Paul’s Masculine and Feminine Leadership

Margaret Mowczko


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Paul Mas Fem (1)

Some Christians believe that being a leader is a man’s role and that it is unfeminine for women to be in leadership.[1]  These Christians dismiss female leaders mentioned in the Bible as rare exceptions and anomalies.[2]  They maintain that God does not generally allow women to be leaders in society, in the church, or even in their own homes.

Does the Bible teach that leadership is masculine?  Or that leadership is unfeminine?

The Apostle Paul was an influential church leader.  Interestingly, in 1 Thessalonians 2:7, Paul describes his apostolic ministry (and that of his colleagues)  using the metaphor of a woman breastfeeding her infant children.

As apostles of Christ we could have been a burden to you, but we were gentle [3] among you, as a nurse [i.e. a breast-feeding woman] cherishes her own children. 1 Thessalonians 2:7 

Few images could be more womanly than a mother breastfeeding her baby, yet Paul states here that he ministered in ways that he himself identified with womanhood.

One of the greatest leaders in the Bible was Moses Moses’ complaint to God in Numbers 11:12 indicates that God wanted Moses to lead in a maternal way:

Did I conceive all these people? Did I give them birth? Why do you tell me to carry them in my arms, as a nurse [i.e. a breast feeding woman] carries an infant, to the land you promised on oath to their ancestors? Numbers 11:12 

From Moses’ words, we can see that God does not necessarily associate leadership with masculinity; and that God did not want his people to be led in a purely paternal or masculine manner. In fact, God describes himself using maternal metaphors in the Old Testament; as did Jesus in the New Testament (Mat 23:7Luke 13:34).

After describing his ministry in maternal terms in 1 Thessalonians 2:7, Paul goes on to speak about his ministry using the metaphor of a father.

For you know that we dealt with you as a father deals with his own children, encouragingcomforting and urging you to live lives worthy of God . . . 1 Thessalonians 2:11-12a 

If Paul, as a man, can lead and minister in both a motherly and fatherly manner, does it seem unreasonable to suggest that some women can lead and minister in both a motherly and fatherly manner?  Is it only fatherly men who can encourage and comfort believers and urge them to live lives worthy of God?

Generally speaking, men and women are different, and they tend to have different leadership styles.  While there are many exceptions to these generalizations, women tend to be more relational, collaborative, and flexible in their leadership than many male leaders.  They also tend to be more sensitive, intuitive, and nurturing in their dealings with people.  These qualities are considered advantageous in leaders within post-modern society; especially when leading and mentoring people belonging to Generation Y.

Many women leaders have also demonstrated that they can be assertive and goal-oriented; qualities often associated with male leaders.  Moreover, women have shown that they can be successful, effective leaders without necessarily compromising or losing their femininity (which seems to be a concern for some.) [4]

The church needs spiritual fathers and mothers in leadership.  Just as families benefit when they are led by both a father and a mother, churches benefit when they are led by gifted and called men and women, who are able to minister according to their gifts and abilities and are not constrained by traditional gender roles.


[1] Complementarians are Christians who believe that the Bible teaches that only men can be leaders.  They have very narrow and rigid ideas of leadership which do not allow for feminine expressions.   Leading complementarian John Piper believes that all men are designed by God to be leaders; and that all women are designed by God to be submissive followers of all “worthy” men.  (John Piper and Wayne Grudem (editors), Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, Westchester, Il: Crossway Books, 2006.)  Yet, while insisting that leadership is a masculine trait, complementarians do not seem to have a problem with women who lead (or teach)  women or children. (Read more on the illogical reasoning of that position here.)

[2] Deborah is just one of several notable women leaders mentioned in the Bible.  At some point in Israel’s history, Deborah was their leader.  Judges chapters 4 and 5 record Deborah’s leadership and do not mention that there was anything peculiar about her being a leader and a woman.  In fact, her gender does not seem to have been an issue at all.  Deborah was an excellent leader.  She was a prophetess, a judge, and a military leader.  In comparison with other leaders (judges) mentioned in the book of Judges, there are no negative words about Deborah; yet complementarians still assert that leadership is for men only. (There is no hint in Judges that Deborah became a leader because there were no men capable of the task.)  [More about Deborah and other Bible women with spiritual authority here and  here.]

[3] The earliest Greek manuscripts of 1 Thessalonians 2:7 have that the apostles became “infant children” nēpioi, rather than “gentle” ēpioi.  (Epioimay may be translated as gentle, mild or kind, etc.) The NIV (2011) translates 1 Thessalonians 2:6-8 as: 6 We were not looking for praise from people, not from you or anyone else, even though as apostles of Christ we could have asserted our authority. 7 Instead, we were like young children (nepioi) among you. Just as a nursing mother cares for her children, 8 so we cared for you. Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well.

[4] Because complementarians regard leadership as a masculine domain, they are concerned that women who lead will lose their femininity.  However, women frequently engage in activities that do not enhance their femininity.  What is so feminine about vacuuming carpets, carrying baskets of wet washing, cleaning toilets, or the numerous other domestic chores which the complementarians have no issue with?

Adapted from the original article on Marg’s website

Graphic credit: iStock photo and Kate Hickman.

Margaret Mowczko

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  • I was researching some of Daniel Kirk’s writing for another article when I came across this, which fits so well here!

    “So when Paul says that he and his fellow apostles were present among the Thessalonians like a nurse or mother, perhaps we should understand that there is something distinctly “feminine” about leading the church of God. And, that this femininity is part of what it means to bear the image of God and manifest the presence of Christ.”

    Here’s the link if you want to read more. This is such an important issue for leaders to talk about!

  • Marg, such a clear thinking expose of the issues to do with male and female leader even just from a good sense perspective.

    I know from personal experience that what you say is true. My husband and I are both leaders in church contexts and while I tend to be more intuitive and collaborative, I am also tougher in my leadership style. My husband’s fatherliness is greatly appreciated by all those who work within our context and between the two of us, we cover more than 50% of leadership qualities each.

    Regarding point 4, women in developing countries do a huge amount of what we would not consider as feminine – they do 80% of the farming, walking several miles a day to find fuel and water, feeding animals, etc. and women begin these tasks early in their lives.

    The issues cited by so many complementarians do not hold up to the experience of most of the world. And honestly, why are guys so concerned about us protecting our femininity? To serve their own ends, obviously.

    Great post once again, Marg. Thanks.

  • I preached on Deborah at my church just yesterday. I think the complementarians are hard-pressed to find any of their views. The Bible clearly does not support them and even speaks against such viewpoints. I go to a Foursquare church. One of the pastors is a woman and we have a woman on the board too.

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