A Modest Proposal to Make Peace Between Complementarians & Egalitarians

17th in a multipart series.

Here I want to sketch out in some basic detail, a proposal that seeks to make peace between complementarians and egalitarians in a church, that holds to an “agree to disagree” position on matters pertaining to women and men, participating together in ministry. I have outlined this proposal in brief before, but perhaps it needs a bit of fleshing out.

To get the sense of how this modest proposal is arrived at, I would urge the reader to review the previous 16 posts in this series, to get the full flow of the argument. I have anticipated each objection to the various points made in this proposal, and suggested answers to these objections, in those prior blog posts, as well as a future follow-up post.

Some will undoubtedly be skeptical, thinking that such an “agree to disagree” solution will not work. Perhaps the critics are correct, and I am wrong. But for the sake of the reputation of the church, I really hope I am not.

Some things are worth dividing a church. The question of “women as elders,” is not one of them (at least I hope it is not). Nevertheless, how we view the concept of “eldership” is consequential as to how the discussion proceeds.

Some on both sides will think I am simply “giving in” too much to the other side. I fully expect such criticism. If what I am suggesting feels like too much to bear, I simply ask that you think and pray about it. But I would hope that the vast majority of those who are either in the middle, or otherwise, undecided, might find this proposal acceptable, at least in principle.

My aim is to make a proposal that makes a demand upon a Christian’s charity, but not a demand upon a Christian’s conscience. It requires that a Christian, who disagrees with another Christian, to give as much forebearance as possible to another believer, in terms of giving that person the benefit of the doubt, as to what ultimately motivates that person, in hopes of seeking to gently persuade the other to at least consider seeing something from a new perspective.

I must confess that I am not so good at doing that myself. I would much rather rally around the task of reaching out to a lost and dying world, than spending countless resources debating over this particular issue. I know that this issue is important to a lot of Christians, but to me, it pales in comparison to knowing that people are perishing everyday, not knowing Jesus. So, if I have come across as snarky or otherwise impatient, in some elements of this whole blog series, I ask for your forgiveness.

This proposal aims at preserving the conscience of the believer, not to compromise on the most fundamental, theological principles that they hold dear. For as the bookish 16th century monk, Martin Luther, argued before the Diet of Worms, with the Holy Roman Emperor in full view, armed to the teeth with the power to destroy Luther’s life, “to go against conscience is neither right nor safe.”

At its most fundamental, the complementarian holds dear the principle that men and women are different, and that this difference is best modeled within the life of the church by preserving the office of elder, those who exercise ultimate spiritual and pastoral authority within a local church, to be held by men and men-only. To submit to a woman as elder would go against a complementarian’s conscience.

In contrast, the egalitarian holds dear the principle that men and women are equal within the sight of God, and they should both flourish in the full exercise of their gifts and talents, to serve Christ and His Kingdom, for the building up of the body, and reaching a lost world. To fail to honor the giftings and calling of women, for ministry, or to put any artificial, arbitrary limits on women, as to how they can serve, would go against an egalitarian’s conscience.

In the spirit of Acts 15, here are the different points of this modest proposal:

  • Elders are pastors, and pastors are elders. Limit the responsibilities of the elders to function primarily in the role of pastoring, those areas that directly seek to protect the spiritual health of the community, as in the definition of church doctrine, implementing church discipline, and being willing to die first, for the sake of the larger body, when placed under the threat of persecution.
  • Encourage both men and women to serve as deacons.
  • Expand the office of deaconship, and other church staff and volunteer activities, to offload as many tasks as possible from the elders, that do not specifically pertain to the function of pastoring, identified above.
  • Allow for the possibility that women may serve as elders.
  • Yet in practice, restrict the actual selection of elders to be only men.
  • Encourage a congregation wide vision of men training men, and women training women, for the sake of Gospel-centered discipleship.

Here is why the above proposal might work, point-by-point:

  • The primary function of an elder is to pastor and shepherd the flock. To clutter up the task list of the elders with those activities that distract the elders from fulfilling their primary tasks is to be avoided as much as possible. Work towards divesting the elders of non-pastoral functions, and give them to non-elders. The primary task list of a shepherd can be reduced to the three “D’s”:
    • Doctrine: To define and preach the biblical theology of the church, such that the congregation is being protected from false teaching and heretical error, that might compromise the tender faith of the flock.
    • Discipline: To take the appropriate action, when serious sin is committed in the church, that could severely impair the spiritual health of the community, with the aim of encouraging repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation, if possible.
    • Death: If persecution become inevitable for the local church community, the elders would be the first ones to “go to the stake,” and give their lives, on behalf of the church community.
  • The office of deacon should be open to men and women, recognizing that both have much to give to the service of the local church.
  • Encourage deacons, staff members, and other volunteers to assume those tasks that can be delegated away from the elders as much as possible, under the spiritual oversight of the elders. For this modest proposal to work, elders and non-elders must work together, making it clear that any exercise of ministry, conducted by non-elders, must have the full blessing of the elders, that non-elders would be in full submission to the elders, recognizing that these elders bear the spiritual responsibility and authority over all ministry efforts, of that local church body. This would include making it possible for all non-elders, men and women, to fully exercise their gifts and talents, to include the widest range of activities; such as (and this is an incomplete list):
    • administration
    • the ministry to children and youth,
    • church planting, outreach to the poor, sick and homeless, and other missionary work,
    • developing the long term strategic direction of the church,
    • the leading of corporate worship in prayer, music, etc.,
    • assist the elders/pastors as they lead, in the administration of the sacraments or ordinances of the church.
    • Bible study leading, adult Bible class leading, leading in parachurch-type ministries,
    • public exhortation, the appropriate exercise of prophecy, and perhaps even an occasional testimony or sermon (you can call it “exhortation,” if you do not like the word “sermon”)
    • broadly speaking, for the geeks out there, this would also include affirming women in evangelical academia in the exercise of scholarship, that would help the church to gain a better insight into Scripture.
  • For 2,000 years, most Christians have understood the exercise of pastoring, as defined by the the three “D’s” above, to be the proper domain of men. However, tradition is not above being reexamined, in light of what Scripture says, in each and every generation. It is therefore possible that this male-only eldership understanding of Scripture has been wrong. If sufficient evidence is demonstrated, then the church needs to be willing to allow for the possibility of thus permitting women to serve as elders. This demands charity on the part of complementarians, while preserving the conscience of egalitarians.
  • However, in deference to this 2,000 years worth of long-standing tradition, despite occasional exercises to the contrary within the history of the church, the local church should refrain from selecting women as elders, in practice, until it has been sufficiently demonstrated that this historic position has been wrong.  This demands charity on the part of egalitarians, while preserving the conscience of complementarians.
  • Having a congregational-wide vision of men training men, and women training women, is the last step to all of this. But not only does this impact discipleship; that is, how we can enable believers to grow in their relationship with Jesus. It also involves a strategy for how to reach a lost world for Jesus.

I have my own ideas as to how such a strategy to reach a lost world for Jesus might be accomplished. But I will wait until an upcoming blog post to spell it out. Aside from a few straggler blog posts, to come out here and there, that upcoming (and last in the series) also gives me the opportunity to finally “land the plane,” so that you can figure out where I ultimately stand on this issue, if you have not figured it out already. You can take what I say or leave it.

Onward as we near the end of this series!!

About Clarke Morledge

Clarke Morledge -- Computer Network Engineer, College of William and Mary... I hiked the Mount of the Holy Cross, one of the famous Colorado Fourteeners, with some friends in July, 2012. My buddy, Mike Scott, snapped this photo of me on the summit. View all posts by Clarke Morledge

2 responses to “A Modest Proposal to Make Peace Between Complementarians & Egalitarians

  • Sarah Joiner

    Thanks for this proposal Clarke. It looks good to me and might provide a way forward for some churches. Btw, I’m looking for a quote from you in a blogpost from the last couple of years, where you warn against introducing debatable issues – such as science, interpretations of prophecy etc – into preaching, as they might cause some would-be disciples to turn away from Christ. Does this ring any bells? Really appreciate your blogs. Sarah


    • Clarke Morledge

      Thanks, Sarah. I am trying to recall the quote you are talking about. I think I would reframe it now a bit differently. There are “disputable matters” (Romans 14:1) that are better of left outside of the normal preaching exercise on a Sunday morning, primarily because they can generate so much confusion, without sufficient interaction with the congregation. At least, in our church, the Sunday morning sermon is basically a time to listen. Whereas a format like a Sunday school class, a Q&A session after the service, etc. allows the opportunity for folks to ask questions, promoting more of a sense of dialogue, as opposed to a monologue.

      I think good pastoring requires that the pastor not only be a good preacher, but also, that they be a good listener and dialogue partner. Without that, yes, “would-be disciples” might “turn away from Christ.” But with some back-and-forth interaction with church leadership, it does help to encourage folks, particularly those new to the church, to have a sense of being heard, and also having a better sense of what that local church is all about.

      Thank you for your feedback!!


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