I was confused by the following passage for a long time.

“I will make your pains in childbearing very severe;
with painful labor you will give birth to children.
Your desire will be for your husband,
and he will rule over you.”
(Genesis 3:16 NIV)

It comes from a part of Scripture where God is telling the different players in this primal human drama, the consequences for their sin. I get the pain in childbearing bit, but why should a wife’s sexual desire for her husband be a consequence of sin? Here is where expensive seminary education pays off. I discovered subsequently that the word for desire here is the same word used in Genesis 4:7 where God warns Cain that sin desires to control Cain. So the woman’s desire for her husband is not sexual desire but a desire to control. Hence the verse is a reference to the woman’s desire to control her husband and the husband’s rule/control of the woman.

The war of the sexes is a sad consequence of the fallenness of human kind. History records too many instances of men treating women as second class, property to be controlled and used, and women fighting back with whatever weapons they had. In time, we saw the rise of various feminist movements that sought to fight for gender parity. I write this on International Women’s Day (8 March). The very fact that we still need a day like this shows that the fight for women’s rights continues.

But how should men and women relate to each other? The answer is found in the first two chapters of Genesis. Here in the lives of Adam and Eve, we see God’s intent for men and women. Two things should characterise male-female relationships — companionship and co-labour.

It was God’s declaration that it was not good for man to be alone that led to the creation of Eve. When Adam first saw Eve he burst into song (Genesis 2:23). And poetry in the Bible indicates heightened emotion. With the coming of Eve, Adam was no longer alone. Here was someone equal yet different from him, a partner to share life with, a partner to love (Ephesians 5:25; Titus 2:4).

One of the first jobs Adam and Eve were given was to be fruitful and increase in number to fill the earth and subdue it (Genesis 1:28). This was a mission that neither the man nor the woman could do alone. They needed each other in order “to be fruitful”. God made men and women different so that they could complement each other and together serve the purposes of God.

At one level this is a picture of a man and a woman in the covenant of marriage. But the principles that undergird husband-wife relationships also point us to how men and women should relate to each other in general. We are to be companions walking together in mutual care, with each gender contributing their unique strengths so that together we can serve the purposes of God. Men and women need each other. Sin hurts this relationship but in Christ we are to once again recover the dimensions of companionship and interdependence, in gender relationships. As Paul puts it in 1 Corinthians:

. . . in the Lord woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God. (1 Corinthians 11:11–12 NIV)

So much of the modern debate on gender roles in the churches focuses on the question of gender and leadership. I think this is helpful as we struggle together to see what the Bible actually teaches on this subject because we want to obey the Word. I have godly Bible scholar friends on various sides of the debate and I especially appreciate those who can discuss the matter with gentleness and love.

I am concerned however that not enough attention is paid to how men and women actually live and serve together. Indeed, one unintended and unfortunate consequence of the debate on women and leadership is to put men and women on different sides of the equation when in truth they are on the same side and they need each other. Whatever our convictions about women in leadership, we need to work hard at helping brothers and sisters care for each other and encourage all to contribute their unique gifts so that together we can do the work of God. After all it is as male and female that we bear God’s image (Genesis 1:27).