Gender roles

Women have undoubtedly been oppressed in the past, and we must thank God for the degree to which feminism has rectified this. Nevertheless, we must always be cautious when problems are rectified, that the pendulum doesn’t swing too far the other way. No society is infallible in its judgements, and so in every age the received views of the day must be tested against the bar of scripture. And so it must be with respect to the roles of men and women.

It is invariably emotive to discuss this issue. We live in a society that assumes that equality of personhood between men and women necessitates equality of access to whatever roles. In considering whether men are given a particular responsibility for leadership in the church and home it is not surprising then that many women feel such teaching implies that they are somehow inferior, and that those who feel called to be pastors think the very foundation of their calling is being questioned. Despite these difficulties however, discussion must proceed. Discerning and submitting to God’s truth has never been a comfortable thing to do, especially when that truth goes against the grain of one’s culture, instincts and presuppositions.

We must recognize before all else, that both Jesus and the apostle Paul were radically counter-cultural when it came to women. Indeed, some have described their teaching as proto-feminist. Within Judaism women were considered spiritually second class and so not worth teaching or talking to on spiritual matters. Moreover, they were not considered reliable witnesses in law. Yet Jesus commended Mary for sitting at his feet as a disciple to her Rabbi and chose her to be the first witness to his resurrection. Paul also spoke of there being neither male or female in the kingdom of God, described women as his co-workers in the gospel, and challenged the prevailing oppression of wives by their husbands in teaching that husbands should love their wives as Christ loved the church.

These men were not therefore prone to accepting the status quo. Given that, it is surprising and noteworthy that, as we will see, Jesus did not choose any women to be apostolic witnesses of the resurrection and that Paul persistently reserved the role of authoritative leadership in the home and church for men.

Of course, some still claim that they and the wider scriptures were too influenced to see past cultural presuppositions and so cannot be relied upon on this matter. Now we must always ask whether scripture itself acknowledges a particular teaching is just for a particular culture. But it is quite another thing to suggest that what it portrays as applying to every age was actually the wrong and even oppressive view of its day.

We must realize how serious this suggestion is. You see if that was the case on the subject of women, how do we know that scripture is not in error on other subjects, such as the nature of God or the way of salvation? If Jesus cannot be trusted in his own teaching and in his affirmation of the Old Testament and apostles as Spirit-inspired and reliable, then Christianity really does implode and our faith has no warrant at all. Moreover, these assertions implicitly question the integrity and power of God, for they suggest that having so affirmed the centrality of scripture and the apostolic teachings through Jesus, he has not ensured that they are reliable in what they assert. We must recognize that such a suggestion also removes any grounds for appealing to the Bible’s radical challenge to the inferiority and abuse of women in the first century too.

In truth, it is the scriptures that are intended to correct our cultural assumptions and preferred ideas (2 Tim 3v16-4v5). So it is that we must honestly consider whether our current views on this question are justified from scripture or driven by the assertions of absolute equality and rights that mark contemporary society and that have inevitably shaped our instincts.

In grasping the Bible’s view on gender, three substantial arguments need consideration: the sweep of scripture, the model of Christ and the teaching of the apostles.

(1) The sweep of scripture

1/ Men and women are equal.

It is critical to be clear that both are created “in God’s image” (Gen 1v27). As the FIEC basis of faith puts it, they therefore “have inherent and equal dignity and worth.” So, their lives are equally precious, and there can be no justification for violence or speaking ill of either gender (Gen 9v6, Jam 3v7-10). This is born out in a strange way in Old Testament law, by God ensuring equal restitution for an injured slave, whether male or female (Ex 21v32). And one application would be that men and women should receive equal pay when engaged in equal work, for the worker deserves their wages (1 Tim 5v18).[1] Another is that at its most basic, true manhood or womanhood is to be male or female and like Christ, the image of God. So, the more godly, the more manly or womanly. Both men and women are to be courageous and caring, forthright and meek, active in fighting the good fight and in weeping over the needy etc.

2/ Men and women are created to operate as a unified team.

Humanity are made “male” and “female,” but given the generic title “man” and tasked together with “subduing” the earth by shaping its resources for good, and “filling” it with children who would in turn know, image and serve God in this way (Gen 1v28). The linking of these two tasks shows that God created the genders with marriage in particular in mind. And so, having been called to work and guard[2] the garden, man’s isolation is deemed “not good,” and God makes woman as a “helper fit for him,” presenting her to him as his wife (Gen 3v18, 20-24). As a supreme affirmation of their oneness in this, woman is made from man’s rib, so their marriage union is a returning to being “one flesh.” This is why there should be such appreciation and care between spouses. Paul writes that husbands should love their wives “as their own bodies” (Eph 5v28-31).

3/ Men and women are created for different responsibilities.

As God committed to making woman a helper in working and keeping the garden, we should reject any sense that a woman cannot work outside the home. Both men and women are called to “fill and subdue.” And in agricultural societies it has always been necessary for women to play some part in the farming. Nevertheless, in marriage, the woman’s primary calling is related to “filling” in the sense that she was predominantly caught up with bearing children, and man’s to “subduing” as he was predominantly consumed with the work needed to provide for the family. This is evident in the fact that when Adam and Eve sin, woman’s punishment is a greater toil in child-bearing and man’s in providing (Gen 3v16-19). These are their particular roles. And we should note that God has designed the genders for them: Only women are able to bear and feed children, and men are generally stronger for working the ground. Indeed, because God’s command was to “fill” the world with godly children, the expectation was that so far as it was possible, women would give the majority of their adult life to raising as many as they could (1 Sam 1v8, Ps 127v4-5, Matt 22v23-30).[3] And by necessity, this would require their husbands to take charge of overseeing things in order to facilitate that. The wife’s calling was therefore largely based at the home, and the husband’s largely outside it.

Given this creational design, it is quite reasonable to expect men and women to lean towards certain inherent behavioural traits that fit them for their particular roles, just as they have physical ones. And this is just what studies show. In terms of “personality” a BBC article on the issue notes that: “Women scored higher, on average, on enthusiasm, compassion, politeness, orderliness, volatility, withdrawal, and openness, while men scored higher on assertiveness, industriousness and intellect.”[4] As for “interest,” one paper describes how: “Gender differences in vocational interests are among the most important proximate determinants of occupational gender segregation…male adolescents clearly tend to favour occupations which require creating and/or manipulating objects (i.e. “things”), while female adolescents prefer to work in occupations in which interacting with customers or patients is important (i.e. “people”).”[5] 

Awareness of this is helpful in appreciating why husbands and wives may not share the same concerns, priorities or methods when it comes to work or home. Rather than expecting the other to do things their way and airing frustration when they don’t, they can learn from one-another and recognize that their differences can complement one-another in marriage. We might add that this would be something to be considered in the workplace and in education too. Rather than feeling girls/women must act or learn like boys/men or vice versa, their particular strengths can be combined. Although we should note, that these are generalizations. The differences should not be overstated and are on a spectrum. So, there will be boys and men who are more compassionate and interested in people than many women, and girls and women who are more assertive and interested in things than many men.

4/ Men and women are created with differing authorities.

To the Hebrew mind, deeming both genders “man,” creating man first, and woman from man, and having the man name woman, all signals that God has granted men an authority over women. And despite modern discomfort with the idea, it is a theme born out throughout the Bible (see appendix). But we should note that the assumptions of Genesis 1-2 mean this is primarily a structure for the husband-wife relationship. In the calling to “fill and subdue,” both are given authority over any children and the wider creation, but with him as head and her as helper. That means that he oversees the welfare and activity of the family, and she assists in that, especially with a focus on children when they are young. He images God primarily as saviour-ruler and her as lifegiver-carer.

This reveals the lie that abortion is somehow pro-women. It displays a most tragic failure of women to fulfil their calling to care for children – and men’s in acting to protect them. Likewise, the lie that sex outside marriage is liberating. By keeping sex for the security of marriage the woman acts for the good of any children that may be conceived, and the man acts to protect her too. There’s nothing manly (or womanly) about promiscuity.

This head-helper authority structure is particularly clear in the fall. Although the focus of the text is on Eve’s action, Adam is the one confronted by God. And his particular sin is that of silently standing by rather than taking charge to protect Eve by turning her from sin and crushing the snake. And he further refuses to take responsibility by then blaming her (Gen 3v1-12). In a culture filled with families that have been abandoned by men who have either left or withdrawn into work or hobbies, it all sounds rather contemporary.

Finally, we should note that after the fall, this husband-wife dynamic is marked by battle (Gen 3v16). The meaning of “your desire will be for your husband” is unclear, but as this verse is about life becoming harder for woman, the sense is that he will “rule over” her in a way that implies oppression rather than care. Interestingly the same phrase is used in Gen 4v7, where it is about one “desiring” to control the other, and the other forcefully suppressing that. The point is that sin corrupts the particular roles given husband and wife. And so a particular sin to look out for and address in men is a forceful and harsh attitude, especially towards women, and in women, a controlling or manipulating attitude, especially towards men.

5/ Men and women are created to work in harmony.

The famous outline of the ideal wife in Proverbs 31 undermines any sense that an affirmation of gender roles in marriage justifies the stereotypical 1950s view of such things. First, we see that she is not consumed simply with children and homemaking. She engages in business, cares for the needy, and provides for her household, which included servants. And because her “wisdom” and “instruction” in verse 26 is not immediately tied to children, the sense is that she gives godly counsel not just to them, but to the servants and all who she engages with. She therefore has a high degree of management and so authority over the household, and of involvement in her community. This corresponds with what we see in the NT, where there is no criticism of Lydia as a dealer in purple cloth (Acts 16v14), and where women not in paid work are urged to be industrious in doing good from their homes rather than being idle “busybodies” (1 Tim 5v10-13, see also Acts 9v36-39).

Second, the bracketing of this section of Proverbs 31 with mention of the husband, implies his wife nevertheless does all this under his ultimate oversight and as his helper. Verse 11 tells us that he “has full confidence in her and lacks nothing of value,” and verses 28-31 (with v23) that he praises her to those other elders who govern with him at the city gate. The sense is that as overseer of the family, he can trust her to faithfully get on with what will benefit the family, whilst he engages in his own role (here in local government). In fact, the word for “watches over” (v27) can refer to a guard posted to watch over a city. What this all means, is that the wife does bear an authority, but delegated from her husband, in which she is free to get on with making decisions without micro-management from him. This should challenge controlling husbands.


We must remember that throughout history much of a woman’s adult life would have been taken up with bearing, feeding and nurturing young children, and then experiencing a degree of physical weakness in having done so. The compelling wisdom of God in marriage, is that by overseeing the family, the husband frees his wife up for focusing on all that is required of her, comforted in the knowledge that he is overseeing everything for their good.

(2) The model of Christ

Jesus does not teach explicitly on our subject because the point was assumed by those around him. Nevertheless, he very clearly asserts the equality of men and women as his disciples, challenges the idea that women should simply be concerned with domesticity (Lk 10v38-42), and regularly commends women as an example to all (Lk 7v44-50, Mk 14v6-9). Yet given this, the fact that he doesn’t challenge the idea of gender roles in the home and church is significant. We must also note that despite the radically high spiritual status he ascribes women he chose not to commission any as his apostles.[6] Moreover in Matthew 19v1-12 he grounds his sexual ethics in the narrative of Genesis 2 which he states is “the Creator” speaking. By doing so, he affirms the principle of headship bound up with that narrative that is stated above and was assumed by his hearers. He also affirms it by teaching that this dynamic in marriage is a picture of his own relationship with the church, picking up on the same description of God to his people in the OT (Mat 9v15, 25v1-10).

(3) The teaching of the apostles

It is Paul who tackles our subject when it does begin to be challenged. However, it is significant that the wider NT writings assume male leadership of the home and church, and they are absolutely free from any encouragement for women to take on these roles. Because of the high religious status Jesus gave women and the fact that there is evidence women were seeking to take a lead in churches (1 Timothy 2v11-15), once again, this assumption itself teaches something.

However, we need to consider Paul’s teaching in particular, and we can only do so on the grounds that he writes as an apostle and therefore as one of Christ’s inspired spokesmen to the church. It is beyond the realm of this paper to fully argue the case for trusting his writings to therefore be taken as God’s Word, however some reasons are given as an appendix.

1/ Christ and the church in Ephesians 5v21-33

Because it is so important, we will include the full text here:

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 Saviour. 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 5v21-33)

What we see affirms and develops what we’ve learnt.

1.              The relationship of the husband and wife is patterned on the relationship of God with his people. So, Christ as head to his body as church is akin to the husband as head, but one flesh with his wife as his “own body” (v22-25, v28-32).

2.              The word “submit” has unhelpful connotations today. But the idea of submission in itself should not be resented as all have to submit in one way or another (v21). Everyone is to submit to the Lord. Congregations submit to elders. Citizens to government. Servants/employees to masters/bosses. We must be clear. None of this implies inequality of being or inferiority of worth. In fact, even Jesus submitted to his Father’s will, and in a sense to the authority of Pilate (Jn 19v10-11). It’s about upholding spheres of responsibility. It must be highlighted too, that when it comes to sex we’re told each has authority over the other’s body, and in that sense the husband must therefore submit to his wife just as she to him (1 Cor 7v3-5). 

3.              The wife’s more general submission to her husband is to be equivalent to how as one of the church she submits to the Lord (v22). That means that unless her husband asks her to sin, she should be ready and willing to defer to his will, and not reluctant, resentful, or argumentative about it. This is the “gentle and quiet spirit” Peter commends (1 Pet 3v4). One cannot but think of Christ himself in Gethsemane: If you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” (Lk 22v42). The reason the wife should submit in marriage is because as head, her husband is working for her good – and that of the family (v24). Of course, in a fallen world husbands can be harsh. However, the wife is still called to submit just as Christ did to unjust authority in government, in the hope they her husband might be brought to better embrace God’s word (1 Pet 2v18-3v2). But this doesn’t mean a wife shouldn’t respectfully point out bad behaviour, or seek help from her church or even the state if it is particularly bad. And if a husband puts his wife or children in danger, there would need to be separation, and possibly divorce if the behaviour continues and he has effectively abandoned the marriage (1 Cor 7v10-11, 12-16).   

4.              The wife’s submission should be in “everything.” That doesn’t mean she has to check everything with her husband. As with our submission to Christ, it means she has much freedom to decide things for herself, but in everything will ensure her decisions do not contravene what she knows her husband would want. This highlights the importance of communication in marriage.

5.              On the same model, husbands must love their wives as Christ did the church, meaning that they are to daily give up their lives for their wife’s good (v25), just as Christ is the “shepherd and overseer” of our souls who gave his own life for their good (1 Pet 2v24-25). So, male headship and oversight is primarily given as a means of the husband caring for his wife. Those who want to dismiss these verses as Paul simply reiterating the view of marriage in his day don’t realise how counter-cultural this was. Abuse and unfaithfulness towards wives was quite accepted in Greco-Roman society.

6.              The particular concerns of the husband’s headship and oversight are to help his wife become more godly and so flourish in her faith and service, and to ensure she is sufficiently well provided and cared for. The word for “care” is also used of the tender feeding and care of young children (1 Thess 2v7). Such authority expressed in care is supported by ideas of Christ’s headship elsewhere in Ephesians. He uses his mighty power in overseeing all things for the good of his church, fights against evil powers to that end (Eph 1v20-23), and causes his church to grow to a maturity of godliness and use of gifts (Eph 4v15). So, headship rightly exercised is truly empowering and enabling not restraining. One only needs consider how hard it is for mothers of newborns to nurture their own faith, and how exhausted and emotionally fragile they are, to see how important this role is at that stage in particular. Yet, for many women, menstruation can leave them regularly in need of such care throughout life. This may be why Peter adds that husbands should “be considerate” of their wives, particularly with respect to how they are “weaker.”[7] The sense is that they are to seek to understand their wives’ particular needs, and honour them in how they care for them. This care should be equivalent to the husband’s own care for his body as his wife is one with him (Eph 5v26-30). At the very least this means that he should not treat her in any way that he would not want to be treated himself.

7.             The idea of protection is also implicit in the concern for discipleship, provision and care, which is signalled by it being summed up as patterning Christ as “Saviour” (Eph 5v23). The husband is to protect his wife against spiritual danger, and against physical need or harm. This too is supported by Jesus’ commitment to lay his life down to protect his sheep from the wolves (Jn 10v11-13). Moreover, Jenson notes that the phrase “man of God,” used 80 times in scripture, often has “militaristic undertones,” and (in gospel terms) refers to “a warrior engaged in a war.”[8] And Paul does use a colloquial phrase “act like men” when urging his hearers to be steadfast, strong and loving (1 Cor 16v13, ESV). So, husbands are to express this aspect of maleness by engaging in spiritual battle by praying for their family, encouraging and sometimes correcting them with the sword of God’s word, chasing after them if they go wayward, and acting to fend off detrimental influences. But they also engage in the physical battle of toiling away at work and general oversight, to ensure they are flourishing as they should. All this shows that a husband who abuses or harms his wife in any way is acting in a manner that is wholly contrary to biblical ideas of male headship or oversight in marriage. Such things cannot therefore be excused.

8.              It is not just the husband-wife relationship, but its grounding in their one flesh sexual union that is a picture of Christ’s relationship with the church (v31-32). This brings much to the idea of sexuality and marriage. Only heterosexual marriage reflects the difference-dynamic of husband as head who governs, and wife as body to be cared for. And sex in marriage is important for deepening their closeness and awareness of this dynamic. Moreover, the sense of union and mutual delight in sex is intended to give some sense of the union and mutual delight we can enjoy with the Lord, as we serve him in the raising of spiritual children for his family the church.

2/ Men and women in 1 Timothy 2v8-3v13

Here, Paul’s key request to men is to pray without “anger and quarrelling.” This underlines the importance of prayer in those who have oversight of their families, but also, perhaps, a particular tendency in men to anger. For women, his commendation is of modesty, self-control and “good works” rather than a concern with revealing or showy dress. This shouldn’t be read as a critique of all concern with looks. Beauty is affirmed in the Bible. It seems more a critique of those in his day who dressed in a way that wanted to promote their sexiness or status.

Verses 11-15 reserve teaching and exercising authority over men in the church to men. We do no not have space to unpack them in any depth. We must be clear, however, that not all forms of such things are frowned on in the Bible. Women regularly prayed and spoke the gospel to men in prophecy (1 Cor 11v2-16), Anna is commended for instructing people in the temple about Christ (Lk 2v36-38), and Priscilla with Aquila, in teaching Apollos (Acts 18v26). Moreover, we have already seen wives should exercise authority in their homes (Prov 31v24-28) and so would undoubtedly have done in some sense when their home was used to host a church. Rather, as I understand it, Paul is teaching that because of the importance of male headship, women should not be more authoritative teachers or elders in the church, as that would require correcting or rebuking men. And he justifies this by saying that women should not be tempted to grasp after a role that isn’t theirs, as Eve did in the garden. Rather they should embrace their particular role (if married and able) of raising children.[9]

This idea of reserving this overall leadership in church to qualified men is supported by what immediately follows in 1 Timothy 3. It is assumed that elders who “oversee” the church are men. But what is very important is that they are to be proved by how they manage their own household, because if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church.” The sense is that there is an equivalence between oversight of the biological family and oversight of God’s spiritual family.

This link underlines the importance of a father’s leadership being one of shepherd-like oversight, and of his taking ultimate responsibility for watching over his family’s spiritual wellbeing (Acts 20v28-30). To my mind this makes “overseer” a more helpful word than “leader” for describing the husband’s authority in the home, as modern ideas of leadership are often to do with vision setting and direction, and there is some sense in which the wife leads in the household too. Oversight better reflects the idea of responsibility being entrusted to the wife, but with the husband bearing ultimate responsibility, watching over the welfare and activity of the family, and only intervening where necessary. We might think then of dad as a pastor or shepherd of his family, who exercises oversight like pastors in the church, “willingly,” “eagerly,” “not domineering,” but being an example, keenly aware that he is accountable to Christ (1 Pet 5v2-5).

At this point, we might ask how we should view a woman who has a sense of being called to overall church leadership and seems to have gifts in leading and teaching. Any sense of calling is by its nature uncertain and subject to testing. In testing such a calling by scripture we must therefore discern that because overall church leadership is reserved for men, this calling has to some extent been misunderstood. This is not to mean that the gifts have not been given; rather, that they are for expression elsewhere – perhaps by running some work within a church, leading and teaching in a less regular and non-authoritative manner, being a women’s minister or other such thing. In the Old Testament, the LORD required that priests not only be male but descended from Aaron. Some of them did an appalling job, and those of other clans and tribes would have been much better. Nevertheless, it was considered a serious thing to appoint anyone outside Aaron’s line as a priest because it was to reject God’s ordering of things. It’s a principle that does need reflecting on.


We can picture the relationship of the genders in marriage as below. Christ governs and cares for all, mediating that through his providence and the church. The husband oversees all aspects of the welfare and activity of his family, with his wife deferring to his will as she plays her own part in this, especially in caring for any children when young. And this pattern is to be upheld as families combine in the family of God that is the church.


Two follow, not least because we are very aware of how women have been subjugated in the past, and live in a society that holds equality and freedom as its primary values.

1/ The issue of abuse.

Undoubtedly, women have been oppressed be men throughout history. And so it should be no surprise that men might use the Bible’s teaching to justify their oppression of others. However, it doesn’t follow that the Bible’s teaching is wrong or should be rejected. The fact is that in our egalitarian society, women continue to be oppressed by men. Consider the #MeToo movement, the massive rise in sex trafficking, or the normalisation of pornography that largely serves men.[10] Or the disregard for marriage that allows men to father children with numerous women, but without any sense of commitment or responsibility, so leaving the women to struggle with the totality of what it is to raise and provide for the children. It is shocking to read that 90% of the 1.8 million single parents in the UK are women.[11]

How are we to respond to such things? Firstly, to commend these women for stepping up where men so often step down. The Bible’s teaching on marriage should not be heard to imply single parents can’t do it on their own – and often better than some married couples. Having said that, there are obvious benefits to children being raised by two parents in terms of parental time and resource, but also in terms of having one of each gender as a role model.[12] And the older I get, the more convinced I am that one thing we desperately need to recover in terms of marriage, is the sort of view of gender responsibility outlined above. Rather than being enslaving or abusive, a right understanding of male oversight would lead to a culture where boys are raised to understand that it is part of what it is to be a man, to respect girls and be responsible with sex. And in marriage, that they are to commit to and cherish their wife, and empower her to use her God-given gifts to the full.

The problem we have is that even this is now heard to be derogatory to women, by implying they have a special need to be looked out for in this way. Certainly, we should affirm that girls and wives should commit to, cherish and empower boys and men too. But as Christians, we must recognise that knowing the qualities of men by creation and their corruptibility due to sin, God has wisely given a particularly responsibility in this to them - and one reason, is to protect against exactly the sort of abuses we see today.

2/ The issue of fairness.

When all is done, many nevertheless feel it is unfair for there to be a role that women are not allowed to engage in, whether as an overall church leader or a co-overseer of one’s family. In the parlance of modern society we are told that this is discriminatory and to make women second class. So the whole issue is said to be one of justice. We should be very careful about speaking this way in the areas discussed above, for if God has ordered things as we have described this would be to charge him with doing wrong. Moreover, this is still to think according to the world’s ideas of authority rather than Christ’s. It is to see the issue as one of greatness and superiority rather than of order and responsibility. But in the workplace we do not consider employees under the authority of a manager to be inferior.

We should add that the texts we have looked at affirm throughout that there is actually a noble role for women that men are excluded from – that of childbearing. If we are to use the language, we must therefore say that here it is men who are unjustly discriminated against and made second class. Of course, we do not say this, because it is obvious that God has given men and women different roles with respect to childbearing. However, the principle of complimentarily is the same. Yet the sad fact is that suggesting this applies to who should oversee the home and church raises people’s heckles. We should ask ourselves why this is. It may be because not all women are able to bear children. But neither are all men able by their gifts to be church leaders or by their circumstances have a family. Or are we tempted to say that men have the better deal because childbearing is so hard or not really an important role? If so, we should pause to reflect on what a privilege childbearing is and on how male oversight should also mean constant sacrifice. Indeed, in some countries church leadership can mean martyrdom.


We have established then that God has ordered the creation so that there are particular roles for men and women. He created them equal but different, to complement rather than compete with one-another, and one aspect of this is that he has reserved the role of head or overseer in the church and home for men 

It is significant that our culture’s recent assumption that both genders are essentially the same has already to some degree passed. Now there seems to be far more recognition of complimentarily. In an age when men are increasingly unsure of their role, gender is being blurred and marriages breaking down due to a lack of responsibility in husbands, in its wider sense this teaching could not be more relevant or important to uphold.


Male headship throughout the Bible.

1.       The structure of Genesis 2 as understood in Hebrew culture affirms the primacy of Adam by order of birth, by the naming of the animals and by the presentation of Eve to him.

2.       This is confirmed by the fact that although Adam and Eve both sin, Adam is primarily held to be responsible (Romans 5v11-32).

3.       It is also confirmed by God consistently using the image of groom and bride to describe his leadership and care of his people. The image implies that he exercises a loving authority like that of the perfect husband.

4.       Throughout Israel’s history, a principle of primogeniture was also affirmed by which inheritance would usually go to the firstborn male and they would hold the ultimate authority for the family.

5.       Furthermore, Israel’s history is marked by the principle of the household headed up by the father. We see this with Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and the nation from that point on.

6.       Because the nation is a family of families, leadership develops from household heads. So the heads of twelve tribes are Jacob’s twelve sons.

7.       For this reason, elders in Israel were only male as they were the more prominent household heads.

8.       The Priesthood within Israel was also reserved for men only, and from one family and one tribe.

9.       Priests and those who served as elders in the synagogues of Jesus’ day were therefore men too.

10.    Commentators agree that the structure of the early churches was based on the synagogue with elders taking the equivalent role of the Jewish elders.

11.    Whatever its application might be today, the principle of the firstborn son being given authority is reaffirmed in the NT by scripture speaking of Christ as the firstborn over creation.

12.    The principle of headship is also reaffirmed in speaking of Christ as head of his bride and family, the church.

13.    The apostles therefore affirm the headship of husbands on the grounds of creation and the pattern of Christ’s relationship with the church. Both grounds transcend culture and so teach that the principle of headship does too. It is portrayed as bound up with God’s order of things (1 Corinthians 11v2-16, Ephesians 5v22-33, 1 Peter 3v1-7).

14.    As the church is also to a large extent a family of families meeting in family homes, it is natural for the principle of headship that applies to biological families to be reflected in the church.

Appendix B: The authority of Paul

In John 14-16 Jesus promised the Holy Spirit would lead his apostles into “all truth.” But does this apply to Paul?

  1. There is no way of explaining Paul’s radical conversion and service of Christ to the point of death, other than that the risen Christ did appear to and commission him as an apostle. People will die for what they believe to be true but not for what they know to be false. And Paul claimed to have been personally made an apostle by the risen Jesus himself.
  2. The apostles commissioned during Jesus’ lifetime themselves affirmed Paul’s apostleship so that it was accepted throughout the early church (Gal 3:1-10).
  3. 2 Peter reflects an acceptance of Paul’s writings as “scripture” within the early church (2 Pet 3:15-16). This term categorizes them with the Jewish Scriptures which were held to be the unbreakable and so entirely trustworthy word of God (John 10v35).

[1] Leviticus 12 does prescribe twice as long a period of purification for a mother giving birth to a girl as opposed to a boy. But we are not told this is because of inequality. Supporting this, is the fact that Leviticus 15 prescribes the same period of cleansing for men and women after a “bodily discharge.”

[2] The word the NIV translates “keep” has the sense of keeping it secure from danger. The same word in 3v24 is translated “guard” in terms of the way to the tree of life. The point is that Adam with Eve, were to keep what was unclean or corrupting from the special place of God’s presence, making his failure to tackle the serpent so serious.

[3] 1 Timothy 2v15 makes this point in a controversial passage, by stating that women will be “saved through childbearing.” In context, the idea is probably that a genuineness of saving faith is proved by our willingness to submit to God’s will. So, rather than seeking to lead in the church which is not what God has called women to, they should give themselves to child-bearing that he has.

[6] When Junia is said to be “outstanding amongst the apostles” in Romans 16v7, this should not be taken as meaning she was one of the founding leaders of the church. The greek “apostolos” means “sent one” and could describe a simple emissary or missionary. Alternatively, it could be meant that Junia had a high reputation amongst the apostles.

[7] This doesn’t mean women are weaker than men in every sense. My observation is that spiritually, psychologically and in readiness to take responsibility, women are often stronger.

[8] “What does it mean to be God’s man” in Men of God, ed. Archer and Thornborough, p24

[9] The idea is probably that a genuineness of saving faith is proved by our willingness to submit to God’s will. So, rather than seeking to lead in the church which is not what God has called women to, they should give themselves to the child-bearing that he has, noting that most women then would have been married.