Our series on complementarianism has unpacked Genesis 1–3 and much of what it teaches on men, women, marriage, and sin. The alternative view is called egalitarianism, a view that sees men and women as not just “equal” in significance and essence but also in their roles in a marriage or the church. In this post we turn from the family to the church. How does gender impact what God calls us to in the church? That's the question before us.
In terms of salvation, “there is no male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28). Access to God is through Christ by faith, whether you are rich or poor, black or white, man or woman. So entrance into the church as the true people of God is absolutely identical between men and women. The issue we're talking about here is how gender impacts our service and function in a given local church.
On this issue of service in a church we should say right at the start here that a church can no more thrive without the active and energetic participation of all its men and women than a human body can thrive without all of its vital organs and limbs. Paul compares the church to a body—and it is indeed the body of Christ!—and tells us “there are many parts, yet one body” (1 Cor 12:20). Further, “you are the body of Christ and individually members of it” (v. 27). He presses this analogy to emphasize the importance of each member of the body: “The eye cannot say to the hand, 'I have no need of you,' nor again the head to the feet, 'I have no need of you'” (v. 21).
This is all a great backdrop to a look at how gender plays into service in a church, for the same kind of equal-importance-different-role dynamic we find in a marriage is also to be found in a church. Further, as in a marriage, this also is to be a case of a beautiful collaboration that results in tremendous fruitfulness and life. We'll start with the most clear and work toward the less clear.
Elders in a Church
A good place to start is with the elders of a church, because it is the clearest teaching with respect to this issue. We can see both explicit and implicit teaching in the New Testament that underscores the fact elders should be male.
The explicit teaching comes in three places. The first two are where the requirements for elders are detailed for us. 1 Timothy 3:1–7 tells us what an “overseer” or elder must be. Within this list he says the elder must be “the husband of one wife” (v. 2). He goes on to say an elder “must manage his own household well…for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church?” (vv. 4–5). Titus 1:5–9 speaks in almost identical language, saying an elder must be “the husband of one wife” with children who are “faithful” (1:6).
There is a third explicit text that doesn’t mention elders but provides the same theological idea. 1 Timothy 2:12 says, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man.” We believe Paul to be speaking of life within the church here, and not all segments of the society and the workplace. But clearly, the elder is an authoritative role (Heb 13:17; 1 Tim 5:17; Acts 20:28) and so 2:12 would relate to it.
To these explicit passages we can add the implicit teaching of the apostles chosen by Jesus. Though women were involved in many facets of Jesus’ ministry, including providing financial support for him (Luke 8:1–3), the apostles were all men. It is also significant that God chose a set of women as the first eyewitnesses of the empty tomb (Luke 24:1¬–10) and even the resurrected Christ (John 20:16–18): The culture of the day would not accept the testimony of women as admissible in court. Such passages remind us that the Lord was beholden to no culture and no set of traditions in establishing his church as he saw fit. And yet, within such a freedom he again chose only men to be the twelve apostles. These men would go on to be the first leaders of the Jerusalem church and the global mission of the church.
Deacons in a Church
The next place to look is at the deacons commissioned in a church. When deacons were needed to serve the widows in Jerusalem, the apostles said to “pick out from among you seven men of good repute” for this ministry (Acts 6:3, emphasis mine). Choosing men for this role is consistent with 1 Timothy 3:8–13, where “deacons,” like elders, are required to be “the husband of one wife” (v. 12). Verse 11 in the ESV says, “their wives likewise must be dignified, not slanderers, but sober-minded, faithful in all things.” “Wives” can also be translated as “women, likewise,” as in the NASB and NIV. Throughout the New Testament, “wife” and “woman” are both used to translate the Greek word gunē used in 3:11. 1 Timothy 2:9–10, for instance, uses “woman” in the ESV.
Yet, we believe Paul meant the “wives” of the deacons in 1 Timothy 3:11. This is first due to the context. It would be odd for Paul to refer to the deacons in 3:8–10, switch topics to women deacons in verse 11, and then go back to talking about deacons in 3:12–13. We would rather expect him to talk about deacons completely and then turn to women deacons at the end, his more consistent pattern. Further, to have five verses of extensive requirements for deacons and only four phrases for women deacons would be an odd imbalance if two offices were being discussed. The example of Acts 6:1–7 is important here as well. Women served in myriad ways in the early church, but apostle, elder, and deacon were roles to be filled by men and not women. Thus, Phoebe in Romans 16:1–2, described as a “servant (diakonos) of the church at Cenchreae,” should be seen as a commendable and honored “servant” of the church but not an office-holding deacon.
1 Timothy 2:12 and Other Roles in the Church
There are other leadership/coordination positions that are not quite so clear, however. Most churches, ours included, have a whole array of service teams that enable ministry to happen: Sunday school classes, ushers, audio-visual teams, bookstore, etc. Some of these teams are large and complex or uniquely demanding enough to be led by elders or deacons. Others are more organizational or administrative teams. What about these? Our position is that when leading such a team puts a person in a more authoritative role (setting strategy, being fairly directive as a matter of course, having a lot of responsibility in evaluating others or hiring and firing, layers of leadership structures, etc.), this should be filled by a man if the team is a co-ed team. This is because of 1 Timothy 2:12–14 and the way “authority” is understood in the New Testament:
I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve; 14 and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. (1 Tim 2:12–14)
Yet, when a team is more collaborative and effectively a group of peers that needs someone to organize and support the efforts of the team, it is a great place for a gifted and competent woman to serve. Many of our Sunday service teams fit this criterion: audio-visual teams, Scripture reading team, bookstore, the greeting team, etc. This isn't to say that a woman must lead these teams, only that she could.
Women Serving at Sovereign Grace Church
A church like ours has dozens of different leadership and service roles. The above principles have guided us in thinking through the basic ways we encourage women to serve at SGC. A very partial list of ways women serve and could serve at SGC would include the following:
- A countless number of roles that take place in informal and behind-the-scenes ways as women help meet the needs of other church members in critical and timely ways—women are the relational glue for the body of Christ;
- Contributing at all levels for ministries like Hand of Hope Crisis Pregnancy, Operation Christmas Child, Agua Viva, Safe Families for Children, etc.;
- Scripture reading on Sunday mornings for the sermon;
- Overseeing and serving in the women’s ministry;
- Leading women’s Bible studies;
- Teaching at women’s meetings;
- Teaching in our children’s ministry and being a team coordinator for different age groups of the ministry;
- Leading and serving in Keepers (our ministry for girls);
- Serving on virtually all ministry teams of the church;
- Being the coordinator for ministry teams that are more oriented toward the administration of Sunday mornings and different facets of church life, even coordinating teams that include men (e.g., the bookstore, Scripture reading team, a/v teams, information table, hospitality team);
- Supporting their husbands, caring for their children, and working in their homes in ways that produce profound and extraordinary spiritual fruit;
- Contributing at the prophecy microphone on Sunday mornings;
- And more!
Such a list couldn’t possibly capture all the ways women serve at SGC, but it provides at least a snapshot of their contribution to our life together.
“Act Like Men”: The Church Needs Strong Men
Just as the church cannot thrive without the full and energetic participation of its women, so it will never flourish without its men heeding the apostolic call to “act like men” (1 Cor 16:13). This is not a popular sentiment in our day, but it is vital in every generation. The church needs its men to step up and lead their families, to disciple their children, to walk in integrity, to be “full of wisdom and of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 6:3), to be worshipers of the true and living God and not their careers or comforts or hobbies. A church needs men who will be serious about pursuing the Lord Jesus Christ as a daily discipline. A church needs men who will rise up to become deacons and elders and teachers and evangelists, men who willingly take the mantle of leadership from those who went before them and faithfully pass it along to those who will come after them. Injunctions like Paul’s are found throughout the Bible. Joab told his brother to, “be of good courage, and let us be courageous for our people” (2 Sam 10:12)—and though our enemies are not Ammonites, the need is the same. David exhorted his son Solomon, “Be strong, and show yourself a man” (1 Kgs 2:2)—and though we aren’t kings, the need is the same. It is a vital truth to grasp that just as a church needs its women to serve energetically and faithfully under the leadership of elders, so a church needs men who will not fail to heed the call to “act like men” in their station and in their generation.
God help us to build a church that thrives because its women and its men hear the call of God and give their lives to fulfill it!