Women in Ministry & Leadership
Women & Men: God’s Original Intent
In this article, we look at God’s intent for men and women, both His original design and what the New Testament teaches us about the equality of the sexes. We also tackle how Christendom has by and large handled the issue and consider our response today.
It is admittedly a long article but the intention is to address the topic comprehensively.
Hover over the † in the content to view a reference.
In this article, we look at God’s intent for men and women, both His original design and what the New Testament teaches us about the equality of the sexes. We also tackle how Christendom has by and large handled the issue and consider our response today.
It is admittedly a long article but the intention is to address the topic comprehensively.
Tap on the † in the content to view a reference. To hide the reference, tap the bubble.
In this article, we look at God’s intent for men and women, both His original design and what the New Testament teaches us about the equality of the sexes. We also tackle how Christendom has by and large handled the issue and consider our response today.
It is admittedly a long article but the intention is to address the topic comprehensively. The desktop and tablet versions include a helpful outline with jumplinks in the sidebar.
Tap on the † in the content to view a reference. To hide the reference, tap the bubble.
God’s Nature and Mandate
A good place to start is at the beginning.
26 “Then God said, ‘Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.’ 27 So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. 28 God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.’”
(Genesis 1:26-28 NIV)
Verse 26 tells us that God created “mankind” in His image and likeness.
The word “mankind” is the Hebrew word adam. While it is used 20 times as “Adam” (the proper name), it is used more than 500 times in reference to humanity. In one case, it refers exclusively to women (Numbers 31:35). The word stems from adama, the Hebrew word for “earth”, referring to human beings’ unique relationship to planet earth.† It is only into Genesis Chapter 2, when God creates Eve, that He calls the man, ‘Adam’. From this point forward, the Hebrew word for male (ish) and female (ishah) are used to distinguish Adam from Eve.†
Furthermore, the inference in verses 26-28 is abundantly clear, the adam created in the image and likeness of God refers to “them”: to humans, “male and female”.
Translations like the New Living Translation correctly capture the intent of this seminal passage by translating it as follows:
26 “Then God said, ‘Let us make human beings in our image, to be like us…’”
(Genesis 1:26 NIV, emphasis mine)
Firstly, there is something precious and distinct about male and female. Living, functioning and working in harmony together, men and women reflect and express the nature of God. Male and female, in or by themselves, are incomplete in revealing His nature. Perhaps we might go so far as to say that male and female cannot define themselves as fully human without each other. And it goes without saying that while marriage serves as one expression of this reality, every sphere of society is better off when men and women function together in harmony. Not only would a world of just males or just females die out after one generation, they would inadequately reflect the nature of God and thus fail to represent what it means to be human.
Secondly, male and female are both entrusted with God’s mandate. Together, they reveal God’s nature and together, they fulfil His purpose. Neither can accomplish God’s mandate alone—a mandate that essentially involves stewarding the earth as custodians on God’s behalf. In short, our purpose is to represent God to the created order and to manage the earth in accordance with His will. And we can only accomplish this purpose together, as male and female.
It is worth pointing out that humanity, male and female, are entrusted to rule over the created world, not each other. In fact, the mandate does not involve one human being ruling over other human beings at all. Genesis, Chapter 2 further elaborates on the execution of this mandate. The first man and woman were to steward the garden entrusted to them and to raise the first family (vv. 8-25).
It seems obvious that God intended multiplying families to populate the earth, each stewarding a “garden” placed in their trust. Notably, Adam and Eve are not envisioned as a king and queen ruling over others†; they are the archetypal parents, raising and releasing their children into maturity, who in turn would do likewise.
From the beginning of the created world, God’s intent was to reveal His nature and fulfil His purpose through men and women, co-existing and co-labouring in harmony together.
Equal But Different
Together, men and women reveal the nature of God. Neither are complete in themselves. Something about our distinction is important, not just in our different roles in procreation but in representing God’s intention on earth.
Firstly, it’s important to stress that men and women have more in common than they don’t. Men are not from Mars nor are women from Venus.† We’re created in the image and likeness of God, placed on earth with a shared mandate. We are equal in value and worth. Yet we are also different, and these differences are important. Equal doesn’t mean same. If we were exactly the same, the other wouldn’t be necessary. In fact, our differences complement and complete us; that is, together we are more fully human, and we better represent God’s nature. Our differences make us interdependent and thus, should be cherished and celebrated.
Perhaps Genesis 2 reveals something of this core difference. Man’s first relationship, for lack of a better word, was with the job God gave to him, tending the garden. Woman’s first relationship was with a person, sparing him from the alienation he experienced.
From this we might conclude that men are typically more functional and analytical by nature while women tend to be more relational and intuitive.
It’s interesting that, according to numerous studies, the biggest behavioural difference between men and women lie in our interests: women are generally more interested in people while men are generally more interested in things. Now, this is not to say that some women aren’t more interested in things and some men aren’t more interested in people. And it goes without saying that some women are more functional and analytical while some men are more relational and intuitive. However, it seems to be a general rule, one that the Genesis account may hint at or even describe. While there is much that could be said further about the differences between men and women, it lies beyond the scope of this article.†
Distortion After The Fall
The fall distorted the original intent. When God revealed the consequences of the first couple’s transgression, He said to the woman:
16 “You will desire to control your husband, but he will rule over you.”
(Genesis 3:16 NLT)
The first thing to note is that this is clearly not God’s original intent. Something about the fall distorted God’s will, predisposing one against the other and polarising the differences.
Importantly, in this passage, God is describing the consequence of the fall not dictating new terms. He is outlining the consequences of their transgression—the way in which their fallen nature is likely to bend; He is not cursing them.
Thus, in the distortion caused by the fall, women’s relational and intuitive nature is likely to manifest in manipulation and control, and man’s functional and analytical nature is likely to manifest in domination and suppression. It goes without saying that this is a general truism, and neither are consistent with God’s will.
At no point did God charge the man to rule the woman. The original intent, although distorted by the first couple’s transgression, remained God’s perfect will.†
Thus, sin brought the potential for disharmony into every sphere of God’s created order, including the first relationship. Differences that once brought harmony and completeness now polarised into discord and disunity.
Importantly, the first promise of the Messiah occurs in the midst of the first couple’s fall (Genesis 3:14, 15), and it’s interesting that the Messiah is described as the women’s offspring. In other words, we get an immediate sense that God’s original intent will be re-established, and it will be done so through a female’s male-child. This male-child would become the Saviour of the world, and the redeemed would be described as His Bride. The importance of male and female in the redemption story is both poetic and powerful.
Promise of a New Day
After the fall, women were tremendously marginalised (and degraded) in most ancient cultures. Yet even though the Old Testament remained male-dominated, it stood head-and-shoulders above most of the religions of the ancient world in its humane treatment of women and appreciation of their worth and importance.† Although the Old Testament did not directly address the chauvinism of the ancient world, God’s intention to do so animates some of the prophetic utterances anticipating the New Covenant.
In Joel, Chapter 2 for instance, God declares:
28 “And afterward, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions. 29 Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days.”
(Joel 2:28, 29 NIV, emphasis mine)
It is hard to fully appreciate just how radical and revolutionary such passages were in their historical setting.
The New Covenant
Following Jesus’ ascension, the New Covenant was launched, so to speak, on that amazing morning described in Acts, Chapter 2. The incredible outpouring of the Spirit on Pentecost morning forever changed the course of human history.
In explaining its significance, Peter declared, “this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel” (Acts 2:16)—and quoted the above prophecy. He declared that Joel’s prophecy was at that very moment being fulfilled, ushering in the New Covenant (Acts 2:14-39).
He stressed that this “promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call” (v. 39). In other words, no exception.
Paul then also, in explaining the blessings of salvation to all, underlined the point:
28 “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
(Galatians 3:28 NIV, emphasis mine)
This speaks powerfully of God’s restoration intent in several areas of societal distortion, proclaiming an end to the old man-made divisions. It is, in fact, a mind-blowing statement. To first century ears, nothing short of revolutionary. Indeed, passages like this contain the seed for liberation from all forms of corrupt societal hierarchy regardless of the cause (racism, elitism, chauvinism and the like).
While certainly not smudging God’s original intent for male and female, it wonderfully expresses the restoration of the value and worth of women. To be clear, Paul is not denying the God-made differences between male or female. For instance, he did not say, ‘there is no male and female in creation’. He is, however, powerfully proclaiming our equality in Christ.
Paul follows this verse emphatically with:
29“If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.”
(Galatians 3:29 NIV)
If we belong to Christ, whether we’re male or female, we are God’s heirs and His promise belongs to us all, men and women alike.
God’s original intent is restored through Christ’s victory.
Both Peter and Paul were following in the footsteps of Jesus—who modelled a new, radical acceptance of women, their value and worth. Not only were some of Jesus’ best, most sincere friends and disciples women (see for example, Matthew 26:6-13; John 12:1-8 and Luke 8:1-3; 10:38-42) but He ensured that women were an essential and foundational part of those who “joined together constantly in prayer” in anticipation of the birth of the church on Pentecost morning (Acts 1:14).
Jesus came to liberate all those in bondage and that certainly included women shackled in societal and man-made chains.
The Principle of Biblical Accommodation
Two questions arise at this point. Firstly, why did the Old Testament not directly address male domination? And secondly, why did Christendom fail to adequately reflect the restoration declared in the New Testament?
Let’s answer question one first, why did the Old Testament not directly address male domination?
Why is the Old Testament male centric?
As mentioned, the fall describes humanity’s deviation from God’s original intent. Explaining the consequences, God said to Eve, “You will desire to control your husband, but he will rule over you” (Genesis 3:16 NLT). And to recap, because of the distortion caused by the fall, woman’s fallen disposition is to control others while man’s fallen disposition is to dominate others. This state of tension would sadly exist until the promised Messiah, who would restore God’s original intent.
Core questions surface. What societal dysfunctions were created by this tension? And how did it develop over time?
Interestingly, historians note a definitive change within human societies across the globe in response to social and technological developments, specifically domestication and agriculture (from approximately 3100 BC). While societies up to this point were largely egalitarian, in the face of this progress, the physical disparity between men and women became a decisive shaping factor. Men’s natural strength and aggression allowed them to assume roles associated with leadership in critical matters such as provision and protection.
More concerned than men with the raising of the young, women in turn preferred men who could control more resources in support of them and their offspring.
This tacit agreement gave rise to a functional hierarchy, often called a patriarchy, wherein men’s natural strength and women’s reasonable child-rearing concerns combined to sustain it.† (It goes without saying that this once functional hierarchy based on natural strength is no longer necessary today.)
Over time, in order to explain the growing disparity and to justify the new societal shift in which men were dominant and women were subordinate, sociological constructions such as societal roles and expectations were formed and passed down from one generation to the next. These expectations became entrenched societal norms over time—rooted in the teachings of influential men. Let’s pick on one notable man of considerable influence: Aristotle, the Greek philosopher (384-322 BC).
Aristotle is, along with his teacher Plato, considered the “Father of Western Philosophy”. Together, their considerable influence shaped much of the civilised world in which Jesus entered. In fact, by the time Jesus arrived on the scene, Judaism was but a tiny subculture within the vast Greco-Roman world, a world entrenched in Greek philosophy and Roman rule.
Aristotle taught that men were morally, intellectually and physically superior to women. He viewed women as the property of men, claiming that a woman’s role in society was principally to bear children and serve men. With such a pervasive worldview, one perpetrated by many such influential men, a once-functional patriarchy became a corrupt system predisposed against women.
Now, between the fall and the promised Messiah, this age of tension, it seems God communicated with humanity in a manner that they could understand in their time—given their obvious limitations such as culture, their physiological and psychological development, and so forth. This is called the principle of Biblical Accommodation.†
In a nutshell, God’s restoration plan was a process in which He accommodated fallen societal imperfections through the ages, revealing His truth line upon line, before sending His Son at a specific chosen time in history. Said bluntly, God worked with what He had.
A good example is slavery. Even though the Mosaic Law allowed slavery, it was revolutionary in terms of its practice (Deuteronomy 15:12-14).† While the New Testament did not advocate for slavery and was again revolutionary on the topic, it did not attempt to bring an immediate end to slavery (see Galatians 3:28, 29; 1 Corinthians 7:21-24; Ephesians 6:9; Colossians 4:1; 1 Timothy 6:1, 2; Philemon 16). Truth is, abolishing slavery in the first century would have crippled an entire civilisation and the slave class would have been utterly crushed in the collapse. In short, it was a battle for another generation to fight.
Although slavery was notionally outlawed in France as early as 1315, the abolitionist movement, which led to the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833, was led by English and American Christians who questioned the morality of slavery. These brave Christians saw in the Scriptures, the seeds of slavery’s destruction.
In similar fashion, Biblical Accommodation accounts for patriarchy as a cultural and societal imperfection that God accommodated in times past. The seeds sown in the New Testament, however, provide moral impetus for God’s original intent.
And we no longer live in times past.
Why is Christendom male centric?
And this brings us to the second and more pointed question: why did Christendom fail to adequately reflect the restoration declared in the New Testament?
While the church in the first century began watering the revolutionary seeds of equality, as we will see in the Biblical passages below, it proceeded at a slow rate mainly due to the deeply entrenched patriarchy of the Greco-Roman world.
Into the second and third century, the prevailing Greek philosophy, so influenced by the likes of Aristotle, began to increasingly dominate Christian thought.
This was especially true as a nascent anti-Semitism steadily distanced Christendom from its Hebraic roots.
As more and more Greeks came to Christ, many of the church’s most influential leaders were first disciples of Aristotle before they were disciples of Jesus. With the best of missional intentions, they attempted to reconcile Greek philosophy with Christian doctrine. One of the tragic results, however, was a growing reassertion of the societal patriarchy.
When Rome co-opted the Christian faith in the fourth century, it not only introduced a plethora of aberrations into the faith, but the male-dominated Roman Empire crushed all trace of progress and cemented the corrupt patriarchy.⇑
It took hundreds of years for Christendom to begin to recover from this “faith capture”.
Starting with the Protestant Reformation in the 1500s, much progress has been made but the restoration of women has been one tragic failure.
Why? The corrupt patriarchy was so deeply entrenched that even in the remarkable strides we’ve made in restoration, we have not fully grasped God’s original intent, nor the seeds sown in the New Testament. Sadly, we’ve allowed three misunderstood passages of Scripture to blind us to God’s beautiful plan. To make matters worse, instead of being advocates for women’s rights, we’ve often taken a position against it—or at least, this is the perception we’ve given due to our indifference, ambivalence or silence.
To sum up? The Old Testament people were ahead of their day in terms of the equality of women, but still fell short of God’s original intent. The amazing progress of the early church was sadly snuffed out by Greek philosophy and Roman rule, and Christendom at large has sadly yet to recover.
The Litmus Test: Ministry & Leadership
Let us now turn to the New Testament and discover how the early church responded to the seeds sown through Jesus’ life and ministry.
It is one thing to notionally accept change, but new counter-cultural practices are a good measure of how deeply change is embraced.
Most ancient religions limited the participation of women in public and religious activity. There were a few exceptions, notably in outlier cases where a woman didn’t fit within the traditional class distinctions. For example, women born into royalty, women from the elite end of society or women associated with otherworldly gifts were revered or feared in different ways.
However, in the main, women were either excluded from religious activity or allowed only to serve as spectators, essentially viewed as second-class citizens. Thus, whether women were included and encouraged to participate in faith activities or not serves as a good barometer for how much the early church embraced the value and worth of women. In fact, the best measure would be to investigate to what degree women were free to function in their God-given gifts and in leadership roles.
So, let’s take a look…
Women in Rome
In his epistle to the believers in Rome, Paul addressed “all in Rome who are loved by God and called to be his holy people” (Romans 1:7). In verse 13, he addressed the recipients of this letter, his audience, using the Greek word adelphoi—a word referring to both men and women, correctly translated as “brothers and sisters” in several Bible translations.† And in his personal greetings recorded in chapter 16, a number of the women in his audience are mentioned by name.
It goes without saying that the teachings of this letter were addressed to men and women, and the applications were relevant to both.
So, when Paul taught the church in Rome concerning, what we might refer to as, the motivational gifts of the Father (Romans 12:3-8), he put no restrictions on women.
He refers to “every one of you” (v. 3) and encourages everyone to humbly use their gift to function as a “member” who “belongs to all the others” (v. 5). He then exhorts every believer, without exception, to use their gifts and proceeds to list seven gifts that include the gift of prophecy (v. 6), teaching (v. 7) and leading (v. 8). He gives absolutely no restriction and defines no boundaries in terms of who is or isn’t excluded from these gifts. Rather, it is in this same letter that he mentions “our sister Phoebe, a deacon (Greek: diakonia) of the church in Cenchrea” (Romans 16:1), a reference to a leadership role.
In other words, the believers in Rome who read this letter would have taken the will of God to mean that both men and women could minister freely and without restriction in the gifts God had given them—including leadership, teaching and prophecy. This might sound obvious today, but it was revolutionary in the first century. (Sadly, in some circles in our day, it remains not so obvious.)
Women in Corinth
The first epistle to the Corinthians is punctuated with the Greek word adelphoi, “brothers and sisters”. Over and over again, Paul clarifies the audience to whom he speaks.
So, when he taught on, what we might call, the manifestation gifts of the Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:7-11), he again places no restrictions on women concerning these gifts. He is emphatic: “Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good” (v. 7)—having just one chapter earlier referred to women who pray and prophecy in the gatherings of the church (1 Corinthians 11:5). He continues to encourage the Corinthian believers to all contribute when they “come together”: “each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. Everything must be done so that the church may be built up” (1 Corinthians 14:26).
Therefore, women are encouraged to operate freely in the manifestation gifts, and to participate and serve in the community of faith as prompted and led by the Spirit. In fact, this chapter implies that the same freedom extends to, what we might call, the ministry gifts of the Son, those gifts often associated with leadership roles.†
After teaching about the importance of every member of the body, Paul then writes: “Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it. And God has placed in the church first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, of helping, of guidance, and of different kinds of tongues” (1 Corinthians 12:27, 28).
There are simply no restrictions given to prohibit women in ministry. Any woman reading this passage could rightly assume that God was inviting her to not only value the contribution of every other believer, but to also expect others to value her contribution in the body of Christ. And she could rightly assume that women had access to the manifestation gifts and the ministry gifts based on the leading of the Spirit and calling of God respectively.
Women in Ephesus and Beyond
When Paul teaches on the ministry gifts (Ephesians 4:7-11), or “equipping gifts”, he again makes no exception or restriction: “But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it … So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers…” (Ephesians 4:7, 11). Generally, in Christendom, it is from these gifts that senior leadership roles in the church are defined. And while most of the references to those with equipping gifts in the New Testament are men, there are more references to women in ministry and leadership than many realise.
Anna was a “prophet” (Luke 2:36-38).† “Junia” was an apostle, and Paul refers to her as one who is “outstanding among the apostles” (Romans 16:7).†
As mentioned earlier, Paul refers to “our sister Phoebe” and calls her a “deacon of the church in Cenchrea” (Romans 16:1, c. 1 Timothy 3:8-13)—a leadership role.
He also commends numerous women who were instrumental in the ministry in which they co-laboured with him (Romans 16:1-16), including “Chloe” (1 Corinthians 1:11), Mark’s mother “Mary” (Acts 12:12) and “Euodia” and “Syntyche” (Philippians 4:2, 3)—all of whom, from the phraseology used in these passages, carried authority in the church.
Luke mentions “Philip the evangelist” and his four daughters “who prophesied” (Acts 21:8, 9). Although he does not call them “prophets,” the fact that he refers to them as those “who prophesied” draws special attention to their gifts and implies that there was a consistency about their ministry as prophets. While we cannot be sure, it is a reasonable conclusion and one most would come to if Philip had four sons known for their prophetic gifts.
The recipient of John’s second epistle, “the elect lady” (2 John 1), was given instructions concerning whom she allowed to minister in her “house”—a reference to a church community.
Of course, “Lydia” was so influential in the birth of the church in Philippi (Acts 16:14, 15, 40). And a young Apollos was mentored by “Priscilla” and her husband Aquila while in Ephesus (Acts 18:24-28)—the same Priscilla and Aquila who led a church in Rome (Romans 16:3-5).
Not only were women free to participate in the early church, they were encouraged to serve in their God-given gifts in ministry and they played a critical role in advancing God’s Kingdom, serving in notable leadership roles. Together, men and women revealed the nature of God and worked in harmony to fulfil God’s mandate on the earth. While first century patriarchy continued unchecked in society at large, the early church served as a prophetic picture of God’s original intent in nascent form.
The Apostle Paul’s Primary Concern
Before we turn our attention to the misunderstood passages, it’s crucial to grasp Paul’s primary concern behind writing many of his epistles—or else we’ll fail to understand his intent.
Paul’s primary concern was shaped by his primary passion. And his primary passion was the advance of the Gospel of the Kingdom of God—a passion not just for the proclamation of the message but for the visible demonstration of the message manifest in a new society centred on the Kingship of Jesus (see Ephesians 1:22, 23; 1 Timothy 3:15). A new society that would serve as a tangible witness of the heart and mind of God, both validating the message and enabling further advance of the Kingdom.
Moved by his primary passion, Paul’s primary concern then lay in the public standing of the church to a watching, curious world. The advancement of the Kingdom, even its very integrity, was dependent on the authenticity of this new society in Christ.
Throughout his many letters, his consistent appeal was for a faith expression that modelled the peace, unity and harmony found in Christ. In fact, even his ‘evangelistic strategy’ for the church, for a lack of a better phrase, centred on living as upright, model citizens who, individually and collectively, testified of God’s wisdom and order. His constant appeal was for believers to excel in love, unity and service. In this way, he hoped to provoke the world to jealousy.
For example, after reminding the believers in Thessalonica to excel in brotherly love (one of his frequent admonitions), he then urged them to “make it your ambition to lead a quiet life: You should mind your own business and work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody” (1 Thessalonians 4:11, 12).
What? A quiet life? Mind your own business?
Obviously, “outsiders” refer to those who don’t know Christ. Yes, unbelievers. What does Paul urge the believers in Thessalonica to do? Preach to the lost? Press them about their eternal destiny? No. Does the man who blazed a path into Gentile worlds call for a loud, demonstrative display, a signs and wonders fuelled trumpet call to salvation? No.
Paul urges them to lead a quiet life, to mind their own business and to work with their own hands. In a nutshell, live simply, work hard and be an example.
The goal? To win the respect of outsiders.
Why would that be so important? As mentioned, not only did Paul want to demonstrate the beauty of this new society in Christ, it was crucial for the flourishing of the Gospel of the Kingdom. If the church was divided, self-indulgent or unnecessarily controversial, the Gospel would hold no appeal and appear to lack integrity. To win the respect of a watching, curious world, Paul knew the community of Christ needed to be above reproach and this included picking the right battles at the right time.†
Now, it goes without saying that if God prompts us to do more in proclaiming and demonstrating the Gospel, we should. Enthusiastically and boldly. And, of course, living an exemplary life will no doubt create moments where outsiders ask questions about the hope that sustains us (Colossians 4:5 ,6, c. 1 Peter 3:15). And this was precisely Paul’s intent.
However, it’s important to first make sure we fully understand Paul’s burden, something that animates all his letters.
His primacy concern was the good standing of the church in the eyes of the public in order for his primary passion, the Gospel of the Kingdom, to flourish.
For this reason, many of his epistles are corrective—even negative—in tone; that is, in most of his recorded teachings, he was correcting excesses that undermined the unity of the church and discredited their public testimony. And one of the consistent issues he addressed was the believers’ tendency to use their newfound freedom indulgently; that is, the penchant to view freedom as an end in itself. In contrast, Paul was adamant that our freedom in Christ equipped us to serve others in love (Galatians 5:13).
Without grasping Paul’s primacy concern, we fail to appreciate his heart in the passages below.
The Problem in Corinth
The church in Corinth demanded a lot of Paul’s attention. Two weighty letters. If we’re counting chapters, 29 of them.
This church community was fraught with multiple complex issues and consisted of a number of immature—even problematic—believers.
It would be fair to say that they were a real handful.
A few examples?
One group was hellbent on undermining Paul’s influence in the community, sowing division and discord (1 Corinthians 1:10-17; 2:1-16; 3:1-22; 4:1-21). Then there was the sexually immoral and unrepentant man defiant in his position (1 Corinthians 5:1-13). At least one other man seemed bent on taking legal action against a brother before trying to work the problem out first (1 Corinthians 6:1-11). Another group was claiming that marriage was old baggage and a celibate life was now God’s ideal (1 Corinthians 7:1-16). And that’s just a few of the issues. Yes, Paul had his hands full.
Another one of the areas requiring Paul’s attention centred on the believers’ public testimony. This was a wide-ranging topic addressing their lack of wisdom around culturally sensitive issues such as eating food offered to idols (1 Corinthians 8:1-12), fashion (1 Corinthians 11:2-16), the class divisions and drunkenness around the Lord’s Supper (1 Corinthians 11:17-34) and the selfish use and abuse of the manifestation gifts of the Spirit (1 Corinthians 12-14). Complex though each of these issues were, the common thread tying them all together was the Corinthian church’s proclivity to revel in extreme expressions of their freedom in Christ without considering the repercussions.
And the way Paul tackled the issues that surface in Chapters 11 (fashion) and 14 (participation) in particular indicate that the actions of some married women were, in some part (but by no means all), at the centre of those specific problems. And just as Paul called out the immoral man in Chapter 5 and the quick-to-sue man in Chapter 6, he addressed those women transgressing in Chapters 11 and 14.
In what way were they transgressing?
Remember, up to this time, women largely had no meaningful role to play in the religions of the day. They were not invited to participate in religious activity and would have considered themselves fortunate to be mere spectators.
Historically, one of the reasons women flocked to Jesus was the value He and the church gave to them, and the opportunity to contribute meaningfully to their community of faith. Like many prisoners set free, some women then went to extremes in expressing their newfound freedom. In retaliation against centuries of male chauvinism, women broke out of their male-imposed shackles with an intensity that blew the proverbial hinges off the door of conventional decency. Who could blame them? Today, it’s far easier to sympathise with a disenfranchised person and to champion their progress—even though patience is required before maturity and wisdom balance newfound passion and zeal. But for first century society, this was a very steep learning curve.
As Tony Campolo, in Speaking My Mind, puts it: “Almost all restrained people who suddenly breathe the air of newfound freedom have a tendency to abuse that freedom, and so it was with many of the women of early Christendom. Social historians tell us this was true in the days of the early church.”†
Before tackling each of these issues, however, Paul first taught the church the principle of love versus liberty (1 Corinthians 8:1-13)—the principle that we are to restrain our liberty if love demands it. One of Paul’s opening lines to kick off this entire discussion sums it up so succinctly: “Knowledge puffs up, but love edifies” (1 Corinthians 8:1 NKJV); that is, our deeper knowledge—and the liberty it affords—can easily lead to arrogance, conceit and indulgence if not tempered by the guiding principle of love.
To underline the importance of this lesson, Paul referred to his own example, a lifestyle of governing his freedom and rights through the primacy of love (1 Corinthians 9:1-27). Off the back of this self-disclosure, he then appealed to them to exercise this same principle. In a nutshell, we’re not free to indulge ourselves; we’re free to serve others.
With this context in mind, let’s look at how Paul dealt with the topic of fashion expression (1 Corinthians 11) and disorderly participation in their public gatherings (1 Corinthians 14).
Fashion & Attitudes: 1 Corinthians 11
The issue in the passage below is fashion expression, specifically head coverings and hairstyles and what this means for their witness to a watching world.
1 “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.
2 I praise you for remembering me in everything and for holding to the traditions just as I passed them on to you. 3 But 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. 4 Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head. 5 But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head—it is the same as having her head shaved. 6 For if a woman does not cover her head, she might as well have her hair cut off; but if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, then she should cover her head.
7 A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man. 8 For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; 9 neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. 10 It is for this reason that a woman ought to have authority over her own head, because of the angels. 11 Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. 12 For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God.
13 Judge for yourselves: Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? 14 Does not the very nature of things teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him, 15 but that if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For long hair is given to her as a covering. 16 If anyone wants to be contentious about this, we have no other practice—nor do the churches of God.”
(1 Corinthians 11:1-16 NIV)
Paul concludes that women must wear head coverings, but men must not. And women must not shave their heads while men must not grow their hair long.
What?! Why would he offer such weird advice??!
Because of first century culture, in general, and Corinthian culture, in particular. Yes, this is clearly a culture-specific issue. We can no doubt learn from the passage, but we must work hard at contextualising it before we extract lessons to apply in our culture. Copy-pasting this advice from first century Corinth onto our culture today would be an absolute disaster.
Just how deeply Corinth’s culture contextualised this passage is evident in Paul’s rhetorical question, “Does not the very nature of things teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him?”
This makes little sense if we’re looking for universal application. In nature itself, it is often the male of a species that appears more decorative. Male lions, for example, have manes (long hair). And, of course, in Jewish culture, men certainly didn’t cut their hair, short back and sides. Long, wild and bushy would be a better way to describe the hairstyles of Jewish men—including Jesus’ disciples.
In other words, this was neither a universal truth nor was it a truth applicable to every culture of the first century.
Instead, by “the very nature of things”, Paul is referring specifically to Corinthian culture. Said another way, this passage is Corinth-specific.
Corinth was one of the more depraved cities in the first century. Home to a temple of Aphrodite, it was famous for its temple prostitution. In fact, the term “corinthianize” was historically used as a synonym for fornication. In short, it was a wild, promiscuous city in a wildly promiscuous society.
Male and female prostitutes abounded, and one of the ways in which prostitutes attracted attention was through counter-cultural fashion. Female prostitutes wore their hair down free of the traditional head coverings, and male prostitutes expressed themselves effeminately, adorning their hair in traditionally feminine ways.
The Corinthian believers correctly concluded that liberty in Christ meant they were free to express themselves fashionably, free of cultural expectations. Specifically, men and women now found their identity in Christ, not in the traditional status garb that society imposed on them. However, Paul’s point was that this freedom needed to be tempered when (a) it confused others or (b) it attracted unnecessary attention in public worship.
He starts the passage referring to his own example in applying the principle of love and liberty, “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” (v. 1). After commending them, he then states:
3 “But 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.”
(1 Corinthians 11:3 NIV)
Firstly, it’s important to point out that Paul used the Greek words related to husband (aner) and wife (gune)—not male (arrhen) and female (thelus)—consistently throughout this entire passage. In other words, it’s important to frame this correctly in the husband-wife context (and specifically, the limitations imposed on the wife in first century marital law), not the more general men-women context.
Secondly, the word “head” is the Greek word kephale. It means “source”, as in the ‘head of a river’. It is not the usual Biblical word for authority (exousia); this was certainly not about men ruling over women—which we’ve seen was never the original intent.
In Greco-Roman culture, women depended on men for their livelihood; wives on their husbands, daughters on their fathers. Just how utterly dependent women were on the ‘man in their life’ is nearly impossible for us to appreciate. Their very societal identity was essentially tied to him.
Thus, Paul points to this basic first century societal fact and likens it to our simple dependence on God as our source. In other words, we ought to acknowledge the societal channels through which we benefit—even as we acknowledge God as our ultimate source. A modern-day equivalent might be acknowledging our job or business as a source of income even as we acknowledge God as our ultimate source. Our job or business is a source of means; it has nothing to do with the question of moral authority. Neither does this verse.
His reference to “source” was no doubt a reminder to married women with unbelieving husbands. Civil law gave men license to treat their wives very poorly. Thus, for married women, thoughtless and ill-considered expressions of their liberty in Christ could have adverse consequences for them. To put it bluntly, we might say Paul was urging them not to burn the house down over their own heads.
With this reminder made, verses 4-6 cover his appeal for the Corinthian believers, both women and men: to restrain their fashion expressions based on Corinth’s situation. And he concludes the matter on fashion rather straightforwardly in verses 13-16, essentially saying, “use your common sense and don’t unnecessarily embarrass yourself or the church.”
Before we look at verses 7-9, let’s quickly jump to verses 10-12, where Paul does use the word “authority” (exousia).†
But he attributes it to women!
10 “It is for this reason that a woman ought to have authority over her own head, because of the angels. 11 Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. 12 For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God.”
(1 Corinthians 11:10-12 NIV)
The important thing to note is that this is Paul’s conclusion on the topic he introduced about men and women in the New Covenant, and it’s powerful.
Firstly, he states that women stand in their own right (v. 10). That is a quite remarkable statement. It’s completely contrary to first century culture. Unlike the prevailing societal patriarchy, in God’s new society, women are self-governing just as men are.†
The phrase “because of the angels” is terribly unclear but may refer to Paul’s notion that we, God’s people, will judge angels in the glorious age to come—a concept he alluded to earlier in the letter (1 Corinthians 5:7). While we know only that this hints at something of the role of the redeemed after Christ’s return, women are certainly included in this New Covenant promise.
Secondly, Paul stresses that “in the Lord” (v. 11), the community of faith operates differently to the prevailing societal patriarchy: men and women need each other (v. 11) and both are to recognise their ultimate source and identity in God (v. 12). Again, it is hard for us to appreciate how revolutionary this was to first century ears. In a culture in which women were utterly dependent on the men in their lives, Paul is saying that in the New Covenant, men and women are interdependent. It’s a clear reference to God’s original intent.
This turn of phrase, “in the Lord” conveys exactly the same sentiment as what Paul wrote in Galatians 3:28, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”†
In other words, while 1 Corinthians 11 is often seen as a passage belittling women, when rightly understood, the powerful statements championing the autonomy of women and the interdependence of men and women become clear.†
Now that we know Paul’s conclusion on the topic, let’s return to verses 7-9.
7 “A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man. 8 For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; 9 neither was man created for woman, but woman for man.”
(1 Corinthians 11:7-9 NIV)
Firstly, verse 7 contains an elliptical clause and should be read as follows: “A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the image of God and glory of man.” In other words, it does not deny that women are made in the image of God.
Secondly, the word “glory” (Greek: doxa) in “woman is the glory of man” refers to “opinion, estimate, reputation”. Because women depended on men in the Greco-Roman world (and were thus, in a sense, their ‘pride and joy’), Paul is pointing to a cultural obvious: a woman could be the primary source of a man’s shame—the very issue of this passage on ill-considered fashion expression. He is, in fact, pointing out the amount of reverse power women had. Hence, the need for first century women to temper their freedom with love to avoid unnecessarily shaming their husbands, which could also then potentially create havoc for them, too.
Verse 8 and 9 are troublesome for many, so let’s read them again.
8 “For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; 9 neither was man created for woman, but woman for man.”
Firstly, it’s worth remembering that verses 10-12, which immediately follows these verses, makes our position in Christ now abundantly clear. So, whatever you make of verses 8 and 9, verses 10-12 now trump it. In other words, we need to interpret verses 8 and 9 in the light of Paul’s conclusion in verses 10-12.
Either Paul implied that God’s created order was somehow faulty by design but is now corrected in Christ … or he implied a distortion of God’s created order was restored in Christ. The latter is surely what he had in mind. In fact, it’s obvious that it was.
Secondly, respected scholar Kenneth Bailey, in Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes: Cultural Studies in 1 Corinthians has this to say when commenting on 1 Corinthians 11:9: “It was not Eve who was lonely, unable to manage and needed help. Instead, it was Adam who could not manage alone…”†
Indeed, Genesis, Chapter 2 does make it clear that the first woman was created for the sake of the first man; that is, to help the man, who was incomplete … and whose incompleteness manifested in a rudimentary sense of loneliness. While the notion of Eve riding in to save Adam in distress is a novel one (an anti-fairytale if you like), verse 9 more than likely alludes to the notion that Eve completed Adam, and Adam completed Eve. In other words, God never intended one sex without the other. Together, in harmony, male and female reflect the nature of God, as revealed in Genesis, Chapter 1.
To sum up? This passage on fashion was Corinth-specific. The topic of men and women that Paul includes does not belittle women as some fear. Rather, it contains a powerful statement of God’s original intent now restored in Christ.
Participation & Self-control: 1 Corinthians 14
After addressing abuses around the Lord’s Supper (1 Corinthians 11:17-34), Paul then addressed the use and, in their case, the abuse of the manifestation gifts of the Spirit in their public gatherings as a church community (1 Corinthians 12-14). As noted earlier, he clearly encouraged all—without exception or restriction—to participate, giving specific guidelines to do so in a way that was orderly. His primary concern is again revealed in his final counsel: “For God is not a God of disorder but of peace … But everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way” (1 Corinthians 14:33, 40).
Sandwiched in this conclusion, Paul briefly—in just two verses, compared to the reams of counsel he has already written to address other areas of misuse and abuse—speaks directly to the women at the centre of this particular problem.
34 “Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. 35 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 14:34, 35 NIV)
At first reading, it appears that Paul completely forbade women from speaking in the gathering of the church. Obviously, this is a good example of why we must not take a verse or passage out of context because this was not what Paul was saying. He was not forbidding women from speaking in all instances of the church gathering; that would be in direct contradiction to what he said a few chapters earlier—“every woman who prays or prophesies” (11:5)—and what he implied just a few verses earlier: “whenever you come together, each of you…” (14:26).
So, what did Paul mean? He forbade inappropriate, disorderly expressions that did not edify the gathering. If the men were guilty of this, he would tell them to “keep silent”—as he, in fact, does do when he instructs those who think they should minister in the gift of tongues: “if there is no interpreter, let him keep silent in church” (14:28).
This is an important point.
Paul was not blanket forbidding women from speaking in church. He was forbidding both men and women from speaking in any way that caused confusion or disorder in the church’s gathering.
To those acting disorderly in the meeting, Paul’s exhortation was “keep silent”—irrespective of whether they were men or women. Because a specific group of women were evidently most guilty in this case, Paul spoke directly to women in these verses. (As he spoke directly to men when he specifically addressed Chapter 5’s immoral man and Chapter 6’s quick-to-sue man.)
What was inappropriate about the women’s behaviour? All we can gather from this passage is that some married women were acting indulgently in ways that disturbed the gathering for others and possibly embarrassed their husbands. What is clear is that the focus of Paul’s exhortation in these two verses makes this a “husband and wife issue” not a “man and women issue”. The word “women” (Greek: gune) should be translated “wife” and the context of the passage clearly identifies that the issue revolves around marital relationships: “if they (married women are the subject) want to learn something, let them ask their own husbands at home”.
One thought is that an elitist group was emerging, claiming spiritual superiority over others (see 1 Corinthians 1:10-12; 3:18-23; 4:6, 7), and some wives were using this to belittle their seemingly less informed or less spiritual husbands. These married women may have begun to draw inappropriately close to a guru-like figure other than their husbands (a practise not uncommon among the pagan cults of the time). Thus, Paul stressed: “let them ask their own husbands at home”.
A less dramatic thought is simply that, because women had been excluded from participation in their faith, their questions were of a nature that were basic enough to be worked through at home with their husbands. Revisiting the “basics” at every gathering was unnecessary if husbands and wives talked through these issues of faith at home.
Finally, Paul wrote that “they are to be submissive, as the law also says”. It’s important to note that the Old Testament does not state anywhere that a woman must not speak or be submissive. There is no such Biblical injunction. None.
In other words, Paul is referring to a cultural tradition, not some binding moral law applicable to all women or wives in all cultures and all times.†
Again, he is appealing to married women to temper liberty with love as they acknowledge the societal expectations and consequences of first century marriage.
The bottom line is that one cannot build a doctrine from these verses that restricts women in ministry and leadership or belittles their value and worth. To do so is a failure to contextualise these passages correctly, to ignore God’s original intent and to turn a blind eye to the reams of New Testament encouragement championing the equality of women.
The Problem in Ephesus
This brings us to the most controversial passage concerning women in ministry: Paul’s instructions in his first letter to Timothy.
Again, the context is vital. Paul sends Timothy to the city of Ephesus and entrusts him with the task of upholding apostolic doctrine. Two core motivations undergird his letter: for one, Paul is concerned about the growing number of heresies springing up in this region (1 Timothy 1:3-7), and again, his primary concern for the integrity of the faith animates his counsel to his younger protégé.
For instance, into Chapter 2, Paul deals with the believers’ attitude to civil government (1 Timothy 2:1-10), first urging prayer “for kings and all those in authority” (v. 2). Why? In his own words,
“…that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.”
(1 Timothy 2:2 NIV)
To Paul, the good standing of the church was critical in winning the respect of a watching world and allowing the Gospel to flourish. Again, this is the key point contextualising the instructions that follow.
He firstly addresses the men: “I want the men everywhere to pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or disputing” (1 Timothy 2:8).
Why specifically address “the men”?
Because only men had legal status in the secular world; only men were likely to take up aggressive, antagonist action against the civil government. Women had no legal status at all and no platform to express anti-authority notions. In this case, the exhortation was not relevant to them. Paul was urging men to pray and trust God rather than adopt anarchistic attitudes. Why? To do so would undermine the public witness of the faith by courting controversy, picking the wrong battles and provoking unnecessary recriminations.†
Of course, today, given that women do have civil rights, this exhortation is applicable to them. This is a good example of understanding the context of a passage so we can apply it correctly in our day.
Having specifically addressed the men, Paul then encourages “the women” to play their part as godly citizens in keeping with the sociocultural customs of their day (vv. 9, 10). It should be obvious that his references to wearing appropriate fashion styles were wrapped in first century cultural expectations. Again, the public integrity of the faith is his concern, and that’s important as we now look at the verses that some find troubling…
11 “A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. 12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve. 14 And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. 15 But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.”
(1 Timothy 2:11-15 NIV)
The word “woman” (gune) and “man” (aner) are again best understood in the context of the marital relationship.† The references to the first couple and childbearing also confirm this context. Hence, this is again predominately a “husband and wife issue” not a “man and women issue”.
Paul was not forbidding all women from speaking or ministering freely. Nor was he prohibiting all women from teaching or leading. Both would be in contradiction to all he taught in his other epistles.
So, what was he saying?
Firstly, the word for “submission” (Greek: hupotagé) in verse 11 is the word meaning, “to refrain from domination” and the phrase “to assume authority” (Greek: authentein) in verse 12 implies a “usurping of authority”.†
In other words, certain women were assuming rule over their spouses, usurping rather sharing authority with their husbands. The issue here was one of arrogation, the claiming of a right unwarrantably or presumptuously. Hence, Paul felt the need to correct an abuse of privilege; he was not denying the privilege. In the New Covenant, husbands and wives share authority, as we will see below.
Secondly, Paul’s phrase, “I do not permit a woman” (v. 12) is more accurately rendered, “I am not currently permitting women”.
Renown New Testament scholar and Asbury Seminary Professor Ben Witherington makes this point and explains that Paul is correcting women here “not because they are women but because they are in this instance causing this problem”†.
In other words, similar to the two verses in 1 Corinthians 14, Paul is addressing some specific, contextual issue in Ephesus. What was the issue? Again, we can only guess. The reasons may well have been similar to the situation in Corinth. Ben Witherington offers another possibility.
Ephesus was a strategic city in Asia Minor and a centre of many Greco-Roman religions, like the worship of the goddess Artemis for instance (Acts 19:23-41). There is every reason to assume that many prominent women, former priestesses or prophetesses from these religions, may have turned to Christ by this stage. Joining the fledging early church would not only have been hugely attractive to such people but it would have presented an opportunity for them to exercise their well-honed gifts and skills in an exciting and growing movement. They may have felt prematurely entitled to positions of leadership and influence while mixing their previous beliefs into their newfound faith. In fact, throughout the letter to Timothy, Paul urges Timothy to deal with the influx of new heresies creeping into the Ephesian church by self-appointed false teachers (1 Timothy 1:3, 4; 4:1-3; 6:3-5, 20).†
Ben Witherington contends that this passage in 1 Timothy 2:11-15 may also be prohibiting these gifted but otherwise babes in the faith from attempting to usurp the apostolic authority (and thus, the apostolic doctrine) entrusted by Paul to the likes of Timothy. That does not mean that women mature in the faith could not serve in such authority. That would be absurd given the many gifted women who co-laboured with Paul, as we highlighted earlier in this article—such as Junia, who he commended as “outstanding among the apostles” (Romans 16:7).
So, while we do not know the exact nature of the situation in Ephesus with any certainty, what is certain is this: one cannot jump to conclusions that place limitations on women when that would fly in the face of the whole counsel of the New Testament.†
But what of Paul’s mention of Adam and Eve in verses 13-15?
Paul points to the first couple and their predicament. Adam was instructed concerning the forbidden fruit and the onus was on him to inform Eve. From the account, it appears Adam did not instruct her properly. Uninformed or misinformed, she was easily deceived and transgressed. Worse, it seems Adam was present when Eve took the fruit and could have intervened. Hence, while Paul makes it clear that Adam was responsible for the fall in Romans 5:12-21, in this passage in 1 Timothy 2, he’s using the account to admonish women of the dangers of acting out of accord with their spouses.
If Ben Witherington’s hypothesis is correct, the passage would also serve as a strong call to the highly gifted but spiritually immature women in question to respect and learn from apostolic authority before coveting it—again a form of arrogation. And to be clear, Paul is not correcting them here because they’re women but because, in this case, they’re causing the problem.
Either way, these five verses address a very specific problem in first century Ephesus and cannot be used to trump the large body of Scripture that reveals God’s original intent and its restoration in Christ Jesus.
What About Marriage?
From the above passages, two things are clear:
- The early church enjoyed the first fruits of the restoration of God’s original intent and women were free to minister and lead.
- The early church respected first century patriarchy in society because to fail to do so would have undermined their public testimony. Bluntly put, like slavery, it was a battle not worth fighting … yet. That the exact opposite is true today cannot be stated loudly enough.
However, before we do turn up the amperage on that point, one final question needs to be addressed: “How does marriage work in Christ? What is the role of the husband and the wife in the marital covenant?”
The longest passage on the marital relationship is Ephesians 5:21-33. Let’s look at it in full.
21 “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.
22 Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands, as you do to the Lord. 23 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. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.
25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her 26 to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, 27 and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. 28 In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself.29 After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church— 30 for we are members of his body. 31 “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” 32 This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. 33 However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.”
(Ephesians 5:21-33 NIV)
Out of a mutual submission (v. 21), wives are called to “submit” to their husbands (v. 22) and husbands are called to “love” their wives (v. 25).
This is, in fact, profound. To restore the distortion of the fall and its consequences, Paul urges wives and husbands to overcome their fallen tendencies.
You may recall, the fallen tendency of women is to control others, and the fallen tendency of men is to dominate others. What’s the antidote to control? A willingness to yield to others, to submit. What’s the antidote to dominate? A willingness to put others first, to love.
Crucially, the husband isn’t instructed to rule over his wife or to demand submission. Likewise, the wife isn’t told to coerce her husband to love or serve her.
Both are given a script, if you like, a script that overcomes their fallen tendencies. In honour of God and mutual submission to Him, the husband is to follow his script and the wife is to follow hers.
And let’s have a quick look at these scripts. Paul devotes four verses to the wife’s script (vv. 22-24, 33), and he commits nine verses to the husband’s (vv. 25-33). Now, while the number of verses may not carry too much weight, the choice of words to describe the husband’s role certainly does: “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her … In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies … each one of you must love his wife as he loves himself…”.
As the husband lovingly plays his role, the wife is empowered to play hers. And vice versa. As a man overcomes his fallen tendency to dominate his wife and instead, practices love by putting her needs and desires first, and a woman overcomes her tendency to control her husband, practising a willingness to yield, their marriage becomes a reflection of the nature of God. Their union becomes a tangible witness of God’s original intent.
Peter captures perfectly and beautifully the harmony of God’s original intent expressed in the marriage covenant:
“…as being heirs together of the grace of life…”
(1 Peter 3:7 NKJV)
The husband and wife are heirs together of the grace of life. To the degree they master their own fallen proclivities, to this degree they tap into the heart and purpose of God.
God’s Present Intent
God intended to reveal His nature through the harmony of men and women functioning together as equals, fulfilling their stewardship of the earth. And while the marriage covenant is undoubtedly one powerful expression of this unity crucial for both the propagation of our species and the unfolding of God’s purpose for our planet, God’s original intent is not limited to marriage. Every aspect of human society is better off when men and women function together in harmony. Together, we reveal God’s nature and purpose in ways we cannot do alone. Together, we reveal the whole counsel of God.
And here’s the crux of the issue: God’s original intent was restored in Christ Jesus. His original intent is His present intent.
The early church thrived enjoying the first fruits of the seeds sown through Jesus’ life and ministry. Indeed, much of their success in the first century can be attributed to the freedom of both women and men to minister and lead, as the resurrected Jesus led His church in the power of the Spirit. A true priesthood of all believers.
Wisely, the early church discerned the times in which they lived and the battles they were called to fight. They acknowledged the prevailing patriarchal customs within their society, corrupt though it was. And they did so for one reason: to strengthen their public witness, ushering in Kingdom advance.
While men and women enjoyed newfound liberty within the community of faith, they tempered their God-given freedom in the public eye in order to serve others better and to establish the integrity and testimony of the faith.
For the fledgling early church of the first century, confronting societal patriarchy was not a battle whose time had come.
It goes without saying, we no longer live in the first century.
Today, for us to mimic the early church’s application of restraint in this arena literally achieves the opposite result. When we now fail to confront society’s corrupt patriarchy, and fail to advocate for women’s equality, we undermine our public witness and hinder Kingdom advance.
The tragic truth is, the church should have led the charge for women’s equality. Can you imagine a world in which God’s people championed the rights of women, not just within our communities of faith, but in society at large?
We have failed to discern the times in which we live. And not only did we fail to fight a battle whose time had come, we took the wrong side.
This is not about pointing the finger. And it’s not about guilt either. Both are self-defeating and unhelpful.
This is about taking responsibility.
However, if you’re a man and now realise the church’s failing in this regard, it’s important to respond humbly and wisely. Bravado and bluster are not the way forward.
This is not about donning our armour and saving the maiden in distress. That mare has already bolted. We’re at least 150 years too late.
The maiden has smashed her own shackles and slain the dragon herself.
All we can do is apologise for sleeping on our post, acknowledge her courage and from now on, champion equality of opportunity for women in society. And wherever we have influence.
Perhaps we can take a leaf out of Mordecai’s book.
Even as Esther felt marginalised, a slave wife of a pagan king, her relative Mordecai recognised her worth and importance to God and her people. Mordecai’s famous words resonate through the ages:
14 “Yet who knows whether you have come to the kingdom for such a time as this?”
(Esther 4:14 NKJV)
He championed Esther in keeping with what God intended for her. Simple as that.
As husbands and fathers, we have the privilege of championing our wives and daughters in keeping with all God intends for them. As men, we have the moral responsibility to do the same for all the women in our spheres of influence.
As women and men, mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, daughters and sons; together, we reveal God’s nature and together, we’re called to fulfil God’s purpose on this earth.
An ancient proverb might be instructive:
When is the best time to plant a tree?
Twenty-five years ago.
When is the second-best time to plant a tree?
There is no better time than now.