Authors' Bias | Interpretation: conservative

Does Headship and Submission still exist
in the New Testament Church?

Is there biblical evidence for a woman elder / pastor? Two opposing groups exemplify the differences in biblical and hermeneutical approaches to this controversial issue.

Christians for Biblical Equality (CBE) argue that the divine plan of Creation intended full equality of the sexes without any male headship or female submission. The CBE statement was taken from Christians for Biblical Equality. "Men, Women and Biblical Equality". Used by permission of CBE on the Web.

The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW) argue that the divine plan of Creation intended full equality of the sexes in spiritual status, but included distinctions in roles such as male headship. The CBMW statement was taken from Recovering Biblical Manhood & Womanhood edited by Piper J and Grudem W, p. 407, ©1997 by Crossway Books. Used by permission of Crossway Books, a ministry of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, Illinois 60187, (

The CBE statements can be seen in the left-aligned text. The CBMW statement and comments to the CBE statement can be seen with the indented paragraphs with green highlight.

Study the biblical evidence for yourself! What do you see? What does it mean? How does it apply?

Men, Women and Biblical Equality
© 1989-2004 Christians for Biblical Equality

The Bible teaches the full equality of men and women in Creation and in Redemption (Gen 1:26-28, 2:23, 5:1-2; 1 Cor 11:11-12; Gal 3:13, 28, 5:1).

CBMW comment: The difference in approach from the Danvers Statement is signaled at the outset. We made an effort to come to terms with the nature and extent of our equality as men and women and to be explicit about it: "equal before God as persons but distinct in their manhood and womanhood." This is important because men and women are not equal in significant ways. Gregg Johnson, in Chapter 16, makes this plain from the physiological/neurological side. More importantly, in this day of increasing homosexual demands for marital rights, we need to say loudly and clearly that men are not equal with women personally or physically as candidates for the spouses of men. Men and women are not equal when they stand before a man as a possible marriage partner. (See Chapter 2, Question 41.) At that point, women have rights and privileges that men do not have, strictly on the basis of gender. We may speak, and should speak, of equal worth, even of the differences, but to speak of "full equality" in the context of this controversy with no clarifying explanation leaves the reader to wonder just how far the authors are willing to go. The nature and extent of our equality is at the heart of the controversy.

The Bible teaches that God has revealed Himself in the totality of Scripture, the authoritative Word of God (Matt 5:18; John 10:35; 2 Tim 3:16; 2 Peter 1:20-21). We believe that Scripture is to be interpreted holistically and thematically. We also recognize the necessity of making a distinction between inspiration and interpretation: inspiration relates to the divine impulse and control whereby the whole canonical Scripture is the Word of God; interpretation relates to the human activity whereby we seek to apprehend revealed truth in harmony with the totality of Scripture and under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. To be truly biblical, Christians must continually examine their faith and practice under the searchlight of Scripture.

CBMW comment: We rejoice in this strong affirmation of the divine inspiration of all the Bible. The aim to interpret the Bible "wholistically [sic] and thematically" and thus to apprehend revealed truth in harmony with the totality of Scripture is good. We would only alert the reader that the only way to find out what the totality of Scripture says is to interpret the smaller parts faithfully in their nearer context. This is called the hermeneutical circle: the parts determine the whole and the whole affects how we interpret the parts. Our concern is that any supposed "whole" or "theme" or "thrust" (like "the leveling of birth-based status differences"{5}) should not be used to nullify the contribution of any other part of Scripture (which may teach that gender is ordained by God to be significant in some role differences).{6}

Biblical Truths


1. The Bible teaches that both man and woman were created in God's image, had a direct relationship with God, and shared jointly the responsibilities of bearing and rearing children and having dominion over the created order (Gen 1:26-28).

CBMW comment: We agree. We would only point out that just as God meant for the shared responsibility of bearing children to involve very different roles (in the process of fertilization, gestation, and nursing) so also He may mean for the shared responsibility of dominion to involve different roles. Acting "jointly" does not mean acting identically, and "sharing" responsibilities does not mean that each must bear the same ones. Yet CBE makes no affirmation of any distinctive responsibilities that men or women have in bearing or rearing children or having dominion over the earth, and their statement could be taken to mean that men and women have identical responsibilities.

2. The Bible teaches that woman and man were created for full and equal partnership. The word "helper" (ezer), used to designate woman in Genesis 2:18, refers to God in most instances of Old Testament usage (e.g. 1 Sam 7:12; Ps 121:1-2). Consequently the word conveys no implication whatsoever of female subordination or inferiority.

CBMW comment: The phrase "full and equal" has the same ambiguity referred to in the first paragraph of the declaration---some will take it to mean a partnership of identical roles, and some will take it to mean a partnership of different roles with equal value.

It is true that God is called our "helper," but the word itself says nothing about the kind of helper intended. The context must decide whether Eve is to "help" as a strong person who aids a weaker one, or as one who assists a loving leader. The context makes it very unlikely that "helper" should be read on the analogy of God's help, because in Genesis 2:19-20 Adam is caused to seek his "helper" first among the animals. But the animals will not do, because they are not "fit for him." So God makes woman "from man." Now there is a being who is fit for him, sharing his human nature, equal to him in God-like personhood. She is infinitely different from an animal, and God highlights her value to man by showing how no animal can fill her role. Yet in passing through helpful animals to woman, God teaches us that the woman is a man's "helper" in the sense of a loyal and suitable assistant in the life of the garden. The problem with the CBE statement is the assumption that because a word has certain connotations in some places it must have them in every place.

With regard to the word inferiority, two comments: 1) the Bible never suggests that the differing roles of men and women imply differing worth; 2) women and men are inferior and superior to each other in various ways, but these are not made the sign of varying value as persons.

3. The Bible teaches that the forming of woman from man demonstrates the fundamental unity and equality of human beings (Gen 2:21-23). In Genesis 2:18, 20 the word "suitable" (kenegdo) denotes equality and adequacy.

CBMW comment: We agree. But that is not all the Bible teaches about the meaning of taking woman from the side of man. It also teaches---and this is no contradiction of the other---that the man is the woman's "head" and that she should give evidence of her endorsement of his leadership (1 Corinthians 11:3, 7-10; see Chapter 5). If the CBE declaration aims to interpret the Scriptures holistically, why does the declaration omit this one place in the Bible outside Genesis where Genesis 2:21-22 is specifically used to teach on this issue?

4. The Bible teaches that man and woman were co-participants in the Fall: Adam was no less culpable than Eve (Gen 3:6; Rom 5:12-21; 1 Cor 15:21-22).

CBMW comment: We agree. But this neglects and obscures the way the Bible talks about the role of man and woman in the fall. The Bible shows the woman and man reversing roles so that she becomes the leading spokesman as they enter into sin (Genesis 3:1, 17). The Bible speaks of the woman being deceived and not the man, though this does not lessen his guilt (1 Timothy 2:13). The Bible portrays the man as primarily accountable for the fall: the Lord came to him first and not to the woman to call them to account (Genesis 3:9); and the New Testament pictures Adam, not Eve, as the representative head of fallen humanity (Romans 5:17-19; 1 Corinthians 15:21-22). The specific thematic thrust of Scripture, which seems to give man peculiar responsibility, is ignored in the CBE statement.

5. The Bible teaches that the rulership of Adam over Eve resulted from the Fall and was therefore not a part of the original created order. Genesis 3:16 is a prediction of the effects of the Fall rather than a prescription of God's ideal order.

CBMW comment: We agree with this point concerning Genesis 3:16. "He shall rule over you," is not a prescription of what should be, but a description of what happens through sin where redemption is not overcoming the effects of the fall. But the silence at this point regarding the reality of Adam's loving leadership before the fall gives the impression that fallen "rulership" and God-ordained headship are lumped together and ruled out. Again the Biblical thrust is ignored: Paul never appeals to the curse or the fall as an explanation for man's responsibility to lead; he always appeals to the acts of God before the fall (1 Corinthians 11:8-9; Ephesians 5:31-32; 1 Timothy 2:13). Why is this thrust and theme neglected when it bears exactly on the point at issue in this paragraph?


6. The Bible teaches that Jesus Christ came to redeem women as well as men. Through faith in Christ we all become children of God, one in Christ, and heirs to the blessings of salvation without reference to racial, social, or gender distinctives (John 1:12-13; Rom 8:14-17; 2 Cor 5:17; Gal 3:26-28).

CBMW comment: We agree. But we affirm more specifically that what Jesus redeems from corruption is the beautiful order of creation in which the distinct complementary roles for man and woman were ordained by God's creative acts.


7. The Bible teaches that at Pentecost the Holy Spirit came on men and women alike. Without distinction, the Holy Spirit indwells women and men, and sovereignly distributes gifts without preference as to gender (Acts 2:1-21; 1 Cor 12:7, 11, 14:31).

CBMW comment: Men and women are indwelt and filled with the Holy Spirit and gifted to minister. But the texts do not say that the Holy Spirit takes no regard for gender. He is free to do so, if He wills. It would not limit His freedom in the least if, for example, He gave more women the gift of mercy (Romans 12:8). He apportions gifts to each "as he wills" (1 Corinthians 12:11; Hebrews 2:4). We need to make this plain because some may take this paragraph to mean that "pastor-teacher" (Ephesians 4:11) is a gift, and then say that the Holy Spirit is bound to be gender-blind in giving it. However, we agree that all the gifts (not offices) mentioned in the New Testament are given to men and women, though we do not know if the Spirit in His freedom sometimes takes gender into account when He gives them. (See Chapter 2, Question 34.)

8. The Bible teaches that both women and men are called to develop their spiritual gifts and to use them as stewards of the grace of God (1 Peter 4:10-11). Both men and women are divinely gifted and empowered to minister to the whole Body of Christ, under His authority (Acts 1:14, 18:26, 21:9; Rom 16:1-7, 12-13,15; Phil 4:2-3; Col 4:15; see also Mark 15:40-41, 16:1-7; Luke 8:1-3; John 20:17-18; compare also Old Testament examples: Judges 4:4-14, 2 Chron 34:22-28; Prov 31:30-31; Micah 6:4).

CBMW comment: We agree, unless "empowered to minister to the whole Body of Christ" is a way of saying that a woman with the gift of teaching should exercise it toward the male half of the body of Christ the same way she does toward the female half. It is not easy to see what this paragraph might otherwise mean by ministering to the "whole Body of Christ." It would serve clarity better if CBE said plainly what is probably intended: God gifts women to teach men as well as to teach women in the body of Christ.

9. The Bible teaches that, in the New Testament economy, women as well as men exercise the prophetic, priestly and royal functions (Acts 2:17-18, 21:9; 1 Cor 11:5; 1 Peter 2:9-10; Rev 1:6, 5:10). Therefore, the few isolated texts that appear to restrict the full redemptive freedom of women must not be interpreted simplistically and in contradiction to the rest of Scripture, but their interpretation must take into account their relation to the broader teaching of Scripture and their total context (1 Cor 11:2-16, 14:33-36; 1 Tim 2:9-15).

CBMW comment: Here the hermeneutical principle mentioned in the second paragraph of the declaration shows its power to silence Scripture. A broad and general statement about the priestly, royal, and prophetic function of women is used to determine what other texts "must not" mean.

Instead, what we recommend is that these so-called "isolated texts" be allowed to help define the nature of the prophetic, priestly, and royal role of men and women. But that possibility is obscured by caricaturing all alternatives to the CBE method. The problem here is that the language excludes the very possibility of our position by implying that any alternative to the CBE's method involves "simplistic" interpretation that "contradicts the rest of Scripture" and ignores the "total context" of passages to which we appeal. This is the fallacy of the excluded middle: one attempts to strengthen one's position by exposing the shortcomings of a weak alternative while giving the impression that there are no other alternatives but the weak one when in fact there are.{7}

But the alternative they reject is emphatically not the only alternative to their method. We offer interpretations of each of the texts in question that are not simplistic, do not ignore the Biblical context, and do not contradict the rest of Scripture. What is taken to be "the broader teaching of Scripture," namely, God's gender-indifference in assigning roles, proves on close examination to be a series of unwarranted inferences from many indecisive passages. This "broader teaching" then is used to govern the so-called isolated texts that were designed in the first place to help shape that broader teaching and guard us from the unwarranted inferences. This is not an approach to Scripture that secures the full authority of all that it has to say. (See note 57.)

Moreover it is unclear and misleading to speak of limiting a woman's "redemptive freedom" when the issue is whether she can "teach and have authority over men" (1 Timothy 2:12). "Limiting full redemptive freedom" is something none of us wants to do, because it sounds like we would be saying woman is not fully redeemed. That may be what the authors think we really are saying. But the problem is that many of their readers do not think that limiting the pastorate to men means women are less redeemed. So the authors have avoided the clear statement of what is at issue (women pastors or elders) and used a term that wins more support ("redemptive freedom"), but probably at the cost of true understanding.

10. The Bible defines the function of leadership as the empowerment of others for service rather than as the exercise of power over them (Matt 20:25-28, 23:8; Mark 10:42-45; John 13:13-17; Gal 5:13; 1 Peter 5:2-3).

CBMW comment: Again there is the fallacy of the excluded middle. What seems to be overlooked in the either/or of this paragraph is that leadership may exercise power not simply "over"---which may imply proud, self-aggrandizing domination---but "under" or "in front of" (that is, in the service of). What's missing is the fully Biblical notion of exercising servant-power to empower. This is what Jesus did as a leader (Luke 9:1); it is what Paul did as an apostle (1 Corinthians 4:19-21; 2 Corinthians 10:8; 13:10; Philemon 8-10); it is what church leaders "who govern well" are supposed to do for those they lead (cf. 1 Timothy 5:17 with 3:5); and it is what a husband is called to do for his wife as her head (Ephesians 5:25-26).


11. The Bible teaches that husbands and wives are heirs together of the grace of life and that they are bound together in a relationship of mutual submission and responsibility (1 Cor 7:3-5; Eph 5:21; 1 Peter 3:1-7; Gen 21:12). The husband's function as "head" (kephale) is to be understood as self-giving love and service within this relationship of mutual submission (Eph 5:21-33; Col 3:19; 1 Peter 3:7).

CBMW comment: This statement lacks the clarity needed in the church at this time. It does not say whether the husband's "self-giving love and service" cancels out his role as a leader or simply describes the form his unique leadership should take. The result of this ambiguity is that people endorse this statement who have profoundly different views on one of the crucial issues at stake---the role relationship of husband and wife. How will it serve the cause of truth if CBE wins assent on this paragraph by omitting the assertion that really distinguishes their vision from ours? Omitted is the assertion, for example, that "mutual submission rules out hierarchical differences."{8} We gladly and urgently call husbands to self-giving love and service. But we are persuaded that this does not cancel out the difference between his role and his wife's---it rather defines the kind of initiative and responsibility that most wives are glad for their husbands to take. (For more reflection on the phrase "mutual submission," see Chapter 2, questions 5 and 10.)

12. The Bible teaches that both mothers and fathers are to exercise leadership in the nurture, training, discipline and teaching of their children (Exod 20:12; Lev 19:3; Deut 6:6-9, 21:18-21, 27:16; Prov 1:8, 6:20; Eph 6:1-4; Col 3:20; 2 Tim 1:5; see also Luke 2:51).

CMBW comment: We agree. But again the needed clarity is missing. Nothing is said about the point at issue: do fathers bear a distinct, primary responsibility in establishing a pattern of nurture and training and discipline in the home? We would say yes without denying anything of the partnership in parenting commended in this paragraph. Notice in Ephesians 6:1-4 how Paul moves from the shared honor of both parents to the special focus on fathers to take responsibility for their children's training: "Children, obey your parents.... Fathers... bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord." (The same move from parents to fathers is found in Colossians 3:20-21).

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