How Should A Woman Lead?

John Piper, “How Should a Woman Lead?” The Standard 74:5 (May 1984): 34, 36. Alvera and Berekely Micklesen responded with, “Headship and Harmony: Response from the Mickelsens,” The Standard 74:5 (May 1984): 40.


In creation prior to the Fall, God ordained that man should bear a greater responsibility for leading woman than woman should bear for leading man. In Ephesians 5:21-33; 1 Corinthians 11:3–16 and 1 Timothy 2:8–15, Paul argues, on the basis of this creation order, that husbands should exercise loving, Christlike headships in marriage and should fill the authoritative roles in the church.

Women should honor this God-ordained leadership role for men through culturally appropriate forms of submission.

Power Through Prayer

To move from this general conclusion to specific applications we need to ponder the meaning of leadership. Let’s start by defining leadership as knowing where God wants people to be and taking the initiative to get them there in reliance on God’s power.

If we try to forbid women from exercising all such leadership in relation to men, we go too far. For example, prayer is certainly a God-appointed means women should use to get men to where God wants them to be. Praying women exert far more power in this world than all political leaders put together.

What kind of leadership should women not exercise toward men? It would be hopeless to try to define this on a case-by-case basis. There are thousands of different jobs in the church and in the world with an innumerable variety of leadership relationships between men and women. More appropriate than a black and white list of “man’s work” and “woman’s work” is a set of criteria to help a woman think through whether the responsibilities of any given job allow her to uphold God’s created order of male headship.

Since the different roles for men and women in relation to each other are rooted in creation, it seems artificial to think only in terms of family and church. Persons relate as male and female in all of life, and therefore need to find ways of relating which honor and uphold God’s purposes.

In our world of extraordinary varied possibilities for women, to presume to label all jobs as either “women’s work” or “men’s work” fails to serve God’s purpose well. Rather we need to remain flexible and give criteria by which a woman can assess the (often borderline) appropriateness of any given role.

It seems obvious that women may assume some kinds of leadership of men without dishonoring or contradicting God’s order of creation. Prayer was one example. Another would be any time a man asks a woman a question. (What’s a good restaurant around here? How do you get to the interstate?)

In other words, the criteria we need are those which help us to know when a woman’s act of leadership endorses man’s God-given penchant to initiate and take responsibility, and when it opposes that penchant.

All acts of leadership can be described along these two continuums:

        Personal……………….impersonal
        Directive………………non-directive

To the degree that a woman’s leadership of man is personal and directive it will generally offend a man’s God-given sense of responsibility and leadership and thus controvert God’s created order.

Architects and Traffic Engineers

A woman man design the traffic pattern of a city’s streets and thus exert tremendous leadership over all male drivers. But this leadership will be totally impersonal and not necessarily an offense against God’s order. Similarly, the plans of a woman architect govern the behavior of engineers, contractors and laborers, but it is so impersonal that they may never know a woman stand behind it all.

On the other hand, the relationship between husband and wife is very personal. All leadership roles lie on the continuum between personal and impersonal. The closer they get to the personal side the more inappropriate it becomes for women to exert leadership.

But the second continuum may qualify the first. Some leadership is very direct, some is nondirective. For example, a drill sergeant would epitomize directive leadership. Nondirective leadership proceeds with petition and persuasion instead of directives.

A beautiful example of nondirective leadership is when Abigail talked David out of killing Nabal (1 Sam. 25:23–35). She exerted great influence over David and changed the course of his life; but she did it with amazing restraint and submissiveness and discretion. When you combine these two continuums, what emerges is this: If a woman’s job involves a good deal of directives toward men, they will need to be impersonal.

The God-given sense of responsibility and leadership in man will not generally allow him to flourish long under personal directives of a female leader. Conversely, if a woman’s relation to a man is very personal, then the way she exercises leadership will need to be nondirective.

It is not nonsense to say that a woman who believes she should lead a man into a new behavior should do that in a way that signals her support of his leadership (1 Peter 3:1). One of the most common experiences of a Christian wife is the longing to see her husband change so that she might delight in his headship.

Instead of telling women what jobs I think they should take, I prefer to lay out these two criteria (How personal and how directive would be your leadership of men in this job?) and trust their judgment to accept roles which allow them to honor the meaning of maleness and femaleness taught in Scripture.

But No Pastors and Elders

But in the church we do need a few fixed points, and I personally would not support the entrance of women into the pastoral office or eldership of the church. These roles ought to involve some exercise of personal and directive leadership. Women exercising that leadership would put the men of the church in a position where their sense of responsibility and leadership is repeatedly violated.

If such a church experiences deep tensions, a retreat of male involvement and a loss of spiritual power, it will not be owing mainly to male chauvinism but to unbiblical egalitarianism.

If I were to put my finger on one devastating sin in our churches today it would not be the women’s movement but the lack of spiritual leadership by men at home and in the church.

Satan has achieved an amazing tactical victory by disseminating the notion that the summons for male leadership is born of pride and fallenness, when in fact pride is precisely what prevents spiritual leadership. The spiritual aimlessness and weakness and lethargy and loss of nerve among men is the major issue, not the upsurge of women’s ministries.

Pride and self-pity and fear lure men into their self-protecting, self-exalting cocoons of silence. And our chauvinism-phobic culture extols them as humble egalitarians. We know better.

Where are the laymen with a moral vision, a zeal for the house of the Lord, a magnificent cause, an articulate dream for the family of God and a tenderhearted tenacity to make it real?

When the Lord visits us from on high and creates a mighty army of deeply spiritual men committed to the Word of God and global mission, the vast majority of women will rejoice over the leadership of these men and enter into a joyful partnership that upholds and honors the biblical pattern of loving male headship and willing female submission.

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