The Women in Ministry Debate

Like so many hot button issues, the debate about the Bible’s teaching on men and women in the church is plagued by confusion. Sincere Christians talk past each other. There are two reasons for this, as I see it, and both of these reasons are motivating me to write today.

First, some of the confusion is due to honest misperceptions of the other side. We grow up in certain tribes, and within those tribes we develop relationships and learn to trust certain perspectives. Our view of the Bible’s teaching on a given subject is influenced by all of this. We can easily adopt the viewpoints of our tribal parents, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. We’ve been instructed to pass on the faith to the next generation. That’s how this thing has worked for the last few thousand years. My hope here is to examine this issue in good faith and perhaps clear up some honest misperceptions that are out there.

Secondly, some of the combative aspects of this debate are not based on careful and sincere misunderstandings of the other side. Some of the controversy is the result of intentional misrepresentations of those with whom we disagree. This is also why I write today. As I look back at the last 20 years of theological grappling in my own life, I’ve realized how easy it is to be reactionary and needlessly argumentative on issues like this. That posture doesn’t help anyone. I think in my flesh it is super easy to reason away a confrontational attitude as ‘passionately prophetic.’ Divisive mischaracterization of other biblically rooted and gospel-centered Christians through catch phrases or political power plays is more pathetic than prophetic. I say this out of a posture of confession more so than instruction.

There are more than two sides to this issue. Dichotomies are a useful tool in regard to certain things, but false dichotomies aren’t helpful. False dichotomies are useful if your goal is to win the argument, quick and dirty. But is that why you are still reading? This issue, like many other serious issues, is better viewed on a spectrum than in a dichotomy. I’m not here to talk about the entire range of that spectrum as I see it. Maybe that’s a post for another day. My goal is for Christians all over the map on this to recognize that the issue is more nuanced than a set of carefully crafted political talking points allows.

To give a little more definition to the issue, we need to acknowledge the two major camps. I say “camps” with the recognition that these camps are very diverse and contain people whose convictions and practices range all throughout the spectrum of this issue. At the risk of oversimplification immediately after I warned against dichotomous thinking, the two major categories are Egalitarian and Complementarian.

Egalitarian focuses on equality of people and equality of opportunity. The strong points for this camp biblically spring from the fact that from the first page of our Bibles we are told that male and female are equal image-bearers of God. All throughout the Bible we see God’s redemptive plan unfold in and through the lives of flawed but chosen women and men of faith. In the midst of cultures (OT and NT) that viewed women as property, we see God faithfully keep and deliver His people through faithful acts of women (see Tamar, Ruth, Rahab, Deborah, Mary, Elizabeth, Tabitha, Lydia, and many more). Isn’t is beautiful how
God works?

Complementarian focuses on God’s design of humanity as male and female, differentiated but complementary. The idea is that from the first page of our Bibles, God created humanity as male and female, not to oppose one another, but to complement one another. The biblical design of marriage in Genesis 2, as a gospel-revealing, life-long, God-wrought
covenant between a man and a woman is a key illustration of this complementary design. Biblical complementarianism has nothing to do with first-class or second-class image bearers. It also holds that male and female are equal image-bearers of God. It simply articulates the aspect of differentiation within the equality of image bearing. Equal, yet different.

These two camps disagree on the role that God has designed women and men to play in the home and in the church. My goal here is to address the church side of the equation.

For the egalitarian camp, the goal is to ‘level the ground’ as it relates to gender roles in the in the church. Because women and men are equal before God, women and men should be able to function interchangeably. Women and men should have equal opportunity to do what they feel God has called and gifted them to do.

For their biblical support, the egalitarian camp focuses on the equality of men and women in salvation and before God (Galatians 3:28). They also emphasize the biblical data that reveals the roles that women have played in God’s redemptive story. I listed some of these examples above. If you’re around Egalitarians, you will often hear phrases like “men and
women are full gospel partners in the work of ministry” or “women and men are equally called and gifted to lead within the body of Christ.” Egalitarians will also note that in passages in the New Testament that emphasize the Spirit’s empowerment of His people (Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12, Ephesians 4, etc.) there aren’t gender distinctions emphasized. The Spirit distributes His gifts as He wills. A final major biblical handle for this camp is a passage like Joel 2, which is repeated by Peter in his sermon in Acts 2. Specific note is given to the fact that “sons and daughters will prophesy” when God’s Spirit is poured out. This is one of the reasons that, generally speaking, Charismatic and Pentecostal Christians usually lean Egalitarian. The strength of the egalitarian argument on these fronts is that God has certainly used men and women in equally tremendous ways through biblical and church history.

For the complementarian camp, the goal is that the church (and home) would function based upon what they see as God’s specific design of men and women. The Complementarian believes that God’s design for men and women in the home is also reflected in God’s design for men and women in the ‘household of God,’ (1 Timothy 3:15) manifested in the local church. In practice, this means that Complementarians hold that
male headship in the home (Ephesians 5:23) is reflected in the church in the role of elder. As a husband is called to follow Christ in the self-sacrificial love with which he serves his wife, so elders are called to be men of integrity who serve and shepherd God’s people with self-sacrificial love and care (1 Peter 5:1-5, Titus 1:5-9, 1 Timothy 3:1-7, Acts 20:28-31). Complementarians hold that ‘elder’ is a responsibility that men carry in the church, just as ‘husband’ is a responsibility that men carry in the home.

For their biblical support, this camp looks at Genesis 1 and 2 and sees the creation of humanity as equal but different image bearers of God. They believe that the order of creation, the design of male, female, and marriage in Genesis 2, and the disorder of Genesis 3, all reveal the necessity of male and female functioning in the complementary way God created them to function. This camp relies heavily on the New Testament interpretation of these creation texts, as revealed in Paul’s language in 1 Timothy 2:11-3:7 (focused on the church), Ephesians 5:22-33 (focused on the home), 1 Corinthians 11:1-12, among other places. On the role of elder being reserved for men, Complementarians look to the texts in the NT where Paul or Peter prescribe qualifications functions of elders (1 Timothy 3:1-7, Titus 1:5-9, 1 Peter 5:1-5), noting that he is clearly speaking of men. The strength of these textual arguments in the eyes of the Complimentarian is that they hold that they don’t have to explain Paul’s strong gender distinctions in the home and church (which Paul grounds in the Genesis 1-3 account) by an appeal to extra-biblical cultural context.

“Women in Ministry”

A major motivation for writing this post is to examine the phrase “women in ministry.” As I do that, I have to examine what the two sides mean when they say “pastor.” One of the major reasons these two sides talk past each other is that they use the term “pastor” and the phrase “women in ministry” to mean different things.

When the Egalitarian says “women in ministry,” they mean “women functioning in any role in ministry that they feel God has called and gifted them to fulfill.” The idea is that since women and men are equal before God, equal recipients of salvation, and equally gifted and empowered by the Spirit, they can and should function interchangeably in the church. I’m not trying to oversimplify this issue from the egalitarian side. I also can’t speak for egalitarians at every point on the spectrum. Generally, when the Egalitarian uses the term “pastor,” they mean what the majority of people in American church culture mean: “someone in ministry.” People generally think of a “pastor” as someone who works at a church, or disciples people, or speaks up front. I’m not critiquing people’s use of the term “pastor,” I’m just articulating a pretty standard observation in this debate.

Conversely, when Complementarians say, “pastor,” they tend to mean, “local church elder.” Not every Complementarian employs the term this way, but the vast majority do. They see the role of ‘pastor’ as a function of eldership. The term translated ‘pastor’ in the NT appears very infrequently. The word can also be translated “shepherd.” It is used most prominently in Ephesians 4:11, talking about a gifting that God gives to local church leaders. The reason the Complementarian defines “pastor” and “elder” synonymously is because in Acts 20 (Paul speaking to the Ephesians elders), and 1 Peter 5 (Peter speaking to local church elders), the same exact infrequently used word is used as the Apostles charge local elders to guard and serve the church.

When the complementarian says “women in ministry” they mean “women doing works of ministry.” I think of Ephesians 4:12 here. That verse says that Christians are called and equipped to do “works of ministry” with the ultimate end of building up the body of Christ.

No Complementarian believes that women aren’t called, gifted, and empowered to do ministry. This is a straw man in this debate, and it is very damaging to the dialogue. Again, I don’t speak for every Complimentarian. However, if you have heard someone who claims to be a Complimentarian say that women should not do ministry, you have met someone who does not know what they are talking about.

Talking Past Each Other

Here’s where the confusion ensues. Earl Egalitarian and Claudia Complementarian are both responding to a Facebook thread on the subject of “women in ministry.”

Earl says, “Claudia, you don’t believe women can be pastors?” Claudia replies, “No, I don’t.”

Earl is thinking: “women as pastors = women in ministry”
Claudia is thinking: “women as pastors = women as elders”

They continue:
Earl: “Why not?”
Claudia: “Because I read my Bible!”
Earl: “Well, you should read it more closely then! Have you ever heard of Deborah? What about Lydia? How about all the prominent women in the gospel narratives that walked with Jesus?”
Claudia: “Have you read 1 Timothy 2? Paul says that women can’t pastor men!”
Earl: “You’re taking that out of context! That was a cultural issue in Ephesus at that time!”
Claudia: “No, it wasn’t!”
Earl: “Stop woman-splaining!”
Claudia: “I’ll woman-splain your man-splain all day!”

And on and on it goes. At the end of this dialogue, Claudia will be convinced that Earl doesn’t take the Bible seriously, and this makes him dumber than her. Earl will be convinced the Claudia is “against women in ministry,” and this makes her crueler than him.

Rinse. Repeat.

I posted this because I believe this issue is of vital importance for the cause of the gospel and the health of the church in America. The battlefront of sexual ethics is beyond hot in our cultural moment. The spirit of our age seeks to confuse and divide us. Christians who
love Jesus, but who disagree on terms or roles within the church, have no time for friendly fire. We can’t do it, friends. The mission is too important. I didn’t write this to outline my personal interpretations of the various texts. I tried to stay as objective as possible. I’m sure I didn’t. I wrote this because of my personal experience of witnessing honest misunderstandings or intentional misrepresentations.

Egalitarians and Complementarians agree that women and men are equal.
Egalitarians and Complementarians agree that women are called to gospel ministry.
Egalitarians focus on equality in God’s design of humanity.

Complementarians focus on differentiation in God’s design of humanity.
Egalitarians and Complementarians use the term “pastor” differently.
Egalitarians and Complementarians differ on certain aspects of ecclesiology.

Egalitarians and Complementarians who have been saved by God’s grace are called to proclaim the excellencies of Him who called us out of darkness into His glorious light. I hope to follow up this post with some further thoughts on ecclesiology and the like, just to continue to move the ball down the field in a positive way. That being said, I may or may not post again for 2 solid years. We’ll see how it goes. Hopefully, this post was helpful. Grace and peace.