Review: Leadership Is Male

Author: David Pawson was a Charismatic Bible teacher, known especially for his book Unlocking the Bible and the related teaching videos.

Overview of the Book

Leadership Is Male: What Does the Bible Say? (1988) is a systematic account of biblical complementarianism, or the view that men should take leading and teaching roles in the church, and are also “heads” over their wives.

Pawson begins with the nature of God. He points out that God himself is almost uniformly described as male throughout the Bible, and female language is only occasionally used. This is true, but I believe this great numerical difference is quite mitigated if you look at the preponderance of gendered metaphors rather than just mechanically counting the pronoun “he” as an indication of “maleness”.

The existence of male and female figures and language in relation to the being of God is something we have to become accustomed to, but is not describing an essential aspect of God’s nature.

Lucy Peppiatt, Rediscovering Scripture’s Vision for Women, p. 22

Since God is a spiritual being, I did not take Pawson’s first line of argumentation to be very helpful.

In chapter 2, Pawson then moves into Genesis. He argues that men and women are created with “vertical equality” towards God in Genesis 1, but “horizontal inequality” towards each other in Genesis 2. He finds justification for inequality in the method, purpose, and sequence of Adam and Eve’s creations.

Woman was made from man. Woman was made for man. Woman was made after man.

David Pawson, Leadership Is Male, p. 17; cf. John Angell James, The Marriage Ring (1842)

He also points to Adam naming Eve as an “expression of authority” (p. 18), citing the English custom of wives taking their husbands’ names. We are almost the only culture that does this, though. Children often take their father’s name, but sometimes both parents; and in much of the globe, women do not change their name at marriage.

There is not much indication of “male leadership” in the Adam and Eve cycle, though. Pawson uses only slight hints in the Genesis text, as I’ll show below; he also supports his argument with 1 Corinthians 11 and 1 Timothy 2, two of the most problematic passages in the entire New Testament, even if we leave the “gender debate” aside.

Pawson then argues that both Testaments are essentially patriarchal, since Jesus only appointed male apostles.

The patriarchal nature of government among the people of God continues from the old into the new covenant.

David Pawson, Leadership Is Male, p. 40

In chapter 5, Pawson handles Pauline passages, beginning with Galatians 3:28, where Paul writes that in Christ there is “neither male nor female”. He argues that Paul uses ethnicity, slavery, and gender because only a free, Jewish male could benefit from Abraham’s covenant. That’s why in Galatians 3:29, we are “Abraham’s seed”, and that makes us “heirs”. The passage pertains to salvation, then, not leadership. Michael F. Bird and Lucy Peppiatt argue that it would be hair-splitting to limit this verse to salvation, as if salvation has no ethical implications; but Pawson does make some great points in expositing this text.

Pawson then goes through Pauline passages that limit women’s roles. He correctly notes that 1 Corinthians 14:34 “directly contradicts” 1 Corinthians 11:5—can women pray and prophesy in public, or do they have to remain silent? He admits the confusion of these passages, but writes that women are forbidden from questioning teachers.

The crucial point to note is that Paul appeals to the original order of creation [in 1 Cor. 11 and 1 Tim. 2], to the ‘very nature of things’ and to the universal practice of the churches; but he never mentions the social conditions in Corinth or the national culture of Greece. Enough said!

David Pawson, Leadership Is Male, p. 59

Pawson’s main defense for excluding women from leadership is basically that it is the most obvious (“literal”) way to read the Bible; thus, when Paul writes, “wives, submit to your own husbands”, Pawson takes this at face value. It is transcultural: that is, it stands as a word to the church for all time.

Literal Inspiration, Literal Interpretation

Regarding the household codes of the New Testament, Pawson sees the inspiration of Scripture as the crucial issue: either Paul was inspired, and we must obey it, or Paul was not inspired, and it does not matter for our lives. He does not address household codes as an ancient genre, perhaps because this was written in 1988.

Pawson is right that inspiration is a crucial issue. Egalitarians take several liberties with the New Testament text, and their arguments can be a little convoluted. But, as a reviewer of Pawson has pointed out, his reading is not entirely literal either! There are serious interpretive problems on both sides of the debate. Invoking a “literal interpretation” is not an escape hatch that saves us from interpretive problems.

I think the point I found least convincing in the book was that “prophecy” was not authoritative and did not involve teaching. He describes a prophetess as “passing on divine words”. But this is merely verbal dictation, as opposed to verbal plenary inspiration or dynamic inspiration. In the words of one Bible commentator, “no respected evangelicals maintain that God dictated the words of Scripture.” I doubt any Old Testament scholar would be satisfied with Pawson’s reduction of prophecy to dictation!

Here I’d like to point out a few places where Pawson is interpolating from his bias.

Pawson’s Not-So-Literal Moments

I Will Make Thy Suffering Great

Unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children . . .

Genesis 3:16, KJV

First, like Peppiatt, Pawson sees Genesis 1 to 3 as crucial to any view of gender relations. He sees the difference in roles mentioned in the curse as a continuation of existing roles. He defends this by noting that Eve’s pain in childbirth would “multiply” (Gen. 3:16); in his view, it could not multiply if it was not there before.

This may be a “literal” interpretation, but only in English. In Hebrew, the verb translated “multiply” means simply to “make great” and has no reference to a previous state. (“Multiply” is probably chosen because in translating a word it is preferred to use a single word, where possible.) The Hebrew phrasing is identical, for instance, in the angel’s promise to Hagar in Genesis 16:10: “I will multiply thy seed exceedingly.” This in no way implies that Hagar’s seed was already great, and does not function in that way in Genesis 3:16, as Pawson contends.

For Your Man Shall Be Your Longing

. . . and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.

Genesis 3:16, KJV

Pawson writes that the first phrase contains

“an unusual Hebraism which means an ambition to control, manipulate, possess someone (as its occurrence in Genesis 4:7 clearly shows). That is, having led her husband into sin, she must now live with a continuing urge to subordinate him to her wish and will.”

Pawson, Leadership Is Male, p. 25

Commentators are far from unanimous on the meaning of this phrase, and only a few are in concord with Pawson here. In citing Genesis 4:7, Pawson fails to mention Song of Solomon 7:10, which differs only slightly and is translated “his desire is toward me.” Robert Alter translates Genesis 3:16 literally: “for your man shall be your longing”.

According to the Pulpit Commentary, the phrase has been historically translated in three different ways using three cross-references already mentioned:

  • “Your desire will be against him”, following Genesis 4:7 (ESV, NLT);
  • “Your desire will be toward him”, following Song of Solomon 7:10;
  • “Your desire will belong to him”, following the Septuagint, in which case it accords with the following clause and is emphasizing woman’s subjection.

Some commentators also agree with Pawson that the woman’s subjection is God’s intentional design at creation; others, such as Matthew Henry, see it as a consequence of the fall. It is not “literally” clear from the text itself.

Peppiatt brings out these problems in her recent book. The possible translations, she writes, are opposite in meaning.

Suffice it to say, the problems of translation are many and varied, and that even in the ESV the editors have footnoted an alternative translation to “shall be contrary to” as “shall be toward.” This is quite a serious difference!

Lucy Peppiatt, Rediscovering Scripture’s Vision for Women, p. 53

Priscilla and Aquila Took Apollos Aside and Set Him Straight

Pawson also takes other liberties in historicizing a New Testament with no women in leadership.

And he [Apollos] began to speak boldly in the synagogue: whom when Aquila and Priscilla had heard, they took him unto them, and expounded unto him the way of God more perfectly.

Acts 18:26, KJV

Pawson writes that this verse did not involve teaching and that it occurred privately. In my opinion, both are suspect, and show that he is wrangling the text to iron out what he perceives as an inconsistency.

In Acts 18:26, the verb for “took him” (προσλαμβάνω) can mean “received him into their home”, but the context here also matches closely with Matthew 16:22 and Mark 8:32, where Peter “took” Jesus aside and rebuked him. Contra Pawson, the verb for “expound” (ἐκτίθημι) is hardly weaker than “teach”. Eminent expositors like Joseph Parker and Thomas C. Oden write that “teaching” is exactly what Priscilla did! In the Septuagint, this verb means to “lay down” a decree; in the NT, it involves taking time to set someone straight who is mistaken. Thus, Peter “expounds” his visions to the Judaizers (in Acts 11:4), and Paul “expounds” the kingdom of God “both out of the law of Moses and out of the prophets” (Acts 28:23). It is unconvincing to claim that “teach” differs categorically from “expound”, or that Priscilla was excused in correcting a prominent and well-versed male teacher because it was “private” (which is likely but not necessarily clear from the text).

Bias-Free Reading?

As I have shown here, Pawson takes his own liberties with the text, omitting the inconvenient variety of understandings of Genesis 3:16. He has stated, though, that he is taking Scripture in its plainest, most “literal” sense. He seems to mean by this that he is arriving at a reading that involves no bias.

We all have biases, though, from the place and time in which we live. We are flesh and blood. None of us approaches the text as a robot. It is better to acknowledge where our loyalties lie, and move on.


Pawson’s book is a short and clear exposition of the complementarian viewpoint. Someone unfamiliar with the debate (such as myself) can use it as a starting point, but it does not delve very deeply into the textual issues involved. It’s also frustrating that he tells his readers that they can consult the “many good commentaries”, but does not name a single author!

The book—along with much of complementarian writing—suffers from the “Golden Age” fallacy. It treats history as beginning with (conservative) patriarchy and ending with (progressive) feminism. But history is much more cyclical. Grudem and Piper see the debate about women’s roles as beginning in the 1960s—completely ignoring the debates on women’s ordination in the 1880s, and tautologically dismissing the many women ordained through history as “unorthodox”. (Eastern Orthodox, Montanists, Waldensians, Moravians, Quakers, Methodists, Pentecostals—God help them, they didn’t subscribe to the Westminster Confession!)

Pawson has methodically split a number of hairs in the biblical text to make it sound completely univocal regarding women. Paul freely acknowledges women as “co-workers in the gospel” throughout the New Testament, and this included key roles in house churches; but elsewhere, Paul apparently prohibits women from teaching or even speaking in church! Pawson has quite sanitized New Testament house churches from having any radical feminists in “teaching roles”. The correct way to handle these texts is to begin by acknowledging the inherent contradiction or tension between the New Testament’s narrative passages and its ethical teaching, and go from there.

1 thought on “Review: Leadership Is Male

  1. Pingback: Scripture Questions on Women in Leadership | Pioneer Library

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