Is the Bible's Design for Authority in Marriage and the Church Still Relevant for Today?

While I think it’s clear that God designed man and woman with man as the leader, none of us have known life in a world without sin, and therefore all of us have a hard time imagining leadership without domineering self-elevating character flaws and exploitation. For the same reason people react against the fact that mankind was given “dominion” and was to “subdue” creation. They blame cruelty to animals and environmental insensitivity on this, when in fact mankind is created as a steward of animals and environment.

Likewise, men and women were to treat each other with utter respect, recognizing their differences and celebrating and enjoying them. While they no doubt had differences in perspective inherent to being individuals, they could learn and grow in dialogue with each other, and learn more of God from the other as His image-bearer. Because of our failure to imagine a world without envy and exploitation, for the same reason people are always resisting the notion of some ruling in positions over others in God’s kingdom, an explicit and repeated teaching of Scripture. People often tell me this bothers them, and find it very hard to grasp a world without sin and death and suffering and curse, a world where there is not the slightest aura of exploitation or resentment related to the exercise of human authority.

In a sense a Christian marriage and a Christian church should strive to rekindle the relational elements of Eden, unsuccessful as we may often be. Male leadership wasn’t the result of the fall, but of creation (as Genesis implies and Paul makes clear in 1 Timothy 2). So a return to leadership as loving servanthood and “followership” as loving servanthood should be our goal. Seeing each other as 1 Peter’s “fellow heirs of the grace of life” should be our aim.

On women in ministry, my own position is very close to Wayne Grudem’s expressed in his recent 800 page Evangelical Feminism and Biblical Truth. (I reviewed it on Amazon, if you’re interested.) While I believe women regularly exercising authority over and teaching men in the church is clearly restricted in Scripture, nonetheless a multitude of major teaching and leading roles are still open in the church, and a virtually unlimited number outside. Grudem lists 28 possible roles in the church (the number could be greatly increased, he realizes), and he proposes that nine of those should be restricted to men and the other 19 open to both men and women. Of course, he is only giving his opinion, and nearly everyone would adjust the list one way or the other, but I believe he is trying to do justice to Scripture while maintaining a position of “if uncertain, if the Bible isn’t clear, give the benefit of doubt to women being able to take the role.” Of course, evangelical feminists would say it’s inappropriate to restrict even those nine, but it’s hard for me to see how we can take Scripture seriously if at the end of the day we pretend either that it says nothing about this or that what is says was once true but no longer is.

The doctrinal changes or hermeneutical adjustments we make in this area will inevitably carry over to every other area (which is why some of the same people who for years have been saying women should be elders and pastors are now also saying that homosexual marriage isn’t a big deal; and many of them also believe that abortion is a fundamental right.) If I was dependent on my own instincts, observations and experiences, I wouldn’t make these distinctions. Instinctively, I’m a feminist. I often stood up for my daughters when it came to them having equal rights and abilities, and have always encouraged them to be grateful they are female, and to know and rejoice that is God’s best for them... and they should never feel otherwise. I very much oppose the undercurrent of male chauvinism I sometimes pick up among Christian leaders, as I oppose the implicit racism that sometimes surfaces in comments here and there.

So if it was up to me I would say women should be elders, pastors and teachers in the church, including senior pastors and everything else. If I could see any way to do that without rejecting Scripture’s inerrancy and authority I would do it in a heartbeat. But I can’t. (I’ve tried, and for me it just doesn’t work.) While people tell me the biblical texts are unclear, I think that in fact in their central message they are too clear, and it is that clarity that disturbs us (I mean clarity of restrictions, not necessarily the clarity of the reasons for the restrictions).

To me issues such as this (and many others, including the reality of an eternal hell) are tests of whether I will trust God’s revealed judgment or my own subjective opinion, inevitably shaped by the time and place I live in. Part of that is recognizing not only that God is RIGHT in what He says, but that what He says is BEST. In the case of the distinctions between male and female roles, that means best for everyone, including women, men and children. To me it comes down to authority—who am I going to believe, and who am I going to follow. Am I going to embrace the teaching of Scripture, or find a way to get around it because I would have wished it was different? In other words, if Scripture said what I prefer in those passages, would I think them unclear or inaccurate or needing to be adjusted? Or do I think that simply because I trust my own judgment more than I trust the text? Will I accept Scripture when I like what it says, then reject it when I don’t? If so, then Scripture is not my authority—I am my authority. The bottom line: who’s going to be God?

Randy Alcorn (@randyalcorn) is the author of over sixty books and the founder and director of Eternal Perspective Ministries