Over the last few years the issue relating to the Biblical role of sisters in the ecclesia has been the subject of significant debate. The only authority we have in resolving this question is to appeal to the weight and influence of the Scriptures themselves. Hence the three articles which make up our feature this issue have been written to outline the Scriptural principles relating to God’s headship and the position of men and women in relation to God and His Son. May we consider the matter carefully as we survey the consistent message which the Word of God portrays to us all.

In the beginning God created two spirituallyequal human beings to have dominion over all creation. Man was created first with a view to exercising the primary responsibility of leading the family in a God-glorifying direction. Woman was then created to provide intelligent, willing cooperation towards this objective.

We observe today an increased challenge to Biblical principles and established practices concerning the role of our sisters in the ecclesia. This article presents the Scriptural perspective in response to this challenge.

Our approach before God

The basic premise for those who wish to come to God is that they must come in a way that meets His requirements. This finds acceptance with God and gives Him pleasure.

Nadab and Abihu thought that they could approach God in a manner “which he commanded them not” (Lev 10:1). Moses’ consequent reprimand to Aaron explained that God “will be sanctified in them that come nigh [him]” (Lev 10:3).

Scriptures are full of examples of failure to observe this principle. From Cain’s inappropriate offering to David’s unconsidered transport of the ark, man has to his peril repeatedly failed to “observe to do it; that it may be well with thee” (Deut 6:3). Approach to God must be with respect and not disregard, with care and not experiment.

As we consider the Divinely appointed role of our sisters in Christ, we therefore do so seeking to observe God’s arrangements and so bring Him honour.

A Humanistic Overtone

We observe today an increased challenge to the Divine arrangement concerning our sisters. While our sisters make a much valued and very significant contribution to ecclesial life, Scriptural practice is that sisters do not speak at combined worship meetings or direct ecclesial affairs.

This is being contested. Many arguments that are forwarded focus on humanistic ideals. Questions of how we feel about issues, of using the talent around us, of being equal in all respects, of being fair to everyone, and of respect for others, are proffered to provide challenge to the Divine authority.

But, either we follow what God says, or ultimately we follow our own wisdom – with consequent penalty.

Case studies of getting it wrong

The Scriptures offer clear illustration of the consequences of challenging God’s appointments. Some of the most graphic are from the time when law and order were first instituted into the camp of Israel. God appointed a male leader in Moses and a male priesthood. This priesthood came from just one family of just one of the tribes of Israel.

But God’s determinations were challenged. Firstly Aaron and Miriam questioned the leadership of Moses. “Hath the Lord indeed spoken only by Moses? Hath he not spoken also by us?” (Num 12:2). God was angry with this challenge, and held Aaron and Miriam accountable. Miriam in particular was punished, firstly with leprosy, and then she was shamed as the whole nation journeyed not for seven days while Miriam remained outside of the camp. There is nothing more heard of Miriam until her death!

Later Korah and his company accused Moses and Aaron of taking too much upon themselves, and lifting themselves above the congregation of the Lord (Num 16:3). They reasoned that all of the congregation was holy, and that the Lord was with them all. They possibly argued that Aaron’s family did not necessarily have the most capable or caring or godly priests, especially given the recent events with Aaron’s eldest two sons. But it was God’s appointment, and these presumptuous sinners died when “the earth opened her mouth and swallowed them up”.

So we see it is imperative to exactly honour God’s arrangements in how He will be approached and served.

Founded in the Old Testament

When we consider the New Testament passages concerning the role of sisters, it becomes readily apparent that the basis of the principles is found in the Old Testament. With our understanding of the Scriptures this is no surprise.

In 1 Timothy 2 Paul gives clear instruction based on two Old Testament references, one in Genesis 2 and one in Genesis 3. In 1 Corinthians 11 Paul lays down the principle of headship and quotes from Genesis in support. Paul’s exposition on the matter in 1 Corinthians 14 includes “as also saith the Law”, and extensive quotes from the works of Moses (probably Numbers 30).

So we see that the Old Testament, and in particular the book of Genesis, laid a foundation for God’s plan for men and women for the next 6,000 years. His decisions and ordinances at that time comprised deliberate lessons that are consistently reflected in the rest of Scripture.

An order from the beginning

When we come to the creation of woman the record is very specific. “I will make him an help meet for him”, said God (Gen 2:18). Other translations help clarify the meaning of “help meet” – for example, “a helper fit for him” (esv), “a helper as his counterpart” (roth).

So man and woman were not the same – “male and female made he them”. He was created from the dust of the ground, she from a rib taken from his side. Paul’s inspired commentary explains it, “Neither was the man created for the woman; but the woman for the man” (1 Cor 11:9), and reinforces a Divine order, “for Adam was first formed, then Eve” (1 Tim 2:13).

Genesis 2 thus presents the Divine pattern for ecclesial life. Adam was created first, and put in control of creation. Adam was given the moral law concerning the trees before Eve was created. Eve was created as a helper, a fit counterpart for the man. When we then move to Genesis 3 we find Eve usurped Adam’s leadership role, and Adam also failed to lead in God’s law. There was a resulting increased dependence of the woman on man, and the subsequent sentence, “he shall rule over thee”, reinforced God’s original order.

We also see that Eve’s creation and supporting role portray the ecclesia’s relationship to our Lord Jesus Christ. “For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is head of the ecclesia… as the ecclesia is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in every thing” (Eph 5:23–24). The lessons here are obvious.

The responsibility of the man

The scene of the first sin is clear. Eve was doing the talking and not listening. Adam was listening but not talking. Eve took the initiative, and Adam failed to provide a lead.

What is also clear is that the man was held accountable. Even though Eve led the way to sin, Adam was responsible because of his headship role: “And the Lord God called unto Adam, and said unto him, Where art thou?” (Gen 3:9). Adam had been first created. He had been given dominion by God (Psalm 8), and named the animals and Eve. And so God turned to him – “Where art thou?”

Paul also picks up Adam’s accountability: “Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world… by one man’s offence death reigned… by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners” (Rom 5:12,17,19), and “as in Adam all die” (1 Cor 15:22).

This responsibility is the pattern of both the Old and New Testament Scriptures. Male priests, the male twelve disciples, the male replacement for the fallen Judas, the seven male deacons to coordinate ministering at tables, male apostles, and male elders, were all consistent with the responsibility of the man. By leading, man represents Christ in the home and in the ecclesia.

Headship before the fall

The following summary shows that the principle of Headship was not instituted as a reaction to the Edenic sin, but was in place prior to the transgression. The clear evidence is as follows:

  1. Adam was created first, and then Eve, as noted by Paul (1 Tim 2:13).
  2. Adam, not Eve, had a special role in representing the human race. Even though Eve sinned first, it is “in Adam” that all die. Paul expounds this in 1 Corinthians 15.
  3. When the woman was created she was brought to the man and named by the man, with her name meaning “out of man”.
    God refers to the human race as “man” and not “woman” (eg Gen 5:1–2).
    Adam had primary accountability to God. Adam was answerable to God for the first sin, even before the sentence.
    Eve was created as a helper for Adam (Gen 2:18), and not Adam for Eve.
    The woman to learn in silence

Paul furthers the discussion on ecclesial worship in 1 Timothy 2. It was the brethren only who were to pray: “I will therefore that men [Grk aner, man, not mankind] pray everywhere” (v8). Paul uses a different Greek word, anthropos, in verse 4 when advising that God will have all men (people) to be saved.

Paul also stipulates: “Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority [Grk authenteo, to act by yourself / independently] over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet” (v11–12, esv).

The injunction concerning the woman is supported by Paul through two incidents from Genesis – “For Adam was first formed, then Eve” (v13), and “Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was in the transgression” (v14). This underlines our reasoning for valuing Genesis as the basis and direction for the rest of Scripture.

We observe again that God’s appointment is based on history. It was the foundation in Genesis that outlined the principles of ecclesial life. The subsequent selection of leaders was not based on the ability or susceptibility of either a man or a woman, but on that Genesis foundation (eg the Aaronic priesthood).

Possibly some Benjamites may have made better priests than some Levites, and some sisters may make better speakers than some brothers, but God’s determination was and still should be adhered to and honoured.

The headship principle

The principles covered so far are neatly encapsulated in Paul’s presentation on Headship in 1 Corinthians 11. This chapter should not be misrepresented as merely insisting that sisters wear hats. It is rather about the principle of Headship. The context shows that it deals with principles in the ecclesia as distinct from the home.

Paul commences with the Headship order in verse 3, “I want you to understand that” (esv):

  • God is the head of Christ
  • Christ is the head of man
  • Man is the head of woman.

The Divine order begins with God, Who is “from everlasting to everlasting” (Psa 90:2). Then comes Christ, “foreordained before the foundation of the world” (1 Pet 1:20). Then comes man, “in the image and likeness of God” (Gen 1:26), and finally woman, taken from man’s side to be his help meet. So the order of generation became the sequence of Divine authority.

The Headship order (God, Christ, Man, Woman) is then a fundamental principle. For example, the principle of Headship (specifically a woman having her head covered) was more important than the use of gifts (v5).

A woman’s hair

A useful exercise in approaching this matter is to identify and colour in the two different senses of “head” that are used in 1 Corinthians 11. The first meaning (with the sense of a leader, the spiritual head) is used in verse 3 (three times), in verse 4 (second occurrence), and in verse 5 (second occurrence). The second meaning (of a human cranium, the natural head) is used in verse 4 (first occurrence), verse 5 (first occurrence), verse 7, and verse 10.

Paul’s logic then is as follows:

  1. Covering the natural head dishonours or conceals the glory of the spiritual head (v4). Conversely, leaving the natural head uncovered honours and draws attention to the spiritual head.
  2. Man was created in the image and glory of God (v7).
  3. Therefore a man should not cover his natural head in prayer (v7), as this would disrespect and dishonour his spiritual head (Christ and therefore God, v4). A man’s covered head would deny the delegated authority of Christ.
  4. Woman was made from the man and for the man (v8–9).
  5. Woman is therefore the glory of man (v7).
  6. The hair that covers a woman’s natural head is a critical part of her appearance and a human glory (v15, “covering” Grk peribolaion, to throw around, as a mantle or cloak). In contrast, a man is not to have long hair as a sign of glory (v14). A woman also does not go bald like a man. Her hair is a more integral part of her make-up.
  7. Therefore a woman in the ecclesia should cover her natural head (v5–6, “covering” Grk katakalupto, to fully cover), lest she draw attention to human glory. This will allow Divine glory to radiate unimpeded.
  8. An alternative to covering her head is to shave her head (v6). This would achieve the same desired result of attention not being drawn to human glory. However, as this practice would be considered shameful, her head should be covered.
  9. A woman therefore has a “power” (“symbol of authority”, esv) to show her willing and joyful compliance with God’s role for her (v10). This is something a man cannot do.
    This was a consistent practice through all of the ecclesias which needed to be respected (v16).

Just husband head of wife?

1 Corinthians 11 is not limited to the husband being the head of the wife. While it is true that the Greek word for man aner often refers to husband, and the Greek word for woman gune often refers to wife (for example in Ephesians 5:33), the meaning should always be interpreted from the context.

It is clear that 1 Corinthians 11 relates to ecclesial meetings, not marriage relationships. Furthermore, substituting “husband” for “man” and “wife” for “woman” would not always make sense in the chapter. For example, a husband cannot be born to his wife (v12). The same logic applies to 1 Timothy 2, where the context is again ecclesial worship, and it would not be possible for only husbands to pray (which would exclude Christ himself). A woman was not to exercise authority over “a man” (esv, not “the man” as in kjv).

The Headship principle therefore presents a general order of man as head of the woman.

Bringing God honour

God’s glory is then magnified in Christ, in godly men, and in godly women who cover their hair. Men portray the relationship between Christ and God. Women portray the relationship of the ecclesia to Christ. The head covering of the woman demonstrates the ecclesia’s need for covering (baptism) and submission to Christ.

What a wonderful privilege the wearing of a head covering is then. It honours God’s order of creation and the Headship principle. It honours the Divinely appointed leadership role for men. It avoids attracting unnecessary attention to human glory. It demonstrates the ecclesia’s need for redemption and covering. And by submitting to this we bring honour and respect. By rejecting these principles we bring dishonour and confusion.

A consistent message

One of the beauties of the Scriptures is its consistency. God’s role for man and woman is consistent from the creative works in Eden to the marriage of the Lamb in Revelation. This presents a pattern for marriage and ecclesia life, where man needs to lead and take primary responsibility, and woman is to provide joyful and intelligent support.

We have noted that our views must be Scriptural, not emotional, societal, or based on human needs or wants. Rather we ask ourselves, “What saith the Scriptures?”

Yet while man and woman are not the same, they are equal in spiritual terms. Salvation will come to all those found faithful in Christ, whether male or female (Jew or Gentile, slave or free – Gal 3:28). May our acceptance of God’s orders, roles, and principles see us all blessed in faithful Abraham (Gal 3:7–9).