It is not uncommon in these times for churches of my tradition and similar, to feel compelled to consider the question of the role of women in church ministry. In part, no doubt, this is because the larger culture has made a strong case for equality in many spheres including gender. Accordingly, it is considered that both men and women, are equally qualified to work in every capacity. Feminism, or the empowerment of women, a major social convention of the last fifty years or more, has also impacted family and church life. The current mood of the prevailing culture has led women to feel that they have been disadvantaged by a long history of male dominance.
It’s really no surprise that this should be an issue for the church in our time. As I have written in my book on the reality and impact of postmodernism, hierarchal structures of every kind, in these times, have largely given way to discounting or even cancelling many distinctions. One effect of postmodernism, for example, is the tendency to resist definitions because it is now believed that any conception of reality or truth is largely relative to one’s personal perspective.
An outcome of this trend has been a strong tendency to minimize any distinction in the roles of men and women in marriage, in society, as well as in the church. Egalitarianism, as it is called, emphasizes that women and men ought to be equally valued (something all Christians readily affirm). But it also implies that any attempt to distinguish between the sexes, beyond their anatomy or their roles in procreation, is purely a matter of conjecture or, worse still, a means of devaluing women.
In view of this prevailing sentiment concerning women, it is difficult to raise objections without the charge of discrimination. It is even worse if this issue is raised by men since it appears that they are seeking to justify a position of male chauvinism or patriarchy.
However, it is notable that a lot of thoughtful people* (many of whom are also women) believe that there is much more to consider regarding the difference between men and women beyond their respective physiologies and their roles in human reproduction. A large amount of literature defending gender role distinctions demonstrates that there are good reasons to challenge the current dominant opinion on this subject. And the purpose of this blog is to draw attention to this reality.
A Christian Perspective
To be sure, consistent with the prevailing sentiment, human history demonstrates vociferously that women have indeed been exploited by men again and again! It is one of the many sad effects of the fall as described in the third chapter of Genesis–when humanity’s first parents were tempted to disobey God in the Garden of Eden. In marriage, general society, and even the church, there are countless examples of how men have abused women–not only sexually but also physically and psychologically. Surely God’s judgment awaits men according to how they may have distorted the role originally assigned to them!
But the truth is that men are not alone in their responsibility for the way gender roles have been contorted. Biblically speaking of course, both men and women are guilty of sin before God (Romans 3:23). In line with the meaning of Genesis 3 where the text, in part, speaks of the curse as Eve’s “desire to be for her husband” (vs 16b), women historically–partially, no doubt, in reaction to unhealthy male dominance–have expressed their part in departing from God’s ideal by pursuing more control–in marriage, in society, and also in the church.
Gender Confusion Analysis
So it is, that the respective roles of men and women have become severely distorted–deeply affecting our perception of God’s intention. Even the scriptures upon which Christians rely for authoritative words from God have often suffered interpretive bias concerning this matter. Thus, we have come to the place in our culture (as well as in the church) that any suggestion of gender distinction, beyond the physical, is not really open to discussion. It seems we’re in a time when it is impossible to speak of gender differences without implying prejudice or the devaluing of women.
However, in my view, scripture taken as a whole, speaks exquisitely to both the equality of the sexes as well as their difference. It is true, as stated in Genesis 1:26, that God made both men and women in his own image and charged both together with the responsibility of managing God’s created order. Yet, Genesis 2 makes it clear that when it comes to respective roles, the woman was created to assist the man in their combined responsibility.
Together, certainly in marriage but also implied otherwise, it appears that God designed men to initiate and women to correspond. In God’s ideal, both contribute perfectly to the relationship, according to the roles respectively assigned to them, with amazing results and satisfaction. Each gender brings gifts to the relationship that the other does not possess. Both have their own unique glory. And, in God’s view, the original design was “very good” (Genesis 1:31).
It is true that the entrance of sin severely perverted God’s intention for equality and difference in the relationship of the two genders. But the fall not withstanding, according to God’s plan, historically men have fulfilled a role of initiative, leadership, and larger security. Women, on the other hand, for the most part have worked in supportive roles of one kind or another. Priesthood functions, for example, by God’s prescription for the people of God in the Old Testament, were filled by men. So also for royal leadership in the nation of Israel. It seems noteworthy that Jesus chose twelve men to be his apostles (whose names, interestingly, are written on the twelve foundations of the eternal city–Revelation 21:14). And might it also be significant that God chose men to write the books and words that we have come to recognize as sacred scripture?
Also, consistent with the biblical view of the Trinity, Jesus came to us in the form of a man–God’s Son (Luke 1:35, 2:7, 21-24). In the New Testament (i.e., Ephesians 5:22-33), marriage is presented as an illustration paralleling the relationship between Christ and his church–that the husband is to love and sacrifice himself for his wife as she also submits herself to him. Furthermore, when it comes to the relationship of men and women in the church, both instruction and example appear to support this kind of role distinction–men taking leadership especially in preaching/teaching as well as church government, women functioning more in various parallel support ministries including personal care and nurture (See 1 Timothy 2, 3: Titus 1, 2).
Biblical Exceptions to the General Principle
Of course, as many would point out, there appear to be exceptions to this general rule—at least some women having prominent roles—such as Deborah and Huldah in the Old Testament, or Priscilla and Phoebe in the New. The general distinction not withstanding, it is true that, according to the biblical text (and historically), God has often used women to accomplish amazing things. Furthermore, Jesus showed unusual deference to women again and again and that he relied upon them for his daily care (Mark 15:41).
It is also noteworthy that a woman, Mary Magdalene, was the first to witness and testify to the resurrection of Jesus (John 20:11-18). Additionally, Paul writes that both men and women experience the same redemption in Christ (Galatians 3:28), and, in fulfillment of God’s plan, both men and women experience the presence, as well as ministry gifting, of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:36, 37)—including prophecy (where it is regarded as a word from the Lord for a particular occasion). The biblical testimony to God’s affirmation of the value and ministry qualification of women is clear. In fact, according to Psalm 68:11, God has ordained that women proclaim the good news–as has been the case historically in many contexts. It is always impressive to see the capability of women in many different spheres—often more qualified and effective than their male counterparts.
Natural Differences in Gender
Yet, when it comes to their natural God-given personhood, their innate capacities, and their unique roles, the Bible speaks to an essential difference between men and women (i.e. 1 Corinthians 11:3-16, 1 Peter 3:1-7). Accordingly, beyond physical appearance, it is intriguing to consider their personality differences. Even outside of scripture, much has been written about gender difference. Regarding intelligence, for example, women tend to be more intuitive, men more analytical. Women are more emotionally expressive, men more cerebral. Men see the larger picture, women greater detail. Women specialize in organization, men in achieving a goal. And it is also noteworthy that professional sport consistently reflects gender difference.
At the same time, men and women ought to give the highest respect to each other because they are both made in the image of God. It is true that there is a great need in the church today for women to serve according to the gifts they have been given by the Holy Spirit–while respecting the boundaries which scripture appears to assign. Accordingly, God’s purposes are best served when men humbly lead in the home and the church as the Bible enjoins, and when women willingly serve in roles that offer support in these contexts. It seems, there is a great need today for both men and women to learn how they can support one another in serving God’s kingdom purposes best.
One application is that women ought to be encouraged to serve in the local church in many different ways save in the matter of governance and major teaching. God’s will, it appears (1 Timothy 2:12, 3:2-7), is for the role of elder or pastor normally to be filled by men. Similarly, women fulfill God’s plan best when they serve alongside men in various nurturing and administrative capacities (i.e., Titus 2:3-5).
It is abundantly clear that women have been gifted to serve the local church effectively in a large variety of ministries— worship leading, some teaching, deacon, hospitality, personal encouragement, public prayer, and speaking words of prophecy. Examples of all of these ministries by women can be found in scripture. While respecting what appears to be God’s will in church leadership, it certainly seems biblically appropriate that both men and women prepare to serve in church ministry according to their spiritual gifts. And, no doubt (as in biblical times), it may be wise for the church to allow for anomalies to the general rule, in certain circumstances.
Relative Importance of the Issue
Why, we might ask, is this an important issue? Why cannot both men and women serve arbitrarily according to the gifts they appear to have been given? Doesn’t the urgency of gospel proclamation eclipse the subject of gender distinction?
The answer to these objections is both theological and practical. Authentic discipling inevitably must address biblical directives concerning gender difference. In discipling children and youth, for example, parents and church leaders need to be ready to explain the difference in the genders beyond their physical makeup.
Another reason to consider this matter carefully, is that our practice can’t help but reflect how seriously we regard scripture. As a whole and in many specific references on this subject, it seems quite evident that God has ordained for men and women to function in unique roles within mutually edifying relationships. Gender distinctiveness and mutuality appear also to be enjoined in the New Testament through the ministry of Jesus and the writings of the apostles. It seems then, that part of what is at stake in this discussion is the authority of the Bible.
It is true that gender role as defined by scripture is not an essential part of the gospel itself. After all, personal salvation (eternal life) is completely a matter of our individual faith response to Jesus’ death and resurrection for our sins (1 Corinthians 15:1-3). Thankfully, people do not have to resolve the gender issue in order to be saved. However, gospel clarity could ultimately be impacted by theological considerations which appear to support the idea of role distinctions.
One issue related to the gospel, for example, has to do with the nature of the Trinity respecting the roles and functions of its members. Though we confess to their equality of essence, we also recognize their role distinctions, the Son being submissive to the Father in accomplishing salvation (Philippians 2:5-8), and the Spirit being commissioned by the Son for the establishment of the church (John 15:26). As we acknowledge role distinctions in many contexts, in accordance with God’s design, it seems reasonable to respect gender role distinctions as well.
Furthermore, it seems important that Adam (not Eve) was ultimately responsible for the sin of the human race (see Romans 5:12-19, 1 Corinthians 15:22), and that human redemption was only achieved through the sacrifice of God’s Son.
Of course, another rather negative effect of ignoring the importance of this distinction in these times, is that lack of definition potentially contributes to gender dysphoria as well as sympathy for homosexual practice—which scripture clearly censors.
Conclusion: Finding Freedom in the Divine Order
In conclusion, it is important to acknowledge that there is much in gender difference that is truly mysterious and difficult to understand. But like so many other aspects of God’s will, personal satisfaction comes in submitting ourselves to his order of things even if we don’t know all the reasons he has ordained them as he has. It is in accepting our roles in life, even when they appear limiting, that both men and women find fulfillment and are best able to accomplish God’s purposes.
*Books that encourage a broader understanding of the respectful distinction in gender and gender roles–many authored by notable women:
- Grudem, Wayne (ed.) Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (Crossway, 2021).
- James, Sharon, God’s Design for Women in an Age of Gender Confusion (Evangelical Press, 2019).
- Keller, Kathy, Jesus, Justice, and Gender Roles (Zondervan, 2014).
- Köstenberger, Andreas and Margaret, God’s Design for Man and Woman (Crossway, 2014).
- Smith, Claire, God’s Good Design (Matthias Media, 2019).