Why is Biblical Church Leadership Male?
by David K. Vallance
God’s Word entrusts authority and leadership in human relationships to males. Thus, in local assembly governance, the New Testament excludes women from the leadership roles of overseer and teacher and instead calls them to serve in equally important but complementary tasks. Scripture bases this division in gender roles not on personal worth or ability, but rather on headship – a core principle that God builds into everything He makes.
The hierarchical term “head” (Hebrew rosh, Greek kephale) describes what is first in rank.1 Headship may be confused with lordship, so note the following distinctions: lordship is about ownership, headship is about order; lordship is power, headship is position; lordship is rule, headship is rank. Both a lord and a head take the foremost role among others. A lord wields the strength to subdue them; a head accepts the authority to lead them. Those under lordship must bow, but those under headship willingly submit, acknowledging the responsibility located in their head to lead and inspire them.
By God’s design, Jesus is not only Lord but Head. He is Head over all things to the Church (Eph 1:22), the Head of the Church (5:23; Col 1:18), the Head of all males (1Co 11:3), and the Head of all rule and authority (Col 2:10). In the coming Millennium, God will “head up all things in the Christ” (Eph 1:10 JND) – the spectacular fulfillment of His plan to set a Man over the universe (Gen 1:26; Psa 8:5-6; Heb 2:8-9). As the administrative Head, Christ assumes the responsibility to lead, motivate and support those under His leadership; as the organic Head, He takes up the charge to sanctify, nourish and cherish His body (Eph 5:25-33). All lesser headships under Christ’s headship ultimately honour Him, so headship is immensely precious to God.
Although the Lord Jesus is infinitely greater than the creatures under His headship, the concept of headship itself never requires personal superiority. Headship is functional leadership. The Bible reveals such a hierarchy within the Trinity: though the Father, Son and Spirit are equal in being and glory, the Son defers to the Father, and the Spirit defers to the Father and the Son (1 Coe 11:3; John 14:26; 15:26). Since “the head of Christ is God” (1 Cor 11:3 KJV), submission to headship cannot involve inferiority.
Men and women are similarly equal in value. In the first chapter of Genesis God describes generic man as them – male and female (vv26-28). In their vertical relationship with God they stood as equals, both created in His image and after His likeness, yet distinct in their manhood and womanhood. The second chapter of Genesis, however, introduces headship. We learn that the woman was made after, from and for the man. God formed the man and spoke to him alone before He formed his matching helper Eve from his side. Thus, in their horizontal relationship with each other the male and female are unequal in function: God assigned headship to Adam and helpership to Eve. Although their dominion was a partnership, the responsibility for that dominion lay with the man alone. The woman’s submission to the man’s headship, like the subordination of a vice-president to a president in an organisation, does not violate her worth or minimise her importance as a person.
Satan, unsurprisingly, hates headship and undermines it whenever he can (Isa 14:13-14). He upended headship in the Garden by isolating Eve from Adam (Gen 3:1-7), and the aftermath brought sin into the world (Rom 5:12). Today, God calls His people to restore and maintain the original creation order by practising headship, not only in the home but also in the assembly. By intelligently and willingly submitting to headship women can honour Christ in a way open only to them. In assembly meetings, we communicate this headship by male leadership and teaching, and female head covering and silence (1Tim 2:12-15; 1 Cor 11:2-16; 14:33-35). When men act as men and women as women, they portray the relationship of Christ to His body, and delight not only angels (1 Cor 11:10) but God Himself.
Before Paul turns to discuss the qualifications for overseers in his first letter to Timothy, he asserts that “a woman should learn in quietness and full submission.” He continues: “I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent” (1 Tim 2:11-12 NIV). He makes the same argument in 1 Corinthians 14 where he writes, “The women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says” (v34 ESV). Paul bases his inspired teaching not on current cultural issues in Ephesus or Corinth but on the man’s priority in creation (1 Tim 2:13) and the woman’s “priority” in the fall, where the headship order was reversed from God-man-woman-serpent to serpent-woman-man-God (v14).
After affirming male headship in assembly gatherings in 1 Timothy 2, Paul applies this principle in the next chapter to men who aspire to serve as overseers (3:1-7). He gives Titus a similar list to help him recognise elders in the assemblies of Crete (1:5-9). In both lists, Paul restricts the qualifications to men. He consistently uses only masculine pronouns and adjectives and includes “the husband of one wife,” a phrase that can only apply to males (1 Tim 3:2; Titus 1:6). The biblical model is servant leadership, not oppressive tyranny. Peter writes that overseers should not domineer those in their charge but serve as examples to the flock (1 Pet 5:3). Shepherds must nevertheless teach and exercise authority over the flock – headship functions designed by God for men. Godly men lead and godly women serve in crucially important supporting roles.
Teaching gender roles for men and women clashes with the egalitarianism that now prevails in the Western world and in some Christian circles. Fearing reprisals from the state and buckling under feminist pressure, even conservative Christian groups are now open to “reinterpreting” the plain statements of Scripture on gender roles. In this age of mass media, these trendy opinions and hermeneutical oddities have flooded the evangelical world and are seeping into assemblies.
Egalitarians herald Galatians 3:28 as their manifesto and the last word on the subject. When Paul wrote, “There is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (ESV), they say he reached his noblest thinking; in the “problem passages” where he taught male headship, he was relapsing into his pre-conversion Pharisaism. From this they conclude that women and men are interchangeable everywhere, and that there should be no gender-based restrictions on any church “office” (their term) or ministry.
But a text ripped from its context is a mere pretext. In Galatians, Paul proclaims justification by faith alone and not by works (2:16). He only addresses the vertical relationship of people with God, not the horizontal relationship of men and women with each other; their heavenly position “in Christ,” not their earthly condition in a family or in an assembly. God accepts everyone who places faith in Christ on the same ground, no matter who or what they are. All believers are “one man in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28 ASV, RV; cf. Eph 2:15), fused not only to Christ but to each other. Far from neutralising all ethnic, social or gender distinctions among Christians, this verse states that these distinctions – which it assumes – do not imply spiritual inequality before God.
Assemblies depend on women. Men could never supply the spiritual ballast that women provide. The service they contribute is as valuable as the work of men, and men could not do what they do without female support. Blessing depends on women’s prayer. Married women serve God by bringing up children and supporting their husbands (1 Tim 2:15). All women strengthen the believers by their mercy and hospitality, and by their service to other women (Titus 2:3-5) and children. Gospel outreach would be impossible without women – one-third of the workers whom Paul compliments in Romans 16 are female. The good works of women build integrity into the assembly and endorse it to outsiders (1 Tim 2:10; 5:10). When men display the glory of headship and women the glory of helpership, we have pre-fall Eden all over again.
- The egalitarian notion that kephale means “source” is based on “evidence” that evaporates when checked out. See, e.g., the BDAG lexicon under “kephale.”