What does the Bible say about women in church leadership? The complementarian case.
Alright here goes, the theological issue that has single-handedly kept me awake at night more than any other: Women in church leadership (Can women be pastors, elders, etc.?). Maybe it’s cut and dry for you; it used to be for me as well. Maybe by the end of reading what I’m about to write, you’ll be awake at night too! And maybe not. Whatever the case, please read both of my articles on this topic. I am publishing them simultaneously with the express purpose of helping one side see the merit in the other and to help address some of the many misunderstandings out there. The two posts are:
The Accusation from Egalitarians: Complementarians are Sexist & Oppressors.
The reason the topic of women in ministry leadership has deprived me of so much sleep is because of my love for hermeneutics and because of my deep conviction that the Bible is God’s word. If you throw out any of it, how can you trust any of it? Hermeneutics refers to how we interpret the Bible, taking into account the cultural context, the author, the audience etc. and figuring out how to apply the timeless truth of a passage to today, a very different context from when it was written (i.e. Romans 16:16 Greet one another with a holy kiss.). Some passages of Scripture require no hermeneutics at all. 1 Corinthians 15:3-4 and Galatians 1:6-9 are some homeruns in this category–so clean, so clear, so refreshing. If only all texts were this way. In all honesty, as I’ve thoroughly studied the Bible’s women in church leadership texts, I often feel exasperated that both views seem unbiblical! And then I can’t sleep…
Some quick vocab:
Egalitarian – The belief that women and men are equal when it comes to church leadership. That women can be senior / lead pastors or elders in the same way that men can.
Complementarian – The belief that women and men are different in function, but complement one another when it comes to church leadership. Only men can be elders / lead pastors.
There is a relatively wide spectrum within each camp, but this gives you a basic framework so you can follow along.
While there is a related debate about men and women’s household roles, I will be focusing on church leadership roles. Onward:
The Accusation from Egalitarians: Complementarians are Sexist & Oppressors
Due to their heart and convincing biblical argument, I will attempt to show that to accuse complementarians of being sexist or oppressors is to accuse God and the Bible of this.
I’m very passionate about social justice. By definition, I am referring to the Bible’s mandate for redemptive and restorative justice for those who are oppressed (enslaved, abused, held down by the system of power and privilege, etc.). The Bible says this over and over and over and over. The reason I do justice work is because the Bible tells me to. Isaiah 1:11-17, Jeremiah 5:26-29; Micah 6:6-8, Amos 5:21-24, James 1:27, Matthew 25:31-46; Galatians 2:10; Luke 4:17-21; to name a few. The Bible is clear that justice for the oppressed is core to God’s character. I try my best to blog about this a lot, often covering racial inequity issues in the United States, a specific topic I’m very passionate about.
As a result of this passion, I end up rubbing shoulders with a lot of other social and biblical justice folks at conferences, seminars and the like. I’ve started noticed a disturbing (to me) trend in some (not all) of these conversations. The trend being that a complementarian view of women in church leadership is oppressive and sexist. By oppressive, I mean it’s being equated with the same type of oppression blacks in American have faced (and often still face) in the United States from whites. Now, please hear me out, women have been very oppressed (and viewed in sexist ways) in our country, in many ways continue to be oppressed, and globally we can point to very overt ways women are abused and oppressed in other cultures. I am all for standing up against all of these types of oppression and sexism, as is God (see all of the verses I listed about above!).
Are there complementarians who oppress women? Yes.
Are there complementarians who are sexist? Yes.
Is the complementarian view oppressive or sexist to women?
This is a very important distinction to make. If you are an egalitarian, the only way to make this distinction is to take an honest look at the biblical perspective complementarians are using. In doing so, you will see a genuine complementarian’s heart is focused on a high view of the authority of Scripture and submitting to that authority, not in trying to keep women down.
The primary foundation of the complementarian view is found in Genesis 1-2 and in the belief that Genesis 1-2 serve as a blueprint for how things were and are supposed to be. Sin had not entered the picture yet so we get a two chapter glimpse of God’s ideal plan and design (no death, no sickness, etc.). Within this perfect world two chapter glimpse, complementarians notice different gender roles.
Because of this, it makes it incredibly significant when Paul goes back to Genesis 1-3 in arguing for males in the top authority position in the church. He’s not going back to some sinful period of history marred by selfish sin-filled decisions, he’s going back to the only time this planet was perfect. He does this in 1 Timothy 2:13-14, For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner.
While other women-in-church-leadership texts (such as 1 Corinthians 14:34-35; 1 Timothy 2:8-15; 1 Timothy 3:1-11 & Titus 1:1-9) are used by complementarians in different ways by different camps (with disagreement over which specifics are for all cultures and which were only for Paul’s culture), 1 Timothy 2:13-14 is the money text that all complementarians agree on and cannot compromise on.
Complementarians are very clear that God created men and women with equal dignity and value. The debate at hand is they also claim he created them with differing roles. (From Freedom and Boundaries: A Pastoral Primer on the Role of Women in the Church by Kevin DeYoung, pages 46-47) In the perfect Garden of Eden creation which Paul (in 1 Timothy 2:13-14) uses as his authority, there are four ways these differing roles are displayed:
- Man was created before the woman.
- The woman was given as a helper to the man. She was created for man (Genesis 2:20) –stating a different function from man. Woman is given to man as his “helper” (Genesis 2:18, 20). The word helper, ezer, is not a demeaning term for it is a term God sometimes uses for himself when he comes alongside to help his people. It is not a demeaning term, but it does not negate the clear teaching of Genesis 2:18, that Eve was given as a helper to Adam, not the other way around. Paul again points to this in 1 Corinthians 11:8 when describing authoritative roles in the church.
- Man was given the responsibility for naming. Adam named the animals and named Eve too.
- Adam is reckoned as the head and representative of the couple. Adam is given the initial command regarding the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 2:16-17). Even though Eve, tempted by the Serpent, commits the initial crime, Adam is addressed first (Genesis 3:9), for Adam was the designated leader and representative. Romans 5:12 makes this indisputably clear. “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man…”
Let’s pause for a moment and digest a few things.
Thus far the complementarian argument I have presented hasn’t even mentioned the debated New Testament church governance verses. This is significant because some egalitarians will throw out those verses with the dismissive statement that Paul was sexist, writing within a sexist culture, and so of course those commands would be colored with his sexism. This in and of itself poses some major problems when it comes to a high view of Scripture, meaning we see it as God’s authoritative word to us, spoken supernaturally through his chosen instruments, in this case Paul. If God is unable to remove Paul’s sinful sexism from what he is writing, we have a major God problem as well as a major holy Scriptures problem. But back to the point at hand, these verses in Genesis 1-3 were not written by Paul, they were written by Moses and they are describing God’s perfect sinless world. And in God’s perfect world, we see a distinction in roles between men and women, with men having a representation role and women having a helper role. We either have to believe God speaks authoritatively through his prophets (Moses) and apostles (Paul) or he doesn’t. And if we say he doesn’t, we are admitting to a very different view of the Bible (a Bible not inspired by God, a Bible that isn’t God’s authoritative word).
I’m not saying this is the camp egalitarians fall into (neither is DeYoung, page 33). In my parallel post to this one, I post a convincing biblical argument for the egalitarian position. My point here in this post is to show that complementarians are not being oppressive or sexist when they state their view, they are simply holding to the most accurate understanding of Genesis 1-3 that they can read on the pages of the Bible. If you are an egalitarian who has thrown out Scripture as authority, then my two parallel posts won’t be very helpful to you. But if you are one of the many egalitarians who maintains a high view of Scripture, that it is God’s authority and is infallible, then my hope is you will see that complementarians are not against women, they are simply for the Bible. And I know most of you are for the Bible as well! My hope is that you can see how the reason for their view, a difficult view to hold in today’s progressive culture, is not based on any personal preference but in their desire to stay as true to Scripture as they can. In fact, one of the tertiary reasons I ended up siding with the complementarian side of the argument is because of how important a high view of Scripture is to all of them. With the egalitarian view, being clumped in with some who hold a high view of Scripture but also many who do not (and who hold pro-homosexual-behavior views as well), I found myself having to explain myself endlessly, convincing people I indeed held a high view of Scripture. Whereas a high view of Scripture is assumed with the complementarian view. As a young pastor of a new church, this is very important to the presuppositions people make about me and my church.
There is a lot more that can be said about the complementarian Scriptural view (the rest of DeYoung’s book does a good job of presenting this. You can also read Recovering Biblical Manhood & Womanhood by John Piper and Wayne Grudem for an even more thorough explanation). My point in this article is not to convince you of this view, but to show you how the foundation of this view is not sexist or oppressive. That just as complementarians should not dismiss egalitarians as being unbiblical, egalitarians should not dismiss complementarians as being sexist or oppressors. Are there some complementarians who completely dismiss hermeneutics and who are sexist and oppressive to women? Yes. But to say that the proper view is this way is to say that the Bible is oppressive or sexist and is to slander so many in the church who hold to the Bible as faithfully as they know how. These sort of dismissive accusations from either side do not bring with them the gospel-centered unity and the Christ-centered humility that sound hermenuetics should be producing. You may not agree with your opponent, but can you see how your opponent got to their view via Scripture?
At the end of the day, you know, during that time when we’re supposed to be sleeping… The time when I can’t fall asleep because I see the biblical merits in both of these views… When I feel that both views are unbiblical! At the end of that day, the reason I am a slight complementarian has to do with DeYoung’s 4th point from above. Interestingly, as I’ve wrestled over and over and over with this debate, sitting on the fence for a very long time, many of my complementarian friends have pointed me to 1 Timothy 2:13-14 as their money verse for why they are complementarian and why I should be as well. While they do present a sound argument, these verses weren’t the ones that convinced me. I feel William Webb’s explanation of primogeniture (which I explain in my parallel post) gives a plausible explanation hermeneutically as to how the egalitarian view can still be valid in spite of 1 Timothy 2:13-14.
The point that got me wasn’t simply Paul going back to Genesis 1-3 to make an argument for a male-only church leadership, it was when Paul went back to Genesis 1-3 to make an argument for the gospel, which he does in Romans 5. It was reading DeYoung’s point #4 in his book that got this boulder rolling for me. Let’s look at Romans 5:12-19…(emphasis added)
Rom. 5:12 Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned…14 Nevertheless, death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses, even over those who did not sin by breaking a command, as did Adam, who is a pattern of the one to come.
Rom. 5:15 But the gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many! 16 Nor can the gift of God be compared with the result of one man’s sin: The judgment followed one sin and brought condemnation, but the gift followed many trespasses and brought justification. 17 For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ!
Rom. 5:18 Consequently, just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people. 19 For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous.
The first thing that is striking here is Adam and Jesus are directly linked (not Eve and Jesus). Adam is the “first Adam” and Jesus is the “second Adam.” Adam is the representative. We find the same thing in 1 Corinthians 15:22 and 45:
1Cor. 15:22 For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.
1Cor. 15:45 So it is written: “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam, a life-giving spirit.
While that correlation is significant, here’s what is so clear from Romans 5 and is the reason I have landed on the complementarian side of the fence:
If only Eve had sinned and Adam had not, there would have never been a curse.
Eve did not have the spiritual authority to bring the Fall of all creation as Adam, the head and representative, did.
In other words if Eve had bitten the fruit, offered it to Adam and he said no, the curse of Genesis 3 (death, sickness, etc.) would never have happened. Namely, our eternal separation from God would never have happened! Eve likely would have died, but Adam would have kept on living and creation would have remained perfect and one can assume that a different woman helper would have been given to Adam. But the point is, humankind and the entire creation itself would never have been infected by sin the way Romans 5 describes.
This is hugely significant.
The creation didn’t fall until Adam sinned. Adam was the representative. He was the head. This is not a point simply to argue for male-only authority in the church, but is the theological foundation for why we need Jesus and salvation at all. Without male headship, there is no fall of all creation. Grim news for sure, but is the foundational basis for our entire theology of salvation.
I can explain 1 Timothy 2:13-14 with primogeniture. I cannot explain Romans 5:12-19 (and 1 Corinthians 15:22, 45) with primogeniture.
There is no change in culture or amount of education given to women that can change this clear theological point about the gospel. The world became cursed with sin because Adam, the representative of humankind, sinned. This male representative is what Paul uses to teach that men are to be the spiritual authority / representative of a church.
This is the reason I’m a complementarian.
I might be resting up against the fence to the point that some complementarians wouldn’t claim me (you’ll know what I mean after reading my parallel article), but that’s okay with me.
I find that resting against the fence is actually a pretty comfortable position for falling asleep.
Author of Beyond the Battle: A man's guide to his identity in Christ in an oversexualized world
Host of the The Flip Side Podcast
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