In an age of equal rights, it is sometimes difficult to see the Bible as a friend of women. Although some texts treat husbands and wives as equals (1 Corinthians 7:4), other passages view women as the “weaker vessel” (1 Peter 3:7) and place them in a supporting role rather than a leading role (Ephesians 5:22-25).
In another time and place, the Bible’s approach to gender looked different. In a patriarchal world, daughters and wives were viewed as property. In such a setting the Scriptures elevated the status of women. Today, however, the suggestion that a woman should submit seems backward and even un-American. What if a wife has better judgment than her husband? What if she is more gifted in making and managing money, hanging wallpaper, or fixing things around the house?
Conditions of diminished capacity
As a rule, we don’t question a woman’s leadership if her husband loses his ability to protect and provide for his family. Few will criticize a wife for stepping up to the challenge if her husband is:
- Physically disabled.
- Diagnosed with a debilitating mental or emotional condition.
- Morally entangled in an addiction that blinds him to the needs of his family.
Some, however, have missed the extent to which such lost capacity is a significant factor in the Bible’s approach to men and women.
The history of diminished capacity
The first pages of the Bible describe the origin and results of impaired judgment. At the onset of human mortality, God Himself declared that weeds and thorns would sprout from the earth, pain would complicate childbirth, and men would rule their wives (Genesis 3:16-19). Although most of us work to minimize the curse of weeds in our yards and the pain in childbirth, some of us have not seen the subordination of women as part of the same curse. As a result, we have seen male dominance as a principle to affirm rather than a problem to be minimized. Yet the Bible itself shows that in circumstances of diminished capacity, God is flexible in His approach to the complementing roles of men and women.
- Abraham is widely regarded as “the father of us all” (Romans 4:16). His legacy is rich in faith but also includes impaired reason and flawed judgment. In several examples of diminished capacity, both he and his wife Sarah made the mistake of following one another’s advice (Genesis 12:11-20; 16:1-4). Along the way, however, Abraham learned that it is not beneath a man to submit to an imperfect woman. In a difficult family dispute, the Lord told Abraham to defer to Sarah’s demands (Genesis 21:9-12).
- Abigail is an example of a woman married to a man whose pride blinded his judgment. Rather than submitting to her husband’s stubbornness, she protected her family by providing care and assistance to David and his hungry soldiers (1 Samuel 25).
- Then there is Deborah, who rose above the prominence of her husband in ancient Israel, acted as a judge in matters of social dispute, and in a moment of national crisis led the army into battle (Judges 4-5).
The example and teaching of Jesus
No one, however, gives us a better example of how to respond to conditions of diminished capacity than Christ Himself. In heaven He was “with God” and “was God” (John 1:1). In the presence of His Father, angels obeyed His every word. Yet He willingly and lovingly stepped into history to become the Servant of servants and the Husband of a very imperfect and unfaithful church.
No one had more right to be followed. No one had more inherent ability to rule. Yet in the words of Paul, Jesus “made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross” (Philippians 2:7-8).
Christ’s self-limitation and submission were voluntary. His example was intentional. To His disciples Jesus said,“The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those who exercise authority over them are called ‘benefactors.’ But not so among you; on the contrary, he who is greatest among you, let him be as the younger, and he who governs as he who serves. For who is greater, he who sits at the table, or he who serves? Is it not he who sits at the table? Yet I am among you as the One who serves” (Luke 22:25-27).
Capacity and love-based leadership
Christlike leadership, whether expressed by a man or a woman, involves caring for others with the abilities and circumstances that God has given. Any physical strength or social opportunity is to be used to protect, provide, and complement, not to control and to dominate.
On the other hand, wise persons recognize their own gifts and limitations. They know that love and truth are more important than authority or roles. They find joy in discovering that the grace of a Christ-like attitude can make any strength or weakness a showcase for the presence and sufficiency of God (2 Corinthians 3:5).
The apostle Peter wrote, “As each one has received a gift, minister it to one another, as good stewards of the manifold grace of God . . . that in all things God may be glorified through Jesus Christ, to whom belong the glory and the dominion forever and ever” (1 Peter 4:10-11).
The sovereign power that Peter referred to blends in mysterious ways with the unfairness and inequities of our fallen, broken world. Men often end up with physical and social advantage. Sometimes, especially in our technologically developed world, the pattern is reversed. In the long run, what counts is whether we use the capacities God has entrusted to us to seek the honor and well-being of those who need our help. What matters is whether we work with our Lord, or against Him.
Father in heaven, You have given us so much. The miracle of life is beyond our understanding. The opportunity to know You is a gift beyond comparison. The people around us are priceless. Please forgive us for losing sight of what is most important. Please forgive us for ignoring You, Your will, and the hurting and lost people for whom Your Son died. May today be the day that Your kingdom comes and Your will is done in us, as it is in heaven.