When it comes to the roles of men and women in the home and in the church, there are two broad positions: egalitarian and complementarian.
Egalitarians hold that male and female are equal both as persons made in God’s image and in function or role. The idea that men are to lead in the home and the church, and that women are to submit to their leadership, is actually the result of the Fall. In Christ, “full male/female equality is restored, dignity is given back to women, and servant attitudes are called for in men and women alike.”1
Complementarians hold that male and female are equal as persons who bear God’s image, but have complementary roles designed by God. The different functions to which men and women have been called are part of God’s good created order, though the Fall has introduced strife in our relationships in the home and the church. In Christ, these roles are not abolished but restored.
What follows is a brief overview and defense of the complementarian position. Misconceptions and stereotypes concerning gender roles abound in the church at large today. Many Christians are challenging what the Bible teaches regarding biblical manhood and womanhood, while others aren’t even sure what to think at all. I am convinced by Scripture that the distinction between masculine and feminine roles is God’s gift to mankind, and that they are to be preserved and practiced for his glory and our joy.
Made in the Image of God
From the very outset of Scripture, we read that “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Gen. 1:27). Mankind was created by God with dual sexuality: we are male and female (see Gen. 2:7-25). Because we have been made in God’s image, bearing his likeness and able to reflect his righteous character, men and women are therefore equal in essence, value, and dignity, and worthy of mutual respect. Men and women stand equal before God as persons, yet are distinct in their manhood and womanhood.2
Moreover, not only are men and women equal before God creation, but they are also “fellow-heirs in the Christian life, equal in their spiritual standing before God.”3 The apostle Paul explains that in Christ Jesus, we are all “sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise” (Gal. 3:26-29).
Distinctions between ethnicity, social standing, and gender have no bearing on our standing before God, for we are all one in Christ Jesus. Through faith, we are all sinners saved by grace. Both male and female are sons of God, united to Christ by the Spirit, clothed with Christ, and belong to Christ. As we’ve said before, the ground is level at the foot of the cross.
Complementarianism begins here, with the affirmation of male-female equality as regards creation and redemption. But why did God make man as male and female? Why these two genders? Ray Ortlund helps point us in the right direction when he writes: “The very fact that God created human beings in the dual modality of male and female cautions us against an unqualified equation of the two sexes. This profound and beautiful distinction, which some belittle as ‘a matter of mere anatomy,’ is not a biological triviality or accident. It is God who wants men to be men and women to be women; and He can teach us the meaning of each, if we want to be taught.”4
Roles in the Home
As part of God’s good created order, men and women have been called to different yet equally important and complementary roles in both the home and the church in order that we may fulfill the creation mandate given to us by God—to be fruitful and rule the earth for his glory. In the home, husbands are to lead their wives, and their headship is to be loving, gentle, and considerate. Wives are to submit to that leadership in a willing, gentle, and respectful way (Eph. 5:21-33; 1 Pet. 3:1-7).5 “Biblical headship for the husband is the divine calling to take primary responsibility for Christlike servant-leadership, protection and provision in the home. And biblical submission for the wife is the divine calling to honor and affirm her husband’s leadership and help carry it through according to her gifts.”6
For the Husband is the Head of the Wife
Genesis 2-3 unfolds these roles in a number of ways. First, Adam was created first—an important fact which Paul refers two twice when affirming male headship in the church (1 Cor. 11:8-9; 1 Tim. 2:13). Second, Eve was created from man as his equal, but for the man as his ‘helper’ (Gen. 2:18, 22)—a term used for God throughout the Old Testament! Third, Adam names his wife twice, both before and after the Fall (Gen. 2:23; 3:20). And fourth, God approaches Adam for their sin (Gen. 3:9), which is why Paul can say that though Eve sinned first (1 Tim. 2:14), Adam is the representative head of fallen humanity (Rom. 5:12; 1 Cor. 15:22).
But the clearest explanation of these distinct yet complementary roles is found in the New Testament, in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians: “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Eph. 5:22-25ff.).
Ruined by Sin, Restored by Christ
It’s important to note, however, that headship and submission in the marriage relationship was not the result of the Fall and the curse of sin (which is claimed by egalitarians). Genesis 1-3 makes it clear that these roles were ordained by God before the Fall for our good and his glory. Yet, the entrance of sin into the world disrupted the beautiful relationship between man and woman. In Genesis 3:16, the Lord tells the woman: “Your desire shall be contrary to your husband, but he shall rule over you.” This means that instead of joyfully submitting to her husband’s headship, the woman would be tempted to master him (cf. Gen. 4:7 where sin’s “desire is contrary” to Cain). And instead of leading his wife in a loving and caring way, the man will be tempted to rule her harshly and selfishly. In other words, both the roles of submission and authority can easily become twisted and perverted so as to not reflect God’s good design.
This is why husbands are repeatedly commanded to love their wives (Eph. 5:25, 29, 33), to not be harsh with them (Col. 3:19), and to honor them (1 Pet. 3:7). This is why wives are repeatedly commanded to submit to their husbands (Eph. 5:22, 24, 33; Col. 3:18; Titus 2:5; 1 Pet. 3:1-2) and do so “with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit” (3:4). Though corrupted by the Fall, the gospel of Jesus Christ redeems and restores our manhood and womanhood.
Of course, this understanding of roles will play out differently depending on your current station in life. For example, single moms have to fill both roles. Those who aren’t married have no husband to whom they must submit. The Bible doesn’t say women must submit to men; it says wives must submit to their own husbands. But God’s Word is clear that “both male-female equality and male headship, properly defined, were instituted by God at creation and remain permanent, beneficent aspects of human existence.”7 Our relationships will flourish as we embrace biblical manhood and womanhood not only in the home but also in the church.
Roles in the Church
As we already saw, the distinction between genders has no bearing on our standing before God, for through faith we are all one in Christ Jesus and equally share in the blessings of salvation (Gal. 3:26-29). Redeemed men and women have become a kingdom and priests to our God and Savior by the blood of Lamb (Rev. 5:9-10). We are all called to follow Jesus by doing the disciple-making work of gospel ministry (Matt. 28:18-20; Eph. 4:12-16).
But in the church, which Paul calls “the household of God” (1 Tim. 3:15), our spiritual “equality coexists with divinely mandated leadership and submission.”8 Scripture is clear that God has ordained the existence of officers, some of whom are called to the leadership of the church under Christ’s headship. This in no way diminishes or destroys our equality in Christ. Just as headship and submission exist within the home according to God’s design, likewise headship and submission exist within God’s home, the church, according to his design. Specifically, the office of elder—a term used interchangeably with both ‘pastor’ and ‘overseer/bishop’—may only be held by biblically qualified men (1 Tim. 3:1-7).
For Adam Was Formed First
The apostle Paul writes about this in his first letter to Timothy: “Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor” (1 Tim. 2:11-14; see also 1 Cor. 11:2-16). Having said this, Paul then proceeds to list the qualifications for elders in the local church in chapter 3.
The word ‘authority’ here, John Piper explains, refers to “the divine calling of spiritual, gifted men to take primary responsibility as elders for Christlike, servant-leadership and teaching in the church. And ‘submission’ refers to the divine calling of the rest of the church, both men and women, to honor and affirm the leadership and teaching of the elders and to be equipped by them for the hundreds and hundreds of various ministries available to men and women in the service of Christ.” 9
Simply put, when it comes to the public teaching and leadership of the congregation performed by the elders, in a local assembly with men present, women are not allowed to assume that role. This is not a question of ability or giftedness; this prohibition is grounded in the divinely designed role-relations between male and female in creation!
Notice the “for” in verse 13; this is an extremely important word. This shows that Paul is not making an argument from competence (what women are capable of doing) or culture (how women were viewed in the first century throughout the Roman empire) but from creation (that God made Adam first, then Eve). The reason women are not to serve as elders in the church is based on God’s design for manhood and womanhood and his purposes for marriage and the family. Remember, the church is the household of God! Therefore, in God’s family (where Christ is our head), women are not to have authority over men as pastor-teachers.
Gospel Ministry in the Local Church
What does this mean, then, for women in the local church? Quite simply, that “women are to use their gifts in every way that Christians in general are to do, except for those areas explicitly prohibited by Scripture [namely, teaching and exercising authority over men]. . . . One must not draw the false conclusion that the Scriptures are opposed to women teaching or exercising any kind of leadership.”10
For example, at ECC where I pastor, while men lead the congregational singing of the church, women participate as well; they teach and lead our children’s classes; they lead women’s bible studies and fellowship groups. Women may also read Scripture and pray publicly in the church (see 1 Cor. 11:5).11 And when the biblical office of deacon is rightly understood and established in the local church—when deacons are not charged with the leadership and oversight of the church, when they do not function as a board of directors but as servants in charge of specific ministries—many complementarians agree that women are able to serve as deacons (1 Timothy 3:11 can be used to support both sides).
Yet some women, who hold to the complementarian position, still feel like they don’t have a role to play in the church—or at least any significant role. They think, “Since only men can be pastors, what can I do?” However, this is like saying, “I don’t sing or play an instrument, so what can I do in this church?” If pastors are the only ones called to the work of gospel ministry, then you’re right—women have no place. But the Bible is abundantly clear that pastors are absolutely not the only ones called to do the work of gospel ministry. In fact, men and women both are called to submit to the leadership of the elders who have been charged with the oversight of the church, so that they might be equipped for the work of ministry.
And what is that exactly? Paul tells us in Ephesians 4:12-13, when he says that the saints are to be equipped “for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.” In other words, men and women are called to make disciples of Christ! Writing to Titus, Paul explains further that women are to adorn the doctrine of God our Savior by discipling other women (Titus 2:3-5). This is accomplished by centering your lives around the women in your local church and helping them to obey God in all of life.
But even beyond ministry in the local church, a complementarian understanding of biblical manhood and womanhood is far from restrictive or oppressive. “With half the world’s population outside the reach of indigenous evangelism; with countless other lost people in those societies that have heard the gospel; with the stresses and miseries of sickness, malnutrition, homelessness, illiteracy, ignorance, aging, addiction, crime, incarceration, neuroses, and loneliness, no man or woman who feels a passion from God to make His grace known in word and deed need ever live without a fulfilling ministry for the glory of Christ and the good of this fallen world (1 Cor 12:7-21).”12
In his commentary on the Pastoral Epistles, William Mounce observes that one of the reasons this discussion often becomes heated is that there is an underlying assumption that a limited role necessarily means diminished personal worth. However, Mounce reminds us that,”the equating of worth and role is a nonbiblical, secular view of reality. Nowhere in Scripture are role and ultimate worth ever equated.” In fact, he continues, “we constantly find the opposite.” The idea of the last being first, the Suffering Servant, and Paul’s analogy of the church as Christ’s body all help us see that role and worth are unrelated.13
While men and women are absolutely equal in essence, dignity, and value as they together bear the image of God, they are nevertheless beautifully different by divine design. As part of God’s good created order, men and women are to have different, important, strategic, yet complementary roles in the home and in the church. These role distinctions are God’s gracious gift to man and woman and are to be protected, preserved and practiced for His glory and our joy.
- Bruce Ware, “Summaries of the Egalitarian and Complementarian Positions,” CBMW, June 26, 2007, https://cbmw.org/uncategorized/summaries-of-the-egalitarian-and-complementarian-positions/
- The Danvers Statement, Affirmation #1, https://cbmw.org/about/danvers-statement/
- George W. Knight III, “The Family and the Church: How Should Biblical Manhood and Womanhood Work Out in Practice?” in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism, eds. John Piper and Wayne Grudem(Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1991), 353.
- Raymond C. Ortlund, Jr., “Male-Female Equality and Male Headship: Genesis 1-3” in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism, eds. John Piper and Wayne Grudem(Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1991), 89.
- Knight, “The Family and the Church,” 353.
- John Piper, “God Created Man Male and Female: What Does it mean to Be Complementarian?” Desiring God, November 24, 2012, https://www.desiringgod.org/messages/god-created-man-male-and-female.
- Ortlund, “Male-Female Equality and Male Headship,” 86.
- S. Lewis Johnson, Jr., “Role Distinctions in the Church: Galatians 3:28” in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism, eds. John Piper and Wayne Grudem(Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1991), 153.
- John Piper, “A Vision of Biblical Complementarity: Manhood and Womanhood Defined According to the Bible,” in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism, eds. John Piper and Wayne Grudem(Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1991), 44, emphasis mine.
- Knight, “The Family and the Church,” 358.
- When Paul writes that “the women should keep silent in the churches” in 1 Corinthians 14:34, the immediate context reveals that he is speaking specifically about the evaluation of prophecies in the church, not that women cannot pray or read Scripture.
- The Danvers Statement, Affirmation #9
- William D. Mounce, Pastoral Epistles, Word Biblical Commentary 46 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000), 148.