Another Take on Complementarianism

In 2017, as I was completing my seminary degree, my penultimate class was a residency in pastoral theology. My professor was an esteemed evangelical pastor, scholar, author, and educator. As we began discussing pertinent theological issues in the life of the contemporary church, I quickly realized that I strongly disagreed with a few of his doctrinal positions.

For example, he is a cessationist, believing that the Holy Spirit no longer speaks directly to or through the people of God since the canonization of the Scriptures. In this view, there have been no apostles or prophets in the church since the deaths of the first apostles of Jesus, because God has spoken everything he will ever say in the Bible.  

Although he holds this—and all doctrines—quite tenaciously, he does respect a conflicting view of the continuing work of the Holy Spirit, appreciating that a legitimate argument can be made from Scripture. He just doesn’t happen to believe that argument.

On the topic of the roles and relationships of men and women in the church, however, he is completely unbending. He declared to the class (comprised of both men and women preparing for pastoral ministry!) that there was little point in even discussing the issue. He is a staunch complementarian, believing that while men and women are of equal value to God, they have different roles that are not to be confused or conflated with each other.

Women, in this view, can be highly gifted to serve in various aspects of church life—teaching children or other women, showing hospitality, singing, etc., but they are never to be elders or senior leaders, and are never to preach to mixed groups that include men.  Men occupy the main leadership positions, with women serving in complementary roles under the guidance of their male pastors.

This is still a prevailing view in some very conservative denominations, while a majority of denominations are egalitarian. In egalitarian churches, men and women serve according to their recognized giftings and qualifications, and being male is not a requirement for promotion to leadership.

The strongest Scriptural bases for complementarianism based on gender are found in Paul’s pastoral epistles to Timothy and Titus. Throughout these letters, Paul does indicate that elders and deacons are to be men, while women are cautioned not to “assume authority over a man” (1 Tim 2:12). Church leaders like my dear professor believe these standards must be maintained in the church regardless of cultural or other contextual issues.

The problem is that to rigidly adhere to these passages brings one into conflict with some of Paul’s more general theological truths, such as his bold statement that in Christ, “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28). Egalitarians also point to Paul’s frequent commendations of female leaders in the churches (e.g., Phoebe, Rom 16:1). The first church Paul planted in Macedonia was in Philippi, after the conversion of the devout Lydia; clearly Lydia would have been a prominent leader in that influential church.

But an even more convincing truth–and one I don’t hear mentioned in arguments for egalitarianism—is Paul’s discussion of the distribution and interdependency of the various gifts of the Spirit in the body of Christ. Throughout 1 Corinthians 12, Paul masterfully portrays the body as a manifold work of God in which every member’s unique contribution is essential to the working of the whole. Those parts that seem less strong or honorable are given greater honor, “so that there should be no division in the body” (v. 25).

In his summary statement, Paul identifies some of the giftings in the church: apostles, prophets, teachers, miracles, gifts of healing, helping, guidance, etc. Not once does he mention gender!  If it was so important to Paul to keep women from ministering in certain types of gifts (i.e., leadership or preaching), wouldn’t you think he would include that caveat?

Because the caveat is missing, Paul seems to be recklessly stating (and believing) that the essential guiding principle is to “eagerly desire the greater gifts” (v. 31). And most importantly, all ministry is to be motivated by love, as eloquently described in I Corinthians 13, the “love chapter). It seems to me that he is encouraging men and women alike to work to outdo one another in showing love to others and building up the body of believers.

Ironically, it could be said that it is on this issue that both cessationism and complementarianism crash into the mystery of the Holy Spirit’s work among us. God has liberally imparted spiritual gifts to men and women, young and old, rich and poor. He desires that all believers, whatever their gender, race, social status, or other identifying factor, zealously pursue ministry to one another and the outside world.

When we do this, we discover a peculiar alchemy, in which the Holy Spirit causes our gifts to complement one another, representing God in loving unity.

That’s a complementarianism I can embrace!pexels-photo-1065707.jpeg

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