Revive Our Hearts Podcast

Biblical Roles in the Church

Leslie Basham: This is Nancy Leigh DeMoss.

Nancy Leigh DeMoss: God gives to men—and I think Scripture bears this out—the primary responsibility in the home and in the church, to lead and to feed the family of God. This has to do with governance and teaching.

Those are the two primary responsibilities, as I study the Scripture, of New Testament pastors and elders. Therefore, as I understand the Scripture, I believe that the position of pastor or elder within the church is reserved for men.

Leslie: This is Revive Our Hearts with Nancy Leigh DeMoss for Thursday, January 31.

We’ve been in a series called A Vision for Biblical Womanhood, taking a look at how femininity affects a home. Today we’re going to . . .

Nancy: Go where angels fear to tread.

Leslie: Here’s Nancy.

Nancy: I’m going to be as counter-cultural as we get here on Revive Our Hearts. I’ve said to people sometimes that I’m not afraid to say things that I know go against the culture—as long as I’m sure that’s what the Scripture teaches and confident that that’s what the Lord wants me to say at that point.

So I’ve been giving a lot of thought and seeking the Lord on this series. I think this is a subject we need to address, and I’m going to try and tackle it in the next 20 or so minutes.

Let me read to you several emails that I’ve received from listeners. They all address the issue of the role of women in the church. We’re talking about biblical manhood and womanhood, and we’ve said that biblically there are distinctions, though men and women are equal: equally created in the image of God, of equal worth, and of equal value.

And yet there are differences between men and women. God has given different roles and functions to men and to women in the home and in the church. We’ve addressed the issue of the home; today we want to talk about the church.

I want to set it up and show you that this is an area where there is a lot of confusion and misunderstanding by reading to you some things that listeners have written to me. One woman wrote recently and said, “Do you believe the Bible allows women to teach a co-ed Sunday School class? We are facing this issue in our church, and we are trying to get biblical counsel.”

Here’s another one from a mother who told me that her 15-year-old son attends a Christian school, and recently a question has come up in his Bible class. The question is: Should a woman be a pastor of a church?

She said in her email,

My son was quite surprised and discouraged that he was the only student out of 14 who believes that a woman may teach, lead, and serve in various capacities within a church but should not be the pastor of a church. He searched the Bible to back up his positions. [What a neat thing to hear about a 15-year-old boy searching the Bible to find out what’s true.]

Regardless of references he used [Scripture references in his classroom] the return argument in their discussion always ended with, "Why not?" He’s aware that there are women pastors in some churches, but he believes that is not in accordance with the Bible.

Here’s another one that came in recently.

Our church has been very influenced by the teaching of a well-known ministry couple who teach that women should serve according to gifting and therefore should be allowed to preach. Neither our senior pastor nor his wife has a problem with women preaching, even on Sundays.

I respect the couple who have influenced them. They have a heart to share the gospel worldwide and are both very effective speakers. The wife is held up in our area as the model of ministry. Now our pastor and his wife want to invite this woman to come and speak at our church. How am I to think correctly in love about this?

I love the way she framed that question. She wants to think correctly—which in her mind is thinking biblically—and how is she to do that in love?

One more. In past years we’ve talked each October about Pastor Appreciation Month. This listener wrote the last time that came around and said,

I’ve been listening to programming today about Pastor Appreciation Month, and I’ve heard a lot about how pastors and their wives must be appreciated.

Please remember that there are many conservative, committed clergywomen out here in the trenches serving churches. In fact, I am one of them. I am the senior pastor of a large, growing, mainline church. God called me into pastoral ministry, and God is blessing my ministry here. I, like my male colleagues, work six to seven days a week shepherding a flock.

It would be nice, regardless of your personal theology regarding the ordination of women, to acknowledge those of us who are serving our Lord in pastoral ministry. And maybe pastors’ husbands ought to be recognized and appreciated as well.

So you see people coming from different vantage points, asking different questions related to this whole issue of the role of women in the church. Now, I know that this is a “hot potato” subject. I’m not naïve about that. I know there is much disagreement on this question today within the evangelical world.

Some of you may come from traditions, in your denomination or your church background, where there is the practice of women elders or women pastors. You may not agree with what I’m about to say and the position I’m going to share, but I have to be true to what I believe the Scripture teaches. And I just want to appeal to you: Go to the Word yourself. Search it out. Study it out. I am not God. I am not inspired. I’m just responsible to teach my understanding of the Word of God.

I just ask you to just prayerfully consider what the Scripture has to say on this subject. Now, where the complementarian position that we’re talking about this week . . . And that’s okay if you can’t spell it or don’t know how to pronounce it; that’s not important. I want you to get the concept.

The position we’re talking about, which is what I believe the Scripture teaches, is that God has ordained distinctions in male and female roles or functions. Not equality, not giftedness, but roles or distinctions in the home and in the church.

I believe that God gives to men—and I think Scripture bears this out—the primary responsibility in the home and in the church, to lead and to feed the family of God. This has to do with governance and teaching.

Those are the two primary responsibilities, as I study the Scripture, of New Testament pastors and elders. Now, they have other responsibilities, but their two primary responsibilities are governance and teaching. Therefore, as I understand the Scripture, I believe that the position of pastor or elder within the church is reserved for men.

So let me just give you a little background of why I think that makes sense biblically.

First of all, you cannot escape the fact that there is a consistent pattern throughout the Scripture, from Genesis to Revelation, of male leadership among God’s people. Within the community of faith, over and over again, you see that the norm, the consistent pattern, is that God established and appointed men to provide leadership over the flock.

Now, there are some women leaders in the Scripture, and we’re not going to burrow down real deep into any one of these points. I want to give you a broad overview. There are some women leaders, but they tend to be rare exceptions. And you will not find any of those women leaders, as far as I know, who did the kind of teaching that pastors and elders are expected to do for the church of God.

So these women that you might pick out as isolated examples are not a pattern for New Testament church leadership. In the Old Testament we have the priesthood, and we see that all those who were appointed to be priests were men. In the New Testament, Jesus appointed twelve apostles. They were all men.

This is the pattern of male leadership you see in the Old and New Testaments. And for the most part, the pattern throughout the history of the church has been that the office of pastor or elder is reserved for men.

If you go to 1 Timothy 3 or Titus 1, you find in both of those passages a list of qualifications for an elder or a bishop or an overseer, depending on which translation you’re using. One of the qualifications is that this candidate must be the husband of one wife. It’s pretty hard for a woman to meet that qualification.

The Scripture says in those lists that this elder or bishop must manage his own household well. So it assumes that elders will be men. They are given the responsibility for leadership in their homes, to be the husband of one wife.

The most explicit text relating directly to the leadership of men in the church—and I almost hesitate to bring it up because we’re not going to take time to exegete the text or to go into any great detail on it. But I just want you to take it at face value and at least let it stimulate your thinking if you come from a background that views this differently.

This text is found in 1 Timothy 2. The context is talking about guidelines for the assembled church. We’re talking about the local church here. And in that context, let me just drop right down into the meat of the matter. In 1 Timothy 2:12, Paul says, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet.”

In some other session, we’ll go into a whole lot more detail about what “quiet” means there. It doesn’t mean she’s never to speak, okay? But I want you to get the big picture here.

In the very next verse, he tells us at least one reason why. He says that this way of thinking, this approach, is grounded in the way that God created and designed things to be, going back to creation: “For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor” (verses 13-14).

Now, there are whole books written on just those two verses—lots of pages, lots of ink that’s been spilled over these two verses. I’m not going to do that here. I just want you to see what Paul says about this matter of the woman teaching or exercising authority. He says she should not do that in the local church to have authority over a man.

There’s no question, when you take the rest of Scripture, that both men and women alike have been given spiritual gifts. Both men and women alike are to use those gifts to minister, to serve in the context of a local church.

This passage is not saying women cannot serve in the local church. This passage is not saying women cannot use the gifts God has given them in the local church. Women’s gifts are needed. They are to be fully utilized and honored in the ministries of the church.

I think one of the things that has been a mistake on the part of those who take the complementarian position, in some cases, has been that they have limited women from serving in ministries where the Scripture doesn’t limit women. I think that’s kind of defeated their case. We need to stick to the Scripture and place the restrictions where God does, but not place restrictions where He doesn’t speak or where it’s not clear.

So women’s gifts are needed; they are to be utilized and honored. But some governing and teaching roles in the church are limited to men. Now, I know that there are some in this room and many listening to this program who really struggle to accept this. This is like, “What planet are you coming from?”

I want to tell you honestly that this is a Scriptural teaching that at times has been difficult for me. I’m a single woman. I’m in ministry. I love teaching the Word of God. I have leadership gifts. And there have been times when my emotions have bristled against what my theology told me was true, based on God’s Word.

So this is not something that has always been easy for me to accept. What I do have to do is obey. I need to bow to the authority of Scripture and say, “Lord, if there is some area where You do not want me to serve You or to use my gifts, You’re God and I’m not.” Ultimately, for me it comes down to an issue of surrender to the lordship of Christ and the authority of Scripture.

Now, some would say, “By taking this position, you are squelching women. You’re denying them the right to use their God-given gifts.” By the way, if you’ve never thought about this subject, I guarantee you that there are a lot of people out there thinking what I just said.

Let me read to you, for example, an email that I received from a listener. She said,

It would appear to me, from listening to your broadcast, that you believe that men are the elders and leaders of the church. I would encourage you to take this issue before the Lord and ask Him what He thinks about women and leadership skills.

Now, listen as she goes on with some things that are true, some things that are half-true, and some things that are not true biblically; it’s all mixed in together. So I want you to listen and try to sort though this.

She said,

Taking the position you do is how the Holy Spirit has been squelched in the church and women silenced. How tragic. The same Holy Spirit that dwells in men pastors is the same Spirit that dwells within you and me.

Is that true? That is absolutely true.

We are equally created in God’s very image.

Is that true? Absolutely.

He created us. We are equal, just as the Trinity is all equal.

Is that true? Yes, there is equality there. But the implication, then, is that there are no differences in function or role.

There is no hierarchy with God.

Is that true biblically? No. There is all kinds of hierarchy that God has established, not in terms of equality or value or worth, but in terms of function.

His laborers are few, and the harvest is ready.

Is that true? Absolutely.

Why would Christian men want to keep women out of the ministry?

Now, I don’t know what Christian men think, but I’ll tell you what: God does not want to keep women out of the ministry. God wants every one of us to be in the ministry. But He has the right to tell us what kind of ministry and in what context.

Why would Christian men want to keep women out of the ministry when there is a terribly hungry and desperate world waiting to hear the good news? God broke all gender, race, and slave issues when He suffered and died. He demolished hierarchy, not created it.

Now, you’ve got a whole bundle of things she just lumped together there. And I’m not trying to be harsh—I’m just saying gender and race and slavery are different matters. We’re not, in this context, talking about race and slavery; we are talking about gender.

Did God break all gender issues when He died? Did He demolish hierarchy? No. We see teaching on hierarchy all through the Scripture.

Women of God cannot proclaim His Word if they are silenced and kept out of leadership positions within the church.

There again you have kind of a mixed statement she’s making. Is there freedom for women of God to proclaim the Word of God? Absolutely. Many of you are mothers. Do you proclaim the Word of God to your children? Many of you are mentoring or discipling other women. Do you proclaim the Word of God? Yes.

But are there some places where God has said, “This is the place for men to do it”? The answer is yes.

Now, some would say, “But I’ve been called to be a pastor.” One woman wrote and said, “I am an associate pastor in a church. Part of my role includes preaching and teaching where men are present. All I can say is that God called me to shepherd His people, male and female, about 36 years ago. Eight years ago, He clearly directed me to carry that further by pursuing a pastoral license, and since then, ordination.”

And then she goes on to talk about some of the opposition that she’s received, along with some who support her. She says, “Bottom line, I’ve learned when God says, ‘Go,’ one needs to go whether others oppose or not.”

Now, I believe that when God says, “Go,” one needs to go. The question is: Has God said, “Go”?

Here’s another one. A woman wrote to me and said, “I was enraged at the implication that God does not have the right to call whom He chooses, regardless of gender.”

Now, God does have the right to call whom He chooses, regardless of gender. But God has made it clear that some He has called into these positions of governance, feeding, and teaching in the local church, and some He has not.

She goes on and says, “To imply that only men can be called to pastoral ministry is to usurp God’s right and to say that any woman who is called should deny the call and deny God’s right to call whom He chooses.”

Now, let me say that only God can extend the call to ministry. But we don’t have the right to tamper with whom He chooses and whom He calls. The calling of God in your life or mine will never be contrary to the Word of God.

So I can’t say I’m called to do this; I can’t say I’m called to do anything that’s not biblical. I may feel called, but I have to go back to the Word of God and say, “Does this line up with Scripture?”

You need to realize that this position is no longer generally accepted or assumed in the evangelical world as it was for centuries. There are some very bright theologians on both sides of this divide. But I have come to believe, honestly, that it requires reinterpreting the plain meaning of many biblical texts in order to come up with the typical egalitarian position today.

And I hope that my tone does not come across as harsh or unkind. Some people who take the egalitarian positions I see as very godly people. Some of them are very gifted teachers. Some of them are very gifted leaders.

But I have to respectfully and graciously say that I don’t believe God gives the freedom for women to take these roles of pastor and elder in the context of the local church.

Now, to be sure, there are ambiguities as to how these biblical principles should be applied in given situations. There are lots of things that the Scripture doesn’t specifically address that we find in our context of modern-day ministry.

So we need wisdom. We need discernment. And we need to be generous with each other where we may not see eye-to-eye on some of the details, some of the application of this. But the fact that there are ambiguities doesn’t invalidate the basic principles and truths that I do think are clear in the Scripture.

That doesn’t mean that women don’t have teaching and leading gifts. Many of them do. Some of you have those kinds of gifts. All it means is that our gifts as women—and men’s gifts as well—must always be used within the guidelines and the confines of Scripture.

It doesn’t mean that men are necessarily better teachers or leaders than women. There are some women teachers who are much more naturally gifted than some men teachers. There are some women who are much more naturally leaders than some men. That’s not the issue.

So some would say, “What about gifted women teachers? Are they to be denied the right to use their gifts in the local church?” Well, let me say two things. First of all, they are very free and responsible to use their gifts in the context of the local church. Scripture talks about older women teaching younger women. That’s a responsibility we have.

There are so many, many, many means and opportunities and avenues of ministry open to men and women today. There’s no shortage of opportunities for gifted women teachers and leaders to serve the Lord.

But to say, “Do we not have a right to exercise that gift?” The answer is, ministry is not a right. Ministry is a privilege. There are countless contexts where I am biblically free to utilize the gifts that God has given me in order to serve others.

And I want to ask this question, because it’s a question the Holy Spirit has asked of my heart. What does it say about my heart and my motives if I chafe against the few contexts in which God says, “Not there”? What does it say, maybe, about why I’m in ministry?

It’s like when you tell a child, “You can do all these things, but you can’t do that one thing.” What’s the one thing the child wants to do? The one thing you said no to. Adam and Eve—God said, “You can eat from all the trees, all the fruit of all the trees of this garden, except that one.” So what’s the one they want? It’s the one they can’t have.

You know what it is? Ultimately—at least in my heart, when I’ve chafed on this issue—it comes down to an issue of rebellion. I want to be free to do what I want to do.

Now, I’m not saying that everybody who disagrees with me on this issue is a rebellious person. Please don’t hear me saying that. I’m just saying we need to examine our hearts and say, “What is it about this that really bothers me?”

And ultimately—you know what?—this is not a matter of opinion. It’s not a matter of debate, although theologians do debate this. We may not fully understand why God designed it this way, and we don’t have to.

What it comes down to is: Does God have the right to say how He wants His church to be run? And it comes down to a confidence that God’s ways are good, that God’s ways are right, and that God’s ways bring blessing.

Leslie: Nancy Leigh DeMoss has been describing the blessing of biblical roles in the church. When women embrace God's role for women and men embrace God’s role for men, the body of Christ functions the way it’s supposed to and God is glorified.

In her early days in ministry, Nancy didn’t always view distinct roles in ministry as a good thing. This has been a process for her, and it’s probably a process for you.

To help you along in the process, I hope you’ll get a copy of a very helpful booklet by John Piper called What’s the Difference? He handles Scripture with care, writes clearly, and explains this issue in a way that anybody can understand. He explains biblical passages that speak to roles in the church, and he addresses tough questions that are bound to come up.

When you make a donation to Revive Our Hearts, we’ll send What’s the Difference? along with a CD from Nancy called Embracing the Gift of Womanhood. The CD provides a concise overview of her current radio series. You can ask for the CD and booklet when you donate online at ReviveOurHearts.com or call us toll-free at 1-800-569-5959.

During our current radio series, Nancy talked about roles in the home and in the church. What about in the broader society? Is there a distinctly feminine way to approach work and all of life? Nancy will get to that tomorrow. I hope you can be back for Revive Our Hearts.

Revive Our Hearts with Nancy Leigh DeMoss is an outreach of Life Action Ministries.

All Scripture is taken from the English Standard Version.

*Offers available only during the broadcast of the podcast season.

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