May 2, 2010 Matt Pennock

Women’s Roles in the Church

One of the deep divisions and controversies of our time is over the issue of the role of women in the Church. A number of theological propositions have been made as to whether women should be allowed to be ordained as elders in a local church or not. Essentially, the egalitarian school of thought says that they can while the complementarian school says that they cannot. The Bible teaches about a seemingly paradoxical dualism where we are, on the one hand male and female,1 and on the other, neither male nor female.2

In Christ, all are not the same but all are one. The Holy Spirit was not given to the church to reinforce exclusive rights to men. He was given to make the Church work and flourish. Choosing who should and should not become ordained as elders then should be based on the wisest choice which means spending time in prayer. Typically, and biblically, men most often end up being the choice. Jesus spent a lot of time in prayer before choosing his disciples which tells us that God led him to choose all males to be his primary apostles. But there is no law in regards to this, nor should there be. Thus, if the circumstances dictate that the best choice for an eldership role is a woman, then we should let it be so. In many places in the world, the only viable option for church leadership may be a woman, especially if the woman is the most knowledgeable in the ways of following Christ. Men should be men and women should be women, but the Church does not belong to either of them. It belongs to Christ alone.

Based on Original Design or the Future Kingdom?

The complementarian view says that women should not be ordained as elders, because the church structure and authority is based on family structure and authority,3 and the family structure is based on God’s original design of Adam and Eve who were given separate and distinct roles as father and mother.4 The egalitarian view typically holds that it is ok for women to be ordained as elders because church structure is based on the future, eschatological kingdom of God in which we are brothers and sisters, and not on the temporal Adam and Eve design as fathers and mothers.  Harper and Metzger write, “Our thesis is that if we view the church as a community that is fundamentally eschatological…we will necessarily move to a more egalitarian philosophy of leadership in the church…” (Harper and Metzger 2009, 202)

So the question is what do we look to for the answer, the past or the future? Perhaps the best way to answer this question is to look to the teachings of Jesus and Paul who undoubtedly looked to the future themselves. Jesus’ and Paul’s lives were clearly Kingdom-oriented. Thus it is my opinion that difficult and controversial New Testament passages should be weighed in light of looking forward.  Jesus’ choices for the leaders of his new Church were—all twelve of them—men. Some people reason that Jesus based his decision on the creation order and that therefore men should be the leaders and women should not.

Alexander Strauch remarks,

Jesus’ choice of male leadership was an affirmation of the creation order as presented in Genesis 2:18-25. Before choosing the Twelve, Luke informs us that Jesus spent the entire night in prayer with His Father (Luke 6:12). As the perfect Son, in complete obedience and submission to His Father’s will, Jesus chose twelve males to be His apostles. Thus these men were God the Father’s choice. Jesus’ choice of male apostles was based on divine principles and guidance. (Strauch 1995, 53)

While I believe Jesus’ choices were based on divine guidance, it is an unqualified assumption at best to say that they were based on the creation order, for Jesus came to set people free, not impose more rules on them. The Apostle Paul’s remarks should not necessarily be taken as doctrine since he does not always base his prescriptive instruction on eschatological truths. Sometimes they are opinions or remarks in light of culture. For example, Paul’s statement about women having long hair would be nothing more than an arbitrary rule if the Church turned it into a doctrine. I don’t think it could be stressed enough that we have been freed from the rules so that we can live by wisdom. Wisdom is supreme! In discussing behaviors in church Paul goes back to the original creation account to support his statements.5 Does this mean he is writing rules for the Church? Certainly not. It simply means that Paul is expressing the wisdom of male leadership. God created all things, including men and women, in wisdom.

O LORD, how manifold are your works! In wisdom have you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures. (Psalm 104:24)

I am convinced that the New Testament was not given to us to be a source of rules in the Church Age. As an inspired text it is given to teach people how to live by the Holy Spirit and in the freedom of his wisdom and not by the letter of the law. Paul saw the creation order and story as relevant to church practice and leadership and therefore neither should we disregard the wisdom of the creation story. If the creation story teaches us about the family structure then there can be much to learn about church practice as well. But we must be careful not to write in rules over our heads for they will only fall on us in the end. Instead let us seat ourselves upon the wisdom of God. There was really only one command, or ‘rule’, in the early church: repent and be baptized.

The egalitarian points to Galatians 3:28 which says, “there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ.” The statement of faith for one large egalitarian church denies that God designed the male and female for different roles and that “human oneness was shattered after the fall.”6 But I think that this might be taking it too far for oneness does not imply sameness. Oneness implies two very different things working together in perfect harmony. What are we to make of the examples of Jesus submitting to the Father?7 And are not father and son distinct roles in themselves? It goes on to claim that “old divisions and hierarchies between genders and races are not to be tolerated in the Church where all are ‘one in Christ Jesus’.” With that, I can heartily agree. There should be no divisions or hierarchies based on how humans have been designed. (Beach 2008, 201-202)

But the family structure has definite roles. Only one can be the father and only one can be the mother. Taking the context into account, Galatians 3:28 speaks of different kinds of people being equally united in Christ in perfect harmony by the Spirit and not the absence of the differences. Indeed, it is not hard for anyone to see that after being baptized into Christ, we still remain every bit as male or female as we were before. In fact, in Christ, we undergo a redemptive work by the Holy Spirit toward our masculinity or femininity. The distinction is meant to be restored and not abolished!8

We Don’t Regard Anyone According to the Flesh

What does it mean when Paul says that we don’t regard anyone according to the flesh now that we are all united in Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection?9 Does it mean that we should not regard each other as men and women, or mothers and fathers in the Church? Harper and Metzger write, “in the church, a wife’s primary and eschatological relationship to her husband is one of brother/sister, taking priority over the temporal husband/wife relationship.” (Harper and Metzger 2009, 205)  John Piper asserts that manhood and womanhood go beyond the physical aspects to the very root of our personhood. (Piper, et al. 1991, 32) Thus, we should continue to regard each other as men and women. We cannot make the presumptuous mistake of thinking that masculinity and femininity are abolished in the Kingdom of God. It would be foolish and going too far to say that this is what Paul was teaching.  In fact, in case you didn’t notice, there is still a male-female distinction in the eschatological Kingdom of Heaven—we are brothers and sisters of one another, and sons and daughters of the Father God.10 We will, most assuredly, be every bit as man and woman in the eschatological Kingdom of God as we are now. The difference will be that our masculinity and femininity will be fully restored.11 Therefore while we no longer regard one another according to the flesh we do need to regard one another according to our masculine or feminine identity. In Ephesians 6:1-4 Paul teaches about the submission of children to their parents using the creation account even though in the Kingdom of God they would not be regarded as parents and children, but as brothers and sisters—as awkward as that might sound. The same would follow with instructions about submission and headship for husbands and wives. Obviously this does not mean that kids have free reign and that the husband-wife relationship ceases while in Church. Married couples will still act like married couples while they are in church. And so they should. But the premise of the argument here is in regards to what the Church means corporately and how it governs itself. The Church should govern itself in light of will be. Men should be men and women should be women, but the Church does not belong to either of them. It belongs to Christ alone.

When we are told by Paul to no longer regard one another according to the flesh we are compelled to think about our new spiritual identity. We don’t regard each other as sons and daughters of Adam anymore; we now regard each other as sons and daughters of God. Paul gives some important insights to the relationship between our natural designs and our heavenly design:

It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. Thus it is written, “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. But it is not the spiritual that is first but the natural, and then the spiritual. The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. As was the man of dust, so also are those who are of the dust, and as is the man of heaven, so also are those who are of heaven. Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven. – 1 Corinthians 15:44-49

We await this eagerly when our family structures and our church leadership are no longer necessary.12 Nonetheless, there is a level of egalitarianism that we should all experience because of our newness in the Spirit. We all have equal authority from God to heal the sick, cast out demons, and proclaim his Word as his ambassadors to the world.13 We also have the same source of wisdom within us, even if we are young.14 Men, women, and children alike, are equally enabled by the one Holy Spirit to express gifts, preach the gospel, rebuke spirits, teach sinners, lead his people, utter words of eternal wisdom, prophesy, use the name of Jesus in authority, and make requests of God.15 To be clear, all who are in Christ obtain equal authority over the kingdom of Satan and the world itself.16 In a time to come, all saints, male and female will judge the world and even the angels.17

The Curse of the Fall

In some egalitarian circles it is assumed that the subordination is a result of the sin and fallenness of Adam and Eve. Alvera Mickelsen argues that the creation order is irrelevant and that there was no subordination in the marriage of Adam and Eve before the fall but it appeared afterward as a result of sin. She writes, “Male dominance appears in Genesis 3:16 as part of the result of sin.” (Culver, et al. 1989, 184) However with a perspective like this one has great difficulty in reconciling Paul’s teachings on submission being, as they were, based on the situation before the fall. Raymond C. Ortlund explains the paradox of Adam and Eve being created equal but different:

Another indication of the paradox is that Adam welcomes Eve as his equal (“bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh”), yet he also names her (“she shall be called Woman”). God charged the man with naming the creatures and gave him the freedom to exercise his own judgment in each case. In doing so, Adam brought the earthly creation under his dominion. This royal prerogative extended to Adam’s naming of his helper. Nevertheless, the name he gives her, “Woman,” springs from his instantaneous recognition of her as the counterpart to “Man.”

Let us note this carefully. In designating her “Woman” the man interprets her identity in relation to himself. Out of his own intuitive comprehension of who she is, he interprets her as feminine, unlike himself, and yet as his counterpart and equal. Indeed, he sees in her his very own flesh. And he interprets the woman not only for his own understanding of her, but also for her self-understanding. God did not explain to the woman who she was in relation to the man, although He could have done so. He allowed Adam to define the woman, in keeping with Adam’s headship. Adam’s sovereign act not only arose out of his own sense of headship, it also made his headship clear to Eve. She found her own identity in relation to the man as his equal and helper by the man’s definition. Both Adam and Eve understood the paradox of their relationship from the start. (Piper, et al. 1991, 92)

In light of the creation, male headship did not appear as a result of sin. If this were the case, there would surely be instructions in the New Testament to the effect that such distinctions and roles are not to be tolerated. We find Paul emphatic about ridding the Church of racism but at the same time we find Paul affirming gender distinctions and roles.18 

This leads me to believe that the curse meant that the woman would be subordinated involuntarily by man—that is, ruled. Eve’s submission to Adam was entirely voluntary initially. She willfully submitted to his headship and his headship was worth submitting to. After the Fall, Adam’s headship was not so worthy—he needed to be commanded, chastised, disciplined, and given a Law in order to keep him on a loving track. The sin and curse of course came true and men everywhere, especially those with no knowledge of the ways of God, ruled their women whether they liked it or not. Men have certainly always oppressed women. The feminist movement reacted to this idea of submission to sinful, arrogant, and selfish man. I don’t blame them. Who would want to follow the lead of a corrupt human being? The liberation that Christ brought to women is exactly from this curse. The headship of Adam was not a curse but a blessing that became a curse. I imagine that sinless Adam was a joyful, pure, and holy human being who actually reflected a loving God. Sinless Adam disappeared and was replaced by sinful Adam. Indeed it was a cursed thing for Eve. But Christ turns it around and makes it a blessing again by calling men to be crucified with him and made anew into purified, joyful, and selfless human beings, something women would want to submit to.

Living in Light of What Will Be

As a church we are to live in light of what will be. We manifest the Kingdom reality on earth in the here and now in part, even as we wait for its complete fulfillment. However, the fact that there needs to be elders, deacons, prophets, evangelists, pastors, preachers, structure, authority, baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and the like, testifies to the truth that although the Church has a mandate to live in light of what will be, it also has a mandate to live in light of what is. In the future kingdom there are no local church congregations with pastors, elders, deacons, or prophets. Those roles themselves are only temporal, and not eternal. Accordingly we have a mandate to live in light of our future inheritance, but at the same time should not discard the importance of how we were created. Men should be men and women should be women, but the Church does not belong to either of them. It belongs to Christ alone.


1 Genesis 1:27; Mark 10:6

2 Galatians 3:28

3Ephesians 5:24-25 – “But even as the assembly is subject to Christ, so also the wives to their own husbands in everything.” [Emphasis added]

4 Adam as Guardian, shâmar (Genesis 2:15), Eve as Mother of all living, ‘êm (Genesis 3:20). It is of no small consequence that Eve was identified as a mother even before they had any children.

5 1 Timothy 2:11-14 – Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.

6 Different roles as seen in Genesis 2:15, 2:20-23 and 1 Corinthians 11:8-9

7 Luke 22:42; John 14:10; 14:24,28; 5:19; 6:38; 7:16; Matthew 20:23; 1 Corinthians 11:3; 15:28; Philippians 2:5-8;

8 1 Corinthians 16:13; 1 Peter 3:1-6

9 2 Corinthians 5:16

10 Matthew 12:50, 19:29; 2 Corinthians 6:18

11 Acts 3:21; Revelation 21:1-5

12 Romans 8:19-23; Mark 12:25

13 Mark 3:15; Matthew 28:19; 2 Corinthians 5:20; 1 Corinthians 12:8-11

14 James 1:5, 3:5; 1 Timothy 4:12; esp. Job 32:7-9

15 Joel 2:28; Luke 11:13

16 Matthew 5:5; John 1:12; 2 Corinthians 10:4; Revelation 2:26; 1 Peter 2:9

17 1 Corinthians 6:3

18 Ephesians 5:22

Works Cited

Beach, Nancy. Gifted to Lead: The Art of Leading as a Woman. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008.

Culver, Robert D., Susan Foh, Walter Liefeld, and Alvera Mickelsen. Women in Ministry. Edited by Bonnidell Clouse and Robert G. Clouse. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1989.

Harper, Brad, and Paul Metzger. Exploring Ecclesiology: An Evangelical and Ecumenical Introduction. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2009.

Piper, et al. Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. Edited by John Piper and Wayne Grudem. Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1991.

Strauch, Alexander. Biblical Eldership. Littleton: Lewis & Roth Publishers, 1995.

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