My Perspective on the Women in Ministry Debate

Last week I wrote a book review for Her.meneutics, the content of which led one commenter to assume I was hiding an obviously complementarian bias. This assumption made me laugh because I have, at others times, been “accused” of being egalitarian.

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised by these differing assumptions about my views, because women in ministry is not a topic I weigh in on often. Although I talk about women a LOT, I discuss the complementarian-egalitarian debate only rarely–at least on a public level. There are two reasons why I tend to avoid it. First, it is a deeply divisive topic. Too often one’s stance on this debate allows people to pigeon hole you theologically, and I don’t want my beliefs on one topic to eclipse beliefs that I feel are more important and central to the Christian faith.

I will get to the second reason in a bit.

Despite my pattern of avoidance, I have decided to share a little bit about my journey on this topic, not because my particular convictions on the issue are that revolutionary, but because the process that led me there is. I think you’ll understand what I mean as you read further.

To give you a little bit of background about my journey, I was raised in a PCUSA church but spent the last decade or so in a number of Southern Baptist churches. My last church, where I attended for 7 years, is complementarian. For a three year period I served at this church while attending Duke Divinity School, and this had a powerful and surprising impact on how I thought about gender roles and the church.

Although there were aspects of Complementarianism that I found troubling, I was more troubled by the lack of engagement with the topic at Duke. I would not say this is true of Duke on the whole, but on this particular issue I struggled to find any classmates who could adequately defend their egalitarian views based on Scripture. Most often they compared the verses about women to the verses about slavery and blithely brushed them off as cultural.

To me, this is a thoroughly inadequate approach to Scriptural interpretation. I was very dissatisfied with these answers and decided that if I had to choose between a complementarian church that took the Bible seriously or an egalitarian tradition that offered no sufficient exegesis on these difficult passages, I had to go with the complementarian church. Scriptural authority is too central to me.

So I remained at my church and continued to serve. Although I continued to think through these issues and wrestle with them, I am also someone who takes seriously the Biblical commands to submit to your church authorities, so the process remained largely private. That is the second reason why I have avoided engaging this topic on my blog. I did not want to risk subverting my church leaders by publicly wrestling with doctrines that my church upheld. I still stand by that conviction.

It has now been a year and a half since I left North Carolina to study in the Chicago area, and it has been an eye opening experience. I attend an evangelical seminary and all of my professors are egalitarian. We also joined a church whose leadership is egalitarian, something we discovered after a few visits. Additionally, I have encountered countless evangelical leaders and influencers who espouse egalitarian beliefs as they quietly (or not so quietly) give voice and opportunities to women in the church. And all of these people are doing so on Biblical grounds.

Since leaving North Carolina, I have been exposed to the very best Biblical, historical, and theological arguments for Egalitarianism. I had encountered them before, but it had always seemed like kind of a fringe movement of “liberals” within the evangelical tradition. I had never met orthodox, evangelical Christians who could defend their egalitarians views so Scripturally.

So, as I have continued to study this issue and and take a hard look at historical precedent, Scriptural teaching, the influence of culture on Scripture interpretation, Biblical ecclesiology, and the movement of the Holy Spirit, I have moved away from the complementarian position. I can no longer embrace it personally. To those of you who know me well you are probably not surprised by this–I think I was headed in this direction all along (especially since I have a father and husband who were encouraging me in this direction for years!).

However, that is not to say that I am taking up the egalitarian banner. As I have struggled with Complementarianism I have also wrestled with Egalitarianism. In particular, there are two issues that prevent me from owning the term for myself. The first is that I have yet to encounter a helpful egalitarian explanation of gender difference. Why would God create different genders if our only real differences are gifts alone? I’m sure some egalitarians out there have an answer to this question, but I have yet to find one that is satisfying to me.

Second, it is clear to me that Christian marriage must reflect the relationship between Christ and the church, and the Bible is clear that in this equation, men take on the role of head. My conviction on this topic might lead some to label me as a particular type of complementarian (some complementarians believe that gender roles apply to marriage alone), and I am somewhat comfortable with that but only if I can clarify the terms. In my marriage to Ike there is no power differential. We are partners, a team. Ike’s headship looks less like worldly leadership and more like that of Christ–he serves and he lays himself down in humility. I would love to say that I keep up with Ike in this Christlike model, but he is truly exemplary. He really does serve as the head of our family in the same way that we see Christ serve in Scripture.

All of that to say, this is a journey I am still on. Neither term has been especially helpful to me as I identify my own convictions, but I do see strengths in both positions.

With that in mind, the most important part of this process has been to blur my categories. I used to see complementarians as the faithful and egalitarians as the compromisers, and I can no longer make that distinction. However, I have been disappointed to learn that egalitarians are just as likely to stereotype complementarians as complemetarians are the reverse. While complementarians sometimes paint egalitarians as liberal activists who don’t take Scripture seriously, egalitarians often paint complementarians as chauvinists or ignorant naifs who simply don’t know any better.

To be sure, there are people who fit those stereotypes. For instance, there are bad apples on either side–complementarians who mask varying degrees of chauvinism behind theology, and egalitarians who have a humanistic ax to grind. Likewise, there are Christians in both camps who cannot tell you why they believe what they believe. Some complementarians cite vague cultural constructions about the place of women along with proof-texted verses, whereas egalitarians cite their own vague convictions about women’s rights and their own arsenal of scriptures.

We can sit around and knock down straw men all day. But the reality is that this is a topic on which godly men and women have, after careful reflection and extensive Bible study, come to very different conclusions. And they have done so in good conscience. It is because of this tension that I have trouble listening to anyone who generalizes the other side with sweeping stereotypes or accusations.

I have been on this journey for a long time and it has been a difficult one. However I am grateful for the path that God marked out for me because He has allowed me to be immersed in both “worlds” so to speak. Although it can be tempting to drift toward a black and white understanding of this debate, the spectrum of my experience usually rescues me from doing so.

As a final note, I want to be clear that the grace I show both sides is not the result of a blissfully positive experience in the complementarian tradition. I am sure that, to some egalitarians, I come across as one who has not been hurt by this debate, which is why I advocate for both sides so freely. But that is not the case. I have been hurt by complementarians in some ugly, un-Christian ways. However, I have also been defended against those same people by other complementarians. What’s more, some of the people who love me most, support me the most in ministry, and have been my most loyal friends are complementarians. Yes, I could focus on the times when men treated me like an inferior person, but to do so would not only overlook the far greater number of positive experiences, but it might also lead me down a path whose destination holds only bitterness and poisonous division.

That is why I will close this way too long post with a final caution. Disagreement is not unbiblical. We are are permitted to disagree and work through our problems in a godly manner. That said, both complementarians and egalitarians alike should study this issue and advocate whole-heartedly for the position they believe to be most biblical. However, we have GOT TO monitor the spirit with which these debates occur. When a divisive spirit infiltrates these discussions, two negative consequences are likely to occur: 1) Those with power will exercise it with even less sensitivity and do even greater harm to those who do not have power, and 2) Those without power will be heard even less as they forfeit their credibility, and the ensuing bitterness will pave a way for more destruction if they ever do gain power.

I hope to see neither consequence come to fruition. I do hope to see Christians find a way to hear one another, learn from one another, and love one another, even on topics which are incredibly heated and incredible personal, such as this one.