On Gender and the Bible: A Summary (Part 12)
This post is a summary of what Scripture teaches about gender in leadership roles, specifically within the Christian home and the church. It is a recap of the multi-part series that has been written by scholars and practitioners at Renew.org (here are Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, and 11). We have included relevant links to the more in-depth discussions behind each of the summary points we make in this article. We have written this post for those disciples of Jesus who desire to read just one in-depth condensation.
Here’s a summary of what we are going to say. There are seven points.
- God created males and females to be different.
- God created male headship (authority) in the beginning.
- Male headship (authority) in the home means that husbands mimic Jesus.
- Wives respond to the headship (authority) of their husbands the way the church responds to Jesus.
- Male headship in the local church is reflected in the teaching-authority and elder roles.
- Men and women are to submit to and honor the authority of male headship in the church.
- Honoring Jesus-style male headship will bring blessings on the family and the church.
The male headship viewpoint from Scripture that we will summarize below is broadly in step with the complementarian view of the earliest Christians (who were discipled by the apostles, in the churches of the apostles, with the same language and culture of the apostles) and with the larger, historic Christian consensus:
- For nearly 2,000 years
- For all kinds of cultures
- For all kinds of countries
- For all kinds of Christian traditions
Even now, in most churches in other places around the world, the consensus about male headship prevails. Yes, there are exceptions, but they do not overturn the norm.
Only in the secular, egalitarian culture of the West is a different view becoming prevalent.
The alternative view is called egalitarianism, where women can lead in the home and in the church interchangeably with men. While this may be popular and “feel right,” egalitarianism typically leads to progressive Christianity, as the scholar Wayne Grudem demonstrated. And progressivism, as many have observed, leads to declines in male participation in churches, declines in convictions on other hard teachings, and it ultimately leads to church decline and spiritual death.
Before we jump into our seven points, let us start with our personal stories in regard to gender and the Bible.
Our personal stories—and our cultural context—are helpful in providing a narrative that helps explain to others why we believe what we believe. Recently, thoughtful books that seek to “explain away” the complementarian view because it allegedly emanates from conservative politics/culture have become popular. These books craft a captivating narrative that seeks to mitigate the view we advocate. Complementarians have been saying that egalitarians are being led by our culture, and so Beth Allison Bar (The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth) and Kristin Kobes Du Mez (Jesus and John Wayne) seek to turn the tables by skillfully pointing out the ways in which conservative culture influenced complementarians to adopt their views.
The excellent Renew.org critiques of both Barr (click here) and Du Mez (click here) by Guy Layfield show the flaws in their narratives. But we agree that our culture and personal biases can influence us all and our interpretations of Scripture—and we must resist. God gave us Scripture to be our reliable and ultimate authority (2 Tim. 3:16-4:5). Let me (Bobby) tell you my background.
I (Bobby) grew up as a secular Canadian.
I knew a lot of people in my high school of 2,100 because I was captain of the football team and student council president. But I knew of only 3 people who actively attended a church–3 in the whole school. I graduated high school and went off to the University of Calgary. There, I got to know my French professor who was a disciple of Jesus. He showed me why I could trust Scripture as God’s Word and what it meant to be a disciple of Jesus. I was baptized on my birthday in March and by August I transferred to Harding University in Searcy, Arkansas, where I started studying Greek as a brand new Bible major.
Eighteen months after my adult baptism, as my second year of studies as a Bible major began, I signed up for a course to read through and study the Greek text of 1 Timothy. I was still trying to learn about my new faith, and I had only engaged in a cursory reading of the difficulties I might have with certain passages. In those early months of my faith, I would consciously defer my questions.
But that fall I could no longer ignore a major difficulty with a key text.
As the semester progressed, we came to the Greek text of 1 Timothy 2:11-12. It says, “A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man.” I knew that the text was describing what happened in the gathered church, but I didn’t know how to handle what it taught. Shortly afterward I took another Greek course on 1 Corinthians. In 1 Corinthians 14 the apostle Paul teaches that during the weighing of prophecy, “women should remain silent” and “they are not allowed to speak” (1 Cor. 14:34).
I had been discipled by my secular environment to believe that a woman can and should do whatever a man does. Only an unenlightened person would restrict a woman. I definitely did not want to be that guy, for it meant being seen as a misogynist.
And yet, I had become a disciple of Jesus.
I was taught to take a posture toward the Word of God similar to Isaiah 66:2, which says: “These are the ones I look on with favor: those who are humble and contrite in spirit, and who tremble at my word.” I wanted to humbly tremble at God’s Word—and follow it. But these texts created a big problem for me. And I was convinced it would create big barriers as I sought to help my secular family and friends make the decision to trust and follow Jesus with me.
I wrote something like the following in the margin of the Greek text of my Bible to myself at that time: “This is not going to sell well back home.”
Because I had been discipled to obey Scripture in the early days of my journey—no matter what the contrary pressure might be from family, friends, and the world—I resolved to uphold what these texts said (2 Tim. 3:14-4:4). As I had been taught, I decided I would trust God with the problems these texts created for those who do not prioritize the Word of God over human wisdom.
I concluded that God must have reasons for this teaching that I did not understand. I concluded that I needed to search for better understanding and/or someone to show the reasons to me.
Since that time, I have become a Bible-nerd on this topic (and several others). For several decades, I read almost everything that was published on gender and these passages in the scholarly evangelical literature. Maybe someone could legitimately explain them in a different, truthful and yet God-honoring way? I said to myself. And I continued to wonder, Why does God’s Word teach these things?
It has been forty years now, and no one has said or published anything that has led me to believe that I should discard these teachings for the secular worldview I was taught growing up. Instead, as I have studied God’s word and ministered in the local church with godly men and women and their families, I have come to believe that God created an order for the home and church and that order is in step with how we are wired as men and women. And if we follow God’s Word, it is a better way for people than the way the world teaches. The male-headship view or “soft complementarianism” that I see in these texts and Scripture as a whole, is more in step with the true nature of men and women and, when followed, it leads to what works best for families and churches.
I (Renee) thought I was an egalitarian.
Growing up, the culture at my church, my Christian school, and even my university, was what I would now describe as a rigid complementarianism. I grew up hearing things like, “Men are the head of the home” and “Men are supposed to lead women.” I never saw a single woman pray, read Scripture, or even speak in gatherings where men were present at church. Only male teachers of boys were allowed to participate in chapel at school, and a female teacher couldn’t pray aloud with another male in the room. As a child, and even as a young adult, I lived in this world without question.
However, life inside my family was vastly different. A high-functioning team, my mom and dad started their own busines out of their garage while raising three kids. My grandparents lived behind us on their farm, and they, too, complemented one another in ways that made them thrive. My mom and my grandmother became my mentors; to this day they are some of the strongest women I have ever known.
At 21 years old, I married a man who loves me to this day with a self-sacrificial fierceness and loyalty that is hard to describe. He, too, has ministered to me with words of affirmation, backed up with attention, love, and action. Our mutual submission made us a high-functioning team, and we have enjoyed a life of mutual admiration and devotion.
By my late twenties, the dissonance between my church life and my home life began to grow, and my list of questions grew too.
Why does my church believe that women can’t read Scripture or pray with men around? Why are men the only ones baptizing people? Why are female teachers relegated to the children’s ministry? I fumed. I had been loved and empowered at home and insulted at church. Slowly, the resentment began to build. If that is what complementarianism is, I thought, then I’m not that.
But when I really began to study what God reveals in Scripture about gender, I was surprised. I wasn’t egalitarian after all. I was using that word in response to a heavy-handed complementarianism in my school and my church. Because the Bible is the Word of God and has unique and absolute authority in our lives, I had to take what I found and try my best to obey it. I couldn’t conclude that Genesis 1-3 was wrong; I couldn’t conclude that Paul was wrong. I couldn’t conclude that cultural changes superseded Scripture, and I couldn’t conclude that my experience or anyone else’s was more important than Scripture.
Actually, I concluded that’s God’s complementary design for men and women is great news. Male and female reflect the image of God in gendered ways in life, marriage, and the Christian community.
Even though it may seem like a stretch, egalitarianism is, in many instances, the beginning of a slippery slope toward the progressivism to which many are moving that leads to the fruit of our current cultural views on gender, which include the following.
- Gender itself is no longer tied to biology.
- Nobody can tell their sons what it uniquely means to be a man.
- Nobody can tell their daughters what it uniquely means to be a woman.
- A high number of teens are now confused about whether they should identify as male or female or gender fluid.
- Sexual immorality, bisexuality, and homosexuality are fashionable.
- Marriage itself is in crisis and many are giving up on it.
A thoughtful Christian must ask how egalitarian Christians can stop the churches they are members of and people they influence from ending up in the same place as our secular culture. They have explained away most of the passages on the uniqueness of gender roles in the Bible that would stop such a slide, so what can they say? A surprising number of churches now say the same things on these topics as the world says (see “On Gender and the Bible: Where Does Egalitarianism Lead, Part 9”).
A thoughtful Christian must also look at difficult biblical texts and put aside their cultural biases and upbringings and study the Scriptures in order to understand God’s heart for his people, instead of trying to fit God’s word into our pre-formed system of beliefs and values.
Instead of following a culture of either rigid traditionalism or progressivism, let’s focus on the truth that God has a better way for us.
1. God Created Males and Females to Be Different.
The starting place for a discussion on gender in marriage and the church should be chosen carefully. According to the New Testament, the focus should start with the creation account in Genesis 1-3 (see Matt. 19:1-9, 1 Cor. 11:3-16, 14:33-36 and 1 Tim. 2:12-15). The Genesis 1-3 starting point teaches us to focus on God’s created order and the unique descriptions given to Adam and Eve, as representatives of humanity.
Egalitarians reject the creation account as a starting place and pick Galatians 3:26-38 instead.
“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.”
This is a wonderful section of Scripture that teaches equality in salvation for everyone who has been baptized into Christ. But this passage is not about gender roles; it is about our identity and unity in Christ. When you take verses like Galatians 3:26-28, which exegetically and contextually are not talking about gender roles, and use them to undermine texts that are talking about gender, it is a problem. It’s an unsound exegetical and hermeneutical method (see “On Gender and the Bible: Can Women Be Elders, Part 5”).
So we must start in Genesis. Men and women were created to equally reflect the image of God, but in gendered ways, according to Genesis 1:27:
So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.
Jesus reiterated the creation framework when he taught on the foundation of marriage in Matthew 19:4-6 in response to a question.
“Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”
Jesus affirms both the binary of male and female in creation and the binding of male to female in marriage. We were made differently as male and female and we come together in a complementary unity in marriage.
Based on these passages, other unions based upon gender changes, adultery, and same sex unions are contrary to God’s created order (see ”On Gender and the Bible: Thoughts of a Theologian and a Therapist on the Transgender Debate, Part 11”)
It is biological truth that men and women are different at the deepest levels of their being.
Our chromosomes are not the same. Our brains are different. Our voices are different, along with our body shapes, body strengths, and our reproductive systems. Perhaps the clearest example of complementarity in gender is the fact that each sex has one half of a reproductive system, requiring the opposite sex to realize its full function. These differences are extensive and they bear witness to God’s creative will for humanity (see “On Gender and the Bible: What Does It Mean to Be a Man or Woman, Part 10”).
By affirming God’s created order, we also acknowledge that this order was in part corrupted when our ancestors, Adam and Eve, fell into sin. We now experience trials and struggles as we wait for the new heaven and new earth. Confusion and pain often exist around God’s intended norms in regard to identity and sexuality.
In the curse of Genesis 3:16, we find that women are going to have desires for their husbands, aspirations which can lead to unrealistic expectations, disappointments and even manipulation. And men will have a tendency to oppress and mistreat women.
As God said: “Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you” (Gen. 3:16). Like the other consequences of the fall, we must work to overcome these challenges. On this side of the fall of Genesis 3, we will have challenges. It should not surprise us, then, that some will have homosexual attraction for those of their same sex, while others have struggles with gender dysphoria when they are biologically born one way, but internally identify with a different sex (Rom. 1:24-27).
And then there is the pain.
The pain of gender conflict. The pain of unwanted affections. And the pain of mistreatment at the hands of Christians who wrongly enforce God’s norms with judgment and hate, not the love of Jesus—and that description sadly includes many churches.
But God calls us to uphold his created order where we live in step with his teachings on gender, marriage, and LGBTQ+ issues and in the context of disordered affections and desires. He calls us to be faithful to his teachings. And he calls us to love each other and be merciful to each other in our struggles.
God’s intentions for the created order are God’s best for us. We will point to some of the fruit of God’s better way in the following sections.
God’s intentions for the created order are God’s best for us.
2. God Created Male Headship (Authority) in the Beginning
Headship is a concept taught in Genesis 1-3. The God-ordained order called “head” entails a much richer meaning than frequently used words like authority, rule, and leadership. These principles are encompassed within the idea of headship, but they are poor synonyms for it. Additionally, leadership and authority are traits that both men and women display in Scripture (for a small sample, see the leadership of women in Rom. 16:1-2 and Acts 18:26). But headship is a unique God-created authority and responsibility to mimic Jesus—to lead and be a head like Jesus—in the home for husbands and in the church for the main preacher/teacher and elders. Headship is how men take responsibility to live out their created fabric in a Jesus-like way that seeks the benefit of families and the local church—and, most of all, seeks to honor God.
Headship is based upon the teaching of the creation account in Genesis, and it springs from the concept of primogeniture. God inspired Paul to point to primogeniture when Paul prescribed gender differences in the church and in marriage.
What is primogeniture?
It is the concept that the first created or the firstborn has family leadership responsibility and authority. God intentionally created man first. In doing so, he created him in a distinct way, and he created the woman secondly, to complement him. There is a biological poetry that God hard-wired into men and women at creation: we are different, but wonderfully complementary (see “On Gender in the Bible: What Does It Mean to Be a Man or Woman, Part 10”). As the first created, men were given a set of biological-social accents that are typically suited to the headship role God created for them in the home and the religious community. Likewise, women were given a set of biological-social accents that typically suit their complementary role relative to the headship. These accents are not absolute; men and women reveal variations in their biological-social accents—but they are typical.
In Genesis 2, God creates Adam first and gives him the responsibility to tend the garden of Eden and uphold the commandment not to eat from the tree with the knowledge of good and evil (Gen. 2:16-17). God then created the woman after the man to be his strong help (Gen. 2:18). Their roles are different, but they are equally created in God’s image, and they have unity in their relationship as they complement one another. As Genesis 2:24 puts it,
That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.
The principle of male headship (primogeniture) is reflected in the following four sections of the New Testament:
1 Timothy 2:12-13 describes how headship/primogeniture applies to the main teacher-preacher role in the gathered church: “I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve.”
1 Corinthians 11:3 and 11:8-9 describes how headship/primogeniture applies when women pray and prophesy in the church. “But I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God.” And, “For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; neither was man created for woman, but woman for man.”
1 Corinthians 14:34-35 describes how headship/primogeniture applies during the weighing of prophecies in the gathered church. “The law” refers to the creation account that was already discussed three chapters earlier in 1 Corinthians 11. “Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says.”
Ephesians 5:23-24 and 5:31-32 describes how headship/primogeniture applies in marriage. “The husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church.…As the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.…“For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.”
These are the four major sections of the New Testament that discuss the reason for gender distinctions in the gathered church and home. These teachings are not based upon changing culture. All four sections uphold the conviction that God’s created order is the ground for the biblical doctrine of male headship.
What does this mean?
Men are created by God differently from women, and consistent with that hardwiring, they have been given responsibility and authority for Christ-like headship in marriage and in certain leadership roles in the local church. It also means women are called to honor and submit themselves to the headship role of their husband and, in the gathered church, to the role of elder and lead teaching/authority, both positions of male leadership (see “On Gender and the Bible: Does God Allow Women Preachers in 1 Timothy 2, Part 4”).
3. Male Headship (Authority) in the Home Means Husbands Mimic Jesus
The roles of husbands and wives are to be different. The husband uniquely models himself after Jesus and the wife uniquely models herself after the church. They are not ambiguous or interchangeable roles. As Jesus is the head of the church, the husband is the head of his wife. Jesus’ headship is described this way: “God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church” (Eph. 1:22).
Then a few chapters later God explicitly teaches husbands to mimic Jesus in his headship role in marriage with his wife in Ephesians 5:25-29:
Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church.
Carefully notice the kind of head God teaches a husband to be:
- he gives himself up for his wife
- he encourages his wife’s holiness
- he encourages his wife’s purity and honor
- he loves his wife like he loves himself
- he cares and provides for his wife
Even though Jesus is King of kings and Lord of lords, he is also described as a good shepherd (John 10), a man of sorrows (Is. 53), a teacher (Matt. 7), and a lamb (John 1). Jesus reminds his disciples that headship, if it means anything at all, means that they will serve others.
Husbands are called to reject the paths of domineering behavior on the one hand and passive/uncertain behavior on the other (see “On Gender and the Bible: What about Husbands and Wives? Part 6”).
In the last several decades, I (Bobby) have had the opportunity to teach men, and try to live out before them, what it means to be a loving, Christ-like, sacrificial head. Here is a summary I used based upon this Ephesians 5 passage (and others related to it), a summary which was slightly modified from the work of Robert Lewis of BetterMan. It is called “25 Ways to Be a Jesus-Like Husband in Marriage.”
25 Ways to Be a Jesus’-Like Husband in Marriage
- He keeps leading and initiating, even when it doesn’t go well.
- He stays alert in seeking to serve and lead, to keep the “blessing-flow” within the family (see 1 Peter 3:7).
- He accepts spiritual responsibility for his family by
personally committing to his own spiritual growth and by investing in the growth of his family.
- He is willing to say “I’m sorry” and “Forgive me” to his family.
- He lets his wife and children into the interior of his life.
- He seeks to understand his wife and interacts out of that understanding.
- He seeks his wife’s input and counsel, and many times he yields to her view when envisioning the future.
- He frequently tells his wife what he likes about her and praises her often in public.
- He prays with and for his wife on a regular basis.
- He encourages his wife to grow as an individual and ensures time for his wife to pursue her own personal interests.
- He discusses household responsibilities with his wife and makes sure they are reasonably distributed.
- He provides financially for his family’s basic living expenses and consults his wife on all major financial decisions.
- He keeps his family financially sound and out of harmful debt.
- He makes sure he and his wife have drawn up a will and arranged a well-conceived plan for their children in case of death.
- He follows through with commitments he has made to his wife and family.
- He anticipates the different stages his marriage and his children will pass through.
- He manages the schedule of the home and anticipates any pressure points.
- He deals with distractions so he can talk with his wife and family.
- He initiates meaningful family traditions and regular fun family-outings.
- He takes the lead in establishing with his wife sound, biblically-supportable family values.
- He takes the time to give his children practical instruction about life, which in turn gives them confidence with their peers.
- He explains sex to each child in a way that gives them a wholesome perspective.
- He joins a discipling group of men who are dedicated to improving their skills as disciples, husbands, and fathers.
- He asks for help when he or his family is floundering.
- He keeps starting over.
The biggest fans of my teaching on male headship in marriage have always been the women. As Jared Ellis points out in the Renew.org post “On Gender and the Bible: One Church’s Real-World Fight, Part 8,” women tend to highly value this kind of discipleship for men. As one woman told me in the context of a conversation about biblical submission: “How could I object to submitting to a man who loved me like that?”
4. Wives Respond to the Headship (Authority) of Their Husbands the Way the Church Responds to Jesus.
In marriage, a wife submits to her husband the way the church submits to Jesus. Ephesians 5:22-24 makes this clear.
“Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.”
In the last decade, I (Renée) have had the opportunity to teach women, and I have tried to live out before them what it means to be a respectful, submissive wife. Here is a summary based upon what we see in Scripture.
25 Ways a Woman Is a Strong Helper to Her Husband
- She is a strong ally in her husband’s headship, using her God-given abilities to help build a high-functioning, complementary team.
- She guards her husband’s reputation by blessing her husband with respect: in her thoughts, in her words, and in her actions, abstaining from complaining about him in casual conversation.
- She personally commits to her own spiritual growth and cooperates in the spiritual growth of her family.
- She is ready to say “I’m sorry, please forgive me” to her husband and children.
- She courageously faces the world shoulder-to-shoulder with her husband, respecting and encouraging his headship.
- She intentionally develops her inner beauty by disciplining her reactions and responses to her husband (1 Peter 3:1-6).
- She gives wise counsel to her husband as they plan for the future.
- She yields her body to her husband as he also yields his body to her, with neither depriving the other of sexual intimacy except for a time of prayer (1 Cor. 7:1-5).
- She prays with and for her husband on a regular basis.
- She listens attentively to her husband and responds to his concerns.
- She manages the household with excellence, discussing responsibilities with her husband and ensuring they are reasonably distributed (1 Tim. 5:14).
- She faithfully and wisely stewards family time, money, and other resources (1 Tim. 5:14).
- She sets a positive tone for the home, helping make it a place of respite and refuge.
- She helps her husband stay attuned to the spiritual, physical, and emotional needs of their children.
- She follows through with commitments she has made to her husband and family.
- She reacts with calm wisdom toward problems in her husband, trusting in God even when her husband doesn’t and resisting the temptation to compare him with other men.
- She refuses to give way to fear.
- She cultivates an attitude of contentment for the life she shares with her husband and family.
- She is interested in her husband’s work and is grateful for his contribution to the family’s security.
- She upholds sound, biblically-supportable family values.
- She expresses her ideas and opinions respectfully without belittling or domineering.
- She is trustworthy; her husband and children know they can depend on her to follow through in word and deed.
- She joins a discipling group of women who are dedicated to improving their skills as disciples, wives, and mothers.
- She helps make things right with grace and mercy when family members make mistakes.
- She keeps starting over.
The submission of wives to the headship of their husbands in marriage is described by Scripture in other unambiguous contexts. Colossians and 1 Peter make it clear.
Colossians 3:18-19 – Wives, submit yourselves to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives and do not be harsh with them.
1 Peter 3:1-2 – Wives, in the same way submit yourselves to your own husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behavior of their wives, when they see the purity and reverence of your lives.
A Helpful Framework for Submission
It is often difficult for many women to submit to their husbands. In light of this difficulty, 1 Peter 3 provides an important framework.
Before we get to 1 Peter 3, let’s return to Genesis 3 for a moment.
The world teaches us that a woman submitting is equal to subservience to her husband. Hence, submission is seen as wrong, antiquated, and unnecessary and something that may lead to abuse. Genesis 3:16 teaches that women will “desire their husbands.” We do not want to over-generalize, but there is a sense in which women will have a natural desire to expect their husbands to be the ideal, excellent, wonderful man they want. Women may want more than their husbands can provide. And then men, in their brokenness, will often treat their wives harshly: “Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you,” the text teaches us.
It is a function that the curse brought in the fall that many men will either be harsh and lord it over their wives, or they will be indecisive and unsure, like Adam in Eve’s temptation, and not protect and watch over their wives (Gen. 3:6).
God calls men to a third way: the way of proactive, Jesus-style headship.
And, in the context of women who fear that they can be let down by their husbands, 1 Peter 3:6 teaches women to model themselves after Sarah’s example as she submitted to Abraham. It teaches two points of emphasis: “You are her daughters if you do what is right and do not give way to fear.”
First, a wife follows her husband in what is right. A woman’s first loyalty is to Jesus and his teachings. She will not follow her husband in sin. And when she follows her husband in step with Jesus’ teachings, she does what is right.
Second, she does not give way to fear. “Fear not” is the most common command in the Bible. It is difficult for many of us to submit, but a woman will often feel particularly vulnerable in submitting to her husband’s headship. Young women will need discipleship from older, godly, and wise women (Titus 2:4). At the same time, this passage assumes a posture of prayer and trust in God. It teaches that submission is often an act of faith in God that renounces fear, especially if a woman struggles with trust with regard to her husband’s leadership.
Our Problem with These Passages
We must call something out at this point. There is one underlying contrast between the values of Scripture and the values of our culture in North America that explains why so many of us have a negative reaction toward these Scriptures.
We do not like submission. None of us do.
Yet Scripture both commands and commends submission. Jesus himself is commended for his submission to God the Father (Heb. 5:7) and his parents (Luke 2:51). Through Paul, Jesus teaches all of us to submit to government authorities (Rom. 13), for slaves to submit to their masters (Col. 3:22-25), and for Christians to submit to their church leaders (Heb. 13:17). All believers are expected to submit to each other out of reverence for Christ (Eph. 5:21); thus submission is for both husbands and wives, even as we express it in distinct gendered ways (Eph. 5:21).
As Jim Putman and Chad Harrington show us, the revolutionary disciple in North America is the disciple who embraces humble submission to God-given authorities. The revolutionary disciple is the disciple who obeys Jesus.
Rebecca McLaughlin puts the whole teaching about submissive in marriage in context when she notes the following:
Ephesians 5 sticks like a burr in our 21st-century, Western ears. But we must not misread it as justifying “traditional” gender roles. The text doesn’t say the husband is the one whose needs come first and whose comfort is paramount. In fact, Ephesians 5 is a withering critique of traditional gender roles, in its original context and today. In the drama of marriage, the wife’s needs come first, and the husband’s drive to prioritize himself is cut down with the axe of the gospel. . . . And it’s a daily challenge to remember what I’m called to in this gospel drama, and to notice opportunities to submit to my husband as to the Lord—not because I’m naturally more or less submissive, or because he is naturally more or less loving, but because Jesus submitted to the cross for me. (For more on this, see “On Gender and the Bible: What about Husbands and Wives? Part 6”).
So, men are to be submitted to Jesus in their role as husbands and fathers, loving their wives as Christ loved the church, and women are to be submitted to Jesus in their role as wives and mothers. In that call, women will submit to their husbands and respect them as they are instructed by God.
Christian egalitarians and our Western culture make a strong case that we must stop the abuse and mistreatment of women. We agree. Heartily. Strongly. But we differ on the solution.
Telling men to be like women and women to be like men will not work. That injunction is not in step with the created/biological order, nor does it address the curse given to men and women in the fall. God calls men to reject male domination (i.e., we might call this corrupted patriarchy or “hard complementarianism”) on the right as well as the egalitarian androgenous confusion on the left. Again, Scripture points to the third way: the way of proactive, Jesus-style headship.
We have seen the clear fruit of this path in countless situations, and it leads to God’s blessings on men, women, and families.
5. Male Headship in the Local Church is Reflected in the Teaching-Authority and Elder Roles.
Consistent with the teaching of headship/primogeniture (described above), the New Testament repeatedly features males in the teaching-authority structures that are established by God. Women are featured prominently in the ministry of Jesus, but Jesus did not choose them as any of the official twelve disciples/apostles. There are also no women in the New Testament who are given the role of an evangelist, like Timothy and Titus, nor elders.
We note that when the Christians gathered together as a church, women did not serve as the authoritative teachers, nor were they to be involved in the evaluation of prophecy, and, in Corinth, they were to wear veils when they prayed and prophesied in the gathering of the church.
Let’s look briefly at these three teachings.
In 1 Timothy 2, God speaks through Paul and prohibits women from giving authoritative teaching.
These verses in 1 Timothy 2 may be the starkest verses on this subject in Scripture, as they are in direct contrast to contemporary cultural ideals of full female participation in the leadership of any organization—both secular and within the church. Note Paul’s words found in 1 Timothy 2:11–14.
A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner.
If we read it carefully, the key element is the coupling of teaching and authority. We believe that the authority role Paul has in mind refers to teaching which represents the authority and guidance of the leadership of the church (see “On Gender and the Bible: Does God Allow Women Preachers in 1 Timothy 2, Part 4”). Stated differently, the teaching that is restricted to men is that teaching which leads and sets direction for the congregation. In most churches, this is the role of the main preacher/teacher and the elders/pastors. This is also consistent with the Old Testament role of the priests, who were only males and who served as the primary teachers of the law (again, see “On Gender and the Bible: Does God Allow Women Preachers in 1 Timothy 2, Part 4”).
A similar principle is involved in 1 Corinthians.
Again, following the principle of headship/primogeniture, God inspires Paul to teach women to show that they are in submission to the male leadership of the church by wearing veils when they pray and prophesy. 1 Corinthians 11:3-5 sets forth the teaching.
But I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God.…Every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head.
In first-century Corinth, people wore veils in a worship context when they prayed, offered sacrifices, or prophesied to show that they were in submission to their authority (see “On Gender and the Bible: What’s Up with Head Coverings in 1 Corinthians 11? Part 2”). It is also important to note that prophecy is distinguished from teaching in the New Testament.
The act of wearing a veil today does not communicate submission to authority; thus, it does not communicate what it did in first century Corinth. But the underlying principle of submission to authority does apply today. So, in a public gathering of the church, it is important that when women pray, make announcements, read Scripture, or do things that may be comparable to 1 Corinthians 11, they adhere to the principle of honoring the male headship of the church.
This same principle is at work in 1 Corinthians 14 during the weighing and evaluating of prophecy. In Corinth, the practice often created disorder during gatherings. So with reference to these times of weighing and evaluating prophecies, God inspired the apostle Paul to write, “Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says” (1 Cor. 14:34).
Each of these passages point to a teaching-authority role reserved for qualified males, based upon headship/primogeniture in the creation account.
It should come as no surprise then, that when the New Testament describes elders (1 Tim. 3:1-6; Titus 1:5-9) and directly address people in the elder roles (Acts 20:30; 1 Peter 5:1-2, etc.), it consistently only refers to qualified men.
Notice the descriptive words of the qualities that we are instructed to look for when seeking to appoint elders/overseers:
- “Now the overseer is to be…faithful to his wife, temperate” (1 Tim. 3:2)
- “He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him” (1 Tim. 3:4)
- “He must not be a recent convert” (1 Tim. 3:6)
- “An elder must be blameless, faithful to his wife, a man whose children believe” (Titus 1:6)
- “He must be blameless” (Titus 1:7)
- “He must be hospitable” (Titus 1:8).
- “He must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught” (Titus 1:9).
Woman held many leadership roles in the ancient world (see “On Gender and the Bible: Can Women Be Elders? Part 5”) and in the early church. They were deacons (Rom. 16:1-2), private teachers of doctrine to men (Acts 18:16), and prophets (Acts 21:1) (see “On Gender and the Bible: Practical Advice by Complementarian Women for Local Churches. Part 7”).
But God inspired Paul, consistent with the principle of primogeniture, to teach the appointment of only qualified males to be elders.
6. Men and Women Are to Submit to and Honor the Authority of Male Headship in the Church.
When it comes to God-given authority, both men and women are called to submit to and honor that authority (Heb. 13:17; Rom. 13:7). As we described in the previous section regarding the significance of the veil and submission to authority, God also shows us that the teaching-authority and elder roles in the local church are reserved for qualified men. Women are not to seek these roles. The women and men who are not performing these roles must submit to and honor the men in those roles.
The three key passages to make male teaching-authority explicitly call women to show submission (there is that difficult word for us again) and respect to these men that God has called into this position within the church.
Again, in 1 Timothy 2 the apostle Paul is clear: “A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet” (1 Tim. 2:11-12). In our previous articles we discussed the ways in which egalitarian scholars seek to explain away this passage to fit contemporary secular ideals and why that is misguided. We also join The Gospel Coalition’s Tim Keller in pointing people to the excellent recent commentary on the letters to Timothy and Titus by Robert Yarbrough for his exegetical and historical background work on this passage. He reminds us that Paul’s argument is not based on culture, but on the view that “Adam was formed first, then Eve” and it is a declaration “that the creation order is still in effect.”
When it says that a women is to learn in quietness, this “quiet” does not denote silence, but a quiet spirit. Paul is describing a demeanor. Paul is admonishing women to respect the male teachers and their authority to teach. And during these public teaching times, they are to learn quietly.
Similarly, 1 Corinthians 11 teaches that, when women pray and prophesy, they are to honor headship. Headship in this context—contrary to what some teach—does not mean “source,” but rather “authority” as we described earlier. (See “On Gender and the Bible: What’s Up with Head Coverings in 1 Corinthians 11? Part 2.”)
- I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man (1 Cor. 11:3).
- Every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head (1 Cor. 11:5).
- A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man (1 Cor. 11:7-8).
The apostle Paul clarifies that the principle of honoring male headship is not just for the Corinthian church; it is to be a universal practice in all the churches:
If anyone wants to be contentious about this, we have no other practice—nor do the churches of God (1 Cor. 11:16).
Paul goes on and in chapter 14 verse 29 teaches women to be silent during the weighing of prophecy. He then says:
If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.
Most of the women would have had husbands to whom they could ask questions about the prophecies because a woman disrupting this time with questioning would be considered disrespectful of male headship, including the elders of the church. Now, let us be clear: Women’s opinions are valuable to see sides of situations that men may be unable to notice. God has placed women in the lives of church leaders to be their strong help. Those women who did not have husbands, it can be assumed, could contact other leaders in the church (see “On Gender and the Bible: Practical Advice by Complementarian Women for Local Churches, Part 7”).
These teachings present all of us with a major stumbling block when it comes to how we think in Western civilization. The world tells us to be noisy and disrespectful when we don’t agree with someone. Yet God tells us to be gentle of spirit and to honor the men that he has placed in positions of authority. The Scriptures force us to see that Jesus teaches us to uphold the headship/primogeniture principle and show submission and respect for the male leaders of the local church.
7. Honoring Jesus-style Male Headship Will Bring Blessings on the Family and the Church
One natural reaction to these teachings—since they are so different than what we think based on our secular culture—is to question their truthfulness and applicability. Questioning is an understandable reaction. When I (Bobby) first read these passages, everything within me wanted to reject them. “How can this be?” I once said, and many still say. It is easy to think of them as restrictions instead of an outpouring of God’s love for his people, both men and women. Yet, we should seriously consider the following:
- What if the beliefs of our secular culture on these points are wrong?
- What if it is a major mistake to reject male headship/primogeniture?
- What if honoring God’s created order leads to blessing?
- What if our rejection of all patriarchy and fears of being misogynists is an over-reaction to abuses in the past?
- What if egalitarianism is undermining the divine order between men and women?
- What if egalitarianism ultimately overthrows gender and sexual identities that were intended by God?
- What if following these passages of Scripture in faith actually leads to God’s best for us?
We have come to believe all seven of these questions point to the wisdom of God’s alternative path—and that our secular culture is wrong in these areas. We have become convinced that the cultural acceptance of radical secular egalitarianism is destroying the family, sexuality, and our identity as men and women as God intended (see “On Gender and the Bible: Where Does Egalitarianism Lead? Part 9”).
As John Stonestreet of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview puts it, “Ideas have consequences; bad ideas have victims.”
Our secular culture, and its commitment to complete egalitarianism, is pursuing ideals that ultimately push us to live contrary to God’s created order. These ideas are harming and creating countless victims (see “On Gender and the Bible: What Does It Mean to Be a Man or Woman? Part 10”).
But there is hope.
I (Bobby) have been a lead pastor for thirty-four years and the leader of two national disciple making networks for the last several years. I have been given a front row seat to observe the results of Jesus-style male headship in the home and in the church.
I (Renee) have experienced Jesus-style male headship in my childhood home and in my marriage. My predominant memories of my dad are of him empowering me, challenging me, and telling me again and again that I was smart, capable, and very, very loved. My husband, too, has acted like Jesus toward me with words of affirmation, attention to our home life, and servant leadership. Our mutual submission, love, and respect has made us a high-functioning, complementary team.
When Jesus-style male headship is truly honored by men and women, here is what we have seen.
In the home…
The words in Ephesians 5:31 provide a helpful summary accent to guide us. As Paul says, “Each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.” In these words, there is an accent on men showing love to their wives and women showing respect to their husbands. Some wives may feel a need for their spouse to emphasize respect and some husbands may feel a need for their wives to emphasize love, but the exceptions do not undermine the norm. Emmerson Eggerich, Ph.D., provides more in-depth and practical background on these points (see more at loveandrespect.com). When wives are loved well and husbands are respected well, it tends to be the result that
- Men rise up and aspire to Jesus-style headship; it draws on a biological hardwiring to be respected that God created within men and calls on them to be noble.
- Men accept a unique responsibility to love, lead, and serve their wives.
- Women flourish emotionally and provide strong help as they are loved and protected by their husbands.
- Women temper their expectations for their husbands and are less likely to manipulate and control their husbands; greater harmony is created in the home.
- Men get more involved in church and family life, even as the worldly pursuits hold less appeal.
- Women experience less fear, more security, and greater contentment.
- Children are more secure in their family and develop better counter-cultural attitudes.
Likewise, we see the following in the church when Jesus-style headship is truly honored by men and women:
- Male headship churches challenge men and catalyze their hardwiring to be respected in noble headship—and they become more involved. We typically find that in churches that emphasize male headship, the church is composed of 55%+ of men and these men are more engaged spiritually than in egalitarian churches. Meanwhile, egalitarian churches do not call men to the challenge of Jesus-style headship—ignoring their hardwiring for respect/nobility—and they tend to lose men and become more and more dominated by women.
- Male headship churches hold the line on homosexuality, gender fluidity, and transgenderism. Their culture of upholding Scripture on gender roles is applied consistently so that they uphold what Scripture teaches on this other issues. Meanwhile, egalitarian churches tend to become more and more open to homosexual marriages and transgender activism.
- Children within male headship churches see examples of strong Christ-like men in their lives and in their ministries.
By way of summary, the following statement—from the Renew.org faith statement—captures what we believe the Bible teaches regarding gender:
We believe both men and women were created by God to equally reflect, in gendered ways, the nature and character of God in the world. In marriage, husbands and wives are to submit to one another, yet there are gender specific expressions: husbands model themselves in relationship with their wives after Jesus’ sacrificial love for the church and wives model themselves in relationship with their husbands after the church’s willingness to follow Jesus. In the church, men and women serve as partners in the use of their gifts in ministry, while seeking to uphold New Testament norms which teach that the lead teacher/preacher role in the gathered church and the elder/overseer role are for qualified men. The vision of the Bible is an equal partnership of men and women in creation, in marriage, in salvation, in the gifts of the Spirit and in the ministries of the church but exercised in ways that honor gender as described in the Bible.
We believe both men and women were created by God to equally reflect, in gendered ways, the nature and character of God in the world.
 Wayne Grudem, Evangelism Feminism: The New Path to Liberalism (Crossway, 2006). See also, the summary of this book https://cbmw.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/9-1.pdf.
 See just a sampling of the evidence in the following posts:
 Rebecca McLaughlin, The Secular Creed: Engaging Five Contemporary Claims (Austin, Texas: The Gospel Coalition, 2021).
 Jim Putman and Chad Harrington, The Revolutionary Disciple: Walking Humbly with Jesus in Every Area of Life (HIM Publications, 2021).
 “Prophecy—Yes, But Teaching—No,” CBMW, July 23, 2007, https://cbmw.org/2007/07/23/prophecy-yes-but-teaching-no/
 Robert W. Yarbrough, The Letters of Timothy and Titus (Grand Rapids: Wm. B Eerdmans, 2018), 180.