Male and Female in the Church
By David Feddes
Is there any reason why women should not be ordained to the official leadership positions of the Christian church? Down through history until quite recently, only men were ordained to these positions. That’s the way it’s always been. But is that the way it should be?
This is a question that more and more churches are finding it hard to avoid. A number of denominations and independent congregations have already begun to ordain women as elders and pastors. Others haven’t yet made the change but find themselves talking about it and even fighting about it. In fact, even among churches where tradition carries enormous weight, such as the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox communions, there are people who see no reason why women shouldn’t be priests or bishops.
Should women be ordained to positions of official church leadership? Before I address that question directly, let me first state a few things that I’m going to assume right from the start.
Three Basic Assumptions
My first assumption is that both men and women, whatever their differences, are alike in the most basic spiritual realities. God created both men and women in his own image. God holds both men and women responsible for sinning against him. God saves both men and women on the same ground: faith in Jesus Christ. God empowers Christian men and women with the same Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit gives every one of God’s people, both men and women, the character, the capability, and the calling to serve God and other people.
The Bible makes all of this very clear, and so I reject out of hand, without further discussion, any approach which says that the reason women shouldn’t be ordained is that they are somehow less valuable, less spiritual, or less gifted than men. There’s no doubt that some people and some church leaders oppose women’s ordination, not for any spiritual or theological reason, but for the simple reason that they have a sinful prejudice against women. Such an approach flies in the face of everything the Bible teaches about men and women. Whatever we end up saying about the question of ordination, we have to begin with the assumption that men and women share the same basic status before God.
My second assumption is that the church is made up of all God’s people, and ministry is something that all God’s people are to be involved in. Ministry means serving God and others, and that’s not something for just a few people in official positions. It’s the task and privilege of every Christian. The church is much more than its official leaders, and ministry is much more than what these leaders do. Leaders are important, of course, but so is everyone else. The main task of a leader isn’t to do all the ministry that needs doing, but to equip all of God’s people for works of ministry.
Why is this important in considering the question of women’s ordination? Well, I’m afraid that if we’re not careful, both those who favor women’s ordination and those who oppose it can focus so much on this matter of official leadership that they neglect the dignity and ministry of all those members of the body of Christ who don’t hold official leadership positions.
Some people who favor women’s ordination make it sound like a woman is a second-class member of the church if she can’t be an elder or pastor. But what about all the men who can’t be elders or pastors, for the simple reason that God has called and gifted them for other roles? Are these men second-class members? Of course not. In the church of Jesus, nobody is more important than anybody else. The greatest are the least, and the least are the greatest. Whatever we say about ordination, let’s not pretend that ordained leaders are the only ones that count. In the church of Jesus Christ, everybody counts.
This also has implications for those who oppose women’s ordination. If your church restricts ruling offices to men, you may feel content that your church is doing what the Bible says concerning women. But is that really so? There’s a lot more to being biblical than telling women what they can’t do. What about equipping and encouraging women to do what God calls them to do? What about lifting up abused girls and battered women? What about helping women to know God’s love in Christ? What about helping all of God’s daughters and sons to discover and use their Spirit-given abilities to serve God and others? If that’s not happening, then don’t pretend you’re following the Bible just because you don’t ordain women.
And speaking of the Bible, let me state a third assumption: the Bible must be the final authority on male and female roles in the church, just as it is the final authority on all aspects of church life and of a Christian’s personal walk with God.
Unfortunately, not everyone looks to the Bible as the final authority in these matters. As I’ve already pointed out, some people oppose women in church leadership, not because of what the Bible says, but for the simple reason that they look down on women. They don’t want to take women seriously and have no vision for empowering them do God’s work. Even if such people happen to be right about male leadership, they’re still wrong. They believe in it for all the wrong reasons, and they apply leadership in all the wrong ways, to stifle rather than empower. Such attitudes are sinful, not scriptural.
By the same token, there are also some who favor women’s ordination who don’t honor the Bible’s authority. Take, for example, the scholar Edwin M. Good. He has written, “Biblical authority is dead, and feminism has killed it.” In Good’s opinion, that’s a good thing. Feminism, he says, is “generous” and “morally acceptable,” while the Bible “is characterized by a disagreeable bias and an illegitimate occupation of power.” That’s a blatant case of rejecting biblical authority.
However, many people who favor women’s ordination love the Bible. They don’t want to trash it. These Christians believe that the Bible is the inspired Word of God, they insist that it is true from cover to cover, they hold fast to the great central teachings of the historic Christian faith—and they also believe that women should serve as pastors and overseers.
They don’t deny that God’s Word is always right, but on this one point, they understand the Bible differently than the church has historically understood it. They sincerely believe that women’s ordination is consistent with biblical teaching. They not only think the Bible allows it, they think the Bible actively leads us in that direction. Whether they’re correct about this is something we’ll consider in a moment; all I’m saying now is that such people share my assumption that Scripture is God’s Word.
Are you with me so far? Do you share the three assumptions I’ve mentioned? Do you agree that whatever distinctions may exist between men and women, both are created in God’s image, redeemed through Jesus’ blood, and indwelt by the Holy Spirit? Do you agree that in the church everybody should matter and everybody should minister? Do you agree that the Bible is the final authority? If so, if you share these assumptions, then you and I are standing together on common ground, and it is solid ground. We have a basis for dealing with the question of women’s ordination in a spirit of charity and with a desire for clarity.
I am going to make the case that the office of pastor or spiritual overseer in the church is a calling and responsibility that belongs to certain men and not to women. I will make that case at three levels: practice, precept, and principle.
First, consider the historic practice of the people of God. In Old Testament Israel, priests were responsible to instruct the people of Israel in the law of Moses and to lead in the great ritual acts of worship. Without exception, these priests were all men. The Old Testament does not speak of a single priestess.
When Jesus came to earth, he maintained this practice of male leadership among God’s people. Jesus attracted many friends and followers, both men and women, but when Jesus chose twelve of his followers to serve as leaders, all twelve were men. Not one was a woman.
This is all the more striking in light of how important women were in Jesus’ ministry and mission. From Jesus’ own blessed mother Mary, to the prophetess Anna who spoke about the baby Jesus, to the women who followed him and provided resources and support for his ministry, to the women who were the first to see and speak of the risen Christ, women played a huge role in Jesus’ life. Jesus treated women with love and dignity. Unlike many teachers of that time, he respected women’s minds and gladly taught them the ways of God. He spoke against lusting after women as sex objects or divorcing them as disposable property. In short, Jesus treated women as precious daughters of God, as valuable partners in ministry, as intelligent learners, and as strong witnesses. And yet when our Savior and Master chose the institutional leadership for his church, he chose twelve men.
After Jesus’ ascension to heaven, the same pattern continued, through New Testament times and beyond. As the early church grew and spread, women were a vital part of the church’s growth and ministry, but the people appointed as elders and pastors were always men. When the church faced persecution, women were among the heroes and martyrs, shedding their blood right alongside the men. But still, the leaders charged with official oversight of the church were men.
Occasionally, there were strange cults that spun off from Christianity into Gnosticism or goddess worship or some other distortion of the faith, and some of these cults ordained women as priestesses. But for almost two millennia the true church did not ordain women as overseers.
Why did this practice remain the same for so long? Was it because men were thought to be smarter or saintlier or more spiritual than women? No. Sinful, silly biases did creep into the church at times, but that was not the basis for restricting the ruling offices to men. The church through the centuries, whatever its failings, was well aware that women could know Scripture as well as men, sometimes better; and that women could be just as holy as men, sometimes holier. And yet the church insisted, as one statement of church order from about 480 A.D. put it, that “a woman, however learned or holy, may not presume to teach men in the assembly… a woman may not presume to baptize” (Statuta Ecclesiae antiqua).
We might like to think that we are the first people in history to recognize the worth of women, but we’re not. If being a pastor or priest or bishop were simply a matter of intelligence or integrity or ability, the church would have ordained women to the teaching and ruling offices of the church long ago. The church father John Chrysostom once said, “In virtue women are often enough the instructors of men.” He added that some men are like jackdaws flapping blindly in dust and smoke, while godly women “soar like eagles into higher spheres.” So, then, it didn’t take the church two thousand years to finally notice the wisdom and purity of many Christian women. These qualities were evident all along. And yet the church insisted on reserving certain positions of leadership for men only. The first part of the case for male leadership in the church, then, is that it is the historic practice of God’s people and of Jesus himself.
The next level to consider is precept. Given the biblical and historic practice of male leadership, is that just the way things happened to go? Or is there also a precept, an explicit command from God, a clear instruction to do it this way?
The Old Testament makes it plain that the Israelites didn’t just happen to end up with a male priesthood. God commanded it. God didn’t command Moses’ sister Miriam and her daughters to become priests. He commanded Moses’ brother Aaron and his sons to become priests (Numbers 3:10). That was God’s precept.
The nature of the priesthood changed when Jesus came as our perfect high priest, but even so, the church needed official positions of institutional leadership and authority. The New Testament sometimes uses a word that is translated “pastor.” The word literally means “shepherd,” the one responsible to care for the flock of God. Another term the New Testament uses is the word translated elder or bishop. The word literally means “overseer,” the one responsible for the supervision and shaping of souls.
The tasks reserved to the shepherd and overseer include the teaching of sound doctrine in the setting of the church’s official worship, as well as the authority to admit people to the church through baptism, to supervise the sacred meal of the Lord’s Supper, and to exclude from the Supper and from the church those whose doctrine and life opposes the way of Christ. In addition to these official functions, pastors and elders also have a general responsibility to mobilize and coordinate the God-given abilities and insights of all the people under their care.
In a number of places in the New Testament, the apostle Paul, guided by the Spirit of Christ, describes how the public worship of the church is to be conducted and lays down the qualifications for those who hold the official responsibility of teaching and authority. He speaks of godly character and sound doctrine and of ability to teach and lead, and he also speaks in each case of men who (if they’re not single) are faithful to one wife and manage their family well. And lest there be any doubt that Paul means males only, the apostle says 1 Timothy 2:12, “I do not permit a woman to teach or have authority over a man.”
Paul isn’t saying here that women may never teach anything or have any kind of authority. He is talking about the official teaching of doctrine in public worship and the authority that goes along with holding such an office. In other places, Paul assumes that women will prophesy, that is, share their God-given insights with fellow believers. He speaks of women being his partners in spreading the gospel to unbelievers. But when it comes to official teaching and formal authority in shepherding and overseeing a congregation, Paul’s precept is this: “I do not permit a woman to teach or have authority over a man.”
And remember, this isn’t just the personal opinion of an individual named Paul. It’s the precept of Paul, the apostle of Jesus, writing under the direction of the Spirit of Christ. Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 14 that this precept was practiced “in all the congregations of the saints.” Then, just in case someone was inclined to challenge this precept and ignore the practice of all the other churches, Paul wrote, “Did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only people it has reached? If anybody thinks he is a prophet or spiritually gifted, let him acknowledge that what I am writing to you is the Lord’s command. If he ignores this, he himself will be ignored.”
Thus far we’ve seen the practice and the precept. Now let’s consider the matter at the level of principle. Even if we grant that male leadership is a precept of Scripture as well as a practice of the historic church, we may still wonder why. Is there some basic principle, something in the very nature of maleness and femaleness, that requires the shepherds and overseers of the church to be men? Scripture says that there is.
In 1 Timothy 2, right after Paul writes, “I do not permit a woman to teach or have authority over a man,” he goes on to explain why. “For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner.” Here Paul is appealing to the fact that the principle of male leadership was established at creation, and that it was violated in the fall into sin.
God made Adam first and gave him primary responsibility to lead his relationship with Eve in a God-glorifying way. That’s the principle Paul appeals to when he says, “Adam was formed first, then Eve.”
When that old serpent Satan slithered into the garden of Eden, his very first move was to try and turn around the order God had created. He bypassed the man and went straight to the woman. If Satan could get Eve to ignore her husband’s leadership, she would find it easier to ignore God’s command as well. So Satan treated Eve and not Adam as the leader, and he deceived her into eating the forbidden fruit without even discussing it with her husband. Then Eve offered the fruit to Adam, and he followed her lead.
God’s order of creation was Adam first, then Eve. Satan’s order of deception was Eve first, then Adam. But God’s order remained Adam first. Scripture says that after Adam and Eve sinned, they were ashamed and tried to hide from God. Then God called to the man, “Where are you?” Eve sinned first, but Adam was still the first one God called out to, the one primarily responsible. God then reprimanded Adam for following his wife’s lead, rather than listening to God.
The principle of male headship, established at creation, violated by the fall into sin, and reaffirmed by God, is the principle that underlies the precept and practice of God’s people in ordaining men as leaders in the church. The leader of the family is to be the man, and the leaders of God’s family, the church, are to be men as well. Indeed, a man’s ability to lead his own family is a mark of whether he is capable of leading the family of God. Paul says that for a man to lead the church, “he must manage his own family well… If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?” (1 Timothy 3:4-5)
God wants godly male leadership in the home and also in the household of God. This expresses his creation design; it reflects the relation between Jesus and his church; and it also parallels the relation within the Holy Trinity in which God the Father and Christ are united and equal in dignity and yet where the Father initiates and Christ submits. In the words of the Bible, “the head of every man is Christ, and the head of woman is man, and the head of Christ is God” (1 Corinthians 11:3).
How Important is This?
That, then, is the case for male leadership in the church, stated at the three levels of practice, precept, and principle. In stating this case, I’m not saying that the question of women’s ordination is the center of the Christian faith or the most crucial of all doctrines. The Bible’s central revelation is the nature of God, the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and the way of salvation through faith in him; and the main heresies which the Bible denounces are those which deny these central realities. The role of male and female isn’t the thing by which Christianity stands or falls. But we still shouldn’t take the matter lightly. Some biblical teachings are more important than others, but none are unimportant.
In the book Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, John Piper and Wayne Grudem write that Paul “does not limit his engagement in controversy to first order doctrines, where heresy threatens. He is like a parent to his churches. Parents do not correct and discipline their children only for felonies. They long for their children to grow up into all the kindness and courtesy of mature adulthood. And since the fabric of truth is seamless, Paul knows that letting minor strands go on unravelling can eventually rend the whole garment” (p. 405).
Maybe you have questions I haven’t addressed. If so, it may be helpful for you to find a copy of Piper and Grudem’s book, Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. The authors deal with many of the hard questions of interpreting and applying the Bible’s teaching on gender-related matters, and they do so in a sensitive, sensible way. They don’t just say what women shouldn’t do; they speak of what women should do with all the gifts and opportunities God gives them. They encourage all of God’s people, both men and women, to use their God-given abilities fully in the service of God, and they offer guidance for doing this in a way that honors the biblical distinctions between male and female.
Maybe you’ve read my explanation of this issue, but you still disagree with what I’ve written. You may be a brother or sister in Christ, you may love the Lord and his Word, but on this question you interpret and apply the Bible differently. This creates an awkward situation, one that sometimes tests the limits of our love for each other and tests whether what unites us is greater than what divides us.
To you, my brother or sister in Christ, I say: the realities we share as Christians are magnificent and infinite. If we believe in God the Father Almighty, the Maker of heaven and earth; if we trust in Jesus Christ, his only begotten Son, who came to earth and lived and died and rose again for our salvation; if we are indwelt by the blessed Holy Spirit; if we look to Scripture as our final authority and to God’s new creation as our final destiny, then whatever our differences, we share in the precious communion of saints. If sharing in these towering realities is not true fellowship, what is? Let us therefore revel in the glorious unity we share, even as we wrestle with painful disagreements.
May God guide us by his truth and keep us in his love.
By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.