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Women and Men Leading Together: A Biblical Study

February 3, 2022 • De Pree Journal

I have been working full-time for almost four decades. During this time, I have had a variety of close working relationships with women, in churches, seminaries, and non-profit organizations (not to mention my family!). I have had women as colleagues, subordinates, advisors, financial supporters, and bosses. As I reflect on my experiences working with women, I’m struck by how productive and sometimes even transformational my partnerships with them have been. I would not be the worker or the person I am today, nor would I have accomplished nearly as much, apart from those collaborative relationships. (I’ve noted some examples below, if you’re interested.[1])

What I’ve experienced in my work life is in some small and imperfect way what I believe God intends for humankind in general. Work, including the work of leadership, is to be shared among men and women. We will do better work in better ways when we live, work, play, rest, and lead according to God’s intentions for us.

I’m not getting this simply or even mainly from my own experience, however. Rather, I believe that God’s intentions for male-female collaboration are clearly revealed in Scripture, beginning with Genesis. Now, if I were to survey all of what the Bible teaches concerning this matter, I’d be writing a very long article, perhaps even a book. I don’t have time to do this nor do you have time to read it right now. So, today, I want to focus on what we learn about women and men leading together from Genesis 1-2. In these foundational chapters of Scripture, we find a compelling foundation for a view of human work and leadership that features a profound and pervasive partnership between women and men.

Genesis 1

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. God has built male/female partnership into the very DNA of humanity. Men and women sharing together in the work of life is part of the world God saw to be “very good” (Gen 1:31).

Genesis 2

“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,’ that is, 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 [‘ezer in Hebrew] 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 to render accurately the sense of the Hebrew word ‘ezer in Genesis 2:18, which has the basic meaning of “help.” There are times in life 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, a reader 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.

Conclusion

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.

Notes

[1] I just spent several minutes reflecting on some of the women colleagues I’ve had throughout my life. I am so thankful for Betty, Gail, Martha, Lisa, Anna, Nancy, Liz, Arlene, Jeanette, Dorothy, Sara, Pam, Suzanne, Lisa, Donna, Ann, Tonia, Amy, Julie, Zandra, Junko, Julie (another one), Shoana, Jenny, Marlene, Barbara, Anne, Connie, Elizabeth, Angela, Karla, BK, Emily, Laura, Perri, Jennifer, Wenonie, Bethany, Abby, Meryl, Ruth, Jennifer, Deidra, Inés, Kim, Erica, Kara, Leah, Christine, Tracy, and Michaela. The danger of sharing this list is, of course, that I’m forgetting key colleagues. For this I apologize.

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