Women in leadership
Men and women are of equal value
Genesis 1v27 tells us that:
“God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”
Here we see that from the very beginning, men and women are equal in value to God as they are both wonderfully created in his image. In the next verses, we see that God gives both the man and the woman the whole earth to rule over and enjoy:
“28 God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” 29 Then God said, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food.” Genesis 1:28-29
The man and the woman are loved by God. We see here that he speaks not just to the man, but to them. God initiates a relationship with both of them, gives both of them a job to do, and then tells them that the blessings of this world are theirs to share and enjoy together.
Men and Women are different in personhood
It is obvious that men and women are different physically and that women have the special responsibility for motherhood which men do not. It is also obvious that men and women are different emotionally (There are many books written on this subject!) But where did these differences come from?
To be made in God’s image is to be made for relationship. God himself, as Trinity, has always been in relationship within Himself. He is one God in three persons. Each person (Father, Son or Spirit) is equally God, but is still distinct and different in their personhood. As he creates the man and woman in his image, he creates them as relational beings - designed for relationship with him and each other. He also creates them to have the same value; they are equally human, but still distinct and different in their personhood.
Genesis 2:20b-24 expands on the previous verses to give more detail on how the man and woman were created:
“But for Adam no suitable helper was found. 21 So the LORD God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took one of the man’s ribs and closed up the place with flesh. 22 Then the LORD God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man.
23 The man said,
“This is now bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called ‘woman,’
for she was taken out of man.”
24 For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh.” Genesis 2:20b-24
In these verses we see both the equality of men and women and the differences. As they are of the same basic substance, her value is equal to his (Some have said that their equality is evidenced by the fact that God made the woman from Adam’s side, not his head that she might rule over him, nor his feet that he should trample on her. This is a lovely, but slightly speculative thought!). Indeed, from the love song the man sings in verse 23, and the commentary in verse 24, we realise that he saw her as a partner - they were one flesh.
We do, however, also start to see some of the differences in their personhood.
God creates the man first, and makes the woman from the man. The apostle Paul picks up on this order of creation in his discussion of head coverings in worship (1 Corinthians 11:2-16). This passage is notoriously difficult to interpret (due to the cultural gap between modern life and 1st century Corinth), but we can say that Paul sees this creation order as evidence of the priority of male headship in the marriage relationship. Headship is not domination, but rather responsible, God-glorifying leadership. The great ‘head’ of all humankind is Christ himself, so husbands are to be head of the wives in the same way that Christ is the head of them. Ephesians 5:21-24 says:
“21 Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. 22 Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Saviour. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.”
Jesus never dominates or oppresses his people, but rather gives up his life for them and leads them forward: protecting, teaching and encouraging them to worship God with their lives. The next verses make this more explicit:
“25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her 26 to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, 27 and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.” Ephesians 5:25-27
Here we see that headship is not easy. It is sacrificial. The husband is to give up his life for his wife. Marriage requires sacrificial commitment on the part of the husband, even to the point of death. Many husbands still essentially live the same way they did when they were single. They live for themselves and put their own desires and needs first. The Christian - Christ-like - husband will stop being selfish and serve his wife with sacrificial leadership.
We also see here that proper headship is responsible. The husband is to step up and take responsibility for the spiritual growth of his wife. He is to lead her forwards by teaching and encouragement, just as he is responsible for instructing any children they might have in the Lord (Ephesians 6:4). We also learn from 1 Timothy 5:8, that he is to step up to his responsibilities for meeting the physical needs of his family. Indeed, if he does not, he is “worse than an unbeliever”!
The second difference in role is that we see that God makes the woman to be a suitable helper to the man. The word ‘suitable’ here again emphasises her spiritual equality and value with the man - she stands in contrast to the animals which are not like him - but she also has a role, which is different to the man’s: she is to be his ‘helper’. She is not to lead him, but rather support him. Again, the apostle Paul helps us to understand this different role in Ephesians 5:21-24. He uses the term submission. To submit is to willingly put oneself under the authority of another. All Christians should submit to Christ as Lord and, indeed to each other “out of reverence for Christ”. His sacrifice on the cross was just as much for others as it is for you, His Holy Spirit is equally in you as it is in other believers. In other words, we are called to respect and honour each other as equally His.
However, Paul goes on to say, that there is a special submission required from a wife to her husband. A wife is not to be her husband’s head or leader, but is to respectfully and willingly submit to his leadership. Just as with sacrifice and responsibility in leadership, submission is not always easy, especially when the husband is not leading in a Christ-like way, or indeed when he is not a believer at all. However, we need to accept that if God says something is good, then it is actually good. Submission in marriage from the wife to the husband is good for the marriage. It encourages the husband to take the responsibilities that God has given him, it demonstrates a great honour and respect for him, it enables more effective decisions to be made when there are differences of opinion, and ultimately it glorifies God by recognising that He is in control of all things and that He knows what is best for us.
In summary, Paul’s writings reflect the Genesis account and say that husbands and wives are to work in a complementary partnership to serve God and glorify him together. The husband is to demonstrate God-glorifying sacrificial and responsible leadership; the wife is to demonstrate God-glorifying respectful submission. That is God’s plan for marriage. Both men and women will honour and serve him best by reflecting their distinct and different personhood, as God designed them to be.
Should women be leaders in church?
In 1 Timothy, the apostle Paul gives instructions to Timothy on how to organise the church he is helping to establish in Ephesus. In 1 Timothy 2:11-14, it says this:
“12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve. 14 And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner.”
Here, Paul is addressing an issue that has occurred in the church. It seems that some women have been trying to take over the leadership of the church. Paul is strong in his language against this. He makes it clear that women are not to have a position of authority over men in the church, just as within marriage. It is important to recognise here that Paul’s justification for this position is not a cultural one, but rather an argument from creation and the fall. He gives two reasons: that Adam was formed first and that Eve sinned first. In Paul’s mind this establishes the pattern of male leadership and female submission. It could be said that this is just for marriage, and not for church life. However, in the next chapter Paul continues, not with discussion of marriage, but of church leadership.
There are essentially two offices for church governance - that of Elder and Deacon. ‘Elder’ is the Greek term ‘presbuteros’ (Literally: ‘Old man’) which is a title used for the senior leadership in the local church. In the New Testament, the terms used for local church leadership (overseer, elder, leader, shepherd, pastor-teacher) are used interchangeably, although each emphasises a different aspect of the role. The qualifications for these senior leaders are laid out in Titus 1:5-9 and 1 Timothy 3:1-7. It is important to note that the requirements to be an elder are, on the whole, not skill based but character based, with a strong emphasis on their reputation within the family environment and with outsiders. Elders are responsible directing the affairs of the church, ruling over it, teaching it (1 Timothy 5:17 - though it seems that not all elders were primarily teachers), caring for their people and for protecting them (1 Peter 5:2-5, Acts 20:28-31). It is noteworthy that in the entire New Testament, the senior church leader (whether the term is overseer, elder, leader, shepherd, pastor-teacher) is always a man.
We should note that there are many prominent women in important ministry roles in the New Testament. Jesus Christ, the Gospel writers and the apostle Paul are radically counter-cultural in the high status they give to women. In the culture of the day, women were marginalised and had little authority at all, whether in public or in private. So to even mention women as being in ministry positions at all was highly unusual. However, even with their positive view of the value of women, they still never appointed a woman to a senior leadership position in the church, nor did they instruct others to do so. It is important to explain the references to women in ministry, as we do below, but in a church seeking to follow the New Testament model today, senior church leaders (elders), should be male.
The Greek word for deacon (diakonos) simply means ‘servant’, but it is used in the New Testament church as a title for an assistant leader in a local church. In Acts 6:1-7, we see that as the church grew, it became necessary for the apostles to appoint helpers to share the burden of leadership by taking over some of the more practical tasks. This set a pattern for the structure of leadership in the church, which we see Paul describe in more detail in 1 Timothy 3. The qualifications for deacons are mostly the same as that of elders, but the exception is that elders are required to have a teaching gift and deacons are not. Deacons, like elders, must be respected by their peers, hold to the ‘deep truths of the faith’ and must be people of good character.
It is possible that women acted as deacons in the New Testament churches. The Greek word ‘gune’ in 1 Timothy 3:11, is better translated as ‘the women’ instead of ‘their wives’. In the context of these verses, it would not make much sense to hold the wives of deacons to a higher standard than the wives of elders, of whom no requirements are made. In addition to this, in Romans 16:1 the word diakonos is used of woman called Phoebe, a deacon of the church in Cenchrea. Also, there are many occasions where women are described as having some sort of servant-leadership function in the church (Priscilla, Mary, Tryphena and Tryphosa, and Persis in Romans 16; Euodia and Syntyche in Philippians 4:2-3; and Nympha in Colossians 4:15). Today, Deacons would often take on the roles of hospitality, administration, finances, building maintenance, caring for the physical needs of the congregation and many other tasks that could not be fulfilled by the elders without detriment to the work of word ministry and prayer. Nowhere in the Bible do deacons have the same authority as elders to rule the church, and as they are not required to be able to teach scripture, it is likely they do not hold a teaching office. Therefore, to appoint a woman to this role would not have to contradict 1 Timothy 2:11-12, as long she was always acting in submission to the elders of the church, and was not in a position of authority over her husband. This way of understanding ‘deaconship’ can explain the many references we see in scripture referring to women in prominent roles in the church.
God has restricted the office of senior church leadership to men because that is the way he says the church will function best to his glory. This is not a reflection of a difference in value of men and women, but rather a difference in role. Scripture says that He wants godly men to step up and take responsibility for overseeing the people of God in the local church. But Scripture also shows us that godly women are essential for the life of the church. They have been - and must continue to be - prominent and effective in many areas of ministry, if the church is to best glorify God. Women are incredibly important for the discipleship and teaching of other women, in mission work at home and overseas, in evangelism, in youth work and children’s ministry, in prison ministry, in ministries to the poor and marginalised, in pastoral care, in music ministry and in counselling. Throughout history and across the world today, God works through women to build His church for His glory.