The presumption of Complementarianism
Author | Andrew Wilson
Should women be elders/overseers in local churches? That, in a nutshell, is the question that separates so-called egalitarians, who would say yes, from so-called complementarians, who would say no. (I say ‘so-called’, because lots of people who represent each of these positions think the terms are unhelpful and a bit annoying – but until new terminology emerges to the satisfaction of everybody, I’ll stick with the existing labels).
This isn’t the only issue that egalitarians and complementarians debate, but in a conversation where there are countless different positions and nuances, it’s the clearest area of disagreement; you’d be very unlikely to find a self-identifying complementarian who argued for female elders, or an egalitarian who didn’t. Stating the question like this has the added benefit of avoiding endlessly confusing discussions about ‘women in ministry’, ‘women preaching’, ‘women in leadership’ or whatever, when what people are actually talking about is whether women should be elders/overseers in local churches. I, for one, passionately support and encourage women in ministry, prophesying, deaconing, worship leading, preaching, teaching, leadership, missionary work, church planting and so on – as, I would argue, the New Testament does (Luke 24:10; Acts 18:26; 21:9; Rom 16:1-16; 1 Cor 11:5; Php 4:2-3; 1 Tim 3:11; Titus 2:3-5; etc) – but I still believe that only men should be elders. This post is a brief attempt to explain why.
My claim, building on my previous two posts on myths
in this debate, is that those who submit to the authority of God in Scripture should operate with the presumption of complementarianism. That is, the default setting of an evangelical ought to be that women should not serve the church as elders, and the burden of proof rests with those who would argue that they should. This burden of proof may or may not be met – that is exactly what the discussion is about – but unless it is, we should function as complementarians on the question of eldership. This is a very controversial claim today, but I make it for four and a half reasons.
Firstly, there is the presumption of obedience. Simply put, this is the hermeneutical conviction
that, because of the shape of God’s big story in Scripture, we should assume that instructions addressed to New Testament believers are for us to obey today, unless we can be sure that they are not. I summarised this idea in my series on Scripture
a few months ago:
Taking all these ideas together, then, I am arguing for something like a Five Act Play view of God’s story, and a commitment to obeying the imperatives addressed to new covenant believers, with the exception of commands clearly related to specific individuals (e.g. 2 Tim 4:13) and commands which clearly applied for a limited period (e.g. Matt 10:5-6; Acts 15:19-21). In a handful of cases, this may mean finding different physical symbols to express the spiritual reality the scriptures were highlighting. But usually, it will mean nothing more than hearing the words of God, and putting them into practice. Kind of like a man who built his house on rock.
So when we come across an instruction like “I do not permit a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man” (1 Tim 2:12), we operate with the assumption that we are to obey it, unless it is clearly limited to specific individuals or a specific period of history. We don’t ignore it until we’re persuaded that it applies to us; we follow it until we’re persuaded that it doesn’t. So unless it can be clearly shown, from the context, that Paul was aiming his instruction at some individuals and not others (like his “fetch the parchments” in 2 Tim 4:13), or that he expected it to be superseded within a few years (like Jesus’ “go nowhere among the Gentiles” in Matt 10:5-6), then we should assume that we should obey it. Even if, as with head coverings and brotherly kisses and the like, this requires translating the externals into our contemporary culture.
Secondly, there is the presumption of history. All other things being equal, if a debate is underway within evangelicalism, and the church through history has almost universally been on one side of the debate until the last few decades, then I would argue that the presumption ought to be that the church through history has been right. Previous generations of believers had the Holy Spirit in their midst, and read the Bible carefully and faithfully for centuries, and almost all of them concluded that women should not be elders/overseers in local churches; this carries weight, particularly since, as CS Lewis pointed out, older writers are often very good at pointing out ways in which our modern perspective can miss or even distort things in Scripture. That does not mean, of course, that the weight of opinion in church history has always been right (Luther springs to mind, along with many others). But it does mean that when the new idea comes along, the burden of proof rests with the new idea, not with the old one.
Thirdly, there is the presumption of specificity: the more specifically a New Testament passage addresses an issue, the more weight it should be afforded in deciding what to do about that issue. This should be common sense, really; there are two passages in the NT that clearly address the question of who is qualified to serve as an elder/overseer in a local church (1 Tim 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9), so these should be the starting point for determining who is qualified to serve as an elder/overseer in a local church. (Not that you’d know this from reading the two heavyweight tomes on this subject, mind you: Piper and Grudem’s Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood and Pierce and Groothuis’ Discovering Biblical Equality have fifty-five chapters and two appendices between them, on a wide variety of biblical texts, yet none of them focus on either of these. What is all that about?)
The point is: both of these passages list their qualifications on the assumption that the elder/overseer will be a man. I find it hard to believe that, if God had wanted women elders/overseers in the church, he would have inspired the two passages that address this topic most directly to include several specifically male qualifications (faithful to his wife, managing his household well, keeping his children submissive), with qualifications for women coming later in each case (1 Tim 3:11; Titus 2:3-5). And I also think it improbable that this would have cropped up in two separate letters, had it not been standard practice (Paul includes almost identical requirements for villages across Crete as he does for the Artemis-worshipping metropolis of Ephesus). So in our church, when appointing elders, we pretty much go down these lists, and if someone fulfils all the qualifications - above reproach, faithful to his wife, managing his household well, not a lover of money, not violent, and so on - then they are qualified to be an elder/overseer. If they don’t, they aren’t.
Fourthly, there is the presumption of compatibility; the principle that statements which were compatible in Paul’s mind can and should be compatible in ours. If Paul felt able to (a) commend women deacons and co-workers, and celebrate the truth that in Christ there is no male or female, and yet also (b) urge that wives submit to their husbands, and women not teach or exercise authority over men, then it would appear that he did not see (a) and (b) as incompatible. That is, it does not work as a counterargument to complementarianism to say (as is so often said), ‘But in Paul’s gospel, there is equality between men and women.’ Of course, there absolutely is; but for Paul himself, this was not incompatible with insisting that particular roles be played by both genders in the home and in the church. If we were to parachute into Ephesus or Crete in the 60s and observe the churches there, we would presumably see communities in which men and women were esteemed as completely equal in the gospel, as well as communities in which the eldership authority rested with men. If Paul did not see those two as impossible to reconcile, then no matter how strong the cultural pressures, neither should we.
Fifthly, there is the very subjective, nebulous and touchy-feely presumption of counterculturalism (which I highly doubt to be a real word). This one won’t persuade anyone intellectually, I’m sure, but I’ll throw it in because at an emotional level, it may resonate with many. My idea here is that when two ideas within mainstream evangelicalism are in opposition to each other, all other things being equal, the more countercultural of the two – the one which the contemporary culture regards as the least acceptable – is likely to be correct. I say this because those on the unpopular side of the debate are, in all probability, only holding to their position because they are convinced it’s what the Bible says, whereas those on the popular side of the debate have not just their conviction about Scripture, but a host of other advantages when it comes to attracting people, evangelism, contextualization and cultural engagement, which may in some cases skew their interpretation. (The very laudable desire to end up with a Bible that is not sexist, for example, could cause people to raise the bar higher for complementarian arguments than for egalitarian ones, and I suspect it sometimes does). Put differently, I can imagine that many advocates of complementarianism, and young earth creationism, and [insert culturally unthinkable theological position here], would emotionally prefer not to hold the view they do, yet they do so anyway out of biblical conviction. That obviously doesn’t mean they’re always right – it might just mean they’re weird – but it nudges me towards presuming that they are, in cases where I’m not sure. And it certainly makes me very nervous of mocking them or attacking them for it; I don’t think 1 Corinthians 11 means Western women today should wear head coverings, but when I go to churches that do, I find myself filled with respect for their commitment to live biblically in the face of unpopularity.
Taken together, and with significantly more weight on #1, #3 and #4 than on the other two, I think these four and a half presumptions – of obedience, history, specificity, compatibility and counterculturalism – add up to the presumption of complementarianism. Egalitarians may be right that God wants women to be elders/overseers in local churches, but I think the burden of proof rests with them, and despite encountering many excellent people and many excellent scholars, some of whom are good friends of mine, I am not persuaded that they are. I will continue to listen, read, talk and write, and I am always open to further discussion, but for the moment, I will continue to pray that my daughter will prophesy, lead, teach, preach the gospel, lead worship, plant churches and reach nations – but not that she will be an elder. And I think she’ll be OK with that.
Andrew Wilson is an elder at Kings Church in Eastbourne. He has theology degrees from Cambridge (MA) and London School of Theology (MTh), and is currently studying for a PhD at Kings College London. Andrew is the author of Deluded by Dawkins, Incomparable andGodStories, and has written articles for The Times and Christianity. Andrew’s next book, If God Then What? Wondering Aloud about Truth, Origins and Redemption, will be released in April, published by IVP. He is married to Rachel and they have two children, Zeke and Anna.
This article initially appeared on the whatyouthinkmatters.org theology blog here.