmeet.” Traditionally, the woman as “helpmeet” was seen as subordinate to the man, as his “little helper” you might say.
But this reading of “helper” fails poorly to render the sense of the Hebrew word ‘ezer in Genesis 2:18, which has the basic meaning of “help.” There are times when “help” comes from a subordinate, as when my toddler children once “helped” me work in the yard. Yet “help” can also come from one who is superior in knowledge or strength, as when I helped them carry their suitcases. So, we wonder, what is the connotation of the Hebrew word ‘ezer?
This word appears 22 times in the Hebrew Bible, 5 of which are proper names, and 2 of which are in Genesis 2. Of the remaining uses of ‘ezer, 14 out of 15 are in reference to help that comes from stronger to weaker. In the majority of these instances, the help is specifically that which comes from God. For example, Psalm 33:20 proclaims, “Our soul waits for the LORD; he is our help [‘ezer] and shield.”
Given this meaning of ‘ezer, one might be tempted to see the woman in Genesis 2 as the man’s superior. But the text shows that this would be a mistake. God created the woman/helper as the man’s “partner” (Gen 2:18; with a Hebrew phrase that suggests equality rather than superiority/inferiority – kenegdo). This fundamental unity and parity is reiterated in verses 23-24, when the man celebrated the woman as “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh,” and the man and woman “become one flesh.”
By telling the story of creation from a different perspective, Genesis 2 underscores the essential partnership of man and woman seen in Genesis 1. Together, as full partners, they share in the work of caring for the earth and working it so that it will be fruitful.
Of course, much, much more could be said at all of this. When we get to Genesis 3, we see how God’s intentions for male/female partnership are shattered by sin. The rest of the Bible tells this story repeatedly, often in sad and horrifying ways.
Yet the good news is that God did not abandon human beings in their sinfulness. Rather, God began to execute his plan that would lead not only to the salvation of individuals but also to the restoration of creation (see Eph 1:10). Through Jesus Christ, God begins to put back together that which was broken by sin. This means that reconciliation in broken relationships is possible (see Eph 2:11-22). The kind of partnership God intended for man and woman can be experienced in this world, however imperfectly, because of God’s grace given through Christ.
We who are disciples of Jesus Christ have the extraordinary opportunity and obligation to embody shared labor and shared leadership between women and men in our workplaces, churches, families, and other organizations. This not only fulfills God’s vision for our life and work, but it also offers a glimpse of God’s kingdom.
Noland, M. & Moran, T. (2016). Study: Firms with More Women in the C-Suite are More Profitable. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2016/02/study-firms-with-more-women-in-the-c-suite-are-more-profitable
Dr. Mark D. Roberts is the executive director of Fuller’s De Pree Center and the primary writer of the Life for Leaders daily devotions. His most recent book is a commentary on the New Testament letter to the Ephesians (Zondervan, 2016). Mark and his wife Linda, an executive coach and spiritual director, have two adult children and one lively Golden Retriever.