Those pushing for the full participation of women in any and all leadership roles within our Adventist church do not all share the same perspective. Although some claim that the gender roles assigned by Scripture are culturally conditioned and are irrelevant to our enlightened society, others who continue to hold a high view of Scripture assert that male headship does apply within the marriage relationship but not within the church. Among those committed to the authority of Scripture, then, the issue really boils down to one thing: the extent of gender role distinctions. Does male spiritual leadership apply in the home only, or does it extend to the church as well? In seeking an answer, it might be helpful to survey the comparison between the home and the church throughout Scripture. If it can be shown that there is a close correlation between the home family and the church family, particularly in terms of leadership, it would make sense that gender role distinctions apply there as well.
The Family of Abraham
The Old Testament people of God, the Israelites, were themselves a family. They were descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (“the children of Israel”), and their unique identity was based on God’s covenant with Abraham. This covenant applied not just to Abraham, but to his entire family as well: “And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you” (Gen. 17:7; all Scripture references are from the ESV).
God’s purpose in calling Abraham extended even beyond his family: “I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. . . . in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen. 12:2-3). Abraham was to have a family that reached out to other families—they were to be a church with an evangelistic mission.
Leadership in the Covenant Family
Because the church and the family were one in the same, Abraham was the spiritual leader of both. God said concerning him, “For I have chosen him, that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing righteousness and justice” (Gen. 18:19). The patriarchal leadership of the covenant family continued with Isaac and Jacob (see, for example, Gen. 26:24-25; 35:1-7). Some could argue that the patriarchal leadership of God’s people at this time was merely de facto (that is, these patriarchs were the church leaders for the sole reason that their families were the church). It seems however, that God called a family to be his church precisely because he wanted to emphasize that a family is exactly what he wanted his church to be, including in the area of leadership. In other words, if He had wanted the leadership to be different, he would have organized the church differently.
This conclusion is reinforced by the fact that when the covenant family grew larger after several generations and more spiritual leaders were needed, God chose an entirely male group—Aaron and his sons. These individuals were called to be priests, a role which included spiritual leadership. “For the lips of a priest should guard knowledge, and people should seek instruction from his mouth” (Mal. 2:7). This entirely male priesthood even went against the culture of the time—many nations had priestesses.
The concept of a covenant family continued to be maintained in Israel, so that centuries later Paul could address his fellow-Israelites as, “Brothers, sons of the family of Abraham” (Acts 13:26). The question he had to deal with, however, was who could be part of this family. Was it restricted to actual descendants of Abraham, or could Gentiles be a part of it as well? This concern pervades many of his epistles, particularly Romans and Galatians.
Who Is Part of the Family?
In Galatians Paul argues that both Jews and Gentiles can be part of the family of Abraham, because faith is what designates an individual as part of this family: “Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham” (Gal. 3:7). Similarly, at the end of the chapter he concludes, “For in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith” (verse 26). To be part of God’s family is to be part of Abraham’s family, and this becomes a reality in Jesus the Messiah through faith. The one in this position is identified with the Messiah: “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (verse 27). It is in this context that Paul makes his famous declaration, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (verse 28).
Paul is not discussing ministry in this passage; he is not saying that now all positions in the church are automatically open to everyone. What he is talking about is who is part of God’s covenant family. His point is that ethnicity, social status, and gender are not barriers to membership within the family. It makes sense why being a Greek or a slave could be seen as a barrier, but what does gender have to do with the issue? N. T. Wright, a leading New Testament scholar, suggests a connection: “Perhaps this is part of the point of the ‘no male and female’ of Galatians 3:28: circumcision not only divides Jew from Greek, it also puts a wall between male and female, with only the male proudly bearing the covenant sign” (N. T. Wright, Justification: God’s Plan & Paul’s Vision, 131-132). It seems, then, that Paul in his “neither male nor female” statement was hinting at elimination of the barrier of circumcision, which kept women from full participation in the covenant family.
Paul, therefore, saw the New Testament church, not as a totally new entity, but as a continuation of the covenant family of Abraham. He sums it up with the statement, “And if you are Christ's, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to promise” (verse 29). And at the close of the letter he refers to this single covenant family as “the household of faith” (Gal. 6:10). Is it possible, then, that Galatians 3, rather than eliminating gender role distinctions, actually affirms their continuance? Peter understood Sarah’s submission to Abraham to be illustrative for husband-wife relations (1 Peter 3:6), but does this example from the Abrahamic family carry over to leadership within the church?
This question is answered by another Pauline epistle which also emphasizes the motif of the church as a family. While Galatians explores this concept in a theological manner, 1 Timothy expounds on the practical implications of the concept. This focus can be seen from the very opening of the letter, where Paul addresses Timothy as “my true child in the faith” (1 Tim. 1:2). The reality of the church as a family has implications for how its members relate to one another: “Do not rebuke an older man but encourage him as you would a father. Treat younger men like brothers, older women like mothers, younger women like sisters, in all purity” (1 Tim. 5:1-2). This practical emphasis leads to a sizable section regarding care for widows. The church was to act as a family for any widow who did not have family members capable of taking care of her (verse 3-16).
The family concept also practically affects the leadership of the church. A clear connection between leadership of the home family and leadership of the church family can be seen in Paul’s counsel to Timothy regarding the qualifications for an “overseer.” Two of these qualifications relate to family leadership: “An overseer must be . . . the husband of one wife. . . . He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive” (1 Tim. 3:2, 4). For Paul, these requirements were not arbitrary. His reasoning is clear: “For if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God's church?” (verse 5).
It seems evident that Paul viewed the spiritual leadership required of the overseer as similar to that of the husband and father. Someone who was not successful in providing leadership at home would not be successful in overseeing the church. This is because of the deep connection Paul believed existed between the home and the church, as can be seen in his setting “household [Greek oikos]” parallel to “God’s church” (verse 5). And by the end of the chapter he makes the connection even more explicit. He states that his purpose in writing is so that Timothy “may know how one ought to behave in the household [Greek oikos] of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of truth” (verse 15). Because the church is an oikos, leadership is the same as for the family oikos.
God’s ideal for his church has always been for it to resemble the family. The Old Testament church that God called Abraham to establish was his family. And the New Testament church is not something radically different. Instead, it is a continuation of Abraham’s family, and includes both Jews and Gentiles. Because the church is a household—an oikos—the leadership is to resemble that of the family.