Can Women Be Church Leaders? The Household Codes of the Bible

Can women be church leaders?

It’s a big question that causes a lot of debate. Not as much today as, say, a couple of decades ago. Thankfully. Nonetheless, this remains a fairly divisive issue in the church today.

I’ve spent plenty of time looking at the question of women leadership here at the blog. But, in this article, I want to address a couple of Scriptures known as the “household codes” in the New Testament. These are particularly found in Eph 5:22-6:9 and Col 3:18-4:1.

Obviously these passages don’t specifically speak about church leadership. However, many, if not most, see a connection between leadership in the home and leadership in the church, all going back to God’s “original creation design.” So, while these are distinct, they are related and these household codes are worth addressing in the larger context of the discussion concerning women’s roles.

In both of these New Testament passages, six specific groups of people are addressed:

  1. Wives (Eph 5:22-24; Col 3:18)
  2. Husbands (Eph 5:25-33; Col 3:19)
  3. Children (Eph 6:1-3; Col 3:20)
  4. Fathers (Eph 6:4; Col 3:21)
  5. Slaves (Eph 6:5-8; Col 3:22-25)
  6. Masters (Eph 6:9; Col 4:1)

These household passages include instructions not just for the family nucleus as we may think in our modern world today (husband/wife and children/parents), but they also have little snippets that speak to the relationship between household slaves (kind of like indentured servants) and masters.

When it comes to wives, for many, these passages clearly state that men are the ones given the final leadership authority in the home. Yes, we are reminded by complementarians that the man is charged to be over his wife in a servant manner, as Christ served the church. But the husband is still the head; still the de facto lead in the marriage relationship.

In all, men are the leaders in the home and they also carry the lead role within the church (1 Cor 14 and 1 Tim 2 are highlighted by complementarians).

This view is all the more emphasized as God’s design in creation because the male leadership in the marriage is rooted in Christ and his relationship to the church. We probably know these oft-read words at weddings:

Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. 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. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. (Eph 5:22-24)

It is plain.

Husbands are the head; women are to submit.

This is the biblical view – right there, black ink on white paper (because no interpretation is needed for this plain view).

And it’s rooted in Christ himself!

Well, as you might imagine, I’d actually argue the opposite of the complementarian view.

Here’s why.

First off, we have to be very careful stamping a particular view as the “biblical” view. We can quote all types of Bible passages to support all types of actions that are definitely not of God. That’s been part of church history up to the present day, unfortunately. To advocate something as “biblical” doesn’t necessarily mean it’s what God is asking of us.

As I learned in seminary (yes, I learned something in seminary!), it takes wisdom to apply the wisdom of the Bible.

Furthermore, with the household instructions found in Eph 5-6 and Col 3-4, I believe we will do well to first engage these words knowing the ancient setting in which they were given. This is key!

Here’s what’s interesting. In those same exact passages, we actually find reason to perpetuate household slaves. Remember the plain reading? “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ” (6:5).

Sounds fair enough to conclude we could continue the practice of household slaves. And it’s also spiritually connected to Christ, right?

“…just as you would obey Christ.”

As long as we ensure masters are right and fair (Col 4:1), ultimately honoring God in their mastering of the household slave, all is well and good. And let’s also remind these slaves to obey their masters respectfully, just as if it was Jesus they were serving.

So it’s ok to perpetuate the practice of keeping household slaves.

Do you remember what I stated above? We can quote all types of Bible verses to support all types of actions that are definitely not of God.

Guess what’s been done with slavery in church history, including American Church history?

It got stamped with Bible verses, including Eph 6 and Col 3-4.

No, way?!

Yes, way!

Maybe there is more to these passages than meets the eye.

Maybe, as we started to realize in America some one hundred and fifty years ago (in the 1850s and 1860s), then again a century after that (in the 1950s and 1960s), the enslavement of other human beings made in the image of God is a stench in the nostrils of God.

I don’t care how much we spin it, enslavement of others is wrong. It is not Christlike.

But we have instructions from Paul seemingly rooting this practice in Christ and our own relationship with him. Both for slavery and marriage.

What to do?

Here’s a thought.

Perhaps the instructions in places like Eph 5-6 and Col 3-4 are to be recognized within the framework they were given: the ancient household construct. Maybe these instructions are not given for all peoples of all time.

What I would offer is that Paul is giving instructions to the church of the first-century Mediterranean world on how to conduct themselves in their home life in the most honorable way possible for their setting. I’ve already contended that the directive about slaves and masters is not something for all people for all time, even as Paul charges slaves to obey their masters like they would obey Christ. This is not casting God’s word aside nor doubting what God has said. It’s simply using our wisdom as we read Scripture. I wish our American fathers had done the same.

And so, translating this in regards to the instructions for husbands and wives, think about it. These words are given within an ancient, patriarchal society. Guess what the general flow was? Men in charge; women not so much. Thus, Paul is giving a directive on how the entire Christian household should function – wives, husbands, children, fathers, slaves and masters. His words ring with clarity to the Christian church of the first century. But that isn’t so easily converted into every culture of every time.

Again, remember the slave.

Let me be very clear. I know this may feel scary to some. If we can re-apply the household passages, then we can re-apply just about any passage, it may be argued.

But I would say the goal here is not to disregard holy Scripture. The aim is not to spurn God’s word. The intent is not to re-apply each passage on a whim. Rather, there is the purpose of thoughtfully wrestling with God’s word – as each generation and culture has – in order to effectively apply it into our own context.

And thankfully we have church history to bounce things off of, as well as the church of our own day.

Is it perfect?


It wasn’t then. It isn’t now. It never has been.

Theology is not an empirical science. Trust me on that one.

In the end, I don’t believe it’s a truly honest approach to run to Ephesians and Colossians and say, “Look, Paul said this about husbands and wives. It’s very clear the man is the leader and the wife is to be submitted with no mutual, shared leadership, just as it is with Christ and the church.” Otherwise, we need to also head into Ephesians and Colossians and remind ourselves, as some of our fathers and mothers did, “Look, Paul allows for household slaves, just as long as we treat them fairly. So we are ok to have household slaves.”

It doesn’t work that way.

For slaves.

Nor for understanding the leadership roles of women and men in the home.

I believe we should not use these two little letters to perpetuate a theological system that disallows women to lead as they are called by God, to work in tandem with humble men God has also called as leaders.

I also believe there is no set, determined household code that is the only way for all peoples of all cultures of all time. Again, it takes wisdom to apply the wisdom of Scripture.

I am grateful God calls women to lead the people of God. I am grateful that wives and husbands can lead their home together in mutual submission to one another.


8 thoughts on “Can Women Be Church Leaders? The Household Codes of the Bible

  1. I would love to read more of your thoughts on women’s role in the church, particularly in leadership. It flares up as an issue for us today.

  2. Hi Scott
    Thanks for the article – which was timely, as my Church had a stimulating talk on this issue just this Sunday.

    I agree that there is a need to wisely discern the application of the truth of the Word for each generation, and you correctly argue that this will look different from generation to generation. Paul does, however, root his theology concerning gender issues not only in culture, but also in creation.

    Slavery is very clearly not a part of the good Genesis creation – but male headship (in some sense) seems to me to pervade the whole story of the creation account. So is the parallel that you are making here between the two, therefore questionable?

    It seems to me, therefore, that we need to find a way of preserving the spirit of male headship that is taught in the creation accounts, in a way that is culturally appropriate to our generation.

    • Jonathan, thanks for the comment. My sense is that you are mixing two different passages.

      You said, “Paul does, however, root his theology concerning gender issues not only in culture, but also in creation.” I don’t think Eph 5 has any rooting of gender roles in creation. I think you may have 1 Tim 2 in mind, which always gets brought up. But that’s why I say let’s first go and see what Gen 1 and Gen 2 say, which shows co-equality in ruling role, then let’s try to properly engage with 1 Tim 2.

  3. I enjoyed your post, Scott.

    May I add that in the Greco Roman households, many slaves were male and many slave-masters were female. So, Paul was telling male slaves, as well as female slaves, to obey their female masters, as well as their male masters, whatever the case may have been. The reality of female masters is seldom brought up by people who read ‘male-only authority’ in the household codes. Just saying. And some slaves, male and female, became recognised ministers (bishops and deacons) in the early church.

  4. This was the best post I have read. I agree with everything you said.
    I have one question
    Now God is perfect
    and in genesis God says to Eve that her husband should rule over her?
    What is your opinion on that?

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