When serving and equipping churches, I ran into some women who claimed to be pastors. I was confused since I hadn't seen that in the New Testament. Those arguing for this said that gender roles are sexist artifacts of male-dominated cultures. They believed God wanted women to do everything men did, including be pastors. That's called egalitarianism. I'm a former, liberal activist who not only was fine with women leading: I helped them get promoted. Now a new Christian, I needed to be sure what God's Word said, didn't want to harm women in the process, and was still biased against many conservative values. I felt that made me one of the best people to test this fairly. Let's do it!
What does egalitarianism claim? They say God wanted "equal opportunities" (i.e. same roles) from the beginning, male chauvinists were holding women back, and eventually the situation changed after egalitarian interpretations of the New Testament arrived. To support women leading and teaching men, they will use examples like Deborah, Jael, Priscilla teaching Apollos, Phoebe as deaconess, and Junia the "apostle." To support God working within culture, they might mention that Mosaic Law allowed a certificate of divorce, Jesus said it was against God's design, and Moses' rule was him caving into Israel's stubbornness. Like that, egalitarians believe God was temporarily tolerating the male, sexist culture which would only listen to male rulers most of the time. Then, they believe Jesus changed that with both women disciples and making the women the first witnesses of the Resurrection.
They also claim the high number of competent, women pastors serving in churches today argues that God is backing their position. But Psalm 73, Habbakuk, and Wall Street show God blesses the numbers of the wicked, too. Our sinful nature means the crowds will chase what's evil more often than what's righteous. If enough people turn away in a group, God hands them over to their sins that they want more than Him. If anything, a surge in popularity should make you more suspicious that something isn't Biblical. We'll just ignore that to focus on the Word and church traditions that follow from it.
How do we separate God's design from human culture? Are there parts of the Bible that both come from God and show a preference?
We'll use a multi-pronged approach. First, we'll look at a time before culture existed. How God dealt with Adam and Eve will show gender roles existed before humans had a chance to have a culture. Second, we'll look at God's commands and promises to see that some require specific genders. Third, we'll look at key people God chose for both leadership and to write His Word to find He's picking one gender. Fourth, we'll note whether God overrides or preserves human culture as He's doing these things. If God is egalitarian, it should be obvious very quickly, maybe in one book. We'll survey Genesis to Judges, the Gospels, and the Pauline epistles.
Let's look first at how God creates us. In Gen. 2:18-25, Adam's job was to bear God's image, live with Him (the best company), work easy jobs, get free food, and avoid one tree. All in Paradise with nothing that can harm him. God knew some human company was best for Him. In v20, God said he needed a helper, or "ideal partner." In v23, the word woman meant she came from man. The word itself suggested the base design is they're meant to complement each other, not be independent or in the same roles. That Adam named her, like parents name their children, also showed his authority over her. In v24, the man must "hold fast to" his wife over even his own family. God created a companion who'd be a great help to him that he is supposed to love and be inseparable from above all others. They were also representatives of humanity, the best of us, whose actions would affect us all.
Then, they choose to sin (The Fall). In Genesis 3, God responds differently to the angel, the man, and the woman. God tells Satan a human offspring, Jesus, is coming who will stomp on him. Due to Adam's poor leadership, he was personally held accountable for the Fall and would labor in the fields. God would make that labor miserable for them. Later in the Word, they'd also be sent to war while the women and children stayed in safe places. As the "weaker vessel" (physically disadvantaged), God physical hardship and facing violence on the men. God also made men biologically superior (on average) for those roles. If an assigned role, we'll see almost all men in God's Word do these things.
Due to Eve leading Adam into sin, the women would experience labor pain, would be tempted to lead/control the men, and would instead submit to male leaders. That kind of implies Eve was running their house but we won't pick on Adam right now. Eve is assigned the prestigious role of mother and primary care-taker of all living beings. All men start out as children unable to fulfill God's plan for their lives. Women would be the primary influence on both men and women during the most, critical stages in their lives. God made them biologically superior at both influencing and nurturing people to be effective wives and mothers. If an assigned role, we'll see almost all women in God's Word do these things.
We see two, distinct roles with a combination of punishment and privilege. Our sinful natures will resist God's design. Many men don't want to be leaders. Many women don't want to be helpers. Yet, God laid this design out with most believing the roles definitely apply to households and churches. There's many views about society as a whole. I advise people to stay as close to Biblical design as they can in whatever choices they make.
At the society level, His design from that point on both requires and assigns leadership roles to men. The exceptions are rare enough that most people can learn all of their names in a single session.
In the Old Testament, God tells us a lot about how we're redeemed and who He's sending. God's covenant with Abraham promised more descendants than he could count, some would be kings, and men had to be circumcised as a sign of that. A male king or kings. His next choices were Isaac, Jacob, and Moses. Moses delivered God's Law. His Law required dedication of the "first-born male." That's another hint. In Leviticus 8, the LORD used men as priests: "Aaron and his sons."
God's covenant with David promised a "son" who would be a king whose kingdom would last forever. The Messiah. He'd also be a priest and God's Son. God, who said "there's no Savior besides me," prophesied the Messiah's name would be Immanuel, or "God With Us." A stunning picture emerges: God Himself is coming to save everyone as some combo of a human man, priest, and king. God who assigned gender roles will Himself take male form to obey His own Law.
After Gen 46, God had plenty of women to use for these leadership roles. He mostly used men. He could've made the major covenants with women. He used men. Miriam and Deborah were prophetesses with supernatural abilities that confirmed their placement. Deborah and Jael were also military-style leaders in a book, Judges, about what Israel looks like in anarchy. Those women might have been the only faithful, competent people in the country. Others, like Esther, were pagan kingdoms. Far from a norm, their supernatural abilities that all witnessed were the proof that God Himself wanted them in those roles. Then, God made most (all?) authors of the Bible men. They work became the canon.
Why did He put a few women in leadership roles? The exceptions may show a few things. First, He's a sovereign God that will do what He pleases. Second, when most are unfaithful like in Judges, God will move through anyone who remains faithful (eg Deborah). Third, He sometimes uses society's outcasts to accomplish His will. The stories of Gideon and Paul show God uses people in their weakness to make it clear it's Him doing all of this. God might even be countering sexism by illustrating women can be great leaders, teachers, and so on. God's rule with exceptions show men only get headship by God's grace and choice, not men's merits. All that said, that He keeps a consistent norm of choosing men for these positions reinforces that it's an intentional part of His design.
As predicted, Jesus Christ came as the Son of God. Gender was just tiny part of all the prophecies he fulfilled, though. God's name went from Yahweh or LORD to "Father" to reflect the relationship He'd have with us. Jesus was called the "last Adam." Romans explicitly says that "Adam, who was a type of the one to come." It's clear He's painted as the anti-type or opposite of Adam, not Eve. Likewise, Corinthians says first man was from the dust, the "second man" from heaven. It emphasizes He's a man comparing He who saved us to he who first sinned. Jesus dies for all sins from Adam onward, is raised from the dead, goes to heaven in bodily form as a man, and is given authority or headship over all of existence. Still consistent. He leaves a church behind to do His work.
While He was still here, Jesus appointed twelve men as Apostles to lay the foundation: write the New Testament; start the first churches. We see them describe the same gender roles again: "the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God." Paul reiterates here that women are not to teach or exercise authority over men. Men in authority must love those under them like Jesus, husbands must love their wives in this way, and pastors must be men of good character (1/2). Those verses also have requirements for deacons who lead the servants of a church.
Paul praises women which egalitarians argue must be pastors and deacons. Like many people do, Paul mentions that Priscilla and Aquila work as a team but names the most memorable and/or effective one first. Junia is an apostle, or missionary, sent out with unknown duties. Phoebe was a servant, not a deacon, due to the deacon requirements and other context (see No. 19 here). Chloe's people are ambiguous, Lydia's shared Christ with her household (not a pastor), and Nympha and Mary both hosted in their houses the churches they were in. I've met women who host church activities but aren't pastors. Unlike verses with men or about elders, these verses do not clearly show women being pastors. That egalitarians ignore clear passages to focus on ambiguous passages like these show strongly suggests that they're trying to make God's Word say what they want it to say instead of understand what He's saying.
The church, the sum of all believers, is described as the Bride of Christ He's destined to spend forever with. From birth, human mothers care for and raise their children into godly adults. From our new birth, the church takes on the women's role of caring for and raising believers to spiritual maturity. So, we see a beautiful picture of God's union with all who believe in Him, each in a gender role, all under headship of Christ, and everyone involved imitating any of Jesus' attributes that are critical for the mission.
Church history is not God's Word. However, everything the early church did came from their teachers in order: Jesus, the Apostles, the elders the Apostles planted, and so on. God's Word said He'd give the gift of teaching via the Holy Spirit to ensure we know what to do. Before we had the whole Word, all we had was that teaching. One rule that follows from this is that the Holy Spirit, who never changes, will keep making the same interpretations show up all over the place from the start of the church to today. We'll definitely see false teaching just like what existed in the N.T. churches. Yet, we should know the core concepts with most churches in most cultures practicing them for most of church history. Anything that diverges far from that tradition should be highly suspect.
The church always taught gender roles (complementarianism). They followed God's Word very literally in this regard with men working, women being homemakers, and many even did the head coverings. Over time, aspects of the Word that were strictly cultural dropped. In other cultures, people with God's Spirit started changing in many ways but kept gender roles, too. We see the church consistently about this until recent history. The pushes for egalitarianism came primarily from non-believers who rejected the Bible (mostly feminists) and "progressive" Christians who don't believe the Bible is either literal or all true. Whole seminaries, like Union Theological Seminary, showed up pushing these liberal, anti-Biblical views with distorted interpretations of the Bible. Churches that were choosing external culture over Christ and His Word started pulling the practices in.
One thing about sin is that it grows. A church that turns away from the Word will start looking like the world in many ways. The churches that focused on Christ and His Word have stayed closer to the practices in it. The people who promoted women pastors have also used non-historical interpretations of the Word, adopted liberal belief that it's not totally true, allowed LGBT practices, adopted racist policies like C.R.T., preached prosperity theology more often, and so on. There's a whole pile of things all driven by external, non-Christian culture pouring into these churches. That these ideas are both promoted by and often are accompanied by Satan's people means we should treat them as Satan's ideas. If I see a woman pastor on a web site, I'm avoiding that church because (a) they ignored most of God's Word on that subject, (b) it almost always means they're doing that in other areas, and (c) their pastors will lead me away from what pleases God.
Let's deal with sexism: favoring one gender over another or abusing one. The oldest kind, still prevalent, is men being sexist toward women. That includes treating women as worthless, talking like they're stupid, discrimination in business and organizations, abusing them physically, divorcing them to move onto new toys, and even killing them to pursue male children for status or inheritance. Solomon's says the best wives are highly independent, active in community, and make wise decisions. The men have household (or group) authority with final say usually after consulting with their wives about what's the best decision. Men and women are to work together to contribute to a righteous world one, family unit at a time. Add the qualities in Titus 2:3-5 and the exemplary women in the Bible to see how God views women. Men should view and treat them in the same ways. God's Word opposes men being sexist against women.
Women activists, mostly feminists, promoted new forms of sexism. Most of it centers on treating women the same as men instead of just equal in value. They pretended biological differences weren't important, made woman independent of men, belittled women who lived in traditional roles (esp homemakers), discouraged the nuclear family that kept society stable, reduced societal structures that protected women from harm, and replaced men with women in roles more suited to men. Throw in promoters of the "sexual revolution" who encouraged practices that caused women to be used for sex, get STD's, and pregnancies they weren't prepared for. After World War II, many women who had been forced to take over men's positions also never went back to their old roles for many reasons.
The results of this reversal of God's design have been devastating
for women. They've included a breakdown of families everywhere, more
single mothers than ever, and many cases of sexual harassment and rape in
traditionally-male environments (eg military). Instead of owning up to it,
feminists who put women in these positions and reduced their protections
are now demanding society protect women in those positions. While opposing
male headship and committed relationships, they often demand random men
in society to do everything in their power to protect random women. If
needed, they expect men to take painful losses to provide opportunities
for those women, too, like they would for their wives. These feminist
views are neither consistent nor make any sense.
The Bible was written by men but men didn't make all of this. God's design, language, laws, promises, and character examples almost all show gender roles. Exceptions are rare. God made us complementary with even our biology proving it. Following God's design pleases Him (most important), is rewarded in heaven, and benefits many of us individually and in society. Men and women are supposed to work together in the church to reflect who Jesus is in this evil world, deliver the Gospel to it, and wait for Christ to return to make all things right.
We live the way God wanted us to. Where He commanded, we serve in the right roles. Men must step up to be servant leaders of their household. They must love their wives and children like Jesus loves His Church. Women must step up to be helpers and nurturers. If leading households or churches, they must step down and find the right man to lead that church. They should still advise the men in those places, especially from God's Word, about what's good for the home and the church. In ministry, there are many ways for women to serve.
The Word did have two exceptions where women will lead: divine revelation forcing a woman into the role; environment with no faithful, competent men. All the women pastors I've studied are there for human, not divine, reasons. Real Deborah's out there will have divine confirmation. If no men are around (esp new churches) or the pastor dies, a woman knowledgeable about Scripture might lead that church. God will use the women in each of these unusual situations to build up those churches both in numbers and obedience to the Word. They will be clear they aren't an elder, be praying for God to give them one, and train any men of good character in the Word in case they can be appointed.
For an example following the Bible, look at Susanna Spurgeon who planted a church without being the pastor. She used the skills God gave her as a helper to make it happen. Another, hypothetical example is No Place Left: men and women who teach re-usable tools for evangelism, studying the Word, and even how to run churches. They use pre-existing materials from well-trained men sent on mission by their home churches. If God's Spirit moves, a woman practicing those methods in a new area might find herself running a house church of new converts. She'd pray for God to send a trained man to take over that church. If not, the N.P.L. materials are sufficient for her to train him herself. God normally provides men since that's all I've seen pastoring in N.P.L. churches so far. A team like Priscilla and Aquila is highly likely, though.(Bonus: These free videos by Grudem from Master's Seminary were really good. Although I haven't reviewed them myself, a few people said these were good resources on the topic. I'll share them just because I followed some of their work on these topics. Biblical Foundations for Manhood and Womanhood by Wayne Grudem on Amazon, PDF, and lectures I just found. Follow-up book with John Piper. For more articles about women, here's results from DesiringGod and GotQuestions.)
(Credit: The paragraph on Jesus drew heavily on Struach's book, Biblical Eldership. Previously, I listened to a few of Grudem's lectures, read articles on DesiringGod, and listened to many men and women in my church about this. All of them probably contributed to my thoughts on this.)
(Read the Gospel, learn to share it, read other essays, or back to home.)