Ask Steve: Complementarian vs. Egalitarian








Question: Steve, I go to a church that has pretty liberal views on women’s role. They believe that women can be lead pastors and elders in the church. They even believe in that men and women have no distinction in function in marriage. Can you explain to me what the biblical position is on this issue? 

Answer: One of the most hotly debated issues today is whether or not women have the same roles and responsibilities in church as do men. In other words, can women serve as elders, pastors, and head teachers in a church? Is it unfair, unjust, and unethical for women to be excluded from serving as elders in the church? The orthodox position on this issue is called the complimentarian view. This is defined as the God ordained distinctions between men and women in the church, not in being and essence but in role and responsibility, which is permanent and normative for all ages. It is reflective in the way God has designed men and women in their roles in church as well as in the family institution. The function of shepherding and teaching a congregation are divinely appointed to men alone, while women are to use their gifts to serve the church in other capacities in the body of Christ.

The more liberal and progressive view is called egalitarianism, the idea that women are to be treated as no different from men, not just in their essence as human beings but also in their functions and roles within the church and the family. In other words, there should be no distinction between men and women. Women can have just as much right to pastor/elder and teach in a church as can men, which implies that the whole elder board can even be entirely female if that is the case. Egalitarians believe that the teachings of the Apostle Paul are not timeless and binding, but were historically conditioned. This means that the texts spoke only to the rebellious women in particular churches and were the opinion of the male-dominated culture of the time. Therefore, it cannot be reflective of the culture and needs of today. As long as women have the education, discipline, and God-given talents, they can serve as elders in the church.

The aim of this specific response is to make a brief case for the complimentarian position and to shed light on the unbiblical teaching of egalitarianism. I don’t do this in a spirit of chauvinism or because I believe women are inferior or less gifted than men. I believe in the complimentarian position because I see it as the most obvious, consistent, and supported position of the two. The other view, though popular in the democratic, liberal, and postmodernist sense, does not square with what the Bible (both OT and NT) teaches about how women related to men in ministry, nor does it adequately explain the basis or reason behind the love and submission principle taught in other instances of the New Testament (ex. parent/child, government/subject, master/slave).

In order to make this case, we must first begin by examining the account of Adam and Eve. 1 Timothy 2:8-14 sheds light on the responsibility of women within the ministry. Paul states that “women must quietly receive instruction with entire submissiveness. I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over man, but to remain quiet” (v. 11-12). Paul makes an absolute imperative here that does not use a definite article (“the”) or name a particular group of men, but speaks about women’s role in general. What is the reasoning behind Paul’s command? Paul goes on to say that “it was Adam who was first created, and then Eve. And it was not Adam who was deceived, but the woman being deceived, fell into transgression” (v. 13-14). Paul is teaching the principle that since God created Adam first, he made Eve to be a helper for Adam, thus Adam assumes the responsibility of head of the relationship. And when Satan deceived the couple to fall into sin, he did so by stealthily going to the woman first, who never had the primary position of responsibility, since that belonged to Adam. Paul says that the submissive attitude of women within the church has its foundation in how they were created for marriage, since that is how God created women.

This does not imply that women are ontologically inferior to men in any manner. Both men are women are equal in essence, yet their roles and functions are different. There is economic subordination of women to men, but in this does not mean that there is a subordination in being. This truth is even apparent within the Godhead, where the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (three separate Persons, yet one God) are equal in essence, yet the Son and the Holy Spirit faithfully submit to the Father. This does not make Jesus or the Holy Spirit any less God or any less worthy than the Father. It just marks different responsibilities and roles within the Trinity. It is because of the Fall and sin that such an economic order has become misused and abused, causing misguided people to believe that female submission is acquiescence to male tyranny. This is surely not the case, since the sinless relationship between the Father and the Son proves that there can be such thing as submission and economic subordination without the exercise of abuse from the Father over the Son and the Spirit (although there are some people who wrongly believe that the Son and Spirit are inferior to the Father).

Verses like 1 Tim 2:8-14 and 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 affirm the commands from the Apostle Paul that women are not to lord it over men or usurp their position of authority, but to serve faithfully in the church under their guidance. They are not forbidden to pray or prophesy in the public assembly of saints (1 Cor 11:5), but they must not insist on being the head over the male (whether in the family unit or in the church) any more than the church should insist to be the head over Christ. This complementarian truth is not just revealed in the New Testament, but its presence can even be seen in the Old Testament: Was Eve depicted to have equal authority over her husband Adam? Why were not some or all the Levitical priests female? Why were all the OT and NT writers male? Why were none of the early church fathers, whether pastors or theologians, female? The most likely reason, according to the normal and obvious sense of the language in Paul’s writing, is that God has given such authority to lead churches to male eldership.

Women have practical spiritual gifts as much as males do, such as mercy, administration, evangelism. They are invited to contribute to the local church in many ways. However, one of those gifts cannot be, according to Scripture, the role of teaching over men (especially when there are qualified men for the eldership positions). Woman can teach other women and children (Titus 2:3-5), and pray and prophesy in the church, as long as it is under the faithful control of the church. This logically concludes that women are not divinely appointed to be pastors over churches. This does not make them any less important than men, but rather gives them a ministry focus more in agreement with God’s plan and His design for them.

Recommended Resource: Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood by John Piper & Wayne Grudem