Blogging the Institutes–1.9.1–The Spirit Speaks Through the Word, Not Apart From It

“Blogging the Institutes” is my on-going attempt to paraphrase John Calvin’s work, the Institutes of the Christian Religion. You can find out more about the series in the Introduction. For all the posts in this series, check out the Master List

The Spirit Speaks Through the Word, Not Apart From It

Some people reject Scripture in favor of some other way of connecting with God. I don’t just call them wrong; I call them insane! Certain giddy people have come on the scene and make a big deal about the Holy Spirit. But they end up pitting the Spirit against the Scriptures and reject all readings of Scripture. They criticize those who delight in reading Scripture by calling Scripture the “dead letter.” I want them to answer this question, however: “What ‘spirit’ inspires them to demean the Scriptures?” If they answer that it is the Spirit of Christ, they are exceedingly ridiculous. They must admit that the apostles and other believers in the early church were not illuminated by any other Spirit, except the Spirit of Christ. None of them despised the Scriptures. In fact, they showed great reverence for them.

Indeed, it was foretold by the prophet Isaiah: “ ‘As for Me, this is My covenant with them,’ says the Lord: ‘My Spirit which is upon you, and My words which I have put in your mouth shall not depart from your mouth, nor from the mouth of your offspring, nor from the mouth of your offspring’s offspring,’ says the Lord, ‘from now and forever.’” (59:11). Isaiah shows that the people of God would not only be ruled by the Spirit but also the Word. It is Word and Spirit together. Therefore, these false teachers tear apart what God has joined together. Furthermore, even though the apostle Paul was carried up to the third heaven in a vision, he still profited spiritually from the Law and the Prophets. He also exhorts Timothy to give attention to the reading of Scripture (1 Timothy 4:13). Paul’s words concerning Scripture must be remembers: Scripture is “profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, and for instruction in righteousness so that the man of God may be complete, fully equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17).

Therefore, it is devilish to claim that Scripture plays only a temporary and transient role in the formation of God’s people. Again, I want those people to tell them whether they have taken in any other “spirit” than the Spirit which Christ promised to His disciples. Though their foolishness is extreme, it will barely hold up in scrutiny. But what kind of Spirit did our Savior promise to send us? A Spirit who would not speak for Himself, but only the truth which He would speak through the Word (John 16:13). Therefore, the Holy Spirit doesn’t invent new doctrines or give us new truths which will lead us away from the gospel, but rather, He seals upon our minds the very doctrine which is taught in Scripture.


A Theology of Sex and Gender–Pt. 6–Consummation

This is the sixth installment of A Theology of Sex and Gender. Parts: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5


 God’s plan begins with man and woman living in His sacred space (Garden of Eden) under His rule (Genesis 1:26-28; 2:15-24). This is the kingdom of God. United in marriage, the man and the woman are “living pictures” of the coming union between Christ and His people (Ephesians 5:31-32). Human marriage not only testifies to the current reality of Christ’s relationship to His people, but also looks forward to the complete consummation of God’s plan in eternity. In the new creation, Christ will feast with His bride at the marriage supper of the lamb (Revelation 19:7-10). In the new creation, the dwelling place of God will be among humanity. The new humanity will be His people, and He will be their God. The two will become “one flesh” in a sense that God presence is now no longer hindered to the church because of her sin (Revelation 21:1-8).

Marriage in the New Creation

Before tackling that question of gender in the new creation, an easier question to answer would be: “Will there be marriage in heaven?” The Bible teaches us that  there will be no longer any human marriages in the new creation. Jesus argues that in the new creation people will neither “marry” or “be given in marriage.” Instead, believers will be like the angels in heaven (Matthew 22:29-30). Jesus seems to be saying that marriage as we know it won’t exist.[1] Scripture gives us a principle for interpreting itself: when the reality comes, the shadow passes away (Hebrews 10:1). Applying this principle to the issues of marriage, it shows us that when the reality comes (Christ) then the human institution of marriage passes away because it has reached its fulfillment. The picture (human marriage) is not the end-all, be-all. Christ is.

Sexuality and Gender in the New Creation

So what about gender? Will it pass away also since marriage will pass away in the new creation?  A likely answer is “no” for the following reasons. God created two sexes even before uniting men and women in marriage. So although marriage is a picture of the gospel and will pass away, it seems that our inherent humanness represented as male and female will persist into the new creation.

Furthermore, the Bible gives us very concrete, physical pictures of the new creation. The Old Testament, especially, gives us images of people building houses, eating and drinking, and even infants being born (Isaiah 65:17-23; cf. Zechariah 1:17; 2:4; Amos 9:11-15). Although God’s people are “one” in this new creation, the Old Testament seems to indicate that ethnic Gentiles will retain their ethnic identity alongside ethnic Jews (Isaiah 19:24-25; 66:19-20). Being “one” in Christ as Galatians 3:28 says does not obliterate the distinct way that God created us ethnically. There seems to indications in Revelation that ethnicity prevails in the new creation (Revelation 7:9; 21:24-26). If ethnicity continues into the new creation, it seems reasonable to conclude that our gender will not be done away with either.

Now, some complementarians argue that the principle of male headship continues into the new creation.[2] I believe this is mistaken. The Bible speaks of husband headship over the wife, not male headship over the woman. Thus, the authority-submission dynamic between husbands and wives will cease because the marriage relationship will receive its terminus in the coming of Christ and His consummated relationship with His people. Furthermore, in the consummation all people (whether male or female) are considered the “bride” and the “wife” and so all people (whether male or female) will be eternally submissive to the true husband, Christ.

As Wendy Aslup writes:

While the categories of male and female endure into the New Creation, the earthly roles of being husbands and wives do not. Or to be more eschatologically accurate, these earthly roles are finally fulfilled. Our earthly marriages—and the submission that happens within them—are but mere shadows of the one great marriage between Christ and His bride that will exist for all eternity. As our roles shift from being individual husbands and wives so too will the submission that flows from our individual relationships. As the collective Bride of Christ, we will all submit to Jesus as our Bridegroom. Christ remains the head of both man and woman. His supremacy (which Philippians 2 tells us is the direct result of his obedience to the Father) will govern our relationships with each other, male and female alike.

In God’s great design, He has made us to as complex creatures, able to glorify Him a multitude of ways both with our genders and with our marriages for those of us who are married. In all things, glory to God.

[1] Carson, Matthew 13-28, 461.

[2] Walton, “Roles and Relationships in the New Creation,” 15.

A Theology of Sex and Gender–Pt. 5–Church

This is the fifth installment of A Theology of Sex and Gender. Parts: 1, 2, 3, 4.

God created men and women in His image (Genesis 1:26-27). He also typically unites them in marriage for one lifetime under His rules (Genesis 2:18-24). Unfortunately, due to sin, all people now live in a corrupted world where they are sinners by nature and by choice. Naturally, the harmful effects of sin have infected and distorted sexuality and gender.

God often regulates the realities of living in a post-Fall world through His people, Israel. Although Israel did not often live up to the ideal of God’s design and purposes, God made concessions due to their hard-heartedness and sinfulness. Divorce was one such concession as even Jesus Himself acknowledges (Matthew 19:4-5). Jesus set the pattern for the church’s engagement with broken sexuality: affirm God’s good design while also recognizing the reality of living in a broken world.


The book of Acts begins with Jesus going up, the Spirit coming down, and the church going out. As the church began to grow, the apostle wrote God-inspired Scripture to guide the church. Under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the apostle Paul reveals that marriage points to the grand mystery of the universe: the relationship between Christ and His bride, the church (Eph. 5:22-33). Marriage’s importance, then, lies in the fact that it primarily  a picture pointing to Christ and the church. Therefore, tampering with God’s design for marriage tampers with the gospel message it proclaims. In very real sense, the marriage of Christians is the loudest gospel message that they preach.[1]

Marriage and Gender Roles

If marriage is a picture of Christ and the church, how should Christian marriage be practically worked out? In the text, we see the principles of headship given to husbands and submission given to wives (5:22-25). The important thing to remember, however, is that these are “roles.” Maleness and femaleness speak to our human essence, whereas husband and wife are designation as roles. So a woman who acts in the wifely role must submit to her own husband. The Bible’s teaching is not of submission of all women to all men, but of the submission of one woman to one man, her husband. The Bible texts make this very clear as most of them speak of the wife submitting to her own husband:

“Wives be subject to your own husbands as to the Lord” (Eph. 5:22)

“Wives, be subject to your husbands as is fitting in the Lord” (Col. 3:18)

“Encourage the young wives [to be] subject to their own husbands” (Titus 1:4-5)

“Wives, be submissive to your own husbands” (1 Peter 3:1)

Therefore, the dynamic of authority-submission is given in the relationship of husband and wife, not in the essence of male and female. This has important implications for both the church and society. First of all, it shows that women need to be less submissive to the wider male-dominated culture. Women need to stop submitting to men in general, except to their husbands. Women also submit to the elders in the church, not because the elders are male, but because God has commanded all of the congregation to obey its leaders (Hebrews 13:17). Second, the church needs to be wise and judicious about speaking about gender roles in the wider culture. The Bible doesn’t really address what men and women can do in the wider culture. Can a woman be President? Can a father be a ballet dancer? These are questions which the New Testament is not concerned with.

Study of Ephesians 5:22-33

 The most prominent text in the debate over gender roles, especially within marriage, is in Ephesians 5:22-33. The egalitarian[2] position on Ephesians 5:22-33 usually lands on one of two major positions on the passage: the exegetical or the applicational (Although Andrew Wilson see “five forms” of egalitarians, I generally have boiled his conclusions down to two). Some egalitarians argue that exegetically, the passage isn’t speaking of a hierarchy in marriage, but actually speaks of mutual submission in marriage. For example, many of these kinds of egalitarians would read the word “head” in 5:23-24 to mean “source” rather than “authority over.” Thus, Paul is not really saying that the husband is the authority over his life, but rather the “source” of the wife (cf. 1 Cor. 11:12).

Other egalitarians admit that some sense of authority and “headship” is found in the original meaning of the text. They argue, however, that the text applies to the contemporary church in a different way than it did in Paul’s day. It may have meant that Paul was re-enforcing the cultural paradigm of his day, but it doesn’t apply the same way into a modern, Western, egalitarian context. Although the issue of application can be a difficult one, it is first important to understand what the text meant in its original context.

Ephesians 5:22-33 in the Wider Flow of the Book. The book of Ephesians focuses on “identity formation” for the people of God.[3] In other words, Paul is not responding to dysfunction within the church like many of his other letters do (e.g. Corinthians and Galatians). Rather, Paul exposits what Christ has done for believers and their status now that they are “in Christ” (1:4-13). The book breaks down fairly neat into three chapters of theology (1-3) and three chapters of Christians living (4-6). Chapters four through six are concerned with living in light of the gospel and walking in a “worthy manner” (4:1). Paul then shows what the new life looks like (4:17-32). Believers should also walk in love, light, and wisdom (5:1-21). Being filled with the Spirit looks like encouraging one another and submitting to one another (5:18-21). In this context of the Spirit-filled life does Paul begin his foray into an exposition of Christian marriage.[4]

Exposition of Ephesians 5:22-33. The main point of Ephesians 5:22-33 is that marriage is a great mystery. The great mystery of marriage is that it points beyond itself to Christ’s relationship with the church (5:32). It is in this context where Paul instructs wives to be subject to their own husbands while husbands out to love their wives. We must pay careful attention to the way Paul upholds common cultural conventions of his day but also infuses them with new meaning as well.[5] In other words, there is both continuity and discontinuity with the surrounding culture for Paul. It is true that the Ancient Near Eastern and Greco-Roman culture was largely patriarchal. And it is very difficult to escape the fact that Paul had some kind of “hierarchal” notion in his mind. For Paul and many of the other biblical writers, they were very concerned with submission to one’s authority. Slaves should be subject to masters (Eph. 6:5-8; Col. 3:22-25; 1 Peter 2:18-25), citizens subject to the government (Rom. 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-17), children submissive to parents (Ephesians 6:1-3; 3:20), and congregations should submit to their leaders (Hebrews 13:17). It is no surprise then to see the biblical writers, Paul especially, advocating for wives to be submissive to their husbands. There is definite continuity with the larger culture of his day.

Headship, however, is given Christian content in Paul’s writing. The man is not be domineering and controlling. Rather, he is to love his wife just as Christ loved the church through His sacrificial death (5:25). Husbands are to love their wives like themselves (5:28). They should love and care for their wives just like they love and care for their own bodies (5:28-29). A husband who will lay his life down for the betterment of his wife will certainly be worth submitting to! So there is definitely a sense of discontinuity with the wider culture for Paul too. It’s not just that men are head over their wives (which the ANE culture would have affirmed) but that they are also to show this headship through sacrificial love (which cuts against the grain of the world).

Even more profound, however, is that Paul grounds the wife’s submission in a trans-cultural reality.[6] The wife should be submissive to her own husband because the husband is her head just like “Christ is the head of the church” (5:23). Christ being the head of the church does not change based upon time period of cultural context. The church is always “subject to Christ” in every time period and in every culture (5:24). Therefore, wives should be subject to their husbands. This would not be the first or last time that Paul ground his argument in a trans-cultural reality. When he wrote 1 Timothy, Paul also appeals to the creation narrative for showing why women should not serve in the role of elder (1 Timothy 2:12-14).

Does Ephesians 5:22-33 Apply Today? So does the passage speak to today’s church? And if so, how? Thankfully, a large consensus has been reached concerning applying Scripture called “principilizing.”[7] The goal of principilizing to find the theological “principle” standing behind a passage of Scripture and bring that into the new context.[8] Actually, the application of Ephesians 5:22-33 is actually quite straight forward since Paul grounds his argument in redemption realities which do not change. As argued before, wives are to be subject to their husbands because their submission is grounded in the reality that Christ is head over the church. Furthermore, the call of husbands to love their wives also stands the test of time. If wives are no longer bound to be submissive to their husbands, are husbands no longer bound to love their wives? Such a conclusion would be considered nonsense and rightly so. This leads us, however, to the conclusion that wifely submission is still appropriate in the current cultural context as well.

Applying Ephesians 5:22-33 Today

 It is must be said that the while the commands of Ephesians 5:22-33 still apply to Christian marriages today, they are also quite general. The Bible does not give specifics about if a woman can work outside the home, or even what kind of work she can do. Since the command in Scripture is given in general, it seems most wise for pastors and theologians to preach the command in a general way as well. As Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert write, “Go big on the big principles and not as big on the specific applications.”[9] In other words, when applying their advice to marriage, how exactly the headship of the husband and how the submission of the wife takes place will often be relative to each individual marriage.

Headship of the Husband. In context, it seems that “headship” for the husband is most clearly defined in terms of sacrificial service. Just as Christ sacrificially laid down His life for the good of His body, so the husband must sacrificially lay down his life for the good of his wife. In extreme cases, this may mean he must literally give up his life so that his wife may life, but more typically, it means mortifying one’s selfish desires, dreams, and actions. The purpose of the husband is not have the wife’s support and confirm his dreams and his purpose in life. The purpose of the husband isn’t even to support his wife and help her achieve her dreams. Rather, the husband is to lead his family into Christ’s purpose for the family. Too often, the husband and wife go off in different directions for the life of the family: the husband pulls his way and the wife pulls her way. In contrast, both husband and wife are to be lead by Christ into His way. They are to work together to accomplish God’s mission for their lives.

It must also be remembered that the husband is the spiritual head of his wife. He’s not the monetary-head, or the commanding-head. The husband has the responsibility to set the trajectory of the marriage relationship (and the family) toward Christlikeness. Again, the specific ways this works will be unique to each family. But the first step is for the husband to acknowledge his headship and understand that he is leading his family towards the consummated union of Christ and His church. How the husband gets his family there is through sacrificial service.

Submission of the Wife. The submission of the wife is given important qualifiers throughout Ephesians 5:22-33. First, wives are to be submissive “in everything.” This means that every sphere of the wife’s life must be in submission to her husband.[10] Obviously, wives must never to submit to their husband in matters of sin (cf. Acts 5:29). Second, wifely submission is described as “respecting” her husband (5:33). Respect is both an inward and an outward attitude. Inwardly, it means believing the best about one’s husband. Outwardly, it means building him to others, not tearing him down. The book of Proverbs repeatedly speaks of the contentious and nagging wife (Proverbs 21:9; 25:24). The argumentative, contentious woman who seeks to tear down her husband with her words is by definition being unsubmissive. She is not respecting her husband.

[1] The concept of Christian marriage being the loudest gospel message is taken from Peter Scazzero, The Emotionally Healthy Leader (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2015), 97-98.

[2] Egalitarians are those who oppose “hierarchy” within the marriage relationship. Many eqalitarians could be considered “complementarians” in a sense in that they do recognize that a husband and a wife should “complement” each other’s weaknesses. What they oppose, however, is that the husband has authority over his wife. For example, see Ronald W. Pierce Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity Without Hierachy (Grand Rapids: InterVaristy Press, 2004).

[3] Peter T. O’Brien, The Letter to the Ephesians, PNTC (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 57.

[4] Although many egalitarians make a big deal that 5:21 focuses on submitting to one another, it is actually the concept of being filled with the Spirit which provides the broader context for Paul’s teaching on marriage. The main command is to “be filled with the Spirit.” The results of a Spirit-filled life are singing, devotion to the Lord, thanksgiving and mutual submission.

[5] Think of God accommodating his revelation to the Israelites with the concept of the temples. He used the common cultural convention of the day (the temple) but used it as a “teachable moment” (i.e. the Holy of Holies was empty.

[6] Compare what Paul does with the husband-wife relationship (and even the child-parent relationship) to that of slavery. When Paul commands slaves to be obedient he doesn’t ground their submission in either creation or redemption like he with wives to husbands and women in the church to male eldership. Therefore, it is appropriate to see Paul’s words to slaves as largely being culturally bound. Furthermore, Paul takes many subtle jabs at the institution of slavery, which a full-blown Christian ethic would have undermined.

[7] William W. Klein, Craig L. Blomberg, and Robert L. Hubbard, Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, Rev. and Updated. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2004), 483.

[8] Ibid. The authors propose four steps to principilizing. First, the original application for the original readers must be discerned. Second, the interpreter must evaluate how culturally specific the principle is. Third, if the principle is too culturally specific and cannot be brought over directly into the contemporary culture, then the interpret must examine to see if there is an even broader principle expressed in the passage that can be brought over into current times. Fourth, the interpreter must find appropriate applications for today which implement the broader principles.

[9] Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert, What is the Mission of the Church? (Wheaton: Crossway, 2011), 257.

[10] O’Brien, Ephesians, 417-18.

A Theology of Sex and Gender–Pt. 4–Jesus & Redemption

This is the third installment of the series, “A Theology of Sex and Gender.” Part 1, 2, 3

Jesus & Redemption

God created men and women in His image. Both of them are fully equal in dignity and worth. Unfortunately, sin has broken God’s design. Jesus Himself recognized the profound effects of sin on sexuality and gender. In a discussion with the Pharisees, Jesus upholds God’s original creational design for men and women. But Jesus also shows us that there are also certain exceptions to God’s design due to living in a fallen world:

Some Pharisees came to Jesus, testing Him and asking, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any reason at all?” And He answered and said, “Have you not read that He who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate.” They *said to Him, “Why then did Moses command to give her a certificate of divorce and send her away?” He *said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses permitted you to divorce your wives; but from the beginning it has not been this way. And I say to you,whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.”
Matthew 19:3-9

Jesus & God’s Good Design

In a discussion with the Pharisees concerning divorce, Jesus affirms two very important truths about God’s design. First, Jesus states explicitly that God created humanity as male and female: “Have you not read that He who created them from the beginning made them male and female?” (19:4a). Jesus’ understanding of gender comports with the original intention of Genesis 1:27 where God created humanity as male and female. Furthermore, Jesus affirms that a man and a woman will typically be united in marriage: “And He said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate” (19:5-6). 

For Jesus, marriage is not only mean for a man and a woman, but also, it is meant to be a permanent union. One man and one woman should be united for one lifetime. Jesus acknowledges, however, that sin breaks down God’s design of a man and a woman being united in marriage for a lifetime: “Jesus said to them, ‘Because of your hardness of heart Moses permitted you to divorce your wives; but from the beginning it has not been this way. And I say to you,whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.’” (Matthew 19:8-9).

God is the ultimate realist. Although He created a typical pattern for a man and a woman to aspire to, He also knows that we live in a Genesis 3 world. We live in a broken, post-Fall world. Sometimes, according to Jesus, the situation becomes so bad for a husband and a wife that the covenant of marriage needs to be broken through divorce. Jesus saw divorce as a concession to human hard-heartedness, but definitely not in line with the God’s design for marriage.

It is important recognize that Jesus grounded the permanence of the marriage union in God’s creational design: “Have you not read that He who created them from the beginning made them male and female…” (19:4). It was “from the beginning” that men and women were created different. And it was “from the beginning” that the purpose of this distinction was so that men and women could be united in marriage.

Jesus’ teaching on the permanence of marriage made His disciples question if they even should get married (19:10)! Jesus’ teaching was radical because it demanded fidelity and commitment. Jesus’ teaching on sexuality was also radial because He elevated singleness as an acceptable lifestyle for His followers: “For there are eunuchs who were born that way from their mother’s womb; and there are eunuchs who were made eunuchs by men; and there are also eunuchs who made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. He is who is able to accept this, let him accept it.” Whereas marriage was often considered a duty in Jewish culture at the time and children were considered the highest form of a “legacy,” Jesus commended celibacy.[1]

Jesus also seemed to acknowledge that there were those who—through no fault of their own—did not have the typical genitalia to correspond of their biological sex: “There are eunuchs who were born that way from their mother’s womb; and there are eunuchs who were made eunuchs by men; and there are also eunuchs who made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven” (19:12). Jesus reaffirms the good design of God: one man with one woman for one lifetime. Yet, Jesus also acknowledges the brokenness of the world through our sin. And even acknowledges that God made a concession to human sinfulness in the institution of divorce. Divorce is never God’s ideal for a marriage, but sometimes, it is allowable. Furthermore, Jesus reaffirms a “gender-binary”: humanity is typically made male and female. It is not a spectrum. Yet, Jesus also sees some people suffering from living in a broken world and do not have the necessary genitalia that typically is associated with their biological sex: eunuchs from birth.

An important point to recognize is that the church should model Jesus’ posture on the issue of sexuality and gender. The church should affirm, like Jesus, that there is a normative, good design from God for men and women to be united in marriage. And yet, the church must also recognize that there are certain exceptions to God’s creational design due to living in a broken world. Although divorce is never ideal, sometimes it is allowable. Although marriage is God’s usual destination for a man and a woman, sometimes marriage is not an option for various reasons. Sometimes people may come out of the womb damaged by the effects of the fall through no fault of their own. While the culture wants to obliterate any notion of a normative design for men and women due to the exceptions which exist in the world, the church must not give up God’s good design as being normative. Jesus doesn’t.

[1] D.A. Carson, Matthew 13-28. EBC (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995), 419.

A Theology of Sex and Gender–Pt. 3–Israel & Exile

This is the third installment of the series, “A Theology of Sex and Gender.” Part 1, 2

Israel & Exile

The usual understanding of the Christian worldview proceeds along the lines of jumping directly from Creation and Fall to Redemption in Christ (see Creation Regained by Al Wolters for a typical layout of a Christian worldview along these lines). The genius of NT Wright’s “five-act drama” proposal lies in the large amount of attention he devotes to the history of Israel. In fact, the majority of the Bible is actually concerned with Israel, not the church! To pass over the history of Israel when building a theology, then, would be to pass over a lot of what God actually says.

The Importance of Israel for Theology

One major reason that the history of Israel is important is because it shows what life is like in a post-Fall world. Israel’s failings are all too familiar to us because they illustrate our failures as well. Israel’s history also shows us that God is the ultimate realist: although He has laid down a good design in Creation, God also knows that humanity has broken His design through sin. God often accommodates His laws to the reality of sinful people living in a world afflicted by the curse of Genesis three. The history of Israel upholds God’s emphasis on the fully equality of men and women before God, albeit in ways that may seem strange to modern Western ears. Societies in the Ancient Near East (ANE) were drastically different than modern, liberal democracies. So God interacts with His people in a particular way because they are living within a particular culture and time period.

Nevertheless, the history of Israel shows that God’s design of Genesis one and two is still the ideal for the world. God creates males and females each fully in His image. Yet, the men and women are different from each other. Furthermore, men and women are given different roles within the marriage covenant: men are called to be husbands and women are called to be wives.  Unfortunately, the reality of living in a broken world distorts God’s design. And, as the Old Testament demonstrates so vividly, these distortions are most easily seen in the covenant of marriage.[1]

The Equality of Men and Women in Ancient Israel 

Although many modern, Western people scorn the Old Testament because of its portrayal of women, the Hebrew Scriptures actually uphold the teaching of Genesis one—that women are created in the image of God. Genesis one was part of the Hebrew Scriptures and so the implications of both men and women being made in God’s image should not have been missed.

It’s important to remember that God regularly makes “concessions” to human beings as flawed and sinful creatures.[2] Jesus even taught that divorce was a concession (Matt. 19:8). God is the ultimate realist: He recognizes that humans do not live in an ideal world. They are sinful and make poor choices. Sometimes it is better to limit the damage. Moreover, God does not unilaterally abolish sin and evil systems in the world. He often works within them. For example, God did not directly abolish slavery within Israel. He did, however, seriously modify it from the surrounding culture so that, if His Law was followed, the extreme abuses of slavery would not happen (Exodus 21:16).

Therefore, when we examine the equality of men and women in ancient Israel, the Old Testament is not going to sound like a charter for women’s liberation in the twenty-first century. Yet, we must also understand that God worked within a patriarchal culture to bring many freedoms to women because He made them in His image!

Equality is seen in inheritance laws. The family inheritance was passed down through the sons of the family with the firstborn son receiving double of the inheritance (Lev. 25:46; Deut. 21:15-17). Yet, Moses accommodated the Law to a situation where there were no sons within the family. The daughters of Zelophehad approached Moses because their father had died with no sons (Num. 27:1-3). They asked Moses, “Why should the name of our father be withdrawn from among his family because he had no son?” (27:4). In other words, if Israel’s typical inheritance laws stood, the daughters would receive nothing. Moses, however, brings the case before the Lord (27:5-6). The Lord then rules in the daughter’s favor and modifies the typical way inheritance laws were conceived so that surviving daughters could receive an inheritance, if there were no sons (27:7-8). The giving of inheritance to females was a remarkable departure from the typical way things were conceived in that culture.

Equality is seen in marriage and divorce Law. The marriage and divorce laws were also remarkably “progressive” in the Old Testament in contrast to the surrounding Ancient Near Eastern Culture. For example, a man who buys a female slave could not just cast her out just because he got a “better” slave (Exodus 21:7-11). A woman who is captured as a hero prisoner and taken as a wife must not be abandoned (Deut. 21:10-14). A man with two wives cannot play favorites with his children and pass on the inheritance to whomever he wants (Deut. 21:15-17).

Equality seen in the depiction of prominent men and “strong” women. One of the most shocking things to see in the Old Testament is just how diverse its portrayal of both men and women is. Although men certainly take prominence in the story line of Scripture, especially within the covenants (Abraham, Moses, and David), strong women also show up at key points in the story.[3] The offices of king and priest were reserved for men in the Old Testament, while the office of prophet was apparently open to both men and women, as Deborah was a prophetess. Women being “strong” in the Old Testament is highlight in two prominent passages: Proverbs 31:10-31 and the book of Song of Solomon.

The Proverbs 31 woman is considered the “noble wife” (31:10). She provides for her family by bringing them food (31:15). She is business savvy (31:16) and even described as “strong” (31:17). She works day and night and helps the poor too (31:20). She makes her own clothes for her family and sells it (31:22, 24). She speaks with wisdom and teaches people about kindness (31:25). She is a woman who blesses her whole family, the surrounding community, and the world.

The Song of Solomon is considered one of the most difficult books of the Bible to interpret. Literarily, it is hard to make out just how many characters are in the book.[4] Furthermore, how to interpret the book is also fiercely debated. Some see the book as an allegorical depiction of Yahweh’s love for Israel (or Christ’s love for the church), while other see the book speaking literally of a man’s love for a woman.[5] However one interprets the book, the fact is the same: the female character in the story is often seeking and longing for physical intimacy with her lover.

The Law Against “Cross-Dressing”

 Besides upholding the dignity of women, the OT also supports the creational design that men and women are different. The clearest expression of this truth is in the form of a command given to Israel: “A woman shall not wear a man’s garment, nor shall a man put on a woman’s cloak, for whoever does these things is an abomination to the LORD your God” (Deut. 22:5). Why would God give such a seemingly obscure command to the people of Israel? In our liberal, Western democracy, it could even be hard to conceive why dressing as another gender would be a big deal. The most obvious reason it seems to me why God gave this law was because He made two sexes. If God made two sexes, then it is not our right as human creatures to tamper with His design, even in the way that we dress.[6]

Furthermore, God places much importance on the duality of the genders because the duality of the genders naturally leads to a man and a woman being united in marriage. Even in the Old Testament marriage could be seen as a “mystery” and a picture of God’s love for His people.[7] Collapsing the two genders into one would be “preaching” the message that humans are alone in the universe and unloved. Men dressing like women and women like men would also be confusing who is the husband and who is the wife in the marriage. When husband and wife are confused in marriage, Savior and recipient of salvation are confused in the spiritual realm. Thus, cross-dressing in prohibited because it does not send a clear signal of who is the Savior, as represented by the husband, and who is the recipient of salvation, as represented by the wife.

[1] One thinks of the sordid episode where a Levite dismembers his concubine and sends her limbs all over Israel in Judges 19.

[2] John Calvin taught that God accommodates Himself to our finiteness and weakness, especially in His word. Just like a mother does “baby-talk” to her newborn, so God brought His Word down to our level so that we could understand it (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1.13.1).

[3] Andreas Kostenberger, God’s Design for Men and Women (Grand Rapids: Crossway, 2014), 70-71. Notable women in the OT include Eve, Sarah, Rebekah, Leah and Rachel, Rahab, Ruth, Hannah, Abigail, Bathsheba, and Jezebel.

[4] Some interpreters see the book having two main characters: Solomon and the lover. Others see the book as having three characters: the beloved, the shepherd-lover, and Solomon. See Jack Deere, “Song of Songs,” in Bible Knowledge Commentary (Colorado Springs: Cook Communications, 2004), 1009.

[5] For a range possibilities see Andrew E. Hill and John Walton, A Survey of the Old Testament, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), 377-78.

[6] Jason DeRouchie, “Confronting the Transgender Storm: New Covenant Reflections from Deuteronomy 22:5” in Journal of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (Spring 2016, Vol. XXI, Issue 1).

[7] Although not as clear as Ephesians 5:22-33, the Old Testament still seems to operate under the assumption that human marriage “pictures” God’s marriage to His people. The book of Hosea regularly draws parallels with human marriage to God’s relationship with Israel (Hosea 1:2-7; 3:1-5). Physical adultery by the spouse is seen as spiritual adultery towards Yahweh (i.e. idolatry) (2:1-13).