What are the Roles of Men and Women toward Each Other and in Society?

Man + Woman = Confusion?

There are few issues so hotly debated in today’s society as the roles of men and women toward each other and in society. The arguments range all the way from those who maintain that man is created to rule and woman to serve, to those who maintain that there are no significant differences between men and women besides the physical differences required for human reproduction. In other words, we humans are mightily confused about the roles of women and men!Traditionalists in the largely Christian parts of the world often point to the Bible in support of their view that man is meant to be in charge and woman is meant to serve man. But a look at how men and women were first created tells a slightly different story!

In many ways, the roles of men and women have not changed all that much over the centuries. Yet today, in this era of change, one thing is new: both women and men have far more choice as to what roles they will play and what they will devote their lives to. The grip of church and state on our personal lives has loosened—and this opens up new possibilities for how men and women will relate to one another, and how we will each contribute to society.

How to Get into Trouble

Want to get someone mad? Just publicly say anything definite about the differences between men and women, and someone will get mad! The relationship between women and men and their roles in society has been a touchy subject for well over a century now.

That’s not surprising. Our gender is a core part of who we are. We identify ourselves as male or female, and that colors everything we think, feel, say, and do. If we are confused about our sexual identity, it spreads confusion over our whole life. And when we feel blocked or trapped because of our sex, it can create intense frustration and anger. Why should our whole life be determined by whether we happened to be born male or female?

When it comes to religion, gender roles are an especially loaded issue. It’s one thing if we humans have set up a system in which there are certain expectations of women and different expectations of men. But if our religion says that God has set things up so that women and men are obliged to play certain roles, it takes the struggle over this issue to a whole new level. Many people have rejected Christianity over this very issue.

Can we say anything at all about gender roles from a Christian perspective and not just get people mad? Let’s give it a try, and see how we do.

Ancient Views of Men and Women

In today’s society, gender roles are in flux. Many women are out in the workforce doing traditionally male jobs. Men are often reluctant to take on traditionally female roles, yet many men find themselves serving as caregivers, or taking orders from female bosses at work.

For many centuries and in many cultures, the roles of men and women were much more distinct. Men were in charge and women served them. Women bore children, cared for them, and did most of their work in and around the household and the neighborhood. Men worked out in the wider world, interacting with the larger society and engaging in its business. Men provided for and protected the households and communities where the women engaged in their duties and raised the children. When the men returned home from their labors and their battles, women took care of their needs.

These roles of men and women toward each other and in society have been consistent enough throughout enough of history that they may seem to have been ordained by God from the beginning.

What does the Bible say about this?

The Bible has had a profound influence on Western views about the roles of men and women. Yet what we find in the first three chapters of Genesis may surprise you. It is true that in the Bible story women soon become subservient to men. But that’s not how it was from the beginning. Let’s take a closer look.

From Genesis 1 to Genesis 3

Many Christians look to the creation of Eve from Adam in Genesis 2 as the story that defines the relationship between men and women. Yet that story is put second, after the initial creation story in Genesis 1, for a reason.

It helps to understand that these early chapters of the Bible were not originally written to be taken as literal accounts of historical events. Instead, like the myths of many cultures, they are stories that speak of the spiritual origins and journeys of humankind using a symbolic language that reads on the surface like primeval history in poetic form.

From a literary perspective, Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 were not originally meant to be read sequentially. Each is a self-contained creation myth telling its own story. These two ancient creation stories were collected from two different oral traditions, written down, and placed one after the other in the Bible. Despite the valiant efforts of Biblical literalists to harmonize the two as if they were two different angles on same story, they simply don’t agree with each other in the overall order in which God created things or in the details of exactly how God created the earth and all the plants, animals, and humans that populate it.

From a symbolic and spiritual perspective, though, the two stories harmonize perfectly. They are like two different verses of the same song. The story of the seven days of creation in Genesis 1 and the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden in Genesis 2 represent two different phases of human spiritual and social development, one following after the other.

With this in mind, let’s look at the first three chapters of Genesis with a specific eye to men, women, and their relationship to each other and to God.

Genesis 1: Man and Woman are Created Equal

In Genesis 1, the creation of man and woman comes on day six. It is so compact that it would be easy to pass right over it without noticing the specific meaning contained in it. Here are the words from Genesis 1:26–27:

Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and over all the earth, and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” And God created humankind in his image; in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.

Did you notice it? When men and women were first created by God, they were created equally in the image of God, and both together were to rule over everything on earth. Men and women were originally created equal.

However, that early stage of equality in which “God saw everything he made, and indeed it was very good” (Genesis 1:31) did not last.

Genesis 2: Woman as a Helper and Partner for Man

In the second creation story, God also creates humankind—though in Genesis 2 the same Hebrew word is sometimes translated as “man” or “humankind” and sometimes as the name “Adam.” If we read these stories as spiritually symbolic rather than as literally descriptive, it all makes sense.

After each day of creation in Genesis 1 God pronounces the things he has made that day “good.” The first thing in the Bible that God says is not good is found in Genesis 2:18: “And the Lord God said, ‘It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper for him as his partner.’” This helper, of course, turned out to be Eve, who was created out of a rib taken from Adam while he slept (Genesis 2:21–23). We can gather two points from this story:

  1. In Genesis 2, the original equality of man and woman in Genesis 1 gives way to a situation in which woman is assigned to be a helper and companion to man.
  2. This takes place only after humanity fell away from the original “very good” state that God created us in, into a state in which something was “not good.”

But even this shift toward some inequality in the relationship between man and woman is mild compared to what happens next.

Genesis 3: Woman Ruled by Man

In Genesis 3 things go seriously wrong. You know the story. The serpent tempts Eve. Eve eats from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and gives some to her husband, who also eats. Having disobeyed God’s direct order not to eat from that tree, Adam and Eve are expelled from the Garden of Eden . . . but not before both they and the serpent have received harsh words from God.

What God says to Eve includes these words: “Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you” (Genesis 3:16).

“Aha!” say the traditionalists. “God did say that man should rule over woman.”

Not exactly. God said that because Eve had disobeyed God by eating from that (symbolic) tree, her husband would rule over her.

In other words, the thousands of years of history in which woman has been ruled by man are a result of humankind willfully disobeying God, and falling away from the kind of life for which God originally created us. In Genesis 1 God created man and woman to be equal. It was when humankind progressed first to things that were not good in Genesis 2, and then to open rebellion against God in Genesis 3, that the sexes fell from their original equality to a state of inequality.

The rest of the Bible, both the Old Testament and the New Testament, speak to humans who are in that fallen state. Accordingly, much of the Bible treats woman as subservient to man.

A Choice of Roles

Yes, most of the Bible presents rather traditional roles for women and for men. Yet our walk through the first few chapters of Genesis shows that the God of the Bible offers—and even prefers—other possibilities.

What it boils down to in practical terms is that the Bible gives us choices in our roles. Those choices are on a sliding scale from God’s original will right down to what we humans do when we’ve mucked things up pretty badly. Depending on where we fall on that scale, we can use any one of the three general role arrangements presented in the first three chapters of Genesis—and whatever variations on them that we may come up with.

Some people prefer a traditional setup in which men are in charge and women serve them. In this setup men provide and protect while women care for the home, the children, and their husbands. If everyone involved is happy with this arrangement, who’s to say it’s wrong? It can be very satisfying for both the women and the men if both take their responsibilities seriously and there is mutual respect.

Some people prefer a little more equality. Perhaps the woman’s life does revolve around the man’s more than the other way around. She sees herself as his helper and partner. She has a greater role in making joint decisions, and likely works part-time outside the home, adding her part-time pay to her husband’s full-time pay to make up the total family income. This, too, can be satisfying for both the women and the men if there is mutual respect and both take responsibility for their own contributions.

And some people prefer full equality, in which all major decisions are made jointly, the income is more or less equal between the two, and both have their tasks and duties within as well as outside the home. There may still be a division of labor based on the types of things each prefers to do—though that division of labor may sometimes involve a reversal of the usual male and female roles. Whatever tasks each takes on, these will be equally valued, and neither the man nor the woman will be seen as primary. Each will be an equal half of the whole.

Perhaps the biggest difference is that today, especially in the West, instead of the church or state imposing particular roles, both women and men have choices about what roles they wish to take.

Man + Woman = Completeness

The biological and social evidence so far suggests that even when there is no external pressure, women and men will freely choose varying roles in marriage and in society. And even when doing the same jobs, men and women tend to approach things differently. These different approaches often do follow the traditional view of men taking a more intellectual and goal-oriented approach while women take a more emotional and relationship-oriented approach.

Does this mean that men can’t feel and women can’t think? Obviously not. That idea comes from an old, one-dimensional view of men, women, and their relationship to one another. Women excel in colleges and universities, and men can be quite passionate about life and relationships.

Let’s look at it a different way. Physically, women and men have almost all the same body parts, but with subtle differences. In particular, both have heads, hearts, and hands. Both can think, feel, and accomplish things. But the way each thinks, feels, and goes about doing things is different, just as the heads, hearts, and hands of men and women are different.

Here’s an idea to take home with you: Hidden away within a man is a love and passion that drives him to accomplish his goals, great or small. But he tends to express himself outwardly in cooler, more intellectual and mechanical ways. Meanwhile, the intellect that a man presents outwardly a woman holds inwardly as a wisdom that can give her deep insight into human minds and hearts. But she tends to express herself outwardly in warmer, more emotional and relational ways. Like the ancient symbol of yin and yang, one hides inwardly what the other expresses outwardly.

And also like the yin and yang, we are not complete individually or as a society without the presence and contributions of both male and female. Yes, sometimes man plus woman does equal confusion. But from a deeper perspective, man plus woman equals completeness.

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