How Harmonious: God’s Plan for Men and Women in Family and Ministry
20 January 2023
Men and women are equal in dignity and complementary in our divine design.
It’s incredible what the human person can misunderstand. If there’s something to be misunderstood, there’s going to be someone to misunderstand it. In many cases, misunderstandings do little damage — regardless, Christians must be careful to present and explain Biblical truths faithfully. Especially in cases where such misunderstandings can greatly affect how we understand and exercise gender roles in important units such as ministry and family.
Let us first clarify that it is abundantly clear that God made man and woman equal. The Bible promotes an innate and equal worth of all humans:
God created man in His own image,
in the image of God He created him;
male and female He created them.
~ Genesis 1:27 (NASB)
There is neither Jew nor Greek,
there is neither slave nor free man,
there is neither male nor female;
for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
~ Galatians 3:28 (NASB)
However, while scripture clearly states that there are no distinctions in Christ, it doesn’t advocate for sameness. God loves diversity. Man and woman were created equal, different and complementary. Much of Paul’s teaching announces that the differences between men and women should be respected, even on the level of appearance (1 Corinthians 11:14-15), because they were created by God. Each person is expected to perform their duty according to his/her God-given endowments.
Then the Lord God said,
“It is not good for the man to be alone;
I will make him a helper suitable for him.”
~ Genesis 2:18 (NASB)
(Interestingly, the Hebrew word for “helper” (ezer) is very often used in reference to the relationship between God and His people.)
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 2:24 (NASB)
The woman was suitable for (not inferior to) the man. Woman was created from man, and in marriage they become one flesh. Their different roles in family and ministry don’t influence their inherent equal worth. Men and women should work together, each fulfilling their distinct roles, in order to glorify God. Matthew Henry wrote it well:
“The woman was made out of Adam’s side.
She was not made out of his head to rule over him,
nor out of his feet to be trampled upon by him,
but out of his side to be equal with him,
under his arm to be protected,
and near his heart to be loved.”
(ref. Genesis 2:21-24)
For any unit made up of varied personalities to function properly, it needs a head. According to God’s creation and ordinance, in the ideal family and church, that head is the man. We can think about this in relation to the doctrine of the Trinity. Matthew 28:19 has the disciples baptise in the Name (singular) of the three persons of the Godhead. God and Christ are one (John 10:30), yet God is the head of Christ:
But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man,
and the man is the head of a woman, and God is the head of Christ.
~ 1 Corinthians 11:3 (NASB)
There is no Greek verb indicating that this has always been so, and this does not mean that Christ is inferior to the Father. In the same way, the wife is not inferior to her husband. Christ’s position under the Father is of a similar nature to a wife’s position under her husband. This perspective also fits the understanding of a man and woman becoming “one flesh” in marriage, as the Father and the Christ (and the Holy Spirit) together are one God.
Jesus, in all His interactions with women, even while it was counter-cultural to do so, treated them with dignity, respect and compassion. Several women were counted amongst Jesus’ closest friends (Luke 10:38-39, 24:10, John 11:5).
So now that that’s all clear, let’s get to the more controversial stuff.
Submission to Sacrificial Love
In regard to the family unit, it’s almost hilarious how easy women have it. Taking the word “submit” at face value usually comes with negative connotations, such as weakness and passivity. But look at Ephesians again:
21 … submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.
22 Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord.
23 For the husband is the head of the wife
even as Christ is the head of the church,
His body, and is Himself its Saviour.
24 Now as the church submits to Christ,
so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.
25 Husbands, love your wives,
as Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for her,
26 that He might sanctify her,
having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word,
27 so that He might present the church to Himself in splendour,
without spot or wrinkle or any such thing,
that she might be holy and without blemish.
28 In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies.
He who loves his wife loves himself.
29 For no one ever hated his own flesh,
but nourishes and cherishes it,
just as Christ does the church,
30 because we are members of His body.
31 “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother
and hold fast to his wife,
and the two shall become one flesh.”
32 This mystery is profound,
and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.
33 However, let each one of you love his wife as himself,
and let the wife see that she respects her husband.
~ Ephesians 5:21-33 (ESV)
What do husbands have to do? Submit (v. 21), be the head/cornerstone of the wife (v. 23), love his wife (v. 25, 28), give himself up for her, die for her (v. 25), make her holy (v. 26), be responsible for cleansing her with the word (v. 26), present her as radiant and blameless (v. 27), feed and care for her (v. 29), leave his mother and father (v31), and all this … just as Christ loved the church.
And what do wives have to do? Submit to her husband (vv. 21, 22, 24) and respect him (v. 33) … as the church submits to Christ.
Why would any woman in her right mind not submit to a husband like that? The first definition for the Greek term (hupotassō) means simply “to arrange under, to subordinate.” Submission, in this context, involves respect. It’s a continual attitude. It was also a military term, but in its non-military use, hupotassō was “a voluntary attitude of giving in, cooperating, assuming responsibility, and carrying a burden.” The verse is could be translated to:
Wives, be subject to your own husbands, as to the Lord.
~ Ephesians 5:22 (NASB)
The idea of “submission” just means letting husbands do what they have to do. Let them step up and take responsibility. Let them care for their wife. Submission does not imply inferiority or lesser worth. Christ submitted Himself to the will of the Father without giving up any degree of His worth. Submission should be a natural response to loving leadership. The relationship between husband and wife should reflect the relationship between Christ and the church.
A wife is under no obligation to disobey civil law or God’s law in the name of “submission.” She should only submit to things that are right, lawful and God-honouring — thus, she doesn’t submit to abuse. Submission is a position of giving honour to the husband, and completing what he might lack. A wife is not presented as having any fewer rights upon her husband than he has upon her.
Martyn Iles states the responsibility of men bluntly: “When you meet God, as you certainly will… you, as a man, will be held accountable for the condition of the woman in your life.” Like above, Iles goes through the standard in Ephesians 5, and states that “there is no higher standard, in all of human existence, than the standard given in Christianity for how men are to treat women in their lives.”
When husbands meet God, their wives are to be in a condition of splendour, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. Iles rightfully concludes that the mark of a bad man is that those he claims to love are worse off for it, and the mark of a good man is that those he claims to love are made better in the most profound possible ways.
Husbands have the role of loving, humble and sacrificial headship in the family. Men can hardly allow themselves to strive to be less than the primary teacher of theology to their families. Additionally, Peter warns husbands that, unless they treat their wives with respect, their prayers will be hindered, because they are fellow heirs to the grace of life.
Likewise, husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way,
showing honour to the woman as the weaker vessel,
since they are heirs with you of the grace of life,
so that your prayers may not be hindered.
~ 1 Peter 3:7 (ESV)
Now, girls, if you read that and get offended that you just got called the “weaker vessel,” you’re being petty. It’s a clear fact that women are generally weaker than men. Not only due to biology, but just their nature as a whole. Women tend to demonstrate more caregiving and empathic behaviours, as opposed to men’s more dominating, goal-oriented nature. Women may be fragile in certain aspects, but so are many things that are most precious to us.
After all that, why would women still complain about having to submit? The role is akin to how Christ died and did everything for us, and we just have to faithfully believe in Him. Husbands give themselves up and take responsibility for their wives, and she just has to let him and respect him for it. Seems like a good deal.
Now let us dig into gender roles in ministry. This is something I found really exciting.
It seems pretty obvious that men have the primary role in every area of church life. Men bear a spiritual responsibility to demonstrate and provide leadership, training and teaching. Many women excel in hospitality, teaching, serving and evangelism, and many elements of ministry depend on the role of women. Women are never restricted from praying, prophesying, or exercising spiritual gifts (1 Corinthians 11:5, 12). Given all that, it’s still pretty undeniable that there are texts that at least seem to restrict women from teaching or having authoritative roles. The verse for this prohibition is as follows:
But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet.
~ 1 Timothy 2:12 (NASB)
Many would take that verse as it is — women are restricted from teaching or assuming authority over a man. However, just like “submit”, the verse is not as it initially seems.
The Greek term for “authority” here is authenteō. It has four primary definitions:
- one who with his own hands kills another or himself.
- one who acts on his own authority, autocratic.
- an absolute master.
- to govern, exercise dominion over one.
In Classical Greek, an authéntēs was an autocrat, a person who ruled to the point of committing murder. It refers to having full power/authority. In the overwhelming majority of cases, the authority assumed is an authority not properly granted (that is, acting on their own authority), and thus authenteō has a rightfully negative connotation. Paul isn’t referring to a healthy kind of authority, but rather the exercise of an overbearing use of power.
The verse may be better translated to:
But I permit not a woman to teach, nor to have dominion over a man, but to be in quietness. ~ 1 Timothy 2:12 (ASV)
Authenteō is a comparatively rare word, only occurring once in Scripture (in 1 Timothy 2:12). The common word for authority, with 102 occurrences, is exousia, referring to a power to act (especially relating to a moral authority/influence). Katexousiazó occurs twice, meaning simply to exercise authority over. Kuriotés (occurring four times) refers to lordship, usually in a divine/angelic sense with reference to a celestial hierarchy.
The obvious reason that Paul used authenteō, instead of exousia (for example), was that it particularly suited the Ephesian situation. The city of Ephesus was well known for an enthusiastic devotion to the goddess Artemis. Women were prominent in the Artemis cults as priestesses. In the cult of Hestia Boulaia, the prytanis was often a woman. The prytanis was similar to the mayor of a city, which presided over the town council. Women held an unusually high status in Ephesus, playing significant roles in many cults. It’s not unlikely that such a power shift may have caused women to be a bit bolder and more tyrannical. Paul writes, by using authenteō, that he won’t allow a woman to bully, control, or domineer a man (possibly specific to her husband). She should not do anything to kill or usurp a man’s God-given position/duty.
The word is pretty clearly used in a contextual way, which demonstrates that the verse as a whole is contextual, because (unless specified) it would make little sense to make a universal statement immediately beside a contextual one, let alone in the same sentence. We can’t take and apply this verse to every instance, because it is not clearly universal.
It is interesting to consider the prior verse also:
A woman must quietly receive instruction with entire submissiveness.
~ 1 Timothy 2:11 (NASB)
It does not say “women” but “woman”, and better still, “wife.” The Greek term, gunē, can indicate both a woman or a wife, depending upon the context. Since the term is used in relation to anēr (particularly used to refer to a “husband” rather than a “man” in general), it is better understood as “wife.”
Now the term for “quietness” is hésuchia, which, in this context, is best understood to mean “tranquility, not in a disturbing way”. Hésuchia cannot refer to total silence, for how could a wife ask questions and effectively learn, if that were the case? Taking this into account, one might translate the verse as, “Let the wife learn in tranquillity in her positioning under” (the term for “submissiveness” here is derived from hupotassō, as described prior).
Again, cultural context is important. At the time, it was usually only men who had the privilege of education. In this verse, Paul is encouraging wives of the time to ask questions and learn in a considerate way, so that they would not embarrass or disturb the peace between them and their husbands.
In discussing verse 12, I focussed on the concept of “authority.” Now, it should be clear that the words “woman”, “man”, and “quietness” also have better ways of being understood, as Paul continues his discussion.
The final word of interest is “teach” (didaskō), which means to teach continuously, or for a prolonged amount of time. If a wife taught continuously, she may undermine her husband’s position as the head. She should place limits on her own liberty in Christ (1 Timothy 2:15b).
However, despite these verses being contextual, it still contributes something important to the discussion (we cannot simply dismiss this little part of scripture in the name of context — God’s word is always valuable). Just as it is in marriage, women should avoid getting in the way of man’s spiritual responsibilities. Women can teach and have authority, but not if it overshadows men to such an extent that it hinders them from fulfilling their duties to the church.
It’s less a matter of competence, and more simply that male-female roles are neither identical nor interchangeable. The only reason a woman might not be given authority in the church is because it may restrain a man from taking responsibility. Women should not try to look or act like men, nor should they attempt to usurp the position of their husbands in the home or in the church. The decision has nothing to do with being a woman, and everything to do with men being free to fulfil their spiritual duties.
There are plenty of women in Scripture who played important roles in the church. For example, 1 Timothy 2:9-15 indicates clearly that women were active members of the early church, and Romans 16 alone identifies twenty-eight people Paul wants to greet — ten of which are women (this is a very impressive statistic considering the male-dominated culture of the time). These were Phoebe, Priscilla, Mary, Junia, Tryphena, Tryphosa, Persis, Rufus’ mother, Julia, and Nereus’ sister. Paul does not differentiate between Priscilla and her husband, Acquila, calling them the same name, “fellow workers” (sunergos). Timothy, and other workers (including Luke), are also called by the same name in other passages (e.g. Philemon 24).
[It is also argued that the Greek word presbuteros (i.e. elder) is always grammatically masculine (aside from one occasion in 1 Timothy 5:2), and therefore elders and church leaders are exclusively men. It makes sense that the masculine presbuteros would occur more often than the feminine presbyteras, since it was men who wrote the New Testament letters (though Hebrews is debatable), and it was men who were more likely to take up these roles because men had a vastly more prominent status at the time.
It was easy to neglect women. Though they are comparatively hardly mentioned, many Bible scholars note that the number of women who are recorded in the Bible is unusual. We can’t set our standards too high. Regardless, it would seem necessary that if presbuteros refers to a church elder, then presbyteras would have the corresponding meaning. Of its 66 occurrences, it is translated in reference to age about three-ish times (depending on the translation). It’s pretty suspect to refer to presbuteros in terms of church leadership, but refer to presbyteras in terms of age.]
Many passages, such as that below, make it clear what is expected of church leaders (particularly in regard to the spiritual responsibility of men).
2 An overseer, then, must be above reproach,
the husband of one wife, temperate, prudent,
respectable, hospitable, able to teach,
3 not addicted to wine or pugnacious,
but gentle, peaceable, free from the love of money.
4 He must be one who manages his own household well,
keeping his children under control with all dignity
5 (but if a man does not know how to manage his own household,
how will he take care of the church of God?),
6 and not a new convert, so that he will not become conceited
and fall into the condemnation incurred by the devil.
7 And he must have a good reputation with those outside the church,
so that he will not fall into reproach and the snare of the devil.
~ 1 Timothy 3:2-7 (NASB)
(Titus 2:2-12, 1 Timothy 5:8, 1 Corinthians 11:3 are also important verses to consider)
God designed men and women to be complementary and to reflect His relationship with humanity. Genesis 3:16, when God tells the woman, “Yet your desire will be for your husband, And he will rule over you” (NASB) only states what will take place. It’s a curse. It’s not a command for men to dominate women. But the verse does call to attention something very true about the sinful natures of man and woman.
Selfishness and fear are felt by every human person and are central to humanity’s fallen nature. In light of what we have already covered, it’s easy to see how men might be intimidated by their duties and grow in a selfishness that fronts in the form of laziness and neglect.
Women may also be fearful of a ruination made possible by men avoiding their responsibilities, and thus they might pursue a controlling kind of behaviour that gets things done and takes on these responsibilities that aren’t theirs.
These responses resemble a fight or flight response, in which men choose to flee and women choose to fight. This undesirable cycle can start with either the man or the woman. God’s way, which desires for men to step up and for women to step back, prevents both selfishness and fear. It protects and brings the best out of both men and women.
So, simply and quickly, we can conclude, as we always do, that God’s way is best for us.
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Through the grace of God I am able now to think, and contrary to popular belief, the ability to do so is not a given.
Your writing is lovely as well as nourishingly thoughtful, theologically informed and equally important, really accessible to those of us who are not academics.
Thank you Trinity.
What a truly phenomenal article! I’ve read a number of explanations over my 50 years as a Christian which positively explain the true meaning of some of these passages of Paul’s which, taken out of context, have led to the church’s restriction or denial of women in relation to leadership and teaching, but this is by far the most comprehensive! This will be my go-to reference in future for when non-Christians make claims that Christianity is prejudiced against women.
Even more than that, it also expresses something that’s at the heart of one of my favourite verses, 1 Peter 2:9, “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, so that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light” (NASB).
That means we should always be able to prove to the world that, not only are their criticisms of our worldview unfounded, and as in this case based on misinterpretations, but that we actually possess a FAR SUPERIOR and FAR MORE REWARDING means for living than theirs supplies.
That you have done here in no uncertain terms!