If you had to take a vote, what would you say is the weirdest passage in the New Testament? Some might raise their hand and immediately say “The Book of Revelation.” Ok, that is a whole book, so how about something shorter?
I mean, when I first tried to read the entire New Testament cover-to-cover back in high school, this one just jumped out at me: What in the world is Paul talking about? Here is the whole disputed passage from the English Standard Version:
2 Now I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I delivered them to you. 3 But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God. 4 Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head, 5 but every wife who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head, since it is the same as if her head were shaven. 6 For if a wife will not cover her head, then she should cut her hair short. But since it is disgraceful for a wife to cut off her hair or shave her head, let her cover her head. 7 For a man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God, but woman is the glory of man. 8 For man was not made from woman, but woman from man. 9 Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. 10 That is why a wife ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels. 11 Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man nor man of woman; 12 for as woman was made from man, so man is now born of woman. And all things are from God. 13 Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a wife to pray to God with her head uncovered? 14 Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair it is a disgrace for him, 15 but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For her hair is given to her for a covering. 16 If anyone is inclined to be contentious, we have no such practice, nor do the churches of God.
Some of the things that Paul says sound fairly straightforward, but certainly not all of it. Frankly, if you are like most Christians I know, you probably just gloss over this passage and move onto something else. Better to pretend that something this weird in the Bible did not exist, right?
Everything about head coverings in 1 Corinthians 11 (….. well, maybe not “everything,” but we try to hit the highlights here at Veracity)
Well, we probably know that if you really believe the New Testament to be God’s Word, then it might be important to try to make some attempt to understand this chunk of Paul’s letter to the Corinthian church. God’s self-disclosure in Holy Scripture is not just some random exercise where we can pick things we like and toss out the rest. For that would dishonor the Lord Jesus. Plus, every book of the Bible is its own literary unit. Simply picking out parts of the Bible and forgetting the rest is not a good recipe for really understanding the Bible. However, if most American Christians are honest, we would prefer to ignore this passage, and if you were even to ask Bible scholars about it, they might agree with you as to how difficult this passage is. It is one of the most hotly debated passages in New Testament scholarship.
In this series of blog posts, Veracity will attempt to make some sense about this passage. The significance of this passage is that it plays a vital role in the on-going debates regarding how men and women are to relate to one another in the church; in what sense are husbands to be “head” of the home, should women serve as elders in a local church, etc. This is part of the rather controversial discussion between so-called “complementarians” and “egalitarians” that has continued to divide believers from one another, resulting in church and denominational splits, particularly within the last sixty years, and more intensely within the last couple of decades. I have written about this debate at length on Veracity, in another blog series, but because 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 is just so weird, it really deserves special treatment all on its own.
This passage brings up a number of questions. Here is a sample:
What does “head” mean in this passage?
Is this passage about a physical head covering, or is it about the length of hair, comparing a man and a woman?
Is the teaching merely cultural, applicable only to Paul’s first century context, or does it have relevance to 21st century Christians?
Why does Paul bring up the topic of creation here?
Why does Paul talk about God’s relationship to Christ?
What does Paul mean by “image”, “glory,” and “nature” in this passage?
Does this passage contradict with what Paul says just a few chapters ahead, in 1 Corinthians 14, about women speaking (or not speaking) in church?
What is Paul’s mention about “no such practice” in verse 16 referring to?
Does this passage even belong in the Bible?
Is Paul refuting, instead of teaching, much of what we read here?
What is this whole thing about “because of the angels” in verse 10?
How do we apply this passage to us today?
As we head into the summer, over the next group of blog posts, I will write about different views that various scholars take regarding this passage, one by one. My wife often tells me that I typically just lay out different views about difficult parts of the Bible and I do not really land anywhere, and it frustrates her to no end! So, to try to make her a little happier, I will summarize each viewpoint in the successive blog posts, and then you can figure out where I might land in the final analysis. We can discuss different interpretations of the Bible, but in the end, there is a right and wrong way of understanding the text:
The Traditional View (well, at least it summarizes some of the main points that many Christians have agreed with for centuries).
The Hyper-Conservative View (otherwise known as the “John MacArthur” view)
The Symbol of Protection View (challenges the idea that head coverings signify something about authority)
The Hairstyle View (in other words, this is not about head coverings per se, but rather about male vs. female hairstyles)
The Quotation/Refutation View (Paul is refuting a Corinthian false teaching)
The Interpolation View (Someone stuck this passage in the Bible later on, or Paul himself put it in there, and then just ran away….. yeah, seriously)
The Supernatural Sexual Modesty View (otherwise known as the “PG-13” view…. that is, keep this away from young children)
Applying 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 Today (what do we do with all of this?)
It will take nearly the whole summer of 2023 to get through this, so I will try to make it more digestible in bite-size pieces. I will probably take a few breaks along the way, to spice things up.
However, his longest video is on this particular passage, 1 Corinthians 11:2-16. It comes in at a whopping 6 hours and 46 minutes. WOW!! I can not endorse everything Mike says in nearly 7 hours, but he is thorough. See the video below.
So, if you just want to read a much shorter summary of what Mike Winger says, in Veracity style, stick around for the following blog series. I land at a different place from Mike, but I do appreciate his work. Please feel free to follow on Veracity by clicking one of the “Follow” buttons on the right and/or enter your email address, then click “Follow.” Feel free to comment along the way, too.
Oh….and one more thing…. the reason why I am doing this series…. : About four years ago, my local church held a discussion about the complementarian/egalitarian controversy. The overall presentation was well done, but the discussion stirred up a lot of emotions that rippled through the entire church body, generating a lot of confusion and even frustration.
This particular passage on head coverings was mentioned in a period of just five minutes. Five minutes. That’s all.
I left the discussion having more questions than answers. Since then, not a single sermon, Bible study group, question and answer session, or anything else in our church has attempted to address this passage in a meaningful way. In defense of our church leaders, our church was not obligated to uncover every stone on this. But it still bothered me to have these questions and very few answers. So, since our church leadership decided to bypass this passage, I felt that I had no choice but to dig into this myself, if I was going to understand what Paul was teaching.
As an evangelical Christian, I believe that I have the opportunity and the obligation to share with others the Good News as presented in the Bible. But it is pretty difficult to share my confidence in what the Bible teaches to others who need to hear the Gospel when we effectively gloss over, or even skip, certain weird parts of the Bible, especially a passage that is partly responsible for dividing many, many churches and denominations in our current day. Here, I offer to you, my research into this vexing passage…. a passage that most Christians would rather ignore than talk about.
Veracity is different. Here at Veracity, we want to talk about it. We want to dig into the Scriptures. Why? So we can better handle God’s Word.
One final blog post about our trip to Europe last year, 2022. The adventure to Europe ended with an exciting finish: It was a whirlwind trip. Just three nights in Sicily, to visit with friends, and tour the best of Sicily. I even got to travel up a good part of Mount Etna, one of the world’s most active volcanoes (but visibility was poor due to rain that day).
Sicily has an incredibly grand and ancient history. Coming from my hometown of Williamsburg, Virginia, which prides itself in its rich colonial history going back 400 years, Williamsburg does not even begin to compare with a recorded history going back to the Sicilian and Punic wars.
I had started to listen to Robin Lane Fox’s The Classical World: An Epic History from Homer to Hadrian, while visiting Sicily. Fox’s immense survey of the history of the Greco-Roman world, finishing up with the reign of Emperor Hadrian, just as Christianity was emerging as a world changing movement in the early second century, clocks in at just under 24 hours as an audiobook. Though he is a secular British historian, whose rather aloof interest in the Christian faith is apparent, Fox is nevertheless a captivating story-teller, though the decadence and violence of the classical world that he chronicles made me yearn for more of the Christian story (I have Fox’s book on Saint Augustine queued up on my “to-be-read” list, but that is a long ways off from now!)
Having a book by a world-class historian at the ready makes for a more enjoyable visit to faraway places. The names of great places in Sicily were sprinkled throughout The Classical World, and I got a chance to see the highlights, and envision a bit of that remarkable ancient world. Take Agrigento for example. In southwest Sicily, the old city of Agrigento sits above an expansive historical park, the Valley of the Temples. On one end of the park stands the Temple of the Discouri.
Temple of the Dioscuri. Valley of the Temples Archaeological Park. Agrigento, Sicily, Italy. The city of Agrigento itself is up the hill in the background.
The transformation of the Greco-Roman world into a Christian society, less than 500 years after the birth of Jesus, is simply a fascinating thing to consider. In many ways, contemporary secular culture is drifting back to the advocated virtues and religious pluralism of the Greco-Roman classical world. It makes me wonder: How was it that a movement of ragtag Jewish peasants, following a singular figure, whom his followers believed had been risen from the dead, end up completely overcoming such a rich classical culture, with a new story that has since spread far and wide across planet earth, the world’s largest spiritual movement of all time, representing some one-third of the 21st century world population?
It is an astounding thought to ponder.
Temple of Concordia. Valley of the Temples. Agrigento, Sicily, Italy.
Another highlight for me was the city of Syracuse, specifically the island of Ortigia, one of the most incredibly beautiful places I saw while in Europe. While much of the classical ruins still lie beneath the city, awaiting archaeological investigation, the Baroque architecture of much of the town is impressive, even when walking around at night! …. Plus, the food was simply fantastic!!
Cathedral of Syracuse, on the island of Ortigia. One of Sicily’s many gorgeous churches.
These are last of my photos I plan on posting on Veracity about the trip my wife and I took to Europe in 2022…. while I was in Sicily towards the end of the adventure, she was off in Venice with a friend…where unfortunately, the food was NOT as good!…. Oh, and about Mount Etna….. While in Sicily, I never got to see the top of the volcano, due to the rain and cloud cover. But on the flight out, I managed to be sitting on left side of the plane, which gave me a breathtaking view of the legendary volcano, at its very top. Enjoy!
Found a fun link here on Twitter. A museum in Hamburg animates Caesar Augustus singing “California Dreaming.” Augustus visited Sicily in 22 BCE.
Engaging in an online discussion can lead to some interesting outcomes.
In early 2022, I corresponded with a Christian author from the U.K., Andrew Bartlett, about the complementarian/egalitarian debate. Earlier I had heard of a book written in 2019, Men and Women in Christ: Fresh Light from the Biblical Texts. Little did I know that my online interlocutor had written this thorough examination of the Bible’s teaching regarding men and women in the family and the church.1
I promised Andrew that I would read his book, only to discover that while 100 pages into his 648 page book (according to Kindle), that this really is a big book! Andrew is a lawyer and arbitrator, with a background in theology, so it really should not have been a surprise. I had to put the book down and try to come back to it, every now and then, over the past year and a half. Then an email from Andrew a few months ago convinced me that I should finish the book and offer a review. By the time I finished, I ended up with the following article that best summarizes my reflection on the men/women debate in the church to date, after four years of research and blogging. So, you might want to go grab a beverage, a nice chair to sit in, and perhaps even a Bible before I go on…
The length of the Men and Women in Christ: Fresh Light from the Biblical Texts will be a drawback to some readers, who simply will not have the patience to wade through many pages of detailed analysis and argumentation. This is unfortunate since there are many, many rewards the book has for the reader, filled with insights, and being exceptionally thorough, without getting overly technical. In other words, mere human beings without a PhD can read this book, and walk away with an understanding why this issue is so complex. Men and Women in Christ: Fresh Light from the Biblical Texts interacts with a vast array of literature on the topic, published over the last several decades, which makes it essential reading for anyone desiring to dig deep into the debate. Regardless of what one ultimately thinks of Andrew Bartlett’s thesis, Andrew is a great dialogue partner, and he has done the Christian church an invaluable service with his thorough and careful analysis. So, thank you, Andrew (assuming you read this)!!
Well, we finally hit another milestone: Veracity now has 1,000 published blog posts.
John Paine started this blog back in 2012, so now the blog is over 10 years old. Eleven years to be more exact. One thousands posts. That is a lot of Internet!
Back in the “dark ages” before Tik-Tok, John had kept asking me for months if I would like to write an occasional post, and after numerous attempts to push him off, I finally gave in, with my first post in late 2012. Over the past few years, John’s day job has kept him from posting, except for a short dive into YouTube a few years ago. Now, looking back, four out of five Veracity posts have been written by me. I never thought THAT would happen.
As I wrote about in 2019, the Internet blogging world has changed a lot since 2012. Back in 2012, blogging was still fairly new, and a lot of folks were writing and reading blogs. Audio podcasts were just starting to take off, and YouTube was in many ways still in its infancy. Other social media platforms, like Instagram and TikTok, either were relatively unknown or did not exist yet. Veracity is still one of the few holdouts, but most blogs have stopped allowing comments, due to the proliferation of trolls. My, how times have changed.
The social media explosion has had a tremendous impact on our post-modern world….. as well as the church. It is a bit of an exaggeration, but it almost seems like everyone has a podcast, or a YouTube channel, or whatever. Social media is the 21st century equivalent of the printing press that ignited the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, with Martin Luther’s pamphlets and printed books. Social media has been a two-edged sword, allowing us to easily keep up with friends and family members, while simultaneously corrupting our youth and triggering a massive mental health crisis among children. Social media has helped to educate people, as well as exposing corruption in high places, while simultaneously dragging down public discourse to intolerable levels. What was fun and helpful just a few years ago is now considered toxic, in many circles.
Nowadays, while podcasts are still popular, YouTube has pretty much taken over the area of media attention that was once the domain of blogging. Particularly when it comes to long-form blogging, the kind that I tend to gravitate towards, blogging has been on the decline. In a world where there is so much social media, it is understandable that long-form blogging does not mesh very well with short attention spans, which the new social media world tends to exploit and propagate.
But changes still are happening, in shocking ways. The big IT giants, including Google, have been struggling. Reports of a possible bankruptcy at Twitter would have surprised everyone a few years back. Other big social media companies, like Facebook/Meta, are laying off thousands of workers. Who knows? Perhaps traditional type blogging will make a comeback.
Veracity’s long-form blogging approach will never have the kind of outreach that some Christian YouTubers have, like Allen Parr (almost 1 million subscribers), Mike Winger (over 500 thousand subscribers), Alisa Childers (approaching 200 thousand subscribers), or the amazing the Bible Project (a whopping 3.48 millions subscribers!!). But that is quite fine with me! Here at Veracity we dive into the tougher issues that I run into almost on a daily basis, working on a secular college campus, issues that are shaping the next generation of thought-leaders in our culture.
Perhaps your world is different from mine, but in the university/academic environment, the Bible is under continual attack, more so than at any point in modern history. The irony of this is that Christians today have more tools at their disposal to defend their faith than at any time in the history of of the church. Christians need to become familiar with the best arguments for the Christian faith. Otherwise, we risk losing future generations to a contagious unbelief and disregard for the Christian story told in all of its fullness.
Before something like “critical race theory” was a thing in popular culture, QAnon-type conspiracy theories politicized the church, or “transgender” was the topic of the day, discussions about issues like these were percolating on college campuses almost 15-25 years ago. The trend is clear: Issues that captivate discussions in the university will eventually spill over into the wider culture eventually. If you are praying about how to reach the next generation for Christ, spend some time on Veracity to explore some of the challenges that need to be faced. If not for yourself, do it for your children and your grandchildren.
This is just one reason why I am “pumped up” about the vision of the Cambridge House, at the College of William and Mary. The Cambridge House is a “Christian study center,” dedicated to helping Christians students, faculty, staff, and friends of the college in the local community get to know one another better, and acting as a dialogue partner with the college, in expressing a Christian voice on campus, along the lines of C.S. Lewis’ “Mere Christianity.” In a few days, I will post about the first-ever public lecture being sponsored by the Cambridge House, at William and Mary, where I work. Exciting times!!
Veracity’s motto has been “Sharing the Joy of Personal Discipleship,” with a primary interest in Christian apologetics, along with my other personal interest in church history. Veracity has been a helpful vehicle for delivering content for some of the adult Bible classes I have given, though Covid and other events at our church have dramatically changed things. Just five years ago, between John and I, we were putting out perhaps two blog posts per week. But if you have been following the blog for a long time, that rate has fallen off quite a bit, to about one post every other week, with variations to that schedule every now and then (like the series on “historical criticism” of the Bible that I ran for several weeks early last year). It just seems like eons have passed since my first blog post in September, 2012, on seven approaches to the Bible vs. science discussion in the church!
Long time readers will know that I like doing book reviews: Some short reviews, but also some occasional extended reviews … meaning grab a beverage and curl up with your phone or laptop to read those! Audible and ChristianAudio.com audiobooks have been great for my daily work commute, as sitting down to read a book is something I never have enough time to do. But I find it beneficial for me to distill some of the ideas that I am learning about, and publishing them at Veracity for those who do not even have the time to listen to such audiobooks.
I have a few more posts looking again at the controversial “complementarian versus egalitarian” discussion taking place in many evangelical community settings. I also want to wrap up some reflections regarding the trip my wife and I took to Europe last year.
I am also grieving the loss of Dr. Michael Heiser, a significant scholarly figure who has helped many like me to have a greater confidence in Scripture. Heiser’s work has reinvigorated my study of the Bible, so I currently plan on a few posts that dive into some of Dr. Heiser’s many thoughtful insights and teachings, as a tribute to him, over the coming year.
I am not sure what the future beyond that holds. But thanks to everyone who has followed Veracity over the years to make it a success.
The relationship between men and women in the family and the church is one of the most hotly contested issues among Christians today. The controversy is part of a fundamental shift in Western society associated with questions about gender and sexuality:
What does it mean to be male?
What does it mean to be female?
What is marriage?
What is the relationship between the church, as a spiritual family, to the biological family?
All of these preceding questions were largely settled in the minds of most Westerners during the mid-20th century, and perhaps as late as some thirty years ago. Today, these questions are subject to vigorous and hotly contested debate outside of the Christian church, but the church is not absent from the discussion.
The debate is often pitched as being between the complementarians, who focus on the complementarity between male and female, and the egalitarians, who focus on the equality between male and female. But the reality is that most Christians are on some type of spectrum between the two points of view.
The egalitarian case is generally more restricted in scope in that the bottom line is simpler, especially when it comes to how men and women are to minister and exercise leadership in a local church setting. But it is quite rare to find an egalitarian who is consistently egalitarian, as the early Quakers were, in the broadest sense possible. Those early Quakers completely despised any notion of an organized clergy or local church office, preferring to sit in a round for their worships services, waiting for the “Inner Light” to prompt anyone to speak as the Spirit guided. Today’s evangelical movement still likes the idea of a hopefully educated and skilled orator behind a pulpit, often standing upon an elevated stage, expounding the truth of what is taught in the Bible, while the rest of the congregation quietly takes in the message.
Not very “egalitarian,” if you ask me.
But you would be hard pressed to find anyone giving a Sunday morning sermon pleased if someone else from their church would interrupt their sermon to correct them.
In other words, today’s evangelical egalitarians will still insist that we need leaders in our local churches, thus rejecting the radical egalitarianism of traditional Quakers. But when it comes to the question of men and women serving as leaders in the local church, today’s evangelical egalitarians are embracing a particular view that was largely dismissed as being contrary to Scripture, or exceptional at best, until roughly a hundred years ago. Evangelical groups like various Wesleyan, Pentecostal, and Holiness movements led the way in the shift roughly a century ago, but relatively little controversy arose in its wake. But since the sexual revolution of the 1960s, the changes only accelerated since the 1960s, as denomination after denomination among the Protestant mainline began ordaining women as presbyters (elders) in their churches, while smaller, more conservative segments of those denominations broke off to form their own denominations, thus retaining the practice of having only qualified men serve as local church elders (and in some cases, becoming more restrictive).
The egalitarian side of the conversation today generally embraces the view that when it comes to the question of men and women serving as elders in a local church that men and women can serve interchangeably in these leadership roles. There are three main questions that arise when consider this perspective:
Egalitarians will insist that they see no difference in a man or woman’s service as an elder in a local church. However, many egalitarians will still insist that men and women are still different. But what does this difference actually look like in a local church fellowship? Is the local church to be thought of as a spiritual family, and if so, what does that actually mean with respect to liturgical practice and/or church governance? Is the local church modeling for biological families within that church what healthy brotherhood and sisterhood, fatherhood and motherhood, etc. actually looks like? If so, how does the local church express this form of a being spiritual family? To put it another way, what is a “man” and what is a “woman”, and how does that impact our view of the local church as a spiritual family, in the sense of how gender distinctions are expressed in a healthy way, setting an example for children and other young people today in a culture beset with confusion about gender? How do we define our terms here?
What exactly is an “elder” of a local church? Are the elders merely functioning like a board of directors for a church, comparable to a secular organization? Is the oversight they exercise merely administrative or is there actually some spiritual authority component active here? What is the relationship between “elder” and “pastor?” Another way to ask questions like these is this: is the office of elder tied to some notion of passing the faith down from one generation to the next, charged primarily with protecting a local flock from serious theological error? How do we define our terms here?
How does an egalitarian read passages like 1 Timothy 2:12 (most controversially), along with 1 Timothy 3, and Titus 1, which historically have been interpreted to argue for only qualified males serving as local church elders? What exactly has changed that gives egalitarians the confidence that their newer reading of Scripture is correct?
On the other side of the debate, today’s complementarians, particularly in an American context, will largely reject many of the excesses of patriarchalism of the past. Gone are the days when women were forbidden to go receive a college education, because “women do not really need it,” etc., because of a culturally-defined, patriarchal logic, not due to any particular Scriptural teaching. I personally have known of a woman who became an egalitarian because her dad forbade her from getting a driver’s license until she was out of the house in her twenties!! Really? Wow!
Nevertheless, today’s complementarians will still insist that some distinction with respect to roles in the church and in the family still needs to be maintained, in accordance with Scripture. Sure, there are still outliers who still believe some distinctions between men and women need to be carried into the marketplace as well. But the vast majority of complementarians view it necessary to value some form of “male headship” when it comes of leadership both within the home and in the church, and keep the discussion limited to those realms.
There are a few problems with such complementarian views:
Not all complementarians are the same. In fact, some differences among complementarians are just as wide among themselves as differences in general between complementarians and egalitarians! Some believe that only qualified men should be leaders in a local church, regardless of office or other role. Alternatively, some believe that while the office of elder is restricted to only qualified men, women and men can serve together as deacons (a view that I hold). Some define “elder” one way and others define it another. Some say that being an “elder” and being a “pastor” are interchangeable roles. Others do not. The list of possible situations appears to be quite different depending on which school of complementarian thought you are encountering.
Are complementarians really following Scriptural teaching, or are they simply clinging to older cultural norms? Have complementarians marginalized the contributions of women to the church, or have they empowered women and men to truly be who God made them to be?
How does a complementarian read passages like Romans 16 and Galatians 3:28, which suggest that women were encouraged to serve as leaders in Paul’s churches alongside men, and that Christians today are encouraged to follow Paul’s example?
After doing several years of research, I have come to the conclusion that leaning towards being a complementarian is the most faithfully Scriptural way on interpreting the Bible on this challenging issue. Some might call me a soft complementarian, or a narrow complementarian, or even a moderate complementarian. I prefer the terminology of being a sacramental complementarian, where ultimately I understand the Bible to teach that there is a profound mystery behind what it means to be male and female, and that the Bible teaches that having qualified men serving as elders in a local church has been designated in the New Testament as the most faithful means of church expressing that mystery, while at the same time encouraging women to serve as leaders in other capacities within a local church.
As noted above, I get shot from both sides here, where egalitarians are bothered that I am complementarian, while other complementarians do not think I am being complementarian enough!!
It is best to quote the introduction or jacket cover of the book to get a feel for what the authors are trying to accomplish:
A biblical vision for the roles of men and women in the church—and how to put them into practice.
It can be tempting to shy away from addressing the issue of gender roles in church because it’s often controversial. But this can result in churches either being increasingly influenced by secular culture or simply sticking with the status quo when it comes to what men and women do in church.
Building on the belief that complementarianism is both biblical and positive, this book focuses on what these convictions look like in practice. Moving beyond the familiar discussions around “gender roles”, and leaving room for variety in how readers implement these ideas, it will encourage a church culture where men and women truly partner together—embracing their privileges and responsibilities, and maximizing their gifts, in joyful service of God’s kingdom.
Too often, conversations about complementarian theology tend to get bogged down into discussions that focus on the negative. Instead of exploring the beauty and goodness of God’s purposes, as grounded in creation, for men and women, discussions tend to focus away from what men are called to do and instead focus on what women are NOT to do.
Such conversations often go something like this: “Men and women are different. The church is called by God to celebrate those differences while acknowledging the unique gifting of men and women…. Oh, and so therefore, this means that women are prohibited from serving as elders in a local church.”
In an age when secular feminism is predominant in the culture, and makes its presence felt even in the church, such a discussion sounds antiquated at best, or even discriminatingly destructive at worst.
At that point, you can often feel the tension, a tension that is so thick that you can cut it with a knife. Once you get stuck there, everyone begins to look for an exit. Unfortunately, this is NOT the best way to move the conversation forward.
Instead, Beyond and Tooher focus on the practical, helping those who embrace a complementarian theology to find ways for men and women to serve together in a local church, while remaining committed to the principle of a qualified male eldership. In many ways, Embracing Complementarianism is a step up from Kevin DeYoung’s book Men and Women in the Church, which I reviewed almost a year ago, which does well in its general theological framework, while still supporting a much “harder” view of complementarianism, which I contend is unwarranted by the actual teaching of Scripture; e.g. DeYoung argues for no women deacons in the church, and no women teaching of any kind in a mixed-setting, even under the authority of an all-male eldership.
The theological driver behind Embracing Complementarianism had its beginnings in the ordination debates for women in the priesthood in the Anglican Church of Australia in the 1990s. I have dear friends of mine who reject the faulty logic of slippery-slope arguments, and to a great extent I would agree. However, we have come a long way since the 1990s.
Back then, opponents of women’s ordination to the priesthood were concerned that the adoption of such a practice (which was eventually endorsed) would tend towards a slippery slope towards the full acceptance of same-sex unions in that Anglican communion. In those days, supporters of women’s ordination sought to reassure their opponents that the full acceptance of same-sex unions was a type of slippery slope argument that was unwarranted, and that there would no serious attempt to try to change the definition of marriage in such Anglican communions. Contrary to the prevailing culture that sees “womens issues” and “LGBTQ issues” on the same continuum, defenders of women’s ordination in Australia sought to draw the line against same-sex marriage.
The best part of the book, apart from being fairly short, was in its attempt to frame the principle of a qualified male eldership to be a very positive thing. In other words, it is a expression of the beauty and goodness of God in creating men and women as God did by being grateful that men should be encouraged to step up and lead in their churches in such a way that encourages men to lead their families, by following the example of Christ loving the church, who laid down his life for others (Ephesians 5:25). In contrast to more traditional views, the concept of “male headship” is not a call to a unilateral, top-down hierarchy of husbands “ruling” their wives, but rather, there is an emphasis on servanthood and partnership, which is also to be reflected in the spiritual family of a local church body.
Despite the practical benefits of Embracing Complementarianism, there are two drawbacks that I would still note about the book. First, while Embracing Complementarianism rightly leans towards a more generous, “softer” version of complementarian theology, it does not come across as strongly enough in rejecting some of the excesses found in more “harder” versions of complementarian theology. For example, the two co-authors do not agree with one another on whether or not women should ever lead in Christian worship, even if the all-male eldership of that local church would encourage the practice, even only on an occasional basis.
For example, one reviewer has noted that chapters 5-7 in the book speaks a lot about “male leadership” in the church, which can give the mistaken impression that women should never be leading in a local church. It would have been much better if the authors had stuck to the principle of a “qualified male eldership,” instead of the more slippery and sometimes misleading notion of “male leadership.” For example, Nympha had a church meeting in her house (Colossians 4:15), and Lydia did, too (Acts 16:11-15), which assumes that both women had some leadership role. But to say that Nympha and Lydia were leaders in their respective churches does not mean that either woman was an elder in that church, anymore than saying that just because I have led Bible studies in my home, that therefore this has made me an elder in a local church. That type of logic simply does not follow. 1 Encouraging men to lead in the church should not be a discouragement from women leading, in a complementarian fashion.2
Secondly, the focus on the practical working out of a complementarian theology was somewhat hampered by an insufficient exploration into why having a qualified male eldership in a local church fully explains Paul teaching on this subject in the Pastoral Letters (primarily 1 Timothy and Titus). This criticism is rightly made in Andrew Bartlett’s review of the book.
My answer would be that Embracing Complementarianism would have been even better if it had tried to connect complementarianism with a more sacramental theology. Thus by acknowledging the sacramental character of qualified male eldership, we do not have permission to ignore this practice in a local church, anymore than it would be to say that the sacrament of baptism is unnecessary today because what really matters is a conviction within the heart, as though the liturgical practice of water baptism is simply an irrelevant, old-fashioned ritual that belongs to a by-gone era. Rather, in recognizing the mysterious element here of how male and female relate together offers an invitation to explore the theological reasoning that undergirds this mystery. In other words, simply saying that the Bible teaches about a qualified male-only eldership does not offer enough theological substance for folks who wonder why God would have the Apostle Paul lay this principle out in the first place. A brief attempt to try to paint a sacramentally theological vision for a qualified male-only eldership was made decades ago by the great Oxford don, C.S. Lewis, by drawing upon the analogy of ballroom dancing. But more imaginative theological reflection is needed now in the 21st century. As Lewis himself put it, “the Church ought to be more like a [dance] Ball than it is like a factory or a political party.”
There is a serious need for complementarian theology to be expressed in book form that tackles this task. In the meantime, Embracing Complementarianism fits a needed space for a type of complementarian approach to what it means to be male and female in the church today without falling into either the Scylla and Charybdis extremes of a Council of Biblical Manhood and Woman-style, more-hardened, authoritarian-leaning complementarianism, on the one side, and a Christians for Biblical Equality egalitarianism, on the other side, which at times reaches too far with what comes across as exegetical handstands in trying to defend their arguments.2
1. Egalitarian biblical scholar Linda L. Belleville makes this non sequitor logical error in her essay in Two View on Women in Ministry, p. 54, in saying that “Mary, Lydia, and Nympha were overseers of house churches“. With respect to Mary, the mother of John Mark, Belleville cites Acts 12:12 for support, using the same faulty logic. Sloppy and slippery definitions of what it means to be an “elder” and “overseer” in a local church merely complicate the conversation, thus keeping the discussion from moving forward in a constructive direction. When we can not even agree upon the meaning of the terminology in a discussion, healthly productive conversation will often suffer. ↩