Somehow I managed to get recommendations from both the über left and the far right on YouTube. For the past year or so I’ve had the displeasure of listening to both sides articulate their points with very few content creators holding sensible and balanced views. Seeing so much confusion inspired me to launch the Women of God series on the
Defining Gender Roles
One of the things that comes up over and over as men bash women and women bash men (there are also women bashing women and men bashing men 🤷🏾♀️) in videos purporting to be about relationships and self improvement, is gender roles. So, let me ask you a question: what are gender roles?
I looked up the definition and all the top hits were essentially articles as opposed to concise definitions. Below are a few:
💬 Planned Parenthood
💬 Human Ecology: An Encyclopedia of Children, Families, Communities, and Environments
💬 Web MD
Each definition I found looks pretty similar and is what I expected. However, they all lead to more questions if you want to define specific roles. Each definition tells us the way a person behaves and carries their self should be based off gender, but the Planned Parenthood definition is the only one that gives any hint at what that means for each gender. Wikipedia and Human Ecology point out that these perceptions are based off “society,” while Web MD claims these are stereotypes. So, before we can define gender roles, we have to ask the question: what are masculine and feminine?
Masculine and Feminine
Every culture has the concept of masculine and feminine—probably because every culture has men and women. If I threw out a list of words, topics, hobbies/interests, most people would be able to sort them into masculine, feminine, or neutral without much trouble.
- Sports and athleticism
- Superheroes (e.g., Superman, Batman)
- Occupations like engineer, doctor, pilot
- Quiet or soft spoken
- Dresses and love of fashion
- Occupations like teacher, nurse, flight attendant
These are however stereotypes, you can find examples of traits that are considered “masculine” in women and traits that are considered “feminine” in men. In fact, many of the traits often put upon women are professions men dominate. Only 6% of Michelin starred restaurants have a female head chef, only 6.73% of the top restaurants in the world have a female head chef, and only 25% of chefs in general are female. Men dominate the fashion industry as well, with only 4.8% of Fortune 500 fashion brands being lead by a woman. New York (47.3%) and London (40.5%) have the highest ratio of female fashion designers in the industry. Yet cooking and being interested in fashion and shopping are among some of the quickest traits to be assigned to women. Meanwhile, majority (77%) of grade school teachers—who are shaping, or leading if you will, the next generation—are women.
Online you’ll see a lot of people talking about “modern women” and “traditional women” with many people conflating “traditional women” with Biblical womanhood. The question I’ve been asking for years is whether or not “traditional” and Biblical are actually synonymous. When people speak of a traditional woman, they are usually referencing a homemaker; someone who is submissive to her husband and is focused on her children more than her career. This is usually contrasted by modern women; who are usually assumed to be feminists, career oriented, and more outspoken. The former neatly fits in to the stereotypical gender role based on tradition, but does this tradition line up with the Bible.
When I ask people for Bible verses that define gender roles, the two most popular are: Proverbs 31:10-31 and Ephesians 5:22-24. So let’s start there and then branch out.
The Proverbs 31 Woman
The Proverbs 31 woman is looked at as the gold standard for what it means to be a woman. Note that it could be discussing a literal woman or it could be a metaphor for the Church/Zion which are often depicted as a woman, or even a continuation of the personification of wisdom as a woman that begins the book of Proverbs. For this discussion we’re going to assume it is discussing a literal woman.
💅🏾 The passage is about a wife. According to 1 Corinthians 7, not all women are intended to be wives.
💅🏾 She is trustworthy (this seems like a trait all believers should share)
💅🏾 She works with her hands (presumably to spin the wool and linen that she finds)
💅🏾 She is able to bring food from afar (what does this even mean?)
💅🏾 She’s up early to make sure her household gets breakfast and she has servants to help her
💅🏾 She picks out and buys a field (she’s a property owner—the ability for women to inherit property is established back in Numbers 27)
💅🏾 She uses the money she makes to plant a vineyard (so she is employed to make money and creates a vineyard with the income)
💅🏾 She is strong (this is repeated three times; twice in Proverbs 31:17 and again in Proverbs 31:25)
💅🏾 She stays up late (this is paired with the fact that her profits are good, which probably just means she is a hard and diligent worker)
💅🏾 She is able to make her own clothes (presumably from Proverbs 31:19, but we’re coming back to this)
💅🏾 She is generous
💅🏾 She isn’t worried about winter because her family is clothed in scarlet (seems like she provided them with warm clothes; we’re coming back to this too)
💅🏾 She definitely makes garments and dresses nicely (Proverbs 31:22)
💅🏾 Her husband is of importance (that’s what it means for him to be well known at the gates and sit among elders)
💅🏾 She has a positive outlook for the future
💅🏾 She is wise and careful with her speech
💅🏾 She knows everything that’s going on in the house (reminds me of the saying that a mom has eyes in the back of her head)
💅🏾 Her children and husband praise her
💅🏾 She fears the Most High
What Does it Mean that She Can Bring Food From Afar?
The verse that says she brings food from afar also compares her to merchant ships. Merchant ships brought goods from foreign lands to the local people. This is likely a reference to her resourcefulness and ability to acquire what is needed. If taken literally it might be a reference to the ability to purchase foreign goods, which would speak to wealth as these goods are likely more expensive (e.g., fruits grown in the US like apples are cheaper than fruits typically grown outside the US like avocados).
What are the Spindle and Distaff of Proverbs 31:19?
I’ve always assumed spindle and distaff were references to sewing, but only because I know Princess Aurora poked her finger on a spindle in Sleeping Beauty and the object shown looked like an old fashioned sewing machine. I have never known what a distaff was so when started looking deeper into the Proverbs 31 woman, I decided to look at the original Hebrew for both words. The word translated spindle in the KJV is כִּישׁוֹר and the word translated distaff is פֶּלֶךְ. The word translated to spindle looks like the proper translation, but it is only used the one time in the whole Hebrew Bible. The word translated distaff is much more interesting. While the translation seems to be very similar to spindle, it appears 10 times in the Hebrew Bible and this verse is the only one where it is translated to distaff. In 2 Samuel 3:29, it is translated as a staff (or cane), but in Nehemiah 3:12,14-18 it is repeatedly translated as part in the phrase “ruler of the part.” The passage in Nehemiah discusses people repairing the wall around Jerusalem and describes them as rulers of a part of some area. This tells us that the word used in Proverbs 31:19 doesn’t specifically reference a piece of a sewing machine. Technically a spindle could be used for different things, but because there are other verses that allude to her ability to sew and procuring fabrics, I assume this verse is referencing a sewing machine.
What Does the Color of the Clothes Have to Do With Anything?
Proverbs 31:21 tells us that she isn’t worried about the winter, not because her family has warm clothes or lots of clothes for layering but because the clothes are scarlet. This seems symbolic as scarlet represents blood. The Israelites survived the first Passover because of the scarlet blood covering them via the doorpost. Believers are saved because we are covered in the scarlet blood of the Messiah. Her family will survive the cold and harsh weather of the winter because they are clothed in scarlet…
The Proverbs 31 woman has traits of both the “modern” and “traditional” woman. She makes an income that is high enough for her to purchase land and start a vineyard, which sounds like a business. She is strong and works very hard, rising early and staying up late. These are all traits associated with the “modern” woman. Conversely she knows how to sew (a traditionally feminine task), overlooks the cooking, and is careful about what she says. These are traits typically associated with the “traditional” woman. Note however that she has servants who probably are doing most of the cooking and cleaning. Also, of note, is that being careful with your words does not necessarily equate to being soft spoken or passive. When I read Proverbs 31 there are two important takeaways that I find:
- She encompasses traits and ideas of both a modern and traditional woman—she is balanced.
- This is a description of her personality and behavior, but it doesn’t list specific duties (re: cooking, cleaning, care of kids) as being her responsibility.
Wives Submit to Your Husband
Ephesians 5:22-24 is oft quoted to remind women of their role, but seldom is the rest of the passage quoted, nor are the finer details discussed. This passage establishes men as the “head” of the family and urges wives to “submit” to their husbands.
Below are some misconceptions I’ve seen linked back to Ephesians 5:22-28:
💪🏾The concept of eating first—do you think Messiah ate first when they fed the multitudes?
💪🏾 Husbands must be the sole provider for the family
💪🏾 Women are to submit to you just be virtue of being a man
💪🏾 The mindset that women are less important and contribute less to the household
💪🏾 The concept of women’s work vs. men’s work
💅🏾 The concept of fixing a man’s plate—where was Messiah during the last supper?
💅🏾 A person I met in college criticized his mom for visiting her family after his father, cheated on her, impregnated another woman, promised the trip in exchange for allowing the side baby to Thanksgiving dinner, then reneged on the promise. The person legit thought his mom was the “bad guy” for not submitting to his father’s ultimate decision.
💅🏾 A local pastor in my hometown requires his wive to check the mail each day but she is not allowed to open or read any of it; she is to set it on the counter for him. This makes sense for mail addressed specifically to him, but not being able to look at the light bill or a card addressed to the whole family. This has nothing to do with Godly leadership or submission.
We need to discuss what submitting means as well as what it means to be the head of the family, but first I want to discuss what is not stated in this passage.
Who Submits to Who?
This passage is specifically asking wives to submit to their husbands. It isn’t instructing every woman to submit to every man. Interestingly, there are actually quite a few passages in the Bible that would suggest women are still required to use their God-given sense in situations where their husband is wrong:
💅🏾 In Exodus 4:24-26 Moses’ wife takes over the circumcision of their child which saves Moses’ life
💅🏾 In Joshua 7 a man named Achan steals spoils of war in his tent. His wife and children do not turn him in. The whole family is killed by God.
💅🏾 In 1 Samuel 25 a man named Nabal refuses hospitality to David, who decides the best response is to kill the man and his whole household. Nabal’s wife Abigail defies her husband’s wishes, provides food to David and his men, and rebukes David for his readiness to kill. Nabal ends up dead a few days later and Abigail ends up married to David.
💅🏾 In Acts 5 Ananias and Sapphira sell their land and decide to lie about the proceeds. Ananias is questioned first and struck dead for his lies. When Sapphira is questioned, she follows her husband’s lead, and she too drops dead.
Submitting vs. Leading
One of the most important take aways from the passage in Ephesians 5 is that a marriage is supposed to mirror the relationship between the Messiah (husband) and the Church (wife). The wives are to submit to their husband’s Godly leadership which is to imitate the love and leadership of Messiah.
The explicit gender roles given in Ephesians are leader for men and submitter for women. That we should all be able to agree on. What these roles actually entail, however, is wroth with interpretation.
I did a word study on the word
📖 Bible Verse
Luke 22:42; Philippians 2:5-8
Messiah desires to have the burden of sacrifice taken from Him but submits to the Father’s will (of course He suffered during the ordeal but He had the power to raise Himself from the dead and was never intended to stay dead or in pain)
Genesis 22:1-18; Hebrews 11:17-19
Abraham is willing to sacrifice his son because he has faith in The Most High (of course The Most High doesn’t actually require him to do so and provides a ram).
Moses submits to God’s call to lead Israel out of Egypt despite doubting himself worthy.
1 Samuel 24
David submits to Saul’s position as king even as Saul tries to kill David (note, however that David does not stay and let Saul kill him)
Genesis 12, 20, 21:12
Sarah is submissive to Abraham…sometimes. We see her go along with his plan to lie about their relationship twice (maybe not the best thing to do), but we also see him follow her plan and allow her free reign when it comes to Hagar.
Since submission is about trust, it is a lot easier to do if a person is trustworthy. Leading does not mean dictatorship. Ephesians likens the husband to Christ, emphasizing Godly leadership over worldly leadership and this type of leadership is based on love. Notice that after telling the wives to submit to their husbands, Paul doesn’t say “and husbands lead your wives;” he says husbands love your wives. The definition of Godly love is given in 1 Corinthians 13:
4 Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant 5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6 it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. 7 Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
8 Love never ends.
📚1 Corinthians 13:4-8 ESV
Based on this, husbands should be patient, kind, and dependable, while avoiding traits such as envy, arrogance, boastfulness, and selfishness. Think about this, the Bible tells wives to submit to their husbands then in telling husbands to love their wives tells husbands not to insist on their own way. This circular way of defining the relationship is found again in 1 Corinthians 7:4 where we are told that the husband’s body belongs to the wife and the wife’s body belongs to the husband. What’s more is that all of these passages were written by the same earthly author: Paul.
Eve Was Created to Submit?
Wrapped up in the concept of gender roles is the idea that Eve was created as a “helper” for Adam and her punishment was to be ruled over by her husband, thus that is the fate of every woman.
Once again, I recommend a word study on the Hebrew that is translated as helper or helpmeet in English. In
In Genesis 3, punishments are given to both Adam and Eve. The punishment given to Adam is a curse on the Earth, hard labor, and death. Those punishments actually apply to everyone, both male and female. Eve’s punishment is to struggle and experience pain when it comes to conception as well as to have her husband rule over her. Contrary to popular belief this curse also effects everyone, male and female. Men may not experience physical pain but they too struggle with infertility and they too experience loss in the case of a miscarriage. The real irony is this notion of the man ruling over the woman; it is as much a punishment and a gift to both genders.
To understand this, we have to look at context. Adam was the first created (basically the first born). We are told explicitly that God told Adam not to eat the fruit, but who told Eve? Did Adam tell Eve or did God tell Eve?
Imagine you have a three year old and a ten year old. You leave them playing together while you’re in another room and the three year old finds some matches and suggests they play with them. The ten year old knows that this is dangerous; they know that this could start a fire. However, instead of taking the matches away, calling out to you to alert you to danger, and/or being adamant that this is not a worthwhile endeavor, the ten year old goes along with the three year old. What would your reaction be when you came to put out the fire and the ten year old said the three year old suggested it?
And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was in the transgression.
📚 1 Timothy 2:14 KJV
1 Timothy 2:14 tells us that Adam knew better. Eve was deceived, meaning she thought what she was doing was ok. In a correctly executed relationship, regardless of gender, Adam would have stood his ground about what was right. It wasn’t about him being a man and her being a women, it was about him knowing right from wrong and her being confused.
The burden of leadership is that it is always the leader’s fault when something goes wrong. We blame CEOs when companies are in hot water; we blame the president when things don’t go the way we want in the country. In telling Eve (or women) to submit to Adam (or their husbands), God points to that ideal scenario where Adam put a stop to everything. However, He also puts a burden on man. See Acts 20:28, James 3:1, Titus 1:7, 1 Peter 5:3, and Matthew 18:6; 20:26—leadership comes with responsibility. This is a responsibility Adam failed to complete in the Garden. Adam was not given the task of leading because he was good at it and Eve was bad at it. As with many things, it points to the fulfillment of the Man (Messiah) who does succeed at leading. It is a call to stand when you know right from wrong (as Adam should have done), and a reminder to listen to the right person to avoid deception (Eve should have listened to Adam and God).
Although this order is gendered and lines up with Ephesians 5, we are given clear examples of women suffering the same fate as their husband when doing evil and women praised for doing right in spite of their husbands. The underlying theme is to do the right thing, regardless of your gender. If you have a husband and he is following the Most High, then you would follow his lead. But if you have a husband and he is not following the Most High, then you would not follow his lead. If you are an adult and don’t have a husband, you submit directly to the Most High.
But It’s Natural Instinct…?
I was watching a video by Little Light Studios—a Christian ministry—on the new Barbie movie and they were reacting to some of the cast members talking about the ills gender roles. A cast member said something along the lines of gender roles prevent people from being their full self and we should just be ourself. In response one of the Little Light Studios members started talking about how it was nature for girls to be interested in certain things and boys to be interested in others. He gave an anecdote about his time on a mission trip and learning that the little girls turned vegetables into “baby dolls” because they weren’t given any. He followed this up with the statement that girls naturally are nurturing (implicitly desiring dolls), while boys want cars.
This was ironic to me for two reasons.
First, earlier in the video the same person states that he wanted a Barbie as a child because he thought she was pretty. Both women on the panel state that they didn’t have Barbies—one of which discussed how she was a tomboy and hated pink and dresses growing up.
Second, this is the ideology that supports transgenderism. If you have a girl who isn’t interested in dolls, is she broken? If you have a boy who isn’t interested in cars, is he broken? Many of the stories I hear from trans people sound very much like “I wasn’t interested it dolls” or “I really liked makeup and dresses.” Yet most people who are adamant that there are concrete gender roles are people who don’t believe a person can be transgender, and most people who don’t believe in gender roles are the ones who support the trans movement.
I have not done the research to get specific statistics but I can tell you for a fact that the number of girls who are naturally interested in dolls and girl things is not 100%. I would concede that I believe if you did a proper study, I think you would find statistical significance in girls being interested in “girl things” and boys being interested in “boy things”—this is after all probably how the association was made in the first place. However, many of the girls I grew up with were like me and were interested in things that were considered “boy” things—I was not alone by any means, which means that there is also a significant percent of girls who do not trend toward girly things.
Honestly, I believe people confuse gender norms (i.e., what is “normal” or rather most common behavior for a gender) and gender roles (i.e., a definitive way someone of a gender should behave).
Being a woman is not contingent upon liking babies, pink, makeup, and dresses. Being a man is not contingent upon like cars, sports, hunting, and blue. The Bible does not tells us that women are to cook and clean while men have careers, or that rearing children is a woman’s responsibility. These are merely traditions that we read in to scripture. A man can be the head of the house and clean; a woman can be submissive and have a career.
References & Footnotes
- Julian Selemin. “What Are Gender Roles and Stereotypes?”. WebMD. June 27, 2022; visited July 2023
- “What are gender roles and stereotypes?”. Planned Parenthood; visited July 2023
- “Gender Role”. Wikipedia; visited July 2023
- Amy Blackstone, "Gender Roles and Society." Human Ecology: An Encyclopedia of Children, Families, Communities, and Environments, edited by Julia R. Miller, Richard M. Lerner, and Lawrence B. Schiamberg, pg. 335-338. 2003
- “About a Quarter of Chefs are Women: But Only 6% Reach the Very Top”. Chef’s Pencil. March 28, 2023; visited July 2023
- Christina Troitino. “Less Than 7% Of U.S. Restaurants Are Led By Women—One Director Wants To Change That”, Forbes. February 29, 2020; visited July 2023
- Gladys Lai. “Fashion has a gender problem, so what can we do about it?”. Vogue. February 22, 2021; visited July 2023
- Helena Pike. “Female Fashion Designers Are Still in the Minority”. September 9, 2016; visited July 2023
- National Center for Education Statistics. “Characteristics of Public School Teachers”. US Department of Education. May 2023; visited July 2023
- “Strongs H5828. עֵזֶר“. Blue Letter Bible; visited July 2023