What Does the Bible Say About Women in Social Roles?

Most believers who consider God to have created the man and the woman with equal personhood but differing roles at least minimally agree that women are not to be in authority over men in the church and home (1 Tim 2:12). What then should we consider to be the biblical guidelines for women in society? Are there any boundaries for women outside the spheres of the home and the church? While reading Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, I came across one author’s answer regarding the question of which societal roles a woman should feel comfortable holding with respect to the created order.[1]

The author provides a paradigm in which a job’s attributes can be described to determine if that job would be appropriate for a woman or not. He labels all jobs as “personal” or “non-personal”, and “directive” or “non-directive.” The idea is that the more personal the scenario, the more inappropriate it would be for the woman to have directive influence. An example of his definition of “directive” would be telling someone what to do as opposed to a “non-directive” form of persuasion.

The author’s definition of “personal” is a little fuzzy. He puts both the husband of a woman and a male secretary to a female boss on the personal side of the continuum. On the “non-personal” side, he places construction workers reading the blueprints from a female architect whom, presumably, they have never met. I found these scenarios a little puzzling for the corporate world. It is hard to see how this situation would function for a working wife, or a single woman who needs a job that will provide her with what she needs to support herself? For instance, how did this female architect get this job without ever telling a man what she needed him to do?

I can recall my days as a manager at a restaurant chain. I knew the team members I worked with pretty well. If I had had to persuade the male team members to clean the restrooms and simply hope they’d feel like doing it, I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t have gotten around to my request. Surely there must be some room between barking orders like a tyrant and making requests which carry no weight in relating to those over whom we have authority, male or female. I respect the consistency the author is trying to display as a complementarian, and I firmly agree with him that one does not check their gender at the door outside of the church and home.

However I don’t believe this is a one-size-fits-all, flowchart-type of situation.

Since Scripture does not give the same kind of paradigms for women in society as it does for women in the home and church, we cannot necessarily carbon copy those rules to other realms. The Proverbs 31 woman is set as a standard for biblical womanhood; I doubt she managed a household and vineyard without overseeing any male workers.

So what would Scripture have said to me when I was 17, working to save for college and was offered a promotion which would put me above my coworkers of both genders? How can I retain my femininity when telling my male coworkers I need them to go take out the trash?

Scripture has trustworthy wisdom for this situation, as well as others where no direct command is given.

First Peter 3:4 tells us that God values a gentle and quiet spirit in His daughters. This should lead me to consider the way in which I ask those I manage to do things. I should be careful not to have a brash tone and not to be proud in my authority but respectful of them, both as coworkers and as men and women made in God’s image, while letting them know what I need them to do. Genesis 1 tells us God created us man and woman. His creation of both genders goes far beyond physical traits. When we understand gender was created to illustrate God’s relationship to His people, we can honor this pattern in the way we interact with men. Because of this, a working woman should seek to encourage, not belittle, the masculinity of those with whom she works just as she should not feel she needs to stifle her God-given femininity. A woman shouldn’t feel forced to ignore her nurturing inclinations; similarly, a man’s desire to protect should not be undermined.

The example of Ruth and Boaz comes to mind. We can see that Ruth was a resourceful strong young woman with great work ethic from the Scripture. But we also see her clear embrace of feminine character as she showed humility to Boaz and obedience and dedication to her mother-in-law. Before things had any hint of romance, Boaz sought to protect Ruth by allowing her to glean in his fields and informing other men they were not to bother her. Rather than taking offence to his gesture of assistance, she graciously accepted his aid and, by this, encouraged his masculinity.

Scripture contains many other passages talking about the character of godly women, which should affect our behavior in every sector of life.

Like 1 Timothy 3:11 – don’t give in to gossip and be dignified; Proverbs 31:2 – teach in kindness; Proverbs 11:6 – be gracious. Sometimes it may seem frustrating or troublesome that the Bible doesn’t just tell us what to do in each and every situation. While God doesn’t give us explicit commands for everything, He gives us something better. He gives us the Holy Spirit to help us (John 16:7)! The Spirit and Word work together to show us biblical wisdom for each and every situation we find ourselves in.

Rather than building man-made paradigms for new or more detailed rules, we should search what Scripture says about womanhood and pray for direction and sensitivity to the Spirit when considering our role in society.

We must be ever watchful to avoid looking for a way around the clear application of Scripture when we’re uncomfortable with it. But, we should be equally careful not to act like Eve by adding to the commands of God (Gen 3:1-3). The Bible is clear about God’s design for men and women in the church and home (Eph 5:22-33; 1 Tim. 2:9-15); but we must be careful not to go beyond Scripture by applying it to situations or spheres it isn’t addressing.

Reading blogs and books can be extremely helpful as we work through our convictions. But we must be as the Bereans of Acts 17 and search the Scriptures to find out if these things are so. The Bible leaves room for personal convictions, and Romans 14 encourages us to be fully convinced in the convictions we hold. There are jobs I might be less comfortable holding than my friend might be. There are stages in life where I would consider it unwise for me to hold a certain career or any career at all. God expects obedience from us individually. We will each stand before God responsible for our obedience to His Word and guidance (which will not contradict each other) in our individual situation, not for our obedience to man-made rules. In light of this, Scripture and the Spirit can lead this to play out differently, but appropriately, in each woman’s life, but all to God’s glory.



[1]John Piper, “A Vision of Biblical Complementarity,” in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, 2nd ed. (Wheaton: Crossway, 2006), 50-52.

6 thoughts on “What Does the Bible Say About Women in Social Roles?”

  1. K. Martin says:

    You made some very good points: (1) “we should search what Scripture says about womanhood and pray for direction and sensitivity to the Spirit when considering our role in society.” (2)”we must be as the Bereans of Acts 17 and search the Scriptures to find out if these things are so.”

    I too agree with many of the things that Piper teaches about gender roles. However, he and many other comps tend to focus almost exclusively on Paul and Peter’s teachings about gender rather than approaching the subject more wholisiticly. 2 Tim 3:16-17 states, “ALL Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.” In other words, ALL means ALL – not just Paul and Peter’s teachings.

    That brings us to the question you posed in your post, “What then should we consider to be the biblical guidelines for women in society? Are there any boundaries for women outside the spheres of the home and the church?”

    Being that you have studied Piper’s teachings you are probably very well versed on what Paul and Peter had to say about gender roles. In addition to their teachings, it’s extremely important and helpful to consider what virtuous women listed throughout the Bible said, did and illustrated for our learning. Of course, the foolish women listed in scripture teach us what not to do. For the sake of brevity, I’ll only reference virtuous women and how they contributed to their perspective communities.

    Esther helped save her Jewish people from annihilation. In Es 4:16-17, Esther “instructed” Mordecai and all the Jews in Susa.
    Rahab helped the spies and made a bargain that saved her household. In Jos 2:16, Rahab “instructed” the spies about how to hide and escape.
    Dorcas helped the poor. Acts 9:36
    Deborah was a judge, prophet and spiritual mother to the nation of Israel. Judges 4 & 5
    Prophet Huldah authenticated a very important book for the king, the people and for all Judah. 2 Kings 22:14
    Phoebe was a deacon in the church of Cenchrea and a helper to many. Ro 16:1-2
    Sheerah built Lower and Upper Beth Horon as well as Uzzen Sheerah. 1 Chr 7:24
    The wise woman of Abel spoke up and made a bargain that saved her city. 2 Sam 20:14-22
    Lydia opened up her home and allowed the disciples to have church meetings there. Acts 16:40
    Prophet Anna spoke about Jesus “to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.” Luke 2:36-38
    The woman at the well testified about Jesus. As a result, many of the Samaritans from that town believed in him. John 4:39
    Jael killed an Israeli enemy. Jud 4:21

    Of course, there are many other virtuous women listed throughout scripture. However, these women are most likely noted and remembered because of their community impact. Hopefully, this further addresses your question and is good food for thought.

  2. K. Martin says:

    You said, “First Peter 3:4 tells us that God values a gentle and quiet spirit in His daughters.”

    I fully understand that your post is addressing the role of women. However, gentleness and quietness are qualities that both men and women should practice. Gentleness and quietness are not gender specific.

    Gentleness: James 3:13, 1 Tim 6:11, Phil 4:5, Col 3:12, Eph 4:2, Gal 6:1

    Make it your goal to live a quiet life, minding your own business and working with your hands, just as we instructed you before. 1 Thes 4:11

  3. Linda says:

    Thank you for this! I really needed to read it. About a year ago I was introduced to Egalitarianism. Born and raised in a Christian home, I never felt as though women should be church leaders, but I’d never thought much about the “why not?” of it, and I was completely unaware of this movement. Over the past 3 weeks I have begun a full blown investigation into the disturbing trend of “gender equality” within the church. The inerrancy of scripture has been set aside. I am completely blown away by the arrogance of “intellectual” women and men who have decided that scripture really doesn’t say what it says, and that THEY have discovered what Paul REALLY meant. (Wayne Grudem’s book “Evangelical Feminism” is a terrific review of the theories espoused by egalitarians. ) However, in discovering the “why not” as it pertains to egalitarianism, and in confirming that I am indeed a complementarian, I was a little uncertain as to how to respond to the argument that women in society have been afforded the opportunities that many feminists would say uphold their arguments for gender equality with in the church. I am a single, never-been-married mom with a solid career in law enforcement (non-sworn) for the past 27 years. I am a pretty good example of how the women’s movement has worked! =) I am glad that we have been afforded the right to vote. I am glad that women can seek a career if they so chose, but I definitely believe that women who work exclusively in the home is the most admirable of careers. (My mother never worked outside the home. What a blessing!) But the popular culture’s idea that women can “have it all” – a full time career AND kids AND a husband…seems to be to be putting too much pressure on women, and certainly cannot be Biblical. How can each “job” be done satisfactorily when a woman is this overwhelmed? How can I respond when an egalitarian uses my own career success to argue for their views of women’s equality within the church? My only response thus far would have been, “Society and culture should not influence the church. The church should influence society & culture!” So, this article was just what I needed to read at this exact moment in time! God is so good – thank you for your obedience in serving Him in this manner. I just became a fan of Biblical Women!

    1. Katie McCoy says:

      Hey Linda! It’s so exciting to hear that you are diving into these issues! As a single, working mom, you are a hero! We have a unique opportunity that I hope you’ll be able to be part of – our most influential class, Biblical Theology of Womanhood, is being offered online and you can audit it for free! It’s taught by Dorothy Patterson and Candi Finch, two of my favorite professors, and you can walk through everything the Bible says about being a woman. You’ll be able to watch the lectures whenever it’s convenient for you and it will even have study questions. The Old Testament is this fall, New Testament in Spring 2015. This class will equip you to respond to the very things you’re identifying in the culture!

      1. Linda says:

        Ohhh my goodness that sounds amazing. I will check into it, thank you!!

  4. DWK says:

    A “quiet and gentle spirit” should be cultivated in both men AND women and shouldn’t be restricted to females only. Also, there is a time and a place to be “quiet and gentle”, but if a person should try to upset this delicate balance through aggressive or threatening behavior, you can certainly bet that they will live to regret it. Too often, women and girls especially, are encouraged to be “quiet and gentle” in all circumstances, and will become victims instead, due to this unfortunate social conditioning. Live with grace, but don’t encourage passive stupidity.