Women in the Church and Purpose, Calling, and Role

Subtitle: The Danger of Abusive Sexual Stereotyping

by Alison Rowan


Complementarianism claims that the sexes are ‘equal’ but that they have different ‘roles’. This is also called ‘gender differentiation’, and divides the responsibilities that God is supposed to have designed as a perfect plan for humans in the very beginning. They say the female ‘nurturing’ and ‘submissive role’ and the male ‘headship’ or ‘leadership role’ is meant to exist for marriage and the church, but it does not matter for secular affairs.

When Complementarians say the ‘role’ of a man or husband is the patriarchal leadership within the home and church, but not in society, it leads to all kinds of inconsistencies and artificial rules, conflicts due to rankings of authority, and a mess that Complementarians themselves disagree over finding a satisfying implementation that accounts for these anomalies. In truth, contrary to their dogma there are Sixteen NT Instances where Women Teach and Lead Men, either in actual example or by deliberate lack of prohibition.

Because their hermeneutics lead to an interpretation of 1 Tim. 2:12 saying that a woman should never hold any office or perform a function in the church where men would need to follow her advice or instruction, there are some ludicrous scenarios that come out of this mindset.

For instance, a woman cannot be the church’s worship leader since men are present, yet be the conductress of an excellent mixed gender secular choir that sings the occasional sacred oratorio, and the concert venue being sometimes in a church building . . . although some would disapprove or even dissuade her from doing that!

Some say a woman cannot even read the Bible aloud in the presence of men, but she can write a thesis or Bible commentary for men to learn from?! She can teach Bible classes to children–but at what age should she stop instructing her own son?!  She can be a gifted and inspiring high school religious education teacher, but not be in church youth work with teenage boys–and certainly not be involved in the main Sunday meetings or be permitted to lead a mixed gender Bible study!

One thing they all seem to agree on is that it is wrong for a woman to make major domestic decisions or to aspire to be the breadwinner over being the homemaker and child-raiser. Thus, when circumstances dictate that she needs to, there is a sense of guilt and ‘missing the mark’ (sinning) from God’s ‘perfect plan’ if she has to, say as a single mum. Yet if she puts herself ‘under the authority’ or ‘covering’ of a man … father, pastor … ? … it’s now OK!

There is increasing dissatisfaction, disillusionment, and frustration being felt, voiced, and demonstrated by withdrawal from volunteering by women in the western churches that espouse ‘roles’ for them. They are asking: “What is my purpose in life? How do I know if I am doing what God has called me to do? Is there really only one role for me–because I am a woman?”

In addition to that, the words: ‘purpose’, ‘calling’, and ‘role’ are used inter-changeably, becoming the chief cause of the frustration and disillusionment. To remedy this dissent, it is necessary to both define and distinguish between these three words and to give these despairing women some hope.

  1. Purpose  (Why mankind was created and why we are redeemed)

1 Peter 2:5-9 makes our purpose clear and is true for all:

“You yourselves, like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ . . . you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for His own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light.”

God’s purpose is universal and unchanging for every single believer, wherever we are and whatever we do, it is the reason for which Christ purchased us.  It is to know Him and proclaim His excellencies, giving testimony of His salvation. In order to accurately proclaim the excellencies (to portray the image) of God, which is described in Gen. 1:27 and 5:1-2 as ‘male and female’, both genders are required to play an active part, supplementing and completing His image in each other. With mutual co-operation we will then clearly tell forth His goodness and desire that all should know His reign of love and righteousness in their lives–to ‘subdue and fill’ the Earth with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord.

Ultimately, our purpose is to be intimately one with our Saviour as His Ezer Kenedgo, his capable helper, perfectly matching Him in the New Creation and our hardships and challenges are currently training and preparing us for that joy. In all our trials, we know that everything works together for our good for we are individually called, according to that purpose.

  1. Calling  (What we do to fulfil our purpose)

One’s calling is highly individual, depending on natural temperament, aptitudes, desires, and talents as well spiritual gifts, experiences of life, robustness of character, and faith. It is also something uniquely designed by God for us and also something for which God uniquely designs and prepares us.

There comes a ‘knowing’ something ‘in the bones’ that cannot be shaken or dismissed about one’s call. There comes an attraction, a necessity to do it and dissatisfaction and frustration when its performance is denied or delayed.  Yet when functioning in one’s call, it is like wearing a well-fitting coat and as people are benefited, much good fruit ensues.

Further to this natural equipping there is his ‘grace’ or enabling anointing to fulfill his call.

“He has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace, which was given to us in Christ Jesus before time began.” (2 Tim. 1:9)

“Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms.” (1 Pet. 4:10)

“I became a servant of this gospel by the gift of God’s grace given me through the working of his power.” (Eph. 3:7)

The types of “gifts of God’s grace . . . through the working of his power’’ are outlined in Eph. 4:11: “apostle, prophet, evangelist, teacher, pastor” and in Rom. 12:6-8. Together they describe callings which entail all sorts of ministries and service within the church. These are only ‘according to the grace given’, not ‘according to the role’, nor ‘according to the sex’, since there is no gender specific pronoun in the Greek, which states for example, “ho didaskon en te didaskalia”—‘the (one) teaching, in the teaching’ etc.

“Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them:  if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching; the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness.” (Rom. 12:4-8)

This list encompasses all sorts of callings:

  • “prophecy”–God-given insight for the progress of the church or individuals
  • “serving”–in administration, music, catering, maintenance, newsletters, bookstall etc.
  • “teaching”–the Word by any to all
  • “exhortation”–people-centred, pastoral encouragement and advice, and also preaching to the unsaved or to the congregation with exhortation to receive from the benefits of the cross
  • “contributing” (financially)–skill in business to earn the wage to be generous, making Spirit-directed appropriate gifts
  • “leadership”–with diligence and humility in all areas, whether, a prayer group, Bible study, admin team or the whole church
  • “acts of mercy”–charitable activities whether visiting the sick or prisoners or helping the under-privileged.

Many find great fulfilment in discovering their unique calling and then labor in it faithfully, eventually to enjoy their reward when the King returns.

Likewise, Christ’s betrothal gift to the Church, to make herself ready for when He returns, are the five-fold ministries in Eph. 4:11. How are they apportioned?   By gender?   NO–the qualification is given a few verses earlier and puts these gifts into their proper context: “to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it.” (Eph. 4:7). It is His sovereign choice, for ‘each one’.

God’s own sovereign choice of calling, being a spiritual entity, is not on the physical body with its genitalia, but resides within one’s born again spirit. Since it is also woven into the individual’s temperament, desires, and life experiences, it therefore transcends sexual stereotypes. As R.M. Groothuis says:

“Unlike traditionalism and women-centered feminism, equalitarianism does not sexualize the entire person. Gender is not viewed as the primary determinative factor in a person’s life; spiritual, intellectual, experiential, relational, and personality factors are likewise important. A person’s sex does not deterministically and indelibly color all of a person’s character, being, and life experience. Sexual identity is not conflated with personal identity.”*

(*Women Caught in the Conflict: The Culture War between Traditionalism and Feminism by Rebecca M. Groothuis. Wipf and Stock, Eugene, OR, 1997, p. 126.)

Admittedly, most personality profile determinants, such as Myers-Briggs, do show sexually weighted percentages on a few of the personality types and, therefore, the most suitable type of employment can have a gender preference. However, I believe it is abusive to either prohibit or to enforce certain callings according to sexual stereotyping and that it does not appear to be how God Himself makes His choices.

All of the callings in the Body of Christ are to fulfill the higher purpose, stated above and it takes a humble, accountable group of leaders to ensure that all are given space and edified so that they can grow into their own calling and usefulness in the Body for that purpose to know God and make Him known.

God’s first mandate to Mankind still stands: to fill the Earth, not only with Adam’s seed, but also Christ’s seed. It is also to fill it with the knowledge of the Glory of the Lord, by being His Male and Female likeness, bringing order –having dominion–good custodianship over all God’s creatures, especially the human ones! This is still our purpose towards which our callings function.    

A study of the Greek words for the requirements for leadership, aside from a generalized recommendation for faithful monogamy if the candidate is married, also shows no gender specification, therefore, all callings are open to both genders. This is especially evident in the appointment of Phoebe as a deacon and a leader. 

  1. Role (What we do in life and to fulfill our calling)

In considering these three terms, purpose–which is universal and unchanging and calling–which is individual and unchanging, we quickly recognize that role–which is individual and changing throughout life, is really the most transient. The most appropriate definition for role is that: a role is a part played in a scene of one’s life and can change, develop, or diversify with time and circumstances. There is no strait-jacketed, fixed definition that delineates the sexual differences into only two categories for life, as Complementarians teach.

Because role is connected to what we physically do, what we are physically, does affect it. A 250 lb. woman will never be an Olympic hurdler!  A 125 lb. man would not be the anchor man in a tug-of-war team! Likewise, a grandfather will never breastfeed, but can be a great friend and inspiration to his growing grandchildren.  Simultaneously, he can be a counsellor to his son’s marital problems, a caring husband, a gardening expert, a volunteer for several charities and a golfing partner to an ex-colleague, who both, now, no longer are agile enough to play badminton together.  

It may be that in doing some of these roles it may also be revealed that he is fulfilling a calling on his life–to be one who shows mercy with cheerfulness. Through all his actions and words, he involves His Saviour and brings the knowledge of His love into all his relationships. He is fulfilling his purpose, too.

Role is also connected to personality type, intelligence, and general psyche.  As examples, the sanguine would not be suited to work in an abattoir, neither would someone with Asperger’s syndrome be a good marriage guidance counselor, but could be an excellent historical researcher, scientist, or musician. The choleric make better executive decisions than the phlegmatic and the melancholic, but their pastoral advice may be too prescriptive and inappropriate. Since these qualities are common to all humans, is it not unjust, counterproductive, and abusive to invent an artificial gender distinction and make it law in both secular and ecclesiastical spheres?

The only places where gender definitely does play a part is with the ‘be fruitful and multiply’ edict of our Creator! Even while raising the children, the genders do not necessarily define which parent is best at what. Personally speaking as an aspie, I do not have the intuitive sensitivity and ‘people skills’ usually associated with mothering, whereas my husband does! He is also an excellent father to our five children and I do my best with the three who have Asperger’s and the two who definitely don’t. At least we all understand our limitations!

I gave up a promising career as a scientist to follow the traditional ‘Christian’ model–‘a woman’s place is in the home’ and by living very frugally, my husband’s teacher’s wage saw us through. If he had not had the intelligence or qualifications that would have allowed entrance to and progression in his career path, it would actually have been better if he had raised the children while I earned the wage. I believe there has to be flexibility, not law. That is the way of grace and closer to God’s heart.

With all that said, I would like to ask: Where in the Bible are there defined ‘roles’ that are set in stone for the separate genders as the Complementarians claim?  I see Proverbs’ virtuous wife being the manager of her household and business, being the wage earner for her husband who may be an unpaid city elder, (judge and councillor) ‘sitting in the gates’.

I also see Paul’s advice to the widowed Ephesian women through Timothy  (1 Tim. 5:11-14) to remarry, have (new) children, and manage their households and for them (instead of the servants) to stay with their children (from the new or previous marriage), rather than wander from house to house as idle gossips, which they could only do if supported by the church (on the widow’s list) or if their estate brings in the income or their new husband does.

Lydia ran a lucrative business and managed her own household, presumably as a widow. There is flexibility here. Also, all of the necessary qualifications were found in Lydia to be an overseer! (The brief mention in 1 Cor. 1:11 of ‘the brethren of Chloe’, I believe identify her as the overseer of the household of faith in her care, likewise the two ‘elect ladies’ in 2 John).

In conclusion, I cannot find in the Genesis accounts, any justification for reading into the text of Gen. 1:26-8, that Adam was given the ‘leadership role’ (having dominion over), whereas Eve was given the ‘nurturing role’ (be fruitful), as the Complementarian’s claim. There seems to be a level of deliberate dishonesty to do so, when it unequivocally states that God blessed them BOTH at the same time with the same words.

In fact, it is very instructive to study the pronouncements in Eden to see exactly what authority was granted to whom and when. Likewise a careful examination of the claims that God had set up these roles as a ‘divine order’ or ‘perfect plan’ BEFORE the Fall, also shows that it is only assumed by reading Patriarchy into the early Genesis text, from the post-Fall scenario when man DID have authority over woman. Reading by honest exegesis, I cannot see any foundation for Adam having authority over Eve, his perfectly matching ezer kenedgo, in God’s ‘very good’ pre-Fall Eden. There was no Patriarchy in Paradise!

If the blood of Jesus fully paid for Adam’s sin, why is it that the Complemen-tarian Church behaves as if it did not pay for Eve’s?! Implementation of our full redemption, purchased at such horrendous cost should not be denied, but the timing of it needs to be understood. Our spiritual disconnection was completely dealt with at Calvary: Christ has joined our spirits to His (1 Cor. 6:17) and again granted us all authority over all the works of the Evil One in the use of his Word and His Name. Is that authority diminished on female lips? Is it written anywhere that her spiritual authority only functions under a man’s ‘covering’ or is this belief a mere eisegetical assumption of Complementarianism?

All physical effects of the Fall will be dealt with in the future Resurrection and New Creation, but the social disconnection (in the realm of the soul) is to be implemented now, in the present time.

Therefore, other than the physical specializations for procreation, I propose that there were no fixed, separate ‘roles’ regarding social or spiritual functions, nor disparity of authority in God’s perfect pre-Fall creation.

Since the born-again spirit is indeed neither male nor female, neither should there be any artificial distinction of roles and authority now, in the glorious, post-redemption liberty of all the sons of God, whatever the genitalia of the flesh they currently inhabit. Procreation excepted, we are indeed equal ‘in Christ’ in every single respect and outworking, in this present age and in that which is to come. 

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With Thanks to Alison Rowan for her research and article composition.

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For Further Reflection

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Biblical Equality Resource Articles:


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© 2015   Barb Orlowski, D.Min.