One of the most hotly debated issue within the modern church is the question of what role do women play in the church. Although this seems to be something exclusive to our more modern, more “enlightened,” more “tolerant” culture, this is nothing new. The role of women and men in the family, in the church, and in all of life has always been a contentious and heavily debated topic.
Men and women are equal in value but God has created us for different, yet complementary roles. God has made it clear that men are the leaders of the home and church but this does not mean that women are of less importance in the church or home. Men and women are equal in importance and value but serve the Lord in different capacities for which their gender has been specifically designed.
I also want to recognize and empathize with how women have been mistreated throughout history and even to today. There is no doubt that women have been disparaged because of their gender alone. This is wrong and the Bible makes this very clear. It is just as sinful and inexcusable to abuse, mistreat, or disrespect a woman as it is to do these things to a man. This is one reason Christianity was so atypical in the New Testament. Women were being treated as equally valuable and were to be respected and treasured. Paul even refers to specific women as co-laborers or co-workers in the spread of the Gospel in Philippians 4:3.
“This esteem for the inherent value and dignity of womanhood is the context for the New Testament’s teaching on the different roles assigned to men and women in the church. Failure to recognize this can lead casual Bible readers to misconstrue some of Paul’s instructions to Timothy as being chauvinistic. ” ~ Tom Ascol2
A Woman Must Learn
A woman must quietly receive instruction with entire submissiveness. But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet. For it was Adam who was first created, and then Eve. And it was not Adam who was deceived, but the woman being deceived, fell into transgression. (1 Timothy 2:11-14)
In this passage we see to very interesting points that are often ignored for the one that everyone seems to focus on. The first point many seem to miss is that women are expected to be learning, “receive instruction” as the New American Standard Bible (NASB) words it.
Today women go to school, college, are in the board room, and hold political office. However, at the time in history in which this passage was written, women were not welcome. Women were not invited to learn with the men. The instruction that women were to learn was highly controversial at this time. We often miss this beautiful grace shown to women due to focusing on the one restriction in the passage.
“His brief statement ‘let a woman learn’ shows there’s equality of the sexes in spiritual life and blessing…Both men and women had the same access to God.” ~ John MacArthur5
It all started in the Garden
Our modern feminist mindset balks at the idea of any form of restriction placed on women. We don’t like to be told “no.” So when we are told we are not to preach or hold spiritual authority over men, we try to come up with a number of ways to get around this restriction. The most popular argument is that this was a cultural mandate. This can be a reasonable argument for some parts of Scripture. However, the second point often missed from this passage preemptively rejects any cultural argument.
Paul claims that this structure of authority in the church dates back to the Garden of Eden. If this structure has not changed in the thousands of years prior to this point, there is no reason to believe that God has changed His design for the roles of men and women in the last two thousand.
“The subordinate role of women is not a cultural issue. It cannot be explained as mere bias on Paul’s part, because it is based on the order of creation. Adam was first formed, then Eve.” ~ John MacArthur5
The woman is an ezer
Let’s take a look at the creation of Adam and Eve.
Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. God blessed them; and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” Then God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the surface of all the earth, and every tree which has fruit yielding seed; it shall be food for you; and to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the sky and to every thing that moves on the earth which has life, I have given every green plant for food”; and it was so. God saw all that He had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day. (Genesis 1:26-31)
In this passage, we see God created Adam and Eve, male and female, in His own image. Both genders bare the image of God. Both are equally precious in His sight. Both are commanded to “be fruitful and multiply” and subdue the earth. He gave to both of them all the plants of the earth for food. God looked upon all His creation, including man and woman, and pronounced it “good.”
In Genesis 1 and 2 we have two creation stories. In reality, these are the same creation story. Chapter one is a more generalized telling of what happened on each day while chapter two goes into greater detail regarding the creation of Adam and Eve.
Then the Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone; I will make him a helper suitable for him.”….So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then He took one of his ribs and closed up the flesh at that place. The Lord God fashioned into a woman the rib which He had taken from the man, and brought her to the man. The man said, “This is now bone of my bones, And flesh of my flesh; She shall be called Woman, Because she was taken out of Man.”
For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife; and they shall become one flesh. (Genesis 2:18, 21-24)
This is a more detailed explanation as to the work God did on the sixth day of creation. After creating man, God says it is not good for man to be alone. In order to remedy this, He created woman. She was a complement for man.
God did not create a superior, a doormat, or a partner; He created a helper. The word translated to “helper,” or “help meet” as some translations put it, is ezer. This doesn’t mean a helper as in a servant or an assistant. It means rescuer. This word is used in reference to God throughout the Old Testament in reference to His help, His rescuing nature, His protection. Here are a few examples:
“There is none like the God of Jeshurun,
Who rides the heavens to your help [ezer],
And through the skies in His majesty.” (Deuteronomy 33:26)
Our soul waits for the Lord;
He is our help [ezer] and our shield. (Psalm 33:20)
My help [ezer] comes from the Lord,
Who made heaven and earth. (Psalm 121:2)
Women were not created to be throw away items. We were not created to be mere property or slaves. We have a royal and mighty calling. We are the ezer, the helper to man. We are to help him in a way he cannot help himself.
The Hebrew word ezer is far more meaningful than our interpretation, helper. It is a word used throughout the Old Testament, mostly in a military context, referring to God’s rescue and salvation for Israel. Author John McKinley proposes that “necessary ally” is a better interpretation of ezer, one that takes note of the analogy God shows us in Scripture. This also moves us away from the inferior connotations of “helper” while biblically upholding the value of the woman in her relationship with man.” ~ Aimee Byrd3
We bear the high honor and responsibility to demonstrate this attribute of God. This is a weighty matter and should not be treated lightly or disappointment. This honor we should wear as a crown, not hide away in a closet as if it were a shame. At the same time, we should bear this crown with humility for this is a mere glimmer to our true Ezer.
We must understand the passages that instruct us in our role in the light of this truth that women are not secondary citizens. We are equal in value and importance with man and we are co-image bearers. The Bible does not teach that women are less in value, no matter how many times you may hear that from criticizers of Christianity.
The woman was deceived and the man abdicated his role
Now we must look to the passage in which Paul points us in 1 Timothy. He references Eve being deceived by Satan in the Garden.
Now the serpent was more crafty than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made. And he said to the woman, “Indeed, has God said, ‘You shall not eat from any tree of the garden’?” The woman said to the serpent, “From the fruit of the trees of the garden we may eat; but from the fruit of the tree which is in the middle of the garden, God has said, ‘You shall not eat from it or touch it, or you will die.’” The serpent said to the woman, “You surely will not die! For God knows that in the day you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” When the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desirable to make one wise, she took from its fruit and ate; and she gave also to her husband with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loin coverings. (Genesis 3:1-7)
In this passage, we see both Adam and Eve equally responsible for sinning. The woman was deceived. She listened to the false teacher that twisted God’s words. We see this so often still today.
Pride and unbelief were revealed to be Eve’s root sins. She doubted what God had said; she did not believe Him. She desired to be like Him, not under His headship. She also did not respect the order of creation of the family unit which God had established. Rather than going to her husband and seeking his wisdom and guidance, she acted on her own. She then involved her husband in the sin.
In involving Adam in her sin, Eve was not acting as Adam’s ezer. She was not acting as his helper, his necessary ally. She was playing the ally of the serpent.
Even worse, she had harmed the testimony of God’s character in which she bore the image. Woman bears the ezer attribute of God. When we sin and involve others, we are not acting as an ezer, therefore, we are giving a false example of the ezer character of God. This is a form of blaspheming God. We often do not realize how truly sinful our sinning is.
Adam was equally guilty in this experience but for different reasons. He was not deceived but he did abdicate his role as head and leader of the family. He could have stopped Eve or at very least, not joined her in sin.
Although it was Eve who sinned first, it was Adam, as head of the family, who has born the ultimate responsibility of having brought sin into the perfect world that God had created.
Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned— (Romans 5:12)
Man and woman equally bear the image of God but we also are equally guilty in sin.
In these passages in Genesis, we see that man and woman are equally precious to God. We both bear the image of God but in some ways we bear His attributes differently. Equal but different. We also see that man and woman are equally guilty before God. We are equally fallen and are equally in need of a Savior.
We also see in these passages, the order of the family. Man was created first and is the head and leader of the family unit.
Order of the family
The order of the family is a shadow or fuzzy picture as to how Christ relates to His Bride, the Church.
Wives, be subject to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ also is the head of the church, He Himself being the Savior of the body. But as the church is subject to Christ, so also the wives ought to be to their husbands in everything.
Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her, so that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that He might present to Himself the church in all her glory, having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that she would be holy and blameless. (Ephesians 5:22-27)
As women, we bear the ezer attribute of God. We also bear the image of the Church. We demonstrate the role of submission of the Church to Christ. The Church, the Bride of Christ, does not attempt to usurp the role and take the place of Christ. We, as the Church, humbly and joyfully submit to our Savior. As women, we have the important and honorable role to demonstrate this relationship the Church and Christ share to the world around us. We are a living parable to the world around us.
On the other hand, the man bears the much greater burden of demonstrating the role of Christ in this relationship. The man must love his wife, sacrifice himself for her, actively sanctify and cleanse her though his spiritual leadership, and bear the burden of her sinfulness upon himself. Not that she is not fully responsible for her own sin and won’t be held accountable for her sin, but the husband will also be held responsible for her actions in how he led her. If he does not lead his family well in true Biblical instruction and guidance, he will be held responsible for his part in their sin. This is a much weightier responsibility than the role the woman plays.
Leadership of the church
As with the family, God has set up His church in an orderly fashion. As 1 Corinthians 14:33 says, “God is not a God of confusion but of peace.” God has ordained the order in which He desires His Church to function. This order is not meant to be chaotic, disparaging, or cause heartache or strife. This order is to bring peace and to help men and women fulfill the roles they have been specifically created to best flourish in. It is not a hierarchy of value but a hierarchy of responsibility.
God has given clear instructions in His Word as to how He has ordained His Church to function.
For this reason I left you in Crete, that you would set in order what remains and appoint elders in every city as I directed you, namely, if any man is above reproach, the husband of one wife, having children who believe, not accused of dissipation or rebellion. (Titus 1:5-6)
An overseer, then, must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, prudent, respectable, hospitable, able to teach,…Deacons must be husbands of only one wife, and good managers of their children and their own households. (1 Timothy 3:2, 12)
Titus 1 and 1 Timothy 3 describe the type of person who should be in the role of elder (teachers & preachers) and deacons. In both passages, God specifies “man of one wife.” This specification of “man of one wife” was to certainly indicate that the role of leader of a church is to be reserved only to men. The mentioning of “one wife” was to combat the practice of polygamy at the time. The original language might be read to say a “one-woman man.” This does not mean that a single man could not be a church leader or that a man divorced based on Biblical allowances could not be a leader. It did mean that the leaders of the church must be men and they should not be polygamists.
“The elder is to be “the husband of one wife” (1 Tim. 3:2), literally, “a man of one woman.” This certainly cannot mean that only married men are qualified to be elders because Paul and probably Timothy as well were single men who ruled over the Lord’s church. It also does not prohibit divorced men from holding the office — if their divorce had biblical warrant (Matt. 19:1–9; 1 Cor. 7:12–16). Otherwise, we make divorce a sin even in cases where God permits it.” ~ Ligonier Ministries1
The role of leadership in the church is much like the role of leadership in the home but exponentially more burdensome. The leaders of the church are not only responsible for the spiritual condition and maturity of their own families but they are also held accountable for all those within his flock. He must not only love his wife as Christ loves the Church, but he must love all those whom he guides with the same love. He not only sacrifices his time, energy, desires, hopes, and dreams for his family’s needs, he must do the same for the people he leads. When presented before God on Judgment Day, he will give an account to all he has taught not only his family but the church he leads. This is a burden greater than any other on earth.
Women’s role in the church
The Titus and 1 Timothy passages do not mean women are not to teach at all. The instructions given in these passages do, however, exempt us from teaching men.
But as for you, speak the things which are fitting for sound doctrine. Older men are to be temperate, dignified, sensible, sound in faith, in love, in perseverance. Older women likewise are to be reverent in their behavior, not malicious gossips nor enslaved to much wine, teaching what is good, so that they may encourage the young women to love their husbands, to love their children, to be sensible, pure, workers at home, kind, being subject to their own husbands, so that the word of God will not be dishonored. (Titus 2:1-5)
Women are encouraged to teach other women (Titus 2) and children. Women are specially gifted to teach these two groups. There is such a great need for solid women teachers. If a woman desires to teach, she should be encouraged to do so and the elders of her church should come along side her and guide her in her teaching. They should encourage her, correct her, and help her to grow her into a stronger and more effective teacher of the Word.
and also some women who had been healed of evil spirits and sicknesses: Mary who was called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna the wife of Chuza, Herod’s steward, and Susanna, and many others who were contributing to their support out of their private means. (Luke 8:2-3)
Many women were there looking on from a distance, who had followed Jesus from Galilee while ministering to Him. (Matthew 27:55)
Women are also encouraged to work in other ministries like hospitality, encouragement, administration, mercy, etc. In fact, it is often that women excel in these roles even more than men.
“Guiding the spiritually young to maturity is not solely the job of the vocational pastor, the elder, or the Sunday school teacher. The church needs mothers to care for the family of God. We must rise to our responsibility, eagerly searching for whom the Lord would have us nurture. There is no barrenness among believing women. Through the gospel, all become mothers in their maturity. And unlike biological motherhood, spiritual motherhood holds the potential for hundreds, even thousands of descendants.” ~ Jen Wilkin6
Women should not look at being exempt from the role of preacher/elder as a rejection or an insult to women. Rather, we should look at it as an honor, mercy, and grace shown to women.
“Women must stop believing the devil’s lie that the only role of significance is that of leadership. People usually desire places of prominence—not to humbly serve others, but to boost their own egos and gain power and control. Leaders, however, bear a heavy burden and responsibility, and the subordinate role often is one of greater peace and happiness. Subordination is not punishment, but privilege.” ~ John MacArthur5
The call to lead a flock spiritually causes a man to bear a much greater burden and be judged much more harshly than others. Women are exempt from this burden and free to serve in other areas.
Now as they were traveling along, He entered a village; and a woman named Martha welcomed Him into her home. She had a sister called Mary, who was seated at the Lord’s feet, listening to His word. But Martha was distracted with all her preparations; and she came up to Him and said, “Lord, do You not care that my sister has left me to do all the serving alone? Then tell her to help me.” But the Lord answered and said to her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and bothered about so many things; but only one thing is necessary, for Mary has chosen the good part, which shall not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:38-42)
As women, are also privileged to be able to sit under the teaching of both women and men while men are only to sit under other men. God has seen fit in His great wisdom to honor women greatly in the role He specifically designed for us
Sadly, many women attempt to usurp their role and seek after the roles of men. When you get down to it, this is a form of blasphemy…telling God His design isn’t good enough and that, “As a woman, I know better.” When we are discontent in our life or the place God has placed us in, it is a form of blasphemy to complain against His will.
I commend to you our sister Phoebe, who is a servant of the church which is at Cenchrea; that you receive her in the Lord in a manner worthy of the saints, and that you help her in whatever matter she may have need of you; for she herself has also been a helper of many, and of myself as well…Greet Mary, who has worked hard for you. (Romans 16:1-2, 6)
“Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her,…So husbands ought also to love their own wives as their own bodies. He who loves his own wife loves himself; for no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ also does the church, because we are members of His body. F OR THIS REASON A MAN SHALL LEAVE HIS FATHER AND MOTHER AND SHALL BE JOINED TO HIS WIFE, AND THE TWO SHALL BECOME ONE FLESH…Nevertheless, each individual among you also is to love his own wife even as himself, and the wife must see to it that she respects her husband. (Ephesians 5:25, 28-31, 33)
Women are not to be abused, taken advantage of, made a door mat, or repressed. The Bible teaches that women are to be cherished, protected, honored, and loved. But, even if she isn’t being treated this way by a church, it is not her place to usurp the role God has created her for and take over the leadership roles that have been ordained to men.
Women are gifted to fill many offices in ministry, including teaching women and children, service, ministering, administration, hospitality, evangelism, encouragement, etc. The one role that so many women seem to get hung up on is the role of preaching/authority.
“I would be the last to deny that women are given gifts that they are meant to exercise. But we must not be greedy in insisting on having all of them, in usurping the place of men. We are women, and my plea is Let me be a woman, holy through and through, asking for nothing but what God wants to give me, receiving with both hands and with all my heart whatever that is. No arguments would ever be needed if we all shared the spirit of the “most blessed among women.'” ~ Elisabeth Elliot4
Men and women are equal in value, in importance, in being bearers of God’s image, and in guilt of sin. We are equal but different. God has gifted the two genders with special abilities that are only truly realized when allowed to flourish within the roles for which God designed them. Because God is loving, merciful, gracious, and kind, we can trust that the gender role He designed for us was intentional and a kind act. We can trust that our true freedom, peace, and joy will only be realized when we practice our giftings within the parameters which God has ordained from creation.
“A Christian woman’s true freedom lies on the other side of a very small gate—humble obedience—but that gate leads out into a largeness of life undreamed of by the liberators of the world, to a place where the God-given differentiation between the sexes is not obfuscated but celebrated, where our inequalities are seen as essential to the image of God, for it is in male and female, in male as male and female as female, not as two identical and interchangeable halves, that the image is manifested.” ~ Elisabeth Elliot4
We should not desire such a burden but rather praise God for His mercy and grace in offering women such a precious and noble role. We should embrace the liberation, joy, and peace we find in fulfilling the role God has designed us for.
I pray we all learn to walk in humility, obedience, and submission as we bear the image of ezer, the Bride of Christ, and our God.
- “An Example To Be Followed”. 2017. Ligonier Ministries. Accessed May 16. http://www.ligonier.org/learn/devotionals/example-be-followed/.
- Ascol, Tom. 2009. “The High Calling Of Women By Tom Ascol”. Ligonier Ministries. http://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/high-calling-women/.
- Byrd, Aimee. 2016. “Always A Woman”. Byfaith. http://byfaithonline.com/always-a-woman/.
- Elliot, Elisabeth. 1996. “Let Me Be A Woman By Elisabeth Elliot”. Ligonier Ministries. http://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/let-me-be-woman/.
- MacArthur, John. 2009. God’s High Calling For Women. 1st ed. Chicago: Moody Publishers.
- Wilkin, Jen. 2016. “Mothers In The Church By Jen Wilkin”. Ligonier Ministries. http://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/mothers-church/.