A friend of mine recently wrote in to say that her denomination is considering giving women greater responsibility and leadership, as the Bible consistently teaches. In a recent discussion with denominational members, one man said that giving women greater leadership will mean that men will soon be placed “in the back seat of the car.” One woman was quick to respond that men should never be unhappy with sitting in the back seat, for after all, women have been told for years that it is a good place to be.
While her response was as humorous as it is true, many Christians today imagine that leadership, like driving a car, is the sole function of one (male) person. In contrast, leadership in the New Testament seems to center on service. Though the apostle Paul refers to himself as an apostle, most often Paul refers to himself as a servant or slave to Christ. Just as Christ said he came to serve, and to give his life for many. As Christ’s servant, Paul recognized that leadership and authority was unlike the authority exhibited in Roman culture. In contrast to the Gentiles who lord it over others, those who are called followers of Jesus must be ready to graciously submit to one another, by laying down their lives for others. A Christian understanding of leadership as service was the basis for Paul’s authority, which was manifest in the building up and the encouragement of believers (1 Cor. 1:1, Gal. 1:1, Eph. 1:1, Col. 1:1, 1 Tim. 1:1, 2 Tim. 1:1, Titus 1:1).
Throughout the New Testament we observe women serving and building up the church, following the example of Paul and Jesus. Consider Phoebe ( Rom. 16:1-3), who is referred to as aprostates (the noun form of the Greek verb proistemi), which means leader or guide. While some translations render the Greek word deacon (used for Phoebe) as servant, perhaps they do so understanding that leadership in the early church is rooted in service, in building up others.
If the New Testament depicts leadership as service and not as authority or rule, this may explain why the New Testament refers to no person (male or female) as an elder, overseer, or shepherd, as Linda Belleville notes (see Women Leaders of the Church). Unlike today, where leadership is an office invested with power and authority, this is not what we find in the New Testament. Jesus said, if you want to be his disciple, you must wash one another’s feet, carry one another’s burden, and lay down your life for another. In the early church, leadership meant waiting on tables, caring for the ill, washing the feet of saints, offering hospitality. Leaders were also teachers and preachers, and they cared for Paul and the other apostles. As leaders, Priscilla and Aquila opened their home to God’s work; they risked their necks for the gospel, and preached and exhorted leaders like Apollos! Pricilla built up one of the most gifted preachers in the New Testament (Acts 1:24-26).
I hope you will join us in Toronto this summer where scholars and leaders will consider the biblical moorings of service, which both men and women are called to. Hope to see you soon.