Men and Women in Ministry: Who Believes What
What grieves me almost as much as the theological differences between Egalitarians and Complementarians is the inexcusable disdain with which each side treats and speaks of the other. May I begin with a plea for Christian civility in our discussion with one another? May I suggest that we expend every effort to portray the other side in the best possible terms, that we avoid caricature, sarcasm, and misrepresentation? May I suggest that we respectfully disagree with each other without calling into question the other’s orthodoxy or love for God? May I ask that we commit ourselves to the sort of dialogue that will honor Christ and enhance rather than tarnish the image of the church in a society that already regards us as our own worst enemy?
All too often we make the mistake of thinking that someone is launching a personal attack under the guise of a hermeneutical decision. In other words, we tend to react to another’s approach to biblical interpretation as if they embrace that interpretation because they don’t like us or think that we are inferior or have some grudge against us that is best vented by endorsing a contrary position on a controversial topic like the relationship of men and women. I hope that such is not the case, but if it is, I ask that we together commit ourselves to forsaking it.
I’m not suggesting or asking that anyone embrace and articulate his/her beliefs with any less intensity of conviction than you feel is warranted by Scripture. In other words, my suggestions are not designed to invalidate or undermine fervent and heartfelt interaction. I’m just asking that we speak the truth, however we conceive that truth, in genuine love.
Are there Complementarians whose primary motivation is self-serving, who insist upon male headship in church and home as a way of compensating for their own insecurity and holding on to the power and resources of the church? Yes. Tragically. Are there Egalitarians whose commitment is driven by a radical feminist political agenda and who bristle with resentment at the mere thought that men and women, by God’s design, may be different? Yes. Tragically.
I’m not so nave as to think that none of us is tainted by unbiblical and self-serving motives. I’m simply calling for mutual generosity and patience as we together explore God’s best for those created in His image.
Let me begin by articulating five foundational principles that must govern all dialogue on this topic, and then provide a brief summary of Complementarian beliefs.
(1) Both Complementarians and Egalitarians agree that men and women are equally created in the image of God, and that neither is more or less the image of God than the other.
(2) Both Complementarians and Egalitarians agree that men and women are equal in personal dignity, that neither is more or less worthy or of more or less value as human beings.
(3) Both Complementarians and Egalitarians agree that men and women should treat each other with kindness and compassion and love, and that any and all forms of abuse or disrespect or dishonor must be denounced as sin and resisted.
(4) Both Complementarians and Egalitarians believe that women should be actively involved in ministry. Complementarians agree with Egalitarians and celebrate the fact that women, for example, served as “co-workers” with Paul and held the office of deacon.
(5) Where Complementarians and Egalitarians disagree is whether women can serve as the Senior Pastor or as a Ruling Elder in the local church, what I call senior governmental authority. Egalitarians believe the Bible permits women to hold such positions of leadership, while Complementarians do not.
I should point out that some would broaden this debate to whether or not women should be involved in any form of ministry, whether that be the leading of worship or personal evangelism or church planting or celebrating the sacraments. You should know from the start where I stand on such matters.
I am extremely reluctant to place restrictions on anyone of either gender or any age in the absence of explicit biblical instruction to that effect. In other words, if I am going to err, it is on the side of freedom. In my opinion, the only restrictions placed on women concern what I call senior governmental authority in the local church. I have in mind, as noted above, (1) the primary authority to expound the Scriptures and enforce their doctrinal and ethical truths on the conscience of all God’s people, and (2) the authority to exercise final governmental oversight of the body of Christ.
Therefore, unlike a number of other Complementarians, as long as the principle of male headship is honored in the above two respects, I believe women can lead worship, can lead small groups, can assist in the celebration of both baptism and the Lord’s Supper, can serve as deacons (or deaconesses), can chair church committees, can lead in evangelistic and church planting outreach, can (and should) be consulted by the local church Eldership when decisions are being made, and can provide leadership in virtually every other capacity of local church life. Women should be encouraged to pray and prophesy in corporate church meetings (1 Cor. 11) and should be given every opportunity to develop and exercise their spiritual gifts.
So, when I ask and answer the question below: “What do Complementarians believe?” you should understand that I am speaking only for myself. Although I rely heavily on the work of such well-known and widely-published complementarians as Wayne Grudem, Bruce Ware, and John Piper, one should not immediately assume that I am representing their convictions or that they are responsible for everything I believe or the way in which I make practical application to life in the home and the church.
What do Complementarians believe?
Complementarianism asserts that God has created both men and women (1) in his image, of equal value and dignity as human persons, but (2) with a distinction in the roles and responsibilities each is to fulfill in both church and home.
Complementarianism asserts that (1) and (2) above are perfectly and practically compatible with each other. Complementarianism asserts that functional differences between men and women in church and home, as expressed in the biblical terms “headship” and “submission”, do not diminish or jeopardize their ontological equality.
Complementarianism believes that submission to rightful authority, whether wives to husbands or children to parents or Christians to elders in the church or all citizens to the state is a noble and virtuous thing, that it is a privilege, a joy, something good and desirable and consistent with true freedom, and above all honoring and glorifying to God.
In the several documents that follow this one, I will provide brief explanations of why I believe what I do. I will also try to respond to a number of objections that Egalitarians have brought against this view, as well as address the more difficult and controversial texts that come up in the course of this debate.