Scott Lencke: Can Women Be Church Leaders? The NT Household Codes

Note from CM: Gender issues continue to provoke lively debate within the evangelical churches. Scott Lencke takes up the subject again for us today, reminding us in the process that how one approaches and reads the Bible plays a crucial role in understanding matters like this. Scott blogs at The Prodigal Thought.

After reading this, you might also want to refer to what we’ve written here on the NT Haustafeln.

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Can Women Be Church Leaders? The NT Household Codes
by Scott Lencke

Can women be church leaders?

It’s a big question that causes a lot of debate. Not as much today as, say, a couple of decades ago. Thankfully. Nonetheless, this remains a fairly divisive issue in the church today.

I’ve spent plenty of time looking at the question of women leadership here at the blog. But, in this article, I want to address a couple of Scriptures known as the “household codes” in the New Testament. These are particularly found in Eph 5:22-6:9 and Col 3:18-4:1.

Obviously these passages don’t specifically speak about church leadership. However, many, if not most, see a connection between leadership in the home and leadership in the church, all going back to God’s “original creation design.” So, while these are distinct, they are related and these household codes are worth addressing in the larger context of the discussion concerning women’s roles.

In both of these New Testament passages, six specific groups of people are addressed:

  1. Wives (Eph 5:22-24; Col 3:18)
  2. Husbands (Eph 5:25-33; Col 3:19)
  3. Children (Eph 6:1-3; Col 3:20)
  4. Fathers (Eph 6:4; Col 3:21)
  5. Slaves (Eph 6:5-8; Col 3:22-25)
  6. Masters (Eph 6:9; Col 4:1)

These household passages include instructions not just for the family nucleus as we may think in our modern world today (husband/wife and children/parents), but they also have little snippets that speak to the relationship between household slaves (kind of like indentured servants) and masters.

When it comes to wives, for many, these passages clearly state that men are the ones given the final leadership authority in the home. Yes, we are reminded by complementarians that the man is charged to be over his wife in a servant manner, as Christ served the church. But the husband is still the head; still the de facto lead in the marriage relationship.

In all, men are the leaders in the home and they also carry the lead role within the church (1 Cor 14 and 1 Tim 2 are highlighted by complementarians).

This view is all the more emphasized as God’s design in creation because the male leadership in the marriage is rooted in Christ and his relationship to the church. We probably know these oft-read words at weddings:

Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. (Eph 5:22-24)

It is plain.

Husbands are the head; women are to submit.

This is the biblical view – right there, black ink on white paper (because no interpretation is needed for this plain view).

And it’s rooted in Christ himself!

Well, as you might imagine, I’d actually argue the opposite of the complementarian view.

Here’s why.

First off, we have to be very careful stamping a particular view as the “biblical” view. We can quote all types of Bible passages to support all types of actions that are definitely not of God. That’s been part of church history up to the present day, unfortunately. To advocate something as “biblical” doesn’t necessarily mean it’s what God is asking of us.

As I learned in seminary (yes, I learned something in seminary!), it takes wisdom to apply the wisdom of the Bible.

Furthermore, with the household instructions found in Eph 5-6 and Col 3-4, I believe we will do well to first engage these words knowing the ancient setting in which they were given. This is key!

Here’s what’s interesting. In those same exact passages, we actually find reason to perpetuate household slaves. Remember the plain reading? “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ” (6:5).

Sounds fair enough to conclude we could continue the practice of household slaves. And it’s also spiritually connected to Christ, right?

“…just as you would obey Christ.”

As long as we ensure masters are right and fair (Col 4:1), ultimately honoring God in their mastering of the household slave, all is well and good. And let’s also remind these slaves to obey their masters respectfully, just as if it was Jesus they were serving.

So it’s ok to perpetuate the practice of keeping household slaves.

Do you remember what I stated above? We can quote all types of Bible verses to support all types of actions that are definitely not of God.

Guess what’s been done with slavery in church history, including American Church history?

It got stamped with Bible verses, including Eph 6 and Col 3-4.

No, way?!

Yes, way!

Maybe there is more to these passages than meets the eye.

Maybe, as we started to realize in America some one hundred and fifty years ago (in the 1850s and 1860s), then again a century after that (in the 1950s and 1960s), the enslavement of other human beings made in the image of God is a stench in the nostrils of God.

I don’t care how much we spin it, enslavement of others is wrong. It is not Christlike.

But we have instructions from Paul seemingly rooting this practice in Christ and our own relationship with him. Both for slavery and marriage.

What to do?

Here’s a thought.

Perhaps the instructions in places like Eph 5-6 and Col 3-4 are to be recognized within the framework they were given: the ancient household construct. Maybe these instructions are not given for all peoples of all time.

What I would offer is that Paul is giving instructions to the church of the first-century Mediterranean world on how to conduct themselves in their home life in the most honorable way possible for their setting. I’ve already contended that the directive about slaves and masters is not something for all people for all time, even as Paul charges slaves to obey their masters like they would obey Christ. This is not casting God’s word aside nor doubting what God has said. It’s simply using our wisdom as we read Scripture. I wish our American fathers had done the same.

And so, translating this in regards to the instructions for husbands and wives, think about it. These words are given within an ancient, patriarchal society. Guess what the general flow was? Men in charge; women not so much. Thus, Paul is giving a directive on how the entire Christian household should function – wives, husbands, children, fathers, slaves and masters. His words ring with clarity to the Christian church of the first century. But that isn’t so easily converted into every culture of every time.

Again, remember the slave.

Let me be very clear. I know this may feel scary to some. If we can re-apply the household passages, then we can re-apply just about any passage, it may be argued.

But I would say the goal here is not to disregard holy Scripture. The aim is not to spurn God’s word. The intent is not to re-apply each passage on a whim. Rather, there is the purpose of thoughtfully wrestling with God’s word – as each generation and culture has – in order to effectively apply it into our own context.

And thankfully we have church history to bounce things off of, as well as the church of our own day.

Is it perfect?


It wasn’t then. It isn’t now. It never has been.

Theology is not an empirical science. Trust me on that one.

In the end, I don’t believe it’s a truly honest approach to run to Ephesians and Colossians and say, “Look, Paul said this about husbands and wives. It’s very clear the man is the leader and the wife is to be submitted with no mutual, shared leadership, just as it is with Christ and the church.” Otherwise, we need to also head into Ephesians and Colossians and remind ourselves, as some of our fathers and mothers did, “Look, Paul allows for household slaves, just as long as we treat them fairly. So we are ok to have household slaves.”

It doesn’t work that way.

For slaves.

Nor for understanding the leadership roles of women and men in the home.

I believe we should not use these two little letters to perpetuate a theological system that disallows women to lead as they are called by God, to work in tandem with humble men God has also called as leaders.

I also believe there is no set, determined household code that is the only way for all peoples of all cultures of all time. Again, it takes wisdom to apply the wisdom of Scripture.

I am grateful God calls women to lead the people of God. I am grateful that wives and husbands can lead their home together in mutual submission to one another.

107 thoughts on “Scott Lencke: Can Women Be Church Leaders? The NT Household Codes

  1. In reply to Rick Ro., I have changed my stance. For most of my life after becoming a Christian, I was a staunch Southern Baptist with all that entailed including no women in leadership roles. However, once I started doing my own study of the scriptures in my faith journey – this was one of the things that I could no longer support.

    And no, I have no desire at all to be a leader in the church. I have always served in support roles mostly in the background (primarily secretarial and financial). None of my female family members or close friends have any desire to be leaders either. So this is not something self serving on my part. I simply no longer accept that the scriptures forbid these roles just because someone is a woman.


  2. Excellent post. Two things went through my mind as I checked back in a few times today: 1) that I, a woman, was much too busy to write a detailed post because I was too swamped at work doing work that is outside of the home and has nothing to do with sex or children and work I do because I have an advanced degree (all that would blow the mind of my fellow Christians in the first century) and 2) a man was arrested today for killing a woman on a golf course because he had an overwhelming desire to rape and kill a woman. That’s a threat we women keep in the back of our mind everyday.

    I find it ludicrous that women were ever looked down upon and forced to sit in the metaphorical back of the bus and denied leadership in the first place, but there we are. We women are just people – normal, everyday people. We’re part of the norm of humanity, not an exception to the norm. We’re not “lesser than” in any way. I see Seneca over there frantically waving his hand and saying “testosterone.” Well Seneca dear, you men might be physically stronger, but women can have babies, so there. Also, be careful about putting your self-esteem in your physical strength because it can leave you tomorrow, and you’re going to find that your masculinity is a rather, well, um, small consolation in the face of the problems of this world. Best put your faith in God instead.

    The sinful view of “might makes right” is much more deeply engrained in human society than we all realize, and the treatment of women is part of this. I’m going to have to disagree with Mule in that I think society overall, at least in the West, has improved greatly over time and will improve even more, due to Christianity – and in spite of many Christians. As I told one minister, we women are here, and we’re not going anywhere.


  3. Along those same lines, I’ve always seen the submit verses in Ephesians as Paul giving an example of how to live out Christ’s command to love one another, submit to one another and here’s an example for the wife and the husband. I think it’s the sinful world creeping in when people read these verses and get a hierarchy of power out of them.


  4. Very interesting. I do agree that Paul was advising Christians to work within the culture of the day since to not do so would discredit the church. Similarly, given the much higher position of women today and all that they’ve achieved, saying that women cannot be in church leadership for no reason other than their gender also discredits the church – and I think many churches simply don’t understand that this is how more and more people are seeing the church – outdated and absurd.


  5. ‘Nother example of men submitting to female leadership: I’m a huge fan of Susan Howatch novels, and my favorite, Scandalous Risks, has a scene where the protagonist, a young woman named Venetia, is having an emotional and spiritual breakdown and is in bed under the care of Mrs Ashworth, the Bishop’s wife.

    In the bedroom with her, paying visits for various reasons related or unrelated to the breakdown, are also the Bishop; the Dean of the Cathedral; and a younger clergyman, the Canon (this is all very Anglican).

    The scene in question:

    But someone was screaming. Someone was shouting, “No, no, NO!” over and over again in a rising crescendo of hysteria.

    Then I realized the voice was connected with me. It belonged to a fragment of my personality. I had begun to disintegrate and now I was splitting into a thousand pieces . . .

    I screamed and screamed, but Mrs. Ashworth was coming to the rescue; I saw her move, saw her swing round on the three men and shout: “Out!” in a voice which made them jump. The curious part was that they all obeyed her instantly. Afterwards I never forgot that at the most crucial moment of my spiritual sickness the Church of England, that ancient bastion of male privilege, turned tail and fled en masse.


  6. Mike, about submitting to female leadership: I just got back from a fire meeting, and one of the firefighters is a young woman who is also an EMT and our town’s Emergency Services Coordinator.

    She’s young enough to be my daughter, in fact she was in one of my daughters’ high school class. But when she’s in charge, she’s in charge. Even the fire chief, who is bigger than I am, defers to her during a power outage or a medical crisis. And the system works, because she knows her stuff.


  7. Mike, during my church’s attempted 9Marks takeover, there was a video that equated egalitarians with “humanists” and “Pelagianists.” The “L” word didn’t even need to come up.

    Or maybe it was the Arminians that got lumped with that lot. No matter; it’s all the same.

    Not sure if you’re in good company or not.


  8. Folks, you can run your church any way you like.

    It’s your church. If you push things too far, it may no longer be God’s church, but it will remain your church.

    You can have all-male leadership. You can divide people along gender lines in the sand; you can separate your sheep from your goats with gender rods and staffs. You can purify the local church with a gender litmus test.

    People will come to your church because you insist upon all-male rule. Others will leave your church because you insist upon it. But know this:

    That is not the Gospel. That will never be the Gospel. That will remain Law, merely Law, and Law does not often lead us to the Gospel of Jesus; it distracts from it.

    Enjoy the taste of power while you can.


  9. Back when I was in college, I was a rather conservative Pentecostal Calvinist. (I know, weird combination, but even back then my faith was somewhat eclectic.) That was right when _Wild At Heart_ and its Christian blessing of secular culture’s image of masculinity was super popular in evangelical circles. I attended John Piper’s church for a few years, and I bought a lot of the complementarian rhetoric.

    It never really sat right with me, because I grew up in a family with many strong women whose husbands treated them as equals, and I saw how that sort of relationship fostered healthy and loving marriages. But it took me years of wrestling with the prohibition passages to reach a point where I feel like I can support women in ministry without needing to just pretend those passages don’t exist. So yeah, I’d count myself as someone who has changed.


  10. The culture that says sin isn’t sin, you are the judge of what is right and wrong, and God can’t possibly have said that. That culture –


  11. Which culture? The culture that wants to build walls, allow sexual harassers “mulligans”, and totally disengage social awareness from Christian proclamation? Because THAT is a culture that desperately needs countering.


  12. CM, I’m not exactly a 50’s guy but I am certainly not a follower of current cultural thinking. Has Christianity always been counter cultural?

    The easiest path is always the thinking of the current culture.


  13. Nice comment. I have been doing my genealogy, at the request of my middle daughter, recently. To her absolute delight I found a link back to some of the STRONG women of medieval lines – yes, I double checked, this is not one of those wishful thinking, wish-fulfillment genealogies. The women in question are Elanor of Aquitaine and the Empress Maud… 🙂


  14. “..there is always an alpha …”

    A little off the subject but that whole “alpha male” dominance hierarchy designation in primate behavior studies has been almost completely discredited. Another popular myth bites the dust.


  15. “My theory; despite the impact of feminism and egualitarianism, ultimately testosterone will rule on the Earth. With few exceptions,

    women will not be planters of churches. I don’t think God made many of them to do that.”

    So what is your ultimate point, Seneca? I’m not going to put words in your mouth. Stand up and tell what point blank what you believe.


  16. Yes that is EXACTLY the question – is what the Bible says that clearly applies to the values of a particular culture applicable and binding on all people in all cultures?


  17. No, actually it is a post that says, “This is what the Bible really says.”

    And if you’d like to go further, read the IM post linked in today’s post as well as this post — “Why I am an Egalitarian.” You will note that I became such strictly on the basis of what the Bible says, in my view.

    It’s rarely a simple question of “what God said.” It is almost always a question of “how do I interpret what the Bible says?”


  18. You and Mule both brought up Aimee. What is your point? That her and her church’s problems stemmed from her being a woman? Because innumerable Male Pastors and Male-founded churches have had problems far, FAR worse.


  19. Yes, that is the question. And I’m personally comfortable with saying and believing, “No, God has not said that.”


  20. As they say, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Honestly, I mean, what did you expect?

    But never mind that: Welcome back, Patrick Kyle.


  21. Yes, that IS the question. Was God speaking pan-cultural eternal Truths in the NT household codes, or was it a transitional application of Kingdom principles in a hostile culture?


  22. So, I come back here from a loooong hiatus, and what am I greeted with? A post and a comment thread that boils down to ‘Has God really saId…?’


  23. I don’t know about ‘testosterone’ winning the day at all. Seems to me that if it weren’t for Jeanne d’Arc (Joan of Arc), that the French would be speaking English today. . . . . . she drove the English out of France and had the French prince crowned King of France . . . .

    of course, she fell into the hands of the English and they burned her for a witch . . . . . but she saved France for the French

    young woman, peasant, illiterate, good faith-filled family, not large-sized, but she had this ‘vision’ and OMG did it work for her in a day when such things NEVER happened or were supposed to happen

    I’m not sure about any of the ‘mighty man’ thing . . . . . . ever see any of those Icelandic Cross-Fit women champions? . . . . . maybe it’s time to consider ‘strength of character’ and ‘moral purpose’ and ‘personal integrity’ as what gets people through this world, because the ‘mighty man’ thing ain’t good enough


  24. I hope your friend is wrong about Millennials and Post-Millennials. I prefer to think that the young people at Furry Cons are not necessarily representative of all their generational contemporaries.


  25. “Let the world become a couple of degrees more dangerous, and what gets excoriated now as ‘toxic masculinity’ will be in high demand.”

    Come come, you of all people should know that just because something is in demand doesn’t make it good. The real question is, what models Christ better – cultural masculinity or servant leadership (by women as well as men)?


  26. @senecagriggs, You seem to be obsessed with church planting. I don’t think that’s a healthy mindset. Just sayin’.


  27. Oh Seneca, it really is time to emerge from the 1950s!

    BTW, in dual leadership situations, there is always an alpha leader regardless of the official titles. It could be the woman but testosterone….

    I believe true partnership is possible, despite your assertion. The Methodist church I mentioned is a prime example of a very effective and truly shared ministry.

    And in terms of women planting churches, I mentioned Nadia Bolz-Weber. And again, I would suggest you have a limited perspective on “planting churches.” Certainly in the evangelical world I came from, with entrepreneurial CEO type church-planters and pastors, women did not do so. But that is far from the only model. And again, the point is not for women to be a sole leader, the question is women in leadership and their role is increasing on leadership teams in churches all over the place. See Mike Bell’s comment for a great example.

    But wait, there’s more. If you look in your own conservative evangelical history, there are multitudes of women who went to the mission field as single women, and, lo and behold! churches were planted. It’s one of the most ironic facts of church history — that the most fundamental and conservative churches were somehow okay with sending women to do what only men are allowed to do here in the U.S.


  28. That’s because you’re not using the Focus-on-the-Family Guidebook to Masculinity, in which the word humble means almost exactly the opposite of what you and most people think it means.


  29. You’re wrong on a point of fact, Seneca: neither the denomination that CM belongs to, nor the other mainlines, routinely put a male and female pastor together in a parish leadership position, or require that. There are many parishes that have only one pastor, either male or female. Actually, there aren’t even enough potential pastors to go around to fill vacant positions. To get a new pastor after one has retired or moved on takes a long time in most Evangelical Lutheran Church in America synods, and this is equally true in the other mainlines. It can take years.


  30. –> “the realization that Christ did not incarnate, suffer, die, and resurrect just to put a seal of approval on ‘how things have always been done’.”

    This! Yes!


  31. Unremarkable, I would say, given that the churches in question are large enough to have two clergy. In the case of the Lutheran church I am pretty sure they are sleeping together, but then again they are married to each other, so you never know.


  32. My theory; despite the impact of feminism and egualitarianism, ultimately testosterone will rule on the Earth.

    That’s not a theory, it’s a wish. Your wish, to be more precise. Of course, I know that millions of men have the same wish, but it’s not mine.


  33. Well, it’s only been a few decades since most non-Pentecostal churches have allowed women pastors. It’s hardly fair to hold mens’ two millennium head start against women…


  34. “Who here has CHANGED their position from a previously held position/belief?”

    I call myself to the witness stand. 😉

    I was once a complementarian, based on the principle that the Bible was meant to transmit eternal transcendent truths, and that any ethical rule in the Bible counted as such unless specifically repealed. Two things broke me of that. First, the realization that the Bible itself does not support that view of itself. Second, the realization that Christ did not incarnate, suffer, die, and resurrect just to put a seal of approval on “how things have always been done”. He radically overturned and contradicted Jewish religious and cultural norms, and indicated His Kingdom would/should do the same. No “household code” is going to read the same in light of those assumptions.


  35. The first sentence of my above comment was supposed to be in a blockquote, but, alas, it did not materialize!


  36. Let the world become a couple of degrees more dangerous, and what gets excoriated now as ‘toxic masculinity’ will be in high demand.

    No, not more in demand or popular, but in a better position to impose itself on the unwilling more freely than it can in the West right now. Take a look at Putin’s Russia for a preview of how this would look in the West, only with evangelical rather than Eastern Orthodox accents giving the blessing of male potency. Imagine Promise Keeper and Focus on the Family-like (they should call it Focus on the Man) idealization of all things masculine, rather than long beards and soldierly asceticism.


  37. The church is the bride of Christ, so symbolically anyone who plants a church is planting a “female” congregation.


  38. Reading all the comments, it doesn’t appear women are planting churches. Women are inheriting churches; but even in those cases C.M. and other noted that they are not putting a woman pastor in solely in charge but are insuring both male and female leadership.

    [ BTW, in dual leadership situations, there is always an alpha leader regardless of the official titles. It could be the woman but testosterone…. ]

    My theory; despite the impact of feminism and egualitarianism, ultimately testosterone will rule on the Earth. With few exceptions,

    women will not be planters of churches. I don’t think God made many of them to do that.

    [ For those of you wishing to do a psych eval on me, I had a great and Godly mom – loved her to death. I did drive her crazy growing up, but she hung tough. Great Mom – ]


  39. Come on Rick, it’s the men who go out there and plant churches. Other than our black sisters, I don’t seem women planting churches.


  40. A woman evangelist of some decades back who had more than a little Elmer Gantry in her.

    Patricia, it is interesting that you have to go back that many years to find an example. We’re talking 1930s-1940s. Foursquare denomination still exists; I believe they probably still have woman pastors.


  41. “the abolition of slavery and the emancipation of women is part and parcel of the leavening effect of the Gospel in human society, and we are simply more Christian than our forebears, regardless that we don’t really believe the Bible or the Creeds.”

    Funny, Paul said in Romans that pagans who don’t know God and do what He desires are better off than believers who DO know and don’t do it.


  42. “I’m not arguing the theology I asking if there are strong churches that were built and planted by women and if women pastors are able to maintain and grow churches?”

    Using the criteria of a “strong” church (as appears to be defined by you as numbers and/or adherence to fundamentalist orthodoxy) is itself a theological argument.


  43. Oh! Oh! Oh! Pick me!!! 🙂

    I was completely and without question a complementarian and believed only men could hold leadership positions in church (I was a Southern Baptist for 30+ years), though I never fully bought into the ‘women can’t teach men at all’ part. The issue is/was ‘the Bible says it, that settles it’. I even heard (from SBC leaders, and repeated it) that a woman who believes her ‘call’ is more clear to her than what the Bible says can’t be ‘called’ by the Holy Spirit because he never contradicts himself (and the Bible IS inspired [inerrantly] by the Holy Spirit).

    When that began to change for me was in seminary (an evangelical seminary, but with a strong academic focus) where I began to learn about socio-scientific criticism of the Bible. I had always understood the importance of historical backgrounds on a ‘macro’ level – like who was emperor when Jesus was born, and at a more localized level with things like who paid taxes to whom for what, and so forth. But when I began to study ancient sociology much more intently (in my [uncompleted] Ph.D. work), the ‘micro’ level of historical backgrounds – personal relationships, economic systems, the importance of honor/shame, etc. – I realized something that I had missed for all those years, and I’m afraid most miss today.

    What I realized was that the Bible’s ethical ‘framework’, if you will (what some call a ‘biblical worldview’) is actually within a larger cultural ‘framework’, and it is ‘tuned’ in light of that larger framework. In other words, the ethical system we find in the Bible is one that God gave (for the sake of argument – I don’t want to debate inspiration, authority, inerrancy, etc.) for the benefit of people living in a particular social and cultural environment. If one starts with the assumption that God gives directions/commands for the benefit of his people (because he cares about them) then many of the otherwise problematic (from our perspective) commands make sense – they were good, beneficial, even necessary in an ancient culture with a subsistence agrarian economy (with a very limited amount of ‘goods’ available), in communities where honor and shame were matters of life and death (as in modern-day Pakistan), and people did not have personal freedoms (or basic control over their lives) as we take for granted today. In that culture, Paul’s household codes make perfect sense – and are not very different from what one reads in pagan literature. Paul certainly has a ‘radical’ streak in his thinking, even in the undisputed letters – Philippians is loaded with culturally radical ideas and references to hot-button issues related to Roman social status, and the Corinthian letters battle issues of status head-on. But Paul is also a realist – he does not want the church to be too radical – women might be fully equal in Christ’s kingdom but he doesn’t want to bring scandal (and persecution) on the young churches, so he instructs them to live according to the expectations of the culture at large (‘pagan’ ethics, if you will) – have their heads covered in public, be submissive to their husbands, etc. He is walking a fine line, and sometimes he goes left and sometimes right. But his ethical instructions (particularly the household codes) are very much a ‘framework’ within a larger ‘framework’.

    I think the lessons here are two-fold (though probably many more). First, God’s commands/instructions/ethics are for the benefit of his people and are probably always related to the expectations of the culture in which God’s people live. Some things may be ‘universal, timeless truths’ but not all things are, and some are very easy to discern (e.g. women having their heads covered, and I would submit, women not holding leadership positions in church). As Christians, the question should not be ‘what did Paul (or whoever) say about this in the Bible?’ but ‘what would Paul say about this today?’ Second, Christians also have a responsibility to be sensitive to the expectations of the larger culture, and like Paul, pick their battles with some nuance (rather than grab a club and go out protesting something that is not ‘biblical’).

    Some will (and some have – even on this site) call this the slippery slope – and it is! But the only alternative is to try and apply a bronze-age ethical system to the 21st century. And I’m afraid that despite all the noise, very few people are really doing that – even the complementarians.


  44. Speaking of these passages as “household codes” seems to me to be potentially misunderstanding them. The ” household codes” both particarise a general admonition on Christians in one case to “submit” to each other, in the other right after the famous passage about there being no male / female, slave / free. These are to my mind specific examples of how Christians in each station in life described can follow the general instruction to bear witness to Christ. That this is not a blueprint for Christian family life seems to me made obvious when you bear in mind the Christians Paul is addressing must largely have been individual converts living with non-Christians in a non-Christian household in accordance with its, not Paul’s rules.
    Also, the various times Paul is stated as talking of doing stuff for other members of the household “just as you would for Christ” seem to me (from looking at on-line Greek resources – I am not an expert) potentially seriously misleading; what is literally said is “like / to the same measure as Christ”. If one instead of thinking about this as an instruction to 21 Century Christian households and more to a Christian convert with social, legal and family obligations to the wider society, there is no reason to read this as meaning they should consider a (pagan) husband, father or master as akin to a deity to worship and obey (Paul, a Jew, suggesting this idol-worship? Really?) but rather that family and social duties are just as important and should not suffer for religious ones: love your neighbour also as you love God.


  45. Hello Adam,
    your Finnish ancestors . . . . were some of them of the indigenous Saami people of the North? If so, how very fortunate you are to have that heritage!

    here is something you might enjoy:


  46. –> “…what gets excoriated now as ‘toxic masculinity’ will be in high demand.”

    No. It will become more toxic.


  47. > Who here has CHANGED their position from a previously held position/belief?

    Me. I was, I suppose, what one would call a Complimentarian; pastors and priest should be men.

    Now I simply don’t care. Give the job to the qualified person who wants it.

    It, for me, tracked with the belief [or feeling, maybe] that there was something “special” about the role of Pastor|Teacher. Not believing that anymore it is difficult to argue that it should be restricted by some arbitrary property of person. Abundant proximity to Pastor|Teachers made the notion of Specialness absurd. At the same time I have witnessed women sticking to unrewarding tasks and soldiering through as well as anyone else. At which point the female leaders sprinkled all throughout Scripture become a “oh, yeah, well, there you go”.


  48. –> “But the trajectory is there that leadership is not confined by social customs – ethnicity, gender, economics, etc.”

    Bingo. Why would other leadership “diversities” be acceptable, but not gender?


  49. I remember showing up in a church in 1987 and asking the Pastor what the Church’s view was in term of women as Elders. (I was opposed at that point). He gave what I thought was a wishy washy response.

    Three to four years later my view had been completely changed, so much so that by 1993 I wouldn’t even consider going to a church that didn’t allow women in leadership.


  50. This issue seems to be one in which we all knew, even before we looked at the comments, who would take which particular stance. We knew who would be thumping the Bible and saying, “Scripture says!” We knew who would be pointing to the forefathers and saying, “It must always be THEIR way.” We knew who would be promoting, “Time to look at the certain verses in a new way.”

    In other words, this is an issue in which everyone’s mind is already made.

    So here’s a question: Who here has CHANGED their position from a previously held position/belief? I want to hear from someone who once believed church leadership MUST be male but is now comfortable with female leadership. I want to hear from someone who once believed women in leadership was okay, but now doesn’t see it that way.


  51. I attend a Nazarene church. A friend of mine recently left because women preached three weeks in a row. He pointed to the Bible and THE WORD as the reason.
    Oh, well…


  52. Stephen, I very much track with all you’re saying here. Because I generally work with a lay evangelical audience, I don’t get into the authorship questions around Paul for Ephesians and Colossians.

    I’m also a proponent for trajectory theology – that the New Testament Scriptures are on a trajectory to a full inclusion of women in leadership, but there are things still being worked out by the time we get to the end of the first century. But the trajectory is there that leadership is not confined by social customs – ethnicity, gender, economics, etc.


  53. “One of the prospering churches I am thinking of locally was a “dying” church as the city was dying – through no fault of the church. They survived dying to be around for a new era of prosperity; that is a success.”

    I think this is a hidden asset of the mainlines. The individual congregation has institutional strength. This includes financial strength, but really what I am talking about is a committed membership entirely apart from the “leadership.” The problem with a church built around a charismatic pastor is that eventually he will go away. He might go away in disgrace when it comes out that he visits male prostitutes in cheap motels. He might go away after decades of faithful service. Either way, he is going away. If the church is built around him, this is a huge problem.

    We German Lutherans have our little ways, but say what you will, we think of the long term. Any major decision is considered in light of how this will play out when our grandchildren are running things. Having a two hundred year old building, it really helps that our ancestors regarded preventive maintenance as nearly sacramental, and only right that we give our descendants the same.


  54. Maybe the bully-husband is not NOT so ‘masculine’ when you think about it? Bullies who are confronted and dealt with tend to break down and whine . . . . that is not ‘masculine’ behavior, no.

    I think the term ‘masculine’ and ‘manhood’ need to be examined in the light of HONORABLE manhood, which exists in many homes where husbands and wives are mutually respectful and are both fully-functioning persons.

    The male ‘bully’ loud-mouth know-it-all is like a child having a tantrum and God help anyone who thwarts him. . . . if that is THE model for Christian man-hood, no wonder the evangelical community has been seen in a bad light.

    Even at it’s worst Patterson moments, the SBC made its money off of the backs of two women, one being a little missionary to China who, in a famine, gave her food to her beloved Chinese and died weighing less than sixty pounds. . . .
    so, if people like our own Senecagriggs wants an example of a woman whose life was given over in service to the Church in a way that built it up, he has no further to look than at the shining example of the Southern Baptist missionary Lottie Moon.

    Lottie Moon, of blessed memory, is celebrated by the Anglican (Episcopal) Church in their liturgical calendar on Dec. 22, with these words:

    “O God, in Christ Jesus you have brought Good News to those who are far off and to those who are near:
    We praise you for awakening in your servant Lottie Moon a zeal for your mission and for her faithful witness among the peoples of China.
    Stir up in us the same desire for your work throughout the world, and give us the grace and means to accomplish it; through the same Jesus Christ our Savior, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

    I think the whole premise of some guy ‘founding’ a Church and building up as its ‘leader’ is way off-base. Why?
    It’s the people who SERVE and give of themselves that strengthen the Church and most do this quietly and are humble about it, needing no recognition or reward, because they do it out of love for Christ. The little old lady who comes in to help out week after week is giving her mite. That guy up on the stage raking in a big salary which he does not report to the congregation . . . . his judgement day is coming . . . . he’s already taken his reward.

    What builds up the Church?
    my guess is that it’s the humble ones whose witness is to consistently point towards Christ


  55. A lot–not all by any means, but a lot–of the decline of the mainlines and the rise of the Evangelicals in the 1970s and ’80s has to do with the mainlines having established infrastructure and institutional inertia committed to declining urban areas; while the Evangelicals went into expansion mode and moved into the suburbs. By way of comparison, I live in a semi-rural, semi-exurban county seat two counties away from a major city. Go back to, say, 1970, and it was a small town surrounded by corn fields. It has two mainlines–ELCA and United Methodist–that are impressively large. Both have been around since the 19th century. There also are two large Baptist churches and a non-denominational in an industrial space, with SUVs lined up in the parking lot on Sundays. I’m not claiming that this is some sort of mainline wonderland. But it is interesting that in an area where the infrastructure was in place before the white flight growth began, the mainlines did just fine.

    It will be interesting to see how the reverse trend, with the middle class returning to the cities, will play out. My urban church (I commute 45 minutes to get there) has shown some signs of attracting some of this influx, but it is too early to say how this will go.

    Oh, and those two big mainlines in my town? Both have two clergy, one man and one woman.


  56. Yes, all of that is complicated, I am simplifying as otherwise you will get “Huh?”. By the time you get to the myths of Sigurd the totem object is a ring; a concept familiar to modern readers. The stacking and evolution of these stories maps to my point; some things are dropped, others added, they are refined, adapted. Yet many essentials remain.


  57. Mule, I’d be surprised to learn that your home doesn’t function in an egalitarian manner and that all of the St. So-and-Sos from Such-and-Such aren’t spinning in their graves over it. So what? The ship has sailed and it won’t return to the port from which it did. As far as I’m concerned, that’s a good thing. Brother, change sucks, especially for those of us who lose even a smidgen of power and privilege. Search the scriptures, that appears to be the trajectory of God’s love in this world.


  58. I was raised by an immigrant father who worked sixteen hours a day and on Saturdays and on Sunday afternoons. My mother also worked when we were school-age. I never heard my parents complain and when the day came for us to go to university, the money was in the bank.

    Do I think people today are handing power over to their ‘masters’? Sure. Our nation has fought hard for labor rights and for protection from harm in the workplace and for fair wages and decent humane treatment. Today, all that seems not to mean much to working-class folks who vote against their own interests, as the wealth of corporations and shareholders explodes.
    When will people wake up? Maybe when they take away their social security and their Medicare?

    Will we also have oligarchs and politically-approved cartels? Aren’t they already on the rise?
    Aren’t doors closing for chances to attend universities, as the current regime makes it harder for students to get loans and ALSO opens doors for phony ‘private’ facilities to call themselves ‘colleges’ and scam the public offereing ‘education’ on-line for big money and issuing worthless ‘degrees’ and ‘diplomas’ with little chances of employment?

    Questions? so many, but the handwriting is already on the wall


  59. I have to ask myself how some old lady in a dome hut listening to the roar of an winter storm could sing a poem about the coercive temptation of the power of a magic ring …

    As in a Runo of the Kalevala?
    (Though I don’t think the Sampo was a Ring…)


  60. You seem to have a model in your head of an individual entrepreneur taking charge and “building” an empire of some kind.

    “Just like Trump Tower, Except CHRISTIAN(TM)!”?
    (Eagle & I have noticed a LOT of common behavior…)


  61. This issue is where historical/critical analysis can be very useful. It is doubtful that the letters to the Ephesians and the Colossians are authentically Pauline. There is no space in a post like this one to go through all the reasons why scholars suspect the authorship but it includes writing style, vocabulary, and most interestingly the historical situation reflected in the letters.

    In the letters universally considered authentic, Paul, while certainly a first century Jew, has a very egalitarian attitude. In his view all gender and class and ethnic distinctions will disappear in the kingdom. Paul’s house churches had prominent women members in leadership roles. Paul had the view that the kingdom was coming soon and all the imperfections of this world would soon be swept away.

    By contrast, the situation reflected in these letters is different. The community has backed off from the expectation of an imminent parousia. They have settled in for the long haul and are making some accommodations to the larger culture.

    The point is that the attitudes and expectations of the communities in the NT changed as times changed. Did all social progress stop in the first century? Of course not.


  62. The only time I’ve heard the term “wage slavery” has been from the mouths of Marxist-Leninists.


  63. Adam –

    You mentioned Tara Beth Leach. As far as I can tell, First Church of the Nazarene in Pasadena is doing well. However, I know very recently Leach walked through a smear campaign, I believe from a disgruntled member, and it had to do with her female leadership.


  64. If you look at the phenomenal growth of the Pentecostal church, they have had women in leadership as Pastors from the very beginning.


  65. My church has grown to an average Sunday morning attendance of 5000. There are 14 women on staff who have the title Pastor. (There are others who are in key administrative role). And yes, many of them were part of growing the church to this size. One of the reasons we have grown is because we value women in leadership.


  66. > I know the majority view is that we are smarter than our forefathers

    I disagree. This interpretation denies the cumulative effect of intelligence. A person does not become “more intelligent” with training, education, or experience. It is intelligence that allows him or her to benefit from training, education, or experience. And human communities, cultures, and nations can reflect that same growth – without disparaging those who came before who due to chronology lacked the advantage of their FUTURE experiences.

    I read about by Finnish ancestors, and read what they wrote, on the barren wastes of the arctic highlands with little technology other than fire – – – and I am BLOWN AWAY by what they understood, the ideas they pondered. I have to ask myself how some old lady in a dome hut listening to the roar of an winter storm could sing a poem about the coercive temptation of the power of a magic ring – – – what could she possibly have known about Power? At the same time I know I can walk further with those insight than she could by virtue of libraries stacked with history books, lectures of political scientists, sociological insights, etc… I am no more inherently gifted, but I have received the gifts left to us by those now gone. They have lifted us to a higher place.


  67. I also think there is an issue with institutions like Willow Creek shading the data set. Even if you take a generous assumption of ~1,800 mega-churches in the United States that is something like 0.06% of congregations. That is a SMALL share devouring all the focus; so that even by member count they are dwarfed by the myriad small congregations.

    There are so very many places in the United States which just by the numbers can never have a “mega-church”.

    There is a problem in this type of analysis that all those myriad small congregations slip into an unspoken default of “failed” or at least “not prospering”. That is very wrong.

    Some “prospering” churches are NOT going to “grow” as how do you “grow” in a place where the population is dropping by 3%+ a year. But that does not mean they are not vibrant communities in spite of their context.

    One of the prospering churches I am thinking of locally was a “dying” church as the city was dying – through no fault of the church. They survived dying to be around for a new era of prosperity; that is a success. There was a lot of social and economic trauma over the life-span of some of those churches, their still being around required an enormous capacity for adaption. There can be no credible denial of the role of the women who stepped up at those churches, IMO, who hung-tough during some desperate times.


  68. Mule, as usual, on this issue I find myself viscerally opposed to the mentality you express. I work in a large organization in health care with a multitude of strong women leaders. My own part of that organization is directed by a woman who has saved our butts many times when our business was in trouble. I have no trouble whatsoever submitting to her wise, creative, and courageous oversight.

    This is happening everywhere, even while we debate women in leadership as a theoretical issue.

    Men fail to see it as progress and a blessing to the detriment of a just and peaceful society.


  69. I also think you are missing an important point. You seem to have a model in your head of an individual entrepreneur taking charge and “building” an empire of some kind. That is a rather limited model of “leadership,” and one which I would suggest is foreign to the nature of the church itself.


  70. I’ve heard secondhand about party conversation at Furry cons; according to my source, Millenials and Post-Millenials have no problem at all with slavery. (Guess which side of the divide they place themselves on.)

    My source also said that the conversation always ends up with the Millenials bringing up the subject of an owner’s sexual rights to his Animate Property.


  71. One of Willow Creek’s distinctive features, however, was the inclusion of women on the leadership team from the start. It’s a factor that made Hybel’s behavior all the more loathsome.

    In my town, our most “successful” church is a United Methodist congregation with a leadership team of a male and woman pastor who share duties equally. They are also quite evangelical and at the same time one of the most engaged congregations I’ve ever seen when it comes to serving the community.

    For the Lutherans, we have Nadia Bolz-Weber. The church where I am currently a member just brought on a young woman, and she is bringing refreshing renewal to the congregation.

    Seneca, this is happening everywhere. Progress is slow, primarily because of Philistine attitudes towards women, but it is happening.


  72. But that doesn’t answer the question M.Z. – are women building churches? Or are they just inheritors?


  73. This is true. Look at how fast churches like Willow Creek or Mars Hill grew under the leadership of male pastors.

    Oh wait. Both those pastors had to resign in disgrace as a result of long-standing abusive behavior, didn’t they? Which, oddly, is not something you hear about female pastors needing to do very often.

    Here’s a better explanation: leaders who reflect our culture’s distorted and un-Christian view of masculinity will naturally attract more people, because they create a lower barrier to entry: men can come and consider themselves Christian without ever needing to face or deal with their own toxic masculinity. A watered-down Gospel that carefully avoids naming people’s deepest sins is always going to draw more people than a Gospel that challenges people to change everything and give up everything.


  74. I think an even better argument for interpreting the household codes as a reflection of Paul’s cultural context, and not a universal rule, is that the Bible contains many examples of women in positions of spiritual leadership: Deborah the judge, Junia the apostle, and various female prophetesses, hosts of house churches, etc. in the NT. The Bible also contains examples of women like Abigail who are commended for taking charge of their own households.

    That shows the risk of arguing via prooftexts vs. arguing based on the full witness of Scripture: it’s all too easy to find one verse that says what you want it to say.


  75. Every time we get involved in discussions of culture and its effect on Christian praxis, the question always poses itself to me – what is different about us that we no longer own slaves and we extend equality to women? I know the majority view is that we are smarter than our forefathers; we have cars and flush toilets and vaccines and video games and all, so they were shtoopid and we are shmart. I have my doubts about this.

    There is also the Christian version of the majority view – that the abolition of slavery and the emancipation of women is part and parcel of the leavening effect of the Gospel in human society, and we are simply more Christian than our forebears, regardless that we don’t really believe the Bible or the Creeds. I have severe doubts about this as well.

    The problem is that the majority view and its Christian flavoring are so entrenched and any alternatives are so demonized (What? You endorse slavery?) that they aren’t allowed to be investigated even as a thought experiment. I suggest that our old friends Freedom, Technology and Affluence had a large role to play. If the Peak Oil alarmists have their cards right, I expect slavery to come roaring back, under another name, no doubt, but
    the same none the less. The same with gender relations. Let the world become a couple of degrees more dangerous, and what gets excoriated now as ‘toxic masculinity’ will be in high demand.


  76. > know of any STRONG churches pastored by a woman,

    Pretty sure you are then going to argue the meaning of the term “STRONG”.

    There are at least two prospering “mainline” churches with female lead pastors within three miles of my home.

    It is nearly impossible to tease apart the effects of leadership and demographic change; declining mainline churches tend to be in declining regions, and growing churches tend to be in newer growing areas. From my perspective the health of the place seems to be the most dominant factor in growth or decline. This makes using examples in such arguments difficult.


  77. It is an interesting data point that women have held various church leadership roles within the branches of the African American church for a v-e-r-y long time. At the same time the African American church remains ethically conservative on many issues where more “conservative” white, and more patriarchal, churches have wavered.


  78. > Again, it takes wisdom to apply the wisdom of Scripture.

    That does mean, at least potentially, that Scripture says much less about many things. That takes the wind out of the sails of Biblicism [an industry with a formidable lobby].

    That is a hard hill for a polite western person to climb; we like rules, and we like them to be clear and numerous. 🙂 Even better if we can stack them like Jenga pieces.

    Question: do all the codes [taken as such] in the Epistles neatly align? I recall hearing someone speak about that, and at least his answer was “no”, but that was too long ago to remember the particulars.


  79. Can a women successfully plant or church or grow a church?

    It is one thing to talk about equality – it’s another to look a little deeper and see how it actually works out. There are a lot of small black churches with women pastors – not sure how successful they are.
    Sometimes, a woman is appointed to head up a large church. Almost never, that I know, did they actually build the church.

    Tara Leech was appointed pastor of Pasadena Nazarene a couple of years ago – the church James Dobson attended a few decades back. [ Dobson’ ministry moved from SoCal to Colorado Springs years ago ]. I’d love to know how they are doing; what the trajectory is.

    You do see, in the mainline churches, numbers of women appointed to pastorates. It often appears that these are older churches that are no longer thriving and it has been true, for awhile, that the mainline has had some difficulty finding men to pastor their smaller churches.

    [ BTW, Rosaria Champagne Butterfield resigned her pastorate to become a “public theologian.”]

    So this is a serious post. I’m not arguing the theology I asking if there are strong churches that were built and planted by women and if women pastors are able to maintain and grow churches?

    If the I-monkers know of any STRONG churches pastored by a woman, please link to the church site. [ There are hundreds of small, dying churches pastored by women. You don’t need to link to those. ]

    Finally, I have a friend who pastored 2 different Methodist Churches – middling small. Neither prospered under her competent leadership. Nice lady, good person. I think she lasted about 10 years all told and has since become a chaplain in which role she’s been very happy.

    AGAIN, I’m asking if you I-monkers can point towards some women lead churches that are growing/thriving.


  80. > who don’t think the institution of chattel slavery

    Agree, whenever I hear a pastor use the “you wouldn’t defend slavery” logic I think “wouldn’t they?”. Maybe not in Public, or on that survey, but I’ve heard it more than once: “the Bible doesn’t have a problem with slavery”, “slavery is a reasonable thing economically, it just shouldn’t be cruel”. Sure, because that’s how it works. And how far is such an endorsement from “Those people should be grateful to have a job!” which I have heard so many times.

    > I fear there are far more people who hold this position in contemporary America


    Very sad.


  81. “I fear there are lots of people today who don’t think the institution of chattel slavery was such a bad thing.”

    One of the Princeton theologians (Machen IIRC) DID go there, and even tried to paint wage-paying jobs as a form of slavery to lesson the harshness of his acceptance of chattel slavery as a biblically sanctioned system. And this was from a book on Christian ethics written in the *1930s*. And I won’t even mention Doug Wilson…

    Many evangelical theologians have been willing to ditch “small-o” orthodox formulations of the Trinity to uphold a patriarchal interpretation of the NT. I don’t doubt some will also go back to defending slavery too. The groundwork is there. 😦


  82. I want to add, notwithstanding possible accusations from other commenters that I’m replying to myself, that there are even more Americans who would be okay with the revival of institutionalized indentured servitude than of chattel slavery.


  83. I fear there are lots of people today who don’t think the institution of chattel slavery was such a bad thing. If that’s so, then the same people probably wouldn’t have a problem with accepting the current applicability of the passages that condone slave-holding in Ephesians and Colossians. As a result, for these people the argument that the passages used to support complementarianism were culturally-conditioned and time-bound, and not applicable today, would get no support from the argument about the inapplicablity of the passages concerning slaves-holding, because they believe that both are still applicable. I fear there are far more people who hold this position in contemporary America than we might like to believe.


  84. +++++1

    Though as a late friend said to me about working in Kuwait, “Here, a liberal Methodist is manna from heaven”. (Denomination not definitive!)


  85. Can Women Be Church Leaders?

    This isn’t an open question for me. I’ve seen the evidence that they can with my own eyes, in my own experience. I wouldn’t be a member of denomination or congregation where women as a matter of policy were excluded from any leadership role or office.


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