Editor’s note: This article is a personal reflection from a woman exploring how a complementarian understanding of men and women in Scripture might apply to her own working life. It does not seek to outline or defend the complementarian position itself. For more on complementarianism, we recommend Claire Smith’s ‘God’s Good Design’ (Matthias Media, second edition, 2019).
I have the trifecta. I’m a Christian, a woman and a complementarian. That means there are some issues the world takes for granted, that I need to think through and work out how I should biblically respond. You see, I work in a secular business and I hold, by skill base and years of experience, a more senior position that many others in the firm which, as a holder of the trifecta, could be problematic.
A complementarian understanding of Scripture leads me to conclude that men and women are created equally by God, but for different roles—at least insofar as it comes to marriage (Eph 5) and church life (1 Tim 2). In those settings, I believe the Bible says it is men who are to be in positions of loving, humble authority and leadership. So what do I do with this when it comes to my secular workplace, where there are up to 30 people—both men and women—across various teams who I need to direct in tasks, deadlines and budgets? Is it right for me to have men under my authority?
I like to work and, as a single mum, I have to. And God has graciously put me in a position where I am trained to do something that pays enough to provide financial stability. Yet I’ve also had to ask myself: should I sacrifice this job to do something else?
Some people might suppose I’m over thinking this. But I think the question is important. I want to strive for holiness in all areas of my life—not just the ones where the way forward is easy and clear. And I want to be obedient, faithful and true to my complementation convictions. I should note here that complementarianism can often be assumed to be quite a monochromatic position of self-sacrificial submission in which a woman must lay aside her talents. I believe that the position is far more nuanced and I wanted to work through these issues to make sure my theology is applied as faithfully as possible.
After a lot of reading, I’ve found the combined wisdom of several Bible teachers very helpful in working out what my work life might look like as a complementation Christian. The starting point was a talk at the EQUIP women’s conference in 2017. Annabel Nixey drew my attention to the clarity of Genesis 1 and 2 in breathing life into our understanding of womanhood in marriage and ministry. From the beginning, it is clear that God created men and women (Gen 1:26, 2:7 and 2:22) and woman is to be ezer: a helper fit for (or “corresponding to”) man. While this is clearly a role of great dignity and worth, with the term ‘ezer’ being applied to God himself in Psalm 121:1-2, the Genesis account evidently shows men and women to be created for different roles. Because these differences are rooted in creation, as Nixey points out, it would be inappropriate to limit these foundational Genesis truths to just marriage and ministry. Yet it would also be inappropriate to push Scripture beyond what it actually says. Nixey stated that Scripture doesn’t restrict our roles in the workplace but God gives us a new purpose in those roles. Our role as ‘helpers’ progresses God’s plans in the world, including the workplace.
John Piper drew my attention to Abigail in 1 Samuel 25:23-35, who was able to talk David out of killing Nabal. Using her example, Piper exhorts women to communicate and influence through petition and persuasion rather than exact directives, as a means of expressing the created order. The exhortation to gentle influence is helpful, but I continue to find the corollary of applying this throughout life, as Piper suggests, can become worryingly difficult.
Like Annabel Nixey, Carrie Sandom points out that women are called to submit to their husbands—not all men—and that Scripture is silent on what roles women (or men) can take outside the home. In my opinion, attempts to prescriptively legislate on the roles of women outside the home can be a source of anxiety to many women, can give an unfortunate reductive reading of the creation account, and often tends towards legalism. As Sandom helpfully highlights,“where these covenant (or familial) relationships are absent, there is freedom” to make a wise call based on an individual’s context and gifting. And, while the Bible may not specifically address the issue of women in the workplace, it has plenty to say about how women (and men) should conduct themselves as followers of Jesus.
These perspectives helped me to realise is that it is not wrong to have the job that I have. But I want my style of my communication and how I conduct myself to be absolutely true to my understanding of the created order that I read in God’s word.
In light of all this, I have tried to style my working life as ‘motherly’. Does that sound lame? You should see how I parent! Being middle-aged helps, but to me being ‘motherly’ means helping, supporting, correcting with firmness and gentleness. It means avoiding the kind of draconian measures that would dishonour God and subvert his created order. It also means having a pastoral approach to my work. As a manager of people, this means I can view my work as a service to those I am tasked to lead. And given that we follow a crucified Saviour, a model of humble leadership is one that we strive to emulate anyway.
A motherly and pastoral style is an authentic approach that fits with the personality God has given me. It is not a ‘front’ that jars with what people understand of me. It’s just me. It allows for genuine relationship which works more harmoniously with God’s created order and the needs of my work.
If I was younger (or advising younger women in my position) I would say this can also be expressed in sisterly and collegiate godliness. Again, taking a pastoral style of leadership in a secular setting speaks volumes of the one who humbled himself to lead and save. We can be ‘mothers’ and ‘sisters’ who lead by supporting—helpers in leadership. It means being loving, helpful, watchful and supportive, but correcting gently where need be.
If someone has missed a deadline, instead of coming down hard on them, as a first port of call I aim to ask, “What can I do to help?”. If someone has blown a budget I might say, “Talk to me about was happening and what do you think we need to do next time?”. “Are you OK?” is such an important question. Being a helper in leadership means leading in humility and empathy to best express God’s purpose in where he has placed us. I find that when people recognise my style is relational and compassionate, it creates a safer space for correction and rebuke when that is called for.
I appreciate that being a ‘sister’ who leads (rather than a mother) is perhaps harder to pull off. Advanced years gives me the benefit of automatic deference in many ways that a younger woman doesn’t have. Yet I’ve found that if I stay consistent and anchored, people get where I am coming from over time and they see the results of my approach. I try to avoid giving in to the temptation to be authoritarian as a means of competing with or beating the men who might oppose you. I work in an industry that is male-dominated and can be quite severe. But I have decided to retain my relentlessly cheerful approach to leadership in all situations. I’m glad to say that staying true to my convictions—rather than buying into worldly wisdom—has brought me great joy and contentment, even if I don’t win every battle.
There have been times when others have been tempted to see me as a push over because my style is different. If they try to step over me (or on me), my first port of call is God: I remember who I am before him, how secure my true identity is, and that I don’t need to play the world’s games. Yet because we are not called to submit to all men in all non-personal walks of life, I believe it’s also right to defend myself against inappropriate behaviour and personal attacks. What matters is the manner in which I do it—without anger, bitterness, bile and punitive action.
The bottom line for me is always Psalm
127:1. Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labour in vain. For
me, this issue is about how I build the Lord’s house in my whole life—in my
home, as a parent, as a woman and as a person working in a secular workplace.
The person I am building at home and in my Bible study is the same as the person
I am building at work. It takes prayer and intentionality to work out my theology
in this context. But I think it is absolutely worth it. My working life is so
much more harmonious and rewarding when it is matured through the lens of
 ESV footnote for Genesis 1:26.
 John Piper takes a classically ‘broad view’ on the issue of women in the workplace. That is, he applies complementarianism in its broadest sense, across all areas of life. See Jonathan Leeman ‘A Word of Empathy, Warning and Counsel for “Narrow” Complementarians’ (2 August 2018 at 9Marks.org, viewed 13 February 2021) for more on this.
 John Piper, What’s the Difference? Manhood and Womanhood Defined According to the Bible, Crossway, 2018, p. 63.
 Carrie Sandom, Different by Design, Christian Focus Publications, 2012, Kindle edition, location 2416.
 Sandom, Different by Design, location 2268.
 Sandon, Different by Design, location 2416.