The following is the fourth post in a series of eight posts exploring the beauty of gender from a biblical perspective. Read the first post, Gender Matters: Part 1 — The Beautiful Difference.

As we now move into the Bible’s message of Difference and Equality for understanding our relationships as men and women, it will be important for us to get a clear sight of the question before us. For many the gender conversation comes down to behaviors of authority and submission and then centers primarily around the questions of “Who’s in charge?” and “Who’s allowed to do what?” [1] In this and the following post, I want to suggest that while the two concepts of authority and submission do capture the root of the Bible’s account of the Beautiful Difference behaviors, questions like these horribly truncate and distort the message and manner — the what and the how — of that account. We’ll consider the how first.

Authority and Gender Difference: The How

As any sensitive reader of Scripture knows, faithful interpretation is not only a matter of whether something is in the Bible, it is also a matter of how it’s there. Attaining Scripture’s “mind” about something — the goal of being “biblical” — is a matter of both. For the Beautiful Difference of gender, it is important to see the leading idea in the Bible is not the exercise of rights and role — as in “Who’s in charge?” — but collaboration, unity and interdependence.[2] Authority and submission, structure and order, is part of the picture no doubt, but the dominant gender behavior lens in the Bible is like what we see in Paul’s greetings of the final chapter of Romans: Nearly half of those noted and praised are women; there’s Tryphaena and Tryphosa, “workers in the Lord;” Mary, “who has worked hard for you;” Prisca, who with her husband risked her life for Paul, hosts a house church, and is known among the churches of the Gentiles; and Phoebe, a deaconess in the church of Cenchrae.[3]

Even when Paul takes his readers back to Genesis to justify his account of gender differences, like in 1 Cor. 11, the asymmetries he brings up about origins (11:12) and calling (11:9) quickly resolve in a bigger vision of interdependence: “in the Lord woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman.” So also to the Ephesians the differences he strikes for husbands and wives in marriage (5:22–25) all appear as applications of the general and deeply Gospel call to self-denial (5:21). Thus, men and women differentiate in the way each is uniquely called to die to self, but it’s all within this broader picture of inclusive, collaborative, laboring together.[4]

The note of union in diversity that Paul strikes continues the story begun with Adam and Eve. While both hear and occupy the same status as stewards of God and rulers of creation, they each grasp that status differently for the sake of relationship with the other and, ultimately, the kingdom task itself. Equal yes, different, yes, but united and needing relationship with the other for the task ahead, absolutely yes. And thus, while there is an ordered “structure” to their own relationship that Paul will leverage from the order of their creation (“Adam was created first,” 1 Tim. 2:13), their origin (“man did not come from woman…” 1 Cor. 11:8), and calling (“neither was man created for the sake of women...” 1 Cor. 11:9)[5], it is all tied off at the end of Genesis chapter two with a picture of two differently endowed allies moving hand-in-hand out into God’s drama.[6]

Authority and Gender Difference: The What

Only within this general context of relationship and equality can we pursue the Bible’s Beautiful Difference of authority and submission. Without it the gender conversation too easily devolves into questions of rights and roles where authority is all about power wielded by a self-centered superior over an unfortunate inferior.[7] Nothing could be further from the biblical picture. To start, in the Bible power is always to be exercised for the good of others — where the “good” is defined by God Himself.[8] Such an understanding is what makes Scripture really patricentric and not patriarchal.[9] It’s what makes the asymmetrical submission of the wife and the husband’s title as “head” something divinely ordained.[10] It’s what Jesus showed us with his own life: Authority is based in service to those led, rather than the privilege for the one who leads (Matt. 20:28). So, as the apostle tells us, like Christ, the husband’s sacrificial love means care for his wife as he would for his own body (Eph. 5:23, 25, 29). He takes responsibility for securing his bride from all external and internal threats to their relationship and mission together.[11] It means providing for every measure of her flourishing in her calling, even at his own expense. His chief aim toward her is that she knows him as worthy of her love and wooing of her allegiance through selfless doing her good.[12]

When we find this pattern of authority in its purely human dimensions — Jesus is also God and so the parallel with earthly husbands thins out accordingly — the larger context of union, inclusion, interdependence we began with comes into focus. We see that the husband’s responsibilities and commissions are not levied unilaterally, but in collaboration with his necessary and powerful ally. Such collaboration translates the Beautiful Difference into a leadership that takes initiative for the well-being of their union where he is the first to reconcile, the first to offer grace, and the first to forgive. It also translates into his taking initiative to raise issues for their joint deliberation and then his taking on the enforcement of their processing together. The picture leaves little place for a top-down, military style, order-and-obey dynamic between the two of them — for that’s not how allies relate! It also does not allow him unqualified authority over everything in his and his wife’s life.[13]

The Great Invitation from God for a gender complementarity, where difference improves and emphasizes the difference of the other,[14] provides a unique vision of authority. It is not about privilege, but responsibility to bless.[15] It’s authority that submits itself to the flourishing of others. Further, it is authority that is deeply embedded in the mutuality and interdependence of truly equal co-laborers in God’s kingdom. In the next post we consider the equally unique counterpart to this “authority” in the Bible’s picture of a powerful submission.


[1] Egalitarians place the center of their difference with Complementarians around whether or not men and women “share authority equally in service and leadership in the home, church and world.” See the statement of Christians for Biblical Equality.

[2] Michelle Lee-Barnewall (Neither Complementarian or Egalitarian: A Kingdom Corrective to the Evangelical Gender Debate [Grand Rapids: Baker, 2016]) and Rachel Green Miller (Beyond Authority and Submission: Women and Men in Marriage, Church and Society [Philipsburg, PA: P&R, 2019]), are complementarians that share a similar burden as I do here.

[3] Phoebe as occupying the office of deacon(ess) is tentative because the word used, diakonos, also has a general meaning that is applied to others not usually thought of as formal deacons (Epaphras, Col 1:7, and Timothy, 1 Tim 4:6). Regardless, her ministry (diakonia) in the church of Rome is noteworthy for Paul.

[4] Sam Andreades, EnGendered: God’s Gift of Gender Difference in Relationship (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2015), 118.

[5] The androcentric focus of the of the creation narrative is unavoidable and noted by the OT scholar, D. G. A. Clines (What Does Eve Do to Help? And Other Readerly Questions to the Old Testament, JSOTSup 94 [Sheffield, UK: JSOT Press, 1990], chapter 1: “What Does Eve Do to Help? And Other Irredeemably Androcentric Orientations in Gen 1–3”).

[6] The notion of allies comes from the meaning of Eve’s description as Adam’s ‘ezer kenegdo in Gen 2:18 (John McKinley, “Necessary Allies: God as Ezer, Woman as Ezer,” unpublished presentation at the annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, November 18, 2015, cf. also, Daniel I. Block, “Marriage and Family in Ancient Israel, in Marriage and Family in the Biblical World, ed. Ken M. Campbell [Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2003], 65).

[7] Katie McCoy captures the stakes for getting this right: “To the degree that we neglect to describe the male-female relationship as a communion of persons that is prior or disproportionate to gender roles, we perpetuate the misconception that Scripture confines women to an inferior status” (“Recovering the Communion of Persons,” Eikon 2 [2019], 59).

[8] All biblical notions of power and authority start with God, as Miller rightly observes (Beyond Authority and Submission, 22–23).

[9] Patricentrism: “The normative Israelite view of “headship” (rō’s) always placed the well-being of those under the leader’s authority ahead of the leader’s own well-being” (Block, “Family in Ancient Israel,” 65). Patriarchy, which denotes self-centered and abusive “rule” by husbands and fathers, is a degenerate result of the fall as per Gen 3:16, and not the biblical norm (Ibid.).

[10] Even within the context of “mutual” submission, only the wife is explicitly called to submit to her husband in the NT. The much-contested debate over the meaning of kephalē, head, in the NT still leaves submission as the calling of the wife (Eph 5:22).

[11] This is the effect of Christ’s headship in Ephesians. As kephalē of the church, Christ also has authority over all demonic forces threatening her (Eph 1:20–22).

[12] Michelle Lee-Barnewall shows that “head” in Scripture entails also the provision of emotional warmth and intimacy (Neither Complementarian nor Egalitarian, 162–163). John Coe refers to this as a function of masculine ‘with-ness’ a wife should experience from her husband (“Being Faithful to Christ in One’s Gender,” in Women and Men in Ministry [Moody, 2001], 85–228). Andreades speaks of the husband provision of “belonging” to Eve from Gen 2:23 (EnGendered, 70–75).

[13] For example, the wife’s calling to submit to her husband “in everything” (Eph 5:24) still needs to fit with the authority she has to his body, same as he has to hers (1 Cor 7:4). The biblical picture of authority in marriage does not extend to matters of personal preference according to Steven Tracey (“What Does “Submit in Everything” Really Mean? The Nature and Scope of Submission,” TRINJ 29NS [2008], 285-312).

[14] The dictionary definition of complementarity.

[15] Craig Blomberg, “Women in Ministry: A Complementarían Perspective," in Two Views on Women in Ministry (rev. ed.; ed. James R. Beck and Stanley N. Gundry; Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005), 174-75.