Questions For Complementarians

One of the hot topics of debate in Christian circles today involves the idea of women in ministry. Some, labelled complementarians, believe that God has ordained certain roles for men and women, and the roles ordained for women, at a minimum, preclude them from teaching men, if not from teaching altogether. The other view, called Egalitarianism, acknowledges that God can and does call women to ministry. I am a proponent of this latter view. Throughout Scripture, I see God raising up women and using them in leadership positions, even over men. Therefore, I hold it to be unbiblical to prevent those whom God has called from leading the church based solely on their gender. The following are some questions that I would like to ask complementarians, that I think are important to this discussion:

1. Does the Bible contradict itself?

If it can be shown that Scripture does, in fact, permit women to lead even men, then it follows logically that it cannot also claim that men are the only ones capable of leading without contradicting itself. So, does Scripture contain examples of such things? As a matter of fact, it does. In fact, there are over 100 places in Scripture where women can be seen leading, and in most of them they were leading men as well as women. Let's look at a couple of examples:

In the Old Testament book of Judges, God raised up a woman named Deborah. We are told that she was a prophetess and a judge, and that people in Israel came to her to be judged (Judges 4:4-5). Looking at the text, we are left with the understanding that both men and women would have been among those who came to be judged. No one can claim that this was a secular activity, either, since that kind of distinction wasn't made at this time. The Judges were both the political AND spiritual leaders of their day. This can be seen in the authority that Deborah has in the next few passages. This prophetess commands another Judge, Barak, to oppose Sisera, a king who was oppressing the Israelites at the time. Barak responded by saying that he would only go if Deborah went with him. As a result, God handed the ultimate victory to a woman (Judges 4:6-22). Thus, God raised up a woman to lead his people.

In the New Testament, we see examples of women leading men. In the book of Acts, when Apollos needed further instruction, it was Priscilla and Aquila, a husband and wife, who instructed him (Acts 18:24-28). This passage does not indicate that Priscilla took a subordinate role to Aquila. Paul in his letters and Luke in the book of Acts both look favorably on Priscilla's role in leading Apollos. In Romans 16:7, Paul recognizes a woman named Junia as an apostle. An apostolic role is necessarily a role with authority, and there is no indication that Junia had any less authority than any of the other apostles. While other examples could be cited, I think these three are sufficient to show that, in both the Old Testament and New Testament, women were leaders among God's people.

2. Does God contradict his word?

This second question is closely tied to the first. If Paul's writings are authoritative Scripture, and if the difficult passages in 1 Timothy, 1 Corinthians, and elsewhere actually mean that women are not permitted to be in leadership roles above men, then God has contradicted his own commands in Scripture by raising up women like Deborah, Priscilla, and Junia. Jesus would have also contradicted Scripture when he commissioned Mary Magdalene to tell the other disciples of his resurrection (Matthew 28:1-10). Or, to put it differently, Paul would have contradicted Jesus. This raises the natural question: Who is right and who is wrong? Is God the Father wrong? Is Jesus wrong? Is the Holy Spirit wrong in what he inspired? Is Paul wrong? Or, is the complementarian wrong in his or her interpretation of these passages? I propose that the answer is the last one mentioned, since the idea that God or his inspired word could be wrong is unthinkable to orthodox Christianity.

3. Does Paul contradict himself?

Again, this question is closely tied to the previous two. If Paul contradicted himself in his inspired writings, then we have a problem. Paul seems to approve of the ministry of both Aquila AND Priscilla, and commends Junia as a notable woman among the apostles. If he then turns around and disapproves of women in ministry, then he has contradicted himself in his inspired writings. 

4. How important is historical context?

This is the question that I think is at the heart of the debate regarding women in ministry. When Paul wrote the controversial texts about women in ministry, he was writing to individuals and churches that were in specific contexts. To ignore the social and historical contexts of the places to which Paul wrote is to ignore a vital part of biblical exegesis. Yet when we examine the socio-historical context of these passages, it seems as though Paul was addressing situations that would have required addressing in these contexts. For example, Paul's instructions to Timothy regarding women in ministry (1 Timothy 2:11-15), apart from the context of Timothy's ministry in Ephesus, would seem to be a prohibition against women in ministry. However, since Paul has elsewhere seemed to approve of women in ministry, this is likely not the case. The problem seems to find its solution when we examine this passage in light of the socio-historical context of first-century Ephesus, we see that Paul's prohibitions on what women are to do and are not to do appear to be intended to counter the pagan religious practices in this area. That is, by doing these things, Christian women were distinguishing themselves from temple prostitutes that were involved in the worship of pagan gods and goddesses. Thus, this is best understood as a practice for a specific congregation in a specific place at a specific time. In understanding it this way, we do justice not only to the socio-historical context, but resolve the apparent contradiction between Paul's words here and his approving stance on women in ministry elsewhere.

5. Does God keep his promises?

If women are not to be involved in spoken ministry, then God has failed to keep his promises. In Joel 2:28, God promises that both sons and daughters will prophesy. In Acts 2:17, Simon Peter declares, in the first sermon of Acts, that this promise was fulfilled on the Day of Pentecost. It is important to note that there are generally two ways of interpreting the word "prophesy" in this passage. Some interpret this in a way similar to Old Testament prophecy, and others interpret "prophesy" to mean "inspired speaking." Regardless of which interpretation an individual holds to, a speaking/teaching role is assumed by the text. Furthermore, this text makes no distinction between the speaking of the sons and daughters. Therefore, any such distinction that would be made would be arbitrarily read into the text, not drawn from it. Since there is no distinction, then we are left with a dilemma: If this passage was only half-fulfilled, then it was not really fulfilled at all. That is, if God fulfilled his promise that sons would prophesy, but did not fulfill the promise that daughters would, God would have broken his promise. Since God cannot break his promises, it follows logically that, when this promise was fulfilled, both men and women in the Church were empowered to speak and to teach.

6. If Christ has redeemed us from the effects of the Fall, should we keep our sisters in Christ under those effects?

One important fact that we must deal with is that the idea that the male is to be the one with the authority is an effect of the Fall, not of God's original design. When God made male and female, he made them as equal partners. It is not until the Fall that we read of man ruling over woman (Genesis 3:16). Christ came as the Second Adam to redeem us from the effects of the Fall. This is why Paul could write that there is no longer male or female, slave or free, Jew or Gentile in Christ (Galatians 3:28). We are all placed on equal footing in Christ. If male headship/leadership is an effect of the Fall, and if Christ has redeemed us from the effect of the Fall, then it follows logically that Christ has removed the unequal ground between the two genders that is an effect of the Fall. It follows, then, that if God has called a woman to ministry, and she is held back from that ministry because of her gender, those who kept her away from ministry are perpetuating an effect of the Fall, not something that was part of God's original plan. Male and female were both intended to work together in the Garden as equals as they carried out God's commands. Why would we keep someone under the effects of the Fall when Christ came to redeem us from these very things?

7. If God raises women up and equips them for ministry, who are we to stand in the way?

This last question is simple and straightforward. If God raises up women for ministry (and history shows that he often does), who are we to stand in the way? If God raises up a woman to teach, preach, evangelize, or perform any other ministry, who are you (and who am I) to stand in the way of what God is doing?


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