Gender and Church Office

Bible Studies

The Apostle Paul helps us understand the relationship between men and women by an analogy with the relationship between the Father and the Son in 1 Corinthians 11:3: “Now I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God.”

Theologians have drawn a distinction between what God is in himself and how he relates to his creation. In terms of God’s being or essence, we discover in the Bible an absolute unity and equality between the three, distinct Persons who comprise the one God. The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are of one substance, so we may say that Jesus and the Holy Spirit are equal to the Father in every respect (Cf. John 1:1; 8:58; Acts 5:3, 4; Hebrews 1:8-12). The study of being (essence or substance) is called ontology, so when we refer to God as he is in himself apart from his relationship to his creation and apart from the work of salvation, we are talking about his ontology. When theologians speak of the Ontological Trinity, they are talking about the essence of the One true God, God as he is in himself.

However, in God’s work of obtaining the salvation of humankind, each Person in the Trinity assumes a different function. Here the Father assumes a superior role to the Son, who voluntarily subordinates himself to the will of the Father. In theological jargon, “economy” or “dispensation” refers to God’s method of providing and dispensing salvation, so we may say that in his economical function, Jesus becomes the Suffering Servant who does the will of God even unto death (Cf. Philippians 2:5-11). The Son of God purchases the Holy Spirit, whom he pours out on the Church (Acts 2:33).

Each Person plays a distinct role; we do not have Modalism, with one Person playing three different roles (as in the old Peter Sellers’ film, “The Mouse that Roared.”), and so we observe in the gospel narrative that the Father can speak from heaven and the Holy Spirit come down at the same moment that Jesus is baptized on earth (Matthew 3:16, 17).

This distinction between ontology and economy, between what God is in himself and the different roles that each Person plays in obtaining our salvation, may prove a useful paradigm for resolving some difficult texts, e.g. “making himself equal with God” (John 5:18) and “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30), on the one hand, and “My Father is greater than I” (John 14:28), on the other.

As Jesus is equal to his Father in his being, but assumes a subordinate role in obtaining our salvation, so men and women are equal before God, yet each has a different function in life. In Jesus Christ we are one (Galatians 3:26, 29), yet God has assigned us different roles. Women may not teach men (1 Corinthians 14:34, 35; 1 Timothy 2:11 ff.), nor is it appropriate for them to speak or pray out loud in the gatherings of God’s people without the proper symbol of being under male authority (1 Corinthians 11:4 ff., however one understands this symbol in his or her cultural context).

In marriage, headship, not dictatorship, is given to the male (Ephesians 5:22-33; Colossians 3:18, 19; 1 Peter 3:1-7). The Father’s relationship with the Son, and the Son’s relationship with the Church is the model here—as many have called it, “Servant Leadership.”

Having said that, one must affirm that both women and men function in ministry in the New Testament (Cf. Acts 9:36; 21:9). And both appear to serve as deacons in the first century church (Cf. 1 Timothy 3:8 ff., especially 3:11 and Romans 16:1, 2). Also, while there are things in the New Testament that may be culturally tied to the milieu of the Roman world of the first century, e.g. aspects of adornment and female head covering, any straightforward reading of the text in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 makes it plain that any women participating in worship should have an easily identifiable, cultural symbol that they are submitted to their own husbands.

However, the office of elder is reserved for men by the Apostle Paul (Cf. 1 Timothy 2:13, 14; 3:1 ff.), not because of cultural considerations, but because of a creation ordinance: “I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve” (1 Timothy 2:12, 13).

This creational structure became exacerbated in the Fall: “And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner” (1 Timothy 2:14).

One practical issue in the New Testament’s forbidding women to speak out in Church has to do with questioning teachers: “As in all the congregations of the saints, women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the Law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church” (1 Corinthians 14:33-35).

Beyond the biblically stated reasons, one may wonder why the New Testament keeps women from serving alongside men in decision making positions of authority.  I will offer this observation.

Having worked in many situations over the years, I have witnessed or been a part of many conflicts. When a man has a problem with another man, or when a woman has a problem with another woman, if they both are born again, they can easily resolve it by themselves. That does not so easily happen when a man has a conflict with a woman, particularly a married woman, because it is very easy for him to become embroiled in an emotionally charged conflict with the woman’s husband—generally without any real resolution this side of the Judgment Seat of Christ.

When women and men serve on church boards together, usually the women quickly come to dominate the board because wise men avoid getting involved in situations where they may have to defend themselves against charges of sexual harassment or worse. When Mrs. Y tells her husband that Mr. X is trying to come on to her or constantly putting her down, what is Mr. Y going to do? All Mrs. Y has to do is tell her husband or other women that she “feels uncomfortable” in the presence of Mr. X, and sufficient damage is done. The eventual result is that many men will lose interest in the church, and the church will become feminized, either run by women alone, or by women working with men who sometimes are prissy or womanizers. I say that having served as a pastor for thirty-five years, having done a fair amount of counseling, overseeing male and female employees, and having served on various boards, both Christian and secular, over the years.

There is more wisdom in the Bible than we can ever imagine.

Bob Vincent