Should Men be in Charge? The Great Church Debate in Simple Terms

If you knew me as an 18-year-old, you could be forgiven for not recognising me today. Back then, my greatest ambition was to perfect a triple-layer chocolate torte and finish my crochet rug. I had no plans for a career even though my school marks were high enough to study medicine. I had little vision for my future even though I had access to a quality education and plenty of opportunity.

Then I learned to hear God’s voice. Then I heard God’s call to ministry.

At the time, I had no idea what the Holy Spirit was talking about. I’d been raised to believe that God forbade women to be in leadership. A woman’s destiny was to get married, keep house and support her husband’s vision. She certainly couldn’t teach, preach or lead in a church. My beliefs were based firmly on certain passages of Scripture and no matter how I read them, they seemed clear. So what was God thinking?

Our Theology Matters

After a long and often painful journey learning to follow God’s call, I’ve become a different person to the one I used to be. It is not just the things I do, but the person I am. It came about after putting God first, delving deeply into Scripture, listening to the Spirit and seeking to understand how God created me to be.

This is what I’ve learnt.

Our beliefs matter. Indeed, our theology shapes all we do – the roles we play and ultimately, the people we become. Whether we realise it or not, beliefs about God and beliefs about God’s view of gender will permeate every aspect of our lives. Our career, home-life, relationships and ministries will all be affected. That’s why it’s worth taking the time to work out what our theology is – not just so that we know what to do, but so that we know who we are.

So what does the Bible say about God’s plan for men and women? In general, there are two different views (and possibly a third). One was held by my younger self; the other is the position my older self has come to.

A Ladder: The Hierarchical View

Let’s start with the hierarchical view, also known more recently as the complementarian view.

In this model, relationships are pictured as a ladder of authority. God has appointed men to lead and women to follow. Under God’s direction, man has authority over the woman. He has the vision, anointing and call before God to lead. Put simply, God put men in charge:

God
Man
Woman

These the three basic Scriptural arguments used to support this position.

The first is the created order. The Genesis account of creation shows that the woman was formed second after man, and is therefore appointed a ‘helper’ to him (Genesis 2:18). The man is called to exercise leadership and the woman is called to assist. The subsequent events of the Fall further demonstrate this when the woman sinned by usurping her husband’s authority (Genesis 3:2), something she is forever prone to do (Genesis 3:16). This thinking is borne out by Paul in his instructions to Timothy when he says not to allow a woman to teach a man because she was formed second and is more easily deceived (1 Timothy 2:12-14).

The second argument for this position is the roles in the Trinity. The relational nature of humanity is a reflection of the relational nature of the triune godhead. So in the same way that Jesus the Son submitted himself to the will of the father, calling the Father ‘greater’ (John 14:28) and ‘pleasing the one who sent him’ (John 5:30), so the woman should submit themselves to the will of the man since ‘the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God.’ (1 Corinthians 11:3)

Closely connected to this, is the third line of reasoning – the concept of headship. Consider: Wives submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior (Ephesians 5:23). So man is designated the head of the woman in the same way as Christ is head of the church. ‘Headship’ is defined singularly to mean authority.

All three arguments come together to form this popular, longstanding, position, that everyone from Augustine to Luther to Aquinas to Billy Graham has held.

It’s also important to note that there has been some recent modifications to this model. Up until the ~1960s, people understood that if the woman was subordinate to the man in position, she was actually subordinate in value too. She was not only weaker, but inferior. Thankfully the church has since realised that they were wrong. Today, most people who hold a hierarchical position believe that women are equally valuable to men (even though they should always be subordinated).

A Triangle: The Egalitarian View

In contrast to the hierarchical view is the egalitarian perspective – best pictured as a triangle:

God
Man    Woman

In this model, women form an equal partnership with men, and together they submit to God’s authority. Men and women are equal in both value and status. Leadership and position arises from giftedness and anointing, not from gender. Anyone can be ‘in charge,’ depending on their call and giftings.

Here are the three main scriptural arguments in support of this position:

The first one, as before, is the created order. The Genesis account of creation paints a picture of the man and woman who are both made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-28) and assigned to work together to look after the earth. Eve’s role as helper is better translated as ‘partner’ as it is used elsewhere to describe God’s role in helping humanity. The conflict between Adam and Eve over “who’s boss” (Genesis 3:16) is understood to be a product of the curse that is reversed at the cross. So in Christ, the barriers have been broken down and there is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male and female (Galatians 3:28).

The second line of thinking is the relationships in the Trinity. Our relational nature reflects the triune image of God, but all three members of the Trinity are equal in value and position. Jesus was only temporarily subordinated to the Father is incarnation for the purpose of saving humanity. After his sacrifice on earth, Jesus was exalted back to his rightful place equal to the father in heaven (Philippians 2:8-9). The idea of Jesus being permanently under the Father was actually condemned as heresy in the fourth century.

Finally the third argument is the concept of headship. In Greek as in English, the word ‘head’ has two different meanings. So, you can have the ‘head of an organisation’ or you can have the ‘head of the river’. One version means ‘authority’, the other means ‘source’. In first century usage, there is significant evidence that head was more commonly used to mean the latter. So when the early church read that a man was the head of a woman, they learned that men should bring life to women in the same way that Christ brings life to his church.

Thus admonitions by the Apostle Paul to keep women silent in the church (1 Corinthians 14:34) and not permit them to usurp teaching-authority over men (1 Timothy 2:11,12) are deemed to be culturally specific. They were given in Corinth probably because women were calling out and disrupting the public assembly and in Ephesus, because worshippers of the popular goddess Diana were probably teaching that women were born first and were therefore superior to man (we cannot definitively make conclusions about Paul’s line of thinking in the absence of more  evidence). This conclusion makes sense given that elsewhere in Scripture Paul honours female leaders like Priscilla, Phoebe and Junia (Romans 16) and exhorts women to speak as long as they were dressed appropriately (1 Corinthians 11:5). Egalitarians believe that women are free to minister in any position according to the gifts and callings they have been given by the Spirit.

A Ladder and a Triangle: The Mixed View

It could be said there also exists a third view. This is a mixture of the above two and it is operates differently depending on the sphere of life in question – whether it be the community, church or home. Sometimes an egalitarian model is used for the community and the church, but not in the home. Other times a hierarchical model is used in the church and the home, but not in the community.

Another way of saying is; women can lead men in the workplace, but, not in the church or the home, or on the other hand, women can lead men in the workplace and the church, but not in the home.

 

As you can see, there are many layers of complexity to the issue of gender roles in the church. Perhaps you’ve already encountered some of them – perhaps you’re still working them out. It took me several years before I could to unravel the theology I’d been presented with as a child and then, fully understand what it meant for what I could do and who I could become. For me, moving towards an egalitarian position has enabled me to find freedom and discover the God-given gifts I never knew I had. Today I believe with all my heart that this perspective is God’s plan for all women – and the men who love them.

Your Thoughts

What understandings do you have about God’s call to you as a woman? We’d love to hear from you via the comments below.

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