Women and Men in the Church

This is a highly charged subject, but having said that Jane Hanson Hoyt has ignored what the Bible has to say on this topic in my review of her book, I thought I had better give an outline of why I think that God has lovingly given different roles to men and women in the church.

1. Men and women are equal in God’s salvation plan and women are highly valued

When Paul talks of our position in Christ he says in Galatians 3:28: There is neither… male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.  Men and women are of equal worth and are saved on exactly the same basis.  All have the same status before God.

In the Old Testament we see that the woman of Proverbs 31 is strong and very capable.

Jesus had a counter culturally high view of women, treating them with great respect and, despite the cultural norms, worthy of receiving teaching (Luke 10:38-42).  The woman at the well in Sychar (John 4:39) is often noted as the first evangelist, and the first witnesses to the resurrection were women.

Paul also had a high view of women. In Romans 16:3 Paul describes Priscilla (with her husband) as a fellow worker and in Romans 16:7 he says that Junia (with her husband) is well known amongst the apostles.  In 1 Corinthians 7:1-16 Paul says that sexual relationships are by mutual agreement as an act of mutual service, and he goes on to talk to both wives and husbands about divorce in very egalitarian terms.

2. Men and women have different roles from creation

Genesis 2:18: Then the LORD God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.”
This verse implies some sort of difference in roles. Woman was created to be man’s helper. This word “helper” is used of God, so it is not degrading in any way! This is what Christ’s bride, the church, is to be. Note that this was BEFORE the fall, while everything was still “very good”.

The difference in roles is also shown by God creating man first (as Paul notes in 1 Timothy 2:13), this is backed up by what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 11:8-9 “For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; neither was man created for woman, but woman for man.” 

This role of leadership by the man also comes out in:

  1. God giving instructions to man as to his role before Eve was created (Genesis 2:15-17), and
  2. Adam naming Eve (Genesis 2:23; 3:20), and
  3. The order of accountability when they have sinned (Genesis 3:9-19).

3. God normally chose only men as leaders

In the Old Testament, when at the foot of Mt Sinai, God is telling them how to set up a new society, with new rules, he only chose male leaders. There are plenty of Godly women who are commendable, e.g. Ruth, but the only female leaders are chosen when things go wrong. E.g. Deborah in Judges 4.  Deuteronomy 4:5-8 shows that the Lord gave Israel the laws as a witness to the nations as to how wonderful the Lord is.  This includes the male leadership that he designed into it.  God would not have set up his own nation like that and yet left a major flaw in it.

Jesus chose 12 male disciples and then Apostles. If he had wanted to show complete identity of role between males and females, he would have chosen some women, but he didn’t. He wasn’t worried about social convention, so we cannot use that as a reason for his choice.  Even his detractors recognised that he did not follow social conventions (Matthew 22:16).  He even chose a Tax Collector (Matthew) as a close disciple, so saying he didn’t choose women purely for cultural reasons doesn’t make sense – Jesus used his own standards which were above culture.

4. Men and women have different roles in the church

Only men should be elders / presbyters, and only men should teach and have authority in the church (1 Tim 2:11-12).  The reason that Paul gives is the created order (1 Tim 2:13) and the sequence of sinning at the fall (1 Tim 2:14).

Women are to remain silent during the weighing of prophecy (1 Corinthians 14:29-34).

Women can be deacons (1 Timothy 3:11). I think that is what Paul is getting at here, rather than talking about the wives of deacons.  Using the alternative reading from the NIV, which I think, in the context, explains the original Greek best, 1 Timothy 3:11 says:

In the same way, deaconesses are to be worthy of respect, not malicious talkers but temperate and trustworthy in everything.

Women can pray and prophesy in church (1 Corinthians 11:5).  Church is the context Paul is talking about here.  How this works out in practice in the church is then a good question, but note that New Testament prophecy is very different from the Old Testament “Thus says the Lord” variety.  It is something that is to be evaluated on the spot (1 Cor 14:29), and does not have to be heard (1 Cor 14:30).  Certainly it is for the encouragement of the church (1 Cor 14:3-5, 24-26, 31).  Presumably giving a testimony or a report of a time on the mission field would come under this category.   It, obviously, is something different to teaching and having authority in the church (1 Tim 2:12). In 2 Timothy 4:2, Paul describes preaching as including correcting and rebuking, presumably these things would be included in “teaching and having authority”.  Refer to my later post for more on this topic.

In Ephesians 5:21, where Paul says that we should submit to one another, he then goes on to show what this looks like in practice (Eph 5:22-6:9).  The examples he gives in every case are not symmetrical.  We do him an injustice to then claim that verse 21 is referring to symmetrical submission.  Wives are to submit to their husbands, children to their fathers and slaves to their masters.  Likewise in the church we should submit to the elders, even though we are equal to them in Christ and are all priests (1 Peter 2:9).

5. The role of men and women in the home affects their role in the church

Wives should submit to their husbands in the home (Ephesians 5:22-24, 33; Colossians 3:18; 1 Corinthians 11:3), and it was not just Paul said this, Peter agreed (1 Peter 3:1, 5-6).

Christ does not devalue the Church by having it submit to him, by being it’s head. He values the church so highly that he gave his life for it.

The relationship between men and women in the congregation should not contradict relationships in the home, where wives are to submit to and respect their husbands (1 Timothy 2:11-12; 1 Corinthians 14:33-35).

It does not make sense for a man to be head of his family, but then to be seen to be submitting to his wife in the church because she is in leadership over him in that context.

Paul says that those who lead in the church are to be those who lead well in the home. If men are the leaders in the home, this can only be true for men in the church (1 Timothy 3:2, 4-5; Titus 1:5-6).

6. Women have a valuable role.

The Bible encourages women to teach other women, so it is not saying that women can’t be good Bible teachers, that is not the issue (Titus 2:3-5).  They can also pray and prophesy in church, as seen above.  If they can prophecy, then they will be involved in  strengthening, encouraging, comforting and edifying the church (1 Corinthians 14:3-4).

7. Different roles does not imply different value or worth

We must recognise the hierarchy which God has ordained, though we must ensure that this is not, in any way, a hierarchy of lording it on the one hand and servility on the other.

The headship that the husband is to display is like that of Christ for the church – a sacrificial giving of himself (Ephesians 5:25).  It is not something that a husband can demand of his wife, rather it is something that she willingly does – that is the ideal.

Unfortunately, it is part of the curse that wives will want to dominate their husbands, who in turn will want to lord it over their wives (Genesis 3:16. cf Genesis 4:7).  Sadly this is the only model of male / female relationships that many have experienced, but that doesn’t mean that God’s ways are neither achievable nor good.

That it is possible for there to be perfect equality while having different roles is evident in the Trinity.  We see the Son submitting to and obeying the Father (John 5:19; 6:38; 7:16; 14:28, 14:31; 15:10; Luke 4:18; Matthew 20:23; 1 Corinthians 11:3; 15:28), and the Spirit submitting to both the Son and the Father (John 15:26; 16:13-15), without any problem with their equality.

8. Why does this matter?

Apart from the obvious problem that we will be going against what God has said we should do, having a mistaken view of how women and men should relate in the church and the home distorts and impoverishes our view of God, the church and the family.  This will lead to disfunction in both the church and the family.


1. The New Testament does not consider the anomaly when Christian men are incompetent, ill-prepared or unwilling to discharge the teaching ministry. In this anomalous situation it may well be that what is normal must give way to what is beneficial, and this happened on a couple of occasions in the Old Testament, the incident with Deborah (Judges 4-5) being one of them.

2. I give acknowledgement to D.B.Knox for the kernel of this document (Selected Works, Volume 2).

3. A good book giving a detailed look at particular Bible verses on this topic is “God’s Good Design” by Claire Smith. You can read a review of this book here.

4. Gavin Ortlund has written a good overview coming at this from another angle at: http://gavinortlund.com/2013/09/03/why-im-complementarian/

5. A brief account of one woman’s journey through all this can be found at: https://www.9marks.org/article/how-psalm-113-changed-my-life/

6. Tim Keller and Don Carson have a casual but helpful chat on “What Did Paul Mean by ‘I Do Not Permit a Woman to Teach’?” (1 Timothy 2:12) at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zShK_3DxxKs

7. The Gospel Coalition lately has some interesting material on this topic.  Firstly, Andrew Wilson has a wide ranging look at the innate differences between men and women in an essay titled Beautiful Difference: The (Whole-Bible) Complementarity of Male and Female.  Secondly, Kevin DeYoung looks at current objections to Complementarianism in his essay Let Us Reason Together About Complementarianism.

8. Stephanie Jane Judd has written a helpful two part contribution to this discussion, titled “The Rise and Fall of Biblical Complementarity”.  It is hosted by The Gospel Coalition Australia. The first part is Equality and Distinction and the second In Marriage and in the Church.

9. To see how a particular church is trying to working this out in practice, I suggest you go to The Village Church led by Matt Chandler.  Under resources on their web page: https://thevillagechurch.net/about/beliefs, they have a document titled The Role of Women (Short).  They also have a more detailed statement available (The Role of Women (Long)) which goes into their scriptural reasoning in more detail.

2 thoughts on “Women and Men in the Church

  1. Two books that I can recommend on this subject are:

    “Women and Authority:the key biblical texts” by Ian Paul

    “What’s with Paul and Women? Unlocking the Cultural Background to 1 Tim 2” by Jon Zens

  2. I must admit I have not read the books in question, but I have read what Ian Paul says about writing his booklet at:

    He says in his summary “I have been struck afresh by the radically egalitarian and counter-cultural nature of what Scripture says about gender.” I can only agree.

    However pleading the wider cultural context in order to change the obvious meaning of what Paul says is:
    a) dangerous to our view of the inspiration and clarity of scripture and its applicability to all and every culture, and
    b) leads us astray on this topic

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