Male and female leadership questions (4) Pulling things together theologically

We are now in a position to see how the boundaries function together in order to create theological principles which should shape church practice.

We’ve seen that there are both permissions and restrictions for women in Paul’s letters in terms of leadership and teaching. We’ve also seen that these relate to Creation and The Fall and to authority, and order. What do I think is happening?

In 2005 I spent some time looking in detail at Paul’s teaching on marriage relationships.  I believe that it is with a Biblical understanding of marriage that we need to start and by that I don’t mean with the detailed workings and ordering of family decision making and roles and responsibilities. Rather, I mean the bigger picture of marriage. 

Just as with his teaching on men and women in the church, Paul takes us back to the Creation account when talking about men and women in the home.  “As the Scriptures say, ‘A man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife and the two are united into one.” (Ephesians 5:31. Paul then goes on to link marriage into something much bigger theologically.  He says “This is a great mystery, but it is an illustration of the way Christ and the Church are one.”

What I see here is something incredible.  God gave marriage as something special.  He makes man and woman.  They are like each other (flesh of my flesh, bone of my bone) but they are different (in Genesis 2, the Hebrew has the idea of “like but opposite to”).  In other words, I take a complementarian view.  They are to help each other in work and worship; they are to fulfil the creation mandate to multiply and to populate the planet etc.  And….they are to provide a visible picture of how God relates to his people.  God is presented as the husband of Israel in the Old Testament and in the New Testament, the focus is on Christ and the Church.  

Paul tells us what the relationship of Christ to the Church is like.  He is the head of the church.  In other words, he has real authority.  We are meant to submit to him. At the same time, there’s a surprising twist.  Christ who is the head, submits.  He submits willingly to the Father and he comes sacrificially to serve, suffer and die.  Paul says that our marriages should reflect that.  Wives are to submit to their husbands as they take on a headship role but husbands are to sacrificially serve their wives.  This means that there is an order and headship but there is also mutual submission.  This mutual submission also applies to slaves and masters and parents and children.  There is a new model in place, authority is no longer to be seen in terms of hierarchy and self-seeking power, rather those in positions of authority are servant leaders and the focus is on their responsibilities to others.

In 1 Timothy, we also saw that Paul links things into the Fall.  In Genesis 3, we see two things, we see that Eve willingly acts first to make an autonomous decision. She doesn’t listen to God’s word but nor does she seem to take time to consult with her husband.  Adam on the other hand seems in some way absent (my view is that he is physically present) he abdicates responsibility, he fails to protect and to help his wife. He also fails to obey God’s Word, in other words, he also is seeking autonomy.  So my view is that in the marriage role, there’s also a reminder of how in their own different ways our first parents failed.  She grabbed authority and he abdicated.  Sadly, men do too often abdicate from their responsibilities in church and family.  These verses prod us to take some responsibility.  It’s not because men are special and great that they are told to take the lead but because we are weak and fail.  It’s grace.  By the way, I also think that this means that how we give roles to people is about much more than gifting.

Now, local churches effectively functioned as enlarged households.  We talk about church as a family.  I believe that when we look at roles and responsibilities in the church, then it should reflect family life.  This means that we should not do anything in church life that undermines the model of family life presented in the Bible.  That’s why I believe that the role of men and women in the church is intended to reflect that pattern of male headship.

I appreciate that this is not a popular message.  This is because the Bible challenges every culture.  That’s what it means to be transcultural.  Paul never wrote to accommodate the culture of his day.  Ephesians 5 and Romans 16 are full on challenges to patriarchal hierarchies and to sexism.  But these passages will also confront head on, modern day feminism.

But the observation I’ve made about family life also suggests to me that we’ve missed something and both complementarians who focus only on guarding male eldership and egalitarians who are passionate about opening up eldership to women miss the same point. If church functions like a family then the role of elder reads across from family life as the equivalent of fathers. We need spiritual fathers within the church. Paul himself acts as a spiritual father to Timothy and we see a fatherly care towards other believers and congregations -see especially his engagement with Corinth. Then we have deacons and we acknowledge the role of women deacons. However, the word deacon refers to a servant or steward in the home. Have you noticed what is missing?  Where are the spiritual mums? That’s why when I looked at this again, it struck me that the naming of people seemed to point to those who are prominent in the spiritual life of the church but are neither elders nor deacons. Fascinatingly there are also descriptions for the qualifications of women to go onto the widows’ lists in the pastoral epistles. As well as having responsibilities within the life of the church, they are also to meet character requirements. Those requirements seem to mirror those for the elders.

In church life, we have tended to provide for elders and we’ve included deacons with a practical focus. However there seems to be a gap because there are women who have pastoral responsibilities and spiritual discernment to offer, gifts with which to serve the church and we may be missing the opportunity to involve them early enough in our decision making and discernment. It is here where I think our attention should be.

It is important to remember as we talk about this that our concern is not primarily about hierarchies, structures and meetings at this stage but rather, it’s about ensuring that all gifts are used and voices heard as a church seeks to glorify Christ and discern God’s will together. So at this stage my concern is not about who attends an elders’ meeting and who attends a deacons’ meeting. It’s whether or not we are seeing people serving as they should. Indeed this has two implications for elders.

First of all, it helps to highlight something important. It’s not so much that an elder should be female, it’s that they cannot.  It’s ontologically impossible, the equivalent of suggesting that a wife could become a husband or that a mother might become the father.  Notice then that our understanding of complementarianism also touches on other current ethical issues concerning gender. Secondly, it means that an elder is not merely an elder when and because he attends the elders’ meeting but he will bring a particular approach and perspective to all that he does in the life of the church. 

Similarly we will then see that those godly women of the kind described in Romans 16 and possibly in view in 1 Timothy 3 will bring their gifts, wisdom and insight to bear in the life of the church not by being given a particular title nor by being co-opted to specific meetings but by how they conduct themselves consistently in church life.