Should women teach? Only if we don't tell anyone!

Take a cursory glance at the subject of complementarianism and you would be excused for making the assumption that it represents a single set of beliefs regarding the role of men and women in the church.

Begin a dialogue with church leaders who claim to hold to this theology, however, and you will see that behind the united front there are a myriad of views on offer.

Here is the problem as I see it:

Most of the key teachers on the subject (Gruden et al) speak of the bible prohibiting women in three main areas: senior church leadership, teaching ministry, and government within the home.

For sure Grudem's supplementary explanations hold less and less water the further you probe*, but at a surface level the teaching is firm: women cannot be elders/pastors/ministers, they cannot teach the main body of the church, and they cannot usurp the 'natural' order of male leadership in the home.

Judging from the dialogue I have had with leaders in local churches the situation is not quite so well defined.

Most of these local church leaders talk of the limitation to women as only being in the area of eldership.

Teaching, evangelism, small group leadership, youth work, it seems are all open to both sexes.

Given that the complementarian position is primarily a theological one it seems somewhat disingenuous of local church leaders to pay lip service to such teaching by maintaining male elderships, whilst in practice 'using' women to fulfil much of the churches ministry on the ground.

I have repeatedly tried to put this point to leaders (male) only for it to be dismissed as not important because, in their view at least, women have enough freedom within which to fulfil their destiny.

So here is the problem:

When pressed on why they hold to the limitation of women the call is always made to scripture.

When pressed, however, about how women might fulfil their gifts/calling we are offered examples of how women are released in the local church: in essence saying that there is no cause for concern.

Now correct me if I am wrong but is this not an example of male leaders wanting to have their ecclesiological cake and eating it.

On the one hand the theological position is that women should not lead or teach but at a local level they can do so given the right set of circumstances.

And what are those circumstances:

1. We don't call her an elder

2. She only teaches young people, kids, women, or the unchurched (apparently evangelists and missionaries can be female).

Or (I suspect this is probably the truth in most cases)

3. Nobody in head office gets to hear about it.

Either way the situation seems untenable and plain wrong at so many levels.

If you are going to say that women should not teach then don't pretend that the bible somehow means it is ok if she is speaking to kids or if she is on the mission field.

If you are saying that women should not lead then don't fudge the issue by saying that she can lead when it is convenient for the church to do so but not otherwise.

If, however, you are going to view these scriptures as having some contextual meaning (which in practice you obviously do) don't condemn us egalitarians for daring see a wider more liberating context for all of God's children.

My concern is that church leaders find such things too inconvenient to consider at the moment so they give a theological nod to the theology whilst adopting a more pragmatic approach on the the ground.

My hope is that the continued presentation of an egalitarian position will eventually make the issue impossible to ignore.

* Wayne Grudem agrees that it is ok for women to write books but he prefers to see that as having a chat over coffee rather than teaching.


Hannah Mudge said...

Really good points Alan. I have thought about this a lot and it's even been a topic of discussion with friends as we know some people who were attending a 'complementarian' church were this was happening. Our friend felt that they needed to stop 'fudging' the issue and either acknowledge egalitarianism or stop women from doing various things.

I have to say I used to think of Grudem as fairly scary but once I read into his stuff on the subject I do agree that a lot of it doesn't hold water and some of it is a bit bizarre.

Alan Molineaux said...

Thanks Hannah.

I have four daughters so I feel very passionate about this subject.

I think things will start to polarise over the next couple of years and then leaders will have to make a decision.


Admiralcreedy said...


interesting post, possibly you represent a rather more chilled-out and palatable form of egalitarianism (if that is your intent?)

I am personally a complementarian, from a complementarian church background, where women cannot be elders, male headship is held to, but women are given essentially a free rein in other areas. However, they cannot preach on a sunday morning.

At university, I attend a large vineyard church run by two senior pastors - a married couple. It is in effect egalitarian but in practice we very rarely see women preachers (couple of times a year, generally from staff, with a very high standard) and it is clear that male headship is held to in terms of marriage teaching and indeed the marriage of the two senior pastors.

I agree that things will start to polarise over the coming years, my prayer is that the trend towards liberalism is halted, and that whatever outcome in the wider church is based on good reading of scripture, good hermeneutics, pastoral care for individuals, and an awareness of all the streams of the church.

As an aside, both of 'my' churches are growing and are doing powerful things in two very different communities.



Alan Molineaux said...

Thanks for your thoughts Tom.

I appreciate your perspective.

Just as a note my context is England and I know how things might differ in the rest of the world.

You comments on become liberal interest me and I have just started working on a blog about that.

Stay in touch.


Sally said...

Good post Alan.

Tom- I am interested in how you define liberalism. I am a woman, an Ordained Minister (Methodist) with Pastoral Charge for 6 Chapels. I work in a team of Ordained Ministers and the Senior Minister is also a woman. I preach usually 3 times each Sunday, and I do practice good reading of the Scripture, good hermeneutics and good pastoral care. I would describe myself an evangelical progressive.
The churches I have charge for are outward looking and serve the communities they are placed in in a variety of ways. We are seeing real growth amongst families with young children, and discipleship and Bible Study are taken seriously.

If this all comes under the bracket of liberal because I am a woman then I beg to differ. That said I have learned a lot about grace from my more liberal friends, something that would not harm the more evangelical wing of the church at all.

I cannot embrace complimentarianism, my husband is currently training for ordained ministry and we have and will work as a team of two equals!

David said...

Some great comments Alan.

However, what concerns me with this whole debate is that I think, ultimately, the argument is backwards.

The complimentarian (which I think is a poor name) view suggests it is 'biblical' and that any move towards inclusivity of women is 'liberal'. My problem is that many of us choose to engage the argument from this point. The argument is then doomed from the beginning as it rests on a false premise.

The primary picture in the New Testament is that of equality and egalitarianism, any attempt to argue other than that cannot rest on a few verses, especially ones badly interpreted, but must understand that those few verses are taking on the canon of the NT.

My point is that the onus is not on the 'egalitarian' to prove that scripture allows women to serve God as fully as a man, but on the 'complimentarian' to prove why the 'all welcoming' Jesus now excludes women.

In addition to this, the issue of 'liberalism' is a red herring. Being a legalistic 'conservative' is as equally lacking in faith. We should be biblical.

Ian said...

Great point. The church I intern with believes Scripture is clear that there should be male elders, but women and men can pretty much do anything else.

The issue with this, from the perspective of many long time women in ministry is that they are given a lot of responsibility with little real authority.

And even if the Elders hold the woman's voice to be authoritative in making a decision, what is really the difference then in allowing her to actually sit on an elder board?

As you said, it's lip service.

Personally, I would not use words like 'egalitarian' because it IS clear in Scripture that men and woman are different. This is to be celebrated. Different is good. The way they walk out their Christian faith may be different. The way they serve the local church may be different. This is fundamentally a good thing.

However this does not mean there are some New Testament prescribed church offices women are not allowed to serve in. In fact it would be pretty difficult to find any church that truly practiced a New Testament church structure. It simply does not happen.

If you're going to read SOME of Paul of Tarsus 'literally', you are obliged to not contradict yourself and read ALL of Paul 'literally'.

Icebreaker said...

Its interesting to see the 'Liberal' word creep in again. It seems to get used frequently where something challenges the status quo of evangelical practice. I would suggest that women in leadership roles is not the only area of theology that differs from the practice, in the futile attempt to please the masses and to stem the decay of the old, crusty and diminishing religion of many Christian groups in the UK.

Admiralcreedy said...

Sorry, hadn't engaged since my original comment.

By liberal I do not mean to box anyone that disagrees with me into one camp - secondary issues and primary issues.

By liberal I would personally mean those that deny key tenets of the Christian faith, ignore scripture in the name of culture, etc.

Progressive evangelical is a good phrase - I think I am probably technically one.

Sally - denominational differences (I am a Baptist/Vineyard person) aside, fantastic! I am leaning towards the kind of complementarianism that MD's Mars Hill Church practices (though I am sure I will be slated for endorsing anything Driscoll says), wherein the eldership is male but all other roles + resps are open to women.

I freely admit that my thinking on this subject is in flux - though I have yet to come across a good response to Grudem's 'Evangelical Feminism and Biblical Truth'.

Thanks for allowing me to dissent!