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  • Writer's pictureDwight Smith

For My Sisters in Christ on Women in Leadership

Updated: Nov 13, 2023



For My Sisters in Christ on Women in Leadership

In recent months I have been asked by several godly, gifted women, married to men of the same quality, questions along the following lines:

“Do you have any writings about women in leadership in Christianity? I have never particularly sought a leadership role, but I find myself in one, and it is a match with my gifting. I am not pushing the issue of women pastors, nor do I care about titles. But when I took a test on the five functions of leadership [listed in Ephesians 4:11], I aligned with the function of a prophet. Yet I have experienced much pain in Christian circles due to being ignored and greatly diminished by men leaders. What are your thoughts on this?”

The full context of this discussion and its resolution is more complicated than this treatise will afford. But the Bible offers principles that show us a hopeful way forward on this matter and makes clear that the chaos regarding this topic has been created not by God but by us! (For a more in-depth study on this topic, please read my books Divine Design and Alone at the Top.)1

Three Aspects Regarding Women in Leadership

There are three aspects to the issue of women in leadership in the church that seem most important to me: the biblical teaching on it, the historical challenge of it, and the present sociological context in which it is carried out. Let’s begin with the first

.

Biblical Teaching on Women in Leadership

When it comes to biblical teaching on women in leadership, there are two big issues to weigh.

First, the only leadership role with a specific gender limitation is that of elder (see Titus 1:5–6). None of the five functions of leadership listed in Ephesians 4:11 (which I discuss at length in Alone at the Top)—apostle, prophet, hi evangelist, pastor, or teacher—makes any reference to gender.

Of course, other historical or present contextual circumstances might require us to consider whether men might be better employed in certain roles in certain situations, but Scripture does not state this directly. We have all seen women who clearly have gifts that support some or all of the five functions and who exercise those functions. The question would be, what is the context of their exercising the functions, and are they exercising them according to the biblical roles of maleness and femaleness in God’s creation?

This leads us to the second issue regarding biblical teaching on this matter: God has designed men and women to fulfill two distinct roles, especially in marriage, with the man in a position of headship and the woman in a position of submission (see Gen. 2:18–24; Eph. 5:22–33). How does this play out with women in leadership?


Interdependence solves the problem.

The church in our day has been trained and enculturated in a top-down style of leadership that comes more from tradition and the world than from Scripture. But Jesus was emphatic when He said, “It shall not be so among you” (Mark 10:43).


Leadership as Jesus taught and lived it was not about personal worldly power or accruements but about servanthood. His disciples were to follow His model, giving themselves in exchange for others: “Whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:43–45).

This kind of attitude among a leadership team, whether made up of men, women, or both, creates an atmosphere of interdependency.


Interdependency develops when the leadership of a church acts in the nature of God the Trinity, each having a different function but all united in outcome. Asking who is in charge or who is more important or strategic is biblical nonsense. Each leader’s importance is defined by the fact that he or she is a gift by God to His church, which defines that person’s role and, most importantly, his or her expected ministry outcome, which should be to birth and grow faith in God’s children. Interdependent leaders do not produce salvation; God does. But they are instruments God uses to help others understand, accept, and grow in faith. The ultimate outcome—mercy extended across the whole world—is most effective when the people of God are maturing in their relationships with God and growing in their effectiveness in representing Him in the marketplace, in marriages, in families, and in congregations. Little wonder that Jesus used such emphatic language with His disciples: “Not so among you!”

Obviously, interdependence does not develop without the fruit of the Spirit maturing quite stridently in each leader. And maturity in the fruit of the Spirit does not mature stridently unless leaders are growing in relationship to our Father, exercising consistent submissiveness to Him and His kingdom, and spending lots of time with Him in His Word. Where this exists, however, the man and woman grow in interdependence, and that interdependence makes the operation of historically unrecognized female roles outside the marriage and family more possible. (The first six chapters of my book Divine Design show this as God’s original design.)

Men and women still have clear male and female roles as described by Paul (see 1 Cor. 11:3–16). But in an atmosphere of interdependence, those roles take on a larger dynamic. Yes, each marital role still expresses the essence of the biblical expectation: husbands, love your wives as your own body, and wives, respect and submit to your husbands as unto Christ (see Eph. 5:22, 25). But they are couched in a greater submission: that of the church to Christ and of Christ to the Father.


Christ is able to submit to the Father in true interdependence without losing any of His divine nature, and the Father is able to give complete authority to the Son without losing any of His sovereignty. Of course, we are not the Trinity, but, as in the true meaning of love, the Trinity is our model and the ground from which we learn to act.

Early patriarchs of the Church understood the delicacy of the marriage roles. They had appreciation and balance, healthy and maturing ideas. Their challenge is especially for men to whom most cultures have given unbalanced authority. This is one important piece of the puzzle that gives birth to women in ministry.

Chrysostom (4th century) on marriage!

"Have you noted the measure of obedience? Pay attention to love’s high standard. If you take the premise that your wife should submit to you, as the church submits to Christ, then you should also take the same kind of careful, sacrificial thought for her that Christ takes for the church. Even if you must offer your own life for her, you must not refuse. Even if you must undergo countless struggles on her behalf and have all kinds of things to endure and suffer, you must not refuse. Even if you suffer all this, you have still done not as much as Christ has for the church. For you are already married when you act this way, whereas Christ is acting for one who has rejected and hated him. So just as he, when she was rejecting, hating, spurning and nagging him, brought her to trust him by his great solicitude, not by threatening, lording it over her or intimidating her or anything like that, so must you also act toward your wife. Even if you see her looking down on you, nagging and despising you, you will be able to win her over with your great love and affection for her."

"Homily on Ephesians 5:25"

Historical Challenge to Women in Leadership

The historical issue regarding women in Christian leadership is a bit more complex. Consider missionaries. Until the twenty-first century, the organizational expressions of missions were all outwardly dominated by males, and they are still dominated by males today outside the Western world. We do, however, find two contrasting examples from history.

First, single women were often more willing to take risks and step out to live in places where men did not necessarily want to go. While women’s missionary organizations are not examples of interdependence, they do provide a context in which women can effectively lead. The motivations of some women’s ministries may be questioned, but the women’s gifts to lead cannot be.

I have recently done some research on wives of some of the most recognized males of modern missionary history. Priscilla Studd, the two wives of Adroniam Judson, the three wives of Hudson Taylor, and Biddy Chambers. I was left with at least two very distinct impressions. First, these women helped to found, organize and lead, the organizations that these men were known for. Second, in some cases, we would not know of these men and their exploits except for the work of these women. Without the lifelong and diligent work of Biddy Chambers, there would be no books authored by Oswald Chambers!!

Second, some couples on the mission field have operated in ways much like what we see in the Scriptures of interdependent couples—Hudson and Maria Taylor, Jonathan and Rosalind Goforth, and Jim and Elisabeth Elliot, to name a few. So interdependence between husbands and wives in ministry is possible.

Still, interdependence between men and women is difficult, nearly impossible too often, due to two factors: One, people allow sin to mar their call to ministry—rebellion, anger, jealousy, unilateralism, etc. Two, single men and women in ministry who could reflect interdependence often don’t. This second issue is a huge one for the church because of the temptation to moral weakness that so many fall into.

Sociological Effects on Women in Leadership

The third area that affects women in leadership is sociological. In this I refer to two things primarily.


One, feminism is inflamed in the Western Christian world, often leaving any sense of interdependence between men and women completely out of the question. As a result, people jettison the biblical discussion and instead internalize, fixate upon, and act upon offenses against them. The wedge that has been driven between male and female that keeps people from a holy understanding of God’s design has become so massive that it destroys society, makes Christian marriage nearly impossible, and creates explosive and destructive discussions inside the church.

Two, I ask a personal question: can you and your husband find a healthy interdependence without destroying him? Whether we like it or not, “authority out of focus, weather from dominating males, or dominating females, leaves damage to both.

There is a way forward that honors Scripture, provides an arena for all the gifts and functions of male and female to operate, and advances the role of the church as a guardian and testimony of eternity for a world increasingly out of control. Sadly, believers do not often find it. Today’s church environment is so biblically distorted that a recapturing of the genius of God’s original design seems almost impossible.

In spite of this, couples and singles who are especially mature and observant could discover and experience healthy interdependence in ministry. When a husband and wife achieve this, they will enjoy the beauty of being another Priscilla and Aquila!

Warnings for Those in Leadership

But let me specifically address my sisters’ questions. Let’s suppose that God has given you a particular role, or function and that you are also an activist—a combination with great potential to move people. All leadership roles, have some great dangers as well.

First, leaders sometimes try to exercise their function before they have the experience to be fully trustable or experienced.

Second, leaders can try to move into ministry without spending consistent and deep time with God in His Word. But leaders who do this tend to simply react to humans and their sin or injustice toward others rather than ministering to people in godly ways led by the Spirit. Leaders must truly represent God’s heart and standard, to explain God and His Word to people, some gifts and functions are more demanding of action from those who have them. This activist visionary dilemma is: “how to maintain a correct, strident, and public biblical message while realizing that its application to people personally demands compassion.” It’s not an easy balance and one that many fail at often.

Third, leaders don’t always ensure close accountability to a few mentors who love them enough to occasionally disagree with them. One complaint about visionaries who are also activists—and it is a fair one—is that they are intimidating. These visionaries must make sure that their calling retains its biblical nature, is couched in deep love for the people God wants to move, and is challenged by at least a few who value their role but are not afraid to disagree with them from time to time.

Fourth, leaders sometimes fail to allow their roles to mature over time. Those with the function of visionary must read the Word deeply, be silent before God often, and make sure that they can draw a straight line between what they think they should do or say and what God’s Word clearly declares.

Further, a visionary who is a woman should not act unless she and her husband (if she is married) are in agreement. Maybe the best way to protect biblical gender roles in marriage is to find a way for the husband to be the primary spokesman for what the couple has thought, discussed, decided, and wants to see happen. He need not be the exclusive spokesperson, but when the couple communicates publicly, all should recognize that the two are in agreement and that the wife retains the honor, respect, and submission to the role God has bestowed upon her husband as they act in interdependence.

This same idea could function in churches if elders were viewed as having the same relationship to Christ as wives are to have toward husbands. Local churches struggle to keep the authority for declaring the Word of God in the order of responsibility that God has established: the sovereign Father, the divine Son, the elders, the people of Christ, the husband, the wife, the children. In an ideal (read biblically sound) church environment,3 this kind of leadership structure would effectively carry out the leadership task, benefit the body of Christ, and advance the declaration of the gospel in the world.

My wife, Patti, and I recently spent nearly two hours on the phone with a couple asking this question: “How do we apply the concept of interdependency in the new church we have started? It has worked well with just the two of us in leadership, but now we are adding people to our leadership group. What do we do?”

We gave them a few suggestions for cultivating interdependency among their leadership:


• Be vigilant in your minds and hearts to protect the creative order that God displays and also projects on us. Review and renew that vigilance regularly.

• Establish a clear understanding of your expected outcome for the church you have established, and build reasonable milestone goals to make that outcome possible.

• Recruit slowly. You must be convinced that the people who join you in the leadership task are spiritually mature, committed to the expected outcome, trustable as people, mature in their self-awareness, and proactive in inner-team communication, to name a few qualities.

• Interdependence in ministry happens more smoothly and effectively when the church life is focused upon decentralization of most of its expressions—in other words, when it avoids the world’s top-down model and spreads the work of ministry among all the leadership.

• Allow those in leadership to function in their gifts rather than being pushed into the kinds of prescribed job descriptions that have been calcified in today’s property-focused, highly programmed ideas of church. Your expected outcome, your strategic milestones, and the empowering of the people in your church ought to define the mix of gifts needed in your leadership group and how those in the group align themselves.

While the ideas discussed above of headship, submission, and interdependence are clearly biblical, I am concerned about the distortions that people can create from them: ego-driven personalities can try to enforce unbiblical types of male authority; women who have no sense of the divine order of creation can be rebellious; leaders can confuse biblical gifts (for all Christians), functions (for those called to leadership), and roles (for men and women) to the point that trying to apply them in today’s present inflamed church environments enhances people’s rebellion; and both men and women can lack awareness of the healing force of salvation in each other and in their marriages to that that applying interdependence is all but impossible.

But anytime we create truncated theological ideas from biblical passages written to address totally different topics, as those with the errant attitudes listed above must do, we run the risk of exacerbating the curses declared by God as a result of the fall of Adam and Eve: “Adam, life will be hard, and nothing that I created to multiply and cooperate under your hand will yield fruit easily. Only by the sweat of your brow will you survive. Eve, you will be both drawn to Adam, the one for whom you were created, and repulsed by him because of the sin in both of you. You will want to love him, but you will also want to rebel against him. The desire to self-govern will tempt both of you until the day you die!”

Interdependence in leadership depends on two things: both men and women must exercise great sensitivity toward the Holy Spirit, and they must value the kingdom of God over their own perceived value and importance.

Deviation in either of these areas makes interdependence nearly impossible. The biblical, historical, and present-day sociological atmospheres cry out for men and women who know how to mix all the gifted people in their ministries in such a way as to fully empower all Christ’s people without destroying the divine creation of male and female.

Indeed, even the ways in which the church today gathers makes interdependence difficult. Our focus on large numbers and celebrity-like communicators has created a scenario in which it is difficult to see how women fit into the life of the church—except of course, when they create their own female sub-gatherings in which they too can become golden-tongued speakers.

Both men and women can abuse or distort the idea of interdependence. Yet people who are so filled with themselves that they would destroy the creative balance and genius of God for what they perceive as their call to the will of God can certainly not achieve interdependence in leadership! While this is not the heart of the women who spoke to me about this topic, it is the desire of Satan for them, as for all believers, and it is the default reaction of our flesh. So let me close with some final advice for my sisters in leadership:


• Spend much time in the Word and in prayer that you may grow to maturity in the Spirit.

• Know well what the Bible teaches about the functions of ministry (for those called to leadership), the gifts of the Spirit (for all believers), and the divinely designed roles for men and women.

• For those of you who are married, protect your marriage, first and foremost. Love your wife as both the Bible and Chrysostom charge us. Honor your husband. Dialogue overtime about how the two of you can work interdependently to the glory of God.

• Be accountable to someone who is spiritually mature and will be courageous to challenge you when needed.

• Reject all temptation to deify your gifts. Value God’s kingdom over your own sense of importance.


God is in charge, and His Son administrates His Father’s authority. All authority in heaven and on Earth has been given to the Son. The kind of authority that Jesus advocated is most expressed in being a servant, a slave—in giving our lives in exchange for others as Jesus did. This is why Jesus reminded the disciples that such worldly authority as they were envisioning was inappropriate: “Not so among you!”


The difficultly for many of us in ministry among Christ’s people is maintaining a correct view of ourselves. Among the many things Paul wrote to the Corinthians is one strident statement: “No flesh should glory in his presence. But of him are ye in Christ Jesus, who of God is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption: that, according as it is written, He that glorieth, let him glory in the Lord” (1 Cor. 1:29–31, KJV). This leaves no room for debate. No person can think that he or she is qualified, deserving, or able to stand in God’s presence, now or forever.

As responsible as Christian leaders are to shepherd Christ’s people, they have an even greater need to realize that “wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption” are theirs only in Jesus Christ. Leadership will never stand before God, now or in eternity, except as they stand in the only “flesh” that can stand before Him—the obedient, sacrificing, perfect Son of God, the God-man, Jesus Christ.


May God give you and your husband grace to serve Him together!

1. You can buy Divine Design and Alone at the Top, along with other books, at my website, https://www.dwightpaulsmith.com/books.


2. In addressing the matter of leadership, I am talking only about leadership in and for the church. The kind of leadership that the Holy Spirit gives the people of Christ to serve them is different from leadership as a result of vocational abilities that people were born with. There are some overlaps between the two, of course, but the kind of leadership that Christ has given the church to represent Him in the midst of His people is different from human leadership in several ways: it has a different genesis (the Holy Spirit), a different accountability structure (to the heavenly Father, to steward what belongs to Him), and a different expected outcome (that the people of Christ would be empowered to grow in the righteous image and likeness of God).


3. See my thoughts on church in my book Renovation at https://www.dwightpaulsmith.com/books.

1 Comment


Robert McAlister
Robert McAlister
Sep 03, 2021

Outstanding! Thanks for your ever clear Biblical guidance on such matters!

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