I recently received an inquiry from a young university woman involved in an Anglican Church. She had questions about my views as a theologian on what the bible might have to say about roles for women in the Church. Her interest in these issues was personal, but also reflected a broader impulse in women and men who are increasingly discomforted by teachings of divinely-mandated male headship and restrictions on women’s ministry and giftings in ecclesial settings. We arranged to meet and subsequently talked through a number of issues to do with Scripture, Theology and living a life worthy of the Gospel. A day or so later, she emailed me, seeking clarification on something we had discussed. She wrote,
“You commented that there was a symmetry between men and women in the original creation, and one of the purposes of reconciliation with God is to fix the asymmetry that has occurred as a result of the fall. To clarify – did you mean that men and women have/should have similar/the same roles in churches and their relationships rather than distinctly defined roles of headship and submission? And is there any difference in their respective roles in the Church in your opinion?”
Her question was one I had heard many times before, reflecting a quiet anxiety that continues to agitate some segments of the Anglican Church and circulates in the minds of men and women in other denominations. Given the continuing animation of this issue throughout the Church, I thought I would share some of my reflections through my own wrestling on these issues over many years. I hope that, by sharing some of my thinking, God might continue his work of beautifying the body of Christ, the Church. And so—to my response…acknowledging that this by no means covers all the twists and turns of these issues!
Dear …. ,
There are two aspects to your question. One is an overall relational dimension between men and women and the dislocation of relationships throughout humanity due to the ‘fall’. The other is a separate question about Church polity. These two are obviously related but offer two sets of theological and Scriptural issues.
So, to the first issue—very simply put (there is obviously much written on these issues) in the fall instead of humanity embracing their vocation to be ‘like God’ (imago dei – the image of God) by orienting towards who and how God is, humanity turned away from God and focused on ‘self’ and created things as a distorted way to fulfil the original vocation to be ‘like God’ (Rom 1:23). This shift, among other things, introduced dysfunctional dynamics between men and women (and all humanity).
‘Genesis alerts us to the fact that male rule over women is in fact a key characteristic of the curse of the fall that Christ came to redeem, not a divine intention.’
Instead of a vocation that endowed a symmetry of relational imaging of God, asymmetry took root in male/female relations—“Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you” (Gen 3:16). A consequence of the fall was that there would be conflict and power tussles between men and women. Genesis alerts us to the fact that male rule over women is in fact a key characteristic of the curse of the fall that Christ came to redeem, not a divine intention. So, rather than embodying ‘God-likeness’, which involves being self-giving and other-centred purposed towards the enriched life of the ‘other’, humanity sought their own self-interest that looks more like grasping and grabbing that alienates others, than a mutuality of yielding and giving as the means to find life. Jesus himself would remind us “whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it” (Mt 16:25). More often than not this self-interest involves securing and maintaining defences and arguments that refuse to relinquish the privilege of status or position because it exposes vulnerability. However, reading Scripture as a way to secure exclusive privilege of men that simultaneously diminishes female members of the body of Christ (on the basis of merely being found female) goes against what the Apostle Paul had in mind when he spoke of the mutual other-serving vocation of Church members in 1 Corinthians 12.
Regrettably, churches upholding the views of male “headship” and female “submission” manifest a pattern of relationality based on faulty concepts of divine imaging. This manifests as a version of authority that ‘lords-it-over’ with the expectation that others will compliantly submit (in spite of Jesus’ command to not define authority as a ‘lording over’ (Mt 20:25-28)), or a strange distortion that views exclusive male authority as, in fact, an expression of Christ-like ‘service’ to the church. As a result, the type of freedom that Christ has secured by his curse-crushing cross and resurrection is thwarted. Instead of churches announcing freedom from the curse of the fall and moving towards freedom to be ‘like God’ in Christ—demonstrated by healthy interactions between men and women characterised by mutual honour, love, and self-giving service that seeks the life and interests of the ‘other’—these churches, whether blatantly-overt or piously-concealed, express an un-Godlike dynamic (remembering that God’s life in his very triune nature is other-centred and self-giving). This ungodly dynamic is evident through attitudes and actions that sanction men exclusively ‘lording it over’ women (male headship), silencing and suppressing women simply because they are women (female subordination), or, in more palatable and softer versions, granting men a unique authority to be ‘servants’ of the church (male headship). Attitudes and actions that affirm an inherent privilege to maleness are concerningly justified on the basis that they are ‘biblical’ and ‘divinely-sanctioned.’ However, these attitudes are an anathema to the transformative power of the gospel–they do not imitate Christ, they do not reflect the character of God, they do not overturn the curse of the fall, and, even in small doses, these attitudes and actions manifest the pattern of sin—the turn-to-self that distorts the Church’s imaging of God—they espouse a grasping-at rather than giving-for the life of the world.
What we should witness in the Church, consistent with the nature and purposes of God, is the beautiful transformation of human relations. Men in the church should, in the humility that mirrors Christ, seek to serve and uplift (not diminish) the call and giftings of women in the church. Why? So that the world might see the nature of God in the community of the Church—the God that gave everything so that others might have life. The Apostle Paul speaks to this in Philippians 2:5-7 “In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant.”
With all this in mind, giftings and ‘roles’ in Church polity should be based on divinely-hewn gifts and character, irrespective of sex. These should be discerned by the community for the common good and building up of the community (Eph 4:11-13; 1 Cor 12:4-11). Men do not possess functional nor ontological superiority over women on the mere basis of being found male. To argue such is a reassertion of the asymmetrical and tragic consequences of the fall. The heart of all service, roles and responsibilities in the Church should be oriented toward enabling the community (not merely individuals) to reflect the nature of God. This should be a community permeated by mutual, voluntary and appropriate yielding to one another, promoting life in and through and like Christ.
‘Scripture outlines disqualifying factors for teaching and leadership ministries in the body of Christ but being born a woman is not one of them.’
Again, the Apostle Paul is clear about the required relationality of men towards women (and vice versa)—“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others” (Phil 2: 3-4), or as the paraphrase of the Message version in more colloquial terms “if being in a community of the Spirit means anything to you, if you have a heart, if you care—then do me a favour: Agree with each other, love each other, be deep-spirited friends. Don’t push your way to the front; don’t sweet-talk your way to the top. Put yourself aside, and help others get ahead…Think of yourselves the way Christ Jesus thought of himself. He had equal status with God but didn’t think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what.” (MSG Phil: 4-8).
The handful of verses that some in the church use to justify a concept of male ‘headship’ over women (e.g. Eph 5, 1 Cor 11, 1 Tim 2) I believe need to be read in the broader context of doctrines of creation, humanity, redemption and in conversation with the undeniable emphasis in Scripture that alongside the men, women are fully human, fully capable of union with God, fully called by God, fully graced with a myriad of gifts including leadership, teaching and priestliness by the free election of the Spirit of God. Women, in the full light of broader theological orthodoxy, can never be understood as functionally nor ontologically inferior nor subordinate to men. Women should never be confined to gilded-cages of male-design that quench what God has bestowed upon the Church (and world) in the form of woman. Scripture outlines disqualifying factors for teaching and leadership ministries in the body of Christ but being born a woman is not one of them.
For me, there is a fundamental problem and complete lack of integrity in any theological reasoning that, on the one hand, affirms that God found Mary’s (theotokos) womanhood acceptable to nurture, sustain and birth the very Word of God (Jesus), but, on the other hand, uses the same criteria of womanhood as the basis for male justifications to curtail and restrict the Word of God being similarly expressed in and through women in the contemporary Church. Like the prototype of Mary, the women of Christ’s body are indeed Word-bearers. Like our forerunner before us let us as women in the church answer the divine-call by responding “I am the Lord’s servant” (Lk 1:38), all-the-while praying men might respond like Elizabeth, acknowledging bearers of the Word and incline themselves to resonate a joyous not anxious response—“Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!” (Lk 1:45).
Your sister in the Lord,
Btw…shameless plug! If you are interested in exploring a trinitarian theology of the nature of God’s self-giving life see my forthcoming book Triune Well-Being: The Kenotic-Enrichment of the Eternal Trinity (Fortress Academic, 2024).
Other Helpful Resources:
CBE – Christians for Biblical Equality (a fantastic site for many resources on the issue)
Fixing her Eyes – Headship
- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UOloHaig6uc&list=UUNSVET6Vr–IbvTiksNeIJw(Apart from the general discussion Jacqueline Service unpacks the concepts of subordinationism in the Trinity and headship arguments from about 19:15m)
- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X5c_gYckFKg(this panel features biblical scholars)
Prof Graham Cole (Trinity Evangelical College)
- and a recent podcast with Prof Cole speaking on the issue here where he also introduces the idea of what he calls Christo-Complementarianism: https://anchor.fm/politicalanimals/episodes/Complementarianism–Egalitarianism–Male-Headship-and-the-Role-of-Women-in-the-Church-A-Conversation-with-Prof-Graham-Cole-e1j785q
Podcast – Michael Bird (Ridley College, Victoria)
- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KDi8kEg6Hfg (Michael Bird discussing with some female authors on biblical issues to do with women in leadership)
A range of various books on the issues:
- Recovering from Biblical Manhood & Womanhood – Aimee Byrd
- The Making of Biblical Womanhood – Beth Allison Barr
- Holding Up Half the Sky – Graham Joseph Hill
- Bourgeois Babes, Bossy Wives, and Bobby Haircuts – Michael F. Bird
- Neither Complementarian nor Egalitarian – Michelle Lee- Barnewall
- The Ministry of Women in the New Testament – Dorothy A. Lee