WOMEN IN CHURCH LEADERSHIP
The Issue Of Male Headship
In any discussion of the role of women in the church, one must deal with Paul’s teaching regarding the headship of man over woman. This is a complex topic, but here is a very brief overview:
1 CORINTHIANS 11:2-16
“I want you to realise that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of every woman is man, and the head of Christ is God…” (v.2)
This appears to be a universal, timeless theological truth. Indeed, it is difficult to view this in any other way. In verses 7-10, Paul explains that man’s headship over woman stems from the nature, order and mode of their creation by God in the beginning. Furthermore, the headship of man over woman is compared to the headship of Christ over man and of the Father over Christ. This tells us two important things:
- It is a hierarchy of function not of value (the Father and Son are equally divine)
- This headship does involve at least some degree of authority (the Father had clear authority over Christ (Jn 4:34; 6:38-39; 5:19; 11:41-42).
That authority is involved is seen by the statement in verses 7-10:
“A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of man. For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. For this reason…a woman ought to have a sign of authority on her head”.
Those who say that this is speaking of God’s authority over woman and not man’s, are simply ignoring the obvious meaning of the passage; for it is clearly referring to the relationship between woman and man, not woman and God.
Let us also differentiate between what is cultural and what is timeless. The cultural practice of the day was for women to cover their heads as a sign of man’s authority over them. Only prostitutes and disgraceful women went in public with their heads uncovered. Obviously, this is no longer culturally true. The headship of man over woman is a timeless theological truth, set in place at creation, the cultural expression of which, in Paul’s day, was the covering of the head.
Headship in marriage, in the context of the book of Ephesians, is a headship of love and sacrifice by the husband for his wife. Paul states, “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Ephesians 5:25). This is not a harsh authoritarian headship, but a headship of love and self-sacrifice. While the concept of headship does infer an element of leadership, it is not a domineering one. Husbands are to take the lead in loving and serving their wife, and in placing their wife’s needs before their own. This is the biblical concept of headship.
How, then, does the teaching of man’s headship over woman in this passage, relate to the ministry of women in the church?
One factor to consider is that the Greek word in this passage for “man” can also be translated “husband“. Similarly, the Greek word for “woman” can also be translated “wife“. Thus, in this passage, the issue being discussed may not be man’s generic headship over woman in the church, but a husband’s headship over the wife in the home. If this is the case, then the Bible is simply urging wives not to feel that they can lord it over their husbands, even though some wives may have “greater” gifts for Christian ministry than their husbands.
Another clue to the puzzle is found in 1 Timothy 2:12, where, as we have already seen, Paul only prohibits a woman’s use of domineering or usurping authority. Women can minister alongside men in any area, provided they do not seek to lord it over men. They may (and did in the Bible) minister authoritatively, providing they do not do so domineeringly.
This kind of harmonious sharing of ministry is evidenced by Priscilla and Aquilla always being mentioned as ministering together, and by Junia being mentioned alongside Adronicus as Apostles. It is even evidenced in this passage on headship, in verse 11:
“In the Lord, however, woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman”
One may ask: Why the need for any kind of headship at all? The answer is found in 1 Corinthians 11. God is a God of order. Just as there is a certain order of function within the Godhead, so He has ordained a functional order in mankind (v.3). In practice, such a functional order does not necessarily preclude a woman from any particular ministry activity, but should simply mean that, for the sake of harmony, she is willing to abide by the decision of her male counterparts if a disagreement arises. If a woman is willing to abide by this principle of male headship there are no Biblical grounds for excluding her from any Christian ministry, including being part of an eldership or paid ministry team of a church, as well as exercising a preaching ministry.
There is strong evidence within the Bible of God gifting and calling women into teaching and leadership roles within His church. It is not unequivocal evidence, but it seems to me that negating these scriptural examples requires major hermeneutical gymnastics. Paul’s seemingly prohibitive injunctions cannot, therefore, be interpreted as universal, timeless prohibitions, for the Bible does not contradict itself. Rather, they must be regarded as relating to particular precipitating local and cultural factors in the churches to which they were addressed.
The divergent, and hotly debated, interpretations of Paul’s injunctions, however, highlight the difficulty of distinguishing timeless truths from cultural particularity in the Bible. Greater minds than ours will, no doubt, continue to disagree over these issues.