A recent LifeWay Research study asked American Protestant pastors if women in their congregations were allowed to take on six specific leadership roles.

Views on preaching were predictably split, but roughly “9 in 10 pastors say women could be ministers to children (94%), committee leaders (92%), ministers to teenagers (89%), or coed adult Bible study teachers (85%) in their churches,” according to Aaron Earls. Fewer (64%) said women could be deacons.

The question of where a woman can serve in church “has been debated for centuries with biblical scholars in different denominations coming to different conclusions about what Scripture means,” said Scott McConnell, executive director of Lifeway Research.

The first part of the Bible, in particular, plays a key part. Generations of Christians have looked to the creation stories in Genesis 1 through 3 as the paradigm for gender roles. “As Genesis 1–3 go, so goes the whole Biblical debate,” says Raymond C. Ortlund Jr.

The word “helper” from Genesis 2:18 has long been a hinge-point in these debates. Some use it to argue that a wife’s main role is to support her husband’s leadership. Others deploy it to justify strong views on female submission and service. And still others have construed the idea as softly as possible, saying, “God made man as a gracious leader and woman as an essential helper in marriage.”

But what if we’ve gotten that word wrong? The subservient overtones that often come with it are nowhere to be found in Scripture. And our misinterpretation has gotten us into trouble in how we view male and female roles.

The more accurate take, at least as I see it, is significant to those in both the complementarian and egalitarian camps. Everyone has something to gain from a closer, more careful look at the Genesis text and what it says: That a “helper” is in fact a full partner in the work God assigned to humans.

Arguably the most important passage for understanding personhood is Genesis 1:26–28. God makes both male and female as the crown of creation. We are designated as “God’s image,” a status that in an ancient Near Eastern context means that humans physically represent the presence of God on earth.

In Genesis 1, that status is expressed through rulership—a task given without regard to gender. Men and women are to rule together on God’s behalf by maintaining order and ensuring the flourishing of creation.

Strikingly, however, humans are not told to rule over each other. Teamwork is the model set forth.

This groundwork is essential to keep in mind as we turn the page to Genesis 2, where the creation of humans is retold in a more intimate key. The man placed in God’s garden is given a job to do: cultivating it and guarding it (Gen. 2:15).

But that man has a problem: He’s alone. While many animals populate the garden, none of them is suitable for companionship. If the man needed someone to take orders, he could have chosen an ox or a mule. If he needed a shadow, he could have chosen a dog. But none of them can help him carry out his responsibilities as a full partner, and none can hold him accountable to maintain the boundaries God set.

What the man lacks, then, is an ʿēzer kenegdô, “a helper corresponding to him.”

Enter woman. She resolves the plot conflict of Genesis 2 by offering what no animal in the garden could offer: full-fledged companionship. For some Christians, this section offers evidence for two key claims:

First: God appointed men to lead and have authority over women.

Second: Women are made to support men’s leadership by following.

However, these common assumptions don’t stand up to scrutiny. The point of the story is not primarily the differences between male and female, although those matter, but their essential similarity and equal status before God.

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The woman is like the man in a way that no other creature is. She comes from his own body—just as every future man will come from the body of a woman—which suggests their mysterious connection. She “corresponds to him” (Hebrew kenegdô, Genesis 2:18, 20). And she fulfills the role of a partner to support what God appointed the man to do. Together they will populate the earth, and together they will rule over it.

Then why call her the man’s “helper”? Doesn’t that imply he’s the boss?

In English translations of Genesis 2:18 (NIV, NLT, ESV, NRSV, NASB), the word “helper” suggests the man takes the lead and the woman is present in a support role. She is the receptionist for the CEO, the cheerleader for the quarterback, or the nurse for the surgeon.

Throughout history, women have often filled roles like these, and they have contributed much by doing so. However, this model misses something about the Hebrew word ʿēzer.

What kind of help does an ʿēzer offer? Who are the ʿēzers in the Bible?

The rest of the Old Testament uses the word ʿēzer in two main ways. First, it refers to allied soldiers who assist in battle. (See, for example, Joshua 1:14 or 1 Chronicles 12:1–22.) Second, it refers to God as Israel’s helper. (See Genesis 49:25; 2 Chronicles 32:8; Psalm 10:14; Isaiah 41:10–14.)

Clearly, in those passages, the “helper” does not have a subservient role. If anything, it’s the opposite. God supplies what Israel lacks. As Old Testament scholar Mary Conway explains, “the phrase kenegdo is best translated as ‘corresponding to him,’ a term that implies competence and equality, rather than subordination or inferiority.”

In fact, the word ʿēzer occurs as a common noun over 90 times in the Old Testament but never refers to what servants or subordinates do for their masters.

If you are in danger of losing a battle, what you need is an ʿēzer—another squadron of troops or divine intervention—to come alongside and bolster your flagging army.

What does this mean for women? The man is not in need of a secretary, a sidekick, or someone to carry out his orders. Rather, he needs a full partner in the work of ruling creation, maintaining the garden, and guarding it from intruders. He needs a woman.

The word “helper” does not do justice to the role God designed for women to fill in Genesis 2. “Necessary ally” or “essential partner” might be better ways to translate this word.

As a card-carrying member of the evangelical movement, it’s a mystery to me how many segments of our community have by and large rooted their doctrine of gender roles in Genesis 3 rather than in Genesis 2. It’s true that Genesis 3 presents gender hierarchy: “Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you” (Gen. 3:16).

But that dynamic comes from the terrible consequences of human rebellion. Eve ultimately failed in her job to help Adam carry out their commission to guard the garden. A shrewd intruder cast doubt on the suitability of God’s command, and husband and wife bought the lie—hook, line, and sinker. As a result, their relationship with God was badly fractured, as was their relationship with each other and the earth they were supposed to steward.

Notice, though, that the woman was held fully accountable for her own sin and the man for his. If Eve were merely a sidekick, God would not address her as a full moral agent—responsible for her own obedience to God’s command. And if the fault were solely hers, then the man would not also bear guilt.

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Here’s my point: It’s a mistake to see Genesis 3 as a paradigm for human relationships and especially male-female ones. This text is describing the consequences of human rebellion, not God’s original intention.

God announces that the woman will have a hard time because her husband will dominate, not because things should be this way but because human sin led them to a place of dysfunction. They elected to trust their own wisdom rather than God’s, and that mistake didn’t end well.

God didn’t desire thorns, thistles, and male domination any more than expectant parents carefully design a time-out corner for their children before they’re born. If we want to recapture God’s vision for creation, then, we need to lean into Genesis 1 and 2 instead, where men and women stand side by side as allies in the work God designed for us to do.

But doesn’t Adam name Eve? And doesn’t naming imply hierarchy? I’m not at all sure that naming implies hierarchy. (For example, Hagar names God in Genesis 16:13.) But even if it does, as theology professor Glenn Kreider points out, Adam names Eve after the fall, not before (Gen. 3:20).

With all this in mind, let’s revise the two common assumptions about what these chapters teach:

God appointed men and women to lead together.

Women are made to support men’s leadership by leading with them.

Don’t hear what I’m not saying. I’m not denying that women should be servants. The Bible is very clear that all of us, regardless of gender, ought to take a posture of servanthood in relation to one another. Jesus was the servant of all, and he calls all of us to imitate him.

According to the Book of Exodus, service is the essential expression of Israel’s vocation. That whole story is framed as a major shift from serving Pharaoh to serving Yahweh (Ex. 7:16).

As we think about our lives today, that calling hasn’t expired. The problem comes when we read “service” back into the word “helper” in Genesis 2:18 and apply it unevenly on the basis of gender. It’s not there in Genesis 2. To say otherwise is to do violence to the text.

While these ideas are not the Bible’s final word on gender roles, they do provide an important place to start the conversation. And it’s a very helpful place to begin.

Carmen Joy Imes is an associate professor of Old Testament at Biola University’s Talbot School of Theology and the author of Bearing God’s Name: Why Sinai Still Matters.

Parts of this article were adapted from Being God’s Image: Why Creation Still Matters by Carmen Joy Imes (InterVarsity Academic, 2023). Published with permission.

Speaking Out is Christianity Today’s guest opinion column and (unlike an editorial) does not necessarily represent the opinion of the publication.