Women in Leadership – An Essay

by | August 7, 2023 | Extraction

An essay submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Leadership, Alpha Crucis College University, Dec 2021.


The debate concerning women in church leadership has raged for centuries. The resulting divisions have created denominational splits and theological schisms. The statistics and demographics reveal the degree to which patriarchy and hierarchy dominate the church leadership landscape. In recent years it has become a major social, political, and economical issue, provoking, and reigniting the debate to new heights within Christendom.

When the dominant culture continually reinforces patriarchy it’s hard to promote mutuality and equality. Changing the meta narrative is not an easy task. In response, governments, organisations, and businesses alike have instituted regulations, recommendations, and incentives to adjust the ratio of women in senior leadership. The response from Christian denominations has not been reciprocated.

For some scholars such as Craig Keener the evidence for the bible supporting women to lead and teach the scriptures is beyond dispute. For others like George Knight, it’s quite the opposite. This essay will outline the challenge confronting the church regarding the appointment of women to senior leadership roles. It will examine only two of the most contested New Testament biblical texts. The historical and biblical context will be summarised as well as a brief examination of the key Greek words used within the texts.


The modern feminist movement is not new. Surrounded by controversy, its beginnings can be traced to a women’s equality and suffrage meeting held at the Wesleyan Chapel in Seneca Falls, New York on 20 July 1848 (“National Constitution Center”, 2021). The founding member’s connection to the abolition movement as well as their attachment to biblical revivalism is well documented (Hull, 1990). Since then, the feminist movement has progressed through a series of phases or ‘waves’ (Chamberlain, 2017). Believed to have commenced in April 2012 ‘Fourth Wave Feminism’ (Abrahams, 2017) has not only effectively fuelled many recent global campaigns, but it has also heightened egalitarian sensibilities among churches of all denominations.

Keener (1992) suggests all Christians should consider themselves to be ‘biblical feminists’ if indeed we broadly define feminism as the belief that women and men are equal, and it constitutes organized activity that actively opposes the oppression of women. The leaders of the international women’s movement encourage everyone to “Celebrate women’s achievement. Raise awareness against bias. Take action for equality.” (“International Women’s Day 2021 theme: Choose to Challenge”, 2021). A vision that could be argued to be of Christian or biblical origin. Perhaps modern feminism’s digression from abolition, suffrage, equal opportunity, and wage parity, to its support of pro-choice and SOGIECS (ILGA, 2021) agendas has caused Christians to alienate themselves from feminist affiliation during each wave.  

The pursuit of gender equality for 50.5% of the Australian workforce is more than a feministic ideal, it is supported by economists for the projected benefits of national advancement (“Women in leadership | WGEA”, 2021). The rationale for empowering women is obvious to most. Mowczko (2020) reminds us that ‘women are doctors, pilots, lawyers, teachers, scientists, lawyers, bankers, broadcasters, businesswomen, and they are involved in every level of management’. Likewise, church denominational leaders need to consider the exponential advancement of the Kingdom of God through the empowerment of women and be concerned that certain leadership positions and ministries are withheld from more than half of the Body of Christ (Keener, 1992).

However, there remains division among churches on the issue of the empowerment of women to every form of leadership. Denominational and Church leaders broadly practice three views of ministry known as ‘patriarchy’, ‘complementarianism’, and ‘egalitarianism.’ Patriarchy is the traditionalist view that men have power, authority and leadership over the church, home, and public life, accentuated by the low church and high church construct (Peppiat, 2019). Complementarianism is the belief that men and women are equal but have different complementary roles in all aspects of life. Which according to some, leads to patriarchy in its application. Egalitarianism is the teaching that supports the equality of men and women having joint responsibility in all aspects of life including marriage, family, society, and in the church (Hewitt, 2016).

The Ideal and the Real

Australian Christian Churches (ACC), and their parent movement Assemblies of God USA, would consider themselves a progressive denomination when it comes to the egalitarian view of the vital role women perform in church leadership roles (Keener, 1992). Most ACC pastors confess to being egalitarian while others would admit to being complementarian in their ministry practice. However, heteropraxy dominates the church landscape. Although ideal, orthodoxy doesn’t always lead to orthopraxy. As it is for many denominations, likewise within the ACC, there is a gap between ‘the ideal and the real’ (McCallum, 2021).

ACC has experienced a steady increase in the number of women credentialled for church leadership. Currently 1094 (34.1%) of their 3208 credentialled pastors are women, increasing from 31% in 2015. However, in 2015, only 6% of these women were Senior Pastors, with another 6.5% holding executive roles (Grey, 2021). Since 1937 when Assemblies of God in Australia (known as Australian Christian Churches) was formed, there has never been a woman appointed as a State Executive Leader or National President or Chairperson. While currently only one of the nine-member National Executive is female (“ACC”, 2021). By comparison, the Anglican diocese of Perth welcomed Bishop Kay Goldsworthy, as its first female Archbishop to the office on 10 February 2018 (“Archbishop of Perth”, 2021). Furthermore, the Uniting Church in Australia appointed Reverend Sharon Hollis, to the office of National President on 17 July 2021, the third woman to hold this position (Uniting Church in Australia, 2021).

The gap between the egalitarian theological ‘ideal’ of empowering women to perform all ministerial leadership roles, and the ‘real’ praxis of the same remains intact. The disparity is fuelled by various interpretations and applications of the proof texts that have been used to support the subordination of women. There is a division between what the scripture teaches and what tradition has taught over the centuries (Keener, 1992). Hill (2020) provokes us to see these often-debated scriptures with a fresh perspective, “As the pages of the Bible unfold, women’s freedoms, dignity, and ministries increase and expand”

There are a limited number of scriptures employed by church leaders to argue for a patriarchal leadership model. This essay will briefly examine just two of these biblical texts which have created schisms across Christendom for centuries. We will survey each text in its biblical context, consider the English translation of the original language and the usage of keywords.

Examining Ephesians 5:22-23

The first scripture to be surveyed is Ephesians 5:22-23, “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is head of the wife, as also Christ is the head of the church; and He is Saviour of the body.” The call for ‘wives to submit to their husbands’ is the obvious commandment used to reaffirm the patriarchal position. Hewitt (2016) however implores students not to take a ‘flat book approach’ when reading and studying scripture, but to reflect upon the context and the wider use of key terms in scripture. Commencing with ‘wives’ and ‘husbands’ as marital terms, which do not encompass all women and men in society, beckons the reader to question the all-inclusive application by patriarchists. How this verse applies to the teenage girl, single woman, divorced woman, or widow seeking leadership within the church remains ambiguous.

Furthermore, when reading these verses within the broader context of chapter 5 attention is drawn to the evidence of the Spirit-filled life (v. 15-21) and the commands given to husbands (25-33). Apostle Paul highlights the actions and characteristics of the Spirit-filled believer as one who lives circumspectly with wisdom, who practices worship, confession, thankfulness, community, and mutual submission. The command to submit to one another (v.21) precedes the concept of wives submitting to husbands (v.22) and cannot be disregarded of its importance in the argument for the egalitarian practice. The household codes of biblical times were different from our experience; the husband led the home as sole provider, slavery was normative, and wives submitted to their husbands. Paul’s appeal to practice mutual submission would have seemed countercultural to the early church (Payne, 2009). However, both Peter and Paul reset the household codes for early Christian communities and avoid conflict with the expectations of Greco-Roman society (Peppiat, 2019), by avoiding terms such as ‘ruling’ and ‘obedience’, by declaring a series of ‘one another’ (Gk. allelon) statements throughout their epistles, including mutual love and submission. These exhortations when practiced would characterize Christian households in Greco-Roman society (Keener, 1992).

Furthermore, Paul sets the tone for the Christ-centred marriage, not based on submission but on sacrificial love. He commands husbands to love their wives sacrificially as Christ loved the church (v.25), which upon consideration is a more difficult mandate than the perceived directive for wives to live in submission. Hierarchical leaders focus almost entirely on the husband’s headship and the wife’s submission and subvert the issue of mutual submission.

Knight (1985) argues Paul’s teaching on equality, is in line with Genesis 1:26-27 and his teaching on subordination is in line with Genesis 2. However, Longenecker (Mickelsen, 1987) contends with Knight’s ability to advocate for wives’ spiritual equality inclusive of their societal subordination, without reinforcing the inferiority of women.

Mutual submission does not negate the wife’s responsibility in the hierarchical position, as some would argue, but highlights the husband’s responsibility to also submit as a ‘fellow-heir of the grace of life’ (Keener, 1992). Scot McKnight (2018) says ‘love in the Bible is a covenantal commitment to presence, advocacy and flourishing growth into Christlikeness.’

Therefore, Paul redefines the husband’s responsibilities as being sacrificial love, covenantal faithfulness, and sexual purity. Paul’s letters were written and read aloud to men, women, fathers, mothers, children, masters, servants, and slaves. Paul acknowledged both their agency and dignity, (Peppiatt, 2019) and their ability to be “capable and responsible to respond to the exhortations to them” (Hurtado, 2016). Therefore, households, marriages, and indeed churches, are best formed on the allelon principles of mutuality and love.

It is evident to hierarchical, complementarian, and egalitarian leaders alike, that the word ‘submission’ is the main point of dispute in Ephesians 5:21-22. In pursuit of truth, observing the words used in the original manuscript becomes the foundation for orthopraxy. Herein lies the opportunity to settle the debate. The hierarchical argument is undermined by the revelation that the earliest manuscripts, Papyrus 46 (AD 175-225) and Codex Vaticanus (AD 300-325), do not include the Greek word hupotasso translated as ‘submit’ in Ephesians 5:22 (Henderson, 2021). However, because English requires a verb, the word submit is ‘borrowed’ from the previous verse (Grey, 2021). Armstrong (2017) disagrees claiming the verbal aspect theory describes hupotasso in v.21 as a present participle and provides an ‘obvious grammatical link’ to verse 22, therefore the word submit isrightly inserted into the text. However, he affirms hupotasso signifies ‘reciprocity and mutuality.’ In the same manner, Richards (Armstrong, 2017) describes hupotasso as voluntary submission modeled upon the archetype found in Christ’s self-sacrifice. Those who advocate for wifely submission must do so in the context of mutual submission and likewise reaffirm the husband’s authority as expressed through loving and sacrificial service (Keener, 1992).

Examining 1Timothy 2:11-15

For centuries 1Timothy 2:11-15 has been used ‘to deny women a place in ordained ministry’ (Wright 2014). While many denominations, especially Pentecostals acknowledge the outpouring of God’s Spirit enabling every person to minister (Joel 2:28-32, Acts 2:17-18), and reaffirm the right of women to occupy positions of leadership, there remains a tension regarding the right of women to exert authority over a man. Belleville (2005) refers to 1Timothy 2, as the ‘Great Divide in the debate’ (Pierce et al., 2010). In this regard, Scholer (Mickelsen, 1987) states 1Timothy 2 has been used to both oppose and endorse women in leadership.

Paul broadens his previous instructions to wives and husbands (Eph 5:22-23) to include both women and men in 1Timothy 2:11-15, although Long (2015) argues Paul is addressing wives in relation to their husbands. Likewise, 1Corinthians 14:34-35 is absolute in its denunciation of women and the directive to ‘keep silent in the church’, however this restriction is nullified by Paul in 1Corinthian 11:5 indicating that women pray and prophesy in church. Some scholars consider these verses to be an interpolation due their contradiction with Paul’s view on women in other epistles. While other scholars (Scroggs 1972, Walker 1975, Trompf 1980) deny their Pauline authorship and therefore their relevance to either deny or confirm the role of women (Long, 2015).

The historical context reveals Paul writes to Timothy who is leading in Ephesus, the cult worship capital of the fertility goddess Artemis, ‘Diana’ to the Romans, believed to be the daughter of Zeus, who was worshipped throughout Asia (Acts 19:23-36). They were Gnostics, and believed Artemis had the power to give life and take it away. They were sexually promiscuous, misandrists, and promoted women’s authority over men. It is believed Artemis was a ‘midwife’ who promised women would be saved through childbirth (Mowczko, 2013). Understandably more than one-fifth of both Paul’s epistles urge Timothy to correct false teaching and defend against heresy (Hewitt, 2016). Hoag (2015) and Witherington (2014) believe the influence of wealthy women converting from the Artemis cult upon the Christian gatherings, cannot be underestimated and provide the context for Paul’s instruction. However, Shreiner (Belleville & Beck, 2005) disagrees because Paul never mentions the cult in his writings.

Reviewing the biblical context and assuming a male audience, we observe first; Paul exhorts the leaders to guard against the proliferation of heresies (1Tim 1:3-4). Reaffirming the truth that men, not only women, are prone to deception (1Tim 2:14). Paul instructs teachers to learn the scriptures, underscoring the inadequacy of some teachers and the need for both women and men to learn (1Tim 1:5-8). Paul declares his appointment into ‘ministry’ as an act of God’s grace (1Tim 1:12-15) consistent with his teaching in other Pauline epistles that grace is never limited just to men (1Cor 1:4, 2Cor 6:1, 8:6, 9:14, Eph 2:4-9, Gal 2:21, Tit 2:11). Furthermore, Paul states the character qualifications of leadership require both men and women to be faithful, repentant, humble, and submissive (1Tim 1:12-17). He instructs men how to pray properly (2:1-8), which means the instructs would be relevant to women also considering 1Corinthians 11:5 (Keener, 1992). Furthermore, Paul was concerned about propriety and provides specific dress codes for women (2:9-10), likely to distinguish themselves from the newly converted women from the Artemis cult (Mickelsen, 1987). However, if this instruction were meant to be applied with the same rigour as v. 11-12, the absence of codified dress codes in current contexts should raise concern. Their absence underpins the interpretive principle; all bible passages are for all time, but they are not for every circumstance and context. Clearly Paul is addressing the authority structures of his time and the issues at Ephesus, not mandating the same for our context today (Keener, 1992). Knight (1985) and Hurley (2002) disagree, they believe Paul is constructing a ‘church manual’ that has general and far-reaching application beyond the immediate situation.

To bring clarity to Paul’s directives, it necessitates investigation of our English translations of primary Greek words. The only imperative in 1Timothy 2 is learning (Grey, 2021), ‘let a woman learn’ (v.11), in like manner all believers are commanded to study and learn the scriptures (1Tim 4:13-16, 2Tim 2:15). Learning is moderated by the addition of hesychia translated as ‘silence’ which is better translated as ‘quiet’ or ‘restful’. N.T. Wright adds clarity, ‘to learn undisturbed’ (Grey, 2021). Paul is either correcting the assertive and dominant characteristics displayed by newly converted women, or he is offering instruction to women on how to learn, given they were denied access to education (Peppiat, 2019). Keener (1992) suggests the women were to learn without disrupting the assembly with naïve questions. In verse 12 ‘I do not permit’, the verb epitrepo is a present indicative active term which is better translated as ‘I am not allowing this now’. It is not a command for every woman everywhere (Peppiat, 2019). Mathews (2017) offers this translation “I am not permitting women to teach in a way to assume authority over a man in a controlling and dominating way”.

An additional observation is the singular pronoun ‘a woman’ used in v.11-12. Paul addresses men and women in the previous verses but transitions to the singular pronoun. Mowczko (2019) believes he is referring to a married couple, while Hewitt (2016) believes he is addressing a specific woman who was causing disruption. We are reminded that Paul previously addressed specific men for preaching heresy (1Tim 1:3). Furthermore, the term used by Paul authentien translated as authority appears only once in scripture (Grey, 2021). It is translated ‘domineer’ in the Latin Vulgate and as ‘usurp authority’ in Geneva and King Kames Bibles. Paul usually employed exousia when referring to authority. Scholer indicates he is warning against a domineering use of authority (Mickelsen, 1987) and teaching that was manipulative and controlling (Grey, 2021). It is unlikely Paul would condone teaching in this manner whether by a man or a woman.


Upon brief examination of just two of the most contested scriptures, the evidence for women to occupy senior positions of leadership are meritorious. The historical context in Ephesus cannot be denied. The insertion and mistranslation of certain Greek words is evident. The general versus specific and contextual application of Paul’s teaching is noted. Paul endorsed and honoured women such as Junia, Phoebe and Priscilla who served in senior leadership roles with him. The challenge before the modern church is to do likewise.  


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Gary Rucci has been serving in christian leadership since 1989. Together with his wife Nikki, also a credentialled minister, he has served in various portfolios in a few of Australia’s largest churches and alongside many influential pastors and not-for-profit leaders. Gary loves to network and collaborate with others across the Body of Christ. Gary and Nikki live in Brisbane and have three adult children.