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Published Date: January 4, 2024

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Upside-down Kingdom Authority

Editor’s note: This is a CBE 2023 Writing Contest Winner!

Recently someone tweeted a popular complementarian pastor’s list of potential areas for women and men to teach the Bible, supposedly ranked by level of authority required.[1] Apparently someone had asked this pastor where he drew the line of allowing women “authority”, and this list was born—thirty-five points long, theoretically all derived from 1 Timothy 2:12. 

There has been ample material disputing this pastor’s interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:12.[2] The Bible was not written to us, and we should not appropriate its meaning, nor approach passages anachronistically, no matter our faith tradition. But while it is true that the plain reading of this text, and every text, must include cultural context and original language, I want to focus on a more fundamental truth: the upside-down world ordering of the kingdom of heaven. Lists that rank who has authority over whom show a complete lack of understanding of how the kingdom works. Followers of Jesus should not be lording authority over each other but rather looking for ways to serve one another.

Receiving the Kingdom Like a Child

Jesus expounds on this in the gospel of Mark. In Mark 10:15, he says we must receive the kingdom like a little child, which, in its textual and cultural context, means as one without rights and without authority.[3] A few verses later (Mark 10:21), Jesus tells the rich man to sell everything and give to the poor; that is, he needed to show his faith in God by sacrificing his wealth—likely the source of his earthly authority. In verse 33, Jesus highlights his own servanthood by predicting himself to be handed over as a criminal to the Gentiles and suffer greatly for the sake of others. Perhaps most explicitly, when James and John ask for more authority in the kingdom, Jesus tells them in verse 42 that they should not desire to lord their authority over each other: that desire is opposite to the kingdom and opposite to Christ. The chapter ends with the lowest of the low, a blind beggar, receiving sight.

To be part of the kingdom, we must ask ourselves, who do we—and the world—see as “beneath” us? Does the world view us as higher than a child, those on welfare, sinners, our colleagues, or a disabled beggar? Then those are whom we are called to serve. If more leaders would take Jesus’s teaching seriously, then we would have 70-year-old professors volunteering to teach children’s Sunday school, serve coffee, guide parking, pick up trash, vacuum, serve food, and take other positions generally seen as lowly and undesirable by the world. We would never have to beg for teenage girls (the people given the least authority under patriarchy) to volunteer for them. Sadly, in many churches, we rarely see the adult men—those to whom complementarians and patriarchal society at large ascribe the most authority—rising to their high calling of servanthood.

The Fruit of the Spirit and Teaching Children

The patriarchist, of course, would argue that the men are called to serve by preaching a sermon or teaching at seminary (numbers one and two on the abovementioned list respectively). Position number thirty-one is teaching children’s Sunday school, which won out over number thirty-two, teaching children at Vacation Bible School (VBS). The line of masculine authority is drawn somewhere above that point on the list, as women are generally allowed to teach children in even the strictest complementarian churches. But serving in children’s ministries requires more humility and fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22–23) than almost any other position. It requires patience, because children tend to keep interrupting, or won’t understand. It requires humility because they aren’t impressed with our PhDs and fancy words. To love God, we must love these little neighbors. They are at our complete mercy, requiring gentleness. Teaching in a children’s classroom requires an abundance of divinely infused peace. They deserve to see our joy. Of course, the strong in the Spirit should always be kind, whether online, in church, or teaching children. And it requires self-control over one’s passions for authority, prestige, and fame (even the minimal fame of being in front of a small congregation); as Galatians 5:24 says, we must crucify our passions.

Spiritual fruit comes with maturity. The longer we are Christian, the more mature we should be, and so the more often we should be serving children. We should not be obsessed with our own position and authority, with making sure others submit. In the same vein, we should gladly allow an 11-year-old girl to preach a sermon, knowing that she is just as much part of the body of Christ and has just as much of the Holy Spirit as anyone in the congregation. Just as anyone preaching is capable of making a mistake and needing correction, if an 11-year-old preacher misspeaks, simply correct her in love and move on. However, this accentuates the need for vulnerable children to be taught by spiritually mature congregants since children have not usually developed the ability to catch false teachings. That many complementarian churches relegate teaching children to women shows that they implicitly trust women to teach despite claiming simultaneously that they are more easily deceived.[4] Rather than being a matter of Spiritual empowerment, it appears as a matter of interfering with male prestige.

The activity necessary to grow the fruit of the Spirit is walking by the Spirit. To walk by the Spirit means we act in a godly manner, seeing others through eyes of compassion, acknowledging the image of God in every individual. We cannot minister or evangelize to the least of these sisters and brothers of God, until we see them as God sees them—not as people to be conquered but as souls to be served. It takes faith to walk by the Spirit. It takes faith to live in a way that acknowledges that God’s ways are truly better than the ways of this world, despite never being recognized as such. It takes cruciformity[5] to admit that Christ is right: humility is best. Daily conversion and daily putting to death of our sins is difficult and necessary for anyone wanting to walk by the Spirit. It is not a one-time check on a to-do list; rather we are justified once but sanctified daily. Walk by the Spirit and you will not gratify the fleshly desire to be on top (Galatians 5:16). Let us remember that Jesus says we “must be slave of all” (Mark 10:44).

The Upside-Down Kingdom of Christ

Now we can revisit our list of authority and see that we should each strive not for position one, but for position thirty-five. Women and men are both called to be apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers (Ephesians 4:11). It is true that not every task is for every member, but these tasks are not gendered. Some women will teach and some men will serve coffee, for example. The task is to not see one area as being superior to another but to live as a cohesive body, all in submission to each other and ultimately to the head who is Christ. It should be a joy to see anyone responding to Christ’s words in Mark 16:15 to go and preach.

With the gospels so full of the upside-down kingdom values of Christ, how do so many contemporary scholars get it so wrong? We must be careful to not become the religious elite of our time, who seek the most prestigious seats (Mark 12:39), forgetting what Jesus said would happen to those who did so (Mark 12:40).

Photo by Piti Tangchawalit on Shutterstock.


[1] Wayne Grudem, “But What Should Women Do in the Church?,” CBMW NEWS 1, no. 2 (November 1995): 3.

[2] Lucy Peppiatt, Rediscovering Scripture’s Vision for Women: Fresh Perspectives on Disputed Texts (IVP Academic, 2019), https://www.christianbook.com/rediscovering-scriptures-vision-perspectives-disputed-texts/lucy-peppiatt/9780830852710/pd/852714.

[3] Michael F. Bird, “When Christianity Was Pro-Woman, Pro-Child, and Pro-Slave,” Substack newsletter, Word from the Bird (blog), November 19, 2021, https://michaelfbird.substack.com/p/when-christianity-was-pro-woman-pro.

[4] Bernard N. Howard, “Are Complementarian Preachers Just Mansplaining?,” The Gospel Coalition, November 9, 2022, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/complementarian-mansplaining/.

[5] “Bebbington’s Four Points of Evangelicalism,” Ligonier Ministries, accessed August 20, 2023, https://www.ligonier.org/posts/bebbingtons-four-points-evangelicalism.

Related Resources

Christian Women’s Beliefs on Female Subordination and Male Authority
New Testament Limits of Authority and Hierarchical Power
The Crushing Burden Of Bearing Authority Alone