Biblical Perspectives on Men & Women in the Church

1. The Bible Affirms the Fundamental Equality of Men and Women as Image Bearers of God.

Both in their nature and in their worth, men and women possess equal value before God. Their essential equality and worth is rooted in the fact that, as human beings, both men and women are created in the image of God, and therefore reflect His nature. In the first chapter of the Bible, we read: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27). As God’s image-bearers, Adam and Eve, as a divinely matched team (Genesis 2:18), were given by God the mandate to reflect Him by ruling as His representatives, taking care of and protecting creation by exercising nurturing dominion over the earth (Genesis 1:28-30).

The role of men and women in the church is not a secondary issue, because it leads us back to our fundamental calling as human beings made in the likeness of God. In fact, this topic can only be rightly understood by pondering God’s nature, which we, His creatures, both male and female, were made to reflect. Only as both men and women root their identity and worth in Christ and in the redemption and new life we receive through faith in Him, can we fulfill the purpose for which God made us. Correctly understanding and courageous living out the truths of our identity and worth in Christ is the only way to reflect God clearly in the world.  There is no higher calling than that. And it is accomplished as husbands and wives in marriage and men and women in the church work together for the glory of Jesus in the world.

Tragically, mankind’s fall into sin created competition and power struggle (Genesis 3:16b) where there was meant to be healthy harmonizing interdependence. Rather than pursuing their shared calling to reflect God in the world, men and women started focusing on gender. Where God intended unity, Satan forced a wedge of conflict.

God’s work of redemption in Christ includes a recovery of the equality of the sexes and of their complementary teamwork in reflecting God’s image. Rather than finding our identity and worth in our gender, the redeemed, both men and women, are to find their identity and worth in being new creations “in Christ.” Believing men and women are equal and unified at the very deepest level by finding their core identity in Christ.

Our goal as redeemed men and women who find our identity in Christ should be to live out more and more what God says is true about our unity: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). We are all one in Christ Jesus.

The Bible doesn’t just value men and women in theory; Scripture expects both and women to actively serve in the believing community according to their gifting. Under the New Covenant, established through the death and resurrection of Jesus, both men and women receive the Spirit of Christ through faith in Jesus (Acts 2:17-18) and are gifted by the same Spirit to serve and minister in the Church for the good of the whole Body (Romans 12:4-8; 1 Corinthians 12:7; Ephesians 4:7,16). Just as it was the complementary combination of Adam and Eve that most completely revealed the image of God in mankind, in the same way it is the teamwork of men and women in the Body of Christ that most fully reveals Christ to the world.

2. The Bible presents an expansive view of men and women functioning according to their gifts and abilities. 

Paul teaches that spiritual gifts are given by God as He sees fit, apart from gender.  Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good” (1 Cor. 12:7). “Each one” refers to every member of the church, so it is evident that the Spirit has given both men and women gifts that need to be exercised for the common good.  In the same way, Peter uses no gender distinction, when he writes, Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others,as faithfulstewards of God’s grace in its various forms” (1 Peter 4:10).

In the Old Testament the Spirit came upon prophets, kings, and skilled workmen, in order to empower them for service.  Most of these were men; however, we need to remember that women functioned as judges (Deborah), prophets (Miriam), and even warriors (Jael).  Even if the more common sphere of functioning was the domestic arena, the woman portrayed in Proverbs 31 represents someone with business acumen and broad influence, who effectively employs her abilities for the good of her family and community.   She is deserving of honor and respect. 

Considered against its cultural backdrop, the New Testament is radically counter-cultural in its view of women.  Jesus sets the tone.  For example, Jesus approved of Mary, the sister of Martha, positioning herself as a disciple at His feet (Luke 10:39), a privilege normally extended only to men in that culture.  Jesus broke through several cultural barriers when He freely spoke to the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4).  It is not without significance that the resurrected Christ appeared first to women, who, contrary to cultural expectations, became the first to give testimony to the resurrection.      

On the Day of Pentecost, Peter interprets the arrival of the Spirit as the fulfillment of a prophecy of Joel, in which God promises: “I will pour out my Spirit on all people…Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days” (Joel 2:28-29, italics added).  The Spirit is given equally to men and women who believe in Christ. 

In fact, it is evident that Spirit-filled women did play a prominent role in the early church.  Dorcas, whom Peter raised from the dead, was “always doing good and helping the poor” (Acts 9:36).  Lydia, Paul’s first European convert, was instrumental in the establishment of the church at Philippi (Acts 16).  Paul commends Phoebe to the church in Rome, calling her a “deacon” and “patroness” of the church in Cenchreae (Romans 16:1-2).  In this same chapter Paul also greets Priscilla and Aquila (16:3), a couple who had ministered in more than one city with Paul.  Priscilla, along with her husband, had helped mentor Apollos in the gospel (Acts 18:26).  In this same list of greetings, Paul calls Junia an outstanding “apostle” (16:7).  Here, the word “apostle” does not refer to the “Twelve” but rather means something akin to “missionary.” Paul goes on to greet several other women who “worked hard” with him for the sake of the gospel.  It is reasonable to assume that the labor of these women also included communication of the gospel message to others. 

Scripture clearly teaches the fundamental equality of men and women, as well as values both men and women functioning according to their gifting and abilities.  The essential equality of men and women, however, does not preclude the existence of a functional order between the sexes.

3. For the Purpose of accomplishing His Mission, God established a Functional Order between Men and Women in Marriage and in the Church. 

For the sake of the healthy functioning of marriage and the church, God has established an order of responsibility in the family and in the church.  The “functional order” is the organization or administration of responsibility in marriage and the church for the sake of accomplishing a goal; it is not related to any inherent inequalities.   In other words, functional order in marriage and in the church relates to the purpose of the relationship and not to the essence of the participants.  The functional order in the Godhead illustrates this perfectly.  Any functional order between the genders must, first of all, be understood in light of the functional order between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. 

Although all three members of the Godhead (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) are equal in essence, there is an established order of responsibility in their purpose of saving us.  Jesus gladly submitted himself to the Father’s headship.  Paul writes, But I want you to understand thatthe head of every man is Christ,the head of a wifeis her husband, andthe head of Christ is God(1 Cor. 11, italics added).  The fact that Jesus operated under the headship of the Father in no way diminished his oneness and equality with the Father.  The purpose for the functional order was to accomplish God’s redemption plan, namely our salvation. Jesus’ identity was securely found in His oneness with the Father (“I and the Father are one” John 10:30), and so Jesus gladly fulfilled His role in God’s plan to redeem us and make us one with Him.  In the same way, any functional order established by God in marriage and in the church is not based on any differences between men and women as far as their identity or worth are concerned.  Their identity and worth are anchored in Jesus.  Rather, the purpose of any functional order in marriage and in the church is to accomplish the mission God has given us—to reflect Christ and continue his redemptive work in the world.      

The distinguishing issue between men and women in marriage and in the church is not that of equality, value, gifting, or even ministry/service.  The distinction is not one of ability but rather of responsibility and accountability. Even though Eve also sinned, God held Adam responsible for sin entering into the human race and bringing death (Romans 5:12; 1 Corinthians 15:22).  In the same way, God holds husbands responsible for the well-being of the family and male overseers/elders accountable for the well-being of the church.  Positively stated, the responsibility of a husband is to love his wife and to help her reach her spiritual potential (Ephesians 5:25-30).  The responsibility of an overseer/elder is to help each believer in the church reach his or her spiritual potential (1 Peter 5:1-5). 

Scripture holds the husband responsible and accountable for the health of marriage:  “For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church,his body, of which he is the Savior” (Ephesians 5:23).  As Paul makes clear, the purpose of male headship in marriage is to reflect the love of Christ—love which puts the best of the other ahead of itself (Ephesians 5:25).  If love is the governing factor, then mutual submission and service will characterize the relationship (Ephesians 5:2).  The role of the husband is not to suppress his wife but to lovingly serve her in such a way that she rises to her spiritual potential in Christ (Ephesians 5:25-33).  There is no biblical indication that women are to submit to all men or to men in general; rather, wives are to respect their husbands (Ephesians 5:22, 33). Where both a husband and wife have their identity and value firmly founded in Christ and their vision clearly focused on the goal of reflecting the truth of the love relationship between Christ and his Church, God’s functional order for marriage, far from being a burden, leads rather to harmony, satisfaction, and impact.      

In a similar way, God holds male overseers/elders in the church responsible and accountable for the health of the church (Hebrews 13:17).  Paul’s description of the qualifications for the position of overseer/elder in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9 clearly indicates that this role of responsibility in the church is intended for qualified men.  In these texts Paul uses plural masculine nouns in referring to overseers/elders.  Paul describes the overseer/elder as “a one-woman man” who is to “lead his family well.”  In the church, overseers/elders are given the role and responsibility of caring for and serving the whole flock: “Be shepherds of God’s flockthat is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be;not pursuing dishonest gain,but eager to serve;not lording it overthose entrusted to you, but being examplesto the flock” (1 Peter 5:2-3).  Clearly, the purpose of the functional order in the church is to reflect the work of Jesus, the Good Shepherd. 

All authority is in Jesus Christ, who is the Head of the Church.  In love, Jesus exercises His authority for the good of the church, His people.  He administrates this through the functional order established in the church.  The authority of an overseer/elder is a vested or communicated authority that comes from Christ and must reflect Christ’s character and pursue Christ’s purposes.  The headship of overseers/elders in the church will be expressed through acts of love and sacrificial service.  The role of overseer/elder is not to suppress the men and women in his care but rather to serve them in such a way that they are encouraged and motivated to grow, to use their spiritual gifts, and to rise to maturity in Christ.  Men and women are to have confidence in their leaders and submit to their authority in such a way that the loving labor of the overseer/elder is a joy (Hebrews 13:17).

All believers, both men and women, are commanded by scripture to submit to the secular, governing authorities, without regard to gender (Romans 13:1-5). 

Finally, in talking about the functional order of man and woman, we do not want to lose sight of God’s overall purpose and intent.  God created Adam and Eve to be intimate teammates, who would complement each other on an incredible mission.  According to Genesis 2:18, God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.”  In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word for “helper” is also used of God himself.  God is One who helps.  Therefore, to help is to reflect something true about God.  This was strong help, indeed, and just the kind that Adam needed.  It was “suitable” help in that it complemented and completed Adam.  Man and woman need each other in order to accomplish their God-given goal of reflecting and representing God on this earth.  The existence of functional order in marriage and the church should not negate but rather facilitate the need for mutual dependence between men and women.  In the Lord woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman” writes Paul (1 Cor. 11:11).  We should not lose sight of this truth.  Paul admonishes the believers in Ephesus to “Submit to one anotherout of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21).  In other words, believers in the church, both male and female, whether single or married, are to reveal the love of Christ by pursuing the best for each other.  We, the church, are a team, a body.  As we work together, submitting first to Christ, then to one another, we will reflect together, as male and female, the glory of Christ. 

Our highest calling, then, as men and women, whether in the family or in the church, is to live in unity and teamwork that reflects and exalts Christ.  This is done through mutual submission.  Men must lead lovingly by valuing women and encouraging them to use all their gifts in ministry.  Women must confidently use their gifts, respectful of the responsibility and accountability that husbands and overseers/elders carry before God.  When we celebrate one another and respect the functional order God has established, there is joy and effectiveness. 

In conclusion then, we affirm the fundamental equality of men and women, as well as the complementary and interdependent nature of their design.  Women should be encouraged and expected to exercise their Spirit-given gifts and abilities, while respecting the God-patterned and God-ordained headship of husbands in marriage and overseers/elders in the church.

The burden is on husbands to lead lovingly in the home and on overseers/elders to lead selflessly in the church.  Where qualified elders are in place and leading well, by putting ahead of themselves the good of those under their care, there is great freedom for men and women to minister and serve according to their gifting.

Appendix A:  Biblical Headship (responsibility & accountability)

Paul’s argument for male headship in the home (husbands) and in the church (overseers/elders) is rooted not in first century Greco-Roman culture but rather in the creation order itself.  The reason Paul gives for not allowing a woman to function in the role of overseer/elder in the church is that “Adam was formed first, then Eve” (1 Timothy 2:13). 

Paul also anchors his argument for male headship in the fact that Eve was deceived.  “And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner” (1 Timothy 2:14).  Just because Adam wasn’t deceived doesn’t mean he didn’t sin and become a sinner!  The difference is that Adam sinned knowingly.  God had given Adam the command not to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and therefore God held Adam accountable for the sin.  To this day, God holds husbands accountable for the health of the family and overseers/elders accountable for the health of the church.   

Finally, Paul bases his argument for male headship in the fact that woman was not only created after Adam (…man was not made from woman, but woman from man” 1 Cor. 11:8) but that she was also created as a “helper” for Adam:  Neither was man created for woman, butwoman for man” (1 Corinthians 11:9).  Paul’s statement hails back to Genesis 2:18, where we read Then the Lord God said, 'It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit (or suitable) for him.'"  God made woman not simply as another, identical person but as one who is equal to but different from man.  She was a “suitable” helper for Adam because she complemented him.  God gave Adam a strong “helper.”  The Hebrew word for “helper” (ezer) appears 21 times in the Old Testament.  Twice, in Genesis 2, it describes the woman.  But the majority of references refer to God as the helper of his people.  If “helper” is part of the nature of God then it is transmitted to those who are made in his image.  Clearly, then, the word “helper” does not connote a position of weakness or inferiority, as is often misunderstood.  If the Bible can call God our “helper,” then the description is supremely positive.  God created woman to be a strong warrior at man’s side to help him accomplish what he could not accomplish alone.

The creation order stands behind the functional order in marriage and in the church.  The headship of the husband in the home and the overseer/elder in the church is rooted, not in culture, but rather in the creation order itself.      

What about single women?  How does a single woman relate to the biblical concept of headship?  Obviously, a single woman is not under the headship of a husband, nor, as an adult, is she directly under the headship of her father.  However, as a part of the church family, a single woman lives under the protective covering of the spiritual authority structures of the church (Hebrews 13:17).    

The doctrine of headship leads to a couple of questions.

  1. May a woman be an elder or an overseer in a local church?  Because these are positions of responsibility, service, and accountability related to headship in the church, a woman may not assume these offices. 
  2. Things become a little less obvious when we talk about the word “pastor.”  May a woman be a pastor?  The answer depends on whether one is referring to the function of shepherding or to a position of responsibility equated with that of an overseer/elder.  

May a woman function “pastorally” in the sense of leading, shepherding, administrating, and caring for others within the church (under the headship of overseers/elders)?  Absolutely, yes!  A good deal of the ministry of the church is inspired, organized, and carried out by women.  Although we avoid using the term “pastor” in conjunction with women (for reasons stated below), the church would be in bad shape without the shepherding heart and function of women in many contexts (not to speak of their organizational and administrative gifts).  Wise elders will encourage, rather than discourage, the shepherding function of women in the church.

May a woman fill the position of “pastor” in the church?  In most churches in our culture, the role of “pastor” is equated with that of overseer/elder, and therefore associated with headship.  For that reason, a woman may not fill the position that we call “pastor/elder.”

  1. In what ways can a woman exercise the gift of leadership in the church?  Can a woman be a part of a leadership team?  Women are encouraged to use their leadership skills in various contexts, especially ministry teams.  In our context, the only team that women are not a part of leading is the Board of Overseers, which is comprised of our church’s elected elders.  They perform a clear headship role in our church.   
  2. May a woman teach in the church?  See Appendix B

Appendix B:  Teaching

What does Paul mean when he says, I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man.” (1 Timothy 2:12)?

When Paul says I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man,” he is talking about the kind of authoritative teaching that an elder exercised in order to confront heresy and establish doctrine for the church.  Paul is not saying that women don’t receive the gift of teaching, nor is he prohibiting women from teaching in every context within the church.  In Titus 2:3-5, Paul instructs the “older women” to “teach what is good,and so train the young women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled, pure, working at home, kind, andsubmissive to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be reviled.”  In other places we see that Priscilla and her husband together instructed Apollos (Acts 18:26).  Paul calls several women “co-workers” in the gospel (see especially Romans 16).  Of course, there is the interesting case of Philip’s four unmarried daughters “who prophesied” (Acts 21:9).   Timothy’s faith was shaped by his godly mother and grandmother, who taught him from the scriptures (2 Timothy 1:5; 2 Timothy 3:14-15). It goes almost without saying that women have been instrumental in the teaching of children in the home and in the church.  From these and other cases, it seems unlikely that Paul is making a blanket statement that women are prohibited from teaching.  Rather, Paul is saying that women may not teach as an overseer/elder, establishing doctrine for the church and thereby assuming the headship role of an overseer/elder.  It would seem that Paul’s prohibition to women teaching here is a response to an abnormal, aberrant situation where certain women in the church were not respecting the role of overseer/elder.  However, where there are qualified overseers/elders in place, as well as proper respect for their role and responsibility, there is freedom for women to use the gift of teaching.

So, in what contexts may a woman exercise the gift of teaching in the church?  Where appropriate headship is functioning, a woman may teach in almost any context in the life of the church.  The authoritative teaching of the church is found in the inspired scriptures of the Old and New Testaments.  The authority is in the Word of God and in the competent, caring oversight of the overseers/elders.  Where this is understood and practiced, there is the potential for women to be involved in all aspects of teaching.    

Appendix C:  Are women to be “silent” in the church?

Two passages need to be addressed.  There are two occasions where Paul says that women are to “be silent” in the churches (1 Cor. 14:34-35 and 1 Timothy 2:11-12)?  What does he mean?

First, Paul’s admonition in these verses should be understood in harmony with Paul’s other teachings.  We must allow scripture to interpret scripture.  In 1 Corinthians 11, Paul writes that a woman who “prophesies or prays” (11:5, see also verse 13) in public should wear a head covering.  The prohibition in these verses is not against participating verbally in a public worship service but rather against doing so in a dishonorable way that disrespects the God-ordained functional order in marriage and the church (i.e. headship).  

Second, we need to understand the cultural and historical context of Paul’s admonition.  Roman women had little power and few political and personal rights.  They were rarely educated.  Although they were allowed to attend public events, they were not allowed to lead them.  For example, women were allowed to attend the theater, but they were not allowed to act in plays.   The Christian church not only allowed women to attend, they were encouraged to participate…within culturally acceptable boundaries.  A culturally and spiritually unacceptable lack of respect for functional order in the church appears to be the background for both instances when Paul admonishes women to “be silent.” 

In Corinth, women were overstepping the functional order in the church in a way that was disruptive and unhelpful to the case of the gospel.  It is clear in 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 that women were speaking up during the service, either asking inappropriate questions or asking questions inappropriately.  These women were adding to the disorder that already plagued the Corinthian church.  However they were speaking, it was not demonstrating appropriate respect for the functional order and headship in the church.             

In 1 Timothy 2:11-12, Paul says that a woman in the church is to “learn quietly with all submissiveness…she must be silent.”  These statements are set over against the idea of a woman teaching or assuming authority over a man.  Again, it would appear that Paul is not denying speech to women but rather prohibiting any kind of speech that oversteps the functional order in the church.

This argument is undergirded by the fact that in the case of both 1 Cor. 14 and the 1 Tim. 2, the word “silent” can also be translated “quiet” (as it is in the ESV).  The word “quiet” puts the emphasis on a demeanor of peace, order, and tranquility rather than on the absolute absence of speech.  The issue is not the act of talking but the manner of talking. 

We conclude that Paul did, in fact, permit women to speak in the assembly; however, not in a disruptive way or in a way that dishonored or disrespected the leadership of the church.