When you hear the term “gender roles,” your first thoughts may be of gender stereotypes. This may bring to mind ideas such as women raise the kids and take care of the home while men are the “breadwinners.” Or guys enjoy physical pastimes like sports and girls like dolls, fashion, and dance. You might associate gender roles with past eras of history and the “traditional family.” Or you might think about modern tendencies to break stereotypes: women can work outside the home, men can show emotion, and so on. You may believe that gender roles are antiquated.
Perhaps there is no significant difference between a man’s role and a woman’s role. Our culture today vacillates between minimizing the differences between men and women and insisting that the differences are so significant that you may even need to change your gender to “feel like yourself.” Our world has not provided consistent messaging about what it means to be a man or a woman—at least, not recently!
For Christians, Scripture does provide consistent messaging about what it means to be a man or a woman. God has created men and women with specific roles in mind, but they are not necessarily the roles that our world associates with men and women. God’s design does not fall neatly into a set of gender stereotypes or culturally determined roles. In human history, all of our cultures and civilizations have fallen short of perfection, so the only place we can turn to and see the ideal roles for men and women is God’s Word. When God created Adam and Eve, He gave them to each other in the context of a relationship, and within that relationship, they were given the roles of head and helper.
The Head and the Helper
In the garden, Adam is given primary responsibility for carrying out God’s commission to “be fruitful and multiply ... and have dominion” (Genesis 1:28). We see this because Adam is created first, he is given the instruction not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and when Eve takes the fruit and they both eat, God calls to Adam first to give an account of what has happened. The role of the head is to take responsibility for God’s creation and to lead those under his authority into dependence on God.
Before God creates Eve, He says, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him” (Genesis 2:18). This word helper points to Eve’s role. The Hebrew word etzer, which translates “helper,” is most often used in Scripture to describe God’s intervention on behalf of His people. Therefore, this role that is given to Eve is an important, powerful, and necessary one. Eve’s task is to help Adam to carry out God’s commission well. He cannot do it without her.
It’s Not about Us
In our book, Male and Female: Embracing Your Role in God’s Design, my husband and I explore why the value of the helper role can be challenging to accept:
It can be hard for men and women alike to appreciate that honor and dignity are equally given to both the head and helper roles, given that we are fully immersed in a world that does not see these roles as equal in value. Consider what the first sin was: Adam and Eve sinned by wanting to be God. They desired to take God’s Headship by force and have no one in authority over them. This is still the fundamental sin we all struggle with—the desire to be our own god and have no one to whom we must submit. (Male and Female, 36)
The roles that God gives to men and women, especially within marriage, serve to point us to Christ. In Ephesians 5:22–33, we learn that marriage is in fact a picture of Christ and the Church. When we see men and women living according to their God-given roles, this provides a picture of Christ’s self-sacrificing redemptive work on the cross and the Church’s submission to His headship and willingness to serve alongside Him as He makes all things new in our world.
Both Roles Image the Gospel
In 1 Corinthians we read,
The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. The spiritual person judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one. “For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct Him?” But we have the mind of Christ.
(1 Corinthians 2:14–16)
When we embrace God’s design for men and women and the roles that He has given each of us in our various vocations, we are living our lives according to God’s will. The role of head reflects God’s good and selfless authority. Just as Jesus came down to earth to do what Adam failed to do and to offer His own life for ours, headship is a calling of servant-leadership. The helper role reminds us that we have a God who intervenes in our world in a powerful and necessary way. None of the world’s attempts to define masculinity or femininity quite capture the significance of the original created design. When we think about “gender roles,” we do not need to worry so much about what is “proper for a boy or a girl to do,” or about rights and privileges, but rather who has God called us to be as men and women, and how the unique and beautiful roles that God has given us image Him to those around us.
To dig deeper into the biblical basis for the roles of head and helper, order Male and Female: Embracing Your Role in God’s Design.