Women & Leadership Roles

A.  The Issue

With the rising visibility of women in leadership roles in society, the church is challenged to re-examine its understanding of the roles women can fulfill in the ministry of the church.  On the one hand, we do not want to be guilty of succumbing to the patterns of the world.  Yet on the other hand, we want to be certain to empower women to fulfill the ministries God has gifted them to serve in.

There is a growing acceptance in churches of the position that says the barriers that separate men and women are part of the curse and have been removed by Christ’s death.  Therefore, women are to have equal status with men not only in salvation, but in ministry as well.  They should not be restricted from any leadership role in the church simply because of gender.

The more traditional position emphasizes that while men and women are equal in regards to salvation, there are certain roles that God has restricted to men, particularly the general leading and teaching roles (elders and pastors). The phrase “equal yet different” is used to describe the roles of men and women in the church (and in the family as well).

B.  The Biblical Teaching

In interpreting the passages dealing with women and leadership, we must be careful to differentiate between binding biblical principles and changing cultural traditions. There is danger, on the one hand, of making cultural practices binding.  But there is equal danger in disregarding biblical principles altogether.

In 1 Timothy 2:8-15, three issues are raised which help us see this approach at work.  In the first instance, men are commanded to pray (the biblical principle), lifting holy hands (the cultural expression).  Men should be noted for regular prayer that flows from a pure life.  But their position in prayer might be kneeling or bowing.   In the second instance, women are commanded to dress with modesty (the biblical principle), not braiding their hair or wearing gold or pearls (the cultural expression).  Women today can braid their hair and wear jewelry in an attitude of modesty, yet there are definitely other manners of dress that would be considered immodest.

The third instance concerns women being submissive and not usurping the leadership of men (the biblical principle) and learning in quietness, not teaching (the cultural expression).  The drastic change the church brought to society’s treatment of women in the first century warranted caution in women asserting their newfound liberty in a way that would hurt the church body.

Two biblical reasons are given for man’s position of being head, or the leader, of woman. According to 1 Timothy 2:13-14, the apostle Paul states that men have been given the role of headship based on 1). Creation and 2). the Fall. Adam was set forth as the head because he was formed before Eve.  Then, when Eve disregarded Adam’s authority, she sinned and used her leadership to convince Adam to also sin.  No other reason is provided for man being given the position of head.  This does not imply that men are better leaders or more gifted or more geared toward leadership roles.  Nor does it imply than men are spiritually superior.  The fact is, some roles, like that of elder, are limited to men, just as some tasks, like that of childbearing, are restricted to women.

Much of the fear of male-headship comes from a misunderstanding of authority.  Jesus described godly authority in much different terms than contemporary society.  While ungodly leaders abuse others for personal gain, the Christian leader demonstrates authority by serving others (see Mark 10:35-45).  Husbands are called to imitate the leadership of Christ in their marriages, being willing to lay down their lives for their wives (Eph. 5:25-28).

The New Testament lists a number of relationships, including husband/wife, parent/child, government/citizen and master/servant that remain intact even for Christians.  The difference for believers is the spirit of love in which both parties operate.  Therefore, while men have been given the responsibility of leadership in the home and church, they are wise to use their leadership to elevate others and allow them to minister to their fullest potential. Men are to lead with a heart of service and women are to serve with a spirit of submissiveness.

Paul follows this discussion in 1 Timothy 2 with the qualifications for elders in 1 Timothy 3:1-7.  The list addresses men who desire to serve in that leadership role.  There is no evidence that women served as elders, though they may have served as deaconesses.  (We know that Phoebe was called a deaconess in Romans 16:1 and that 1 Timothy 3:11 may refer to deaconesses rather than wives of deacons).

C.  Conclusion

1. The Eldership, being the shepherding body of the church, is comprised of qualified men.  This is the only leadership role limited to men.

2. One of the marks of the New Testament age is that both men and women are gifted to serve (see Acts 2:17). Women are very capable leaders and therefore ought to able to serve where they are gifted, ministering under the oversight of the Eldership. In so doing, they are not usurping authority, but demonstrating submission to it.

3. The church has often erred in prohibiting women from serving in certain areas of ministry.  In order to change the mindset, the congregation needs to be educated about leadership roles, and care must be taken to change the practices. Paul’s reminder that some practices are permissible but not beneficial should be a guiding principle as the church opens up some of these culturally restricted roles to women.

[Updated: June 2016]