Q&A: Sacred and Secular Leadership

Sacred and Secular Leadership

Question

I found your answers on Women in Authority and Women in Secular Leadership very helpful, but I have a question they did not answer. If God established a creation ordinance, a proper order in creation that the church is to obey (such that women are not to hold the office of elder), shouldn't Christians apply that in every sphere of life?

Answer

If I understand you correctly, you are asking why we should have different standards in church than in the secular world. I think the root reason lies in the distinctions that God makes between things such as family, church and other areas of life.

Before the Fall, there was no distinction between family, church and the secular world. There were only two people, and they had been ordained to serve in a capacity in which their entire lives combined family, church and everything else. Adam and Eve were husband and wife (family), ordained to serve God (church) by tending the Garden (secular life). In their case, the categories were collapsed into one. Or to be more precise, there was only one category, and it had attributes that have now been distributed between multiple categories. Before the Fall, there was no secular world; all of life was religious and familial. This is the way the world should be, and it is the way the world will be when Jesus returns.

But also before the Fall, the headship structures of family were not simply that males had headship over females, at least insofar as we think of headship in terms of authority. On the contrary, females often were to have proper authority over males. Perhaps the most obvious instance of this is that mothers were still to have authority over their male children. This is implied in Genesis 2:24, where we are told that men are to leave their parents and get married.

Paul affirms this idea in 1 Corinthians 11:12 when he writes that Eve being taken out of Adam is parallel to women giving birth to boys. In the creation account, the fact that Eve was taken out of Adam gave Adam authority and headship over Eve. According to Paul, the fact that mothers give birth to sons is a parallel creation ordinance that gives mothers authority and headship over sons. By implication, authority and headship is also possessed by fathers over their children for the same reason.

Moreover, the creation account does not imply that men have general authority and headship over women who are not their wives, nor does the rest of Scripture suggest this. In the Bible, there is nothing prohibiting a woman from managing her household even if it contains male servants, and there is nothing generally obligating an adult woman to submit to men other than her husband.

In short, the Bible affirms multiple types of headship, commonly giving priority to age, source, and social rank. Gender does not trump other types of headship. Rather, various types of headship have overlapping authorities and work in conjunction and/or tension with one another. Gender is primarily an issue between married couples and in church leadership, the two aspects of life highlighted by the creation account. Extending male headship to other areas, such as the secular workplace, is inappropriate for a variety of reasons based on the creation account and applications of that account found in Scripture.

First, it assigns male headship over a woman to a man who is neither her husband nor father. This is in direct contrast with the application of this type of headship in Scripture. A husband's headship in marriage is directly related to the "one flesh" relationship between husband and wife (Gen. 2:21-24), which clearly is not a bond shared with others in the secular world. A father's headship is based on generation (or on the legal parallel in adoption), which also is not paralleled in the secular world.

Second, male headship in the church is not male-over-female headship. Rather, the headship elders have is over males and females, young and old, rich and poor, masters and slaves, etc. This headship is akin that which fathers have over their households. The office of elder was originally held by tribal and clan leaders within Israel (cf. Num. 11:16-17). Even in the modern church there is a close correspondence between family leadership and the office of elder (1 Tim. 3:4-5). This structure maintains a strong connection between family and church leadership, much as in the Garden of Eden.

But this type of parental headship is not directly applicable to the secular workplace because there is no family or household model. It is true that some employees may be part of one's household in some cases (e.g., live-in maids under certain circumstances), and thus that the family model may extend a familial authority to employers if the conditions are right. But in most instances, work relationships do not place employees in submissive familial relationships to their employers.

Insofar as the civil government may sometimes be seen as an extended family, there may be some ground for looking to male headship there on occasion. But we must also remember that family headship is not restricted to males. Rather, family headship defaults to husbands, who are men, and to parents, who are both male and female. Typically, in the ancient world, civil leaders were thought of as "fathers" of their people, not as "husbands." This implies that it is appropriate for women to hold civil authority as "mothers" rather than as "wives." But even as wives, women have authority over their households.

The tension I have created in this argument is between two ideas: (1) the office of elder is essentially one of parental authority, and is rightly restricted to men; and (2) civil government is potentially one of parental authority and is rightly not restricted to men. I have narrowed the original question by ruling out a husband's authority as a basis for preferring male leadership in the secular world, and by ruling out employment as a valid family model. But this one sticky point remains.

The answer, I believe, is that male headship in the church is not based solely on the familial aspects of life in the Garden of Eden; it is also based on the priestly aspects of life in the Garden. The priestly relationship is not a familial relationship. Adam and Eve were assigned priestly roles in the Garden in addition to familial roles. Men have a priestly priority over women because they were created first (1 Tim. 2:13). As Paul argues, this priestly priority implies that only men should be elders.

But as much as we might find parallels between the civil government and the family, there is usually no such parallel between the civil government and God's priesthood. In the church, the office of elder has both parental and priestly aspects. Women are not precluded from holding the office on the basis of familial priority, but on the basis of priestly priority. In civil government, however, only the familial model applies, so that the restriction implied by priestly authority is irrelevant. Now, there may be some cases in which the civil and church governments are one and the same, in which case women should typically be preempted by men.

Answer by Ra McLaughlin

Ra McLaughlin is Vice President of Finance and Administration at Third Millennium Ministries.