The following is the second 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. Read the second post, Gender Matters: Part 2 — The Body of Gender. Read the third post, Gender Matters: Part 3 — The Great Invitation. Read the fourth post, Gender Matters: Part 4 — Authority that Submits. Read the fifth post, Gender Matters: Part 5 — Submission from Authority.

Just what is the church anyway? The question has rolled around in history for more than 2,000 years now with (mistaken) answers like a building of worship, the kingdom of God or the soul of the state [1]. One of the ways the Bible answers our question is through images, or metaphors. By one count there are more than 80 (!) such images to help us — images like, body, flock, temple, or vineyard [2]. In this post we’re going to explore the most prominent of the metaphors for the church — addressing also the question of whether it is even a metaphor at all — and will seek to draw out what this discussion means for understanding what it is to live out our gender in community. We can only offer a sketch as the issues and applications are myriad.

It’s about family, and that means gender, too.

Family — namely, God’s family — is how the New Testament most profoundly identifies the church. Even though “body of Christ” has more explicit references, the totality of family terminology — like household, father, brother, and sister (John 1:12, Eph. 3:14–15, Col. 1:2; Rom. 16:1) — and family concepts like adoption and inheritance (Eph. 1:5, Rom. 8:17, Gal. 4:7), mean that family holds the pride of place as the most significant picture of all [3]. But, unlike other images, family is more than a mere metaphor, too. This is because God really is the believer’s Heavenly Father (1 John 3:1). Jesus really is God’s eternal Son and our brother (Rom. 8:29), and we really are spiritual brothers, sisters, mothers and children to other believers (Mark 10:29–30).

The family-reality of the church gives important context to what we see in the New Testament. Through its lens the church emerges as a community of growth, safety, nurture and sharing (koinonia) for its members. It’s also a place where we live into the Beautiful Difference and Beautiful Equality of gender relationships, like we do with our kinship family. Our interactions to one another in the church assume our sexual and gender differences as Paul says in 1 Timothy 5:1–2: “Do not rebuke an older man but encourage him as you would a father, younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, younger women as sisters, in all purity” [4]. This is why it is not by accident that the gender behaviors applied in the church in the New Testament are supported with the same appeals to God’s created design (order, origin and calling) that we saw for the husband and wife. It’s because the elder has the responsibility of the “one created first” that Paul reserves this fathering-behavior for the men in the community (1 Tim. 2) [5]. Similarly, it’s the woman’s created “for-ness” toward her man and the man’s calling as the responsible head that Paul circumscribes the gender behavior within community worship gatherings in Corinth (1 Cor. 11 and 14) [6].

The church, then, has an internal structure where the Beautiful Difference of gender behaviors matter and look like they do in a family [7]. There are differences, of course: (1) the submission response wives offer their husbands is enjoined of both men and women in the church toward their pastors (see Heb. 13:17), and (2) “ordering under” is not a requisite response of every woman in the community to every man [8]! But it is clear that like a family, spiritual fathering in the church is not interchangeable with spiritual mothering. In the New Testament, spiritual fathers (i.e., elders, bishops, or pastors) are charged with the securing and protecting responsibility for the church’s identity that the New Testament associates with faithfulness to the Gospel in their life and teaching [9]. Like our kinship families, men are the ones accountable to God for the welfare and Gospel-atmosphere of the church family.

Not a single-parent, father-only family, either.

This responsibility does not mean the men “do church” alone, however. For the church as family not only allocates male responsibility, it also requires the voice of their necessary, powerful allies, the spiritual women. The church family isn’t a single-parent household! Like our families at home where the wife/mother is truly an integral “ally” for everything from the budget to instruction, so the NT picture of the church is first one of collaboration, mutuality, and interdependence of men and women together (see Rom. 16). There is structure and order, yes, but great care must be taken so that male responsibility doesn’t get stuck in the bog of “male culture.” That will mean, among other things, resisting the culture’s pressure for the church to take on a corporate identity where elders look like CEOs and body life presents as “top down” and male-dominated. Such a flawed reality does nothing good for the poor elders, who end up with way more on their plates than they should, or the church, which becomes ruled by values associated with “position, line management, public profile, financial oversight, formal authority, and salary” [10]. Families look and behave differently!

Elders, Deacons AND Deaconesses!

Exploiting the church’s family-identity for women will also mean energizing the church’s diaconate. It’s most unfortunate, but history shows that cultural pressures have pushed this vital ministry into something far different from the function it has in Scripture. What was originally significant as the “catalyst” and “pacemakers” for all the church’s diakonia, the diaconate became truncated into just “serving tables” or what is now seen only as ministry to physical needs [11]. As things evolved, elders answered for the spiritual things like prayer and the Word and deacons the physical. However, as spiritually mature men and women in the church, the deacons were originally commissioned extensions/mediators of the elders in the ministries of the church to itself and the world, including teaching, evangelizing and care for the flock [12]. Women in this role (see 1 Tim. 3:8–11 [13]) provided a formal placeholder for their necessary voice to be heard, honored and esteemed.

The dynamic life of a family, where the primacy of relationship, mutual commitment for the growth, and sacrificial authority all come together is the biblical context for its gender conversations [14]. This is the scaffolding for rich and endless applications, so the next post will press forward with a look at the Beautiful Difference of gender in action.


[1] The church as soul of the State is the view of the eastern Orthodox Church. For a challenging look at the impact of western democratic values on church identity, see John H. Elliot’s “The Jesus Movement was not Egalitarian, but Family-Oriented,” Biblical Interpretation, 11/2 (2003), 173–210.

[2] Paul Minear, Images of the Church in the New Testament (Louisville, KY: Westminster, 2004).

[3] Robert Banks, Paul’s Idea of Community (Peabody, MS: Hendrickson, 1994), 53. Also good here is Joseph Hellerman, When the Church was a Family: Recapturing Jesus' Vision for Authentic Christian Community [Nashville, TN: B & H, 2009]).

[4] Following Jesus in Mark 10:30, John also considers the dimension of spiritual maturity to Scripture’s family terms. There are spiritual fathers, young men, and children in the church (1 John 2:15–17). Spiritual “fathering” is how Paul understood his relationship to the churches he planted (James W. Thompson, The Church According to Paul [Baker, 2014], 226). Unfortunately, this aspect of spiritual maturity is lost when only the equality of siblings (brother-sister) is in view, as, for example: Cynthia Westfall Long, “Male and Female, one in Christ: Galatians 3:26–29,” in Discovering Biblical Equality (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2021), 180.

[5] Paul’s words about Adam as “formed first” should probably be seen as a reference to Adam having the responsibilities of the first born (see Tom Schreiner, “An Interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:9–15: A Dialogue with Scholarship,” in Women in the Church, 3rd ed. [Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2016], 203). The institution of primogeniture is more about responsibility than rights and privileges—something clearer in the ancient world than the modern one according to E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O'Brien, Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Barriers to Better Understand the Bible (Downers Grove: IVP, 2012), 13–14.

[6] 1 Cor 11:4 shows the issue is how wives’ adornment/dress should be consistent with and not contradict the asymmetry of male and female gender Differences in the gatherings of the church. Chapter 14 (vv. 34–36) is probably best taken from the context of judging prophecies as requiring the responsibility of men for defense of the church’s Gospel purity (D. A. Carson, “‘Silent in the Churches’: On the Role of Women in 1 Corinthians 14:33b–36,” in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood [Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2021], 179–198).

[7] Andrew D. Clarke, Serve the Community of the Church: Christians as Leaders and Ministers (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000), 251.

[8] We are all brothers and sisters in the church, not husbands and wives, after all!

[9] The particular teaching activity associated with the elder/bishop/pastor demonstrates this (1 Tim 3:2, Titus 1:9). While everyone in the church is a teacher at some level (Col 3:16), the church’s spiritual fathers teach with final responsibility for the church’s holding to sound doctrine. Their teaching is the final word that defends and secures the flock’s Gospel-identity (William D. Mounce, Pastoral Epistles, WBC 46 [Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000], 124–126). The defending, guarding and even combat role of the spiritual fathers/elders on behalf of the church parallels that of the priest in the Old Testament, which was also the responsibility of men only (See on this Alastair Roberts’ thoughts here).

[10] Andrew Wilson, “The Beautiful Difference.” Wilson also notes how the “church-corporation” makes saying women cannot be elders sound like they cannot be CEOs, when in fact it is really the equivalent of saying women cannot be fathers (and men cannot be mothers)!

[11] Among many, see Jaap van Klinken, Diakonia: Mutual Helping with Justice and Compassion (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1989), and John McKinley, “The Ministry of Women and the Meaning of Deacons in the Church,” Doon Theological Journal 12 (2015): 181–198.

[12] For more on deacons/deaconesses’ relationship to the elders, see Greg R. Allison, Sojourners and Strangers: The Doctrine of the Church (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 247. Even as commissioned mediators of the elders, the teaching ministry of the deacon and deaconess does not have the “fathering” level authority of the elder in the church family. See note 9 above.

[13] For a thorough discussion and defense of women in the diaconate, see McKinley, “Ministry of Women,” 186–190.

[14] Derek Tidball sees family as providing the necessary frame work to understanding biblical servant leadership. See his “Leaders as Servants,” 42ff.