Nebcanuck and I were recently discussing complementarianism. It’s a doctrine, popular among some evangelical (or fundamentalist) Christians, which states that men and women have different, complementary roles in the Church.
I reject complementarianism in favour of the alternative position, egalitarianism. It’s an issue of longstanding importance to me. I’m happy to return to the issue from time to time because the strong arguments in favour of egalitarianism bear repeating.
The complementarian position
So-called “complementarianism” attempts to put a positive label on the politically-incorrect notion of male headship: i.e., that women are always to be under male authority. Scriptures like 1Ti. 2:11-13 are regarded as determinative of church practice:
A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. (Today’s New International Version)
I end the quote at verse 13 because the reference to the order of creation is crucial. Complementarians argue that this is not a transitory rule, required only in the first century context. The rule is rooted in creation and therefore permanent and universally binding.
The egalitarian position
It is obviously true, biologically, that men and women have different and complementary functions. But complementarians elevate this into a general principle, and forbid women to exercise leadership in the church or to teach men. I suppose complementary in this context means, “I rule and teach, and you follow and learn.”
But if women are no less intelligent than men, no less responsible, and no less vessels of the Holy Spirit —
“In the last days,” God says,
“I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and your daughters will prophesy,
your young men will see visions,
your old men will dream dreams.
Even on my servants, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
and they will prophesy.”
(Acts 2:17-18, TNIV)
— how is it that complementarians prohibit women from leading or teaching men?
Texts in tension
It’s important to note that the issue doesn’t turn on one side remaining faithful to scripture while the other side repudiates scripture. The issue turns on which scriptures are regarded as paramount. While complementarians emphasize 1Ti. 2 (and other, similar texts), egalitarians emphasize Acts 2 (and other, similar texts).
In other words, an interpretive problem arises when we try to reconcile one thread of New Testament teaching with another thread of New Testament teaching.
For example, St. Paul says (1Co. 14:33b-38 ) that women are to be silent in church. He states that this is the rule in all the churches (taking the latter half of verse 33 with the verse that follows — translations differ on this point).
But elsewhere in the same letter, St. Paul refers to women prophesying and praying. Indeed, as long as women wear a symbol of authority on their heads (1Co. 11:5-16), Paul indicates that it’s OK for them to pray and prophesy during corporate worship.
On the face of it, there’s a contradiction between these two texts, even though they were written by the same author in the same letter. One of the texts must be qualified (interpreted narrowly) in order to bring the two texts into harmony with one another. The question becomes, Which text is paramount, and which text must be construed narrowly?
Rules vs. actual examples
New Testament texts diverge in a similar fashion on the topic of leading and teaching. As with the 1 Corinthians problem, the pattern is this:
- On the one hand, there is a rule that women are to submit to male authority (which makes it out of bounds for them to teach men) ;
- On the other hand, there are actual examples of women carrying out ministries that involve leading and teaching.
Thus we can rephrase our earlier question: Is the rule paramount? — or is the church’s practice paramount?
In one of his books, John Stott (a leading evangelical) lists the following biblical examples of women leaders: Huldah, Miriam, Deborah, the first witnesses of Christ’s resurrection, Philip’s four unmarried daughters (who prophesied), the women who prayed and prophesied at Corinth, Priscilla, Euodia and Syntyche, Phoebe, Mary, Tryphena, Tryphosa, Persis, and Junia.
That’s quite a list! It establishes an a priori case that God approves of women ministering in ways that necessarily involve leading and teaching. As in Acts 2, we see the Sovereign Lord pouring out his Spirit on women and empowering them for ministry.
Junia and Priscilla
Stott’s last example is the most intriguing (though not the strongest). Jounian is almost certainly a contraction of the feminine form of the name,1 indicating that Junia was a woman. Paul describes her (Rom. 16:7) in the somewhat ambiguous phrase, “outstanding among the apostles.” The most natural reading of the verse is that Junia was a woman apostle.
But perhaps my favourite example is Priscilla. She was clearly a teacher:
[Apollos] spoke with great fervor and taught about Jesus accurately, though he knew only the baptism of John. … When Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they invited him to their home and explained to him the way of God more adequately. (Acts 18:25-26, TNIV)
And at least on this occasion she taught a man (Apollos).
Priscilla and Aquila are mentioned a number of times in the New Testament. Clearly this husband-and-wife team played a leading role in the nascent Church.
Complementarians might prefer to think that Aquila (the husband) was head of the team, but that isn’t the impression one gets from scripture. On the contrary, when the two names are mentioned, Priscilla’s name comes first in five verses out of seven, including the text quoted above. It seems that she was the key figure of the two.
Arguably the saddest New Testament example is the women who were the first witnesses of Christ’s resurrection. It’s sad because, though the Lord presumably selected them for this honour, “their words seemed to [the apostles] like nonsense” (Luke 24:11). It wasn’t until men subsequently received resurrection appearances that the testimony was believed.
Conclusion: the church’s witness
To repeat: there is an a priori case that God approves of women ministering in ways that necessarily involve leading and teaching. Despite many such examples, complementarians regard the “rule” texts as paramount.
Complementarians harden the rule and wield it inflexibly. In effect, they are trying to bind the Holy Spirit. The rule necessarily implies, The Holy Spirit is prohibited from raising up female leaders and teachers.
Of course the Holy Spirit persists in ignoring the rule, just as He did during the biblical era.
I care about this issue for three reasons. First, because I strongly support justice for all social groups, not least women. After all, women make up 50% of the population; and more than 50% of the church population. Complementarians would thus constrain the majority of Christians from fully exercising their spiritual gifts.
Which brings me to my second reason: I care about this issue for the sake of the Church. The Church is stronger when everyone fully exercises all of his or her spiritual gifts.
Finally, I care about this issue because the complementarian position is damaging to the Church’s witness.
Consider the historical context. This year, Hillary Clinton came very near to winning the Democratic nomination. If she had won, she likely would have become the first woman President.
- India has had a woman Prime Minister;
- England has had a woman Prime Minister;
- Israel has had a woman Prime Minister; and
- Canada has (albeit very briefly) had a woman Prime Minister.
- There are women Justices on the Supreme Court of Canada; and
- women in Cabinet in the Government of Canada, even in a Conservative government.
In contrast, take a look at the council of the Gospel Coalition — a leading complementarian organization:
(h/t nonesoblind at Wildervoice)
I ask you, how is this complementarianism? How can women complement men when, in practice, they are completely excluded from the councils of leadership? Thus complementarianism is actually a policy of negating women.
Unchurched people in our culture will take away the following message: women can lead a government, or preside as Chief Justice over a Supreme Court; but they don’t have what it takes to teach a Sunday School class (assuming there are adult males in the class).
Is that message damaging to the Church’s witness? You bet it is!
1 "… as was taken for granted by the patristic commentators, and indeed up to the Middle Ages. The assumption that it must be male is a striking indictment of male presumption regarding the character and structure of earliest Christianity." — James D.G. Dunn, Romans 9-16, Word Biblical Commentary vol. 38B, ad loc.