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The debate over gender roles in both the church and at home (often referred to as complementarianism vs. egalitarianism) reminds me of a Babylon Bee headline I saw not too long ago, which read: “Stubborn God Still Refusing to Change with the Times.”
This is really what’s at the heart of the entire argument: Does God’s Word change with the “times” and the “culture” or not? Because if we want to be faithful Christians, no matter what age we live in, we must always submit our cultural preferences to the Bible, and not the Bible to our cultural preferences.
Part of being “as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16) is recognizing the specific threats to the Bible that come from our present day. These are the subtle pressures of modern life that should be most violently resisted, not accommodated. In 2019, theologian Jonathan Leeman explained what this looks like for the debate about women’s roles in the church (and home).
“A significant part of pastoral wisdom, then, involves self and cultural awareness. It also involves knowing which problems are the big threats and which are the small threats, which are immediate and which are long term, and knowing how to calibrate our responses to each…I think the egalitarian and androgynous push of the last several decades is a front-burner, generationally urgent issue for the church, and anyone who denies this is naïve. Our culture’s assault on gender differences and authority is generationally urgent because it’s unique to this Western moment, this time and place. This is our battle, and if you cannot see that, I believe you are more affected by our time and place than you realize.”
If this was true in 2019, and it was, how much more pressing is the issue today? Leeman is right — this is “our battle.” And if you can’t see that, perhaps you are letting the culture cloud your vision more than you realize.
Because this is such a threat, it must be addressed. It is the enemy at the gates, a far more aggressive and metastasizing foe, than the every-generation, age-old (yet still awful) enemy of abuse and ungodly authoritarian domination. As New Testament scholar Tom Schreiner has argued, evangelicals would do well to “retrieve the historic view of the church on the roles of men and women.”
Amen to that. Biblical and historically-rooted remedies are often the better poultice to apply to present ailments than modern solutions mixed up in a reactive outburst.
Part of the historical solution is, of course, recapturing a better understanding of the local church. As one pastor has argued, “Behind many of our complementarian debates are significant differences about how we view the church.”
So, in this article, I want to do three things. First, consider a biblical theology of gender and its application in a local church. Second, examine current threats to complementarianism. Third, and finally, consider how employing biblical ecclesiology can help the church celebrate, rather than fight about, God’s good designs.
First, what are some key elements of a biblical understanding, and practice of, gender roles, especially as it applies to the local church? Let’s look at two. One, it’s important to acknowledge that men and women are entirely equal in value, worth, and dignity before the eyes of God as divine image-bearers. This is the first half of Genesis 1:27: “In the image of God he created them.”
Second, while they are image-bearing equals, men and women are fundamentally different. They are not the same; they are not interchangeable. As Leeman has explained, these “basic differences between men and women root in divine order and therefore impact Christian discipleship in all of life.” This is the second half of Genesis 1:27: “male and female he created them.”
As Christians, we must accept that both parts of this verse are true — and that they matter. Both must be taught, honored, and allowed to rule over us as given from the Creator to the creature. God’s wisdom and work are the antecedents to this entire conversation. In other words, as the result of God’s divine purpose in creation, men and women are fundamentally equal in value but different in design and function, in nature and purpose. There is both a God-given shared equality and a God-given separation of roles and responsibilities between men and women, set into a hierarchal structure. As another theologian has put it:
“The difference between the sexes is a central and constitutive truth about humanity…[and] men and women are created for different primary purposes…The woman has to submit to the man’s leadership, not so much because he is given direct authority over her, but because his vocation is the primary and foundational one.”
Now let’s consider the million-dollar question: How does this apply to the local church? The local church should be the first to recognize, teach, praise, and collectively submit to this “image-bearing equal-but-distinct-by-divine-design” revelation regarding men and women.
The distinct nature of God-given gender roles, as rooted in creation, and manifest in the church, is also affirmed by Paul in 1 Timothy 2:12-13, one of the most crucial passages on the role of men and women in the church. Here, Paul commands Timothy, and by extension Christians today, that: “I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve” (emphasis added).
Women can and should teach, but not to men. So, the church should be the clearest and most unapologetic voice on this issue. Not because it is a matter of culture, but because it is a matter of obedience.
Again, the fact that the office of “pastor” or “elder,” including its functions and title, is only given to men does not change the ontological equality and value of women in the local church. And it’s, of course, not the case that women can’t teach at all — rather, it’s that women should not teach men. Scripture is clear that women should teach other women to be faithful followers of Christ together. Consider how only women can enable a church to fulfill Titus 2:3-5, with older women teaching younger women “what is good” — that is, to “to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled, pure, working at home, kind, and submissive…” (Titus 2:4-5). Men can’t teach women how to do this in the same way that women can; for this task, and others, they are indeed indispensable. God, via Paul, underscores this reality.
However, in this confirmation, the church should conform to both the letter and spirit of the law, both the substance and the tone. Right now, many are trying to argue that women can preach to a mixed gathering as long as it’s “under the authority” of a male pastor. This is a blatant act of disobedience against Scripture. Others argue women can be “pastors” of some kind, but that is unbiblical as well — the New Testament has nothing to say that would imply that the title and function of an elder, that is, a pastor, could ever be separated.
Yet even in this, we should ensure that our repetition of this truth sounds the same notes as God does in the initial delivery — notes of love and grace. Notes that recognize that, as Schreiner also argues, there “are many contexts for women to learn, study, and teach…Paul’s recommendation of many women in Romans 16 highlights this point, showing how highly he valued the contribution of women in ministry.”
It’s never, “You (women) sit there, and you can’t come here, and you can’t do that,” but rather, “God made you (women) for this, and gifted you for that, in ways He didn’t make or gift men…so go and do, in obedience and joy!”
Second, what contemporary assumptions and practices related to gender create challenges for the life of the local church? The one that jumps immediately to mind is the idea that “male-only leadership in an organization fosters a culture of abuse.” If you review the response to real tragedies, like the case of U.S. gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar, or fake media frenzies, like Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation, it is clear our culture believes that unless women are part of the institutional leadership structure in an organization it will — by default — be a place that breeds misogyny, marginalizes women, and fosters abuse (verbal, physical, sexual, etc.).
This challenges the God-given authority structure for a local church, which is — by command — exclusively male-led. God called elders to lead His church, and He designated those elders to be men. Therefore, we know, as Christians, that exclusive male leadership is not necessarily what our culture says it must be. By God’s grace, and with the Holy Spirit, churches can (and should!) foster a culture and community where women and children are loved, served, valued, and protected. And good authority, the kind that godly men are commanded to wield, does exactly that.
Third, and finally, how should biblical ecclesiology inform our response to these challenges? Biblical ecclesiology serves the same purpose as the life-sustaining walls around a garden, or the life-preserving walls around playgrounds for children, and it does so for both men and women in the church. Within the boundary is life! Having men, and only men, as pastors is the path of life and health. But beware of those who invite you to step outside of the commands of Scripture when you shouldn’t.
The boundaries of biblical ecclesiology, for instance, draw very clear lines around the elder board and pulpit. These are, in God’s good and clear design, reserved for men. This reservation is a blessing, not a burden, for the church. So, by having elders, the church is empowered to clarify these roles and respond to these challenges. Without elders, it gets fuzzy pretty fast. And it’s in the fuzzy that the fighting starts.
Faithfulness means standing strong at the point of the fiercest battle. Right now, that point, for many churches, is on this question of complementarianism vs. egalitarianism. In order to stand strong, churches must stand on the solid rock that is God’s Word, which makes it clear that only men can be pastors. And to do this rightly in our egalitarian, feminist-movement-saturated moment means that we all, both men and women, must stick to this truth without blushing or apologizing. Remember — God’s designs aren’t arbitrary, but rather for our good. So, let’s embrace God’s good design, confident that He doesn’t change with the times — and so neither should we.
Follow William on Twitter! @William_E_Wolfe
Ready to dive deeper into the intersection of faith and policy? Head over to our Theology of Politics series page where we’ve published several long-form pieces that will help Christians navigate where their faith should direct them on political issues.