Men lead; women follow. Right? If we male elders aren’t careful, we can look self-serving and disingenuous if that is all we teach on the subject. A great weight rests on us to demonstrate to the world, to the rest of “Christendom” and, more importantly, to the women who look to us for leadership, that our view does not mean we believe our sisters in Christ are to be treated as second-class members of the body.
To be sure, the inspired Paul asserts that women are not to be in authority positions or teaching roles over men (1 Tim. 2:11-12) and in the next breath he specifically refers to elders as males (3:1-2). Yet Paul also penned Galatians 3:28, and Peter joins him in 1 Peter 3:7 to say that female believers are to be accepted as “fellow heirs” of all the blessings of God in salvation and in our standing before Him.
I don’t believe this is to be embraced solely on a spiritual level. It affects our practical everyday lives. In fact, Scripture is replete with instructions for us men on how to treat the women in our lives: we are to treat them sensitively and considerately (1 Peter 3:7), sacrifice for them (Ephesians 5:25), work toward helping them to become spiritually beautiful (5:26-27) and treat them the way we ourselves want to be treated (5:28-29). These passages apply specifically to the marriage relationship, but the way a man treats his wife indicates and sets the tone for how he treats other women.
How can we elders lead in a way that does not minimize the value and dignity of the women in our fellowship?
Leadership means leading—so lead!
First of all, you cannot lead if you are not out in front! Leading, in its most primary sense, does not mean making the decision and then telling others what to do. Our guide on a trip to the Middle East pointed out that leadership in the Israeli army means you are the first one into battle. You plow the way; you blaze the trail. You are out in front.
Consider Jesus’ lesson to the future leaders of His church: “If I then, the Lord and the Teacher, wash your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I gave you an example that you also should do as I did to you” (John 13:14-15). That’s leadership! It demonstrates, it motivates—and it leads the way. Jesus as consummate Leader took the “lead” role in acting upon His own teachings. He led by example, not just by lecture.
Strong servant leadership that models the Christian walk of faith is one of the best things we can do for women. One woman newly saved out of a world of radical feminism said in relationship to gender roles in marriage, “I can’t think of a woman on the face of the earth who would not follow a man who loved her the way Christ loved the church.” For elders, I wonder if there are women thinking, “I would gladly follow your lead if you treated me the way Christ treated women in his ministry”?
How can you be that kind of elder?
1. Treat your wife as special.
People should see you treating your wife as the most important person in your life (next to the Lord). That’s how the Lord Jesus Christ loved the church (Eph. 5:25). The extent of your sacrifice for her determines the extent of your love. Most men would gladly throw themselves in front of a speeding locomotive to save their wife from imminent death. That appeals to the heroic in us males, but few of us will have that stage to demonstrate our masculine prowess. What about demonstrating sacrificial love in day-to-day things?
Here are some ideas:
- Show affection to your wife. Occasionally hold her hand in public. Open the car door for her. Let others see you put your arm around her, or kiss her out in the parking lot. I don’t mean ostentatious emotional demonstrations, but rather small gentle touches of affection.
- Tell her often that you love her. And do it in different ways. I remember seeing a speaker sitting on the platform waiting to preach, breaking into a smile. I followed his eyes to see what he was looking at. He was looking at his wife, and she was returning the smile. You could sense a genuine love between them.
- Speak well of your wife in public. One dear saint refers to his spouse not as “the wife” but as “my beloved”! Before we were married, my wife and I were talking with our prospective photographer. A woman burst into his studio unannounced and rushed through the room. She dashed into the back room and then out again, stopping for a quick kiss, and then out the front door she flew. We sat there befuddled, and then the photographer’s eyes turned from the door to look at us. With a big smile, he exclaimed, “Isn’t she wonderful?” I vowed at time that I would make every effort to speak glowingly of my wife in public.
- Include your wife in your relationships, decisions, and ministry. When meeting new people on Sunday mornings, introduce them to your wife. When making plans, consult with her to see how your activities will affect her. When making important decisions that will affect the whole body, seek her input and perspectives.
- As leader of your wife, don’t wait for her to become a good follower. Christ did not wait for the church to become attractive or obedient—He loved her first. The church, as a result, is made beautiful through His transforming care. The same can be true when we love and care for our wives. Their inner beauty will increase before our very eyes (and the eyes of everyone else).
2. Affirm all women.
Loving your wife affects other women. When you love your wife, you demonstrate that biblical gender roles in the church are a good thing for women as well as men, and that there are indeed men who express Christ-like masculinity. This affirms women and gives them hope.
We can also affirm other women by how we treat them. My wife has noticed in some churches we have visited (and even some we have been a part of) that some male leaders just don’t talk with her unless she first approaches them. The reasons for this can be many. Sometimes men and women have different interests for conversation. Some men may feel more comfortable talking with other men than with women. But as elders we must not inadvertently “slight” women by overlooking warm and friendly interaction. Jesus demonstrated respect toward women by spending time with them and showing kindness as He spoke with them.
We need to affirm women both publicly and privately when they serve the body. This can be as simple as taking time to ask a woman on Sunday morning how her ministry is going, especially after a key event in which she has poured her time and energy. It may mean occasionally inviting key women leaders to an elders’ meeting so you can pray for and with them. Nothing communicates so powerfully the elders’ affirmation of a woman’s ministry than hearing the elders praying for her.
3. Encourage women’s ministries.
Spiritual gifts are not limited by gender. Even the gifts of pastor-teacher (Ephesians 4:11), speaking (1 Peter 4:11) and leading (Romans 13:8) can be exercised by a woman ministering to other women or children. But many churches have few venues for women to utilize these gifts. The elders should encourage activities such as ladies’ seminars, small groups and various women’s outreaches.
4. Install safeguards.
A wise elder must be careful about doing anything that could be interpreted as flirting or could place him in a compromising situation. His own flesh can be weak, and some women can be susceptible to being inadvertently enticed. Indeed, the critical qualification for an elder is to be a “one-woman kind of man” (this is the essence of 1 Timothy 3:2).
The wise elder will install safeguards. For example, some have made it a general policy never to visit a woman alone in her home or drive in a car with a woman alone. But boundaries should not be so tight that they prevent us from being warm, friendly, and accepting of the women in our churches.
Bottom line is this: we who believe in male leadership in the local church need to lead wisely and inclusively. We need to affirm women and encourage them in their ministries.