Headship in the Church: understanding male and female in relation to Christ

Christ the Head. Image Credit: Warner Sallman

One question I encounter often with regard to male and female genders in the church is the following question: “How can a man lead in the home but a woman lead in the church?” This question presumes that the situation of the home and church should be equal — and that men should rule both because they are the heads of their homes. I’ve answered this question in some sense, according to my teaching on 1 Corinthians 11, but the question bears more of an answer than discussing head coverings and whether or not women should wear them.

Paul does say that neither man nor woman are independent in the Lord (see the blue link above), but that still doesn’t do justice to the question. The question assumes male leadership in the church, and it is this question that we must answer. For, in all honesty, women could very well pray and prophesy in the church but never be pastor (in that paradigm) because of the idea of male headship.

The question of male headship is one I’ve been asked over and over again. And I’ve been asking that same question as I read Scripture and Paul’s words to women. And, despite my constant searching, the Lord has brought me back to the same answer He gave me years ago on the subject: there is no male headship in the church because men and women only serve in the church. Church leadership belongs to Christ.

To start the discussion, let’s take a look at 1 Timothy 3, a cornerstone chapter on church leadership.

1 Timothy 3 and headship in the home

This is a faithful saying: If a man desires the position of a bishop, he desires a good work. A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, temperate, sober-minded, of good behavior, hospitable, able to teach; not given to wine, not violent, not greedy for money, but gentle, not quarrelsome, not covetous; one who rules his own house well, having his children in submission with all reverence (for if a man does not know how to rule his own house, how will he take care of the church of God?); not a novice, lest being puffed up with pride he fall into the same condemnation as the devil. Moreover he must have a good testimony among those who are outside, lest he fall into reproach and the snare of the devil. (1 Timothy 3:1-7)

1 Timothy 3:4-5 is the heart of our discussion here. The pastor (bishop) must be “one who rules his own house well, having his children in submission with all reverence.” Notice that it doesn’t talk about ruling over a wife, or “having a wife in submission.” If the text were only about males here, why would the text not mention wifely submission? The absence of such language in the text shows that the Pastor role is not limited to males only — though Southern Baptists, particularly those of the Tennessee Baptist Convention, still believe “husband of one wife” is gender-exclusive. It isn’t, and the fact that Pastor is a gift first, office second, shows that a woman can be called to Pastor because the Lord gives the gifts as He wills. If you agree that Pastor is a gift, you can’t turn around and say it’s gender-exclusive. “God can gift a woman to Pastor” and “only men are pastors” are two contradictory statements. It’s the equivalent of saying, “If this, then that”: “If God can gift a woman to Pastor, then a woman can be Pastor.” At that point, male-only interpretations of the Pastorate must go.

Look at 1 Timothy 3:4-5. Verses 4 and 5 both mention one “who rules his own house.” The word for “rule” here is the Greek προϊστάμενον (proistamenon) meaning “stand over” or “stand above.” The person that “rules” his or her own home is one who guards and watches over his or her home, the person who oversees the affairs of the home. Now some would say here, “Well, only men can rule the home,” but again, that would be incorrect. Within the Greek here in 1 Timothy, women are given a rather commendable response by Paul.

Women called overseers of the home in 1 Timothy 5

11 But refuse the younger widows; for when they have begun to grow wanton against Christ, they desire to marry, 12 having condemnation because they have cast off their first faith. 13 And besides they learn to be idle, wandering about from house to house, and not only idle but also gossips and busybodies, saying things which they ought not. 14 Therefore I desire that the younger widows marry, bear children, manage the house, give no opportunity to the adversary to speak reproachfully. 15 For some have already turned aside after Satan. 16 If any believing man or woman has widows, let them relieve them, and do not let the church be burdened, that it may relieve those who are really widows. (1 Timothy 5:11-16)

In 1 Timothy 5:14, Paul says he desires that the younger widows (that is, those under the age of 60, see 1 Timothy 5:9) would marry again, bear children, and “manage the home.” The Greek word for “manage the home” here in 1 Timothy 5:14 is oikodespotein. This word consists of two Greek words: oikos (home) and despotein (to rule as a despot). The word oikodespotein is a word that means “to be master (or head) of a home,” “to rule a household, manage family affairs,” “to rule a family,” and so on. Keep in mind that Paul uses this word, to be despot of the home, as an adjective for women, widows, not men, which means that the idea that only men can be the head of a home and “rule” the home is false. Women can head up the home and oversee home affairs as well; otherwise, why would God give the man a “help mate” in the first place?

Oikodespotes in the New Testament

The word oikodespotein in 1 Timothy 5:14 is found in a few other places in the New Testament: in Matthew 10:25, where Jesus refers to Himself as “master of the house” (Greek οἰκοδεσπότην); in Matthew 13:27, referring to the owner of the land or vineyard (Greek οἰκοδεσπότου) who sees the wheat and tares growing together; In Matthew 13:52, the word οἰκοδεσπότῃ refers to “householder,” as the NKJV translates it, or the master of a house; in Matthew 20:11, referring to a landowner in Jesus’ parable (Greek οἰκοδεσπότου); Matthew 21:33, referring to a landowner (Greek, οἰκοδεσπότης); Matthew 24:43, in reference to the master of a house who would prepare himself if he knew a thief would come (referring to the coming of the Lord as “a thief in the night,” to use Paul’s words; Greek οἰκοδεσπότης).

In Mark 14:14, the word οἰκοδεσπότῃ refers to the master of the house by which the Lord Jesus sends His disciples to go and prepare the Passover feast. Other references are Luke 12:39, Luke 13:25, and Luke 14:21.

So, the idea of “rule over” doesn’t just apply to men but to women as well. With that said, men and women can serve in the office as Pastor, and “Pastor” isn’t relegated to males alone.

Ruling the home and versus caring for the house of God

Now, let’s look at the remainder of 1 Timothy 3. We’ve seen that males and females can “rule” over their homes, but what about the house of God? Well, male headship can’t exist in the church if both men and women can be over and rule the home, because that would prove contradictory and female-exclusive. The text, however, comes to confirm what we’ve already established: no human rules the house of God but instead “cares for” it (1 Timothy 3:5). The NKJV translates the verb as “take care,” the Greek verb ἐπιμελήσεται (epimelesetai). While the male and female “rule” their home(s), they do not rule the house of God, but instead, care for it, tend it, as Adam tended the Garden of Eden back in Genesis. So, with that said, while we recognize humans as “leaders” in the church, including Pastors, they are not the heads of the church.

And this goes into the issue of male headship. Nowhere in the text do we see men ruling in the church or being the head of the church. Christ is the Head of the Church, as Paul writes:

22 Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. 23 For the husband is head of the wife, as also Christ is head of the church; and He is the Savior of the body. 24 Therefore, just as the church is subject to Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in everything. (Ephesians 5:22-24)

18 And He is the head of the body, the church, who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in all things He may have the preeminence. (Colossians 1:18)

Christ is clearly stated as the head of the church in both Ephesians 5:23 and Colossians 1:18. In other words, the marriage between man and woman is not the starting point; rather, Christ and the Church, the marriage of the Bridegroom and the Bride, is the starting point for how we see church life and marriage life. Christ rules over the church because He is its Head, not the male. Thus, men don’t rule the house of God, which means that we can’t approach the home and church for males in the same way. There is an unequal relationship: males don’t rule the house of God, though they rule their own house. Women are also oikodespotes, despots of the home (which implies tyrannical rule, even), but they don’t rule over the house of God, either.

So, with that said, let’s return to the question above: “If males are the head of the home, how can women lead in the church?” To ask this question is to ask a question that assumes something that isn’t true: that is, that males rule over the church. Males do not rule over the church, anymore than females do. It would be the equivalent of asking, “If males rule the home, then how can they not rule at their job?” when they work under a CEO or boss(es). They can rule at home and be subordinate at their jobs without any conflict or tension.


We’ve taken time here to examine the idea of Christ as the Head of the Church, and the fact that Pastors and Deacons within the Body of Christ are servants, not “heads” of the Church, as a result.

We’ve also seen that the word Paul uses to women for young widows to “manage the home” is the word oikodespotein, meaning “to rule over” or “be the master of” the home. Paul’s use of this in 1 Timothy 5:14 shows that Paul viewed women eligible for the offices of Pastor and Deacons in the church because they, like their husbands, oversee the home – and their children must be in subjection to them (mothers) as they are to their fathers. Paul’s addition of women deacons in 1 Timothy 3 shows that Paul views women as eligible for church offices as men. No, Paul wasn’t a misogynist.