Skip to main content

Christ and Culture: Gender Roles

We are continuing on with issues that fall under the broad theological category called Theological Anthropology.

In other words, what does God have to say about the human person?

Last week, we discussed the nature of gender and God’s vision for human sexuality. Today, we are going to pick up our discussion of gender and talk more about the social dimensions of gender.

Specifically, what is God’s vision for leadership in the church and the home? Has God assigned certain roles to women and certain roles to men?

So first let’s talk about gender roles in the church.

Now, this can be a pretty heated debate… and as such it’s going to require us to 1) be charitable and 2) actually define the terms of the debate.

But first, a misconception about this debate goes like this: This is a debate about women in ministry. The issue is not women in ministry—I enthusiastically affirm women in ministry. The issue is women in the office of elder (senior pastor).

Now, “church office” might be foreign language to some of you. We don’t mean a room that functions as the front office. Church offices refer to positions of leadership in Christ’s church.

The Church must have a form of government. It’s going to be organized in some way. And Scripture reveals three offices of the church: Apostles (which, I believe have ceased) Elders/Pastors, and Deacons/Deaconesses.

Historically and consistently, for 2,000 years, the church has largely reserved the office of elder to qualified men. The church has affirmed a pattern from Scripture of male leadership in the home and male leadership in the church. This has been true across eras, continents, and cultures.

Some people would say that this tradition is not a good thing… that this is the result of some negative forms of patriarchy or ways women have been viewed as inferior to men, or tragically, through misogyny, women have been abused and mistreated not only in society but in the church.

So, really in the 20th Century, we begin to see a movement that has subverted and challenged the consensus of the church and has opened the office of elder to women.

So again, this debate is not about women in ministry. Women are an essential part of ministry and fulfilling the Great Commission. (We Southern Baptists especially know that if we look at the amount of women serving overseas). This debate is about the office of elder.

In these matters, you are either
Egalitarian or Complementarian (there might be some differences within those groupings but those are the two basic options) One of the debates around this issue is over the terms themselves. There is always going to be problems with the language we use… they’re not exhaustive terms… they’re prone to misunderstanding, etc. But they’re necessary as a frame of reference.

Egalitarianism: is the view that men and women are equal in all respects—their nature, relationships with one another, and roles in society and in the church. Specifically, in the home, men and women share equal authority in submitting to each other. In the church, men and women can serve in all the ministries of the church, including eldership (what we would call a senior pastor).

Complementarianism: is the view that men and women are complementary to one another. Complementarians affirm with egalitarians that men and women are equal in nature… yet they differ from egalitarians in that they believe men and women are distinct in terms of their relationships and roles. Thus, they hold to male leadership in the home where the wife submits to his authority. In the church, men and women serve in all the ministries of the church except for the office of elder (senior pastor), which is limited to qualified men.

One common logical fallacy is called a straw-man argument… that’s where you set up a caricature of an argument or a position—you don’t actually represent it truthfully… and it’s very easy to dismantle or destroy it. This happens on both sides of this debate.

You know, those egalitarians are a bunch of radical feminists who have embraced critical theory and so on.
Or, those complementarians – they’re stuck in the past, They’re committed to enshrining patriarchy…they’re concerned with subjugating and silencing women and restricting them to the kitchen and so forth.

Phrases like “the patriarchy” or “feminist” can be emotionally charged words that skew the debate.

In both sides of this debate… we need to give proper respect to both sides of the argument. Proper respect does not mean we cannot be critical or make judgements on certain positions. But this should be done in a respectful way.

For the sake of clarity and in all fairness—let me lay my cards out on the table.
I am a complementarian. I think that it’s the most biblically faithful position to hold. In respect to leadership in the church, that’s the position of River—that’s the position of Southern Baptists.

Theological Triage

Before we get too far into this… it’s important to remind ourselves that we rightly think about how important of an issue this is.

Albert Mohler is helpful here with his concept of Theological Triage.

So, medical triage is about prioritizing treatment of patients—treating the most severe first—sucking chest wound, broken wrist, skinned knee.

Similarly, we can think of theological triage when assessing the importance of doctrine.

There first-order doctrines: doctrine of the Trinity, full humanity and deity of Jesus. (Creeds: Apostle’s Creed, Nicene Creed)

Second-order doctrines: are those with which believing Christians may disagree on but that disagreement creates boundaries and denominations. So, for example, the meaning and mode of baptism. Presbyterians and Baptists differ in this regard. We don’t baptize babies. Presbyterians do. (Confessions: Statements of Faith for particular worshipping communities, e.g., Baptist Faith and Message).

Third-order doctrines: are doctrines with which Christians may disagree and remain in close fellowship with each other, even within the same church (denomination). So, for example, most doctrines within eschatology (end times) would be categorized as third-order. Within the same church, you can have different views regarding the millennial reign of Christ from Revelation 20.

So, where does women in the pastorate fall?

It’s a second-order doctrine. It’s not what some might call a “salvation issue.” It’s not an essential doctrine of the Christian faith.

However, to say that it’s second-order does not imply that it’s unimportant.

Indeed, one of my criticisms of the egalitarian position is that while it is true that it is a second-order issue… it is a second-order issue that affects first-order doctrines.

Let me provide a brief overview of each position and how they articulate their position from key passages of Scripture…

But before we do that…as a reminder… from those definitions you’ll notice that they both actually affirm something that is crucial—namely, the equality of men and women. And it’s important to emphasize that so it doesn’t get lost in the debate.

To do this, I’m going to use the help of Gregg Allison from his book on the doctrine of the Church called Sojourners and Strangers.

He highlights three great equalities of men and women affirmed in Scripture.

The first is that both men and women are fully and equally made in the image of God. (Gen 1:27 “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”)

Men and women are equal in their significance and dignity as divine image-bearers.

Second, men and women have equal access to Salvation through God’s Spirit.

Gal 3:26-28 “ for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. 27 For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave[a] nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Christ breaks down any barrier that separates us from each other… and grants us equal access to his saving benefits.

Third, men and women are both given gifts of the Holy Spirit.

As Allison notes, there are no gender-specific gifts. 1 Corinthians says the Spirit gives gifts of leading, teaching, exhorting, faith, giving, prophecy, speaking in tongues… for the edification of the church.

Some here like to say—see, that’s an inconsistency for the complementarians. You can’t affirm no gender-specific gifts and at the same time limit the office of elder to men.

However, these are in fact two separate issues. There may be differences for how those gifts are exercised in the church… but that is a different matter than the Spirit giving gifts to both men and women.

One has to do with ability… the other has to do with the context of how that gift is exercised.

For example, my wife Elizabeth has the ability (the license) to practice medicine in Kansas. She does not have that ability to do that in Florida. Now, that’s not a perfect analogy… it’s not a direct parallel to the issue of women in the pastorate… But the point is that under certain circumstances, abilities and gifts may be limited.

But as we look at the two views—complementarianism and egalitarianism… it’s important that we remember these three biblical affirmations on the equality of men and women.

Now, let’s do a brief overview of the positions regarding leadership in the church.

The Complementarian Position

Complementarianism is the view that men and women are equal in nature yet distinct in terms of their roles in the church and the home. The office of elder is reserved for qualified men.

The key passage here is 1 Timothy 2:11-14:

11 Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. 12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve; 14 and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.

The traditional interpretation asserts that Paul gives two prohibitions here: he does not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority.

Paul’s reasoning reflecting the justification for this command is that he points back to creation order in Genesis. Paul thinks it’s significant that Adam was formed first. Secondly, Paul prohibits a woman from teaching because of the sin of Eve.

Now, on a cursory reading, it might sound as if Paul prohibits women from teaching because he is implying that all women are more susceptible to being deceived. But that is not what Paul is saying. Paul is rooting his instruction in the order of creation… so this is something that extends beyond the immediate Ephesian context. He roots it in creation order. Paul is describing the specific conditions and circumstances of the first sin.

So basically, Paul is suggesting that the first sin was a disruption of the created order. God first creates Adam. And before God created Eve from Adam’s side – God gave Adam the instruction not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. So, it is presumed that Adam was responsible for teaching Eve.

God creates Adam. Adam teaches Eve. Together, they were to be co-rulers of God’s good creation.

But Satan comes and inverts and subverts the created order. Satan approaches Eve first and deceives her. Eve influences Adam… and together they both fall.

God’s prohibition on women teaching is rooted in creation order… God’s original design was for male leadership. So, the prohibition on women teaching is not because women are more gullible but it is rooted in God’s good design—as the responsibility given to Adam to lead and teach was pre-fall. And so it’s obvious, post-fall, how that has been distorted and abused.

But what does quietness mean in this passage? Some translations choose “silent,” but I think that creates confusion in our context today… Surely, it does not mean that a woman must never utter a word in a public worship service… That would contradict what Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 11 regarding women praying and prophesying in the church.

Or here—Is Brenda not supposed to ever get up in front of the church and give announcements or pray?? Is Anna Laura or Alyson or Kim not supposed to stand on stage and sing?

No—don’t be ridiculous.

The word quiet is actually the same word for quiet that Paul uses earlier when he instructs us to lead a quiet life, dignified in every way (vs 2)… So surely Paul is not suggesting that we should live silent lives.

It’s important to remember here that the governing context is the spirit of worship in the church.
And what God wants is pure worship. Jesus said God desires those who worship in spirit and in truth.

So Paul in vs 8, instructs men that they need to worship lifting up holy hands, without anger or quarrelling. Worship flows out of a life not marked by anger and quarrelling—those would make for unholy hands… evidence of a distorted heart.

And so just as Paul gives that command to men in vs 8, he gives the women a command in vs 9 not to be concerned with adornment—outward, physical appearance.

Instead, public worship is to be focused on the heart. Just as the men are told not to argue or quarrel, so are the women… they are to learn in all quietness—their heart is not to be marked by an argumentative spirit.

And—it’s important to remember that in the context of 1 Timothy 2, it is both men and women who are submitting to Christ. Both men and women are submitting to the authority of the teaching elder. So, it’s not so much about women submitting to men—in a misogynistic way—it’s about men and women submitting to the Word of God and the administration of the Word of God, and submitting to the authorities who God has entrusted with the teaching of the Word of God.

Paul will go in in 1 Timothy 3 to outline church leadership and the qualifications for church leaders. The implication is that women (and all the other men) are to be submissive and learn from the teaching elder.

In terms of the church structure, the Bible uses the analogy of the family. This is where we see the pattern emerge of male leadership in the home and male leadership in the church.

What are the qualifications of an elder? 1 Tim 3:4-5 says, “He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church?”

Male leadership in the home, male leadership in the church…rooted in creation order.

The Egalitarian Position

Now egalitarianism is the view that women and men are equal in all respects… in their nature, in the offices of the church and in the home.

For egalitarians… the cultural context governs their interpretation of the prohibitions in 1 Tim 2. It simply was a cultural prohibition which is no longer relevant today.

It is argued that the context is one where there were women who were false teachers at Ephesus… part of what is thought to be “the cult of Artemis.” Goddess of hunting, protector of women, goddess of childbirth. It taught female superiority—men were wicked…and so the prohibition was really to limit heretical doctrine.

Or the argument is made that Paul does not allow women to teach in a domineering way… in a way hat subverts authority. So it’s not really a prohibition of women teaching but women teaching in an inappropriate manner.

Or, the cultural context reflects a lack of education among women. That’s why they were prohibited from teaching. As soon as women have access to education, then they can exercise authority in the church.

The other notable passage for egalitarians is Galatians 3:28.
“28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave[a] nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Egalitarians say that the church cannot make any distinctions for office holders on the basis of gender.

But do egalitarians have issues with other limitations on the office of elder? Again, the office of elder is not open to all men… it is reserved for qualified men. There must be limitation in some sense. Limitation in and of itself is not bad.


In response to the Egalitarians interpretation of 1 Tim 2… I find it unconvincing because it depends on shaky historic speculation… If the prohibition was culturally specific—it builds a historical reconstruction of a cultural situation that is speculative. Just how influential was this Artemis cult on the church in Ephesus…

As far as the passage in Galatians… other scholars have noted…equality is not the main concern—unity is.

Equality does not equal sameness. In unity, there is diversity.

There is much more I could say … a lot of ink has been spilt debating this issue. A lot of books written about all this. … I find that the complementarians make the stronger exegetical arguments.

Ultimately, I want to submit to Scripture.

So, the real practical question is… if we embrace a complementarian perspective… how ought we to ensure women are actively involved in the ministry of the church?

I think it’s important not to focus on “rights” as it is to focus on “gifts.”

How can we allow men and women to exercise their gifts, for the sake of building up the church… in a way that honors and is faithful to the Bible?

We have women on staff… but they are not in the authority structure in terms of the elder body, who employs Terry. ☺ And they’re not over heads of households in terms of authority…

You also don’t have to be in a staff position to be involved in ministry. So we have lots of women who are serving as small group leaders, etc. There is plenty of opportunity for women be thoroughly involved in the church in the exercise of their gifting.

Gender Roles in the Home

Now, we’ve talked a lot about the church leadership structure… but what about the home?

If you were here last week, that I talked about how we should resist gendered stereotypes… I said I believed that there are not character traits or qualities that belong exclusively to men or women, but rather there are common human properties that express themselves in gendered ways.

It’s possible to affirm that and also uphold traditional biblical understandings of male leadership in the home and in the church.

For instance, the Bible never tells us that women should never leave the home… or that women can’t make more money than their husbands. I’m a PhD student, Elizabeth is a doctor. She is the primary breadwinner… not only at this stage in our life, but likely for the duration of our working lives—she is going to make more money than I am. Conversely, some of our friends are the opposite. Some women are called to be homemakers… and that’s a noble vocation.

My leadership or “headship” in the home is not tied to gendered social norms. Rather, it should be characterized by Christ. I believe that I’m responsible for the spiritual leadership and direction of my family.

A key passage for us to think about authority structures in the home is Ephesians 5. Headship in Ephesians 5 is expressed in sacrificial love.

Ephesians 5 says Christ is the head of the church; the husband is the head of the wife.

In vs 21, Paul instructs us to submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. There is mutual submission under the headship of Christ.

submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.
22 Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.
25 Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, 26 that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, 27 so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.[a] 28 In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, 30 because we are members of his body. 31 “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” 32 This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. 33 However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.

There is a leadership structure here. Sometimes the egalitarians will say “mutual submission = equality.” But I believe, mutual submission doesn’t mean there is absent a leadership structure. Christ is the head of the church. The husband is the head of his wife. And husbands ought to love their spouse in the same way that Christ loved his church— by dying for her… sacrificial love and service… and wives submit to their husbands as the church submits to Christ’s authority.
Mutual submission… both parties are dignified.

Again, Ephesians 5 refers to leadership structure… it does not reinforce gendered stereotypes… We often hear about toxic masculinity, etc… that’s not what Eph 5 is describing.

True male leadership is characterized by Christlike love.
This passage isn’t reinforcing the gendered stereotypes that women are natural followers, etc…
Or that they need to be restricted to certain domestic spheres.

Rather, the passage gives us a vision of followership and submission that elevates and dignifies the woman.

When a woman submits to Christ— Christ elevates her and dignifies her… Think of Jesus’ interactions with the woman at the well or with the healing of the bleeding woman. Submitting to Christ doesn’t erase her dignity or deny her personhood.

Likewise, a woman who submits to her husband who is embodying Christ’s love and service… would also be dignified.

Tragically, we have not lived up to this calling of Ephesians 5.
We could spend all of our time highlighting the ways in which we’ve fallen short. The ways in which individuals and churches even have hidden abuse to hold on to power.

I don’t mean to minimize that in any way… but that’s simply not where I want to focus our time and attention.

So, let this passage convict you as needed in your personal shortcomings… but let it also serve as a compelling vision for moving forward together as men and women with our gaze set on Christ.

Leave a Reply