Seeing Male Authority as God’s Design: Where Did This Idea Come From?

I’ve been reading St. Augustine’s work lately. Specifically, I’ve read about his enthusiasm for Plato’s philosophy. He discovered books, he said, in Milan that explained life the universe and everything from Plato’s perspective.

In a nutshell, Plato saw the world in dualistic terms. He talked about the spiritual world and the physical world. He also talked about intellect and emotion. In both cases, he believed that one side of the dyad must rule over the other. The spirit must rule the body, and intellect must rule emotion. Put in other terms, the body must be subject to the spirit, and the emotions must be subject to the intellect.

St. Augustine embraced these principles wholeheartedly. He also said that they helped him to make sense of the Bible and his Christian faith. This is very evident in his biblical commentaries, particularly in his work on Genesis.

When Augustine read that Adam referred to Eve as “flesh of my flesh” (Genesis 2:23), he experienced a flash of insight. It suddenly occurred to him that because Eve is referred to as “flesh,” Adam must represent the “spirit.” Just as the spirit must rule the flesh, he concluded, God created men to rule over women. Today, this is referred to as an “order of creation theology.”

What really struck me about Augustine’s story is that his conclusion–that men should rule over women–cannot be found in the pages of the Bible itself. Genesis 2:23 makes no mention of Adam as the “spirit,” for example, and he is not in any way described as Eve’s “ruler.” It seems that Augustine’s conclusion is pure inference, and given his enthusiasm for Plato’s philosophy, it’s not difficult to imagine where the idea came from. In fact the only mention of Adam “ruling over” Eve is described in Genesis as a consequence of sin (Genesis 3:16). A hierarchical relationship is not depicted as God’s intention for creation.

I’ve also been reading some of John Calvin’s commentaries. He admits being strongly influenced by Augustine, in much the same way as Augustine was influenced by Plato. John Calvin had a similar epiphany, he said, when he read the book of Genesis. When he saw that Eve was described as Adam’s “help” (Genesis 2:18), he concluded that woman was made for man and must therefore be subject to him. Calvin’s flash of insight, by the way, also serves as a theological basis for an “order of creation theology.”

What really struck me about Calvin’s story is that once again–just like Augustine–his conclusion (that men should rule over women) cannot be found in the pages of the Bible itself. Genesis 2:18 says nothing about the word “help” being an indication of a subordinate role. In fact, the same Hebrew word (ezer) used to describe Eve as Adam’s “help,” is also used of God (Psalm 70:5). It seems that John Calvin’s conclusion was pure inference, and given his enthusiasm for the works of St. Augustine, it’s not difficult to imagine where the idea came from.

I’ve also been reading John Piper’s commentary work on the creation account. John describes himself as a “seven point Calvinist.” In other words, it seems that he enthusiastically embraces the theological works of John Calvin. He claims that men have authority over women because of the “order of creation,” and because Eve was Adam’s “assistant.”  That’s a very accurate summary of the works of both Augustine and Calvin. (

I wonder if John Piper and other like-minded complementarians realize that the worldview they have internalized actually originated with Plato, and that for centuries people have been interpreting the Bible through the lenses of his philosophy?  I think its long past time we set those lenses aside.


From Plato’s Republic:

“Let me further note that the manifold and complex pleasures and desires and pains are generally found in children and women and servants…. Whereas the simple and moderate desires which follow reason, and are under the guidance of the mind and true opinion, are to be found only in a few, and those the best born and best educated.”

“Very true. These two, as you may perceive, have a place in our State; and the meaner desires of the [many] are held down by the virtuous desires and wisdom of the few.”

“Seeing then, I said, that there are three distinct classes, any meddling of one with another, or the change of one into another, is the greatest harm to the State, and may be most justly termed evil-doing? This then is injustice.”

“You are quite right, he replied, in maintaining the general inferiority of the female sex….”


From St. Augustine’s Confessions and Commentaries:

“Simplicianus congratulated me that I had not fallen upon the writings of other philosophers, which were full of fallacies and deceit, ‘after the beggarly elements of this world,’ whereas in the Platonists, at every turn, the pathway led to belief in God and his Word.” (Augustine’s Confessions, Book VIII, Chapter II)


“When she was made of his rib, Adam said, ‘This is now bone of my bone, and flesh of my flesh….’ Flesh, then, is put for woman, in the same manner that spirit is sometimes put for husband. Wherefore? Because the one rules, the other is ruled; the one ought to command, the other to serve. For where the flesh commands and the spirit serves, the house is turned the wrong way. What can be worse than a house where the woman has the mastery over the man? But that house is rightly ordered where the man commands and the woman obeys. In like manner that man is rightly ordered where the spirit commands and the flesh serves.” (On John, Tractate 2, § 14)


“It is the natural order among people that women serve their husbands and children their parents, because the justice of this lies in (the principle that) the lesser serves the greater…. This is the natural justice that the weaker brain serve the stronger. This therefore is the evident justice in the relationships between slaves and their masters, that they who excel in reason, excel in power.” (Questions on the Heptateuch, Book I, § 153)


From John Calvin:

“Augustine is so wholly with me, that if I wished to write a confession of my faith, I could do so with all fullness and satisfaction to myself out of his writings.”


“Let the woman be satisfied with her state of subjection, and not take it amiss that she is made inferior to the more distinguished sex.” (Oliphant, J. (2011). AQA Religious Ethics for AS and A2. New York, NY: Routledge.)

“John Calvin, an influential theologian from centuries past, concluded that the word ‘help’ or ‘helper’ means ‘inferior aid.'” (Trombley, C. (2003). Who Said Women Can’t Teach? ( p. 83). Gainsville, FL: Bridge-Logos Publishers)

From John Piper:

“And God intends for all the ‘weaknesses’ that characteristically belong to woman to call forth and highlight man’s strengths.”

“God created man first…and then created woman as his partner and assistant…”

“The reason this is important to see is that both in the case of church order and family order Paul is basing his teaching on God’s original order in creation.”