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Women in Leadership, Part 1: Setting the Stage

rev. 10-2-10

The issue of the role of women in the church is becoming increasingly important today in evangelical churches. The two poles in the debate are conveniently labeled complementarian and egalitarian. The egalitarian position is that women are equal to men in both essence and function; that is, that there should be no functional subordination of women to men in the activities of the church. The complementarian position is one that argues that women are equal to men in essence, but that men are to be the leaders in the church. That is, women are equal in essence but are to be functionally subordinate. How the specifics of the egalitarian vs. complementarian positions play out involves greater complexities. The following chart offers some of the parameters within an evangelical discussion.

My deepest concern about this matter is twofold: (1) it is dividing evangelicals in ways that have hitherto not occurred; and (2) the Trinity has recently been brought into the debate, and both sides are defining the nature of the Triune God a bit differently.

In the original essay on this topic, posted in 2001, I wrote the following next:

The issue of the role of women in the church has become so central to how many Christians think that it even deserves its own theological label. Frankly, the best expression to use is “theological gynecology,” or “the doctrine of gynecology.” Too many associations with the medical profession will prevent some from seeing how appropriate this is at first. But ‘gynecology’ simply means ‘the study of women.’ And ‘theological gynecology’ means ‘the theological study of women,’ or ‘what the Bible says about the role of women.’ So I’ll use it sporadically throughout this paper. There is a corresponding doctrine known as “andrology”—the doctrine of men (as in adult males). Both of them together constitute a larger doctrinal area that we are all familiar with: anthropology. (And since that term is used both in the physical and social sciences, but is still deemed appropriate in the realm of theology, I see no reason why we can’t begin to think in terms of gynecology and andrology in the biblical sphere.)

Some readers, however, found the term ‘gynecology’ offensive when used in the sense of ‘the study of women’ theologically or biblically. Although I do not agree with the basis of their argumentation about its inappropriateness, I also do not want to put up walls before discussion can occur. Hence, I will not use the term ‘gynecology’ in this or the next essay except as a way to refer to the original postings.

The chart below shows the general parameters of this issue within evangelical circles. It’s a bit complicated, so I’ll try to walk you through the layout. The four titles along the top row give the group names, from extreme egalitarian to extreme complementarian. The titles going vertically down the left side, starting in the box below the top one, address spheres of influence: home and church. But under ‘church’ are leadership, teaching, administration of sacraments, followed by the biblical basis on which the view is affirmed, and then how essence and function are defined. In the second column from the left, again going down vertically, the various kinds of authority are in view. First, the authority in the home; this is followed by specified subcategories of various church roles—such as various kinds of leadership, various kinds of teachers, the two sacraments. Then, the theology and texts that constitute the biblical basis, how men and women are viewed in terms of essence and function, and finally the Trinity is brought in. You should know that, in the last few years, the Trinity has indeed been marshaled in support for both sides. Frankly, this is one of the clearest indications that something is wrong with one of those views, because the doctrine of the Trinity has been perverted in order to serve a particular agenda. That is almost always the case when minor heresies in the church are involved: in order to be maintained, a major doctrinal shift has to occur. I’ll get to that in a minute.

Another way to look at the chart is to note that the two columns on the left give a category that is addressed by the four groups. The second column gives specifics under the larger umbrella of the first-named category.

The Role of Women in the Church and Home:
Continua of Views within Evangelicalism

   

Extreme Egalitarian

Moderate Egalitarian

Moderate Complementarian

Extreme Complementarian

           

Home:

Authority:

Christ alone is head,

husband is not; mutual

submission between

husband and wife

Husband as head is

loving leader,

wife is responder

Husband as head is loving leader,

wife is responder

Husband is only functional

authority, makes all decisions;

wife accepts

Church

leadership:

Senior Pastor

open to women

men only; rarely

open to women

men only

men only

 

Elders

open to women

open to women

men only

men only

 

Pulpit Supply

open to women

men only or rarely

women

men only

men only

 

Ordination

open to women

possibly open to

women

usually men only

men only

 

Assistant Pastor

open to women

sometimes open to

women

men only

men only

           

Church

teaching:

Mixed Adult SS,

teaching Bible

open to women

often open to

women

usually men only

men only

 

Mixed Adult SS,

other than Bible

open to women

open to women

open to women

sometimes open to women

 

Mixed College

SS

open to women

open to women

sometimes open to women;

women may assist

men only

 

Mixed High

School SS

open to women

open to women

open to women

women may assist

 

Women’s Bible

study

open to women

open to women

open to women

sometimes men only!

 

Junior high SS

open to women

open to women

open to women

women may assist;

cautiously open to women

Admini-

stering

sacraments:

baptism

open to women

usually open to women

sometimes open to women

men only

 

communion

open to women

sometimes open to

women

usually men only

men only

Biblical

basis:

theology/texts

implication of

redemption/

Eph 5:21; Gal 3:28

implication of

redemption/

Gal 3:28

grounded in creation/

Gen 2; Eph 5:24, 31;

1 Tim 2:13; 1 Cor 11, 14

grounded in creation/

Gen 2; Eph 5:24, 31;

1 Tim 2:13; 1 Cor 11, 14

Essence &

function:

Men and

women

difference in function

implies difference in

essence

difference in function

might imply difference

in essence

functional difference,

essential equality

functional difference,

essential equality

 

Trinity

Son is not eternally

subordinate to Father

Son is not eternally

subordinate to

Father

Son is eternally

subordinate to

Father

Son is eternally

subordinate to

Father

           

As a Protestant I cherish the NT teaching on the priesthood of believers—that each Christian has the right to his own interpretation, but also that each Christian has the responsibility to get it right. If an individual Christian wrongly interprets and then misapplies the Word, the scope of his error may not be very wide. But when the leaders of the church do this, the impact can be vast. For this reason Paul tells Timothy to “be zealous to show yourself approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed”; and why James declares that “Not many of you should become teachers.”

I believe the safest policy is always to ground our views on scripture. If we have done all we can to fairly and honestly examine the evidence, we can have a good conscience before God. And our goal must always be unity—but only a unity that is based on the sure foundation of truth.

Introduction: Setting the Framework

1. Tensions within the Evangelical Church at the Beginning of the 21st Century

Some churches are so complementarian that they do not allow women to have any ministry. Men are the teachers from the cradle to the grave. Others are so egalitarian that one must embrace an egalitarian position as a prerequisite for church membership. The tensions are getting worse; churches and denominations are beginning to write up position papers, incorporating this issue into their doctrinal statements. The lead story in the Religion Section of the Dallas Morning News for Saturday, June 16, 2001, addressed this issue and noted how it is dividing evangelicals.

On the whole, the last thirty years have witnessed the infiltration and expansion of egalitarianism within the evangelical church. Liberal churches have historically had less of a problem with this. The reasons for this are essentially that scripture is not regarded as an authority over them to the extent that it is in evangelical churches; thus, they are able to use cultural norms as their guide, even when such oppose scripture. In general, the more liberal a denomination, the more egalitarian it is.

Such linkage of egalitarianism with liberalism has produced two quite different responses from evangelicals:

  • Traditionalists (a.k.a. hierarchalists, complementarians) see egalitarianism as an erosion of biblical authority and capitulation to societal pressures. They argue that the feminist movement has made inroads into the evangelical church in the past thirty years and that the scriptures simply cannot be twisted to mean what egalitarians claim they mean. Along these lines, they often see a connection between ordination of women and acceptance of and ordination of homosexuals.
  • Evangelical egalitarians regard the evangelical church as often slow to seeing the social implications of the gospel, and that this slowness ought not be regarded as due to solid biblical reasons but to a culturally conservative mindset. They point out, for example, that the denominations that remained evangelical in the mid-1800s were usually the southern churches—i.e., those that saw no problem, biblically speaking, with slavery. Thus they argue that the Bible is couched in patriarchal terms simply because that’s the way society was back then, rather than because that’s how God designed things to be in the church.

2. Position vs. Attitude

An article that appeared in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society(JETS) in 1990 bore the provocative title, “Putting Women in Their Place.”2 The author was an egalitarian, but he articulated essentially four views on the issue of women in leadership. The two extreme views unite position with attitude, while the two moderate views separate position from attitude:

View A (rigid complementarian): Intolerant of and unwilling to fellowship with egalitarians

View B (gracious complementarian): Tolerant of and willing to fellowship with egalitarians, though concerned over the implications of egalitarianism

View C (gracious egalitarian): Tolerant of and willing to fellowship with complementarians, though concerned over the implications of complementarianism

View D (rigid egalitarian): Intolerant of and unwilling to fellowship with complementarians

I would urge all evangelicals to place themselves somewhere in the moderate or gracious camps. This is because this topic is not something that is vital for the life of the church (for it involves no cardinal doctrines; it is of course very important to women, but no one’s salvation hangs in the balance).

However, this issue is important for the health of the church. That is to say, one can get saved if he or she is an egalitarian or a complementarian, but whether and how much growth can take place is in part related to how we handle this issue. Further, I have come to the conclusion that a local church needs to take a stand on this issue because of the pragmatic ramifications of the matter.

Even if you regard it as a non-issue, this is one doctrinal area that directly impacts behavior. What you believe about the time of the rapture or who wrote Hebrews or whether we have guardian angels may have little impact on how a church functions. But what you believe about the proper role for women to have in the body of Christ has a direct impact on how the church functions. The elders’ beliefs become policy and though others may disagree, such disagreements are muted by the behavior of the church. In this respect, the women’s issue is similar to speaking in tongues: If the leaders are unclear on their beliefs, their indifference will effectively be an open-door policy. Not to decide is to open the door wide.

It is because of the close connection between belief and behavior in this issue that a compromise position—that many churches today are now advocating—which allows both to have “air time” seems to be ill-conceived. (On the other hand, I think a much greater latitude can exist outside the local church. Egalitarian and complementarian churches should unite on winning the world for Christ, as should various other groups whose beliefs in non-essential areas differ.)

Finally, some other concerns about attitude: Regardless of which position you adopt, it is terribly important to affirm the dignity and worth of each member of the body of Christ. One of the things that grieves me most deeply about this issue is how complementarian men treat egalitarian women, as well as how egalitarian women treat complementarian women. Let me explain.

In the seminary context, all too often I hear complaints from female students about male students condemning them for having a ministry to mixed groups. Sometimes the men are quite zealous in their condemnations, even judging a woman for teaching other women! What troubles me is that these male students would usually not dare to condemn someone for being posttribulational or amillennial or charismatic or Arminian. They would certainly voice their disagreements, but they would refrain from personal attack. But when it comes to women teaching men, they make a personal attack—as if they have already arrived at a carefully worked-out understanding of the relevant biblical texts! All too often, it’s the first year students who are most condemning—that is, those who are in the beginning stages of learning their Greek. That is both uncharitable and blindly arrogant. Further, there is another attitude that deeply disturbs me coming from complementarians: once these same male students get out in ministry, they give no thought whatever to using the gifted women in their church for suitable and challenging tasks. I like to ask my students this question, “Are there any spiritual gifts that men may have but women may not?” After a moment of nervous silence, the next question is, “Then why aren’t you doing something to utilize the women in your church?” The fact is, men are the power-brokers in the modern American evangelical community; men are the ones who can right the wrong, who can bring dignity to women by enabling them to utilize all their spiritual gifts. But if the male leadership doesn’t do this, they are to blame for the church running on only half its cylinders. Frankly, pastors who do not think proactively about the positive role of women in their churches, who do nothing and thus let women get frustrated because of their own lack of interest in the problem, are exhibiting little if any meekness. As you study πραῦτης and its cognates in the NT, you discover that it is often, if not usually, linked to those in positions of authority.3 And their character quality of meekness is often directly linked to their speaking up for the oppressed. The point is: both those male students who condemn women for having any kind of ministry and those pastors who do not work toward exploring ways to utilize the spiritual gifts of everyone, including women, in their congregation, are certainly not exhibiting the character of a Christ-like leader.

On the other hand, egalitarians often exhibit a militaristic attitude that outright condemns anyone who might even look complementarian. Female seminary students who are egalitarian sometimes demonstrate just as much arrogance and disrespect toward non-egalitarians as male complementarian students do toward egalitarians. The irony is that those who often receive the brunt of the egalitarian’s criticisms are other women! I have seen this scenario played out dozens of times—in seminary, at church, among Christians in several arenas. And my wife—whose gifts of discernment are phenomenal—has often noticed that at her work. She’s the receptionist at a private Christian school. The rudest people she has encountered in her job are women who despise her—apparently for being a receptionist. Almost without exception, they are egalitarians. Why would they despise my wife? They only want to deal with men, because men are the only ones worthy of their attention. This is egalitarianism gone awry: women who insist on functional equality with men are often the last ones to extend any respect to other women. In effect, because these women are so insistent on their right to teach men, they end up despising women. Since their whole focus is on the right of women teaching men, they end up exalting men over women. They themselves are the worst examples of treating women as second-class citizens. It’s a sad irony.

Let me be clear here: I am not saying that egalitarian women always treat other women disrespectfully, any more than I am saying that complementarian men always treat women disrespectfully. I am saying that there are extremes in each camp, and both extremes represent an ungodly and unbiblical position. Regardless of which position one holds to, we have no right to treat one another with any attitude other than respect.

In future studies, I hope to address the two major New Testament passages that deal with the role of women—Galatians 3:28 and 1 Timothy 2:11-15.


1 Originally titled, “Biblical Gynecology, Part 1: Setting the Stage.” See third and fourth paragraphs above for why the title was changed.

2 Bruce Barron, “Putting Women in Their Place: 1 Timothy 2 and Evangelical Views of Women in Church Leadership” JETS 33.4 (1990) 451-59. The titles and definitions are my modifications.

3 Note in the following passages that those who are able to exercise meekness are in roles of authority: cf. Matt 11:29; 21:5; 1 Cor 4:21; 1 Cor 10:1; Gal 6:1; Eph 4:2; 1 Tim 6:11; 2 Tim 2:25; Titus 3:2; Jas 3:13.

Related Topics: Ecclesiology (The Church), Issues in Church Leadership/Ministry, Leadership