By Kelvin Jones
The rise of secular feminism has made the subject of church leadership a sensitive one. The feminist movement entered the mainstream in the 1960s and rightly criticized the failure of men to respect women. Yet feminism, lacking a biblical worldview, defined sexual equality as the removal of gender distinctions and rejected biblically grounded feminine identity and sexual morality. Searching for spirituality, many feminists have turned to neopaganism, and goddess worship is accepted in several liberal denominations.
In contrast to the mainline denominations, the majority of evangelical churches and Christians are complementarian. They believe the Bible teaches that in creation God instilled complementary distinctives in men and women, and that responsibility for Christlike leadership in the home and in the church rests upon men.
Yet the contrasting, egalitarian view, that gender-based role distinctions have been overcome in Christ, is influencing evangelical churches especially through the charismatic movement, the Willow Creek and Mars Hill megachurches, and various seminaries and publishers.1
Complementarians continue to affirm differences of gender and traditional forms of leadership, even as our position becomes countercultural. Yet, for fear of being misunderstood as sexist, we have been reluctant to clearly affirm these beliefs. Our reluctance has led to the perception that God must have decided upon masculine leadership arbitrarily, by a divine coin toss, rather than on the basis of his created design for manhood and womanhood.
This perception has helped weaken evangelical confidence in and commitment to masculine leadership in the home and in the church, especially as it goes against the grain of rising feminism and sexual confusion in Western culture. There are, however, research-based data that provide a good basis for affirming why God has assigned these leadership responsibilities to men and reserved other areas of ministry, which are no less vital to the home and the church, for women.
Biological differences between men and women are present not only in features that pertain to procreation, but in all the body’s organ systems. For example, men on average have a higher metabolic rate, convert more food energy to muscle, and have denser bones, stronger tendons, and 30 percent more lung capacity. Women have better immune systems, more perceptive sensory systems, less susceptibility to heart attack and stroke, and longer life expectancy.
Men have more red blood cells and hemoglobin; women have more white blood cells and antibodies. In general, men recover more quickly from injury, while women recover more quickly from illness. Men typically have greater upper-body strength, a more vertically aligned pelvic structure (for lifting and carrying, in contrast to childbearing), and a lower hypothalamic response threshold.
In men, long-term stress tends to induce aggression; in women, it tends to induce depression. Men tend to have better visual resolution; women tend to have finer color discrimination. Men are generally more aggressive, assertive, active, and inclined to take risks; women are generally more empathetic, verbal, nurturing, and social.
These differences correlate with the traditional, transcultural division of labor in which men have served as providers, protectors, and leaders, and women have served as caregivers and agents of social coherence and stability.2
Research over the last three decades has also confirmed sex differences in brain structure and function. In fact, we now know these organizational differences develop even before birth.
For example, the corpus callosum is the bundle of approximately 200-250 million nerve fibers through which the two hemispheres of the brain communicate. Six weeks after conception, boys undergo a “testosterone surge” that restricts the development of the corpus callosum. This is a primary reason why in men, some mental processes are concentrated in particular areas of the brain, while in women these mental processes are distributed more evenly across the brain’s left and right hemispheres.
This difference helps explain why men usually prefer to focus on single tasks, why men are more prevalent in the advanced mathematical and scientific professions, and why boys comprise approximately four out of five whole-language readers who are diagnosed as dyslexic.
In the last decade, functional MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) and PET (positron-emission tomography) technologies have considerably advanced our knowledge of the brain’s neurologic structure and activities. Though men and women are of very similar average intelligence, men have approximately six times more gray matter, which comprises the information-processing areas, and women have approximately 10 times more white matter, which comprises the communication network within the brain. Moreover, these tissues are distributed in significantly different areas, and men and women use different areas of the brain to solve the same kinds of problems.3
The results of these differences are that men generally do better with problems and tasks that involve mathematical, visual-spatial, and detailed, complex, analytical reasoning. Women generally do better with problems and tasks that involve verbal and linguistic skills, memory, global (rather than detail-oriented) reasoning, and multiple, simultaneous sensory stimuli.4
Men prefer to navigate geometrically, and do better in mazes. Women prefer to navigate by landmarks, and remember them better.
These persistent, innate differences in the ways men and women perceive and interact with their environments shape behaviors as well. Men tend to be more goal-oriented and competitive, and less socially aware. Women tend to be more interactive, cooperative, and relationship-oriented.
By inclination and ability, women are empathizers; they naturally care about, identify, and respond effectively to the thoughts and emotions of another person. By inclination and ability, men are systemizers; they naturally seek to understand how things work and how to make them work best.5
It’s true that empathizing and systemizing skills are latent to varying degrees in all people and may be developed through experience. Nevertheless, the differences that on average draw men into broadly technical professions and pastimes, and women into broadly social professions and pastimes, are adequately explainable only in terms of complementary design instilled in creation.
These distinctives are not due to social expectations; in one often-cited study, 13-month-old toddlers were placed behind a barrier that separated them from their mothers. The girls showed distress, cried more, and called to their mothers; the boys cried less and attacked the barrier, trying to push it down, climb over it, or find a way around it to get to their mothers.6
These biological and behavioral differences do not imply overall superiority or inferiority for either sex. They are simply aspects of how the complementary nature of men and women is foundational to marriage and to the shared life and ministries of the community of believers. These complementary qualities form the basis for complementary responsibilities in the home and in the church.
Western culture is turning away from acknowledging God, and for this reason cannot clearly see what it is to be human, and what it is to be male or female. The moral order implicit in the natural order is fading from our sight, and the moral compass that points to the wisdom, providence, and goodness of the One in whose image we are created is rusting from disuse. The darkening of Western culture is due in part to the timid conformity of the Western church, to our failure to faithfully teach and live out biblical manhood and womanhood.
In the New Testament, the church is the community of believers, and the identity and life of the community are shaped by what is actually believed. Thus the nature of the church implies that to teach is to lead and to exercise authority. Biblical teaching concerning leadership in the home and church yields the principle that ministries involving public exposition of Scripture before gatherings that include adult male heads of households are ministries that God has reserved for men. Yet our churches need women who are capable interpreters and teachers of the Word, and who are able to minister to women in ways men are not. The complementary nature of men’s and women’s responsibilities in the home and church derives from God’s complementary design of men and women.
Specifically concerning teaching and/or leading the church as a whole, God has designed and called men to serve as the elders/overseers/pastors of the church, as the providers of the whole-church teaching ministry, and the protectors of the church from false doctrine (Acts 20:28-30). Femininity holds advantages in other ministry contexts, yet in pastoral ministry masculinity holds the advantages of a neurologic structure especially suited to analysis of complex conceptual problems (such as some doctrinal issues and their implications), a systemic inclination toward protective response to challenges, and an assertive persistence toward sound doctrine in the faith and life of the church.
Some women exceed many men in these respects, and some men exceed many women in others; there are diversities of gifts, but giftedness or perceived calling does not justify seeking a ministry outside of biblical boundaries. The gender differences are significant and persistent enough to stand as confirmation of biblical teaching concerning the complementary nature of men and women, and of God’s design and calling of men to Christlike leadership in the home and in the church.
1Representative sites are the egalitarian www.cbeinternational.org and the complementarian www.cbmw.org.
2Gregg Johnson, ”The Biological Basis for Gender-Specific Behavior,” in John Piper and Wayne Grudem, eds., Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1991), 280–93. The entire volume is available as a free download (pdf) at www.cbmw.org. Concerning the corpus callosum, see Gillian Einstein, ed., Sex and the Brain: A Reader (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2007), 601–59.
3Richard J. Haier, ”The Neuroanatomy of General Intelligence: Sex Matters,” as reported in Today@UCI (www.today.uci.edu/news/release_detail.asp?key=1261).
4These findings are widely reported; see, for example, Doreen Kimura, Sex and Cognition (Boston: MIT Press, 2000).
5Simon Baron-Cohen, The Essential Difference (New York: Basic Books, 2004), passim.
6Susan Goldberg and Michael Lewis, “Play Behaviour in the Year-old Infant: Early Sex Differences,“ in Child Development 40 (1969), 21-31.
Author’s Suggestions for Further Reading
Simon Baron-Cohen, The Essential Difference (New York: Basic Books, 2004).
Jack Cottrell, Gender Roles and the Bible: Creation, the Fall, and Redemption (Joplin: College Press, 1994).
Gillian Einstein, ed., Sex and the Brain: A Reader (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2007).
Doreen Kimura, Sex and Cognition (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2000).
Anne Moir and David Jessel, Brain Sex: The Real Difference Between Men and Women (New York: Random House/Dell Publishing, 1991).
Kelvin Jones is professor of theology and biblical studies at Nebraska Christian College, Papillion, Nebraska.