If you ever want to get folks lathered up, raising the issue of God’s gendered design is sure to do the trick. Such discussions can be frustrating, and they often leave us with more heat than light. This is, after all, an understandably sensitive—and therefore contentious—subject. Is the conviction that men and women are, as Tim Keller has put it, “equal but not equivalent” based solely on a few isolated (and likely misinterpreted) texts? Or is it rooted in something broader, something deeper, something more holistic?

In their thick new book, God’s Design for Man and Woman: A Biblical-Theological Survey (Crossway), Andreas and Margaret Köstenberger labor to demonstrate that, far from being a peripheral anomaly popping up here and there, male leadership and female partnership is a sustained pattern that spans the canon. It isn’t just about 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy, in other words; it’s about Genesis to Revelation.

I recently corresponded with both Andreas (senior research professor of New Testament and biblical theology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina) and Margaret (adjunct professor of women’s studies at Southeastern) about the danger of mistaking conservative culture for biblical complementarity, women as company presidents, “non-pulpit” teaching, and more.


In the book you survey the Bible’s theology of man and woman. What do you understand God’s design for man and woman to be?

In our biblical-theological survey from Genesis to Revelation we identify a pervasive pattern of male leadership as well as a pattern of male-female partnership. Far from flowing from a few isolated, debated passages, the pattern of male leadership spans from Adam to the patriarchs, kings, and priests, to Jesus (incarnated as a male, Savior of all) and the Twelve, to Paul and his circle, and to elders in the New Testament (NT) church, not to mention the 24 elders in Revelation. The pattern of male-female partnership is rooted in God’s creation of the man, and subsequently of the woman as his corresponding partner and helper; it continues throughout Scripture as women serve as prophetesses in both testaments and as witnesses to Christ and the gospel for which they are persecuted just as men are (Acts). So men and women are presented as partners, and at the same time men are given a special leadership role.

In your book you say that Jesus probably couldn’t have chosen women as apostles. Can you explain why?

Jesus, of course, can do anything he wants to that corresponds to the Father’s will! In keeping with the established pattern of God’s creation order and design, Jesus chooses 12 men (not, for example, six men and six women) as apostles; the Gospels and Acts report this in unison. Some, however, most notably the matriarch of the feminist movement, Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, posit a historical reconstruction of the “Jesus movement” as a “discipleship of equals.” However, this is a clear case of revisionist historiography, and her proposal has met with significant opposition even by feminist scholars (see Margaret’s book Jesus and the Feminists). 

Regardless of one’s views on the subject, the question arises, why did Jesus choose only male apostles? Feminists really don’t have a convincing answer. Some say it would have been inconvenient for women to travel with men; but Luke 8:2–3 indicates that some women did travel with Jesus and the Twelve. Others say Jesus accommodated himself to the culture. But Jesus typically didn’t do so when an important principle was at stake; in fact, he did just the opposite—healing on the Sabbath and engaging in public discourse with women. It’s most likely, then, that Jesus chose 12 male apostles in keeping with the biblical pattern of male leadership originating in Genesis 1–2, with the Twelve constituting the nucleus of NT church leadership analogous to the 12 tribes of Israel.

In what ways can evangelical Christians be in danger of confusing conservative cultural expectations with biblical complementarity?

Scripture doesn’t give a lot of detail as to how God’s design for man and woman is to be worked out, so a traditional division of labor (women in the kitchen, changing diapers; men at work letting women do all household chores) doesn’t square with the biblical design (we’ve discussed the inadequacy of labels here). It’s true that God’s design assigns primary spheres of activity, but Scripture calls the husband not only to provide for his wife materially but, more importantly, to love her sacrificially. There is flexibility within the basic framework, and each couple has unique circumstances in which to work out God’s design and plan for them personally, both leader and partner. The biblical pattern is loving, self-sacrificial complementarity where the couple partners in conscious pursuit of God’s mission. Marriage is part of God’s larger purpose of reuniting all of humanity under one head, the Lord Jesus Christ (Eph. 1:10).

How should we think through questions like whether women should teach adult men in “non-pulpit” contexts (for example, parachurch gatherings, seminary classes, Sunday school, and so on)?

We would like to encourage a mindset of men and women pursuing God’s design for them—for his glory and their good. While we desire women to find a place in leadership wherever possible, questions like “Where do we draw the line before crossing God-given boundaries?” seem unduly minimalistic. Since Scripture doesn’t address parachurch ministries directly (they didn’t exist in NT times, at least not in the modern form; everything was funneled through the local church), the question arises as to their purpose in relation to the church. While parachurch ministries are not the church, ideally their function is to build up and train believers to lead and contribute to the church. Aligning goals with the church, then, would seem to be appropriate. The male pattern of leadership articulated with regard to the church in passages like 1 Timothy 2:9–15 offers principles and guidance.

Though there are no formal restrictions placed on women here regarding parachurch organizations, we believe Scripture limits public teaching and authoritative offices in the church to men. Not everyone agrees, but we believe this is by far the most plausible reading of this passage, both in its own right and in connection with the pervasive pattern of male leadership throughout Scripture (for a thorough discussion see Andreas’s and Tom Schreiner’s Women in the Church, forthcoming in a third edition). Mature women should flourish in teaching other women (Titus 2) and children, and participate in teaching men informally (especially in conjunction with their husband, as Priscilla did with Apollos), as well as engage in some administrative roles. Beyond this, we would encourage all believers to strive to honor the spirit of Paul’s words and of God’s design for man and woman in all of Scripture in general.

What do you believe about women in leadership positions outside of the family and the church (for example, a company president)? How do gender roles apply to the workplace?

With regard to women in the workplace, we’ve found that a helpful question for couples to consider is: Will the woman, if married, be able to give her best hours and energies to those God has given her to care for in the home and family? This applies to ministry involvement as well. Consider God’s creation design (Gen 1:26–28; 2:18, 20) in conjunction with the primary spheres of ministry given to the woman as highlighted in the judgment she received after the fall, which stands in direct relation to her role in childbearing and with her husband (Gen. 3:16; cf. 1 Tim. 2:15). Consider also the role model of the virtuous woman in Proverbs 31, who is portrayed as centered in her home and fully supportive of her husband. And note Paul’s references to women being workers at home (Titus 2:5), widows being honored who have been faithful wives, having brought up children and shown hospitality (1 Tim. 5:9–10), and younger widows being encouraged to marry, bear children, and manage their households (1 Tim. 5:14). Women on mission for God together with their husbands will be able to rejoice in all God has for them as they’re centered in the home and ready for all he calls them to do individually. Single women, too, unless called to permanent celibacy (1 Cor. 7:7–8), can prayerfully nurture and prepare for this and incorporate some of this in their extended and church family experience.

Regarding political office, there are no direct commands in Scripture encouraging or barring a woman from leadership roles. Again the question is: Will she be able to fulfill her primary God-given role in the home and family? Could she continue to support her husband’s leadership in the areas to which he has been called and to nurture her family if she were to take public office? This isn’t a question of giftedness or competence but relates to God’s design in making people male and female. Christians may legitimately vary in their choices in these matters because of life stage or even because of temporary (or long-term) cultural, personal, circumstantial, spiritual, or ethical factors (see our application chapter, “God’s Design Lived Out Today”). Also, since Scripture is primarily addressed to God’s people, whether Israel or the church, any application to non-Christians or to the modern workplace or political arena is necessarily indirect.

Did working on this book together cause you to rethink any view you previously held?

A fresh and focused look at the overall teaching of Scripture on God’s design for man and woman has given us what we think is a more balanced paradigm for men and women. Succinctly put, the overarching model that many have implicitly understood in recent years has been male leadership and female submission. Though true in essence, we believe that this approach may unduly constrain the woman’s role and contribution in marriage and the church. We might rather categorize the biblical teaching in these terms: male leadership and female partnership. Holding these two patterns in tension without denying or diminishing either is vital. Many unfortunately deny male leadership, which is indisputably and pervasively taught in Scripture, while others—in practice if not in principle—diminish the real sense of male-female partnership in keeping with Scripture’s depiction of the woman as the man’s counterpart and as his fellow heir of God’s grace.