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Gender Roles: Where to Land

Photo of Vance RussellVance Russell | Bio

Vance Russell

Vance is the Biblical Studies Department Head at Boise Bible College, where he teaches Greek and New Testament. He earned the MDiv from Lincoln Christian Seminary and a BTh and BBL from Ozark Christian College. Before joining the BBC Faculty, Vance served in preaching, discipleship, youth, and chaplaincy ministries in Kansas and Illinois for 15 years. Vance currently serves on the Preaching Team at Ten Mile Christian Church and enjoys traveling to teach and preach at churches and camps throughout the Pacific Northwest. Vance has been married to Julie since 2005, and they have two wonderful children. He is an avid fan of the St. Louis Cardinals, KC Chiefs, and Kansas Jayhawks.

In my first article, we looked at the tremendous array of ministry opportunities open to both women and men. The “playground” is indeed huge. The remaining question for us is whether or not there is a line—whether or not Scripture makes a distinction for types of Kingdom service based on our gender.

There are some who say no. Often, they base their answer on Galatians 3:26-29:

So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.

This is a powerful passage that proclaims that a believer’s salvation is sure when we have clothed ourselves in Christ at baptism, and that racial, economic, social, gender, or any other distinctive that you can imagine no longer matters for who can be saved. I love this truth.

However, this passage is not about roles of kingdom service, and we would be taking it out of context if we tried to force it out of the topic of who can be saved and force it into the topic of who can serve in what role.

There are others who also answer “No,” like one of my favorite scholars N.T. Wright, who has said that the resurrection makes all the difference, because now that we are on the side of history that looks backward at the resurrection, all gender role distinctions are gone.

That would be nice. And yet I can’t help but read the rest of the New Testament and see that it does not line up.

When we look at the New Testament’s teachings on the role of Elder—teachings that came after the resurrection, in every single context (whether Acts, 1 Timothy, Titus, Philippians, 1 Peter, or John’s epistles), they always and only envision men in that role.

It’s the truth whether or not I like it, and whether or not it is politically correct in our culture.

If you know of an inspired text of the NT that references a woman as an elder, please let me know. I’ve yet to find one in the dozens of times that I’ve read it.

Maybe we would do better asking the question of why is it that the New Testament envisions only male elders.

And to that I offer two answers. First is the verse that is Paul’s thesis statement of 1 Timothy, which is chapter 3, verses 14-15:

I am writing you these instructions so that, if I am delayed, you will know how people ought to conduct themselves in God’s household, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth.”

The term “God’s household” is a metaphor that Paul fleshes out throughout the rest of 1 Timothy. The Church is an extended family with brothers and sisters and fathers and mothers. And in this household, the qualified and godly men serve as the fathers. This is the qualification and responsibility of eldership: to love the church as a father loves his family.

There’s something brilliant about the household metaphor, because it is simultaneously universal and cultural. It’s universal in that we all have fathers (otherwise we wouldn’t have been born). And a good father serves and sacrifices for his family. But it’s cultural in that the way that a father serves in my house might be different than in your house. But the godly character and the responsibilities of teaching and shepherding don’t change.

The second reason that Scripture seems to envision only male elders comes from the several times that “headship” is discussed.

1 Corinthians 11 and Ephesians 5 both discuss how the way that husbands are heads of their wives is the same as the way that Christ is head of the Church.

Christ’s headship over the Church isn’t cultural; it’s universal. So the analogy stays universal.

However, the power of this analogy is the way in which Paul stands out against the norm of his culture. Michelle Lee-Barnewall, in her book Neither Complementarian nor Egalitarian, demonstrates that the other ancient writers of Paul’s day spoke of the male headship as a privilege that men were blessed to enjoy.

But Paul critiques his culture by showing that headship is not for the privilege of the head, but rather a position of service for the rest of the body—his family and his Church family. The times when Paul gives his strongest statements about how women should not be authoritatively teaching like an elder would, it appears that the women of those churches were dealing with attitudes of extreme feminism, rooted in cultural worship of pagan goddesses like Artemis.

All of that is a very quick overview of the issue. But in closing, I’d like to suggest three key takeaways for application for all of us.

1. Kingdom service is about the Spirit’s calling, not about my rights.

Unlike the message of our culture, serving Jesus is about faithfully and humbly using the gifts and opportunities that he’s given you to serve Him and His people. When it comes to eldership, before we get upset that the New Testament doesn’t include women in this role, we need to remember that it also doesn’t include 95% of the men in the church either.

The character and spiritual gifting qualifications thin out the herd very quickly. And the last person that Jesus needs as a servant of His people is the person who is interested in taking control because they think they deserve the power and authority to do so. Any person with that attitude is disqualified regardless of his or her gender to begin with.

2. We must avoid arbitrary rules based on cultural understandings of authority.

Perhaps we need to go back and compare the actual roles and responsibilities of eldership in Scripture to how these roles have become defined in our practice. When we read the New Testament, we don’t see much about attending meetings and reviewing budgets, hiring and firing staff members, and delivering communion meditations.

But we see a lot about prayer, shepherding, character, and teaching.

3. If elders are the Spiritual Fathers of the Church, healthy households will make room for the contributions of Spiritual Mothers.

We need to hear from their valuable perspectives and voices. The godly, spiritually mature, and gifted women in Jesus’ church have a lot that we can all learn from. I am thankful that I serve at a school and at a local church with spiritually gifted men and women who understand and exemplify that their roles are for the service and sacrifice of our Lord Jesus, and for one another.