Popping up regularly in my facebook feed is a campaign by the Australian Christian Lobby titled “You won’t Believe Labor’s Latest Attack on Parent’s Rights”.
This is what the ACL campaign page says:
The party’s National Secretary has released a consultation draft of the platform and it contains some radical, extreme material.
Hidden on page 183 (clause 83), we can see the party is seeking to launch an extraordinary attack on people of faith and parents’ rights.
The documents states:
Labor opposes the practice of so-called conversion and reparative therapies on LGBTIQ+ people and seek to criminalise these practices.
This is shocking stuff.
It means that if your son comes home one day from his Labor-sponsored ‘Safe School’ and tells you he wants to become a girl, you must support that decision and attempt to facilitate it.
Discouraging your son from transitioning to a girl, arranging for prayer or counselling to affirm his biological gender would be a criminal offence and domestic abuse under a Labor government.
Before you rush to the ACL campaign page and sign the petition to protect parental rights, you should be aware that:
The clause on criminalising conversion therapy is not “hidden”.
The ACL’s language implies that the ALP is attempting something clandestine. News flash. It’s in the ALP Consultation Platform! This is a publicly available document that the ALP has published months before it is due to be debated at their National Conference. The clause on gender conversion therapies is not located in a footnote or fine print but is listed in exactly the same manner as all other proposals.
The proposal is not “radical” or “extreme”.
Around the world conversion therapy has been slammed by health practitioners. A January 2018 briefing paper by the UCLA School of Law states:
“A number of prominent national professional health associations – including the American Medical Association, the American Psychological Association, and the American Academy of Pediatrics – have issued public statements opposing the use of conversion therapy because it is harmful and ineffective. Some of these associations have called on Congress and state legislatures to pass laws that ban conversion therapy.” (https://williamsinstitute.law.ucla.edu/wp-content/uploads/Conversion-Therapy-LGBT-Youth-Jan-2018.pdf)
The Australian Medical Association, the peak body representing doctors in Australia, “unequivocally condemns conversion therapy”. AMA President Dr Tony Bartone explained why in September this year:
“We know that it’s associated with negative outcomes, it’s not based on any research, it’s archaic, and it’s only associated with long-term harm to the patients involved.” (https://ama.com.au/ausmed/no-place-conversion-therapy).
The ACL trivialises a very real human experience
The suggestion that “if your son comes home one day from his Labor-sponsored ‘Safe School’ and tells you he wants to become a girl, you must support that decision and attempt to facilitate it” is ludicrous. The flippant ease with which the ACL statement trivialises gender identity issues betrays an appalling ignorance of the realities of transgender experience. Trans kids do not suddenly go from being happy, well-adjusted members of one sex to a faddish desire to change sex based on the suggestions of the Safe Schools program. Rather, a discrepancy between their gender identity and their biologically assigned sex is a sustained, ongoing experience, and a “transition” in which sexual biology is brought into alignment with gender identity occurs over a number of years and in consultation with highly credentialed medical services. See the web page of The Royal Children’s Hospital Gender Service for more.
Parents are not going to be criminalised
The ALP platform does not mean parents will be criminalised for having a pastor pray over their child. A 2018 report by La Trobe University on conversion therapies discusses how to balance the rights of all parties in responding to gay conversion therapies. It concludes that:
“An appropriate balance, in our view, would be for governments to regulate conversion practices delivered by health practitioners (or those purporting to be health practitioners by making health claims) or secular professional workers, where there is a legitimate reason for the state to exercise control over the accreditation and training of such practitioners. Law and regulation in health settings in Australia is commonplace and justifiable. There is an expectation within the community that governments will regulate and support the provision of health care, as well as education, child care and other essential public services. Otherwise, individuals should remain free to exercise their own agency and autonomy and to seek out and engage in informal conversion practices within religious settings, despite the risk of harm.”
Whether this is an appropriate balance or not should be met with serious discussion and debate, not the ignorant fear-mongering promoted by this ACL campaign.
Freedom of religion, conscience and speech are at the heart
of a free society. They protect us from an ideological totalitarianism which
demands everyone believe, speak and act in the same way. The price of any of us
enjoying these freedoms is that we respect the freedom of others to believe
things we find unreasonable, to hold morals we find objectionable, and to say
things we find offensive.
Religious conscience and behaviour extend beyond what happens during the rituals and liturgies that take place inside churches, mosques and temples. Religion goes to identity, belonging, and lifestyle. It is to belong to a community who seek to live out the values of their faith in all of life and encourage their fellow congregants to do the same. The faith to which I belong, Christianity, calls me to live all of life in response to the grace, wisdom and love of God.
When churches establish schools it is usually an extension of their understanding of themselves as communities of faith. Religious schools are not simply places where children learn mathematics, science and the humanities, but faith communities seeking to cultivate a particular way of life, faith and being. Parents send their children knowing this to be the case, and for many, because they want their children to be raised as members of their faith community. In this context, the right to hire teachers who cultivate the values and lifestyle of the school and to fire those that don’t may be harsh but it is part and parcel of the operation of the school as a conservative religious community, and should, in my opinion, be protected.
Yet having said this, we must remember that freedom can be abused, and it is here I believe Christian conservatives need to ask hard questions. We abuse our freedom when when we don’t extend the same freedom to others that we demand for ourselves. The vocal opposition of certain parts of the Christian church to the marriage equality legislation seemed to me a prime example of this, as is the continued campaign of hysteria, misinformation and fear around gender identity, as is the insistence that secular schools allow Christians to proselytise their students by teaching Scripture.
And freedom is abused when it becomes a cloak to injure and harm others. My more conservative Christian friends often tell me they seek to “hate the sin, but love the sinner”. They are good people who genuinely mean it. But they are failing spectacularly to implement.
Moral discipline is essential to any well-lived life. We insist a person must not use their phone while driving; that no matter how fiercely someone angers me I must not surrender to the desire to hit them; that a husband remain sexually faithful to his wife. Conservative expressions of Christianity likewise argue that those who are not in an opposite sex marriage are called to be celibate. The road for the unmarried believer who longs to be in a lifelong sexually and emotionally intimate relationship can be very difficult, but to ask someone to live this way is not a surrender of their personhood.
Yet conservative churches, schools and other religious parachurch
organisations have not, on the whole, disentangled themselves from a long history
that declared LGBTIQA+ people broken at the very core of their being, depraved
in character, and an abomination to their God. LGBTIQA+ people in conservative churches and religious schools are continuallyrejected, marginalised and alienated not because they have behaved in a way that violates Christian values but because their very existence is perceived as a threat. And so, LGBTIQA+ people who grow up in conservative churches commonly tell stories of being psychologically destroyed and socially isolated.
We must hear this. Harm is not the exception for LGBTIQA+ people in conservative churches. It is the norm. Conservative churches and schools are very rarely places which affirm and celebrate diverse sexual orientation, while at the same time helping their LGBITQA+ members walk a path of sexual self-denial that conservative theology demands, find their worth in God and experience deep and meaningful community.
And when LGBTIQA+ people are suffering so awfully at the hands of churches it is abusive to ignore and/or glibly dismiss the challenge to conservative readings of Scripture that are coming thick and fast. As I noted in a previous blog, the theology of sexuality is now an intra-evangelical debate. Yet the reflex I observe in most conservative churches is to pretend it doesn’t exist.
So I say to my conservative brothers and sisters in Christ, yes you have a right to religious freedom and I’ll stand with you in asserting that, but in the absence of a deep sorrow and repentance over the damage your churches are doing to LGBTIQA+ people, your claims are hollow. Silence in the face of ongoing marginalisation, rejection and abuse is not enough. If pastors and church leaders are not willing to patiently, courageously and systematically challenge the awful weight of spoken and unspoken bigotry in their own congregations, they expose a church committed to its own narrow interests but not the interest of it’s most vulnerable.
The public defence of religious freedom without public repentance
over the harm perpetrated against LGBTIQA+ people reveals a hypocrisy that
is bleedingly obvious to those outside our churches but to which those
inside conservative churches are blind. And the tragic irony is that it may well
be our own unrepentant hearts that exhaust the patience of our society to the
point that religious freedoms will be stripped away and we find ourselves
inside an ideologically totalitarian secularism.
If ever there was a time to heed Christ’s call to remove the
log from our own eyes that we might be able to remove a speck of dust from the
eyes of another it is now. NOTE: On Nov 5 references in this article to “gay and lesbian” people were changed to a reference to LGBITQA+ in recognition of the broad range of sexualities that have been marginalised. A few minor changes have been made to other sentences for the purpose of clarity.
By global standards, Australia is not a particularly violent society. We don’t fear bombs dropping from the sky, nor do we have a government that employs violence to suppress the population. We do of course, have pockets of illegitimate state sanctioned violence (eg offshore detention centres), but overall, the State in Australia is relatively benign.
We sit at the lower end of rates of interpersonal violence. In 2002-3, for example, 4% of women living in Australia reported experiencing violence by an intimate partner in the previous twelve months, which was the 12th lowest of 86 nations in a United Nations survey. In Ethiopia more than 50% of women experienced violence by an intimate partner in the previous 12 months.
Yet the fact that we have low violence rates relative to the rest of the world should not lull us into a sense of false comfort. In any given year 1 in 11 adult men and 1 in 20 adult women experience physical or sexual violence . That’s hundreds of thousands of Australians experiencing violent assault every year.
Psychologists, psychiatrists, and social workers have long considered what it is that causes people to be violent. The current consensus seems to be that the causes are multidimensional. Researchers often speak of an ” ecological” framework in which individual biology, psychology and life experiences intersect with influences at the level of the household, the community, and society.
One of the most robust findings is that gender roles and attitudes are significant across all these levels. In Australia (and universally across the world) violence takes on gender specific forms. 95% of assaults are perpetrated by men. Violence by men against men usually occurs at the hands of a stranger, in public places and is typically not sexual. Violence by men against women on the other hand, usually occurs at the hands of somebody they know, in the home, is frequently sexual, and more likely to be repeated.
That violence takes such gendered forms makes it impossible to avoid the conclusion that it is closely related to our understanding of masculinity, femininity, how we understand the relationship between men and women, and the actual distribution of privilege and power between men and women.
The fact that the vast majority of Australian men do not commit violence and that rates of violence plummet in societies where women enjoy greater equality, suggest that the use of violence is a learned/socialised behaviour. An extensive study published in the Lancet medical journal in 2015 found that attitudes that condoned violence against women, women’s lack of access to economic resources, and relationships in which males were seen as responsible to control the lives of females, were directly related to high rates of violence. It wasn’t rising affluence that led to a decline in violence, but changed gender roles and attitudes that usually came in societies that enjoyed greater affluence.
I am a follower of Jesus. The continuing prevalence of violence in our society concerns me, for the One I follow was renowned for his preference for grace, peace and love and his rejection of violence.
I also belong to the Christian Church, which despite pockets of gender equality, remains perhaps the single most gender unequal institution in our society. In the wake of the Royal commission into institutional child abuse and the recent rising public concern around family and domestic violence, many churches are starting to address questions of violence. Yet many are failing to address the violent elephant in the room, which is the culture of gender inequality that prevails in many of our churches.
We need to avoid simplistic solutions. It is tempting for those, like myself, who believe our faith drives us to gender equality, to smugly point the finger at those who teach that God ordains different roles for men and women and suggest that their teaching is the cause of violence. This may well have been the case in the past, when churches frequently used the Bible to justify the misogynistic values of earlier Western culture. The teaching of Complementarianism today is far more nuanced. In its better forms it does not proclaim that women are inferior to men, nor that men have the right to control women. Moreover, it calls on men and women to value servanthood, grace and love. This is why churches may teach and promote unequal gender roles yet simultaneously cultivate a culture in which violence is eschewed.
Yet it is also true that the lived reality of our churches invariably falls short of our ideals. In my experience, the culture of churches that teach Complementarianism is often dominated by traditionally masculine approaches to the conduct of their gatherings; preoccupied with authority (of men in the home, of leaders in the church, of the Bible in our theology); the interests and voices of women take a backseat to those of men; and where teaching around “headship” does translate into men having a sense of entitlement with regard to women. And because the key leaders of these churches are all men it is often difficult for them to recognise just how “blokey” dimensions of the church culture have become. ( Indeed, despite being deeply committed to egalitarianism, I have found myself a middle class, middle aged anglo male in a ecclesiastical system in which the vast majority of my colleagues are the same as me. I’ve had to work hard to listen to the voices and interests of women).
We don’t, I think, need a rerun of the gender wars of the 1980s and 1990s, in which Complementarian and Egalitarian theologies were pitted against each other in a battle for dominance (yes I see the irony). I accept that there will continue to be people in our churches who in good conscience hold to these theologies. To my Complementarian friends my appeal is that you take seriously the gulf that often exists between your theology and what is actually embedded in the culture of your churches with regard to gender. What is required is not better teaching but introspection, self-critique and a listening to the voices of women.
To my Egalitarian colleagues, we too need to make seriously the gulf that exists between our theology and the culture of our churches. We need not only to believe in egalitarianism but to practise it. In too many quarters our culture remains blokey and we too need introspection, self-critique and to listen to the voices of women.
And we must do this with great urgency, for it is not simply a matter of duelling theologies but of how our churches will contribute to the continued decline of violence in our society.
I entered theological college in 1987. It was a time of ferment and upheaval among Evangelicals in the industrialised world as a growing number of scholars and leaders challenged the biblical basis for the traditional gender roles that operated within the church. Just months before I sat in my first class, IVP, one of Evangelicalism’s leading publishing houses, released Women, Authority And The Bible, a collection of essays in which 27 well-regarded scholars argued the case for an evangelical feminism. Before the end of my first year, the Council for Biblical Manhood And Womanhood was formed. It brought together evangelical leaders and scholars determined to resist the feminist redefining of the roles of men and women. Its Danvers Statement became the classic articulation of the doctrine of “Complementarianism” and its publications, such as RecoveringBiblical Manhood and Womanhood: a Response to Evangelical Feminism, were widely read. From the mid-1980s up until the turn of the millennium a myriad of books and articles around questions of gender were produced as scholars traded blows over the interpretation of the biblical texts.
By the end of the 1990’s the ferocity had left the debate but there had been no satisfactory resolution. The denomination to which I belong, the Baptist Churches of NSW & ACT, recognised that Christians equally committed to Christ and the Scriptures could be found on either side of the question. A compromise was found. Ordination was about setting someone apart for a particular ministry such as a lead pastor. This responsibility was devolved from the denomination to the local church, meaning women friendly churches could ordain if they pleased.
Yet this did not translate into significant change. More than twenty years have passed since that vote, yet in 2015 less than 5% of recognised Ministers in the Baptist Churches of NSW and ACT were women, less than 2.5% were women serving in churches and even fewer as team leaders/senior pastors. Yes, women are more likely to serve in lay leadership roles, but when it comes to pastoral leadership Baptist churches in Australia are among the least gender representative organisations in the country.
And we are not alone. Whatever their rhetoric, many churches in the western world remain overwhelmingly male in leadership. The US National Congregations Survey is conducted every 5 years to measure the state of affairs in North American churches. In 2012 it showed that women held 41% of full-time secondary pastoral positions and 53% of part-time secondary roles, but just 11.4% of churches had a female in the role of head clergy person or primary religious leader, a statistic that was virtually unchanged since 1988. More than four in ten churches would not allow a female in such a role. Within the evangelical community female participation rates were much lower. Women filled only 3% of primary leader positions and only 27% of secondary full-time pastoral roles in white evangelical churches.
Even more alarming is the continued ideology of subordination in marriage. A survey of more than 2000 Evangelical leaders gathered in Capetown, South Africa, for the 2010 Lausanne Conference on World Evangelisation, found that 79% agreed that “men must be the religious leaders in marriage and family” and 55% that “a wife must always obey her husband.”These attitudes weren’t confined to those leaders from the more traditional societies of the Global South. There was little difference between leaders from traditional and industrialised societies on the need for men to assume leadership in marriage and family and, while the gap was larger on the question of a wife’s obedience, a staggering 39% of leaders from the world’s industrialised nations agreed that a wife must always obey her husband. Not sometimes. Always.
At the end of the gender debates of the 1990s I thought the battle had been won and that it was only a matter of time until women took on pastoral leadership in our churches and wife-husband relationships would be built around mutuality. I was wrong.
What needs to be done? I suggest at least three things
- We need to proactively change the culture of our churches. There are a vast number of churches that are open to women in pastoral leadership but they never appoint a woman. This is not due to a lack of suitably qualified women. Our churches are filled with gifted women who would be snapped up in an instant if they were male. Those of on the progressive side of this debate need to start appointing women.
- We need to develop an approach to the Bible that is progressive, evangelical and can easily be grasped by the interested reader. Every new generation will open the Bible and see commands that women be silent and submissive. When you’re used to thinking of the Bible as the word of God all of a sudden these become words from God. We need to have a robust interpretive method that enables people to make sense of texts like these. I have suggested d a simple tool in a previous post.
- We need to model healthy marriage, family and church relationships in which initiative and decision making are shared and the voices of women are heard and respected.
There is so much good to be found in the church. I love it. But on the question of gender equity we are appalling. We cannot twiddle our thumbs for the next 30 years simply waiting for change to happen. We must make it so.
Duke University, National Congregations Study 2012. http://www.soc.duke.edu/natcong/index.html
Pew Forum, “Global Survey of Evangelical Protestant Leaders.” The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life .22 June 2011. http://www.pewforum.org/Christian/Evangelical-Protestant-Churches/Global-Survey-of-Evangelical-Protestant-Leaders.aspx#evangelical (accessed January 29, 2012).
There was a great article about Tim Winton in the Sydney Morning Herald’s Good Weekend magazine recently. Winton was just 5 years old when his father was badly injured in a motor vehicle accident. After he came home from hospital Winton’s father required many weeks of intensive assistance and emotional support. Tim’s mother, who suddenly became the family breadwinner, as well as trying to look after four children under the age of five and care for her husband, was struggling to cope. One day a stranger showed up at the door and announced that he was there to help. For the next few weeks Len Thomas spent time almost every day at the Winton home caring for Tim’s father. He was from a local church and had heard that the family was struggling to manage, and was in Winton’s own words “an act of grace” to the family.
Len Thomas had a huge impact on Tim Winton
Len showed me that there is another way of being a man, that you didn’t have to get a double century at the MCG or mow down a machine-gun post and get a Victoria Cross. You could be just decent and gentle and kind. For me, that was incredibly revelatory.
I too have been fortunate to have had men, not least my father, who have shown me that “a real man” can be strong without being aggressive, gentle rather than violent, and love his family, his friends and his world.
It took me some time to learn that a man could also be vulnerable and express tender emotion. I tended to live in my head, and many years back a friend, who lived very much in his emotions, gave me a copy of Manhood by Steve Biddulph. I thought it was a stupid gift, but my friend was the wiser of us. As I read through the book much of what Steve Biddulph had to say resonated deeply with me. I’m not quite sure how it all worked but inbetween contemplating Steve Biddulph’s work and having children I’ve become something of a weeping willow.
Yet as I think about masculinity I’m reluctant to define it. My sense of self was formed in between the generations that understood masculinity and femininity to be the product of our sexual biology, and therefore fixed, and the current generation who understand masculinity and femininity as entirely socialised and therefore a matter of choice. I suspect that there are both socialised and biological influences on many of our behaviours, but that where biology is important the variation is not strongly aligned to sexual biology. Indeed, I struggle to think of one character trait typically identified as “masculine” or “feminine” that is not found in individuals of all sexes.
It is tempting to replace the biological essentialism of the past with a theological essentialism. This is particularly strong in Reformed Evangelical circles, where pastor-theologians such as John Piper insist that the Bible teaches men are to be initiators and leaders and women are to be supporters and followers. On their reckoning the key to being a man or woman of God is not simply to be Christlike but to manifest Christlikeness in gender-particular ways. I have blogged extensively about the interpretation and application of the Biblical texts over the last couple of years. Needless to say, I don’t accept their arguments.
My starting point for who and how I am in the world is not my sex or gender but my humanity. In the biblical account of creation men and women alike were created in the image of God, and together commissioned to multiply and fill the earth and rule and subdue it (Genesis 1:26-28). It is our shared humanity that defines who we are and how we are in the world, not our sexual differentiation.
Jesus appeared on earth as one who was the complete and perfect image of God. He did not present himself as a model of masculinity, nor do any of the biblical writers. Rather he’s the model of perfect humanity: compassionate, kind, generous, good, just. He is gentle with the vulnerable, lashes the oppressive elites, and is patient with his disciples. These are neither masculine nor feminine traits. They are simply human.
I am not interested in avoiding traits that are considered “feminine” or cultivating those that are considered “masculine”. Masculinity and femininity are important to me only as constructs for understanding ways my culture has socialised me to be. My goal is not to be the best man I can be but the best human I can be.
The Bible’s creation stories are key texts in shaping Christian views of gender and sexuality. To some they represent a manifesto for the equality of men and women across all areas of life, while for others they speak of a creation order in which men and women share equal worth but leadership belongs to men.
It is typically assumed that because the Genesis texts describe the world prior to the impacts of human sin, that whatever is found within them can be taken to represent life as it should be, and is therefore, normative for humankind. This assumption needs to be challenged. If it were true we would declare it sinful for any fertile adult to be single, for the command of God to “be fruitful and multiply” must be normative for everyone. Likewise, every city-slicker among us would abandon our jobs and become farmers, for this is the mode of work, indeed the only mode of work, envisaged in Genesis 2-3, and must be normative for all.
The creation narratives were not written in an a-cultural or a-historical era. They were composed by people living in ancient times in societies that had their own cultural, linguistic, economic and political systems. They had no option but to construct narratives that made sense against that background. Given that patriarchy was one of the most enduring and embedded of social systems across the ancient Mediterranean, it is natural that stories involving men and women would draw upon the thought forms and practises of patriarchy.
Patriarchal overtones are, arguably, absent from Genesis 1, but are woven throughout the Garden story (and indeed through the rest of the Bible). It is the man who is created first and the woman created in relation to him rather than he to her; it is the man to whom God gives the command not to eat of the tree of knowledge; it is the man whom God calls when the man and woman were hiding.
Does this mean the Garden story endorses patriarchy? No it does not. The issue is not whether the story employs patriarchal modes of thinking but whether it is the point of the story to make an argument of some kind in that direction. We need to distinguish between details that are incidental to the telling of a story and the point the story is seeking to make. Think of Jesus’s story of the Good Samaritan, which pictured a man travelling the road between Jericho and Jerusalem, beaten by robbers, and left by the side of the road to die. The specifics of the story are incidental to the point Jesus wished to make. He could have set the scene on a different road, or had robbers beating a man in his house. He could have told a story in which the victims were a husband and wife, or three travelling companions. The priest and the Levite who leave the man dying by the side of the road could have been a Pharisee and a Sadducee. The Samaritan could have been a Roman soldier. These things are the background detail of the story. The meaning of the story is found by attention to the plot, the way it progresses and joins the dots together.
Similarly, when we turn to Genesis 2-3 we must avoid drawing significance from the background details of the story and instead focus on the ways the storyline is formed, characters developed and connections drawn. This is more art than science, and there will always be room for debate, but at least leaves us with a starting point.
Genesis 1, with its seven day structure building to the creation of humankind in God’s image on day six and the rest of God on day seven, establishes that the universe is the handiwork of a single, good and unrivalled God; that God has imbued creation with abundant, rich and diverse forms of life; and that humankind is granted a unique vocation and a unique status. The message that human beings are created in God’s image and likeness was nothing short of revolutionary. In a world where kings alone were described as the image and representative of their gods, Genesis 1 was a game-changer. If all are created in the image of God all must be treated with dignity and respect; all must be given access to the sufficiency of the earth; all must be granted opportunity to share in the governance of creation. Moreover Genesis 1 makes it clear that men and women alike bear the image and that men and women alike were given the commanded to fill the earth and to rule it.
For millennia we did our best to undo this. Jewish and Christian literature is filled with tortuous attempts to demonstrate that women are not really created in God’s image, or if they are, that they are so in a lesser way. And while we are thankfully rid of this notion today, women who embrace the glorious, liberating and downright audacious declaration of Genesis 1 that both women and men are created in God’s image, both commissioned to multiply and fill the earth and both commissioned to rule and subdue the earth, too often find that by the time the preacher is done with Genesis 2 the women are left responsible for the multiplying and the men for the ruling and subduing.
So what about Genesis 2-3? What is the Garden story trying to say? I think the structure and storyline allow us to say three things. First, the Garden story is one of a complex of four stories (the others being the Cain-Abel story, the flood story, and story of the Tower of Babel) that share a common pattern. In each story human beings are seduced by the desire to be gods/godlike. They turn away from their Creator and against each other. In each story God responds by exiling people from the places they belonged (Adam and Eve exiled from the Garden; Cain exiled from farmland; humanity from the earth; and the tower builders from the Plain of Shinar). God also creates a window of hope that humanity might continue, or even be restored. And so the four stories lead us to Genesis 12, the call of Abraham and promise that through him and his descendants all the families of the earth will be blessed.
A second way in is to look at the beginning and the ending of the Garden story and what occurs in between and to ask how these are connected. Genesis 2 begins with a world that is not yet able to sustain life, due to the absence of rain to water the ground and people to till the land. This is not the world in which humanity was to live. The man and woman are rather located in an oasis like garden. It is filled with trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food, and would remain that way as it had rivers that kept it watered and people to till the land. As the humans fulfil the command of Genesis 1 to multiply and fill the earth their tilling will presumably be matched with God sending rain and the garden will be extended outwards until it covers the earth, a global community enjoying the loving presence of a good and generous God whom they worship; with good, just and generous relationships with others; and who ensure the earth remains productive not only for humankind but for all God’s creatures.
Yet the story ends very differently. The woman and the man are seduced by the promise they can not only reflect God but be gods. They turn away from God and on each other before being expelled from the garden into the less-than-productive world. Yet they learned that even here God still loved them, provided for them, and held out the hope that humanity might one day live inside the garden again.
The meaning of the story trough this frame is to let us understand why we live “outside the garden” and to be restored to God.
A third frame of reference is suggested by striking or unusual movements in the text, such as the statement that “It is not good for the man to be alone.” In view of the constant “It is good” refrain through Genesis 1, “it is not good” screams “pay attention this”. Something significant is signalled. The man had been given but one task – to till and keep the earth – so it is presumably this for which he needed help. This is, I assume, an application of the commission to rule and subdue the earth found in Genesis 1. The man cannot complete the task on his own.
What type of helper does he need? The story soon makes this clear. God brings the animals to the man, who in the process of naming them is able to discern if any will be a suitable help. None can be found. God therefore takes part of the man and fashions a helper, a woman, from it. The man is overjoyed. “Here at last! Flesh of my flesh and bone of my bones.” What type of helper does the man need? Another human, someone who, unlike the animals is just like him.
The story concludes that “for this reason” men and women form marriages, new kinship units (which according to Gordon Wenham is what “becoming one flesh” most likely refers to). In our era we usually marry because we see in our partner someone with whom we can enjoy emotional intimacy and companionship. As valid as this may be it is not the reason for marriage given in Genesis 2. Here marriage is forged out of a recognition that we cannot fulfil God’s mandate to steward the earth on our own. If the point seems a little abstract, remember that when Genesis was composed Israel was a nation of small-scale farmers in which husband, wife and other family members toiled together to nurture the productivity of the earth. The argument of this story spoke directly to their circumstance.
These are the directions the story suggests to us. It is so tempting to harness it for our own purposes, for the egalitarian to discern egalitarian patterns as surely as the Complementarian discerns complementation patterns. I just can’t see that any of these are suggested by the text. Yes, one could read the description of Eve as “helper” to indicate Adam was to lead and Eve to follow, but this is neither required (is a teacher who helps a student learn thereby renders subordinate to the student?) and I cannot see any way this idea is taken up or developed within the story. It seems to me the stories simply aren’t interested in the questions we are bringing.
If the history of interpretation teaches us anything, it is that we ought to be very circumspect in how we use biblical stories. Once we shift from identifying their meaning via plot structure, textual interplays and character development we are cast adrift into a world where we can read any and every idea we might possibly like into the text. Those who have gone before us, including some of our greatest scholars and leaders, have neglected this and found in the creation stories the “clear teaching of God” that women are not created in God’s image, or are an inferior version of it; that women are less spiritually and morally reliable than men; that women are less intelligent than men; that it is women who are the destroyers of mankind; and more.
A final note
No doubt some will argue that they are taking their interpretive cues from 1 Corinthians 11 and 1 Timothy 2. The meaning of these texts and what is meant by reference to the order of creation of Adam and Eve is highly contested. It is a brave person who suggests they have any certainty as to what those texts tell us about the indicators of meaning in the creation stories., But this post is already very long and this question will need to be discussed at another times