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Published Date: April 30, 2004

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What are the Biblical Roles of Female and Male Followers of Christ?

October 14, 2003, marked the 30th anniversary of my ordination as a minister or teaching elder in the Presbyterian church. Before I was ordained, I researched 1 Timothy 2:11-15 and eventually had my revised research published in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society (Fall, 1974) and as a chapter in Beyond the Curse: Women Called to Ministry (1985). Since that time, scholarly research has progressed to the point that today complementarians agree that to learn in silence is a positive virtue for all Christians (1 Tim. 2:11),1 women as well as men can pray and prophesy publicly,2 men and women are made equally in God’s image,3 women are not submissive to all men,4 in Ephesus women were in some way promulgating the heresy, Adam was with Eve during the temptation,5 and Paul used an analogy between Eve and the women at Ephesus.6

Nevertheless, Christians are still divided over the roles men and women should have in the church. They are even divided over the place of roles in one’s life. As a sociology major in college, I spent a year in two introductory classes defining terms such as roles and, ironically, now it seems roles have come to define us.

Some people think identity is tied up with one’s role. Therefore, if roles are reversed, identity is lost. Consequently, if women were to teach authoritatively, they would lose their identity as women. Or, if men were to stay at home and take care of children, they would lose their identity as men. But, roles do not create identity. You are who you are no matter what you do, within your physical capacity. Men cannot bear children. Many women can. Yet a woman who could not bear children would still be a woman. Our human identity comes not from our roles but from our creation and re-creation by God. For example, God created me a woman. Whatever I do as a mature godly woman will not cause, validate, or erase my identity. Women and men are called by God to be royal priests, God’s own people (1 Pet. 2:9). Whether we teach toddlers in the nursery or adults in a seminary, we remain God’s royal priests, God’s people.

Why do many women and men in the church, including myself, advocate for men and women to be able to share fully in ministry and marriage? Here is my brief answer:

Women want to lead along with men because God created them to do so.

In this article, we will define what a role is and is not. We will discuss what roles God allots to Adam and Eve and discover that even the Trinity may not always be divided along clear and distinct roles.

What Roles Has God Given Men and Women?

What is a role? A role is an individual’s function, or task directed to some aim. A role is what you do.7 Some complementarians say that before sin was in the world the roles between men and women were different for the following reasons: Adam was created first, Adam named Eve, the serpent came to Eve first, and God spoke to Adam first.8 However, being created second is not a role, being named is not a role, and being spoken to by the serpent or by God are not roles.

What roles or tasks does God explicitly and directly give Eve and Adam? Genesis 1:28 reads: “God said to them: ‘Bear fruit and become many and fill the earth and subdue it and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over all the moving animals upon the earth.’” These are “roles.” Rulership, and with it authority, are commanded for man and woman. God did not say: “Eve, you need to bear fruit,” and, “Adam, you need to subdue and rule.” These commands are addressed to “Adam,” “a male and a female” (Gen. 1:27). “Adam” means “human.”

Eve was to be Adam’s “helper.” In Genesis 2:18 the Lord God says: “I will make for [Adam, the male] a helper as if in front of him.” If some were to make the argument that Eve’s role as “helper” makes her inferior to Adam, we would have to come to nearly blasphemous conclusions about God because we would be suggesting he is inferior to humans. When we sing as we go to worship, “I look up toward the mountains. Where can I find help? My help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth” (Ps. 121:1-2), how could we ever conclude that getting help from the “Maker of heaven and earth” makes God inferior to humans who have made neither heaven nor earth? The Hebrew word used to describe Eve as a helper is ezer. In the Old Testament, ezer is never used to describe a subordinate helper. It always refers to God or military allies.9 When Jesus is about to wash and dry Simon Peter’s feet as a slave might have done, Peter refuses to allow it because it is a task that seems too menial. Nevertheless, Jesus teaches that doing a menial act does not make the master inferior and the servant superior (John 13:5-17).

Moreover, how could we ever conclude that all need for help means deficiency in fulfilling a human responsibility? In that case Adam, the male, was created deficient because he was given the dual tasks to till and guard the Garden of Eden, and he could not do it (Gen. 2:15, 18).

Genesis 2 is simply teaching the same point as Gen. 1:28. The dual tasks to subdue and rule (rephrased in 2:15 as tilling and guarding) the earth were given to Adam, the female, as well as to Adam, the male. As opposed to being an assistant or an associate in a corporate structure, Eve is Adam’s colleague, equal in rank and role. She is “a helper as if in front of him” (2:18). The cognate noun (nagid) of the preposition neged signifies “a leader, ruler, prince or king, an overseer.” She is the “helper-leader.”10The idea of servant leadership goes right back to creation. By no means does Genesis 1 or 2 suggest any difference in roles. On the contrary, Genesis 2 affirms what Genesis 1 says: Adam and Eve are commanded the same tasks: bearing fruit, filling, subduing, ruling, tilling, and guarding the earth.11

Whatever implicit meaning we attach to the sequence of creation and of conversation or naming, if we take the Bible as consistent, it may not contradict what is explicitly stated. In other words, may I remind us of one hermeneutical principle? Explicit meaning has precedence over implicit meaning. Some believe that naming an animal or a human indicates the authority of the namer over the namee. When I first saw this argument in 1981 in James Hurley’s Man and Woman in Biblical Perspective,12I was quite surprised. Wayne Grudem quotes Gerhard von Rad who states that “in the ancient Orient” name-giving was “primarily an exercise of sovereignty.”13Yet, von Rad thinks Genesis was first written down during the time of Solomon (@ 300 years after Moses).14Moreover, this idea of name-giving as an exercise of sovereignty comes not from the context of Genesis but from the school of evolutionary philosophy of language, which teaches primitive humans actually thought language had power over people (as opposed to us more highly evolved humans). Susanne Langer, for example, says: a proper name, as a sign, is a means to command action; whereas, as a symbol, it is an instrument of thought. Animals understand signs, but never symbols.15

But instead, if we look at the context of Genesis 2, we can see that naming has to do with von Rad’s other proposal regarding language—that it reflects understanding or knowledge. In Genesis 2:23, the man “expresses his understanding immediately in the proper name that he gives the new creature… The naming is only the actual expression of a previous inward interpretive appropriation.”16 Genesis 2:18 gives God’s intention to make a helper as Brown, Driver and Briggs’ Lexicon states “corresponding” or “equal and adequate” to Adam, the male.17Then after that God brings the animals to Adam to name them (2:19). The conclusion of the naming is that Adam does not find “a helper as if in front of” himself (v. 20). Naming is part of a relationship, communication process, not an act of control.18 Therefore, Adam calling out “woman” (or ishsha) shows the joy of knowing her as intimately related to himself (“bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh … she was taken from man,” [v. 23]). Certainly it was not an explanation of rulership over the woman!

In summary, when it comes to explicit information in Genesis 1 and 2 Adam and Eve are equal in rank and in role.

Does the Trinity Always Model Distinct Roles?

Let’s move on to even more serious issues. How should we understand the Trinity? Some complementarians set up some clear distinct eternal functions for each of the Persons of the Trinity. The Father plans and directs, the Son obeys or carries out, and the Spirit brings to completion or is obedient to both the Father and the Son.19 The Son and the Holy Spirit are equal in deity to the Father but are subordinate in their roles, not temporarily but forever.

Is it true that in the Godhead, the Father is the chairman of the board, the Son is chief executive and the Spirit is administrative assistant? Are there clear differences in roles between members of the Trinity and some roles are subordinate to others? Is there ontological equality but economic subordination? Jesus’ words in John 14:26 may seem to support the belief that there is eternal subordination within the Trinity: “But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the father will send in my name, will teach you everything , and remind you of all that I have said to you.” However, in John 16:7, Jesus tells us he also sends the Holy Spirit to believers. How then does the Father only command, direct and send, if Jesus too sends the Spirit? Moreover, how do we reconcile passages such as Romans 8:26, “the very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words,” with Romans 8:34, Christ Jesus “who indeed intercedes for us”? Or, 1 Corinthians 12:11, “the one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses” with Ephesians 4:7, 11, Christ gives gifts? How can “the Lord” be “the Spirit” (2 Cor. 3:17)? Who is the “Alpha and the Omega” (Rev. 1:8; 21:6; 22:13), if not the Godhead? Neither God the Father nor God the Spirit died on earth for our sins (1 Pet. 1:2), only God the Son died. Other than this clear difference, the roles of the members of the Trinity are not always so clearly distinct; yet God does not seem to convey a confused identity. The Godhead is not so easy to divide up or classify.

The view that the Persons of the Trinity differ in authority sounds very close to separating God into unequal roles. The ecumenical Council of Chalcedon of AD 451 instead affirmed, with the Tome of Leo, Bishop of Rome, that the Father is greater that the Son because of the incarnation, not because the Son had an eternally subordinate role. The assembled church specified that the Son is “not inferior in power, not unlike [the Father] in glory.”20

The Persons of the Trinity model mutual submission, mutual deference. We can see this mutual submission even in 1 Corinthians 15:24-28. When Christ hands over the kingdom to God the Father, all authority is now set aside (v. 24). When all enemies, including death, have been vanquished, we are reminded of the practice of mutual submission in the Trinity. God the Father is “the one having subjected all” to Jesus (v. 27), then the Son “will subject himself to the One having subjected all to him” (v. 28). When God (1 Cor. 15:28) or Christ (Col. 3:11) are “all in all,” then indeed we have “no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free.” In the same way as the church’s unity overarches differences, in the end, God’s unity will overarch differences between the Persons of the Trinity. Jesus and the Father are one God just as believers are to be one church. John Calvin, founder of Presbyterianism, said about 1 Corinthians 15:24 that when Christ accomplishes the office of mediator, he “will cease to be the ambassador of his Father, and will be satisfied with that glory which he enjoyed before the creation of the world,” that is “a temporary authority has been committed by the Father until his divine majesty shall be beheld face to face. [Jesus] giving up of the kingdom to the Father, so far from impairing his majesty, will give a brighter manifestation to it. God will then cease to be the head of Christ, and Christ’s own Godhead will then shine forth of itself, whereas it is now in a manner veiled.”21

A hierarchical schema posited by complementarian scholars does not fit the Bible either for God or for humans. For example consider 1 Corinthians 11:3: “The head of every man is Christ, and the head of a woman is the man, and the head of Christ is God,” and Ephesians 5:23, “a husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is head of the church.” A hierarchical look at these passages may support the following diagrams:

Now, is the husband really analogous to God the Father or to God the Son? Further, when we assume the wife’s role is analogous to the Son’s role, then God the Son has a feminine role, thereby having a feminine identity. How then could God the Son marry the feminine church if both are feminine? Would this not be some kind of homosexual union? If the Holy Spirit is like a child, would that mean that God the Father “married” Jesus, God the Son, making the Son a mother? The ramifications of these analogies lead to greater and greater absurdity!

Instead, let us posit some other meaning for the metaphor “head” than authoritative leader and see if it fits. Remember the word “head” in 1 Corinthians 11:3 is not used literally. It is a metaphor. Even though the word “head” signifies for some of us administrative decision-maker, it does not necessarily have the same significance for Paul. Ephesians 4:15-16 has an extended metaphorical use of head: “We must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.” How can you grow into a head? How can a head promote growth? Certainly “head” as an authoritative decision-maker does not fit here, but “head” as a source of life-giving growth certainly does. What about in 1 Corinthians 11:3? Paul does not explain the meaning of “head,” but whatever he means, he does not limit women from praying or prophesying in public (1 Cor. 11:5). Paul assumes they will. Paul wants them to be active in ministering in a public way in the church.

And, prophesying includes what we might today call preaching: speaking to the church for their upbuilding and exhortation and comfort (1 Cor. 14:3-4). Prophecy, if done one by one, results in “learning” or “instruction” (14:31), the same verb used (manthano) as also used in 1 Timothy 2:11. So here at Corinth women and men prophets are teaching women and men believers. In other words, whatever the word “head” means in 1 Corinthians 11:3, it does not affect roles at all. It affects only attire.

But if we understand the word “head” to mean source of life, then the passages all fit harmoniously together. In 1 Corinthians 11:3, Paul does not use a hierarchical sequence from God to Christ to man to woman. Christ, the second person of the Trinity, apparently is the one who formed Adam. Genesis 1:26 states, “Let us make Adam in our image,” Colossians 1:15-16 details Jesus’ work in creation. Adam was then the intermediate source of life for Eve. This idea Paul repeats in 1 Corinthians 11:12, “as the woman from out of the man,” and in v. 7, “the woman is the glory of man.” She is the “glory” of man, being part of his genus or species, in the same way Paul describes the sun and moon and stars each having their own “glory” (15:40-41). God is the “head” or source of Christ (11:3) in the incarnation (God the Holy Spirit causing the conception of Jesus in the womb [Matt. 1:20; John 1:14; 5:25-29]).

“Head” as “source,” chronological sequence, 1 Cor. 11:3

Or, Paul could be writing about the resurrection of Jesus, which he describes, as the time God “begot” the Son, reaffirming Jesus as rightful heir (Acts 13:33; see also Ps. 2:7; Heb. 1:5; 5:5). Paul warns in 1 Corinthians 8:9, don’t let your “authority” become a stumbling-block! 1 Corinthians 11 is not about misuse of authority. Rather, it is about respecting those who were once your source of life. Women not wearing veils was synonymous with having the hair on one’s head shaved (11:6), a practice that may have been associated with the practices of ancient slave-prostitutes.22

What are Some Ramifications?

In summary, what have we concluded about the roles of women in the church today? The roles of women in the church today should reflect God’s intentions for our lives reflected and modeled in scripture. God created women, along with men, to bear fruit, fill, subdue, rule, till, and guard the earth. How a specific woman fulfills God’s intention is dependent not on her gender, but on her gifts. The Bible has many examples of women with authority doing public ministries: Junia, an apostle; the women witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection; minister and leader Phoebe; the prophets at Corinth; the Elect Lady and Elect Sister in John’s second letter who oversaw churches; Deborah, a prophet and judge who ruled the government, directed the army, and judged legal matters; Huldah, a prophet who interpreted God’s word before the highest governing authorities of her time; Miriam, a prophet included with Moses and Aaron as God’s appointed leaders in Micah 6:4; the women elders at Crete who were called “teachers of the good” (Tit. 2:3); the wise women who preached to kings and represented cities (2 Sam. 14, 20); Priscilla, who along with Aquila, more accurately expounded God’s way to Apollos (Acts 18:26).

About Priscilla’s instruction, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary founder A. J. Gordon wrote in 1894 (about 110 years ago, well before modern feminism):

How often has this scene been reproduced; as, for example, in the instance of Catherine of Siena instructing the corrupt clergy of her day in the things of the Spirit till they exclaimed in wonder, “Never man spake like this woman;” of Madame Guyon, who by her teaching made new men of scores of accomplished but unspiritual preachers of her time; of the humble woman of whom the evangelist Moody tells, who, on hearing some of his early sermons, admonished him of his need of the secret power, and brought him under unspeakable obligation by teaching him of the same. It is evident that the Holy Spirit made this woman Priscilla a teacher of teachers, and that her theological chair has had many worthy incumbents through the subsequent Christian ages.23

These women, and many others, are evidence of the reality of Acts 2, where the prophet Joel’s predictions for women and men to prophesy are fulfilled; and Galatians 3:28, where men and now women are full heirs with rights to rule over their inheritance.

In the process of our exegesis, we learned that men and women and the Father, Son, and Spirit can function as equals in rank and role. Those bearing different roles are not subordinate or superior to one another, even when one has a helping role. Jesus and Eve model servant leadership. In fact, for men and women, all authority is delegated authority from God (John 19:10-11; Rom. 13:1; Col. 2:10). We need authority to complete our work, but it should never be used over other people, to keep them subordinate (Matt. 20:25-28; Mark 10:42-45). If roles of ruling are not by creation apportioned to gender, how can men be masculine and women be feminine if they have similar roles? They can relax in who they are, not demand more from what they do. What is the advantage to men of sharing authoritative leadership with women? Let me suggest four.

  1. Women’s wisdom, as well as men’s, can be helpful in every area of church life if women are present in leadership capacities.
  2. Men will not get a false view of themselves. Their authority will not rest on women’s subordination. Roles are a very shaky basis for gender identity, as when men are studying and not bread-winning or incapacitated by unemployment or illness or accident. Moreover, men can acknowledge their limitations as well as their strengths.
  3. Men can be free to follow their God-given gifts rather than feel restricted because of culturally determined male roles.
  4. Men can share the burden of authority and teaching with women, thereby lightening their own load—or sharing the yoke. How can more than one person share a responsibility? Work as Paul recommended for Corinth: Do it in turn, one by one (1 Cor. 14:27-31). Roles always need to be clarified, but that does not mean one gender will always necessarily do the clarifying or keep doing the same task.

Let me close with another quote from A. J. Gordon, who we are told beautifully modeled mutual submission with his own wife Maria:

How slow are we to understand what is written! Simon Peter, who on the Day of Pentecost had rehearsed the great prophecy of the new dispensation, and announced that its fulfillment had begun, was yet so holden of tradition that it took a special vision of the sheet descending from heaven to convince him that in the body of Christ “there can be neither Jew nor Gentile.” And it has required another vision of a multitude of missionary women, let down by the Holy Spirit among the heathen, and publishing the Gospel to every tribe and kindred and people, to convince us that in that same body, “there can be no male nor female.” It is evident, however, that this extraordinary spectacle of ministering women has brought doubts to some conservative men as to “whereunto this thing may grow.” Yet as believers in the sure

word of prophecy, all has happened exactly according to the foreordained pattern, from the opening chapter of the new dispensation, when in the upper room “these all continued with one accord in prayer and supplication, with the women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with His brethren,” to the closing chapter, now fulfilling, when “the women that publish the tidings are a great host.”24

Aida Besancon Spencer is professor of New Testament of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminar, South Hamilton, Mass. She is the author of Beyond the Curse: Women Called to Ministry (Hendrickson, 1985), Paul’s Literary Style (University Press of America, 1998), The Global God (Baker, 1998), 2 Corinthians (Bible Reading Fellowship 2001), and other books and articles. She is also Pastor of Organization at Pilgrim Church, Beverly, Mass. And consulting theologian for Priscilla Papers. This article is an adaptation of a presentation done March 15, 2003, for the North East Evangelical Theological Society at Gordon-Conwell on “The Role of Women in the Church.”


  1. e.g. William D. Mounce, Word Biblical Commentary 46: Pastoral Epistles (Nashville; Thomas Nelson, 2000), 118.
  2. e.g. Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 458, 939; H. Wayne House, The Role of Women in Ministry Today (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1995), 129-130.
  3. e.g. Grudem, Theology, 456-457; 937. Michael Wilkins, “Women in the Teaching and Example of Jesus,” Women and Men in Ministry: A Complementary Perspective (Chicago: Moody, 2001), 95-99.
  4. e.g. Mounce, Pastoral, 124.
  5. e.g. Mounce, Pastoral, 120, 124, 125.
  6. e.g. Mounce, Pastoral, 135, 137, 138, 143.
  7. Kimball Young, Sociology: A Study of Society and Culture (2d ed; New York: American Book, 1949), 127, 465. Paul encourages Timothy to maintain right practice and right “being”: “These things practice, in these things be, so that your progress may be manifest to all” (1 Tim. 4:15 my trans.).
  8. e.g., Grudem, Theology, 461-463. W. Robert Godfrey, “Headship and the Bible,” in Does Christianity Teach male Headship, ed. David Blankenhorn, Don Browning, and Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen, 85 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004). Bruce Ware, “The Beauty of Biblical Womanhood.” Southern Seminary Magazine 71, no.4 (2003): 4.
  9. See also Ex. 18:4; Isa. 30:5.
  10. See Aída Besançon Spencer, Beyond the Curse: Women Called to Ministry (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1985), 23-26.
  11. Incidentally, according to sociological studies on clergy-cou-ples, when wives as well as husbands are employed, their marriages are “high in mutuality, marital commitment, marital satisfaction, and family satisfaction … the quantitative and qualitative data support the position that wife/mother employment in a clergy couple situation enhances the marital relationship. E.M. Rallings and David J. Pratto, Two-Clergy Marriages: A Special Case of Dual Careers (New York: University Press of America, 1984), 8. In contrast, “although 80% of sexual abuse and family violences occurs in alcoholic families, the next highest incidence of both incest and physical abuse takes place in intact, highly religious homes. The offending fathers…emphasize the subordination of women.” Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen, Gender and Grace: Love, Work and Parenting in a Changing World. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1990), 170.
  12. James B. Hurley, Man and Woman in Biblical Perspective (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981), 211.
  13. Gerhard von Rad, Genesis: A Commentary, trans. John H. Marks (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1961), 81.
  14. Ibid, 18.
  15. Susanne Langer, Philosophy in a New Key: Study in the Symbolism of Reason, Rite, and Art (New York: New American Library, 1951), 62-63.
  16. von Rad, Genesis, 82. Grudem does not quote this view nor von Rad when he adds that “the statement about forsaking father and mother does not quite correspond to the patriarchal family customs of ancient Israel Does this tendentious statement perhaps preserve something from a time of matriarchal culture?” (83).
  17. Francis Brown, S.R. Driver and Charles A. Briggs, AHebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1951), 617.
  18. Hurley, Man, 211.
  19. Grudem, Theology, 249-250, 940; Mounce, Pastoral, 148.
  20. Henry Bettenson, ed., Documents of the Christian Church (2d ed.; New York: Oxford, 1963), 49-51; J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, (2d ed.; New York: Harper and Row, 1960), 339. See also Philip Schaff and Henry Wace eds., ASelect Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Churc h XIV. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979), 254-258.
  21. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, II. XIV. 3.
  22. See Aida Besancon Spencer, “God’s Order Is Love,” Brethre n in Christ History and Life 13 (April 1990): 42-43.
  23. A.J. Gordon, “The Ministry of Women,” World Missionary Review 7 (December 1894): 910-921.
  24. Ibid.