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.
Large churches will get removed from their denomination for changing their position on having “women pastors,” as in the case at Rick Warren’s Saddleback church in February, 2023. Attempts to explore the relationship between sex and salvation will lead to public censure, outcries on social media, and triggered concerns about sexual abuse, as author Joshua Ryan Butler sadly learned with “THAT TGC article” controversy in March 2023. In other words, the debate touches practically everyone of us.
Over the past four years, I have written a number of blog posts in a series regarding this issue, particularly as it relates to the question of men and women serving in the church. In the process, I have felt like I am wearing the proverbial Union top with a Confederate bottom: I get shot at by both sides.
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!!
The best short summary that comes the closest to detailing my view can be found in Andrew Wilson’s article “Beautiful Difference: The (Whole-Bible) Complementarity of Male and Female.” Nevertheless, I have longed to find a book that sets out to lay this vision out both biblically and practically. Finally, such a book is now in print: Embracing Complementarianism: Turning Biblical Convictions into Positive Church Culture, by Graham Beyond and Jane Tooher.
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.
However, one can only look at what is happening today in the Church of England, which in the 1990s also endorsed women’s ordination, but that is currently in an uproar concerning proposed changes to allow for same-sex union blessings in the Church of England, despite calls for the Church of England to repent from this change in theological direction. Slippery slope thinking may indeed be faulty logic, but as many church bodies like various Anglican traditions, including U.S. Episcopalians, Anglican Canadians, and now the mother church of Anglicanism in the U.K. continue down such slippery slopes, I have more doubts now. I once thought that those who warned about such “slippery slopes” were over-reacting. Now I am not so sure about that. A robust theology of gender is desperately needed, which encompasses all of the great debates of our day, not just “women in ministry,” but concerns about the definition of marriage and the transgender movement.
A community of Australian Anglicans since the 1990s formed Equal but Different, where a very positive review for Embracing Complementarianism can be found, an organization which the authors of Embracing Complementarianism have an affinity for. The very fact that a man and woman team of authors partnered together in writing this book is a very positive step forward. The focus is less on authority and submission and more on partnership together as men and women in leadership, another great step forward. Australian author Ruth Baker has a very positive review of the book. Interestingly, even a conservative blogger like Tim Challies has effectively endorsed the book through his review.
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
Co-author Jane Tooher summarizes the message in her book, and she was interviewed about the book, in this video below. Dig the Australian accents!!
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. ↩
2. A textbook example of how confusion reigns in the evangelical movement today can be seen in the 2023 move by the Southern Baptist Convention to oust from their affiliation churches like Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church in California, for ordaining women as “pastors,” while still having all-male “elderships” in place. For Saddleback, they saw no problem in having women “pastors” serving under the authority of all-male elder/oversight. What is so odd about the move is that there are prominent complementarian leaders who endorse a distinction between “pastors” and “elders”, including Sam Storms, which would allow for women to serve as pastors, but not as elders. On the other side of the argument can be found in the Southern Baptist Faith and Message (2000) itself, which seeks to equate the role of “pastor” with “elder.” Furthermore, there is additional confusion as one of the “teaching pastors” at Saddleback is a woman married to the other teaching pastor, and even Sam Storms would argue that woman should not be a “senior pastor,” as it blurs the line between “pastor” and “elder.” Even Rick Warren agrees with that qualification. So while the Southern Baptist Convention has every right to exclude Saddleback from its membership, it does raise the question as to why the Southern Baptist Faith and Message conflates “pastor” and “elder” together, thereby creating a divide even within the ranks of complementarianism. The new lead pastor of Saddleback Church, Andy Wood, explains the rationale for having women pastors while limiting eldership to only qualified men. ↩
3. See my review of Lucy Peppiatt’s book Rediscovering Scriptures’s Vision for Women, with a critique of some of these exegetical “handstands”. ↩