Paul's Masculine and Feminine Leadership

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. And 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 himself identified with motherhood. (See also 1 Cor. 3:1-2; Gal. 4:19).

Moses’s Maternal Leadership (Numbers 11:12)

One of the greatest leaders in the Bible 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 2:11f)

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 many male leaders. They also tend to be more empathetic, intuitive, and nurturing in their dealings with people. 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 that they can be successful, effective leaders without necessarily compromising or losing their femininity (which seems to be a concern of some).[6]


The church needs spiritual fathers and mothers in leadership. Just as families benefit when they are led jointly by both parents, 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.


[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. [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 Old Testament, 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] 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.

© 7th of July 2010; revised 17th of May 2012; Margaret Mowczko

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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