Male-Only Church Leadership: Blessing or Curse?


In these discussions on women’s roles in church leadership, a favorite little one-off argument by Egalitarians (and a pretty darn good sound bite) is that the very idea of exclusive male headship is part of the curse laid upon humans in the Genesis Eden story. In Genesis 3, this is what God speaks over the woman as a curse in response to her sin:

“I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children, yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.”

I’ll be honest with you. I haven’t done the research on the Hebrew or scholarship on those lines to know exactly what these lines really might mean.

Honestly, both sides could use them. Conservatives could say that the curse is that women will desire the authority that God rightfully gave men. Egalitarians would say that man’s “rule” over women is the curse.

First, my intuition is that this has little to do with modern discussions of gender politics. Secondly, I don’t think the Genesis story is meant to be interpreted or applied or treated in this way. I simply don’t think that the intent of the authors had anything specific to do with whether women should or should not serve formal, ordained, leadership roles in the church.

I was recently listening to a debate done on a British radio show between a Southern Baptist preacher, and a popular Egalitarian writer (both Americans). During this debate, the Egalitarian woman mentioned that hierarchy and gender-based headship was part of the curse of the Fall, and we now live in light of the resurrection. (I’ve made a similar argument before.)

The conservative guy actually let out a laugh and said “Pain in childbirth was part of the curse also! Does that mean childbirth is sin also?” And the moderator moved the discussion along, not giving the woman a chance to respond. I became quite frustrated at this exchange and thought a lot about it afterward.

So let’s look at this. Is male-only ordination a blessing, or a curse? What, if anything might the Genesis “curse” have to say abut male-female leadership positions?

In both Genesis Creation stories, God gives commands to humans. For millennia now, God’s people have believed that these commands are woven into the very fabric of life; to move with these rhythms is to flourish, and to move against them is to diminish one’s very humanity.

From these commands, we can see that flourishing human life is to do and live, together (with one another and God).

(For more on this, see the footnote below)

The “curse”, then, is not about bringing things into the world that were not there before (like work, childbirth, male leadership, or even artificial gender-based hierarchy). It’s about watching a rebellion take place against the truly “natural” way of doing these things.

So being fruitful and multiplying has pain. When trying to subdue the earth, it fights back. And now, male/female relations have deep dysfunction added to them.

The Conservative guy in the debate was wrong in his application of the principle the Egalitarian was talking about. The curse didn’t bring childbirth, it brought pain to it. It didn’t bring work, but brought difficulty to it. And similarly, the curse didn’t create male/female relationships, but instead brought disorder to them.

I wouldn’t say that God imposed gender-based role hierarchy as part of the curse. I also won’t go so far as to say that complementarians are living in “Fall-induced sin”. But still, it’s interesting that in a passage where the writer seems to be talking about what rebellion against the intended order of things looks like, he says “[the man] shall rule over you.”

I would argue, then, that humanity’s natural and historical tendency and drift toward male-headed hierarchy is not representative of the “natural” rhythms in which life was meant to move. It’s actually a symptom of our deep “bent” away from our greatest and deepest flourishing as humans made in the image of God.

Male-only eldership and ordained church leadership, I think, is not a blessing to the church or the world. Rather, it’s a sign of the rebellion of our hearts that makes all the more difficult (and unnecessarily so) the good and glorious work God has for us to do together. With him. And with one another.


It’s generally understood that there are two separate Creation stories in Genesis, one in Chapter 1 and another that begins in Chapter 2. Each story gives a different (complimentary) perspective on what human life on earth is to look like when lived in line with God.

Chapter 1 is “task-oriented”. Here, you see Elohim give three main calls to the two ordained “priests” of his “temple-garden”: (1) be fruitful and multiply, (2) fill the earth, and (3) subdue the earth.

Chapter 2 is “life-oriented”. Yahweh’s only “commands” to humanity is (1) to feel free to eat from all the trees of the garden, and (2) don’t eat from that one particular fateful tree. And why shouldn’t they eat of it? Because they’ll “die”–which ends up meaning alienation from the good (God) and acquaintance with the bad (shame and guilt). And so, in a sense, his command is to “not die”, or “live”.

But there’s another assumption here that none of these “commands” can be accomplished apart from being in relationship with one another and God.


9 thoughts on “Male-Only Church Leadership: Blessing or Curse?

  1. For what it’s worth, and trust me, I’m mulling on this for the rest of the day, I don’t think _most_ complementarians would use this passage as their foundation for complementarity. Perhaps I need to do some more secondary source reading to find out if that’s true (it’s certainly not at ALL where I would go or probably even consider). I’ve seen, as you said, this argument far more from the egalitarian side. It should be engaged, though, you’re right, and it should be be done thoughtfully from both sides. Thanks again, Paul. Really. You’re one of the finest thinkers on my blog-roll and consistently challenging.


  2. I don’t want to keep leaving sporadic comments throughout the day, but one more for now: I don’t know that the conclusion you’re coming to would be that much different than the conclusion most of us complementarians would come to. Of course we all understand that it’s the _pain_ that is the curse, and not the childbirth. However, does that means that all instances in which a woman ought to submit, or ought not be in leadership over a man, are indicative of the curse? I don’t think so. I think there’s a difference between the curse and ordained order. I think you and I have talked about this before though (re: leadership in the home vs leadership in the church).

    Okay. I’m back to work. Not paying any attention to this at all for the rest of the day… 😉


  3. If the women are living biblically and are being silent in church then it is undeniable that having men in leadership positions will be a blessing because it would be really hard for the women to lead while being silent. Everyone might have to learn sign-language.


  4. Pingback: Women’s Ordination is indeed the end of the world | the long way home

  5. wouldn’t it be easier to just say Paul got this one wrong in 1 Timothy 2? if you have to have your female pastors, just say that Paul was wrong. it’s a lot easier. unless you want to hold on to inerrancy.


    • I don’t these kinds of polarities really exhibit a whole lot of respect for the Scriptures, desire to hear them on their “original soil,” or nuance how the Church ought to press the same Gospel Paul proclaimed into the varied contexts we live in. I think that reverencing Scripture w/ humility means that we’ll always be eager to better understand what it was saying to people in the ancient world, so that we can hear how the Gospel addresses us here and now. I don’t think the posture I hear you taking helps people to do this.


      • key phrase: “SAME gospel”
        you’re not pressing the same gospel Paul preached if you deny what Paul SAID. (note: im not saying you’ve denied the essential aspects for salvation)

        yes, part of ‘pressing the gospel’ into new cultures is affirming common grace everywhere we find it.

        but part of ‘pressing the gospel’ is CHALLENGING culture where it is WRONG (such as extreme western feminism).

        how many prominent, orthodox exegetes can you name from the first 1900 years of the church who said women can be pastors? i seriously want to hear them.

        i made my point, because Doug Green talks about scholars who, when they decided they thought women should be elders, have simply moved to denying inerrancy, because they cannot get around the clear creation-based commands of 1 Timothy 2.


        • also. basics of ‘original soil.’
          the NT writers wrote with PRESUPPOSITIONS that they were writing INSPIRED scripture.
          -they PRESUPPOSED ‘they had the keys to the kingdom of heaven’ as apostles
          -they PRESUPPOSED ‘the Spirit will lead you into all truth’

          -they PRESUPPOSED that ‘the wisdom of God is foolishness to man’ and were not concerned with capitulating to cultural pressures of their day (but instead sought to love their neighbor by both affirming common grace and challenging pagan worldviews such as modern feminism today)


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