A dear brother of mine recently emailed me asking about my views on men and women from the Bible as his wife was recently asked to preach in a local church. He asked me to lay out how I see the complementarian and egalitarian positions, along with where I stand using the Bible. Here’s my response:
Wow, what a topic! I certainly understand that it’s a sticky issue and especially tough when you’re married to an able teacher (as you and I both are). As for me, I would label myself Complementarian (though that can cover a pretty wide spectrum of thinking). I’ll certainly outline my thoughts, though I can send you some articles if you’d like. I’ve read tons of stuff on CBMW (Comps) and on CBE (Egals) to know that some of it’s drivel/propaganda and some of it actually gets to the heart of the issue. If you’d like that, let me know.
In describing the two views, Comps believe that men and women have equal worth to God but different roles while Egals believe men and women are equal in every role. Honest Egals will own up to the fact that the Bible is massively patriarchal/complementarian. Thus they argue that it’s either directly from the effects of Jesus’ death and resurrection that things are different now OR that the NT set up a trajectory that would bring about full equality between men and women, even if that didn’t quite exist in the early church.
Typically, their hinge verse is Gal 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” From this it’s surmised that since the barriers between the other categories were busted up on the cross, it’s the same for men and women. Taking the verses right around it, I find that this verse about the fact that we’re all equally God’s children and heirs according to the promise. This really has nothing to do with role or function, but about our position in the kingdom. Which is to say that we’re all equally children of God. I don’t think it adds much to the discussion on function though, much like in Israel all were God’s children but only the Levites were allowed to be priests: equal in value, but not function/role.
To build the Comp understanding, there are three main passages that come into play. The first is Eph 5:21:33 about husbands and wives. The main thrust is that wives are to submit to/respect their husbands, while husbands are to lay down their lives for their wives in love. Why? “For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church.” On the face of it, this appears that the husband is the authority over the wife, as Christ is the authority over the husband (and I agree). Again, Egals argue here that “head” really means “source” (it’s all about this Greek term “kephale”), but I don’t see where that clears anything up. In fact, when we jump to 1 Cor in a moment, I think we get some more clarity on that. Egals also argue that v. 21 frames this section so that we should all submit to one another, thus husbands submit to wives just as much as wives submit to husbands. But that really makes no sense with what follows since a) Paul tells wives to submit particularly and not husbands; and b) right after that, parents aren’t commanded to submit to their kids (imagine what that would be like!) or masters commanded to submit to their slaves. I think a better translation of v.21 is that some should appropriately submit to others out of reverence for the King (I can send you an article on that, if you like).
The second passage for the Comp side is 1 Cor 11:2-16 on head coverings. While this topic is confusing enough on it’s own, the main thrust is that men and women should act differently because of their “heads” (that “kephale” word again). The crux is here: “But I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman [or wife] is man [or the husband], and the head of Christ is God.” Again, Egals argue that “head” here doesn’t mean authority, but “source”. But I don’t know of any tenable theological position that holds that God the Father is the source of God the Son. In all eternity, the Godhead has always existed as the Godhead. The Father isn’t the source of Jesus, he’s actually the authority over him (“For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me.”). Thus, the Father has authority over the Son, the Son has authority over men, and men have a derivative authority over their wives.
Now lest this be demeaning for women, Jesus didn’t think it was demeaning for him. So to submit to another’s authority over oneself is truly Christ-likeness. And if that wasn’t enough, Paul makes sure to remind us all (because we need the reminder!) in 1 Cor 11 that “Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God.” This is the very staple of the Comp understanding: men and women are equal and interdependent, but don’t carry the same authority.
Finally, the third passage comes in 1 Tim 2:11-15. Again, this is another sticky one. Paul instructs the women (or possibly specifically the wives) that they are not “to teach or to exercise authority over a man.” Most people who know Greek way better than me agree that this construction is linked, thus it’s teaching and exercising authority together (i.e. teaching authoritatively). In particular, this is linked to the sound doctrine that Paul talks frequently about in the letters to Timothy that must be guarded. It’s also worth noting that these verses lead right into the requirements for the elders of the church, which I don’t think is happenstance. The idea is that this kind of authoritative teaching is the doctrinal protection done by the elders of the church, who not only should be godly men but should be able to teach (or as he says it to Titus, “he must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it”). Thus the doctrinal teaching, the guarding of the sacred deposit is to be done by the elders of the church, who are male.
One last note on these passages: all three of these have reference back to the creation story. In Ephesians, it’s about the one flesh-ness. But the other two passages root the instructions to the church in the first three chapters of Genesis. The importance of this is that Paul isn’t making a cultural argument (again, a very common thing from Egals is to argue that Paul is arguing against a local cultural problem). That argument doesn’t hold, though, because Paul doesn’t root it in “hey, do this because in your culture it looks bad” but because “all the way back at the very beginning, this is what God laid out.” That really ought to carry more weight than Egals usually seem to let it.
So, having said all that, I should say that I have a great deal of sympathy and respect for those Egals who come to the Scriptures really wanting to understand what it says and come away disagreeing with my points above. I have a harder time with those who start with “I just knew that God wouldn’t really want women to be inferior to men” or “I’m clearly called by God to teach and preach as a woman, so I need to make the Bible support that.” But I could say the same thing about homosexuality or universalism or anything else. While I believe the Comp position is stronger and more faithful to the Scriptures, I know that I have true brothers and sisters who disagree, landing elsewhere on the issue as a matter of conviction. In many ways, I wish I could follow the Egal position, but Scripturally I just can’t.
So then, where does that leave the women (like our wives) who are wise and able to teach? Titus 2 certainly leaves a wide avenue open of older women training younger women. And I think that’s a highly important avenue, as that can happen in a whole lot of venues. But do I think a woman should be doctrinally teaching a group of men and women? I don’t. Not because they can’t, but because they shouldn’t to be faithful to the Word. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t contributions to be made. My wife exhorts directly in our church, in counseling, in conversation. But she’s building up, not laying down doctrinal foundations. That may seem like a fine line, but it’s one I’m comfortable with. Because the NT also has examples of women prophesying, I know that women can speak Spiritual truths to men and women together. And I encourage my wife to do so. But she and I also both know that when the “What does the Bible say about such and such?” comes, I’ll be the one to answer that. And my brother-elder and I are the ones “guarding the fences” doctrinally for our church, because that’s what we’ve been called to.
I hope this novella has been helpful to you. There are certainly more passages that could be discussed, but I think this covers the main sections. And I hope these words have built you up, too, and not just been a mess of confused passages and poor reasoning. Please feel free to question or challenge or rebuke, as my dear brother.