Did Adam Sin by Failing to Lead and Protect Eve in the Garden? - CBE International (2024)

One of the things I have noticed in complementarian teachings about godly masculinity, or what it means to be a man, is that Adam’s sin in the Garden is often portrayed as not only eating from the forbidden tree but also as abdicating his leadership and protection of Eve.

This abdication of protection and leadership is supposedly shown in the fact Adam did not speak up when the serpent spoke to Eve, and in the fact that God said to Adam, “Because you listened to your wife and ate fruit from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat from it,’ Cursed is the ground because of you” (Genesis 3:17 NIV).

So, Adam’s sin is seen (and “proven” by this verse) to also be that he listened to and followed his wife—thus abdicating his position as leader and protector. As one prominent complementarian writes, “Adam sinned at two levels. At one level, he defied the plain and simple command of [Genesis] 2:17. That is obvious. But God goes deeper. At another level, Adam sinned by ‘listening to his wife’. He abandoned his headship. According to God’s assessment, this moral failure in Adam led to his ruination.”[1]

Another complementarian book also states, “It doesn’t matter that Eve sinned first . . . Adam was the head of the home and he abdicated his responsibility to protect his wife from the attack of the enemy . . .. The abdication of masculine leadership is at the fall of mankind.”[2]

Based on a shallow, surface reading of the text in Genesis 3:1–17, one could come to that conclusion. However, when we look more closely and carefully at the text of Genesis 2:16–3:17, we can quickly see that such conclusions as taught above are wrong.

In Genesis 2:16b–17, God tells Adam, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die” (NIV). What is the command? “You must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” Notice no command is given that says, “You also must protect and lead your wife, and you must not listen to your wife and follow her lead.”

Now, it could be argued, “But that is because the woman was not yet created!” And that would be correct. But even after the creation of Eve, there is still no command given by God to the man to protect or lead her. Adam declares, “Thisisnow bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called ‘woman,’ because she was taken out of man” (Genesis 2:23, NIV). According to Philip B. Payne in his book Man and Woman: One in Christ, “‘Bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh’ emphasizes the man’s recognition that man and woman share the same essence. Throughout Scripture, ‘Bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh’ identifies shared standing or kinship, never subordination.”[3]

Payne also writes, “. . . the name Woman [ishah in Hebrew] is merely a derivative from the word Man [ish in Hebrew] with a feminine ending. Their corresponding names reinforce their oneness of essence, also implied by woman’s origin in man. . . . Since that is its obvious function it is arbitrary and unsupported by the text also to read dominion into this recognition.”[4] Adam does not say “You were taken from me, thus I have the responsibility to lead and protect you.” Nowhere does Adam indicate any sense or awareness that he is to “lead” or “protect” Eve. In fact, as often as it is touted by complementarian teachers that men are to lead and/or protect women, there is not one text in all of Scripture that instructs or commands men to do this.

Moreover, God in Genesis 2:18 says, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him” (NIV. Note: the KJV translates the word “suitable” as “meet”; a “help meet for him.” This is often incorrectly quoted as a “help mate”.)God does not say, “It is not good that the man has no one to lead or protect.” It has been taught that because the woman is called a “help” that this means she is subordinate to the man and he is thus her leader. As one complementarian author writes, “So was Eve Adam’s equal? Yes and No. She was his spiritual equal, and unlike the animals ‘suitable for him,’ but she was not his equal in that she was his ‘helper.’”[5] Here the author implies that the Hebrew word ezer (translated as “help” or “helper”) means or refers to “one who is subordinate to another.” But is this what the word means, and is this how it is used in the Old Testament?

The answer is no. Dr. Linda Belleville states:

Traditionalists [also called ‘complementarians’] typically translate the Hebrew term ezer as “helper” . . . and argue that implicit in the term is the notion of subordination. To be a helper is to offer “submissive assistance”; the one who receives help (it is claimed) has a certain authority over the one who gives help.

Many have pointed out the fatal flaw in this line of thinking. All of the other occurrences of ezer in the OT have to do with the assistance that one of strength offers to one in need (i.e., help from God, the king, an ally, or an army). There is no exception. More, fifteen of the nineteen references speak of the help that God alone can provide . . . . Help given to one in need fits Genesis 2:18–20 quite well. The male’s situation was that of being “alone” and God’s evaluation was that it was “not good.” The woman was hence created to relieve the man’s aloneness through strong partnership.

. . . Neither is there any warrant here for female superiority. The woman was created as a help ‘in correspondence to’ (kenegdo) the man. This, once again, is the language of sameness, not superiority. . . . Therefore, ‘partner’ . . .—and not ‘helper’—accurately captures the sense of the Hebrew term ezer.[6]

What the text emphasizes is the man’s need for partnership—not the soon-to-be-created woman’s need for protection and leadership!

Thus, when it is said by some that Adam sinned, not only by eating from the tree but also by abdicating his role as leader and protector of Eve, such a reading of the text is adding to the text what is not in the text. Such an addition is no longer reading from the text (the definition of “exegesis”) but rather is reading into the text (which is known as “eisegesis”). Such a practice is doing what the ancient rabbis called “destroying” the text:misinterpreting the Scriptures, which leads to improper application of those Scriptures—that is, leading directly to disobedience to God’s will.[7]

But what then are we to make of Gensis 3:17? God’s statement, “Because you have heeded the voice of your wife and eaten of the tree . . .” is merely stating what had happened. Without any other text that speaks to the idea of Adam’s leadership over Eve, there is no basis for interpreting this sentence as pointing to that idea. Philip Payne, in responding to the complementarian interpretation of this verse (that Adam listening to Eve and eating of tree meant that he “abandoned his leadership”) has this to say: “. . . in this case the only reason it was wrong for Adam to listen to his wife was that she was offering him what God had prohibited. . . . If the fruit had been taken from any other tree, it would not have been a sin for the man to listen to his wife.”[8] In other words, the problem was not that Adam, the leader, was listening to Eve, the “subordinate helper”that he was to lead. The problem is that Adam listened to something that his wife said that directly contradicted what God had said. Moreover, nowhere in the text does God censure Adam for failing to lead or protect Eve from the “attack of the enemy.This is never brought up as a sin or moral failure of Adam.

Does this mean that husbands today are not to protect their wives? Or that men should never seek to protect a woman who needs it? No, it doesn’t mean that at all! Husbands and wives are to mutually submit to and serve each other (Eph. 5:21). As men, we should use our strength—as well as our other talents and abilities—to serve our wives, our sisters in the Lord, and others when needed. Just as our wives and sisters in the Lord serve us with their strengths, talents, and abilities, as needed. In this way, we all obey our Lord who taught us by example to humble ourselves and serve each other (John 13:2–17).

[1] Raymond C. Ortlund Jr., “Male-Female Equality and Male Headship: Genesis 1-3,” in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, eds. John Piper and Wayne Grudem (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 138.

[2] Owen Strachan and Gavin Peaco*ck, The Grand Design: Male and Female He Made Them (Fearn, UK: Christian Focus, 2016), 35 Kindle edition.

[3] Philip Payne, Man and Woman: One in Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Academic, 2009), 45.

[4] Payne, Man and Woman, 46.

[5] Ortlund, “Male-Female Equality and Male Headship,” 128.

[6] Linda L. Belville, “Women in Ministry: An Egalitarian Perspective,” in Two Views on Women in Ministry, ed. James R. Beck (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005), 27–28.

[7] Cf. Matthew 5:17–20 in David Biven, New Light on the Difficult Words of Jesus: Insights from His Jewish Context (Holland, MI: En Gedi Resource Center, 2005), 93–94. See also Brad Young, Jesus the Jewish Theologian (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1995), 264–265.

[8] Philip Payne and Vince Huffaker, Why Can’t Women Do That?: Breaking Down the Reasons Churches Put Men in Charge (Boulder, CO: Vinati Press, 2021), kindle ed. 59.

Photo by AlessandroBiascioli.

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Did Adam Sin by Failing to Lead and Protect Eve in the Garden? - CBE International (2024)
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