Fathers and mothers – implications of family models for the church

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In my posts about church culture and in my recent article about complementarianism, I’ve argued that we need to seek a church culture that functions more like a family and less like a club, institution or business. In that context, I want to suggest that elders in the church function a bit like the fathers in the household.  Don’t over stretch the analogy here because ultimately God and no-one else is our Father. Yet at the same time please do observe that Paul in particular draws on fatherly imagery when showing his own relationship to churches. Furthermore, consider how he also requires elders to first of all show their worth as husbands and dads in the physical home before they can fulfil a calling in the spiritual household.

I want to suggest that there are two implications from this.  First of all, it helps us to think about why eldership is male. It’s not just that elders should only be men, it’s that they can, logically and ontologically only be men.  In the same way that however you structure decision making in the home, a woman will always be a wife/mother and a man always and only husband/father, then elders will be male and it will be logically impossible for them to be otherwise because they are fathers in the church and there are responsibilities that go with that.

Furthermore, as part of this first implication, it means that you cannot pick and choose when and where you act as an elder. For as long as you are appointed an elder, then you are always an elder and that’s how you are to relate to others. You cannot claim that someone spoke to you in the capacity of friendship and not to you as an elder. Nor can you confine your role as an elder to the elders meeting. You cannot suddenly attend the deacons meeting and take on the role and responsibilities of a deacon. Nor can you speak in the members’ meeting as an ordinary member, you speak there as one of the elders. This means that your responsibility in all contexts of church life is to exercise your authority by bringing God’s word to bear and by leading by example.  This also protects against bullying and abuse because it constrains the sphere and nature of the elder’s authority protecting against tyranny.

The second implication is that if we have fathers in the church then we might ask “where are the mothers too?” Now, I want to be clear that I am not talking about our leadership structure here but about the gifts, responsibilities and roles that people bring to bear. So, this is not a question about who sits on your leadership team.  In fact, Paul does not set up leadership teams, or ask Timothy and Titus to, in his pastoral letters, he instructs them to appoint people to particular roles. In fact, the New Testament does not give us much detail at all on the mechanics of church government.[1]  But if there are men in the church with a shepherding responsibility o provide and to protect, then there are also women who seem to have a particular role in nurturing. 

What it also means is that just as it is unwise for husbands to try and follow Ephesians 5 by heading off to the garden shed, making decisions and then pronouncing them to their families, it also means that elders who assume they can just emerge from their elders’ meeting and pronounce decisions are likely to meet trouble ahead.  There has to be a way of engaging and involving the family.  This means for example that elders are wise to listen to the godly advice of mature women in the church and particularly to approach them and involved them actively in the pastoral care of women. 

As I said, I am not here arguing for specific systems and structures. That’s for you to sort out. The question I want to get us asking is whether, within a complementarian context, we do allow women’s voices to be heard and gifts to be used for the well-being of the church.


[1] I don’t think it is completely absent, for example 1 Corinthians 5 implies a level of congregationalism.