EDITOR'S NOTE: The issue of gender roles and equality has been a hot topic in our churches and culture in recent decades. In 1998, the Southern Baptist Convention went against the popular flow when it overwhelmingly approved the addition of an article on the family (Article 18) to the Baptist Faith and Message which states in part:
A wife is to submit herself graciously to the servant leadership of her husband even as the church willingly submits to the headship of Christ. She, being in the image of God as is her husband and thus equal to him, has the God-given responsibility to respect her husband and to serve as his helper in managing the household and nurturing the next generation.
The outcry was immediate, profuse, and often vitriolic. Secular and religious critics alike accused the SBC of embracing male chauvinism and promoting misogyny.
Two years later, the SBC further incurred the wrath of the prevailing culture when it clarified the biblical position that the pastoral office is a position assigned to men who meet biblical qualifications (Article 6 of the Baptist Faith and Message 2000):
While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.
It is critical that we remember why Southern Baptists would take such a stance, lest a new generation concede to mounting societal pressures to ignore God's Word on the roles and functions of men and women. At the same time, it is also essential that we accurately reflect the whole of biblical teaching in this subject, lest, losing sight of the essential equality of male and female in the eyes of God, we fall into some form of gender caste system, or worse.
Confusion over issues of gender runs rampant among churches across America today. The current confusion necessitates a continual reexamination and strong restatement of the biblical position, for Scripture is absolutely clear on gender distinctions in both home and church. Whenever families and churches act contrary to biblical teaching, they do themselves great harm and risk doing damage to the cause of Christ. Let's take a look at Scripture's presentation of men and women, equal in the image of God, but different in role and function.
The Fundamental Equality of Men and Women
Scripture consistently reveals that God created male and female as co-equals in their standing before Him.
Revealed in Creation
It is important to begin where the Bible itself begins — in the Garden of Eden, prior to the Fall. It is here that we see a picture of manhood and womanhood before sin entered the world. Adam and Eve were created in God's image, equal before God as persons, yet distinct in their manhood and womanhood. Genesis 1:27 declared that God made man in His own image as male and female. In the sight of God they were equal, not in form, nor in function, but in essence. Neither had more or less value in their standing before their Creator. The essential equality of men and women, then, is the foundation from which to deal with all gender-related issues.
Even in assigning Eve as Adam's helper, God emphasized her equality by designating her as his ezer kenegdo, a helper perfectly suited for Adam ("comparable to" [NKJV], "suitable for" [NASB, NIV]; "fit for" [ESV]; "like" [HCSB]; Genesis 2:18). In order for her to be perfectly suited for him, she had to be equal to him. She was not to be his property or his doormat. She was his equal and his complement. This is further seen in Adam's expression of delight upon first seeing Eve. He viewed her as bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh (Genesis 2:23). She was from him — his same substance, his equal.
Marred but Maintained in the Fall
The results of the Fall extend into every human relationship. After the Fall, Adam's offspring quickly lost sight of the reality that humans are created in the image of God. Sinful treatment of each other followed. The Lord continually reminded His fallen creatures that they were made in the image of God — the imago dei — and grounded our ethics (how we treat one another as humans) on this foundational truth. For example:
• God prohibits murder because man is made in the image of God (Genesis 9:6).
• He forbids oppressing the poor, noting this undermines their equality since, as Solomon wrote, The rich and the poor have this in common: the Lord made them both (Proverbs 22:2).
• James points out that when we curse men who are made in God's likeness we undermine the equality of all human beings (James 3:9).
Further, Paul taught that in Christ there is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28), indicating that our inheritance before God is not affected by such things as race, class, or gender. We are equal in our standing before God in Christ. In addition, Peter admonished husbands to deal with their wives "according to knowledge" (KJV) and to show them honor as "co-heirs of the grace of life" (1 Peter 3:7). Thus God's standard is still in place. While human beings might neglect or disdain their commonality in the image of God, they maintain their equality before God, despite their sinful denial or distortion of this truth.
The Fundamental Distinctions Between Men and Women
Revealed in Creation
Though Scripture reveals their equal standing before God in creation, it also reveals that God made Adam and Eve distinct in their creational roles. This can be seen most clearly in Adam's headship in marriage. This is developed in the first two chapters of Genesis, before the intrusion of sin.
Adam was created first. The concept of derivation and birth order comes into play here and Adam's headship is assumed inasmuch as Eve is created subsequently. The fact that Adam is created first is clearly a very important part of the narrative. He has a natural precedence by order of creation. Paul makes much of this in 1 Corinthians 11:3, 7-9 and 1 Timothy 2:11-13.
The naming function of Adam also suggests headship. Adam was given the responsibility by God to name the animals over which he was given dominion. The responsibility of naming each animal reflected the nature of each and was a reminder to Adam that none was his equal (Genesis 2:19-20).
Man's headship is further seen by the woman's creation to be his helper (Genesis 2:18). Woman was, out of all of creation, uniquely suited for the man, thus signifying her unique equality with him. But her designation as Adam's helper shows that there was a distinct difference in their roles. Upon seeing the woman for the first time Adam makes his "bone of my bone" declaration (Genesis 2:23), acknowledging their equality; yet he also demonstrates his headship in the act of naming her "woman" as distinct from "man."
The command to leave and cleave was addressed to the man (Genesis 2:24). It is clear here that the responsibility to establish the home and marriage was on the shoulders of the man, Adam. It was up to the man — not the woman — to establish this activity, which was an indication of his leadership or headship.
Man was designated "Adam." This was also the term used to describe the whole human race, and this designation, since it was given to the man and not the woman, implies his occupation as head of the relationship (Genesis 1:26-28).
Since roles were a part of the original creation, they are inherent in the lives of all men and women and thus should find an echo in every human heart. The idea that men and women are equal yet different, though rejected by modern feminism and even many evangelicals, is indeed a result of God's purposeful and beautiful design.
Marred and Distorted by the Fall
The Fall introduced a distortion in the roles between men and women. When God told the woman, Your desire will be for your husband, yet he will dominate you (Genesis 3:16), He was not introducing new roles; He was stating that the previously existing roles would now be fraught with challenges and difficulties. The word desire is the same word used in Genesis 4:7 where God described the attacking and undermining element of sin's posture toward Cain. Eve's desire, then, was not positive, but the introduction of usurpation and competition which did not exist before the Fall. In the home, these difficulties show up in various ways.
To the extent that one partner dominates the relationship, various scenarios may be true. For instance, if a wife usurps the leadership of her husband, the husband may have a tendency to abdicate his God-given responsibility to lead the home. If the husband is harsh and domineering, the wife may tend to adopt a servile position. The proper relationship involves the loving, humble headship of the husband and the gracious, willing submission of the wife (1 Peter 3:1-7; Ephesians 5:22-33).
In the church, the root problem can be the same: a sinful resistance to biblically prescribed roles. For men, it can take the form of domination and power. The Bible teaches that pastoral leadership in the church is to be fulfilled by men (1 Timothy 2:12), but every pastor should exemplify the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22) and reflect the example of Christ's sacrificial relationship to the church (Ephesians 5:22-33). For women, it can take the form of dissatisfaction and rejection of biblically ordained structure. The Bible clearly prohibits women from assuming the office or role of pastor, especially as it relates to exercising authority over men (1 Timothy 2:12), but it certainly affirms the role of women in numerous other ministries especially as they relate to other women (Titus 2:3-5).
Redeemed in Christ
In creation, the original roles involved male headship and female submission between Adam and Eve. Sin brought about a perversion of these roles so there would be resentment and a temptation to usurp or abdicate one's role. Redemption does not negate the roles of men and women in the home, but emphasizes them as a picture of the relationship between Christ and the church (Ephesians 5:22-33; Colossians 3:18-19).
As in the home, men should bear the primary leadership responsibility in the church. As seen in the Pastoral Epistles, redemption in Christ does not require or imply an egalitarian structure, but rather empowers men and women to fulfill their roles according to God's design for the church.
For those who struggle to harmonize essential equality with functional submission, it is instructive to note the relationship within the Triune Godhead. There most certainly is essential equality between God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit; but there is also eternal functional submission, in which we see the Son doing the will of the Father (John 6:38) and the Father sending the Spirit in Christ's name (John 14:26). Do we think less of the Son or the Spirit because of Their submission to the Father?1
The Importance of a Biblically Consistent Approach
It is fair to ask why this should matter. Why can't people just arrange their churches and marriages in ways that seem best to them? In other words, what is at stake?
The Recognition of Scripture as Authoritative is at Stake
The Bible clearly teaches that men and women are equal in value and dignity and have distinct and complementary roles in the home and the church. If churches disregard these teachings, following the lead of culture instead, then the members of those churches and subsequent generations will be less likely to submit to God's Word in other difficult matters as well. Caving in to cultural pressure to blur the distinctions between men and women will ultimately soften the theological underbelly of the church and it will be more susceptible to compromise when it faces other challenges in the future.
The Health of the Home is at Stake
If families do not structure their homes properly, in obedience to the teachings of Ephesians 5, 1 Peter 3, and Colossians 3, then they will not have the proper foundation from which to withstand the temptations of the devil and the various onslaughts of the world. This in turn impedes the husband and wife from modeling redemption in their home God has called them to (Ephesians 5:22-33).
The Health of the Church is at Stake
Just like the home, if the church disobeys the teachings of 1 Timothy 2, and 1 Corinthians 11 and disregards the structure that God put into place for the community of faith from the beginning, the church will be weakened. If the church is weakened in its convictions, it will be less effective in accomplishing its mission. Again, when a church compromises the Word of God at one point, it becomes much easier to do it at other points; this in turn undermines its spiritual health, not to mention that of future generations (Deuteronomy 6:1-9).
The Advance of the Gospel is at Stake
Ephesians 5 calls husbands and wives to relate to one another as a picture of Christ and the church. The picture involves humble, sacrificial leadership by the husband and joyful, intelligent submission to that leadership by the wife. Husbands and wives who model this improperly portray a distorted and false picture of Jesus Christ, the Head and Savior of His bride, the church. If a husband is domineering, he is projecting an errant image of Christ. If he is passive, he is likewise distorting the picture. The same would be true of a wife who either usurps authority or becomes a doormat. If we care deeply about the Gospel, then we will care deeply about the authenticity of the picture of Christ we are portraying. We should always be mindful of the Gospel ramifications of the way in which we are living out our roles.
Male headship in the home does not mean that the husband is in any way more important, more intelligent, or inherently better than his wife. It is simply the fulfillment of God's design for the home. Likewise, a wife's submission to the leadership of her husband does not imply inferiority. Headship and submission, equality and dignity, are not mutually exclusive but in fact are designed by God to coexist ideally in marriage.
Husbands should be particularly mindful of Peter's admonition to live with their wives in an understanding way and to treat them as full equals and as joint heirs of the grace of life (1 Peter 3:7). Husbands who fail to treat their wives this way and become bitter against them (Colossians 3:19) will have their prayers hindered (1 Peter 3:7b). Likewise, wives who willingly and joyfully submit to the headship of their husbands are modeling their lives after Christ who yielded Himself to the headship of the Father (1 Corinthians 11:3) and submitted Himself as one who came to do the will of His Father (John 6:38).
This is not to suggest that wives are to submit to their husbands in any and every situation. Wives are never required to submit to a husband who is leading them into sin. In all of life, God is our final authority and we should obey God rather than men (Acts 5:29).
The Bible is clear that churches should structure themselves so that the office of pastor/teacher is held by men. But this does not negate the multitude of ministry opportunities for women called and equipped by the Lord. First Corinthians 12:7-21 teaches that there is diversity of gifts in the Body of Christ by design.
This diversity brings about a certain unity, since each member of the Body is set there by God as He wanted (12:18). The biblical position on gender roles is not preoccupied with restriction, but concerns itself with the participation of all members in the Body of Christ, within the parameters established by God Himself in His Word. While the office of pastor is set apart for men who are equipped and called by God to that role, there are countless ministries to which women can and do give themselves fully and freely. No man or woman should feel excluded from ministry since there are so many genuine needs.
It should come as no surprise that our churches are experiencing heightened conflict regarding gender roles in the home and church-such is to be expected whenever secular standards are substituted for God's Word. Nor should we be shocked at the massive collapse of our families and the monumental ineffectiveness of churches nationwide — such is the result of rejecting God's design.
But when God's people embrace God's design for gender roles in the home and church — balancing essential equality with functional submission — we maximize the opportunity for God to accomplish His purposes in our communities through our homes and churches.
1 For a more thorough treatment of this very complicated subject, see Bruce Ware's Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: Relationship, Roles, and Relevance, Crossway, 2005.