Anyone who has had conversation with me on a biblical text or a theological topic knows that I hate the answer, “Well, the Bible says so.” I want to get to the why behind the what. Sometimes it’s impossible to know, of course. But often, “The Bible say so,” is a lazy answer.
When it came to the debate on women’s roles in gender, I often answered genuine questions with, “Well, the Bible says so.”
Far too often I resorted to that rigid, biblical literalism I mentioned in a previous post. And it kept me from seeing an obvious blind spot which produced all kinds of inconsistent–if not awkward–applications.
The glaring blind spot of complementarianism that I missed for so long is fairly easy to explain. Here it is:
Complementarianism holds that women are equal to men, but separate from–namely, underneath–them
Proponents say they value women because women are “created equal with men.” Functionally, however, complementarians devalue women because, in any family or ministry setting, women are separated from men since they are “called” to place themselves under the authority of men–even if the men are not as mature, wise, gifted, or experienced.
We’ve heard “separate but equal” before, haven’t we?
How did that work out for us?
Equal But Separate No Longer
The Civil Rights movement in the middle of the twentieth century in the United States fought against the idea and practice of “separate but equal.” We all know how this produced all kinds of evils against black people.
Women in the church have been fighting against this same kind of thing for a very long time. It’s just harder to notice.
I’m not just trying to shock you by making the link between the struggle of women in the church and racism. Preachers and theologians in the United States used Scripture to argue that slavery and racism was God’s design for black people. They also argued that patriarchy was God’s design.
Complementarianism is simply patriarchy in our modern world.
At some point a shift happened. Any respectable preacher or theologian in America today would say the slavery texts are reflective of a sinful system within a particular culture and should not be repeated today.
Yet the same preachers and theologians will defend the subjugation of women.
Historian Beth Allison Barr makes this exact case in her wonderful new book The Making of Biblical Womanhood.
Barr’s point is clear:
When we rightly understand that biblical passages discussing slavery must be framed within their historical context and that, through the lens of this historical context, we can better understand slavery as an ungodly system that stands contrary to the gospel of Christ, how can we not then apply the same standards to biblical texts about women?
Now, I’m getting a bit ahead of myself. I’ll have an entire post soon on how we can know whether a Bible passage is culture-bound or not. So, we’ll discuss the connection between slaves and women.
For now, the point I’m making is that slavery and segregation were designed to keep an entire group of people in submission. In the same way, patriarchy (aka complementarianism) is designed to keep one half of humanity in power and the other half in submission.
This does not reflect the spirit of Christ’s humility, love, and freedom.
We cannot keep saying women are “equal to men” and they must be “separate” from “a man’s work” in ministry. As someone has rightly said, “Separate but equal is not equal.”
Now, please don’t hear something I’m definitely not saying. I am not saying that women and men are the same. Women and men are obviously different.
And that’s the point, isn’t it? It’s exactly why men need women at the leadership table. If women were the same, we men wouldn’t need them, and vice versa.
But complementarians believe the difference between men and women goes beyond their biological and anatomical differences.
They argue that because of their gender, our roles and functions are different. Men lead and direct. Women follow and submit in the home and the church. In every culture. For all time.
You already know this. That’s why you’re reading.
The reason I’ve gone to such great lengths to talk about my experiences in and observations of complementarianism is to show how these provided the right conditions for me to see how dangerous complementarianism really is.
A woman’s voice is essential for a ministry to function faithfully and fruitfully. Not a token voice, but one that holds the same weight as a man’s. It reminds me of Mary Magdalene, the first person to give voice to the good news of Jesus’ resurrection.
A woman’s testimony had no weight in a Jewish trial. Yet here is the risen Jesus sending a woman to be the first witness to his male friends about the greatest news in history.
Here is the risen Jesus sending a woman to be the first witness to his male friends about the greatest news in history.Tweet
How’s that for weighty? A woman. Authorized by Jesus. Teaching men about the One who is Truth.
But women today aren’t permitted to lead and shepherd and teach people–men–who want to follow Jesus?
There it is. The blind spot, finally, exposed.
Equal but separate no longer.
Inconsistent (and Awkward) Application
Seeing this canyon-sized blind spot opened up the door for my wife and me to ask more pointed questions about the way complementarianism is broadly applied in churches.
Here are many inconsistencies both of us wrestled with. We either noticed these in our own ministry contexts or others:
- Can a woman lead or co-lead a mixed gender small group that meets in a home? Can a woman teach other men anything about God, the Bible, doctrine, etc. in a small group setting?
- Assuming our worship songs teach theology and Scripture (and they do), can a woman sing and lead musically in a church?
- Assuming our prayers teach theology and Scripture (and they do), can a woman pray in a church?
- Does leadership really just boil down to being the one who initiates and makes the final decision? What is uniquely “male” about that?
- What do women do with their gifts of teaching, prophecy, exhortation, wisdom, knowledge, and discernment–gifts that are traditionally valued in (male) pastors/elders, leaders, and men in general?
- What are women who are mature, humble, strong leaders actually allowed to do in a church if they aren’t allowed lead?
- If a woman can give a short reflection on Scripture at a Good Friday service, why can’t she do the same for a bit longer–say “sermon length” longer–on Easter Sunday?
- If women can’t teach men publicly because it is “having authority” over them and if “teaching” is a function of the elders, then should a non-elder man ever teach publicly? Wouldn’t he be assuming an authority over the elders that is not rightfully his?
- Are men allowed to read a doctrinal book written by a woman?
- Why can a woman teach a man in private conversation (see Acts 18:26), but not many men in a public church gathering? Is the difference that there is a formal service, in a building, with a pulpit?
- If a woman shares her story in a church gathering and happens to explain a Bible verse or expounds a point of Christian doctrine, is she in violation of 1 Timothy 2:12?
- Can a mother teach the Bible to her 18-year old son at home on Saturday night, but not the next morning in front of him and the whole congregation?
- At what age does a boy become a man and is exempt from being taught by a woman? At 13? 16? 18? 21? 30?
- Why can a woman teach a mixed group of college students in a parachurch setting on a weeknight but not on a Sunday morning in a local church setting? Or are women in parachurch settings not allowed to teach college-aged men?
- Why can a woman preach, teach, evangelize, disciple, and even start churches overseas but not at home?
- Why would a group of male-only elders ignore, at best, or reject, at worst, female input on major decisions when, as statistics show, more than half of Christian congregations are female?
- Does a single female have to submit to any male? Or every male? Or just her pastor? Or just her father? Or her father and her pastor? What if she is 37 years old…or 65 years old?
- Why would God tell women they can’t lead men simply because he made them female?
These were inconsistencies I had shrugged off before because I was convinced there was no other way to interpret the most controversial passages on women in ministry.
I didn’t want to just shrug these off anymore.
But What Does the Bible Say?
The past several posts, including this one, have been about my experiences and observations living within complementarianism. This is my reality.
But I’ll be the first to say that experience is not a valid reason to change your mind on a biblical teaching.
We need to let God’s word have the final say.
Perhaps what I started to feel as a complementarian pastor was hogwash. Perhaps my inclination that we need women’s voices at the leadership table is just caving to modern culture. Perhaps my desire to honor and champion my wife and daughters–not to mention the many other many women I’ve worked alongside in ministry–is misguided.
Perhaps I’m full of it.
Only a deep-dive into the entire story of Scripture–and the ancient world in which it was written–can help me find out.
 I’m not trying to be harsh by calling complementarianism “patriarchy.” I’m simply repeating what some of the most well-known complementarians have said. Owen Strachan, former president of the Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, wrote, “For millennia, followers of God have practiced what used to be called patriarchy and is now called complementarianism” (my emphasis). See “Of ‘Dad Moms’ and ‘Dad Fails’: An Essay on Men and Awesomeness,” The Journal for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood 17/1 (2012), 23-26.
Similarly, Russell Moore, former president of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, wrote, “If complementarians are to reclaim the debate, we must not fear making a claim that is disturbingly counter-cultural and yet strikingly biblical, a claim that the less-than-evangelical feminists understand increasingly: Christianity is undergirded by a vision of patriarchy” (my emphasis). Generally, I’m a fan of what Moore says and writes, but not here. See “After Patriarchy, What? Why Egalitarians Are Willing the Gender Debate,” Journal of the Evangelical Society 49/3 (September 2006), 569–76. This article was written back in 2006. I agree with Barr when she says that she hopes Moore has changed his stance. I’m not aware that he has, however.
 Beth Allison Barr, The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2021), 34. See 32-35 for her entire discussion on the connection between the struggle of women in the church and racism. You really should just buy this book and read it. It’s truly spectacular.
 As far as I can tell, this quote is attributed to Paul Martin, the 21st Prime Minister of Canada.
 Even John Piper and Wayne Grudem, fathers of biblical manhood and womanhood movement, teach that women are not designed by God to lead in secular vocations.
 Since churches in the first century met in homes, this question is very relevant! As we’ll see in our exploration of 1 Corinthians 11, we absolutely know that there were women who “prayed and prophesied” in house church gatherings in Corinth. The concept of a sermon given by one person in a pulpit or behind a lectern is foreign to the biblical writers. Multiple communicators of biblical truth, not just one, was more typical of worship gatherings in the first century.