Exploring the biblical theology of Christian egalitarianism

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Some Christians believe that being a leader is a man’s role and that it is unfeminine for women to be in leadership.[1] These Christians dismiss female leaders mentioned in the Bible as rare exceptions and anomalies.[2] They maintain that God does not generally allow women to be leaders in society, in the church, and even in their own homes.

Does the Bible teach that leadership is masculine? Or that leadership is unfeminine?

Paul’s Maternal Leadership: 1 Thessalonians 2:7

The apostle Paul was an influential church leader. In 1 Thessalonians 2:7, he describes his apostolic ministry, and that of his colleagues Paul and Silas, using the metaphor of a woman breastfeeding her infant children.

“As apostles of Christ we could have been a burden to you, but we were gentle[3] among you, as a nurse [i.e. a breastfeeding woman] cherishes her own children.” 1 Thessalonians 2:7

Few images could be more maternal than a woman breastfeeding her baby. Yet Paul states here that he ministered in ways that he identified with motherhood. Paul uses maternal imagery a few times for ministry. See also 1 Corinthians 3:1–2 and Galatians 4:19.

Moses’s Maternal Leadership: Numbers 11:12

One of Israel’s greatest leaders was Moses. Moses’ complaint to God in Numbers 11:12 indicates that God wanted him to lead the Israelites in a maternal way.

“Did I conceive all these people? Did I give them birth? Why do you tell me to carry them in my arms, as a nurse [i.e. a breastfeeding woman] carries an infant, to the land you promised on oath to their ancestors?” Numbers 11:12

From Moses’ words, we can see that God does not necessarily associate leadership with masculinity and that God did not want his people to be led in a purely paternal or masculine manner.[4]

Paul’s Paternal Leadership: 1 Thessalonians 2:11

After describing his ministry in maternal terms in 1 Thessalonians 2:7, Paul goes on to speak about ministry using the metaphor of a father.

“For you know that we dealt with you as a father deals with his own children, encouraging, comforting and urging you to live lives worthy of God …” 1 Thessalonians 2:11–12a

If Paul, as a man, can lead and minister in both a motherly and fatherly manner, does it seem unreasonable to suggest that some women can lead and minister in both a motherly and fatherly manner? Is it only fatherly men who can encourage and comfort believers and urge them to live lives worthy of God?[5]

Female Leadership

Generally speaking, men and women have some differences and they tend to have different leadership styles. While there are many exceptions to these generalisations, women tend to be more relational, collaborative, and flexible in their leadership than male leaders. They also tend to be more empathetic, intuitive, and nurturing in their dealings with people. And women can have excellent communication skills.[6] These qualities are considered advantageous in leaders within post-modern society, especially when leading and mentoring people belonging to Generation Y and younger generations.

Many women leaders have also demonstrated that they can be assertive and goal-oriented, qualities often associated with male leaders. Moreover, women have shown they can be successful, effective leaders without necessarily compromising or losing their femininity, which seems to be a concern for some.[7]


The church needs spiritual fathers and mothers in leadership. Just as families (usually) benefit when they are led jointly by both parents, churches benefit when they are led by gifted and called women and men who are free to minister according to their gifts and abilities.


[1] Complementarians are Christians who believe that the Bible teaches that only men can be leaders in the home and in the church. Some have narrow and rigid ideas of leadership that do not allow for feminine expressions. Leading complementarian, John Piper believes all men are designed by God to be leaders, and all women are designed by God to be submissive followers of all “worthy” men. See chapter one of John Piper and Wayne Grudem’s book, Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (Westchester, IL: Crossway Books, 2006). Yet, while insisting that leadership is a masculine trait, complementarians do not seem to have a problem with women who lead (or teach) women or children.

[2] Deborah is just one of several notable women leaders mentioned in the Bible. Even though there were male leaders, God chose Deborah to be a “mother in Israel” (Judges 5:7). She was a matriarch in the community of God’s people, a female counterpart to the patriarchs. Judges chapters 4 and 5 record Deborah’s leadership and there is no mention that anything was amiss about her being a leader and a woman. Her gender does not seem to have been an issue at all. Deborah was an excellent leader. She was a prophetess, a judge, and a military leader. In comparison with other leaders (judges) mentioned in the book of Judges, there are no negative words about Deborah. Nevertheless, many complementarians still assert that leadership is for men only. (I have more about Deborah and other Bible women with spiritual authority here, and here, and here.)

[3] The oldest surviving Greek manuscripts of 1 Thessalonians 2:7 say that the apostles became “infant children” nēpioi, rather than “gentle” ēpioi. (Epioi may be translated as gentle, mild or kind, etc.) The NIV (2011) translates 1 Thessalonians 2:6-8 as: “We were not looking for praise from people, not from you or anyone else, even though as apostles of Christ we could have asserted our authority. Instead, we were like young children (nepioi) among you. Just as a nursing mother cares for her children, so we cared for you. Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well.”

[4] God describes himself using maternal metaphors in the Hebrew Bible, as did Jesus in the New Testament (Matt. 23:37//Luke 13:34).

[5] Paul was single and advocated for singleness, and yet he knew how to be both fatherly and motherly in ministry.

[6] Craig Keener notes that sociological studies in the USA show, in terms of averages, that men are slightly better at maths skills and women are slightly better with verbal skills. And he asks the question, “Which is more useful for preaching?” (Source: Youtube video of a public lecture at Laidlaw College, New Zealand, in September 2019. 40.26–minute mark.)

[7] Some complementarians, who regard leadership as a defining masculine function, are concerned that women who lead will lose their femininity. They seem to have trouble envisioning a leadership style that is not masculine. Paul and Moses did not have this problem, and neither does God who continues to call women to lead his people.

© Margaret Mowczko 2010
Last edited May 17 2022
All Rights Reserved

A version of this article was published by Christians for Biblical Equality (International) in their Arise e-newsletter on the 15th of June, 2012. It was also published on Scot McKnight’s Jesus Creed blog here, and on The Junia Project’s blog here.

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Postscript 1: Husbands, Fathers, and Ministers as Nurturers

It is often thought that, in general, women are by nature nurturers. Paul, however, wanted men to be nurturers too.

The Greek word ektrephō (“nourish, nurture, rear”) occurs twice in the New Testament, both times in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians:
1. in Ephesians 6:4 which is addressed to fathers, and
2. in Ephesians 5:28-29 which is addressed to husbands.

The Greek verb thalpō (“keep warm, cherish”) also occurs twice in the NT:
1. in Paul’s words to husbands in Ephesians 5:28-29 (it’s mentioned after ektrephō), and
2. when Paul compares his apostolic ministry with a breastfeeding woman in 1 Thessalonians 2:7.
Thayer says thalpō is equivalent in meaning to the Latin word foveo which means “to cherish with tender love” and “to foster with tender care.”

Postscript 2: Anselm’s Prayer to Mother Paul and Mother Jesus

Anselm, who became archbishop of Canterbury in 1093, picked up on Paul’s maternal metaphors (in 1 Thess. 2:7 and Gal. 4:18–19) in a prayer he composed in around 1070. He says about Paul, “Who is that affectionate mother who declares everywhere that she is in labour for her sons?”

Anselm then prays to Jesus alluding to Matthew 23:37.

And you, Jesus, are you not also a mother?
Are you not the mother who, like a hen,
gathers her chickens under her wings?
Truly, Lord, you are a mother;
for both they who are in labour
and they who are brought forth
are accepted by you.

I’ve included these excerpts out of interest. You can read a longer excerpt of Anselm’s prayer, here.

Explore more

Is God Male or Masculine?
Partnering Together: Paul’s Female Coworkers
New Testament Women Church Leaders
Paul’s Theology of Ministry
All my articles on 1 Timothy 2:12 are here.
Old Testament Priests and New Covenant Ministers
The Women Who Protected Moses
Leading Together in the Home

artigos em portugues sobre igualdade entre homens e mulheres no lar e na igreja

10 thoughts on “Paul’s Masculine and Feminine Leadership

  1. “The only freedom that deserves the name is that of freely pursuing the good of others, not by depriving them of liberty, but by promoting their liberty.”
    Richard Bauckham, “Freedom in the Bible: Exodus and Service,” God and the Crisis of Freedom, p. 20.

    This should be our aim in true Biblical leadership.

    Excellent article. Keep up the good work.

  2. Thanks TL. 🙂

  3. I love this quote from Dale Fincher.

    “Leadership is not a criterion for being a man or a woman. Leadership is a fluid and seasonal role you play depending on your responsibility in the moment and the larger task at hand. Some men and women are gifted with more managerial skills than others. Some with more visionary skills than others. It has nothing to do with manhood and has everything to do with being faithful with what you’ve been given.”

    More on this here: https://margmowczko.com/fluid-leadership-vs-rigid-gender-roles/

  4. “The church needs spiritual fathers and mothers in leadership. Just as families benefit when they are led by both a father and a mother, churches benefit when they are led by gifted and called men and women, who are able to minister according to their gifts and abilities and are not constrained by traditional gender roles.”

    This is an extremely powerful argument that I have never heard made before. Thank you.

  5. Sure men can lead in fatherly and motherly ways, but women better not. Only men can be women!

    Wait, that didn’t come out right.

    1. Sounds just as logical as other stuff I’ve heard from those who want to keep women “in their place.”

  6. Marg,
    This is written so well, I love it. You are so talented Marg!

    “[6] Some complementarians, who regard leadership as a defining masculine function, are concerned that women who lead will lose their femininity.”

    What exactly is “feminity?” It seems like men keep defining for women what feminity is without any basis in reality whatsoever. To say that women were made to be led by men in everything is the same thing as saying that women are not capable of thinking for themselves and making their own decisions with a favorable outcome. It’s attacking a woman’s perception and judgment, basically all her cognitive skills. Comp men seem to assign us all of the attributes they themselves consider shameful and don’t want.

    “We were not looking for praise from people, not from you or anyone else, even though as apostles of Christ we could have asserted our authority.
    Instead, we were like young children (nepioi) among you. Just as a nursing mother would cherish her own children, so we cared for you.”

    It is interesting because the word “cherish” is used in the NT only one other time in Eph 5:29 when spoken to husbands on how they should treat their wives. I noticed how “to cherish” someone in this context is the opposite of “asserting authority.”

    1. 🙂
      “Femininity” seems to be real concern for some, and yet it almost impossible to define definitively. Especially as many “feminine” traits are culturally conditioned. Some believe passivity/compliance and gentleness are feminine traits. And yet the Bible shows that God rewarded women who took risks and initiative (Tamar, Shiphrah and Puah, Ruth, Rahab, etc). And gentleness is a virtue for all believers, not just women.

  7. […] [7] Paul’s comment that Rufus’s mother was “a mother to me” may be in reference to her ministry to Paul and not just an indication of a close, warm relationship. In a few of his letters, Paul speaks of his own ministry in maternal terms. (See here.) […]

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