Can a woman have a position of authority over a man outside the context of a church?

Questions about God, the Bible and the Christian culture 

Question: Can a woman have a position of authority over a man outside the context of a church? 

Answer: Greetings friend. I will be happy to discuss such a hot topic with you, but let me be clear right up front: this is a tertiary biblical issue. As such, the Bible does not weigh-in directly. We do have some data, though, and the issue is definitely worth discussing... but why as tertiary?

You are querying about women outside the church. Even if we were talking about women inside the church, that would be a secondary issue. Unfortunately, the further away an issue is from the core of Christianity, the more Christians fight over it… and the more we fight over something, the less we look like Christ — and that is a primary issue. So, let us explore this topic — but with meekness.

The following is a statement from Got Questions Ministries concerning its position on a woman’s authority within the church. In my opinion, this is the position of most conservative organizations:

“God has ordained that only men are to serve in positions of spiritual teaching authority in the church. This is not because men are necessarily better teachers, or because women are inferior or less intelligent (which is not the case). It is simply the way God designed the church to function. Men are to set the example in spiritual leadership—in their lives and through their words. Women are to take a less authoritative role. (Emphasis mine).


But you have asked us to address women in authority who are outside the context of the church. To do this we will have to imagine a few scenarios because the categories of people in various relationships can vary.

First scenario: Outside of the church, within the Christian home, and all the persons are Christians.

Men should set the example of spiritual leadership in the home as well as in the church (Ephesians 5:22-33). Part of this responsibility is that they should be known as the judical head of the home… whether or not they perform the functions usually associated with official headship. For example, if a wife has advanced bookkeeping skills and a clear vision of financial management while the husband lacks both, there is no problem if she “steers” the family (that is, she has apparent authority), even though this task is usually associated with the administrative head of the home. What is critical in these relationships is that the husband and wife have agreed to that division of duties and that the wife did not usurp that position. With this in place, then there is no challenge to the husband’s judical headship, and the household will likely prosper under the wife’s skilled management.

Although this type of arrangement could work well in a family, it might be more trouble than it was worth inside the church. Because, even if the judical headship was officially maintained in the pastorate, the appearance of headship can have the power of de facto headship. So, what works within the Christian home will not necessarily translate within the Christian Church.

Second scenario: Outside the church, at the workplace where the subordinate is a Christian man and his boss is a non-believing woman.

When in doubt, be like the Christ. Jesus said of himself (and showed of himself) that he was a servant (Matthew 20:28). You will never go wrong by serving your boss in meekness and with good cheer. Although it is true that a Christian man must always represent Christ as the head of the Church, he can never do this by donning a crown, sitting around and reigning. Instead, the ethic is this: a worker must satisfy his immediate situation unless doing so would put him in direct and overt opposition to God. Subordinating oneself to a woman of worldly authority as part of one’s normal livelihood is neither a social nor a biblical crisis for a Christian male. Besides, part of his testimony is to be a good and cooperative worker — one who is not easily offended (1 Corinthians 13:5).

If you find yourself vibrating with anxiety over this, just think of Joseph in Egypt or Daniel in Babylon. They both worked for pagans! And they both worked for them so well that they were promoted to the top management positions in those nations. They had pagan kings above them and many little pagans below them — they were a thin slice of God in the middle of a pagan sandwich — which sounds horrifying! But look how God was glorified by their lives! If you find yourself stuck in a work situation that is other than God’s ideal design, just do the best job you can where you are (Colossians 3:23). If God wants you to protest, he will tell you. In the meantime, he wants you to keep your job.

Third scenario: Outside the church, at a workplace where the subordinate is a Christian man and the boss is a Christian woman.

This one is actually tougher than the previous because both parties (if they are knowledgeable Christians) would be informed concerning the headship of Christ as it relates to the gender roles in Christianity, yet there would be a Christian woman in authority over a Christian man. This might make them both wiggle a bit (and especially if they went to the same church and knew each other there), but here, too, the work ethic applies. Workers must satisfy the immediate situation unless it directly and overtly opposes God. But in this scenario, both parties would have to do this. The Christian female supervisor would have to perform her duties wholeheartedly as part of her Christian testimony — even if she felt awkward doing so. Again, this would be neither a social nor a biblical crisis for either party.

The world is full of women who are smarter, better educated and better managers than the majority of men that surround them. These should advance beyond their peers of any gender whether or not they are Christians. If, however, such advancement caused evil pride to grow within the heart, this would be a sin… the pride would be... not the position. And this would be true also for a man.

Fourth scenario: outside the church, outside the home, during daily activities where Christians might meet one another while among the people of the world.

I believe in the Trinity. This is important to me… and it is important to God! But when I’m in the grocery store, people cannot tell this by looking at me. In like manner, a person may subscribe to male headship as being reflective of Christ, but out in the world, people cannot tell by looking at her. But, when a woman talks about a Christian man and tears him down in front of either a believer or nonbeliever, she has offended the idea of male authority in the Church — and she has done so in the public square! This is an insult to Jesus Christ.

Another scenario is having to introduce Christian friends to non-Christian friends. Are these introductions uplifting for both parties, deferential to everyone’s position and followed up kindly thereafter? They should be. As you can see, the issue can sneak up on us in places that we might not expect. This is why doctrine is important to daily life; only what is on the inside can sneak through to the outside. Hopefully, it is the right stuff — and it radiates! But too often, it is the wrong stuff… and it oozes. The question is, how should one represent the Christ: as a sunbeam or an oil slick? I ask because, either way, he will be known.

Let me close by sharing a Bible passage which (in my opinion) speaks globally, that is, within and without of the church, concerning male authority.

“I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.” (1 Timothy 2:12–14, ESV)

In the above passage, Paul was writing under the influence of his culture (and indeed, no writer escapes this). Also, he was writing to Timothy concerning local assemblies. These factors seem to restrict his audience. But when he invoked the order of creation to connect the primacy of Adam to male headship, he stepped outside of time-and-place and addressed the whole of humanity — both inside and outside the church. In my opinion, this teaches that we all will be “stuck” with the necessity of males reflecting the headship of Christ until Christ comes back. Why until then? Because when we have Jesus physically in our midst again, we will be like the daytime moon: present and still reflecting... but no longer lighting the way.

Now, the world at large does not want to honor biblical male primacy… but it does… just take a sampling. It is a man’s world — but not because men are good, better or best when compared to women; it is a man’s world because of sin — and the sin problem will not be totally fixed until Christ comes again. When Christ returns, he will redeem the world, and he will execute his final judgment on sin (Revelation 11:18). Only then will women will be freed from the effects of Eve’s fall. Only then will men be off the hook.

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