Occasionally I challenge myself to write something a little deeper than present day observations or reflections on a piece of scripture. Something bigger that allows me to explore different ideas & talk with friends – this time I wanted to gather thoughts on women and leadership. At STC we believe leadership has more to do about calling than gender. We have lots of women leaders in our church – and I hope this blog makes us all think and inspires & increases confidence in the girls and guys already doing a fantastic job.
Let me hit some disclaimers: there are lots of brilliant books out there on styles of leadership, how to be an effective leader and this is not one of those angles. It’s true that lots of Christians believe different things about leadership, in particular whether women can lead in Jesus’ church. The Church is the big family of God and there is room in the family for us to hold different views and still respect one another.
That said, I am convinced that the Bible, in its entirety, is fairly clear – and we will quickly look at the whole narrative of scripture to see what God has to say on women in leadership.
Let us start at the beginning of scripture with the creation narrative in Genesis, in particular the first three chapters. So much of the conversation revolves around these chapters and Paul uses them in the New Testament letters a lot when addressing this issue.
Some people might say that Genesis 1 is about a vertical relationship between human beings and God, with human beings being subordinate to God, while Genesis 2 is about a horizontal relationship between man and woman, with woman being subordinate to man. However, there is so much more than this going on here.
In Genesis 1 God created humans on the sixth day of creation. The Hebrew word used in Genesis 1:27 (‘So God created human beings’) is adam – which does not exclusively mean ‘the man’ but means ‘mankind’ or ‘the human’. It is not until Genesis 2 that we find out how God created male and female – in Genesis 1 we learn that ‘mankind’ is created in the image of God. That means both men and women are made in the image of God together. Together men and women reflect who God is. We see this not only in the first three chapters of Genesis but also later on in the book.
Genesis 5:1-2 says ‘When God created human beings; he made them to be like himself. He created them male and female, and he blessed them and called them “human.” The word here again is adam – ‘human’. We begin to see in the very first verses of scripture that it is man and woman together who reflect the image of God. Together we bear the image of God on this planet. In fact, in Genesis 1:28 men and women are told to rule and have dominion over the earth together. It was never just supposed to be man that ruled the earth on his own!
In Genesis 2 we are told how God created male and female. Many people use the argument that because man was created first, men must be the ones who have the authority and they must be better leaders. However, if you follow that line of argument then you can say that cows were created before man and so man must be subordinate to ‘Our Cow Molly’… their ice-cream is good but I don’t know how well behaved Molly would be leading the church.
In Genesis 2:18 God says that he will make Adam a ‘helper’ for it is ‘not good that man should be alone’. Many people have used this verse to say, that because Eve is Adam’s helper, she is therefore subordinate to Adam and that she must come under his leadership. However, God is called our ‘helper’ lots of times in scripture – in Psalm 55:4, Psalm 27:9, Deuteronomy 33:29, Psalm 118:6 – we are surely not going to suggest that God is subordinate to us! Paul says in Hebrews 13:6 that ‘we can say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper, so I will have no fear. What can mere people do to me?”’. Adam sees Eve as his other half not as someone who is subordinate to him!
As we move into Genesis 3 we see that everything begins to change, in fact everything in the whole of history changed with the fall. The beautiful order we see in Genesis 1 and 2 gets distorted as a result of both the man and woman’s sin. God tells Adam that work will now become hard, tiring and dangerous. God tells Eve that giving birth will become painful and dangerous. So, when God says in Genesis 3:16 that the man will rule over the woman it is as a consequence of the fall and sin. Arguably not part of Gods ideal & design for humankind. If this is consequential then should we really be seeking to embody this in Jesus’ church? If we do, does this then mean we are holding onto things that Jesus came to undo?
Moving through the Old Testament
As we move through the rest of the Old Testament we see that there are loads of female leaders who spiritually lead God’s people and also teach the Word of God to all God’s people.
In 2 Kings 22 when Hilkiah the priest found the book in the Temple, Josiah sent immediately for Huldah and, attesting to the genuineness of the scroll, she prophesied the fall of their kingdom because of disobedience to the commands of God. God used her prophetic message and the public reading of the law to bring about a spiritual revival among His people. With a renewal of spiritual life, King Josiah and the people vowed to follow God more faithfully. God used Huldah powerfully to speak and exercise spiritual authority over the King, the Priests and all of God’s people.
In Judges 4 we see that Deborah is the national ruler of Israel. She was married, leading and judging the entire nation. In this instance, it is made clear that Deborah was the national leader, not her husband. She was commander-in-chief and everyone came under her rule and leadership.
Alongside Moses and Aaron we read that Miriam was also one of the key leaders in the Exodus. In fact her leadership was so important that in Numbers 12:15 the people could not advance and move forward without her.
There are many other female leaders and women with prominent positions in the Old Testament such as Esther, Ruth, Rahab etc… but let’s spend some time looking at the New Testament.
The New Testament
The Gospels and Jesus
You may have heard this before but Jesus’ attitude, thought and behaviour towards women was incredibly ahead of his time compared to the norm. Jesus’ example should largely inform our perspective.
In John 4, Jesus talks to a woman at a well. After the conversation we learn that the disciples were ‘shocked’ to find Jesus talking to a woman (John 4:27). They were shocked not just because he was talking to a woman but because she was also a Samaritan. Jewish men would never, ever be seen in public talking to any woman, sometimes not even their wife. Jesus talking with the Samaritan woman went against every cultural norm and attitude to women. The irony is that this woman discovered that Jesus was the Messiah before many of the disciples. It was this woman who became the person who introduced her whole community to Jesus – she became an evangelist and Jesus did not hold her back.
When Jesus travelled around the country on his ministry trips he travelled with his twelve disciples but he also travelled with lots of women! Among them were Mary Magdalene, Susanna, Joanna and many others (Luke 8:1-3). Jesus travelled with many women – and this was simply not done in that culture. People would have questioned Jesus’ morality and probably would have thought he lived a very dubious lifestyle because of this – but he did it anyway. These women weren’t just along for the ride either – they were the team. We can assume that when Jesus sent out the 72 (in Luke 10) that a number of them were women – and they were exercising authority given to them by Jesus. They were praying for the sick and proclaiming the Kingdom.
As we move towards the end of every Gospel we see that it was the women who were at the cross as Jesus was dying for our sins – the men had disappeared. It was the women who went to the tomb after Jesus had died. It was the women who were at the tomb when Jesus rose from the dead. God chose to reveal the resurrection to these faithful women first. And this is an astounding choice because at that time and in that culture a woman’s testimony could not be used as evidence in court. And yet God gives them the gift of this knowledge first.
At the end of Romans 16, Paul gives a list of some of the people involved in leading the church in Rome and elsewhere. He starts with Phoebe (Romans 16:1-2) who he says is a deacon in the church in Cenchrea. A deacon is a leader of that church. The church probably met in her house and accepted her resources and leadership that had allowed the church to flourish and grow. Paul commends her to the church in Rome because of the work she has done in the church and for the Gospel.
He also asks the church in Rome to give his greetings to Priscilla and Aquila (Romans 16:3-5). Priscilla and Aquilla are a married couple who Paul considers ‘co-workers’ in the Kingdom. They led the church and it met in their house. The interesting thing about this couple is that whenever they are mentioned as a married couple, Aquila is always mentioned first. Whenever they are mentioned in a specific ministry context Priscilla is always mentioned first – and it is unusual for a woman to be named first in that culture.
In Romans 16:6 Paul tells the church to greet Mary who has worked hard for the church. In Romans 16:7 Paul says to greet Andronicus and Junia who were a married couple in prison for the Gospel. If your Bible says Junias instead of Junia then it is translating her name as a male, but this is incorrect. In every other bit of writing around this time Junia is always referred to as a female name. Junia was highly respected among the apostles – she was an apostolic leader and had potentially been doing it longer than Paul! Paul lets women be apostles in the church and Ephesians 2:20 says that the church is built on the ministry of the apostles!
We see in other parts of the New Testament that women led the church in the time the New Testament was being written. Lydia led the church in Philippi and it met in her home. In Philippians 4:3 we see that Paul worked with two women in telling others the good news!
The complicated verses
So what do we do with the complicated verses that on the surface seem to say that women cannot lead in the church?
If you take these verses out of context and build your whole theology of leadership on these verses then you are on very dangerous ground because you will begin to say that the Word of God contradicts itself. As we have already seen that there is a Biblical foundation for female leadership. If you take these verses in context then they make a lot of sense and say nothing different to what we have already seen the rest of the Bible says.
1 Corinthians 14:34-35
“Women should be silent during the church meetings. It is not proper for them to speak. They should be submissive, just as the law says. If they have any questions, they should ask their husbands at home, for it is improper for women to speak in church meetings”.
Let’s start with the obvious. Paul is not saying women cannot speak in any church. There are some that hold this view and say that these verses mean women can not lead. The problem with this is that Paul clearly lets women prophesy – just three chapters before! We have already seen that women have positions of leadership in the church. So there is something else going on here. It is actually a pretty progressive step for Paul to allow mixed gender meetings where there was open discussion. These verses come in the context of Paul talking about orderly worship. The church was getting messy with lots of people saying lots of different things all at once. Paul is advising that the women ask questions about what is going on at home instead of doing it during the public gathering. He does not want the platform to the church to be used to resolve personal arguments or to be confused with personal conversation. It would be contradictory for Paul to suggest one standard in 1 Corinthians 11 (allowing women to speak in church) and then something else in 1 Corinthians 14.
1 Corinthians 11:3b-6,13-16
“The head of every man is Christ, the head of woman is man, and the head of Christ is God. A man dishonours his head if he covers his head while praying or prophesying. But a woman dishonours her head if she prays or prophesies without a covering on her head, for this is the same as shaving her head. Yes, if she refuses to wear a head covering, she should cut off all her hair! But since it is shameful for a woman to have her hair cut or her head shaved, she should wear a covering…Judge for yourselves. Is it right for a woman to pray to God in public without covering her head? Isn’t it obvious that it’s disgraceful for a man to have long hair? And isn’t long hair a woman’s pride and joy? For it has been given to her as a covering. But if anyone wants to argue about this, I simply say that we have no other custom than this, and neither do God’s other churches.”
Firstly, let us deal with this idea of headship, which also appears in Ephesians 5. Headship and being the head had very little, if anything at all, to do with being in charge. The Greek word is Kephale and is best translated into English as source or origin. In Greek thought the heart was the central thing to do with human function & thinking. Paul is not establishing a hierarchy in these verses between man & woman – certainly not between Christ and God. In the trinity, we could argue that there is equally as much distinction as there is unity between the persons of God – Jesus is different from the Father, who is different from the Holy Spirit. Each functions as a person relating to the other but we do not believe one rules or is greater than the two because they are one in nature. The understanding of Kephale here is more of co-dependence with one another as outlined in Genesis 2. A picture of partnership not privilege over one another. Both male and female submit to each other because both are made in the image of God and both reflect the nature of Christ.
When Paul says in 1 Corinthians 11 that women must cover their hair Paul is not making this a universal rule for every woman worshipper in any church, ever – this was an issue local to the church in Corinth. We know from research that the only women who did not wear their hair down in Corinth were the temple prostitutes. Paul looked to bring a practical suggestion to help show the Corinthians that Christian women lived for something different than the temple prostitutes. It is not meant to be a universal rule that Paul wishes to impose on all the Church for all of time.
1 Timothy 2:9-15
“And I want women to be modest in their appearance. They should wear decent and appropriate clothing and not draw attention to themselves by the way they fix their hair or by wearing gold or pearls or expensive clothes. For women who claim to be devoted to God should make themselves attractive by the good things they do. Women should learn quietly and submissively. I do not let women teach men or have authority over them. Let them listen quietly. For God made Adam first, and afterward he made Eve. And it was not Adam who was deceived by Satan. The woman was deceived, and sin was the result. But women will be saved through childbearing, assuming they continue to live in faith, love, holiness, and modesty”.
Firstly, Paul wants women to live in modesty and simplicity because there was a movement in the area that said women should start to behave like the men. It was culturally acceptable for men to be promiscuous and the women wanted the same rights. One demonstration of this right was dressing inappropriately. Paul begins to balance and check this new found expression of liberty as promiscuity.
Secondly, Paul says that the women should be quiet in this particular church… but it was not because they were women. It was because of what they were saying and teaching. The letter of 1 Timothy is primarily addressing false teachers and teaching. Some of these false teachers had got in to the church and some of the women had been taken in by their teaching, so they started to teach it. Culturally women did not have the same education as men and often could not read, write or study. They simply believed what they heard – they did not know any better. Paul is saying to Timothy that he must let the women learn! Paul says that the women must be under authority, but not to men. They must be under the authority of the Word of God.
Paul then takes us back to Genesis, to before the fall. He is asking that Timothy corrects the injustice that the women do not know anything else – Paul wants them to know the truth because men and women were created to be equals. The truth is not just for men but for all of us.
In Galatians 3:28 Paul says we are all one in Jesus. “There is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female”. Jewish men thanked God every day that they were not a gentile, a slave or a woman! Paul is saying it is impossible to be a Jesus follower and to then hold on to those views. When Jesus calls people to himself everyone is called to play their part in the work of the church. Women don’t get called by Jesus into the church to just sit around and do nothing. There is nowhere in the Bible that says church work can only be done by men. Paul is addressing the work of the church in Galatians 3 – and ALL in the church are called and get to play their part.
In Acts 2 on the day of Pentecost the Holy Spirit was poured out on the church and gave spiritual gifts to everyone – not just men. These gifts are for the building up of the church. Peter even gets up and quotes from the book of Joel. He says that this is the fulfilling of that prophecy that God would pour out his Spirit on all people. Both sons and daughters will prophesy. It no longer matters if you are slave or free, Jew or Gentile, male or female. Jesus levelled the playing field for all of us and it seems ridiculous that some parts of the church would simply ignore some of the words in this prophecy and write them out of scripture.
Looking at the whole narrative of scripture I see a fairly complete view of leadership in the Bible. It is much easier to explain a couple of verses of scripture in their context (sitting in the whole narrative of scripture) than it is to build a theology taking a few verses out of context, because then you are left with other parts of scripture contradicting what you are saying.
As I said at the beginning, I want my understanding of leadership to be informed by the Word of God. I believe that the Bible shows that God calls men and women into leadership in his church. I cannot come to any other conclusion. For some people this is an issue, for others they are not phased at all… and the Church is big enough for people who hold different opinions on this topic. The next step is to still love each other and work together to seeing the Gospel of Jesus Christ proclaimed and demonstrated. Things like this might not find complete consensus in our lifetime, they haven’t for centuries, but we live as one family and with the tension of Godly, prayerful and Jesus loving people believing different things.
Questions for further conversation:
- Before sharing your views, what is your real-life experience on this topic? How does it make you think/feel?
- For everyone, would you consider yourself a leader? If not, what disqualifies you? Likewise, if so, what qualifies you?
- Why do we even need leaders? (if appropriate, think about the reasons why you might lead).
- This blog talked mostly about biblical view on women in leadership. From a pragmatic perspective, can you think of any contemporary women leaders who seem to have Gods blessing?