My understanding of gender roles in the church

Bathroom-gender-signOK, cards on the table. I usually prefer to present evidence then draw conclusions. And I still plan to do that. But let me tell you where I am right now on the question of what women can and can’t do in the church.

I believe that there are differences in the Bible between what God has set out for men to do and what God has set out for women to do. As Paul Smith expressed it, I recognize that my views qualify me as a “chauvinistic, knuckle-dragging troglodyte.” I recognize my position is definitely not cool, topples me from the pedestal of wild-eyed progressive, and is deeply troubling to some. (fortunately, few of them read my blog)

I’m open to discussing how those different roles are played out. I even think they will be expressed differently from culture to culture. But I believe that God has tasked men with the responsibility of leading the church in a way that he has not given that responsibility to women.

I plan to come back to this and discuss it further. I’ll be away from the Internet some the next week or so. After that, I’ll try and get more specific about my understanding. I’ll also wrestle with as many of the underlying issues as I can.

But for now, I wanted to tell you where I am. My request/suggestion is that commenters state their current understanding. If you want to give justification for your position, fine. But let’s save the full-out debate for a later date.

31 thoughts on “My understanding of gender roles in the church

  1. Nick Gill

    I believe that women equally reflect the image of God. Just as Jesus, as a male, fully reflected the image of God, so all males and females reflect the image of God.

    I believe that all people should be included in the work of the church to the extent that they’ve been gifted by God to serve.

    I believe that the Holy Spirit gives his gifts irrespective of gender.

    Richard Beck has been thinking through some of this material lately as well, with a post on the vagueness of the common labels as well as a post on some implications of the hierarchical complementarian view.

  2. Tim Archer Post author

    I’ve read Beck’s stuff. His post about the labels reminded me how pointless it is to try and create such labels! (Hence my post the other day)

  3. Nick Gill

    I’m wrestling with the idea of ontological ineptitude. I know you’re still working on material for future posts, so don’t waste it all in the comment section today :)

    But it seems that either Beck is right, that hierarchical complementarianism assumes ontological ineptitude, or else:

    A) The roles are arbitrarily assigned based upon plumbing, and nothing at all would be lost if God had willed the reverse; or

    B) God has restricted leadership to the male gender, irrespective of whether males in a particular setting have any gifts or talent for leadership.

    Are there other options that I’m missing?

  4. Tim Archer Post author

    It’s not a popular thing to talk about these days, but it seems that the issue of motherhood has to come into play here. (It certainly did for Paul, right?) Women have been tasked with a very special role. If we only see humans as biological machines, then that’s merely an accident, an incidental thing that affects them only at a certain point of their lives.

    I don’t buy it. I think the church has become embarrassed to talk about the role of motherhood because it’s not popular in society today. I won’t go into all the ins and outs, but that’s the major flaw I see in Beck’s flippant use of the concept of “plumbing.” That fits modern society’s (and modern science’s) view of human beings. It doesn’t fit the Bible.

    I’m struggling to enunciate the other option I see, the one that sees women much better equipped for one domain and men for another… with exceptions existing for both. That sounds outrageous to us for several reasons, like:

    • Society’s disrespect for the nuclear family
    • The church’s overemphasis of large assemblies
    • The de-emphasis of home-based spiritual instruction (yeah, maybe I’m becoming anti-Sunday school)

    Rather than looking at ancient culture and dismissing it’s patriarchal nature, maybe we should learn from it. I don’t mean the “women as cattle” mentality, but the thought that for centuries God’s people were shaped by a teaching that led them to develop a certain lifestyle. (too often today we have such a low view of the Bible that we teach that society’s patriarchal ideas led to the development of the Bible, rather than vice versa)

    Much more to be said. In general I find Beck WAY too influenced by science and what he calls “progressive” ideas (which I call modern day Saduceeism).

  5. Travis

    Tim, I’m really looking forward to your thoughts on this. My position has changed somewhat over the years, basically because the group I used to be with was the “woman as cattle” group where the smartest woman with a PhD was still inferior to a grade school dropout. Actually, that’s wrong, because women weren’t allowed to get advanced degrees in that group, but that’s another story. Anyway, I am still of the “complementarian” view, in that Eve was created for Adam as a suitable (and equal) helper, just with differing responsibilities. As you pointed out, only a woman can give birth and be a mother. So equal, but different. As far as roles in the church, we do an awful lot of fighting over who gets to stand up and speak for 20 minutes one day week! I do believe in “male only” elders and preachers, but do question the ability of women to serve as deacons. Jay Guin had a series on deacons recently that was pretty good. If you have a person with professional experience, whether it be plumbing or law, wouldn’t it be in a congregation’s best interest to use their skills to His glory, regardless of whether that person is a man or woman? I also think that allowing only men to serve in certain public roles, like serving the Lord’s Supper or serving as greeters is more tradition than Scripture. But I’m still studying. There are good arguments based on historical context that shed different light on the two passages in the NT that address this (women remaining silent/the authority issue, that is). All that being said, I also remember that God raised Deborah up as a judge when the men simply wouldn’t do it. Precedent for today?

  6. guy

    i don’t even think all men should occupy certain leadership positions in the church. i don’t think ontological ineptitude is gender specific. The necessary conditions for certain leadership roles are far more numerous and stringent that mere maleness.

    Furthermore, i think “leadership” or “leadership roles” is being left vague in a way that’s an obstacle to the discussion. Of course women can be skilled leaders, and of course women lead in churches. That’s true even in strongly patriarchal churches. When the rubber meets the road, women are doing critical work and exerting critical influence over decisions.

  7. Tim Archer Post author

    Guy, that’s a good point. Hard to know how to express the idea of “the buck stops here,” but that’s what I have in mind by leadership. Obviously, true leadership is shown through service, but there’s also a time for making ultimate decisions about how a body will function.

  8. Wendy Cayless

    I’m fully egalitarian and spent my last 5 years at a church with women elders and women preaching (along with men preaching). It really freed up all – men and women to serve according to how they are gifted and not according to gender. I don’t and can’t see how mothering or the potential to be a mother disqualifies women from any role or ministry in the church… and if it does, what about the childless women? the single women? the women past child bearing years?

  9. Tim Archer Post author

    Thanks Wendy for the different viewpoint. I don’t think motherhood disqualifies anyone from anything. But our “plumbing” disqualifies men from that very important task. If we take serious the thought that God designed us as we are, then we need to see that women are imminently qualified for parenting in a way that men aren’t. That was my point. It’s a complex thought that probably doesn’t communicate well in a comment; hopefully I can better explain it in a later post.

    Tying into your last comment, I believe that there are spiritually gifted males who do not need to be exercising certain roles of leadership for similar reasons to what you mention. I believe that having raised children and having been married prepares men for certain leadership tasks, and those who haven’t done those things will find other ways to minister to the body. They just won’t serve as elders.

  10. Nick Gill

    we need to see that women are eminently qualified for parenting in a way that men aren’t.

    This assertion needs evidence to support it. Neither the ability to give birth, nor the ability to impregnate, suggests that one gender is better qualified to be a parent.

  11. Nick Gill

    I believe that having raised children and having been married prepares men for certain leadership tasks.

    I should really read all the comments before creating a post…

    How in the world is this (the assertion that “raising children equips men to be elders”) not contradictory to the assertion that the female gender is the one qualified to raise children?

  12. Tim Archer Post author

    Fair points Nick. I don’t know that “hard science” can provide the evidence that women are better qualified for parenting, though I dare say the social sciences can provide some. I’ll base it on observation and understanding of the psychological makeups of men and women. I know there’s some nature vs. nurture debate there, but I believe it to be inborn.

    I’m not saying that men can’t parent. Men should parent, and doing so makes them better prepared for church leadership. However, I believe that we start with a disadvantage in that area (partly due to bonding during pregnancy and bonding during nursing).

    I’ve also been thinking a lot about the point about ineptitude. I think it misses the point. Were the Levites chosen because they were better qualified for their service? Were the different prophets called because of their natural abilities? Is God’s call based on skill sets? Some would argue that men are naturally better leaders; I don’t think that’s the case. Especially when we understand what biblical leadership is.

  13. Nick Gill

    I’ve also been thinking a lot about the point about ineptitude. I think it misses the point. Were the Levites chosen because they were better qualified for their service? Were the different prophets called because of their natural abilities? Is God’s call based on skill sets? Some would argue that men are naturally better leaders; I don’t think that’s the case. Especially when we understand what biblical leadership is.

    I think those are different questions — I don’t know that the Levites were gifted by the Spirit to perform routine daily functions around the tabernacle and temple.

    The prophets were gifted by God to serve him. Likewise church leaders today.

    I’ve accepted that I sojourn in a tradition where, because my wife and I haven’t been gifted with children, I will never be eligible for leadership. But I’m not sure that’s God’s will. Nor am I sure that God only gifts men with the gift of spiritual leadership.

  14. Tim Archer Post author

    It’s a different question, but it’s not. Calling throughout the Bible is wholly God’s choice. Sometimes it makes sense to us, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes it seems like God chose the worst person (or people) for the job just to show that it’s his power not ours that is at work.

  15. Nick Gill

    What I mean by “different question” is that the Levites were not called in the same sense that prophets were called.

    But it sounds, rather, like you are leaning toward’s Beck’s “arbitrary selection” idea — God has arbitrarily selected to only bestow the gift of spiritual leadership upon fertile male Christians with fertile wives.

  16. Tim Archer Post author

    I’m leaning toward my bookshelf right now! :-) As for the hows and whys of the gender question, I’m still feeling my way through. But I came to the same conclusion about my thinking that you did as I was typing that last response. I guess I am moving more to “arbitrary choice”; God does seem to make a lot of those.

  17. gal328cofc

    hi Tim,

    I appreciate the clarity with which you set the stage here, and I would like to say with equal bluntness that, while I firmly believe that the silence of women and exclusion of women from participation and leadership in Churches of Christ is an injustice, I would never on this basis presume that you or anyone else is a knuckle-dragging troglodyte!

    I also appreciate your desire to dialogue on this, even though your convictions are clear and you don’t anticipate changing them. Dialogue is always helpful, in understanding the reasons others have for their positions but also in turn clarifying our own. And it’s always helpful on the front end to establish the parameters and goals of a specific conversation.

    Though I must admit that I personally am not a “complementarian,” I want to point out that it is not necessary to abandon complementarianism (as Travis’s comment above hints at) in order to advocate for the benefits and even necessity for women’s perspectives and full participation in spiritual leadership in our churches. If, in fact, the notion that women’s experiences, spirituality and very nature are so fundamentally different from men’s that men could not ever adequately understand or represent them, that becomes a strong reason to claim that without women teaching, preaching, praying, participating in leadership and decision-making, we are really missing something that only women can provide.

    This is not, I want to reiterate, an argument I personally make in my own theological reasoning on this matter. Rather, the reason I raise this is to say, I don’t think that advocating for women’s full participation in all types and levels of leadership in the church must come from a single, univocal position on gender and what it means.

    A final comment on biological differences. Speaking from personal experience, pregnancy, childbirth and parenting have provided an immense amount of spiritual insight that I certainly had not gained from other life experiences. But the insight comes from the experiences–not from simply having a body with the (presumed) potential for those experiences. As the discussion above has already recognized, not every woman is or can be a mother, just like not every man is or can be a father. Having a womb, by itself, does not make one “motherly” or give one insight into what it means to be a mother. But the more crucial question, I think, on embodiment is this: when we consider what capabilities of our human bodies are required for spiritual leadership, are the differences between female and male embodiment relevant to those capabilities? This may sound provocative, but I often think of it this way: if God does not welcome women’s voices, then God should have created us mute. If God does not welcome women’s thoughts, then God should have created us brainless. If God does not welcome our service, then God should not give us the desire to serve. If God does not welcome women’s reflection of God’s own image, then God should not have created us in that image. The God I believe created us all is a just and righteous God, and that God is faithful and calls us to use all that we are–brains, voices, guts–to fully image that glory to the world.

    Thanks for opening up this space for conversation. I look forward to the other posts.

  18. Dan Knight

    We will only be free when we realize that this discussion does not matter. It’s not a question of being blind to the differences. It’s a matter of celebrating the differences without discrimination. “God looks on the heart.” 1 Samuel 16:7; “He does take us at face value.” (πρόσωπον θεὸς ἀνθρώπου οὐ λαμβάνει) Galatians 2:6. To assess people by gender, race, or social status is carnal, not spiritual.

  19. Dan Knight

    Correction: He does NOT takes us a face value. That is, he makes no exception of persons; he does not discriminate. My apologies for leaving out a word.

  20. guy


    Arbitrariness may accurately describe the best human intellect can do to make sense of something God does. This does not entail that from God’s perspective, He just flipped a coin or spun a wheel. If God is who we say He is, there will always be purposes and reasons He has that are unknowable to us in the nature of the case. For a lot of the hard questions, i think it would be weirder if we did know and did fully understand the “whys”.

    i still think your argument stands. God selected Jews for something special. Jewishness was a biological distinction–genetically descended from Abraham through Isaac. Among Jews, God selected Levites to perform priestly/ritualistic duties. Levite-ness was also a biologically measurable distinction. i don’t take it that these choices on God’s part that exclude non-Jews or non-Levites from certain privileges or functions to entail ontological ineptitude. If there’s no relevant difference between these selections and excluding females from certain functions, i guess i don’t see why that would entail ontological ineptitude either.

    So what does it entail? Arbitrariness? Again, maybe only from our perspective.

  21. Wendy Cayless

    Tim, IMNSHO neither men nor women are inherently better at parenting. Generally we parent slightly differently but none of us are constrained by gender stereotypes and how we parent is dependent on many factors (culture, background, experience, personality, beliefs amongst others), not just our biology.

  22. Tim Archer Post author

    Thanks all. I’ll be away from the Internet for a few days. Not ignoring comments, just not able to get to them. I hope we all grow through these discussions!

  23. Keith Brenton

    I think one of God’s intentions in replacing the old covenant with the new is dispensing with the practice of treating certain groups of people in a special way, but offering salvation, gifts, opportunities, and a commission to lead-by-serving to all people, everywhere, from that point forward.

    Women can bear children. But not all women. (My late wife could not.) Men can father children. But not all men. (I could not.) God gives gifts to whom He wills, and chooses their gifts. Motherhood and fatherhood are equally important gifts to use in building up the church and glorifying God. Angi and I adopted. She also had the gift of teaching, which she used in and outside of church settings.

    At some point, we start being arbitrary when we put limits on when and where a certain person or group of people can use those gifts – when there are auditorium walls but not classroom walks around; when it is 10:30 on Sunday morning, but not 9:30; when an audience is one gender but not both, or under but not over a certain random age.

    I feel the Great Commission is for all believers to heed, and there are no qualifying limitations on it given there, or elsewhere.

    Either age, wealth, race and gender do not matter to God all the time and in every place and circumstance … or He is, in fact, a respecter of persons.

    That’s how I feel.

  24. Darin

    Tim, I pray for your posts. We discussed the topic at our fellowship last night. My only thought after reading was I give thanks that Jesus didn’t consider equality with God something that didn’t allow him a different role….

    We have created many categories for leadership and that is part of our problem and yet there is something different about men and women that goes beyond plumbing. Again, I pray for your posts….

  25. Nick Gill

    God selected Jews for something special. Jewishness was a biological distinction–genetically descended from Abraham through Isaac. Among Jews, God selected Levites to perform priestly/ritualistic duties. Levite-ness was also a biologically measurable distinction.

    Both of these are temporary callings and establishments, neither of which (according to the Hebrews writer) were meant to be carried forward into the Messianic age.

    i don’t take it that these choices on God’s part that exclude non-Jews or non-Levites from certain privileges or functions to entail ontological ineptitude.

    Here’s what I’m hearing, Guy — let me know if I am understanding you correctly.

    God did not arbitrarily choose the Jews, or the Levites, for their roles. Thus there is something inherent in Jewishness, or in Leviteness, that uniquely makes them fit for their roles. If it isn’t arbitrary, it is for a reason related to their role.

    BUT, those who were not selected for those roles are still not, on the basis of their Gentileness or non-Leviteness, incapable of fulfilling those roles.

    I’m not sure you can have it both ways. IF the selection of the Jews, and of the Levites, is not arbitrary, then those who were not selected must lack something that makes them incapable of fulfilling the role in question.

  26. guy


    “God did not arbitrarily choose.”

    No, this isn’t what i meant to say. i meant to say that arbritrariness may be perspectival. So far as i will ever be able to comprehend, God acted arbitrarily. That doesn’t entail that He did. It entails that i don’t really know. Perhaps He had reasons. What i’m saying is that God, being God, has reasons that i will likely never be privy too. Why did He choose the Jews? Why did He choose Levites? Why boys for this or that but not girls? So far as the best my intellect can do, it will be arbitrary. In other words, even if God were to explain it to me, who’s to say i’d understand it?

    But even if He told me, “you wouldn’t understand, but trust Me, it wasn’t arbitrary,” that wouldn’t entail that the reasons *must* relate to anything inherent to Jewish-ness or male-ness. This, again, assumes i understand or could understand the nature of the reasons. Even based on what i can understand, i know it’s possible for those reasons not to concern ethnic/genetic Jewish-ness at all, but some externalist reason (the parties chosen bore some relationship to something outside themselves that had nothing to do with their own biological essences).

    i guess i don’t understand your point about temporary callings. Male clergy is a temporary calling in view of the life of the world to come. Perhaps the point has something to do with general discontinuity between OT and NT? i guess in the case of designated offices with exclusive requirements, i don’t see a discontinuity.

  27. Kraig

    “I’m not sure you can have it both ways. IF the selection of the Jews, and of the Levites, is not arbitrary, then those who were not selected must lack something that makes them incapable of fulfilling the role in question.”

    Pardon me for butting in, but I think this gets to an important point. It’s a great point you make here, but I think there is a good response available to people who think women’s roles in the church should be limited in certain ways. Here is that response:

    Suppose a donkey is standing right in between two identical bales of hay. There is no reason whatsoever that one bale of hay is preferable to the other. Whichever bale of hay he chooses to eat, the choice is going to be, in a sense, arbitrary. Still, he is going to have to decide, or starve! He has very good reason to decide one or the other, even if the choice itself is arbitrary, in a sense.

    Similarly, it might be that God’s plan to draw humankind to himself is best served by certain kinds of distinctions between the genders. It might be that there is nothing in the genders themselves that warrant which gender should have which role, but perhaps the dividing of duties itself helps accomplish God’s purposes.

  28. Nick Gill

    Kraig, thanks for your good thoughts. I think Richard Beck addresses your point in one of the links above, so forgive me if my summary isn’t as good as his.

    Basically, he agrees that it is quite possible that your hypothetical is absolutely spot-on — that for all intents and purposes, male and female are equal, but one had to lead, so God sorta flipped a coin. If the coin lands on the other side (if he had selected females for eternal leadership and males for eternal submission), nothing would have been lost.

    But that is precisely not the argument put forth by anyone I’ve ever read who is arguing, from the Scriptures or anywhere else, for the limitation of women’s roles. Preachers have been making hay for years with sermons on what Scriptures and psychology supposedly say about *why* women are unfit for leadership.

    So you’re right — it is a valid possibility, but no one actually believes it.

  29. Nick Gill

    Guy —

    my point about temporary callings is simply this: we dwell now in the age of the Spirit — in the Messianic age.

    “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal 3:28 ESV)

    Those identity markers have not been erased, of course. There are still Jews and Gentiles; there are still slaves and freeborn people; there are still males and females. But in Christ Jesus, Jews are no longer closer to God than Gentiles. Slaves are no longer understood to be under a curse, a curse that freeborn folk do not bear. And women and men are both set free from the Curse that set them at odds with one another and prescribed that husbands would rule over wives.

    We are called to live now, in the church and in and before the watching world, by the values and lifestyle of the not-yet-fulfilled “restoration of all things,” in ways that will only make sense when Jesus appears and reality affirms that he is the true Lord of All Creation.

    So, to address your specific point, I believe male clergy was a temporary calling under the Mosaic law in confident expectation of the life of the Messianic age. We dwell in overlapping periods, but are called to live by the values of that age, even though it has been consummated but not yet fulfilled.

  30. guy


    i like how you put it. “We dwell in overlapping periods, but are called to live by the values of that age.”

    i guess it’s in virtue of it being an overlapping period that i think male clergy still applies. i don’t think we’ll be baptizing new converts in the resurrection, but i don’t think that’s reason to give up the practice now. Jesus seems to indicate that marriage relations are importantly different in the resurrection when talking to the Sadducees, but we still practice the institution of marriage now.

    i guess i don’t see that Galatians 3 applies. i take it Paul in Galatians is writing against the Judaizer’s “gospel.” What was that gospel? ‘Unless you’re circumcised, you can’t be saved.’ (Acts 15:1) In other words, Jewishness precedes eligibility for salvation. Paul says ‘Nope, anyone baptized into Christ has put on Christ and is made “Jewish” in the relevant sense (imitating Abraham’s *faith*) by Christian conversion alone, and by anyone, i mean anyone–male, female, slave, free, Jew, Gentile.’ None of those social or cultural distinctions precede salvation-eligibility.

    Well, i agree with that. i certainly don’t mean to say someone can’t be saved on account of being non-Jewish or non-male. But among those who are saved, there are still distinctions. Novices can’t be presbyters. (1Tim 3:6) People who weren’t with Jesus during his earthly ministry can’t be an apostle. (Acts 1:21-22) Paul even says in Galatians, some but not all should be the ones who restore those who fall into sin. (Gal 6:1) i don’t see male clergy as any less characteristic of the nature of Christianity than any other qualifications God places on apostles, presbyters, or deacons.

    i will concede there could be exceptions. God made a fanatical murderer an apostle. Deborah was a judge. St. Nicholas punched Arius in the face and yet was not deposed from his bishopric. Nevertheless, exceptions are still exceptional, not the norm.


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