Our church's current discussion of the role of women in the church has frequently raised the issue of functional or role differentiation within the context of ontological or created equality of being. Why should women submit to male headship when women are also created in the image of God (Gen. 1:27) and of equal worth before God (Gal. 3:28)? Doesn't the created equality of women mean that they should fill the same roles as men? It is often argued that there was no headship and submission, or other role differentiation, in the sinless conditions that prevailed before the Fall. There is much biblical and Spirit of Prophecy light that bears on this issue.
1. The Godhead
The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are equal, in fact, they are all one being. (Deut. 6:4; John 10:30; 12:45; 14:9) God the Son has existed from eternity. (Micah 5:2; John 1:1-3) Yet God the Son has submitted to God the Father, to do the father's will. Christ stated that he sought not his own will “but the will of my Father who sent me” (John 5:30). “I do nothing of Myself; but as My Father taught Me,” said Christ (John 8:28). Hence Paul can say, “The head of Christ is God” (1 Cor. 11:3).
God the Son, although being God, and equal with God the Father, “made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross” (Phil. 2:5-11). Jesus' submission to His Father's will extended to His bitter death on the cross: “And he said, Abba, Father, all things are possible unto thee; take away this cup from me. Nevertheless not what I will, but what thou wilt” (Mark 14:36). “Remove this cup from me; nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done” (Luke 22:42).
The Father's response to the Son's willing submission—even unto the death of the cross—is to exalt the Son: “Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:8-11).
Jesus' submission to the Father extends into eternity, even after the sin problem has been resolved: “Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he [Christ] must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. . . . Now when it says that 'everything' has been put under Him [the Son], it is clear that this does not include God himself [the Father] who put everything under Christ. When he has done this, then the Son himself will be made subject to Him [the Father] who put everything under Him, so that God may be all in all” (1 Cor. 15:24-28).
Not only does the Son's submission to the father extend into the future, it has always existed. The plan of salvation was always in the mind of God. The Son is the Lamb of God who was “slain from the foundation of the world” (Rev. 14:8).
The plan for our redemption was not an afterthought, a plan formulated after the fall of Adam. It was a revelation of “the mystery which hath been kept in silence through times eternal.” Rom. 16:25. It was an unfolding of the principles that from eternal ages have been the foundation of God's throne. GC 22
The principles revealed by the incarnation and death of God the Son—including the submission of the Son to the Father, even though both are co-eternal and both are God—have always been “the foundation of God's throne.”
2. The Angels
The angels are created beings that ranked below the Godhead but higher than man. (Heb. 2:7) They are organized, with different roles and different posts of duty:
The very highest angels in the heavenly courts are appointed to work out the prayers which ascend to God for the advancement of the cause of God. Each angel has his particular post of duty, which he is not permitted to leave for any other place. Ellen White, SDA Bible Commentary 4:1173; Lift Him Up, 370
There are ranks and orders, with commanding angels in charge of companies:
Many companies of holy angels, each with a tall commanding angel at their head, were sent to witness the scene . . . . It was difficult for the angels to endure the sight [of the scourging of Jesus]. They would have delivered Jesus, but the commanding angels forbade them. . . . There was commotion among the angels [when Jesus was insulted at His trial]. They would have rescued Him instantly; but their commanding angels restrained them. Ellen White, Early Writings, 167-170.
There is no sin among the holy angels of God, hence there cannot be force, compulsion or punishment. Rather, the angels submit to those in authority over them (the “commanding angels”) out of love for each other, for God and God's harmonious government. The society of the angels reflects a voluntary headship and submission within the atmosphere of heaven, in a fellowship untainted by sin.
3. The Human Race
In God's creation of the human family, we see the same pattern of role differentiation within the context of equality. Both male and female are created in the image of God. (Gen. 1:27) Eve was created as an ezer kenegdo, a helper suitable to Adam, meaning like him or comparable to him. (Gen. 2:18) This phrase includes both equality (kenegdo = like him or comparable to him) and role differentiation (ezer = helper). A helper does not have the primary responsibility for the task she is helping to perform; rather, the primary responsibility remains with the person being helped.
There is also differentiation and equality indicated by the order and manner of the creation of Adam and Eve. Adam was created first from the dust of the ground. (Gen. 2:7) That Adam was created first is significant in inferring role differentiation. (1 Tim. 2:13) Adam was placed in the Garden of Eden and told to tend and care for it. (Gen. 2:8, 15) He was also told about the tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil, and instructed not to eat from it. (Gen. 2:16-17) Because all of this happened before Eve was created, it is clear that Adam had the primary responsibility for tending the garden and for avoiding the sin represented by the tree and its fruit.
Eve was not created independently from the dust of the ground, as Adam was, but was created from Adam's rib. (Gen. 2:21-22) This fact is significant in inferring role differentiation. (1 Cor. 11:8) Eve was created for Adam, to be his helper and companion: “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.” (Gen. 2:18) That Eve was created for Adam also has significance in inferring role differentiation. (1 Cor. 11:9) And the fact that Eve was created from Adam's rib is significant in showing ontological or created equality. “Eve was created from a rib taken from the side of Adam, signifying that she was not to control him as the head, nor to be trampled under his feet as an inferior, but to stand by his side as an equal, to be loved and protected by him.” PP p. 46. The creation narrative shows that Adam and Eve were created equal, but with complementary roles.
The leadership role of Adam, and the complementary submissive role of Eve, are indicated by the following facts: 1) Adam was created first; 2) Adam was given primary responsibility for the garden; 3) Adam was given primary responsibility for avoiding the tree of knowledge of good and evil; 4) Adam was given the task of naming the animals (Gen. 2:19-20); 5) Eve was created out of Adam; 6) Eve was created as a helper for Adam; and 7) Adam spoke first upon the creation of Eve and named Eve (Gen. 2:23).
Interestingly, a role reversal, in which Eve was assertive and dominant while Adam was passive and submissive, led directly to the Fall.1 This reversal of roles can be seen in the narrative of Genesis 3. Eve left her husband's side, presuming that she had sufficient wisdom and strength, on her own, to discern and resist any evil. (PP 53-54) Independently of Adam, Eve entered into a dialogue with the serpent, unwisely taking it on herself to deal alone with this intruder into the garden. Then Eve, without consulting Adam, took the fruit and ate it. (Gen. 3:1-6) Eve further asserted herself by taking some of the forbidden fruit to Adam, urging him to eat of it. (Gen. 3:6; PP 56) In passive submission to Eve's enthusiastic directive, Adam ate the forbidden fruit.
Ellen White implies that Eve overstepped her assigned sphere in those fateful actions leading up to the Fall of mankind:
Eve had been perfectly happy by her husband's side in her Eden home; but, like restless modern Eves, she was flattered with the hope of entering a higher sphere than that which God had assigned her. In attempting to rise above her original position, she fell far below it. A similar result will be reached by all who are unwilling to take up cheerfully their life duties in accordance with God's plan. PP 59
But Adam bore the ultimately responsibility for allowing Eve to usurp his leadership role. Before Eve was even created, Adam had been warned of the forbidden fruit and charged to avoid eating it. Thus, it was clearly Adam's responsibility to exercise leadership with regard to the tree of knowledge of good and evil. He knew or should have known that he was not at liberty to yield to his wife on this matter. Accordingly, in pronouncing sentence upon him, God rebuked Adam for surrendering his leadership responsibility to Eve: “Because you listened to your wife and ate the fruit from the tree . . .” (Gen. 3:17)
The primacy and headship of Adam is clearly indicated by the fact that the Fall was not consummated when Eve ate the fruit, but only when Adam ate it. Nothing happened when Eve at the fruit: “Eve was before him, as beautiful and apparently as innocent as before this act of disobedience. She expressed greater love for him than before. No sign of death appeared in her, . . .” (PP 57). Only after Adam ate the fruit did the pair feel the loss of their robes of light, in response to which they sewed fig leaves together to make rudimentary clothing for themselves (Gen. 3:7; PP 57). Moreover, Ellen White indicates that God would have created a replacement for Eve had Adam resisted her pitch and refused to eat the fruit (PP 56). Clearly, it was Adam's sin in his headship role that plunged the race into its long nightmare with sin and degradation; Eve's sin alone would not have brought about the Fall.
This is consonant with the New Testament Witness. “Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned . . . Nevertheless, death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses, even over those who did not sin by breaking a command, as did Adam, who is a pattern of the one to come” (Rom. 5:12-14). Sin entered the world through one man, not one woman. “For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive” (1 Cor. 15:22). The legacy of death comes down to us from Adam.
After the Fall, God pronounced a sentence of male “rulership,” something beyond mere leadership: “Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you” (Gen. 3:16). But this explicit decree of rulership does not mean that there was no implicit headship and submission prior to the Fall. We have seen many inspired indicators that there were roles for Adam and Eve before the Fall, roles that were part of the created order. But in the absence of sin, the role differentiation between Adam and Eve would have been like that seen in the Godhead or among the holy angels; it would have been willing, loving submission among equals, with no hint of disharmony, strife or compulsion. Before the entrance of sin, Adam was never called upon to “rule” or exercise “rulership” over Eve, but Adam clearly was called to primacy, and loving servant-leadership, as part of the created order.
Headship and submission are part of the fabric of the universe. They are present in the Godhead. They are present among the unfallen angels. They were present in the perfect creation of the parents of the human race. The great Creator made Adam and Eve equal, but assigned them different roles. The refusal of Lucifer to be content with the role and station assigned him was the very “mystery of iniquity” by which sin entered the universe. Eve's refusal to live within the sphere assigned her, and her usurpation of Adam's leadership role, led to the Fall of the human race.
Scripture provides no support for those who argue that before the Fall there prevailed interchangeability of gender roles. To the contrary, Bible history plainly teaches that sex roles have always existed, and indeed were part of the created order. Beyond that, Scripture contains the most poignant imaginable cautionary tale against trying to reverse that order.
1. I am indebted to John W. Peters, a fellow member of the Theology of Ordination Study Committee, for the observation of role reversal in the Fall.