One of the most divisive issues in the evangelical church over the past few decades has been the discussion surrounding the role of women and men in the church and the home. This debate pits “complementarians,” who believe that men and women have distinct God-given roles in the church and the home, against “egalitarians,” who believe that the new age of salvation in Christ means full equality of gifts, calling, and church office. Complementarians point especially to 1 Timothy 2:11-15, where Paul tells Timothy that he does not allow women to teach or exercise authority over men. Egalitarians point to Galatians 3:28, where Paul says that former divisions based on ethnicity (Jew and Gentile), social status (slave and free), and gender (male and female) have been overcome “in Christ.”
This brief essay is not an attempt to solve the issue. Not even close. If you are interested in pursuing it, there are many excellent books that argue convincingly for one side or the other. See especially the “manifestos” for both positions: Discovering Biblical Equality (eds. Pierce and Groothuis; egalitarian) and Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (eds. Piper and Grudem; complementarian). If you can’t afford these, get both views in one handy volume with the excellent Two Views on Women in Ministry (eds. Beck and Blomberg).
So what are we to do with this issue? I am in print and on record as a complementarian. I remain in this camp because it seems to me that God has made women and men to be different. Men naturally gravitate more toward assertive leadership roles, while women tend toward more supportive and nurturing ones. This tendency seems to me confirmed not only biblically, but also biologically. Social-scientific studies, as well as a mountain of anecdotal evidence, indicate that men and women are different in the way they think and interact with others. And different gifts and skills translate naturally into different social roles.
Although I remain a complementarian, I have been accused on more than one occasion of being a “closet” egalitarian. I’m not unhappy with that description. One of my colleagues calls himself a “complegalitarian.” That’s not bad. If you asked the women I work with if I am supportive of their gifts and calling, I’m pretty sure they would say “yes.” If you asked them whether they feel their opinions and perspectives are highly valued and respected, I think you’d get the same answer. I have never told a woman she should not teach, or that she should not fulfill a pastoral role, or that she should not become ordained or move into a position of leadership. I believe that is between her and God. When it comes to using people for his purpose, it doesn’t seem to me God ever limits his options. If God could speak to Balaam through a donkey, if God could deliver Israel through a whiner like Moses, if God could turn the world upside down with a bunch of faith-challenged disciples, indeed, if God can use me with all my failings, then it would be pretty arrogant to say that God can’t use anyone he chooses.
Although I believe God usually calls men to leadership roles, there have been many exceptions both biblically and historically. Take Deborah for example (Judg. 4-5). I have heard complementarians claim that Deborah was really just a counselor, giving private advice to those who came to her (move over Dr. Laura). This seems to me special pleading. The judges in Israel were leaders, and Deborah clearly exercised political as well as judicial leadership. Or take Priscilla, a gifted New Testament teacher who is usually named ahead of her husband Aquila. This is likely because of her more prominent teaching and leadership role. The claim by some that she only privately instructed Apollos while under the authority of her husband seems to me a desperate attempt to deny that God ever uses women in leadership roles. Or take Phoebe (Rom. 16:1), or Junia (Rom. 16:7), or the thousands of women who have served throughout history in leadership and teaching roles in the church and on the mission field.
How do I square this perspective with 1 Timothy 2:11-15 and the (few) other texts that deal with this issue? First Timothy, like all New Testament letters, is situational and was written to address a specific situation in the church in Ephesus. If Paul’s statements here were absolute, why would we find apparent exceptions elsewhere in the New Testament, and especially throughout history? It seems Paul is applying a general principle —men should lead and teach—to a specific historical situation. Paul wants men to lead in the church, because churches are dysfunctional if they don’t have strong male leadership. Does that mean that there can be no female leadership? This is where I would differ from many of my complementarian friends.
The women’s movement—both in secular society and in the church—did not arise in a vacuum. It arose in contexts where women’s voices were not heard or respected. It arose in churches where gifts and callings were ignored or demeaned. It arose in places where women who were gifted in leadership and teaching were told to sit down, shut up, and defer to their (sometimes much less gifted) male counterparts. We need to address these issues first, before we start telling women what they can and cannot do.
As a seminary professor, I preach in a lot of churches and work with a lot of pastors. I also see many churches in crisis, often losing staff and sometimes splitting. But I have never seen a church in crisis because a woman was trying to assert her authority over a man. Rather, the causes are always the same: pride, self-centeredness, desire for control, an inability to get along with others. And in almost every case, males are the primary offenders. The greatest danger to our churches is not creeping feminism; it is human sin and our inability to humbly submit in love to one another. When we start valuing and loving one another like Christ loved the church, I am convinced that these struggles over church leadership will disappear. I don’t see women clamoring to take over the church. I see them looking for the opportunity to exercise their gifts and calling as equals in the body of Christ.
As you face this difficult issue in your church, ask yourself these questions: Do the women in this congregation feel their gifts and calling are ignored or neglected? Do they feel their voices and opinions are not heard or valued? Do they ever feel like second-class citizens? If you get even a hint of a “yes” to these questions, it’s time to examine the style of leadership that is modeled in your church body. In the radical new leadership paradigm Jesus proposed, the last become first, and to lead you must serve, “for even the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45)