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  • Writer's pictureJosh Reading

Gender and leadership in marriage

Updated: Nov 17, 2022

Gender and leadership in marriage Firstly, despite this post being very long I am unable to address every possible question. I mainly deal with a couple key texts in regard to gender and marriage. I will attempt to address issues such "Posture in Leadership - is there a different path? ", "Practical issues that may arise", "What about..." Secondarily, thankyou to Angela, my wife and Rachel for their feedback, critique and editing. I am blessed with many great men and women around me who love the word, and love the Lord with their all. Some will even disagree with the whole position or parts of this post yet I know we still all remain brothers and sisters in Christ.

Let's get going!

Allow me to be upfront and clear about my broad positions.

I believe that there are three broad areas of life:

1. Civil society

2. Church Community

3. Family and Marriage.

I am theologically egalitarian in both Civil Society and the Church. I might be pragmatically different though at times due to missional and cultural reasons. I hope to address this at some point.

This means I believe women can lead and hold any position in these spheres so long as they can fulfill the responsibility required. The responsibility and contingent authority are not centrally related to gender at all, it is related to capacity, competency, character, and what is best for the community on mission (more on that at a later point).

I think it important to say, I am not an activist trying to get the world right for every individual before Christ gets here. Two things drive me even in this discussion: firstly, what I believe the scriptures consistently teach us, and secondarily, how this affects the mission of God in community.


In the context of the Church community, I have already addressed this area and you can read my position and responses to the biblical text in this post. There is no doubt far more to write, as there always is (Eccl 12:12) but I don’t have time to write a book nor a response to every question or challenge I receive. I will attempt to edit what I do have and develop it. If you have any questions and you are willing to wait, I will continue to develop and deepen the teaching I do write in this regard. I do however believe the present post sufficiently addresses the primary issues concerning Women in Leadership in the Church. You can have a peak at my position on Women in Leadership within the Church here

CIVIL SOCIETY In Civil society, there is very little debate even in more conservative sectors of the Church. It is largely assumed women can lead and have authority over men in the secular civil world. Some may believe it is ‘unwise’ for some reasons but not forbidden from a theological point of view. I may address this in more detail in the future but the debate does not rage around this so I will leave it alone.

Maybe it is enough to say, all my conservative complementarian Sydney Anglican friends are celebrating the wonderful leadership of Queen Elizabeth’s reign of 70 years this week. I am not a monarchist, nor a republican, but what a wonderful woman. Not perfect but a woman dedicated to her duty to serve. She is a far better leader than the many many men she has outlasted and might we say God save the Queen! (you must have heard that in a posh English accent) Ok, I am personally a Monarchist when it comes to Elizabeth as a person 😉 MARRIAGE AND FAMILY

I am NOT however Egalitarian in the context of marriage.

I do believe God has given gender-related roles to men and women in marriage, and thus differing responsibilities and thus different levels of authority. Being a husband and father or a wife and mother is different from the roles and reasons operating in other contexts. That is the primary focus of this blog. I have unsurprisingly been challenged at what seems a contradiction. HOW CAN YOU BE BOTH?!!! The central argument given against my dynamic position, by BOTH egalitarians and complementarians, simply paraphrased is…

“Given the original created order, how can you believe this?” The Complementarian argues that the created order is Adam first, Eve second. As such, in the Ancient Near Eastern Hebrew context of that time, this communicated “primogeniture.” Primogeniture, meaning that order of creation or mention denotes authority and inheritance[1].

Adam was created first, Eve was deceived. Thus ‘Adams’ are leaders and ‘Eves’ are not. Not in Church, not in the family, and, if handled consistently, not in the world either. Cue, 1 Tim 2:13 – 15 proof text. Boom, case over apparently. The Egalitarian argues that the Creation order is not hierarchical but rather is a result of sin (Gen 3:16). Thus, as we are a redeemed people, the effect of sin is being nullified. Cue Gal 3:28 proof text. Boom, case over. However, I think both these are terrible proof texts and don’t apply well, at least not in the way they are often used. There need be some nuance. Have I upset everyone now? Or maybe you just think I am naively stupid

A DYNAMIC APPROACH – Relationships, roles, and responsibilities I do believe in an original creation order regarding the marriage relationship. However, and this is part of the reason why I am more egalitarian in other contexts, these roles with specific authority are related not firstly to gender but to marriage relationship as ordained by God.

In that creation order, I do believe that the husband was given sacrificial headship and accountability and thus Adam is to blame for the introduction of sin into the world (Rom 5:12 – 19), even though it was Eve who sinned first. You suck Adam. There is no primary responsibility without primary authority. Unlike, the first Adam, all other male headship is limited to their role and responsibilities within the marriage relationship (Eph 5:22) Only one other ‘man’ holds the same ‘Federal headship over all humanity, the heavenly man (1 Cor 15:48 – 49). In the earthly Adam we bear his image and sin, in the heavenly Adam (Christ), his image and righteousness.

I have addressed this in my teaching on Women in Leadership and will expound on how it is possible in a Q and A blog after this post.

I also believe much of the Complementarian AND Egalitarian arguments are power-centred. This hierarchical and power-obsessed focus is based on the effect of the fall on humanity (Gen 3:16). It is sinful and must be repudiated. If our argument is about power and control, we are arguing from the wrong posture. It is what the disciples were doing in Matthew 20. It is not Christ-like. I believe Men, broadly speaking, due to the fall (Gen 3:16) have a bent toward “ruling over” (a tendency toward oppression) and women, due to the fall, often “desire after him” (a tendency toward sedition and manipulation)

Both corrupted positions are about control. Both are dangerous. Proof in the fruit

Here is my counter-cultural belief.

If the husband is the head of the wife in terms of servant leadership and the very heart of this is to reflect and model Christ and his Church (Eph 5), then in the same way the Church is empowered by Christ, so too each husband shall seek not to ‘rule over’ (Gen 3:16) but rather inspire, support and champion his wife in everything God has called her to.

If I am correct, wives, in this approach should hold greater influence, be more secure, and as such more daring. Godly theology leads to godly fruit.

Maybe I can write an additional blog in this regard, ‘Redeeming Patriarchy Magnifying Matriarchy’.


Adam and Eve – Genesis 1. There is primogeniture in the Genesis text Culturally understood, primacy in birth or created order does at least normally denote authority and inheritance.

It is however an example of such ‘primary mention’ that leads me to conclude that the authority of men and women in the Church context is actually flexible and more egalitarian. We see this with Priscilla and Aquila and I address this in my blog on Women in Leadership. It should be noted that God does not actually always observe primogeniture himself. We see this for instance in the anointing of Solomon over Adonijah (1 Kings 1:1-53).

As such, it is not really my primary anchor idea. 2. There is primary accountability and thus authority in the text

Adam is viewed as the first accountable (Gen 3:9 – 11) and he is the one addressed first by God not Eve. According to the New Testament, the responsibility for the fall lands squarely on his shoulders despite him not being the first to sin (Rom 5:12 – 19)

I said it earlier but it is worth repeating, there is no primary responsibility without primary authority, this reality alone underpins what I see to be a clear pre-fall responsibility, role, and commensurate responsibility and authority.

This primary responsibility directly leads to blame laid upon Adam which leads to Jesus coming as the “last Adam” or “second man from heaven” (1 Cor 15:45-49). Jesus wins the battle lost by Adam.

“For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. 22 For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.” 1 Cor 15:21 - 22

Not to get too distracted but note the corporate language involved here, ‘in Adam,’ in the flesh, simply because we are born, due to the fruit of the flesh we all die however ‘in Christ,’ through the new birth in the Spirit, we will be made alive. Even in this discussion around gender roles we must remain obsessively focused on Jesus, not ourselves. There is nothing but death outside of Christ.

3. The overturning of the order is also indicative of pre-fall authority Where God speaks to Adam in this context, and he is held accountable for both himself and his wife, the Devil goes the other direction and approaches Eve (Gen 3:1 –7) who in turn helps tempt Adam, who then makes excuses to God. Marriage in the New Testament (Matt. 19:5; Eph. 5:31) is understood through the lens of this text:

“That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.” Gen 2:24

What about Eve as helper? (Ezer kenegdo)

Eve is called to be Adam’s “helper suitable for him” (Gen 2:18) Why? Because he is alone, he is helpless. God says that he would “make” this Ezer / helper (v 18), yet he then first parades the broader created world “but for Adam, no suitable helper was found” (20b). Why? My guess, because Adam needed to know nothing else could come beside him in partnership like the Ezer that God would make. Men still need to know this. This is the very foundation for marriage (v 24). Ezer kenegdo has often been used to imply a one-dimensional nature as ‘helper to the husband’ in everything. Instead of implying she has unique strength, like the nations called Ezer when Israel required military assistance when they were under attack (Isaiah 30:5; Ezekiel 12:14; Daniel 11:34) or of God himself described as Ezer. God, our help, the one who comes beside us in battle to defeat the enemies (Duet 33:26, 29, Exodus 18:4; Deuteronomy 33:7, 26, 29; Psalm 20:2; 33:20; 70:5; 89:19). It has been communicated poorly in Church culture as if it is a ‘domestic’ position.

Not to disparage the significant role of homemaking, I do not think Ezer implies a ‘domesticated’ sense of a woman but rather a woman of strength who is able and willing to fight, to come beside her husband in his inability. Jael operates in this sense of Ezer when she drives the peg through Sisera’s head (Judges 4:21) or Deborah when she leads Israel as Prophet and Judge to deliver them from oppression (Judges 4:4 – 5). The idea of Ezer is also not limited to bringing strength or help just in the context of marriage but can be applied in a wider context as women serve, lead and fight for the Kingdom in all spheres of life.

Key NT Text - Ephesians 5 Ephesians 5 is the ‘go to’ text in the NT when it comes to the role of husband and wife in marriage. It is considered a household code common in the cultural context.[2]

In understanding the text, the complementarian will highlight that it says…

Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything” The Egalitarian will say that verse 22 exists subject to verse 21, that wives are to submit to their husbands in the context of mutual submission. Thus, the text is contrary to common household codes of the time and establishes a mutuality in submission.

As we approach this text, there are two key terms often engaged specifically when trying to understand the text: The primary being “Head,” the second “Submit.”

I will engage both these terms but first allow me to pull a little further out from verses 23 – 24 and to at least the beginning of Ephesians chapter 5.

“Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children 2 and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”

Note the tone, what we are doing as we approach our lives as “God’s holy people” (v3b) is to follow God’s example, in Christ, offering ourselves, not seeking our own ‘rights’. This I believe is important in this wider discussion because it has been my observation that this discussion is filled with a lot of ego. None of us are unbiased and despite boisterous assertions, different perspectives can often be defensible even when we disagree with them. Christ is our example in all of this, so whether one is Egalitarian in their understanding of this text or complementarian, if this becomes about power and right rather than love and self-sacrifice, you will live a life that does not match. Additionally, I will unpackage this a little more later, if you are seeking to live as Christ, dearly loved as Children offering oneself in service to God and others (including your spouse) then the fruit of the Spirit will be evident, and the functional results will often look remarkably similar.

It has been my experience that some self-proclaimed 'egalitarian marriages' are actually hierarchical and oppressive (or selfishly divisive) and some complementarian marriages appear to others to be selflessly egalitarian. Why? Because I believe that a Christ-like Spirit-led marriage will rarely have power and rule discussions at all because they seek to 'out serve' one another. That is the posture found in Jesus’ example to us.

If this discussion centres on who gets the power, it is being approached from the wrong posture.

Nonetheless, it is a point of contention theologically and as such needs some work and so here we are.

Continue with me.

“But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people. 4 Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving. 5 For of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure or greedy person—such a person is an idolater— has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God.[a] 6 Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things God’s wrath comes on those who are disobedient. 7 Therefore do not be partners with them.” V 3 – 7

It is important within this to simply note that our identity change as “God’s holy people” should lead to an “activity change” because those who do what they ought not, do not have “any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God.” In the social and cultural environment of the West, we must be ready to be counter-cultural, living obediently to God, not the world. As we understand this text, ultimately what I think does not matter, what matters is…

“For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. (so) Live as children of light 9 (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth) “

Note these three things as fruit measures: 1. Goodness

2. Righteousness

3. Truth

Seeking “what pleases the Lord” (v 11), our goal must NOT be to please oneself or the culture we live in, or even the cultural forms that we are familiar with but “what pleases the Lord” (11). If something is part of the “fruitless deeds of darkness” (12) we are to have nothing to with them (11) “and Christ will shine on you.” (14)

Thus “Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, 16 making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil.” (15)

When it comes to writing I can actually be quite slow because this is all scares me a little. Every word and position I take as a teacher and leader, especially in sensitive issues, should be careful, wise and with the understanding that what we proclaim must be ‘goodness, righteousness and truth’ (v 9) understanding “what the Lord’s will us” (17b) as a reflection of being “filled with the Spirit” (19) to gratitude and submission to God. (20)

Ok, lets dive into the more disputed part of the text.

Allow me to quote 21 – 24 in whole and comment. I will get to the role of Husbands in loving their wives “just as Christ loved the Church” (25) but overall, that is not a great point of contention so I will land here.

“21 Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. 22 Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.”

The complementarian view immediately moves to verse 22. “Wives, submit yourselves to your own Husbands…”

The Egalitarian pulls back a little earlier and argues for ‘mutual submission’ as we are called to “Submit to one another.” (v 22) As verse 22 is built on verse 21 the egalitarian approach argues that verse 22 is either merely an example of submission or that, in mutuality, not only would the wife submit to the husband but the husband to the wife. It is argued, that there is no general direction of authority and submission in the text. There are layers to the discussion in this context but let us dive into some of the areas of difference. The first around the word, ‘Head’ and the second around the word “Submission.” I will come back to the argument of whether Verse 22 fits into verse 21 or whether it is best understood differently. LIVING FROM THE FULLNESS OF THE SPIRIT A LOOONG sentence. It is important to note that Ephesians 5:18-21 is a single long sentence in Greek, and this is important. We understand this, not due to punctuation but rather the verb structure.

There are two key imperative verbs here, a negative command, to not “be drunk (methuskeshe) which leads to debauchery” (18a), contrasted with a positive idea from which everything found in verses 19 - 21 stems.

Do not get drunk and live a life of fleshly instinct (18a) rather we should “be filled (plērousthe) with the Spirit” (19) which also “leads to…” several actions.

Scholars call these ‘plural participles,’ being expressions of the one verb. “Instead, be filled with the Spirit…” (which leads to) a) “speaking (lalountes) to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit.” 19

b) “Sing and make music (adontes kai psallontes) from your heart to the Lord, (19)

c) “always giving thanks (eucharistountes) to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. (20)

d) “Submit (hypotassomenoi) to one another out of reverence for Christ.” (21)

The word submit literally means to “arrange under” (hypo, “under,” tasso, “to arrange”)[3] To put oneself under the protection or authority of another. There is a strong argument that also suggests v 22 starts with its own verb emphasising a connected but different thought[4].

MUTUALITY? Being filled with the Spirit, in this context leads to an entire string of listed related elements, in the same way that being “drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery” (18a).

The importance in this discussion is that verse 21 (submitting to one another) is a reflection of and extends from verse 18 (be filled with the Spirit). It is all a single sentence. I love this because if our pursuit is the fullness of the Spirit, we should see the natural overflow of such in gifts, fruits, and obedience, all in “reverence to Christ” (18a), even dare I say it, if some of our semantic doctrine may be slightly different.

Although submitting to “one another” (21) is used to present a case for general “mutual submission” (and I have even lent this way), I do not believe that is the most consistent way to understand the text as a whole.

To be direct, there is no general egalitarian “mutuality” when it comes to submission in the Church community, at least not in any way that relates to authority.

This community’s authority (Eldership) must be humble, “not lording it over those entrusted to you” (1 Peter 5v3) but they are still to be submitted to (1 Peter 5:5), they are to “be obeyed” (Heb 13:17).

From this text (1 Peter 5), an egalitarian theologian I love to read, Marg Mowczko, makes an argument[5] that not only are the young to submit to the elders but also they are to all to “submit themselves to one another”, a reading, at least in English only reflected as far as I can tell in the KJV and NKJV. All others interpret the second phrase simply in terms of humility toward one another.

However, even if one were to accept this reading, this undermines any real sense of mutuality that the egalitarian argues in Ephesians 5 in regard to husbands and wives.

The Elders always remain the authorities, they must be humble, and, you may stretch it, that in their humility they should be open to the gifts in the lives of these emerging young people. However, the Elders have the actual authority and the author of Hebrews says they should be obeyed (Heb 13:17). I believe you can argue for a different humble posture in the handling of authority, but I do not see any valid argument for equal authority or reciprocal levels of submission.

Additionally, the passages that follow in Ephesians 5 and other verses throughout the New Testament show us that submission in the community is always to specific “others” not just any “others” (Heb 13:17-25, 2 Titus 2:9, 1 Peter 2:18, 1 Cor 1:24, Phil 1:8, 1 Thes 2:6). Still again, when the phrase “to another” is also used in other contexts it often is not with any mutual expectation. The ‘another’ is nearly always specific others. (1 Cor 11:33 , Matt 24:10, Luke 12:1)

There is clear direction in terms of submission in the immediate wider text Ephesians 5:

Wives and Husbands (Eph 5:22 – 33)

Children and Parents (Eph 6:1 – 4)

Slaves and Masters (Eph 6:5 – 9) At some point I will address the nature of slaves and masters in particular and ‘redemptive trajectory’, but such questions do not undermine the central point here. WIVES AND HUSBANDS Paul shifts gears in verse 22, zoning in on the marriage relationship, calling husbands and wives to lives that reflect Christ’s relationship with the Church.

“22 Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Saviour. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.” (v 22 – 24)

Lets break it down.

“Wives, submit yourselves…”

Note, this is not a command for men to subjugate women, but rather “Wives, submit yourselves.”

Who to?

“to your own husbands

Let me make it clear, this text does NOT talk about females submitting to males. It talks of wives submitting to their “OWN husbands.” This is talking about marriage, not relationships WITHIN the Church community or any other community for that matter. Husbands may be male but not every male is your husband.


“as you do to the Lord.”

We will unpackage what that looks like soon in light of Jesus’ love for his bride.


“For the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ is the head of the Church, his body, of which he is Saviour” (23)

Some want to make a lot of a discussion around the specific word “head” (kephalē). The traditional view was this is primarily about authority, others argue however argue that it can mean “source,” as in the head or source of the river (Bedale; Fee, 1987:502-5). A scholar I deeply respect, Gordon Fee makes this argument. There is possibly breadth in its general meaning, however, given the wider usage in Ephesians where Jesus is “appointed him to be head over everything” (Eph 1:22 – 23, also Eph 4 and reflected in Col 1:15 – 18) and the context is submission, it nearly does not matter. Even if one is to acknowledge the sense of ‘source’ within the word, you cannot remove the nature of ‘authority’ from it either. The body (Christ / Bride) is to submit to the Head (Jesus / Husband)

Ok, for a moment, allow me to become a little more pastoral. I understand that a great amount of damage has happened and a great amount of fear is created in people when they hear this teaching. I will try to address some of the practical concerns a little later.

Snodgrass, a professor of New Testament studies writes, “the biblical model of authority is service for rather than over another.”[6] That is why we must continue because this is a dynamic relationship being talked of, both in the immediate marriage sense but also in the greater regard, Christ, and his bride (the Church). Paul now turns specifically to husbands and introduces the next verb.

“Husbands, love your wives,” (25)

In the common code of the time, love from husbands was certainly not a requirement and most certainly not love as reflected between Christ and his bride. How?

“just as” (25)

As seen earlier concerning submission (v 22), the relationship of Christ and the Church is the model.

Christ loved the church and”

Dig into that for a moment. What is Christ’s example to us? How did he show his love? Was it lording over? Did he beat her? Subjugate her?

ABSOLUTELY NOT!!! Rather, Christ:

“gave himself up for her”

Jesus laid aside his rights (Luke 9:23), he came to serve and save (Matt 20:28).

Our model is not obsessed with power and position, whose drive is to “Lord it over” or “exercise authority over” but rather one who modelled and taught servant leadership, “to give his life” (Matt 20:28)

As I wrote this there was an ironic sense in the Islamic call to prayer going off in the background. A call to establish authority and authoritarian submission.

It so contrasts with that of Christ example for us (Phil 2:5 – 11) The Godly husband will give everything to see his wife living in the abundance of what God has for her. He will lovingly push her, encourage her, and spur her on to outwork all the grace of God on her, even if she does “greater works” (John 14:12) them himself.

Jesus is our model, giving himself to…

“26 to make her holy, cleansing[b] her by the washing with water through the word, 27 and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.”

I want to be a husband like Jesus.

“In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church— 30 for we are members of his body.”

No sane husband will ever lay a hand on his wife or suppress her and limit the God-given gifts in her life, rather he will provide and protect, sacrifice, and serve, ensure they are cared for “just as Christ does the Church.” (29)

Let us continue,

“31 “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” 32 This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church.”

Marriage is anchored in creation mandate and design however it is not grounded in ourselves but in Christ.

“33 However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.”

CONCLUSION I will attempt to address several questions that have arisen either from personal correspondence or on social media, largely in regard to how a more dynamic posture can be lived out however my conclusions from a biblical-theological view are clear regarding the marriage relationship. 1. God, in creation does establish a ‘good’ order that gives specific gender roles, responsibilities, and authority in the marriage relationship.

2. This ‘good order’ was corrupted by sin however part of redeeming that good order is to recognise it and pursue it. This is not just a moral good but a social good.

3. Mutuality, if we use the term, is not an issue of egalitarian authority but rather a posture of humility.

4. Jesus is our greatest example and model in all of this.

5. The husband is the head of the marriage and this headship does contain specific and responsible authority.

6. The wife is called to submit to her husband, who is called to lovingly lay down his life as Christ did for the Church, his bride.

7. This can only and necessarily be done through being “filled with the Spirit” (Eph 5:18)

References [1] International Standard Bible Encyclopedia [2] Craig Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, 2nd ed. (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2014), 552 [3] “hupotasso,” Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary [4] The Text of Eph 5.22 and the Start of the Ephesian Household Code, Cambridge University Press, 2021, [5] Mutual Submission in Ephesians 5:21 and in 1 Peter 5:5 - Marg Mowczko - [6] Klyne Snodgrass, Between Two Truths: Living With Biblical Tensions (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2004), 92-93

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