Jul 4, 2018

Male, Female, and Complementarianism’s Missing Song

By Rebekah Theilen

A pastor once taught me that the story of the world could be told in six words: “Adam messed up.  Jesus mopped up.” It’s been more famously said that the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing. I recently read a book that combines both ideas. Man Up! The Quest for Masculinity by Pastor Jeff Hemmer is a noteworthy effort from a man who is tired of sitting around.

Yet no amount of human work can save us from this troubled hour. From chapter one all the way to the singing end, Pastor Hemmer makes it clear this is not a book about being the man with the fastest truck or the biggest muscles, but about being a man of the one and only God. A man is not doomed to forever fall short, nor is toxic masculinity the will of God for His sons. The first man, Adam, was made in God’s image, and contrary to all who would point you to a mirror, manhood is all about the image of God. You’re not going to find Him in pornography’s latest short film. Look to the Man on the cross, Jesus Christ, for “He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of His nature” (Hebrews 1:3).

The author minces no words, be it on “niceness,” selfishness, or sexual sin. But there is also much encouragement and hope to be found. Over and over, Pastor Hemmer points to Jesus as the epitome of manhood. Christ does not blame-shift; He takes on the blame. Christ is not cruel; He is righteous and just. Christ is not passive, but picks up His Cross.  The Son of Man was given as a Prophet, Priest, and King that He might bring light to the children of men. Man’s purposes in Genesis to protect, provide, and fill the earth are not God’s condemnation to a vain and meaningless life, but finely coincide with the real and core desires God has etched upon man’s soul.

Man Up is obviously written for men. Yet women and men are intrinsically linked. As a female, something I listen for when reading about masculinity and manhood is how the author speaks about women. Is he clear about the value God places on women? Does the author, as a man, seem to reasonably like women? Does he possess specific insight into male and female relationships? In other words, does he demonstrate the gentleness and hands-on humility required to effectively love and understand a woman? I would answer yes to all of these questions. Pastor Hemmer tells the truth, often reiterating that he is far from the ideal man, and far from being a masculinity expert. I take him at his word.

One thing caught me off guard while reading. In these days of #MeToo and ongoing discussions of how churches handle or fail to handle variants of abuse, I believe it is worth bringing up because of its relevance and potential impact on the entire Christian conversation about men and women and the way we think about, speak about, and act toward one another. The book contained an unfamiliar (to me) translation of a Genesis passage I have many times puzzled over. I have typically seen Genesis 3:16 read something like “Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.” In at least two places in Man Up (pages 56 & 70), while describing the consequences of the woman’s fall into sin, the author quotes Genesis 3:16 as saying, “Your desire shall be contrary to your husband, but he shall rule over you.” Something about this translation feels very wrong to me. I’ve seen tiny footnotes before with words like “against” to explain the word “for,” but nothing like this where the translation itself connotes inherent hostility on the part of the woman and her mysterious desire. 

After doing some Google searching, I learned that the peculiar translation found in Man Up comes from the latest edition of the English Standard Version. In 2016, the newly released ESV Bible included 52 word changes throughout 29 verses. More than expected, these changes sparked a great amount of controversy within the Christian blogosphere, particularly among evangelical Christians. The first element of controversy was over Crossway announcing their new translation as fixed and permanent, a decision they later reversed. The other had to do with the actual word changes. Many people thought (myself now included) that the alterations in wording, particularly those found in Genesis 3:16 and Genesis 4:7, had gone too far in imposing a strict complementarian interpretation onto the text.  

In standard complementarian belief, a woman will desire to control and rule her husband. In reference to Genesis 3:16, complementarian pastor John Piper states, “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.” Eve is often described as having usurped Adam’s authority at the fall into sin. This teaching and interpretation that a woman will desire to usurp her husband’s authority is often credited to Susan T. Foh and her 1975 Westminster Theological Journal article "What is a Woman’s Desire?" In the article’s introduction, Foh writes, “The current issue of feminism in the church has provoked the reexamination of the scriptural passages that deal with the relationship of the man and the woman. A proper understanding of Genesis 3:16 is crucial to this reconsideration of the Biblical view of the woman.”

According to Susan Foh’s paper, the Hebrew word translated as “desire” appears three times in the Old Testament. Two instances occur very early in Genesis. In Genesis 3:16 God says to the woman, “Your desire will be for you husband, and he will rule over you.” In Genesis 4:7, God says to Cain, “Sin’s desire is for you, and you must rule over it.” The final appearance is found in the Song of Solomon. Foh dismisses the Song of Solomon, “I am my beloved’s, and his desire is for me”(7:10), claiming the context of the verse is ambiguous, even though the Song of Solomon context is unmistakably one of mutual delight, peace and harmony, and a married man and woman together in a garden. She instead focuses her article on the literary connection of Genesis 3:16 to Genesis 4:7, coming to the following conclusions:
“The woman has the same sort of desire for her husband that sin has for Cain, a desire to possess and control him. This desire disputes the headship of the husband. As the Lord tells Cain what he should do, i.e., master or rule sin, the Lord also states what the husband should do, rule over his wife. The words of the Lord in Genesis 3:16b, as in the case of the battle between sin and Cain, do not determine the victor of the conflict between the husband and wife. These words mark the beginning of the battle of the sexes. As a result of the fall, man no longer rules easily; he must fight for his headship.  Sin has corrupted the willing submission of the wife and the loving headship of the husband. The woman’s desire is to control her husband--to usurp his divinely appointed headship, and he must master her, if he can. So the rule of love founded in paradise is replaced by struggle, tyranny, and domination.”
I don’t know Hebrew. I have no idea whether or not this woman’s exegesis is correct. I do completely understand that women aren’t the easiest to live with at times. I understand that even as Christian women we can struggle with submission, what it means, and the way God has asked us to live this out in our marriages. But Foh’s conclusions shower Eve with punishment, and are far more harsh on her than God ever was. Why have we welcomed this paper as an accepted guide for complementarianism? In “Male-Female Equality and Male Headship,” the third and foundational chapter of Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism, crediting the work of Susan Foh, author Ray Ortland Jr. comments on the connection of Genesis 3:16 to Genesis 4:7:
“How does this parallel statement illuminate the interpretation of Genesis 3:16? Most importantly, it clarifies the meaning of the woman’s “desire.” Just as sin’s desire is to have its way with Cain, God gives the woman up to a desire to have her way with  her husband. Because she usurped his headship in the temptation, God hands her over to the misery of competition with her rightful head. This is justice, a measure-for-measure response to her sin.”
Harsh, merciless, punishment of women is not what complementarianism is about, and I am confident complementarians would be the first to affirm this. Ray Ortlund Jr. rightly states that “the natural outcome of godly male headship is female fulfillment, not a denial of female rights" (p. 105). I am all about analyzing and digging around for awesome insights. Ortlund is a talented writer with a keen imagination, but I also think that Ortlund, along with many in complementarian camps (I include myself in this assessment), are guilty of having taken the story of our first parents’ sins a little too far. Regarding Eve, he writes,
“It was a lie big enough to reinterpret all of life and attractive enough to redirect Eve’s loyalty from God to Self. The lie told her that obedience is a suicidal plunge, that humility is demeaning, and that service is servility. And so Eve begins to feel the aggravation of an injustice which, in reality, does not exist.” (p.107)
What was Eve’s primary sin in the garden? What led to “Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you” in the first place? After Eve was reassured (lied to) by the serpent that she would not surely die, and tempted by curious whispers about the way she could be like God in knowing good and evil, the Bible says, “So when she saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate.” Eve’s primary sin is the same sin that damns us all--she didn’t listen to God. Complementarianism had nothing to do with it. 

In Genesis 3:16, God describes the conditions under which a woman will suffer as a result of her sin and separation from God. Foh claims this verse is crucial in understanding not only the issue of feminism but the Biblical view of the woman. How have we used it to understand women? Admittedly, the fight for women’s suffrage, the mass exodus of women from their homes to flood the workforce, the angry man-hating monster that has become the stuff of legends, at first glance, seems to suggest that women are out to steal and wear the pants of men, deep down longing to rule over men, or worse, to be men themselves. But here we are only talking about the past one- to two-hundred years in one relatively young country’s history. If you were to take about five steps back and panoramically scan the history of peoples, places, and times, what does the overwhelming situation and stance of a woman look like?

Complementarians believe man and woman are divinely created in the image of God. They also believe, as do I, that bearing His image, male and female children are born into this world with equal worth, dignity, and value as persons. I believe complementarian men like John Piper have a true heart for God that is in the right place, desiring to hold dear the truth of God’s Word, which clearly and plainly grants men positions of greater authority--and thereby responsibility--in Christian marriages and churches. Leadership requires a deep and intimate knowing of the ones you seek to lead, particularly if the way you’re called to lead is love. In what has been a divisive and controversial translation of a sensitive verse, with a voiced unsettlement among complementarian women, has anyone ever double-checked Susan Foh’s scholarship? Is “contrary to” an appropriate translation? Do women desire to rule over men?

Complementary parts are made for union. Adam, the first man, and Eve, the first woman, were the first to come together as the ones to hope in Christ. I think it is good, right, and salutary for complementarians to hold to the truths that differentiate male and female, including the truth of solely male pastors, and man as head of his wife as Christ is the Head of His bride, the Church. If we are going to use the sinless order of creation as a stronghold for this point, I feel it is important to note that when God first brings Eve to Adam in the garden, Adam’s song of delight has absolutely nothing to do with his authority. He doesn’t say “At last! This is now someone over whom I can exercise my loving headship!” Adam says, “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called ‘woman’ for she was taken out of man.” What binds Eve to Adam is her sameness, not her difference.

Christianity is the religion of hope and delight. The death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ brought hope and forgiveness to restore our lives to wholeness. He is the Help in our trouble, the Hope in our suffering, the Light in our darkness, the Joy of our hearts. To bring this all back around to Man Up: Pastor Hemmer’s book does an outstanding job emphasizing that the greatest measure of a man is his sacrifice. Bearing the image of God, a man gives, first and foremost, all of himself.  Authority isn’t given to man in order to talk about, preserve, and defend his own authority. Man is made man so he might exercise the authority given to him by God, and in Christ-like love, do something for the greater good and benefit of others, including his wife, children, church, and surrounding world. He needn’t fear an agitated wife, or a society that hates him, or an angry mob of corporate feminists in pantsuits. May our men be at peace regarding all of us women desiring to usurp the man’s authority. I don’t care what the Crossway Bible has to say about women. If it is God who granted man headship and authority, then no one but God can take authority away from him.


Rebekah Theilen spends her days living life alongside her husband and children. She enjoys reading, homeschooling, and every once in a great while, chasing after the wind.   


  1. An interesting and thoughtful article. I've often wondered if the "desire" in this verse is the sort of desire that overrules all other thoughts and desires to the person's detriment--that Eve would look to her husband to fulfill all her needs and make him her end-all be-all, but that Adam was given authority. At the end of the day, I don't read Hebrew and I don't think I have a prayer of understanding the verse entirely rightly anytime in this lifetime. I suppose that's one of the harder points of faith.

  2. “Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you”
    “Your desire shall be contrary to your husband, but he shall rule over you.”
    In reading these verses recently I came across the latter version. It resonated with me. It totally made sense to me and it never took away from how I understood the other version. In that moment I thought I just had never really paid attention before. I didn’t know it was a newer version. I always understood the verse as a longing for the husband, as well as his authority over his her. That a woman’s desire for her husband wouldn’t always be in sync with his desires, not to simply control him, but those instances when he needs to be away from the home often to provide for the family’s needs instead of being with her and the family. This coincides with what God told Adam in these same moments; he will always toil to meet his and his family’s needs, and the wife will also compete with his desires when he’s not toiling because of his needs to find rest from the toiling like with his own hobbies, or zoning out in front of the TV, and nowadays to include the constant need to be on Facebook.
    The latter version includes the desires of women to rule over man, but does not diminish what I had previously understood from the earlier version. It truly brings a greater understanding and confirmation of the battle of the sexes in all aspects, especially toxic feminism which has recently reared its ugly head in what I’ve seen referred to as an additional wave (e.g. 4th and 5th wave feminism). What the feminist doesn’t understand is the nature of man to provide and protect, and the nature of woman is to nurture. Of course, there are always going to be exceptions, and they aren’t necessarily negative ones.
    I have Christian friends who have always rebelled against this chapter in Genesis as if it was never said by God himself since we were all teenagers and young adults. My daughter has gone the way of feminism, and believes God is not sexist, but the men who wrote the Bible are. The feminist doesn’t understand that this all doesn’t mean we are inferior, nor were meant to be treated as property.


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