egalitarianism, gender roles, and women leaders in church

still_side_by_side_webEach week at simple free we have someone lead the liturgy. We pass that responsibility around, and different people take turns. Tonight Heidi led. In some churches, to have a woman lead the service in that way would be considered not only strange but unbiblical.  (to those of you from either a mainline church like the presbyterians, or if you are from a nonchurch background, this whole discussion may just seem sort of crazy, so sorry about that!)

I don’t know what all the people in simple free think about women in leadership. I’m sure everyone would want to have a biblical view on the matter– but I’m not sure they are of one mind as to what scripture says about this issue.   I do hope that simple free is a place where people feel free to discuss and debate this issue openly and to really try to see what Scripture says, or more importantly maybe, what it doesn’t say about this issue.

One could characterize the debate regarding the roles of men and women as having two opposing viewpoints: egalitarianism, and complimentarianism. Usually egalitarianism is the view that women and men stand on more or less equal footing, according to the bible, and can perform similar functions, but that the differences are usually person-based, not particularly gender based. In other words, women don’t always do better with children, men are not always better leaders than women, etc. The complimentarian says that God has created men and women with distinct gender specific roles to fulfill, and unless they realize and work to be what God has ordained for them to be through their gender, they will live a life of frustration and inadvertent disobedience. True fulfillment will come from embracing ones gender role.

There are at least three areas in which one could differ on these two sides: A. Career B. Home C. Church  It is possible to, for example, be a complimentarian with regard to B and C, but an egalitarian with regard to A (whether it is consistent is another matter- more on that below…)

A. Career: The egalitarian with regard to career would say that women can do anything, even be president of the united states. Complimentarians with regard to career would think this is inappropriate, as a womans place is not in that sort of leadership position, and perhaps not even in the workplace at all (very conservative Christian groups believe women should work at home, unless severe financial distress forces her to work).

Caveat: Now of course the egalitarian doesn’t say that a woman must work– of course if one spouse makes enough, and the other can spend more time with the kids, then thats great. But the decision of who works and who doesn’t wouldn’t be made simply on the basis of gender. On the other hand, women are pregnant for 9 months at a time, and that can interfere with a lot of careers– but that is a practical matter, not a biblical directive.

B. Home: Egalitarians with regard to home tend to think that a husband and wife should make decisions jointly, and that no one person has automatic say-so on matters. Complimentarians are certainly for discussion and dialogue, but ultimately, it is the man’s job to make the tough decisions, as thats part of his leadership responsibility in the home.

Caveat: in most cases, the complimentarian would hope for a peaceful unified decision, and there will hopefully be few cases where the male would need to make a decision against his wifes wishes.

C. Church: Egalitarians with regard to church believe that any role in church is open to men or women– that would include pastoral role, eldership, etc. God has not limited people by their gender, and Christianity has a biblical mandate for gender equality and Christianity has been a great supporter of greater freedoms for women from the beginning.

Complimentarians tend to believe that women should not teach or lead over men, except in the case of male children. So women should not be pastors, or elders, or theology or bible instructors (except in classes that are aimed at women).

Of course there are slight variations– not all egalitarians are as adamant, not all complimentarians are as restrictive.

Now one could be an egalitarian with regard to women’s career roles, and a complimentarian with regard to their church roles– for example, you could say that its OK to vote for a woman for president, but not ok for a woman to be a pastor, because the pastoral role has specific gender requirements, but that restriction doesn’t apply to secular careers. But honestly, this seems sort of like a strange view. In lots of churches there are women who in many cases are some of the smartest most gifted potential leaders in their churches who are not allowed to utilize their gifts because of gender specific restrictions. The complimentarian position seems to me to face its greatest stress point when you have female university professors who teach males daily, or female doctors who tell males how to live their life on a daily basis, or female judges who are handing out sentences to males daily, who are simultaneously told by their churches that they are unable to be leaders in their church, because men are leaders, and women are unable to perform such functions.   If in fact a church thinks leadership and decisionmaking abilities and authority are gender based, then to be consistent it seems that such churches should not allow women who are leaders such as doctors, judges or professors to be members of their church.  Then they would be more consistent.  

In Nebraska, there are very few women with an excutive position in business over the VP level.  We rank 48th in the nation.  There are lots of reasons for this, including women’s choices, pregnancy, etc.  But certainly part of the reason for this is cultural and institutional.  It is much easier for guys to get mentoring to step into leadership roles than women, because guys hang out together at the duck blind, etc.  There is also a cultural expectation that guys will run things because guys have run things.  Kind of like how we thought for years that our next president would be a white guy– whether democrat or republican.  Were women incapable of being president in the 1800s?  Yes, but not due to gender.  It was due to opportunity– particularly cultural expectation, education afforded them, and societal norms. 

I saw the same thing when I taught at Bethel University in Minneapolis before I moved to Omaha.  Two of the strongest departments at the school were philosophy and physics, and both were notoriously short of women students.  Regularly, when we encouraged a woman student to go into philosophy, her response was usually incredulity: “but I’m a woman!”  Often cultural expectations led most women at Bethel (and most Christian schools) to think that their gender directed them more towards either education, nursing, or social work.  The women who were philosophy majors excelled, and often went on successfully to graduate school.  The cycle was broken and now those women will hopefully be role models for other women. 

Complimentarians in these debates often view their position as biblical, and the other side as mere adaptation of cultural norms from secular society.  But this is a fairly ungenerous stance to take, I think.  There are Biblical passages which seem to place restrictions on women based on gender, but the typical egalitarian response here is that the Bible reflects a degree of gender bias from its own culture, and those specific passages should not be cherry picked, but must be read in the context of other passages which seem to reflect a gender equality.

There are lots of books written giving biblical support for complimentarianism. But there is an entire organization whose sole purpose it is to show how that egalitarianism is THE Biblical position. It is called “Christians for Biblical Equality”  This site has a lot of interesting articles about egalitarianism and complimentarianism. 

Again, the goal of bringing up the egalitarian view is not to criticize the complimentarian view as being unbiblical per se– rather, it is to open the discussion.  It may be that there is more support for complimentarianism than I think there is.  But at this point, I personally lean towards giving women as much equal opportunity as possible, and I base that on my reading of Scripture alongside my practical experiences of seeing women leaders who are very good and gifted, and also seeing many gifted women who are stiffled, stymied and stunted in the name of the Bible when it seems to me it may have more to do with human cultural tradition than with clear Biblical guidance.  It would be a shame to unnecessarily restrict the working of God’s grace and so keep the church from experiencing the full giftings of 50% of our Church members.  I will continue to advocate women going into traditionally-male occupations (such as philosophy professors) and I believe this is itself a mission to allow the grace of the gospel to continue to equalize us as God wanted.    (-Andy Gustafson)

A few of their specific  points on their “Biblical Truths” page are worth quoting in their entireity, not because I totally agree with them, but because the biblical support for egalitarianism is often ignored by the other side:

FROM THE CBE website:

 The Bible teaches the full equality of men and women in Creation and in Redemption (Gen 1:26-28, 2:23, 5:1-2; I Cor 11:11-12; Gal 3:13, 28, 5:1). The Bible teaches that God has revealed Himself in the totality of Scripture, the authoritative Word of God (Matt 5:18; John 10:35; 2 Tim 3:16; 2 Peter 1:20-21). We believe that Scripture is to be interpreted holistically and thematically. We also recognize thenecessity of making a distinction between inspiration and interpretation: inspiration relates to the divine impulse and control whereby the whole canonical Scripture is the Word of God; interpretation relates to the human activity whereby we seek to apprehend revealed truth in harmony with the totality of Scripture and under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. To be truly biblical, Christians must continually examine their faith and practice under the searchlight of Scripture.7. The Bible teaches that at Pentecost the Holy Spirit came on men and women alike. Without distinction, the Holy Spirit indwells women and men, and sovereignly distributes gifts without preference as to gender (Acts 2:1-21; 1 Cor 12:7, 11, 14:31).

 3. The Bible teaches that the forming of woman from man demonstrates the fundamental unity and equality of human beings (Gen 2:21-23). In Genesis 2:18, 20 the word “suitable” (kenegdo) denotes equality and adequacy. 

 5. The Bible teaches that the rulership of Adam over Eve resulted from the Fall and was therefore not a part of the original created order. Genesis 3:16 is a prediction of the effects of the Fall rather than a prescription of God’s ideal order. 


8. The Bible teaches that both women and men are called to develop their spiritual gifts and to use them as stewards of the grace of God (1Peter 4:10-11). Both men and women are divinely gifted and empowered to minister to the whole Body of Christ, under His authority (Acts 1:14, 18:26, 21:9; Rom 16:1-7, 12-13, 15; Phil 4:2-3; Col 4:15; see also Mark 15:40-41, 16:1-7; Luke 8:1-3; John 20:17-18; compare also Old Testament examples: Judges 4:4-14, 5:7; 2 Chron 34:22-28; Prov 31:30-31; Micah 6:4).

 9. The Bible teaches that, in the New Testament economy, women as well as men exercise the prophetic, priestly and royal functions (Acts 2:17-18, 21:9; 1 Cor 11:5; 1 Peter 2:9-10; Rev 1:6, 5:10). Therefore, the few isolated texts that appear to restrict the full redemptive freedom of women must not be interpreted simplistically and in  contradiction to the rest of Scripture, but their interpretation must take into account their relation to the broader teaching of Scripture and their total context (1 Cor 11:2-16, 14:33-36; 1 Tim 2:9-15).

 11. The Bible teaches that husbands and wives are heirs together of the grace of life and that they are bound together in a relationship of mutual submission and responsibility (1 Cor 7:3-5; Eph 5:21; 1 Peter 3:1-7; Gen 21:12). The husband’s function as head” (“kephale) is to be understood as self-giving love and service within this relationship mutual submission (Eph 5:21-33; Col 3:19; 1 Peter 3:7).
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7 responses to “egalitarianism, gender roles, and women leaders in church

  1. Great post Andy! And, as a sidenote, our web address is officially You can update your link on the sidebar.

    Hope our paths cross soon!

  2. Here is a well researched article on this topic that may shed some light

  3. simplefreechurch

    Thanks for that article. It had a lot of great historical examples of women who have had a powerful impact. Her argument rested primarily on that– empirical practical experiential examples of women making a difference through their leadership roles. I think some on the complimentarian side will not be easily persuaded by pragmatics alone, if they think that scripture is clearly against women leading in church. Fortunately, I think there is a lot of scriptural support for equality, and there are legitimate sensible and limited hermeneutical interpretations which read certain passages about women being restricted cultural-contextually without undermining Scripture as a whole. (there is always a kind of slippery-slope argument used– if you read this passage culturally, then where do we stop??– but I think one can respond to these questions intelligently and systematically– provided that those who ask them are not merely being rhetorical… 🙂 Thanks again!! I did update our link to your renew omaha site. -andy

  4. Thank you Andy for the reply. I appreciate your well thought out view on the subject and critique on the historical vs scriptural aspect of the article! Great point! As a soon-to-be graduate with a dual degree in Christian Leadership and Christian Theology, I appreciate your views as it gives me hope that what I believe God has gifted me to do won’t get stifled…it has been a challenging road to say the least. Thank you again!

  5. simplefreechurch

    Laura, it is hard for me to imagine that God would want your giftings to be stifled. Omaha is VERY blessed and fortunate to have women of your caliber willing to lead. Thank you!!

  6. My good friend Paul Kimmons who does not do internet, asked me to post this short piece. I post it simply on his behalf, not on my behalf. His wife typed it and sent it to me. Paul is an egalitarian, and has been for many years. I will forward on to him any response from people to his post. Thanks. andy


    By Paul R. Kimmons, August 23, 2009

    Example #2—In A.D. 53, the Apostle Peter wrote a letter to some churches in the area of the world we now call Turkey. He was in Babylon at the time, but most experts think it was Rome. I guess the translation principle “if it makes sense, don’t look for any other sense” is not always valid, which either makes sense, or doesn’t make sense. Let’s say it was Rome, the greatest cosmopolitan city in the ancient world. The Roman culture incorporates all the beauty and art of the Greeks into their highly technical lifestyle, which Peter is not used to.
    On the other hand, Peter, a Jew, was a small-town fisherman who married a girl in a small fishing village. His Jewish religious background basically set him apart from the Greek lifestyle. I bring up these cultural factors not in any way to say that they invalidate any scriptural instruction he wrote under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, not to mention the wicked undocumented examples he uses to try to prove his orders to all women in all cultures throughout all time. Other factors since he wrote it are significant in this case.
    Again, in the King James Bible, I note that in Peter’s letter (see I Peter 2:18-20), he wrote the following: “Servants, be subject to your masters with all fear, not only to the good and gentle, but also to the froward. For this is thankworthy, if a man for conscience toward God endure grief, suffering wrongfully. For what glory is it, if, when ye be buffeted for your faults, ye shall take it patiently? But if, when you do well, and suffer for it, ye take it patiently, this is acceptable with God.” Again, it is important to unpack a few of the key Greek words in these verses as follows:
    The word “servant” only refers to “unpaid slaves”. Note that in the New Testament, slavery is accepted as a way of life. The word “master” described a person with “uncontrolled power”. The idea of “serving with fear” contains the “feeling of terror.” A master that is froward in King James lingo, is really “tyrannical and perverse”. When Peter says “endure”, he means “undergo hardship”. The word suffering means “painful suffering”. And surprisingly, the word “buffeted” means to be “hit with fist”.
    We now understand that the South was wrong in applying this static scripture to their culture, where men with unlimited power over terrified slaves beat them unmercifully causing painful suffering.

    The author William D. Webb in his book Slaves, Women and Homosexuals, helps us to properly apply a text like this to our time, and I quote, “If the original readers of scripture lived out its isolated words, by virtue of their cultural context, they lived out the redemptive spirit of the text for their generation. For us, however, it is a different story, for us the redemptive spirit does not always come automatically because the application context has changed. We must journey beyond any surface-level appropriation to the application of the text that captures its meaning in cultural and canonical (scriptural) context—an application that honors its underlying spirit. Our task is not to look into an ethic that has been frozen in time, but to pursue an ultimate ethic, one reflected in the redemptive spirit of scripture. As a community born to the twenty-first century, we must not be limited to a mere enactment of the text’s isolated words. It is our sacred calling to champion its spirit”.

    A SIMPLE WAY TO THINK ABOUT THIS IS TO REALIZE THAT God is at work through dedicated believers like William Wilberforce to redeem a cultural evil through time as happened with slavery where the original static instruction is no longer applicable.

    Interestingly enough in the same letter, Peter wrote in what we call I Peter 3:1, that married Christian women are to submit completely, just like the slaves, being in terror, to wicked unbelieving husbands.

    In the face of irrefutable logic concerning how God has been redeeming the cultural evil of submission of slaves, how can you say God has not been redeeming the cultural evil of submission of wives?

    Simple & Free dialogues are delightful to read because they are RAW. They evidence real thinking rather than fearful clinging to hackneyed principles. They belie the idea that those who believe in the authority of the Word of God and the Holy Spirit cannot have an original thought. I hope what I add will help remove another barrier to genuine thinking. That barrier is the “straw man.” Straw men are those ideas that do not really portray the authentic views of opponents in a debate. They just help win the argument against them. I have seen a few straw men emerge in the S&F dialogues. Straw men should be limited to political harangues and diatribe or worse, propaganda, not discussions of S&F.
    In this spirit I would like to present a solid example for discussion; the Evangelical Mennonite Conference. These folks not only take certain positions, they live by them. They are real men not straw men. Surprisingly enough this historic denomination may offer some original thinking. Though they are evangelicals I believe the EMC exhibits thinking SEPARATE from mainline evangelicalism. I am suggesting that Evangelical Mennonites could bring a fresh view on topics for the very reason that they do not tow the party line of mainline evangelicalism.
    Let me give a few examples. Historically, they have opposed war. Article # 9, of their statement of faith states, “We believe that the teachings and example of Christ call us to a life of nonviolence and a ministry of peace in this world.” Whether you agree with that or not, it is different from the majority of evangelicals. Another example is social action. Evangelicals could be called Fideists (those who believe in faith only), but the EMC folks have an admirable track record with regard to social action. What community experiencing hurricanes or floods has not been thankful for the presence of these humble workers? They have also taken powerful stances against materialism (something rampant among evangelicals). Here are just two of the articles on the EMC website: The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience: Why are Christians living just like the rest of the world? And, Overcoming One-Sided Christianity: Combining Evangelism and Social Action. That is mild compared to some of the articles presented.
    How could this group be helpful in S&F discussions? You have been dialoguing about the complementarian vs. the egalitarian position. The “Wikipedia Dictionary” states, “Along with other evangelicals and orthodox Mennonites, the EMC takes a complementarian stance . . . .” Today I was reading a blog by an Evangelical Mennonite who wrote, “Most recently, our church has clarified our position on gender and ordination. As a body, we have (re)affirmed our complementarian understanding of the Scriptures, which mirrors the wider evangelical world.” So, differing from mainline evangelicals regarding war, social action, and materialism, they take a clear complementarian position. Their thinking may be helpful on this topic for the very fact that it will not bear the mark of an evangelical imprimatur.
    There is another reason for taking Evangelical Mennonites and the larger category, Anabaptists, seriously regarding this issue. For nearly 300 years they have applied their doctrines in the most difficult school of pragmatic reality. If we ask, “Does it work?” we will find remarkable stability among these people, even when under persecution for their beliefs. Just following their paths of immigration (at times fleeing pogroms) one breaks out in a sweat! Though I do not know their statistics with regard to marriage and divorce, I will wager that the longevity of their marriages exceed those of most Americans 2 to 1.
    So, what does this admirable denomination say about the issue of gender? Its website home page says, “Women serve on most national boards, as council delegates, as missionaries, and within local church activities; while they can be selected locally as ministers….” Wow, sounds almost egalitarian, doesn’t it?! But, it goes on, “the conference does not provide for the ordination of women.” That is similar to my own denomination, the Evangelical Free Church. They do not ordain women to the position of pastor/elder, but they do have a second track of ordination which provides for women on the mission field, in Christian education, and in the military.
    Why do these denominations hold back from ordaining women to the position of pastor/elder? Fundamentally, because of their position regarding authority. EMC’s home page states, “As Evangelical, we hold to scripture as our final authority in faith and practice.”(emphases, mine) In other words, they see women as fully capable to serve on national boards (which may determine the fate of pastors within their denomination); council delegates (women can change the very charter of their denomination); missionaries (this means presenting the Gospel to mixed audiences); local church activities (perhaps that includes physical plant issues, praise and worship, etc.); and note this carefully, “can be selected locally as ministers.” This last statement would certainly affirm the presence of such great women in the early Church such as Lydia, Priscilla, and Phoebe.
    Yet, the EMC is complementarian! It is not because they restrict women from authority, decision making, or the center of the life of the church or believe that they are somehow unequal. They make their decisions about pastor/elder positions based on their reading of Scripture. If you have come up with a straw man regarding complementarians, please think again! We come in many stripes and one thing we agree on is this, THE AMAZING AUTHORITY AND DECISION MAKING ABILITY WITH WHICH GOD HAS ENDOWED WOMEN! We also agree on the magnificent differences between the genders and the incredible richness that affirming this brings to life. Next time I have a moment to write, I would love to address the issue of women in combat. Just a tickler: about 80% of women who go through combat come back with PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). Could it be that there is something fundamental to being a bearer of life that makes taking a life virtually impossible?

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