Matt Walsh’s documentary made headlines with his simple question, “What is a woman?”
With the transgender movement growing exponentially, especially among young girls, it was a timely counterpunch of reality. Yet, in the church we have been asking a similar question in our own way for decades—long before the trans movement was visibly picking up steam. Our question goes like this, “Can a woman be an elder?” In other words, what are the boundaries between men and women? What is a woman for, exactly?
All the old common-sense answers that thousands of years’ worth of previous generations never needed to say out loud are now regarded as novel, or worse, bigoted. Ten years ago, everyone simply knew: What is a woman? She’s a female; she’s the one who can have the babies and often needs help reaching the top cupboard. Likewise, two hundred years ago everyone simply knew: Can a woman be an elder? No, the Bible says that is for qualified men.
Those simple answers are still true, if only questioned and contested. One benefit of the insanity of our time, however, is that it has forced us to re-articulate what lies underneath all common-sense: God’s good reality. When we start with what God has said in his Word and done in his world, when we build our lives on that foundation, our footings will be sure and stable. Rather than asking, “Can a woman be an elder?” we will find ourselves asking much more important questions like, “How has my good God made me, as a woman, to glorify him?”
Distinctly Feminine Discipleship
You see, we cannot glorify God as anything other than what he’s made us to be. However, many women have been taught through implicit cultural assumptions or explicit media catechesis that being a woman is arbitrary—that one’s desires, goals, and overall life as a women ought look no different than that of men. Strangely, this seems to apply especially when it comes to spiritual things—too many women (and men!) have the idea that “being a woman matters not, it’s being a Christian that counts!” Therefore, these women treat “glorifying God” as something disconnected from their body, from their femininity, from what they are. In reality, being a woman is a providential gift from God of great consequence. Following Jesus as a woman will look somewhat different than following Jesus as a man. And being a Christian woman doesn’t make your womanhood less consequential, rather it helps to restore it to fitting godliness in the here and now while we await glorification.
In the context of the New Testament, asking if a woman can be an elder is a bit like asking if a woman who is married to a man can be the husband. On the one hand, of course not! But on the other, I can imagine someone arguing that perhaps it doesn’t matter who is the husband and who is the wife so long as they are married and can work it out however they want. We can see the absurdity of this, yet before we see ourselves immune from this silliness, we must remember the absurd depravity that has overwhelmed our society and take heed lest we fall.
As women, we must also take heed when it comes to who can be shepherds in God’s church. God does not give arbitrary assignments, nor does he withhold necessary good from his children. God has made it clear through nature and his ordering of creation that qualified men are suited to pastor (1 Tim. 2:12–3:7). It is a manly job that only certain men can do, or at least it should be (1 Pet. 5:1–4; 1 Tim. 3:1–7). It is not only improper for a woman to step into such a role, it is not unlike a woman requesting the role of husband rather than of wife—which is to say, even if everyone went along with it, it would still be impossible. A Christian woman would rightly be appalled by a Christian man who asked, “Can men be literal mothers in the church?” and expected her to take him seriously. There are simply some things that men cannot do.
1. On the way Paul speaks of himself as a “nursing mother” (1 Thess. 2:7), see Kevin DeYoung, “How are Men and Women Different?”
The good news is that a godly woman doesn’t want to be a husband or an elder (and a godly man doesn’t want to bear children). What’s more, God has graciously given women mountains of God-glorifying work to do at home and in his church—enough to keep her happily busy her whole life.
What is a Woman For?
How does a woman glorify God as a woman? She is to be a helper (Gen. 2:18), the glory of man (1 Cor. 11:7)—filling the earth and subduing it as one made in God’s image (Gen. 1:28). What is a woman’s role in the church—how does she glorify God? First and foremost, she is a member of Christ’s body, a co-heir of the grace of God (1 Pet. 3:7). Older women in the church are to train younger women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled, pure, working at home, kind, and submissive to their own husbands (Titus 2:4–5; see also 1 Tim. 5:14).
There are a million particular ways that particular women will flesh out the principles in the paragraph above, both at home and in the church. Some will become fantastic cooks, others will work hard with finances and logistics, some will have their hands dirty as farmers or gardeners, others with teaching young children. But this we know: God gives women good and proper work to do that is fitting for them as women and that brings glory to him. He does not ask his daughter to be a man, or a husband, or a pastor. He has designed ways for her to be pleasing to him as his daughter, as a woman, and to bring him glory that is fitting and full of joy. Her work contributes to the health of families, churches, and nations—both now and in the generations to come. Just look at the cosmic impact of Lois and her daughter Eunice, the grandmother and mother, respectively, of Timothy (see 2 Tim. 1:5).
A Long (But Good) Journey
It may seem a steep hill to climb––convincing women that they should give up competing with men, convincing them that the work of the home is primary and good for them, convincing them that membership in God’s church is a miracle of his grace and that they shouldn’t take that important role for granted, and convincing them that it’s good that God made godly men (and not godly women) to pastor and elder. But what if the church were to begin taking steps of faith, if men and women were to simply start with gratitude, saying “Thank you, God, for making men and women, fathers and mothers, boys and girls—thank you for giving us different roles and responsibilities in this world”?
If we did this, I’m certain that as we went further up, we would discover that the paths on the mountain of obedience lead to vistas of beauty and delight and a sure-footedness we never would have known any other way. “All the paths of the LORD are steadfast love and faithfulness, for those who keep his covenant and his testimonies” (Ps. 25:10). Do you believe it? He is only always good to his children. There is so much joy and peace there for the taking if we will but trust him and walk in his ways.