Published on January 21st, 2015 | by Josiah Batten1
Gender Roles in Christian Ministry
This post is an adaptation of a Facebook note I wrote a while back. This was a pretty controversial note, because it addresses a pretty controversial issue, that of gender roles in Christian ministry. I want to repost it here because it remains an important issue today, and one which all contributors here at WV4G agree on via our common Affirmations and Denials.
Broadly speaking, we can classify two positions regarding gender roles:
1. Complementarianism: The view that holds men and women are created equal before God, but that they also have distinct and non-interchangeable roles. Church leadership, at least of a specific kind, is reserved for men. Examples here include the Christian and Missionary Alliance, the Southern Baptist Convention, conservative Presbyterian groups such as the CREC and PCA, and the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches.
2. Egalitarianism: The view that because men and women are created equal before God, they can have no rigid gender roles. Gender roles are interchangeable. There is no office of church leadership that is not equally open to both men and women. Examples here include the United Methodist Church, the Assemblies of God (and many other Pentecostal/charismatic denominations), liberal Presbyterian groups such as the PCUSA, and Free Methodists.
Many of you are aware that I grew up in a deeply Pentecostal tradition. A Pentecostal church was planted in my grandmother’s childhood house. My father is a Pentecostal minister. I’ve always attended a Pentecostal church.
Given this, you might assume that I land on the egalitarian end of the spectrum. And up until a year and a half ago, you would have been right. But in a discussion/debate with my brother, my assumptions were challenged and I began to explore the area further.
At this point I must state that Scripture is the highest authority. Regardless of past or present experience, regardless of pragmatic arguments, and regardless of what the broader culture thinks at the time, we must conform our views and practices to accord with Scripture’s clear teaching on any given subject.
But at first glance, the subject is not always clear. The evidence may exist on a scale that requires balancing and weighing various passages and teachings in light of each other. In such a situation, we always do better to view the unclear passages in light of the clear ones and interpret accordingly.
I, like most Pentecostals/charismatics, recognize the substantial biblical evidence that indicates male headship in the home. A good example here is Ephesians 5:22-33, where the husband and wife are given different and complementary commands in how they are to relate to one another. And as much as some people (feminists, in particular) want to scream and shout about “mutual submission,” that is not exactly a concept we can derive from an analogy to Christ’s relationship to the church. Christ is the head of the church; that is the very clear teaching not only of Ephesians 5 but of the entire New Testament. If the relationship of husband and wife is analogous to that of Christ and the church, definitive leadership as opposed to mutual submission, must be what is in view. This is the case simply because Christ does not “submit” to the church; He leads it as its head. This gives no support to any type of oppressive male chauvinism, because the leadership of Christ is a leadership of love and self-sacrifice. Ironically, both the feminists and the chauvinists are guilty of the same thing here: Ignoring the meaning of the analogy to Christ and the church.
To be fair, Ephesians 5:21 does speak of submitting to one another. But I think this statement is better taken as an exhortation to members within the church generally, which is the preceding context. I think Paul changes topics beginning in Verse 22. Is there a sense in which husbands and wives mutually submit? Most certainly there is, but we must take this in the sense Scripture itself specifies, which follows in Verses 22-33.
Thus, this is a clear example of male headship in the family. We could marshal additional evidence by looking at Genesis 2:18 where Eve is created as Adam’s “helper” and “complement” (HCSB). Later, in verse 23, Adam names Eve. The entire pattern of God’s covenants, whereby He relates to humans, is that of establishing covenants with husbands and fathers (Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David) that then apply to entire families and nations. This could only be done if these husbands and fathers were the rightful heads of their respective families.
As it turns out, most Pentecostals and charismatics agree with me on this point: Men and women have distinct roles inside of the family. Men are tasked with covenant headship, and this entails leading their families in fulfilling the requirements of the covenant. In short, men are the spiritual leaders of the home, as well as the protectors and providers for it.
But it is this conviction about male headship in the home that eventually created a dilemma for me regarding male headship in the church. If I simultaneously hold that men are the leaders of the home, but women could be ruling leaders in the church, I end with inevitable contradictions. Suppose, for instance, that a husband thinks it prudent to leave a church which has veered toward theological liberalism. The wife, who happens to be an elder at that church, thinks it would be more prudent to stay and work for reform from within. Who exactly submits to whom in such a case? Must the wife submit to her husband, as is fitting for that relationship (Ephesians 5:22)? Or should the husband submit to his wife, since she is an elder (Hebrews 13:7, Acts 20:28)? In short, we must either be completely complementarian, in relation to both the home and the church, or completely egalitarian. But to be complementarian in regard to the home and egalitarian in regard to the church leads only to confusion and contradiction.
Thus, I was forced to decide one way or the other what position I would take. Juggling complementarianism in the home on one hand, and egalitarianism in the church on the other, is not possible. Here one passage in particular was very important, 1 Timothy 2:12-15. Whatever else one may say, it is clear that Paul is prohibiting some type of female teaching and ruling over men, and that he is basing this prohibition on the created order prior to the fall.
That second point is incredibly important. Many people claim that Paul is prohibiting women from teaching because of a cultural situation in Ephesus whereby women were engaged in false teaching. Thus, he only prohibits the teaching here because of the falsity, not because there’s anything wrong with women teaching men, per se. Two points are in order. First, as Wayne Grudem points out, there is NO indication of false teaching. This is pure speculation and we do well to avoid it in our biblical interpretation. Second, if Paul were addressing a cultural situation it would make no sense for him to appeal to the creation order. The creation order prior to the fall transcends any given cultural situation. If the creation order leads to a prohibition of females teaching and ruling men, it does so in every place at every time, not merely in Ephesus because of false teachings.
The implication then is that Paul prohibits women in the assembly of the church to teach men or exercise ruling authority over them. As it turns out, Paul immediately follows this in 1 Timothy 3 with an explanation of qualifications for elders and deacons. Elders are to be “the husband of one wife” and “an able teacher” (1 Timothy 3:2, HCSB). Of course husbands, by implication, are men and not women. But these are men who are teachers. This term “teacher” is an adjective form of the verb for “teach” in Paul’s prohibition in chapter 2. What kind of teaching would be done by such elders in the assembly of the church? Bible teaching, of course! (See Wayne Grudem, “Countering the Claims of Evangelical Feminism,” 33-44).
Thus, Paul is prohibiting women from engaging in 1. Bible teaching and rulership over men, 2. In the assembly of believers (the church). Of course, that this is what is restricted means that other things not restricted are open. We know for a fact that women were permitted to pray and prophesy in the church, but not permitted to evaluate prophesy before the congregation (1 Corinthians 11:5, 14:32-34). Women are permitted to teach the Bible to children. Women are permitted to share in settings such as informal Bible studies, and even to assist in instructing men outside the official assembly of believers (Acts 18:24-28). In short what I’m arguing, because I believe Scripture teaches it, is that women cannot be elders (pastors, presbyters, bishops) in the church, but that a wide variety of other ministries are available to them.
I know my dear egalitarian friends will at this point argue from certain specific examples that women can hold a broader group of ministries than I’m proposing. They might point to the daughters of Philip in Acts 21:8-9 to say that they were prophets. I won’t dispute the point, in fact I believe women can prophesy, see the above paragraph. But to prophesy is not the same as to teach and rule in the assembly.
Another example is Romans 16:1, which mentions Phoebe, a “servant” or “deacon” in the church at Cenchreae. Of course, we know very little about what Phoebe (or most deacons) did. The term itself may simply mean she was a “servant” with no official office in the church. But supposing it indicates an official office, there is no reason to think this office involved Bible teaching or any type of rulership over men in the church.
A few verses down in verse 7, much is made of Adronicus and Junia who are “noteworthy in the eyes of the apostles” (HCSB). Certain other translations merely say “among the apostles.” In any case, if Junia is a female (the linguistic evidence is inconclusive) then she and Adronicus (presumably her husband) were of note “among” the apostles. This terminology may indicate that Adronicus and Junia were known by the apostles, but it could also indicate they were apostles themselves. If this is so, there is a slight chance there was a female apostle. As the evidence stands now, we need more than mere possibilities to establish a female apostle. A definitive linguistic study on both “Junia” showing this occurrence is definitely female, and the term “among” showing it indicates membership as apostles, would need to be done. As things stand, Junia might be a female, and she may have been listed with her husband as an apostle. All this tentativeness in light of other clear passages doesn’t bode well for the egalitarian case. To establish a doctrine requires clear teaching, not mere possibility.
Other examples are sometimes given from the book of Judges (like Deborah). But we must be exceedingly careful in establishing precedent based on a time period when everyone was doing whatever was right in their own eyes (Judges 17:6). And if anything, the story of Deborah entails a rebuke for a man who did not take the leadership role to which God called him. It is not a positive precedent for female leadership (Judges 4:8-9).
Finally, I should note the importance of our doctrine of the church here. I am assuming in this whole debate that there are at least two primary offices that function within the local church, elders (or presbyters or pastors) who rule and teach and deacons who serve in various supportive capacities. Many modern day churches do not use this terminology, or even have a biblical form of church government at all. In such a case, the criteria that must be applied is that of 1. Teaching and/or ruling 2. Over men in the assembly of believers/church. Whether a church has a biblically functioning presbytery or council of elders or not, and whether they use this terminology or not, these are the criteria for determining what ministry positions are reserved for males.
Thus, I have come to my position of consistent complementarianism in the home and the church. God has created man and woman equal, but given us different roles. These roles are expressed in male leadership in the home and church. But this does not mean the range of activity for women must be unnecessarily restricted. Numerous ministries, from missionary to seminary instructor*, remain open for women.
Our duty is to speak where Scripture speaks and be silent where it is silent. At times we even must amend our views (as I will amend mine yet again if I’m shown to be wrong) to conform to Scripture. Our experience, preferences, and personal history cannot be allowed to shape our interpretation of the Bible.
*On this point of women teaching in a seminary I disagree with Wayne Grudem because he has a much broader definition of the church than I would use.