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The Point Church


APEDS 2018: Reflections: March 2019

Hello again everyone,

Twelve months. Can you believe it was March last year that we gathered in Brisbane for the APEDS2018 Conference? Here we are, a whole year further down the track towards APEDS2020. What’s more, our whiteboard list is exhausted so we have entered the hand-off zone. It is time to pass the baton to Belmore Road church who will, Lord willing, be hosting the next APEDS Conference in Melbourne on 11–12 September 20201. So please mark your calendars!

In this final communication I want to provoke some thought about church leadership and gender. It will be longer than usual, but I think the topic’s importance warrants the extra attention. There is little doubt in my mind that gender roles in the Christian home and church will become the next big controversy among churches of Christ and church leaders, particularly in the West, cannot afford to ignore it. I welcome your questions and feedback about this or earlier APEDS2018 articles. You can contact me at [email protected].

Modern technologies and socio-political forces such as feminism, the sexual revolution, and postmodernism have all combined to create unprecedented confusion and controversy surrounding gender and sexuality in the West2. Consequently, many churches are re-examining long held traditions and assumptions regarding gender and sexuality.

Responding to significant shifts within a culture can be a lot like engaging with cross-cultural contexts. Both force Christians to consider and reconsider customary interpretations and applications of biblical texts in new ways and from different perspectives. This can be a difficult and complex process. It can be controversial and disconcerting. It can also stimulate critical theological thought and reveal fresh insights into Scripture: sometimes confirming existing teaching and practice, sometimes nuancing and expanding our understanding, and sometimes revealing questionable interpretations, assumptions and practices that had become enshrined by tradition. Restorationists, as “back to the Bible” believers, should not be afraid of this process but rather welcome it. The perennial question is: “How does one adapt and apply the enduring truths of Scripture to different or evolving cultural contexts without compromising the truth of Scripture?” The dangers, as I see it, are threefold: First, one can interpret (rationalise) Scripture so as to accommodate (progressive) culture. It is no coincidence that many who are proud of being left of centre regarding biblical authority end up looking and sounding much like their surrounding (progressive) culture. Instead of influencing culture as salt and light, the church simply reflects the trending culture of the day in the pursuit of acceptance and relevance (and now, political correctness). Second, one can interpret (rationalise) Scripture so as to protect and perpetuate (traditional) culture. This is really just the other side of the same ego-centric coin. It is no great surprise that many believers proud of being right of centre in their commitment to the authority of the Scriptures end up defending the existing (traditional) culture because they assume the status quo is God’s will3. As demonstrated by the colonialism of past centuries where conversion to Christianity equalled embracing Anglo-European culture and vice-versa, we often fail to differentiate between God’s will and our own will sanctioned by time and culture (or the traditions of the fathers if you will, Matthew 15:1–9)4. The fundamental trouble is that human culture, whether progressive or traditional, is driven by human wisdom and not Christ. Human thinking and behaviour becomes corrupted by personal sin and human culture becomes susceptible to systemic sin (which is hard to recognise by players within the system unless one is a casualty of the system or an outsider looking in). We can neither interpret nor apply Scripture in a cultural vacuum. We need to understand the history and culture of the biblical world, as well as our own, if we are to properly understand and then properly apply Scripture. But blindness to, or denial of, our own culture’s influence and bias (traditional or progressive) is the root of many hermeneutical blunders and church conflicts. Third, there is the danger of over reacting when controversy becomes disconcerting. The tendency in such cases can be to either throw the baby out with the bathwater or to swing to one extreme or another. We need to maintain our balance and remember that the way of faithfulness is narrow and sometimes very challenging…”we must through many tribulations enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22).

There is a gender war going on in the world and Christians ought not be surprised by this. God warned Eve that, as a consequence of sin, the relationship between her (the female) and her husband (the male) would now be characterised by power struggles5. Creation and the Fall is the theological framework for understanding the gender based tensions that flow from phenomena such as male chauvinism (the belief that females are inferior to males) and militant feminism (the belief that gender is a socially constructed power regime favouring males that must be overturned, a belief that advocates equality but often looks and feels suspiciously like female chauvinism)6. Gender is just one arena of conflict in our sin-sick world where prejudice, alienation and violence seemingly do their worst through the major social dimensions of race, class and gender. Among Christians however, there is no question of superiority or inferiority based upon ethnicity or socio-economic status or sex. There is no “me” versus “you” in Christ—only “us.” Our inheritance as God’s children is based upon our shared membership and equal status in Christ through faith (Galatians 3:26–29; and notice it is the one and the same initiation rite for all—baptism—that marks the occasion of the believer’s entrance into Christ / putting on Christ). The church’s identity as the Messianic community—God’s eschatological new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17–21)—derives from our association with the second Adam, not the first (Romans 5:12–21). We are in the world but not of the world (Galatians 6:14–15; cf. Romans 12:2). Consequently, the Christian way of doing community in the church and in the home is often, unsurprisingly, radically counter-cultural. We make a grave mistake when we allow battles fought among worldly protagonists that have no regard for God or Christ to make their way into the Christian church and home.

I believe a biblical understanding of the nature of local church leadership can help us avoid becoming casualties of the gender wars. But it will take careful and humble listening to the Spirit of God who speaks through Scripture, not the spirit of this world, to make sense of it:

But it was to us that God revealed these things by his Spirit. For his Spirit searches out everything and shows us God’s deep secrets. No one can know a person’s thoughts except that person’s own spirit, and no one can know God’s thoughts except God’s own Spirit. And we have received God’s Spirit (not the world’s spirit), so we can know the wonderful things God has freely given us. When we tell you these things, we do not use words that come from human wisdom. Instead, we speak words given to us by the Spirit, using the Spirit’s words to explain spiritual truths. But people who aren’t spiritual can’t receive these truths from God’s Spirit. It all sounds foolish to them and they can’t understand it, for only those who are spiritual can understand what the Spirit means. Those who are spiritual can evaluate all things, but they themselves cannot be evaluated by others. For, “Who can know the LORD’s thoughts? Who knows enough to teach him?” But we understand these things, for we have the mind of Christ (1 Corinthians 2:10–16 NLT emphasis mine).

I am not going to rehash arguments for and against egalitarianism and complementarianism here. There are plenty of books available that do a good job of presenting and examining the relevant issues7. I believe the complementarian view best represents the teaching of Scripture. Males and females are ontologically equal, but in family contexts (i.e. church and home) they are functionally different and complementary. I know this is nonsense and anathema to many modern secular Westerners (just more male power politics in which the Bible is complicit!), but I speak to those who truly know and worship the triune Creator God who is the ultimate author of both life and Scripture. I believe our being created male and female speaks of much more than our capacity to procreate as a species; it reflects the ontological unity in relational diversity of the God in whose image we are created (Genesis 1:26–28); the triune community of love that is Father, Son and Holy Spirit who, though equally divine, none the less embrace voluntary submission for the sake of creation’s redemption8.

I believe the Trinitarian unity in diversity is the rationale for the Christian faith’s differentiation of gender roles in the home and in the church9. Scripture teaches that gender differentiation is an important expression of the unity in diversity of the body of Christ where equals (1 Corinthians 12:4–7, 12–13) exercise different gifts and roles as apportioned by God (Romans 12:3–8; 1 Corinthians 12:4–31; 14:26–40; Ephesians 4:7–16; 1 Timothy 2:8–15); the Messianic eschatological community of love reflecting God’s orderly creation (1 Corinthians 11:3–10), and where greatness is measured, not in terms of ego and prestige, but in terms of selfless and humble service (1 Corinthians 13:1–13; Philippians 2:1–13; cf. Matthew 20:25–28; John 13:1–17). Gender differentiation between a husband and his wife who are one flesh (which speaks to both intimacy and equality), but whose mutual submission is expressed differently, complementarily, reflects the relationship between Christ and his church (Ephesians 5:21–33). And leadership in God’s household (1 Timothy 3:1–16) reflects the relationship between Christ and his church in so much as elders serve as stewards caring for God’s people on behalf of—and accountable to—the Chief Shepherd (1 Peter 5:1–4; cf. Acts 20:28; Hebrews 13:17).

Because leadership in the local church is modelled on Christ—the Chief Shepherd—in his relation to his church, and because leadership in the home is modelled on Christ—the Bridegroom—in relation to his church; I feel justified in looking to Ephesians 5:21–33 for what I think is the clearest description of biblical leadership and followership in the home and by implication, in the church.

Paul calls all Christians to voluntarily submit to one another out of reverence for Christ (Ephesians 5:21). In the case of marriage, Paul explains what mutual submission should look like: For the wife, submission to her husband is modelled on the church’s submission to the Lord (5:22–24). For the husband, submission to his wife is modelled on the Lord’s love for his church (5:25). That love (agape—willing and doing what is best for the other) is sacrificial with a view to promoting the wife’s holiness (5:26–27). The one flesh aspect of the relationship highlights their intimate partnership as equals cooperating with unity of purpose—joint heirs of the gift of life (1 Peter 3:7)—as it is with all members of the body of Christ (5:28–32). Paul sums up the husband’s role as loving his wife as he loves himself (5:33a, echoing the golden rule) and the wife’s role as respecting her husband (5:33b, respecting his responsibility to lead her in love). Mutual submission seems to speak to each one’s responsibility of service to the other as apportioned by God: the submission lies in serving the other, whether that service is agape leadership of the other, or washing the other’s feet (combined so profoundly by Jesus on the night of his betrayal, John 13:1–17). And I can’t think of a better way to describe the relationship of shepherds to God’s flock. Elders are to nurture and protect the flock as first (in terms of responsibility, not “rank”) among equals, while the flock must respect their leaders who are given the responsibility to lead by the Lord (and by the congregation of saints who appointed them):

Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls and will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with sighing—for that would be harmful to you (Hebrews 13:17).

Leadership in the Christian home and in the church is not about hierarchies of power based upon, or establishing, superiority and inferiority. Granted, it generally is that way in the world (Matthew 20: 25–28) and the Christian way of servant leadership and submission can always be exploited or derailed by sin (as demonstrated by the twin evils of male and female chauvinism). But surely we can understand the paradox of greatness through service as Christ-followers. Surely we can appreciate that God’s wisdom and strength appears to be foolishness and weakness to the world (cf. Proverbs 14:12; 1 Corinthians 1:18–31). Leadership, in Christian terms, is about giving power away (serving, blessing, loving, equipping, empowering the other). For that to work however, there must be submission or followership flowing from respect for the husband or elder who leads with a view to maturing the family in holiness. Properly understood, the dynamic is more like a waltz than a hierarchy, where the man takes the lead and the woman follows, resulting in the two moving as one, the dance flowing magically in step with the orchestra playing God’s will and purpose.

This brings me to my main point. I think family is the key to navigating the gender wars. Or more specifically, I believe the Ephesians 5:21–33 style of servant headship and submission modelled along Trinitarian lines (Christ, husband/elder and wife/church reflecting the divine dance of love between Father, Son and Holy Spirit) is the only way we can rise above the battle of the sexes to reclaim God’s created order where females and males can truly flourish by authentically living out their unity in diversity as image bearers of God.

We rightly observe and insist that an elder must be “the husband of one wife” (1 Timothy 3:2). Let’s go one step further and ask the why question of the Scriptures. Why would Paul (and the Holy Spirit) declare that only married men with children are candidates to oversee God’s household? The immediate context suggests the experience of marriage and parenting is crucial to the development of key qualities necessary to shepherd God’s flock: “He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him with proper respect. If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?” (1 Timothy 3:4–5). But might there be more to it than that?

The eschatological kingdom of God commenced with the advent of Christ but it is still in its intermediate now but not yet fully realised state (1 Corinthians 15:20–28). It will be fully realised when Christ returns to usher in the resurrection and judgement and a new heaven and a new earth (Revelation 20:11–22:5). In the resurrection, says Jesus, people “neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven” (Matthew 22:30). This suggests to me that sexuality and gender may not be as big a factor in the future as it is now. That awareness might help us keep a proper perspective on such matters in the present. Messiah’s eschatological community (i.e. the church) is the new humanity redeemed from the Fall and put back on track towards God’s purpose and telos for creation. But we’re not fully there yet. You can tell that is so because, among other things, marriage is still valid and popular among God’s people! So what has changed gender-wise for God’s people in the interim? Marriage has been redeemed and the battle of the sexes in consequence of sin (Genesis 3:16b) has no place among God’s redeemed community. We are free to reclaim God’s original order of Creation where God declared, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him” (Genesis 2:18). There is no chauvinism here…the idea is that the woman complements the man. Helper (ezer) is almost always used in the Old Testament of military help and is most often applied to God’s actions towards Israel (e.g. Exodus 18:4; Psalm 121:1–2).

“I lift up my eyes to the hills—
where does my help come from?
My help comes from the LORD,
the maker of heaven and earth”

God, as Israel’s helper, is hardly Israel’s inferior. Far from the woman being subservient to the man as his inferior, she is represented as his rescuer! As partner (i.e. one suitable) for the man, woman is kenegdo, a compound word meaning “like” (ke) and “opposite” (neged)…which speaks of unity (equally human and united in purpose) in diversity (differentiated as complementary male and female). In this connection, notice how Paul emphasises both the distinctiveness and the interdependence of the male and female derived from the order of creation in 1 Corinthians 11:2–12.

Why did Paul (the Holy Spirit) declare that candidates for the eldership must be the husband of one wife? I don’t think it is mere tokenism (though I fear we sometimes settle for that). I don’t think it is simply to provide a vessel for children (though I fear we sometimes settle for that). I think it is because it is still not optimum for the man to be alone! No wife, no eligibility to shepherd God’s flock. The would-be male church leader needs the female help and complementary counter-balance that his wife brings to his life and to his role of leadership. It is a team effort. He may be the captain, but a captain without a team is not much of a game. When it comes to biblical leadership in the Christian home and in the local congregation, the buck of responsibility stops with the husband/elder (both a privilege and a burden). But the wise and godly husband/elder will seek the counsel and support of his wife. If I am correct in this matter, my experience in the church suggests that many of us elders need to repent and make far greater effort to invite and benefit from the input of our wives.

Elders (and deacons for that matter), what measures are you taking so your wives can provide insight and feedback to the betterment of your ministry?

And by the way, next time someone criticises you or the church for lagging behind the times by not allowing women “access to the top jobs” in our churches10, please remember to point them to the Scriptures and show them that New Testament church leaders (elders and deacons) must have a woman (i.e. “helper” and “suitable partner”) by their side in order to be eligible for leadership. It is a waltz, not a hierarchy. I think that places us (with God) on the cutting edge of gender relations!

There is so much more that could be said about gender and church ministry and leadership. But I must stop here before a lengthy article turns into a substantial essay.

May the Lord bless us in our endeavours to serve Him and His people well. May the Lord help us to faithfully, wisely and respectfully navigate the challenges of culture wherever we are in the world. May elders and deacons everywhere love and appreciate and utilise our gift from God—our wives—to expand and strengthen our service to God and his church.

Looking forward to seeing you all in Melbourne at the APEDS2020 Conference!

Grace and peace,

Steve Wilson

  1. My apologies to those who may think I am overdoing the metaphor…but this is my last chance! 

  2. Though sometimes overlooked in popular discussions about gender relations, medical technology was a major contributor to changes in gender relations in the West in the mid-twentieth century. The availability of reliable contraception (i.e. the pill) gave women unprecedented control over childbirth allowing women a degree of social and economic independence from men not previously accessible to the vast majority of Western women (i.e. child birth no longer necessarily defined the role and identity of most women to the degree it had in the past). Child bearing has far greater influence on the development of cultural patterns of gender roles than any male chauvinist conspiracies to subjugate women. Much of the gender based tension we are experiencing in the West today is caused by the irreversible (at least not likely to be reversed) transition from the world before the pill to the brave new world of unchartered waters after the pill. In many respects, it is the story of new wine stretching and bursting old wineskins. 

  3. Need I mention embarrassing examples like church support of inhumane versions of slavery and racial apartheid in the not too distant past? If we can be blind to such blatantly obvious sin (easily recognised by us today with the benefit of hindsight), how wary ought we be of the possibility (probability!) of overlooking more subtle and respectably disguised immoralities and injustices? 

  4. Consider this: Paul summarises God’s regulation of women in church in 1 Timothy 2:11–12 as their not being permitted to teach or exercise dominion in any other way over a man (verse 12); but that a woman should learn with a quiet and submissive disposition (verse 11)…along with, I take it, all the men who are also under the instruction and direction of church leaders—we need to remember it is not that all women are to be submissive to all men; it is that all women and all men who are not leaders are to be submissive to the leaders! We might consider a few questions using 1 Timothy 2:11–12 as our baseline: Do our measures to protect our women from violating verse 12 undermine or even annul the command of verse 11 that they learn? Do we erect well intentioned safety barriers around God’s will (as the Rabbis and Pharisees of old did with the Law) to the point we unwittingly undermine or annul God’s purposes? Given that the best way to learn is to ask questions and to practice the thing to be learned—do we think in terms of how we can maximise the training and ministry of Christian women while maintaining the biblical baseline, or do we “play it safe” at the expense of the growth of our women? What service roles might a woman perform in our assemblies that do not in any way involve teaching or exercising dominion over a man? I would say no to public prayer (1 Timothy 2:8). But what about ushering or passing communion trays or news sharing—are those roles teaching or exercising dominion over a man in any way? This is the sort of thing each congregation needs to decide for itself. I am just saying we need to revisit these sorts of assumptions and practices in light of Scripture periodically rather than assuming that our habitual ways of doing things is best simply because that’s we way we’ve always done it. The true spirit of restoration is to always and fearlessly ask, “what saith the Scriptures,” isn’t it? 

  5. Genesis 3:16b. The language is parallel to God’s admonition to Cain at Genesis 4:7b where the meaning is very clear: Cain and sin would be locked in battle with each trying to gain control over the other (shades of Romans 7:7–25). Similarly, the man/husband and the woman/wife now find themselves caught up in a “battle of the sexes” which is a common and sometimes devastating manifestation of the relational dysfunction caused by sin impacting families and societies. Those who read into Genesis 3:16b the origin of male and female role differentiation are, I believe, mistaken. Paul derives the basis for gender role differentiation in the church (and by extension, in the home, Ephesians 5:21–33) from God’s order of creation: the male was created first, then the female (i.e. Genesis 2:18–25), all of which predates the fall (1 Corinthians 11:3–12; 1 Timothy 2:11–15). Genesis 16b anticipates sin’s corruption of the gender differentiation already established at creation, not the introduction of gender differentiation (e.g. headship and submission) as some sort of punishment for sin. 

  6. What I am calling militant feminism should not be confused with historical feminism which is, in my opinion, a legitimate social justice movement that has championed important causes ranging from women’s suffrage to equal pay for equal work regardless of one’s sex. The radically militant version of feminism, however, is very different in its socio-political tone and agenda. 

  7. There has been so much published over the past three or four decades it is hard to decide where to start. I recommend Everett Ferguson’s small book, Women in the Church (Chickasha, OK: Yeoman, 2003); especially helpful because of its concise treatment of relevant biblical texts, early church history, and theology. An even briefer booklet by Kathy Keller titled Jesus, Justice & Gender Roles (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012) is very worthwhile. Kathy Keller, who is the wife of the popular Presbyterian author Timothy Keller, speaks of her struggle to first adopt and then maintain a politically incorrect stance regarding gender roles in the Liberal and upwardly mobile social climate of New York. Jack Cottrell authored three books published by College Press on Feminism, Gender Roles, and Headship and Submission respectively (though these may not be easy to get your hands on outside the US). Zondervan’s Counterpoints Series edited by James R. Beck offers a revised edition of Two Views on Women in Ministry (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005) that gives a current defence and critique of the egalitarian and complementarian views. Among the best of recent offerings in favour of egalitarianism are Alice P. Mathews’ Gender Roles and the People of God: Rethinking What We Were Taught About Men and Women in the Church (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017) and Cynthia Long Westfall’s Paul and Gender: Reclaiming the Apostle’s Vision for Men and Women in Christ (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2016). Though now a bit dated, Susan T. Foh’s Women & the Word of God: A Response to Biblical Feminism (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1979) is still a standout in my opinion. John Piper and Wayne Grudem edited a response to evangelical feminism in defence of complementarianism titled Recovering Biblical Manhood & Womanhood (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012) which is both current and comprehensive in scope. 

  8. For example, only God the Son became incarnate, and in so doing voluntarily submitted himself to God the Father. But the Word’s submission to the Father in becoming human does not diminish the divinity of the God-Man. That should, from a Christian perspective, put to rest once and for all the notion that voluntary submission necessarily means ontological inferiority. That reasoning sounds more like Nietzsche’s take on power than the Holy Spirit (who, incidentally, seems to be quite OK with voluntarily submitting himself to both the Father and the Son, John 16:12–15). 

  9. It is important to remember we are talking here to those pursuing the Christian faith, not seeking to impose Christian values and practices on the world. Those who are ignorant of or reject the Trinitarian God can hardly be expected to understand, much less embrace, teachings and practices derived from the triune nature of our Creator and Redeemer. Sometimes we forget that “Christendom” is a failed project of Roman Catholicism; it was never God’s idea and bears little resemblance to the kingdom of God on earth under the reign of Christ. 

  10. Of course, they’re probably thinking of the extra-biblical power hierarchies characteristic of most denominations—“corporate ladders” that do not exist among autonomous congregations modelled after the New Testament ideal. Too, we need to remember that God’s gender differentiation of roles applies to family contexts (i.e. the Christian home and church) only. As far as I can tell from both the Old and New Testament Scriptures, the regulation of gender roles does not extend to broader contexts of economic and political activity, which today would include the operations of para-church institutions ranging from Christian schools and publications to Christian community service organisations. I believe there is a distinction between church (i.e. the church gathered) and Christians operating in other social contexts (i.e. the church dispersed), as seems to be assumed by Paul in 1 Corinthians 11:22, 33–34a.