Misreading Eve, part 1: Our Vocabulary of Gender

As we start to build our Christian feminism, at the outset, many of us will be driven to examine the Scriptures. Because orthodox Christian theology views the Bible as inspired by God, inerrant, and useful for understanding the heart and mind of God, we will also begin our discussion there.

In the first post of this series, I gave a few caveats about how we will navigate our conversation. In looking at Scripture, it occurs to me that beginning with Eve may be our biggest challenge. Eve is perhaps one of the most controversial, misunderstood, and mischaracterized people in the Bible. Her story is fascinating and complicated in its simplicity. Many people have attempted to add flesh to the character and in so doing, have created a whole world of non-biblical mythology. Scholars, feminists, pastors, teachers, preachers: everyone seems to have a perspective on what went down in the garden and who was to blame.

Before we dive into the biblical text of Genesis, I thought we could open with an introduction of terms. Most of the Protestant teaching on Eve that I’ve been exposed to falls into one of two camps: complementarian and egalitarian. I know that there are more gender theories out there, but for our purposes I will focus on these because they are so prevalent in our faith communities. I generally resist dichotomies, so I’m not going to get into all the pros and cons of both, but suffice it to say I find both lines of thinking inadequate. I won’t go into the teaching of these two at length, but I’m posting resources if you’d like to explore the perspectives as presented by the people who hold them:

  • Complementarian: As male and female, Adam and Eve were created to complement one another. This camp argues that the Bible maintains a typically hierarchical-ordered relationship between men and women and that male and female are distinct, with distinctive roles/functions in society (though some complementarians disagree about how those prescribed differences affect familial roles, participation in church leadership, and position in society).  http://cbmw.org/
  • Gender essentialism: the idea that gender is prescribed by the sex of a person at birth and should not/cannot be changed or interpreted by the individual or society
  • Egalitarianism: As male and female, Adam and Eve were created as partners, but without distinctly prescribed roles. Though the Scripture describes hierarchical and patriarchal societies, the roles of men and women were cultural in the text, and not necessarily endorsed or assigned by God. Adam and Eve were equally made in the image of God and the new covenant creation of the Church reinforces that equality.  http://www.cbeinternational.org/
  • Gender constructionism: the idea that gender is a social construct and most of our ideas about what is male/masculinity and female/femininity are culturally, even arbitrarily, assigned to one sex or the other

There are a few other terms that might be helpful in understanding how both of these camps fall short, in my view. For my purposes in this ongoing discussion, I’m going to distinguish between sex and gender, though many sources use them interchangeably or differently than I will.* (See why I have a hard time accepting whole theories? We can’t even completely agree on terms.)

  • Sex: a description assigned by the presence of certain biological traits (chromosomes or reproductive organs)

    *I will be using sex to refer to the biological determination.

  • Gender: may be used to describe the sex of a person, but it may also be used to describe the expression of a person’s sex

    *I will be using gender to refer to the social construct, but occasionally may use it to refer to the biological, so forgive me any inconsistencies. Remember, as in everything, CONTEXT is key.

As you will learn through this series, I am more of an “and” person than an “either/or” person. This is one of my biggest challenges with these discussions on sex and gender. Adam and Eve present an opportunity to see humanity as two essential types: male and female. Yet the account is limited to two people created at a time when humanity was TWO PEOPLE big. Today we have billions of people, more than 7 billion in fact. We have people who genetically or socially do not fit neatly into a gender binary (another term). Genetically, we know that all the sexes are different, but how do we determine which expressions are nature and which are nurture? Can that be determined? If so, at what point do alternative expressions of gender or sex have moral implications? Should society in any way attempt to influence a person’s gender expression?

"Scholastic" should be in sarcasm quotes

“Scholastic” might be the publisher, but the word itself  should be in sarcasm quotes

These are big questions to which I have few and fluid answers. I don’t think that means we should avoid the questions. I do think it means we have to be slow, deliberate people who are quick to listen and slow to speak about these subjects. We’ve done a lot of damage in these conversations. We will do more in well-meaning attempts to understand and be understood. As a Church, we have to find a way to address these realities in our world without simultaneously suggesting certain people don’t or shouldn’t exist. We must find a way to open our minds and hearts to the reality that the Bible and science can give us guidance in these matters, but neither can answer every question under heaven.

I invite you to look into the links above and begin to ask yourself a few gut-check questions in anticipation of our study of Eve. Let’s be open to seeing new things in the Scriptures and allowing God to reveal more of Himself to us.

  1. Do either of these “camps” resonate with what I’ve been taught in churches?
  2. Do either of these “camps” appeal to my views about gender and sex?
  3. Are there places in these conversations where I’ve felt personally hurt or attacked?
  4. Have my views on these topics kept me from embracing the person God made me to be or the things God has called me to do?
  5. How might my current view or the teaching I’ve been exposed to limit my ability to interact with people who think or behave differently than me?



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