Reforming Sexuality? Gender, Leadership and the Bible in the Controversy Between John Knox & Queen Mary

“My people infants are their oppressors, and women rule over them.”

Isaiah 3:12

Starting decades ago, many, especially in the universities, have lost faith in the Western civilization narrative. While this is not necessarily a new phenomenon, few have been the voices in the academia wanting to explore the possible reasons that led to such state of things. In order to reflect upon what led to this, one has to address by implication also the issue of leadership. The past decades have seen a progressive value shift from the sexual revolution, through the rise of feminism, all the way to today’s normalization of transgenderism. Side by side with this, and not necessarily just because of it, many Western countries have witnessed the weakening of governmental leadership. This has had an impact upon the leadership process both within the church and in society, to the point that Christians wanting to defend traditional views on these topics are often marginalized. This tension should not surprise us as Reformed Christians given our pedigree.

John Knox (c. 1513 –1572) was a controversial yet relevant figure for this specific issue, able to shed light in the current controversy over gender, sexuality and leadership. He’s often remembered as the “trumpet of the Scottish Reformation”. Yet this immortal title came only after many struggles and arrests due to his controversial message, specifically also for his thoughts on gender and leadership. Knox was often a fugitive, enslaved in the French galleys for nineteen months, having to then flee persecution from “bloody Mary”.[1] What made him uniquely controversial was his personality, his fiery preaching. He was also unashamed and vocal in addressing political matters, at the point of causing riots and sending “lightning thunders” to kings and lords because of their wrongdoings.[2]

During his exile in Geneva, Knox was strongly influenced by the thought and religious approach of John Calvin. He brought back from Geneva to his homeland, Scotland, a vision for the Reformation of the church and society, away from the tyranny of the papacy.[3] His most controversial and best-known pamphlet, published anonymously at first in 1558, was his treatise arguing against the government of women. The purpose of this article is to evaluate whether the view of John Knox on gender and leadership was Biblical and what lesson can be learned from the controversy between John Knox and queen Mary as applied to today’s shifts in gender and sexuality both in society and in the church. Queen Mary I of England was in power at the time of Knox’s reformation. She had also been negatively labeled as “bloody Mary” due to having executed many Protestants by burning at the stake. Mary of Guise was instead a member of the powerful French house of Guise whose ultra-Catholic Duke of Guise had been responsible with Catherine de Medici for the massacre of Huguenots during the Saint Bartholomew’s night in France.[4]

Since Mary of Guise’s project to transform Scotland into another Catholic nation under French control failed, she passed on the burdensome task to her daughter Mary queen of Scots, a Stuart, cousin of “bloody Mary” who became guilty of plotting to assassinate the Protestant half-sister queen Elizabeth, in 1586. Knox had to deal with those “three Marie” and it is therefore at least understandable why in dealing with gender and leadership his words were so sharp and condemning toward them for their acts and not just their gender. Knox felt that England was undergoing a crisis of leadership specifically as these women sought through injustices to counteract his religious reforms, but not merely on the basis of gender. Regrettably, as I will point out such distinction was not made by queen Elizabeth who despite sharing the Protestant faith did not appreciate Knox’s thoughts. Knox had often associated Mary Tudor, with the evil Biblical character of Jezebel, due to her bloody crimes and idolatry.[5] In his preamble to the first blast, Knox plainly attacks the government of women in the context again of those injustices perpetrated by the “three Marie”:

How abominable before God is the empire or rule of a wicked woman […] we hear [of] the blood of our brethren, the members of Christ Jesus, most cruelly to be shed; and the monstrous empire [government] of a cruel woman (the secret counsel of God excepted) we know to be the only occasion of all those miseries. […] I am assured that God has revealed to some in this our age, that it is more than a monster in nature that a woman shall reign and have empire above man. And yet, with us all there is such silence, as if God there with were nothing offended. […] And therefore, I say, that of necessity it is that this monstiferous empire of women (which amongst all enormities that this day do abound upon the face of the whole earth, is most detestable and damnable) be openly revealed and plainly declared to the world, to the end that some may repent and be saved.[6]

As Knox in his controversial pamphlet brings theological support to his position both from Scripture and the church fathers, he is nevertheless aware of those positive cases of women in leadership such as at the times of Judges or under queen Esther. However, as the parallel with Jezebel shows, Knox clarifies that unlike those pious and God-fearing Biblical examples, the women of his day pretended dominion over Scotland and England by being idolatrous, evil and scheming to subvert all justice through a mere tyrannical gynecocracy.[7] Therefore the attack of Knox is on women in leadership only insofar as through their false religion they promote corruption. Knox then expresses in detail his argument concerning gender and leadership ultimately establishing it as a rule even for the public sphere of government:

To promote a woman to bear rule, superiority, dominion, or empire above any realm, nation, or city, is repugnant to nature; contumely [an insult] to God, a thing most contrary to his revealed will and approved ordinance; and finally, it is the subversion of good order, of all equity and justice. […] it is a thing most repugnant to nature, that women rule and govern over men. For those that will not permit a woman to have power over her own sons, will not permit her (I am assured) to have rule over a realm; and those that will not suffer her to speak in defence of those that be accused (neither that will admit her accusation intended against man) will not approve her that she shall sit in judgment, crowned with the royal crown, usurping authority in the midst of men. […] First, I say, that woman in her greatest perfection was made to serve and obey man, not to rule and command him. As St. Paul does reason in these words: “Man is not of the woman, but the woman of the man. And man was not created for the cause of the woman, but the woman for the cause of man; and therefore ought the woman to have a power upon her head” [1 Cor. 11:8−10] (that is, a cover in sign of subjection). Of which words it is plain that the apostle means, that woman in her greatest perfection should have known that man was lord above her; and therefore that she should never have pretended any kind of superiority above him, no more than do the angels above God the Creator, or above Christ their head. So I say, that in her greatest perfection, woman was created to be subject to man.[8]

These words must be framed within the sixteenth century context once again so foreign to today’s culture so engraved in feminism and egalitarianism. According to a principle of nature, and not only of Scriptures, Knox believed women to be the weaker vessel, therefore being too frail to be able to bear the weight of authority in the public sphere. This is confirmed by the Reformer through a series of examples in history where women in leadership led to inconstancy, cruelty and lack of guidance.[9] By a logical procedure, questionable for some contemporary observers, Knox affirms that since the woman in the New Testament is not allowed to occupy places of authority in the church, all the more in public government this should ultimately be forbidden:

But the Holy Ghost gives to us another interpretation of this place, taking from all women all kinds of superiority, authority, and power over man, speaking as follows, by the mouth of St. Paul: “I suffer not a woman to teach, neither yet to usurp authority above man” (1 Tim. 2:12). Here he names women in general, excepting none; affirming that she may usurp authority above no man. And that he speaks more plainly in another place in these words: “Let women keep silence in the congregation, for it is not permitted to them to speak, but to be subject, as the law sayeth” (1 Cor. 14:34). These two testimonies of the Holy Ghost are sufficient to prove whatsoever we have affirmed before, and to repress the inordinate pride of women, as also to correct the foolishness of those that have studied to exalt women in authority above men, against God and against his sentence pronounced.[10]

An equally important source of Knox’s debates over gender and leadership comes from his prolonged personal dialogue with Mary Queen of Scots. If one goes to Edinburgh today, it is still possible to visit the outer chamber of the palace of Holyrood where Mary and Knox had these frequent dialogues.[11] From this detail of information, we gather first of all that Knox was willing to meet with her and, as he did so, he in no way displayed any form of sexism. The issue between the two was primarily a religious one rather than strictly a gender issue. Behind her false promises of support, Knox and the Protestants of Scotland in general recognized that she was often acting behind their back to suppress Protestantism through imprisonment, executions, and leading people to exile.[12] Mary at Holyrood had this series of five personal interviews with John Knox.[13] She condemned Knox’s book for undermining her authority and seeking to plot against her. Through the book, so she complained, her subjects were called to obey Knox rather than her. However, Knox replied that both subjects and princes should obey God.[14] In light of Knox’s persistence, she once declared these famous words: “I fear the prayers of John Knox more than all the armies of England”. From the dialogues between Knox and queen Mary emerges a very diplomatic and respectful attitude in Knox, while still not void of sarcasm toward those he perceived to be injustices of the queen against her subjects. Knox declared that if the realm would find no inconvenience in the government of a woman, he would be willing to submit: “like Paul under Nero”. Essentially, Knox declared that it was not his intention to trouble the queen as a woman and surprisingly he expressed his hope that the queen could be blessed: “as Deborah in Israel”.[15]

This shows how his critic of women in government was centered upon the religious and moral disputes of the day and it was not therefore an attack on women in general. However, not everyone was able to draw such distinction. Knox’s ideas on women’s rule did not encounter the favor even of the moderate Protestant queen Elizabeth. Some sources even point out the possibility that John Calvin himself might have commented that Knox’s writing on the matter as unhelpful to the cause of the reformed faith. Knox’s fiery words as contained in his book could perhaps make some contemporary reader’s hair stand on end.[16] In fact, because of his position on gender and leadership some have recently pictured Knox as a: “horrid man” or a male chauvinist.[17] Yet by doing so, they are using modern glasses in retrospection, neglecting the contextual historical as well as cultural realm into which Knox blew his apocalyptic trumpet. The charges of evil government to the “three Marie” can be substantiated and considered as legitimate even from a modern point of view, regardless of the issue of gender. Even looking at the issue of gender, Knox dialogued, respected and obeyed the very women he condemned. His overall goal was not to degrade women but to rebuke and address their religious and moral shortcomings in hope of reformation both in the church and in Scottish society at large. Knox was playing on the biblical concept of women’s rule as a sign of the judgement of God, not as a judgement of value upon women. What we see from this article therefore is that Knox might have been a Calvinist but not necessarily a chauvinist.

Also, we conclude that the evidence provided by Knox of unjust women in power throughout history does not necessarily validate per se the need for an exclusion of women from public governments. This is true also in light of the same evidence that historically the corrupting effect of power is no different in the case of men. Actually, many Biblical accounts are inclined to exalt godly examples of heroines in Israel, something that Knox himself, far from being a chauvinist, was well aware of. Women therefore can consider being involved in governmental capacities, if found to be godly. Yet, the fact itself raises the question: where are the men? This is a question that signals the fact that when such things happen men are not stepping up to do what they are supposed to do. In any case, Knox’s approach to gender and leadership was solidly grounded on Scriptures and poses an important challenge to the contemporary weakening in governmental leadership among many western countries. Such weakening is not necessarily related to women, but it does involve to some degree also changes in sexual roles and authority as a stimuli to such weakening of roles of authority in the family, in the church and in the public sphere. It is something that remains part and parcel of a broader cultural shift and reshaping of the universe of values holding together our current civilization. Women in governmental leadership as a widespread phenomenon, while not being necessarily something wrong, remains at least not so ideal from a Biblical perspective. Whenever such instance is described in the Bible it is within the framework of a national and political crisis. Also, the role of women must be kept in light of the parallel spheres of sovereignty. The same expectations or patterns we observe in the family should be observed in the church and likewise ideally in society. Just as women are to submit to their husband in the family, and just as men should be pastor in the church, so the issue of women in the military or transgender males playing female athletics are examples of how Knox had a point in his consideration upon human constitution.

This is where gender ideology comes into the picture. Feminism, the sexual revolution, homosexuality and transgenderism are to be seen all as consecutive steps toward the same direction, gradually threatening to reconstruct the very identity and cultural understanding of Western societies. When ancient societies, whether the Greeks or the Romans, reached such confusion of sexual identity and authority it was a sign of their downfall. Another implication, while not being the main original focus of Knox, concerns the role of women in the church, a point highly debated today among many modern evangelicals. While Knox deals with the issue of women in governments, once again with a focus upon ethically and religiously wicked women rather than women for women’s sake, it is possible to infer from Scriptures themselves (1 Timothy 2:12-15) as well as from Knox’s overall argument that by implication women should not be in leadership in the church. In this case we can confidently claim that it is the church that gave a bad example to society on this matter of leadership and then society simply followed the trend, as the representatives of the kingdom of God do indeed influence for good or for bad society at large. This is where John Knox could also inform in ascertaining who is more biblical in the current debate within Calvinistic circles between defenders of soft-complementarianism and defenders of patriarchy. As women are today appointed as pastors in many denominations, including Reformed denominations, and as many churches lose even confidence of how to define the word pastor, Knox’s blasting trumpet sounds very loud, uncompromising as he was willing to face controversy in order to call us back to the Bible.

[1] Crawford Gribben, “John Knox, Reformation History and National Self-Fashioning.” Reformation & Renaissance Review 8.1 (2006): 61.

[2] Richard Kyle, “The Thundering Scot: John Knox the Preacher.” Westminster Theological Journal 63 (2002):135.

[3] Hans J. Hillerbrand, eds. The Reformation. A Narrative History Related by Contemporary Observers and Participants (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1982): 362.

[4] David Laing, Selected Writings of John Knox (Dallas, TX: Presbyterian Heritage Publications, 1995), 439.

[5] William Croft Dickinson, John Knox’s History of the Reformation in Scotland. Vol. 1 (New York, NY: Philosophical Library, 1950), 118.

[6] John Knox, The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women (London, UK: Blackmask, 2002), 1-2.

[7] Maria Zina Gonçalves De Abreu, “John Knox: Gynaecocracy, ‘The Monstrous Empire of Women’.” Reformation and Renaissance Review 5.2 (2003):166.

[8] John Knox, The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women (London, UK: Blackmask, 2002), 3-5.

[9] Stanford Reid, “John Knox, Pastor of Souls.” Westminster Theological Seminary (September 1977): 12.

[10] John Knox, The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women (London, UK: Blackmask, 2002), 6.

[11] Elizabeth Withley, The Plain Mr. Knox (Glasgow, UK: Christian Focus Publications, 2001), 105.

[12] John Knox, The Reformation in Scotland (Edinburgh, SCT: Banner of Truth Trust, 1982): 155.

[13] John Spottiswood, The History of the Church of Scotland. Vol. 2 (Edinburgh, SCT: Ams Press, 1973), 6.

[14] Owen W. Chadwick, “John Knox and Revolution.” Andover Newton Quarterly (1975): 250.

[15] Richard L. Greaves, Theology & Revolution in the Scottish Reformation (Grand Rapids, MI: Christian University Press, 1980),164.

[16] Preserved Smith, The Reformation in Europe (London, UK: Collier-Macmillian Ltd., 1966), 275.

[17] David Calhoun, “John Knox (1514-1572). After Five Hundred Years.” Presbyterion 40 (2014): 3.


Calhoun, David “John Knox (1514-1572). After Five Hundred Years.” Presbyterion 40 (2014): 1-13. Accessed February 13, 2017. http://web.a.ebscohost.com/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?sid=ff3894b9-0f46-454f-8b38-4a7eff8edaf1%40sessionmgr4008&vid=0&hid=4209

Chadwick, Owen W. “John Knox and Revolution.” Andover Newton Quarterly (1975): 250-266. Accessed February 13, 2017. http://web.a.ebscohost.com/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?sid=21f57b6e-cdc9-42bd-b62c-4ff3b78c883c%40sessionmgr4007&vid=0&hid=4209

De Abreu, Gonçalves Maria Zina “John Knox: Gynaecocracy, ‘The Monstrous Empire of Women’.” Reformation and Renaissance Review 5.2 (2003): 166-187. Accessed February 13, 2017. http://web.a.ebscohost.com/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?sid=774eb4f8-3303-4d2b-8044-4e98af6303ca%40sessionmgr4008&vid=0&hid=4209

Dickinson, William Croft John Knox’s History of the Reformation in Scotland. Vol. 1-2. New York, NY: Philosophical Library, 1950.

Greaves, Richard L. Theology & Revolution in the Scottish Reformation. Grand Rapids, MI: Christian University Press, 1980.

Gribben, Crawford “John Knox, Reformation History and National Self-Fashioning.” Reformation & Renaissance Review 8.1 (2006): 48-66. Accessed February 13, 2017. http://web.a.ebscohost.com/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?sid=38f80b9c-663b-4ccc-b1d7-715785977083%40sessionmgr4010&vid=0&hid=4209

Laing, David Selected Writings of John Knox. Dallas, TX: Presbyterian Heritage Publications, 1995.

Hillerbrand, Hans J. eds. The Reformation. A Narrative History Related by Contemporary Observers and Participants. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1982.

Knox, John The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women. London, UK: Blackmask, 2002. Accessed February 13, 2017. http://public-library.uk/ebooks/35/36.pdf

       ____.The Reformation in Scotland. Edinburgh, SCT: Banner of Truth Trust, 1982.

Kyle, Richard “The Thundering Scot: John Knox the Preacher.” Westminster Theological Journal 63 (2002): 135-149. Accessed February 13, 2017. http://web.a.ebscohost.com/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?sid=7b0550af-31bd-4432-a1ba-c78bb0f31ccd%40sessionmgr4010&vid=0&hid=4209

Reid, Stanford “John Knox, Pastor of Souls.” Westminster Theological Seminary (September 1977): 1-21. Accessed February 13, 2017. http://web.a.ebscohost.com/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?sid=7cd49a84-3004-41cc-adf8-70dce5d23e0c%40sessionmgr4008&vid=0&hid=4209

Smith, Preserved The Reformation in Europe. London, UK: Collier-Macmillian Ltd., 1966.

Spottiswood, John The History of the Church of Scotland. Vol. 1-2. Edinburgh, SCT: Ams Press, 1973.

Withley, Elizabeth The Plain Mr. Knox. Glasgow, UK: Christian Focus Publications, 2001.

Dr. Ottavio Palombaro was born in Castiglione del Lago, Italy, and raised as a practicing Roman Catholic. He was saved by God’s grace in 2011. He is an Italian Theologian, Sociologist and Cultural Anthropologist. His research focused on sociology of religion, church history and theology, as well as studies on Protestantism with a focus on Calvinism. He studied at the University of Rome “La Sapienza” (B.A.), at the University of Turin (M.A.), at the University “Statale” of Milan (Ph.D.) at Tyndale Theological Seminary in Netherlands, at the Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan U.S.A. (M.Div.) and at the Free University of Amsterdam (Th.D.). He has taught in various academic institutions both in Europe and in United States of America (University of Milan Italy, University of Olomouc in Check Republic, Purdue University in USA, Tyndale Seminary in Netherlands, Bob Jones University in USA and Logos School Academy of Moscow in USA). He has written more than a dozen high academic research articles and a book-autobiography (From Rome to Reformed). Currently he has two academic books in the process of being published. His research interests gravitate around Sociology of Religion, Church history and Calvinistic theology. Ottavio Palombaro is also a Reformed Baptist pastor. He has a rich ministerial and educational background, with diverse experience in the United States and Europe. Ottavio deeply appreciates expository preaching and is passionate about seeing lives transformed by God’s word. Ottavio is married to his wife, Heidi, and they have two children.
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