It is not surprising that many Christians today have little knowledge of or regard for the New Testament’s prescriptions for leadership within the church. I am referring specifically to those passages which limit the role of spiritual leadership in the church (most notably preaching and teaching in the gathered assembly) to qualified men. This biblically prescribed order—that God has given to men and women equally dignified but differing (complementary) roles within the home and church—is often termed “complementarianism,”.
For some, those passages of Scripture which restrict church leadership to qualified men are to be rejected as artifacts of a primitive world, no longer suitable for an enlightened people. While not going that far, others understand those passages as addressing a quite narrow set of first century churches and are not meant to be applied broadly.
My goal in this piece is not to offer a comprehensive defense or application of the Scripture’s teaching on complementary male and female roles. It must be acknowledged that the New Testament limits the spiritual leadership and oversight of the church to qualified men. Not only are the qualifications for overseers applied only to men, but women are specifically restricted from exercising authority over men and giving instruction in the gathered assembly. The two questions I will seek to answer then, are (1) On what basis does the New Testament limit the leadership tasks of preaching and teaching in the gathered church to qualified men? And (2) Are these limitations binding for the church in all times?
I will argue that the New Testament’s prescription for leadership within the church finds its rationale in the first three chapters of Genesis. Male headship is not a concession to the fall. Rather, it is an order woven into the fabric of creation and reflective of God’s wisdom. Therefore, I will also argue that these limitations are indeed binding for the church throughout history. It seems rather prideful to reject those instructions for a supposedly better way. Indeed, rejecting the creation order as the New Testament applies it to the church has led to confusion, error, and division.
In the Beginning: Genesis 1–2
God created the man first and gave him the responsibility to work the garden and watch over it. The woman was created next and then called to share in the exercise of dominion over the rest of creation. But how that dominion was to be exercised was not identical between the man and woman. Though equally sharing in reflecting the image of God, it is clear that the man and woman differed in terms of their roles: “Then the LORD God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him’” (Genesis 2:18).
Egalitarians rightly point out that various Scriptures refer to God as our “Helper” and “Help” (see e.g., Ps. 54:4; 118:7). To be honest, I’m not sure what they seek to prove by this. Is their contention that just as God, our Helper, is infinitely superior to mankind the woman must be infinitely superior to man? What egalitarians seem to miss is that the Scripture’s use of helper in reference to the woman is not univocal as it is applied to God. God is a shepherd, a rock, a husband, and a father but not nearly in the same way as those words describe his creations. The same is true for God as our Helper.
It is unfortunate that egalitarians see the traditional (and most obvious) understanding of helper, as designed and applied by God to the woman, as something which diminishes her. Only a culture bent on egalitarian zeal could see the role of helper given to the woman as a thing to be overcome rather than embraced with godly determination and creativity.
God designed the woman to be, for the man, a “helper suitable for him.” Adam is never described as a helper suitable for the woman nor is he portrayed in that way. That does not mean that the man was not expected to help the woman in any number of ways! What is being established here are not the daily ways that men and women (particularly husbands and wives) ought to help one another. Rather, the more fundamental issue is that of headship and helper as an order within the family; an order which will also be established in the household of God.
In The Fall: Genesis 3
In Genesis 3, Adam names the woman (v. 20). It is a wonderful picture of hope when, facing the wreckage of their sin, Adam names his wife “Eve” (meaning Life) which reflects his faith in God’s redemptive promise (3:15). Relevant to the present discussion, however, is the fact that naming is an act of headship not egalitarian sameness. The Apostle Paul appeals to this very principle in 1 Corinthians 11, when he explains some of the differences between men and women (vv. 2–16).
Commenting on God’s design for his human creatures, Ray Ortlund writes:
Male and female equality does not constitute an undifferentiated sameness. Male and female are equal as God’s image-bearers. They are spiritually equal, which is quite sufficient a basis for mutual respect between the sexes. But the very fact God created human beings in the dual modality of male and female cautions us against an unqualified equation of the two sexes. This profound and beautiful distinction, which some belittle as ‘a matter of mere anatomy,’ is not a biological triviality or accident. It is God who wants men to be men and women to be women; and he can teach us the meaning of each, if we want to be taught…God has no intention of blurring sexual distinctness in the interests of equality in an unqualified sense.
1. Ray Ortlund, “Male-Female Equality and Male Headship,” in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, ed. John Piper and Wayne Grudem (Wheaton: Crossway, 1991), 99.
By God’s own design, the human family is founded upon complementary distinctions between male and female. God did not create humanity as a mass of interchangeable androgynous mannequins. He made his image-bearers male and female, alike and different in all the ways necessary to promote flourishing. Among other things, this means that the ways in which men and women serve the church will not be identical.
In The Church: Selected Scriptures from the Pastoral Epistles
There are several New Testament texts which address specifically God’s complementary design for church leadership. Indeed, these passages form the basis for normative church practice. In 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9, the church is provided with the necessary qualifications for those who will provide spiritual oversight, qualifications which are applied specifically to men. In 1 Timothy 2:11–15, the Apostle gives explicit instructions concerning the role of spiritual oversight in the church which reflect God’s creation order.
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. Yet she will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.
Historically, the church has affirmed the plain meaning of this passage. And it is quite plain: Women are not to instruct men in doctrine or exercise spiritual authority over men in the household of God. At no point does the Apostle limit these boundaries to a specific church or a specific set of circumstances within the church. Rather, being grounded in creation, these instructions for the church are normative and permanent.
2. For a further treatment of this passage, see Andreas Köstenberger, “Paul’s Teaching on Male Elders in 1 Timothy 2–3.”
Paul’s words that women should “remain quiet,” refers to the acts of instructing and exhorting in the gathered assembly. This intentionally limits the office of elder and the acts of preaching and teaching in the gathered assembly to qualified men. This does not in any way undermine the many ways qualified women are to contribute to the building up of the church through various gifts and acts of service. But preaching and teaching in the gathered church is a task given only to men who meet the necessary qualifications. As Barclay observes:
The structure of the Greek sentence [v. 12] indicates that these two activities, teaching and exercising authority, are linked and yet separate. In other words, Paul forbids women both from teaching men and from having authority over men… Paul, then, is not forbidding women from teaching altogether (cf. Titus 2:3-4), nor even from teaching men in certain contexts (cf. for example Priscilla’s participation in teaching Apollos in Acts 18:26).”
3. William B. Barclay, 1&2 Timothy, EPSC (England: Evangelical Press, 2005) p. 91.
Importantly, the Apostle roots these instructions, not in first century Mediterranean culture, but in creation and the fall. Thus, these instructions cannot be cast aside as a cultural artifact or as a rule applying to only one or a few troublesome churches. Rather, Paul immediately proposes the order of creation as the first rationale for his instruction: “For Adam was formed first, then Eve” (v. 12). As pointed out above, this order of creation carries with it an ordering of leadership: “For man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man” (1 Cor. 11:8–9).
Paul also appeals to “the way in which the man and woman fell into sin.” We must avoid much speculation on the second point but rather accept the plain meaning. Schreiner observes:
4. Douglas Moo, “What Does It Mean Not to Teach or Have Authority Over Men? in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, ed. John Piper and Wayne Grudem (Wheaton: Crossway, 1991), 179.
“The Genesis temptation, therefore, is a parable of what happens when male leadership is abrogated. Eve took the initiative in responding to the serpent, and Adam let her do so. Thus the appeal to Genesis 3 serves as a reminder of what happens when God’s ordained pattern is undermined.”
5. Thomas Schreiner, “An Interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:9-15: A Dialogue with Scholarship,” in Women in the Church, ed. Andreas Köstenberger, Thomas R. Schreiner, Baldwin, Ed. (Wheaton: Crossway, 2016), 213–267.
Any proper discussion of the roles of men and women within the church must address the Apostle’s clear instructions in this passage. What is more, if these instructions are dismissed as relics of the past or confined to a narrow number of first century churches then it must be demonstrated from the Scriptures why such positions are warranted.
It must be stated clearly and firmly that God’s design for leadership in the church must never be used as a cudgel to denigrate or otherwise diminish women. It must never become a ground for boasting among men. To do so is a grievous sin. God’s design for leadership within the church is good and reflects his intention to bless men and women alike. It is a cruel thing, therefore, to place upon any sister in Christ a role that God has forbidden her to take on. And it is a loss for the church as well who will be robbed of the many and varied ways that these sisters are meant by God to serve and strengthen his household.
Perhaps a good question for us to consider is whether we will seek to embrace the good pattern established in Genesis 2 or follow a pattern of our own making; one more closely linked to Genesis 3. Will men abandon the role God has given them to lead with Christ-like love, leaving their sisters vulnerable to taking what God has not given? The world hates the Genesis 2 pattern just as it hates all that God established in creation. It will require confidence in Scripture as God’s unerring word and courage in the face of disapproval to hold to what God has called good. Love for the church and her Lord demands nothing less from us.