The conversation around women in church leadership can be highly contentious. And it makes sense that it would. A church’s view on the topic has very real and practical ramifications for how that church operates.
Churches today exist mostly within two camps, though each side is more of a spectrum of practices than a set standard across the board. Nevertheless, most churches would identify as either complementarian or egalitarian.
Complementarianism affirms that men and women are equal in value, worth, and dignity as God’s image-bearers, but believes that they are given different roles within the home, the church, and society at large. On the other hand, egalitarianism affirms that men and women are equal in value and worth and believes that they are likewise empowered to fulfill any role or responsibility that’s in line with their natural and spiritual giftings.
Both of these views are developed out of the desire to practically apply scripture with regard to how much leadership authority women are called to exercise in the local church. The trouble is that scripture isn’t as black and white as we would like it to be. Faithful followers of Jesus fall on either side of the divide based on their understanding of the relevant New Testament passages. So how do we know which view to hold to?
Here are some strengths and weaknesses of each camp in how they often carry out their stance on women in church leadership.
Strength of Complementarianism: The uniqueness of men and women is celebrated.
The greatest strength of complementarianism is that it understands and celebrates that men and women are inherently different—not only in our physical makeup, but also in our spiritual makeup and in the way we view life. Men and women bring different perspectives and strengths to the church.
Complementarianism seeks to fully recognize the natural and spiritual differences in men and women and to see those differences as a blessing. This allows men and women to operate in different roles freely and without judgment.Complementarianism seeks to fully recognize the natural and spiritual differences in men and women and to see those difference as a blessing. This allows men and women to operate in different roles freely and without judgment. Click To Tweet
Weakness of Complementarianism: Some may begin to believe that women are ‘equal but less.’
The trouble with the complementarian view is that it lends itself to seeing women as less than men. While it’s not always the case, some practical executions of this view see the natural role of women as inherently inferior to men.
This can be seen largely through the leadership roles women are allowed to hold in the church. For example, in many complementarian churches, the only leadership roles women are allowed to fill are in women’s and children’s ministries. And while these ministries are vital to any church, many women have gifts that would actually be a better fit somewhere else in the church.
Additionally, in this view, some male leaders are also prone to arrogance and have often acted unkindly and even oppressively toward the women in their churches. Not always, but not with an inconsiderable frequency.
Strength of Egalitarianism: The gifts and contributions of women are celebrated.
While complementarianism celebrates the differences of men and women, egalitarians focus on the equal giftings of women. In this view, women who have the same gifts as men are able to fulfill the same roles as men.
In many ways, egalitarianism has a broader understanding of equality between men and women and often seeks to promote the voices and valuable insights of women that have too often been silenced.For egalitarians, women who have the same gifts as men are able to fulfill the same roles as men. Click To Tweet
Weakness of Egalitarianism: The uniqueness of men and women can be minimized.
Egalitarianism’s greatest strength can also give way to its greatest weakness. In its earnest effort to see men and women as equally capable of leveraging their gifts, this view doesn’t always celebrate the unique and beautiful ways in which those gifts can be expressed. While a woman can do anything a man can do, it’s vital to remember that they do it differently—and that matters.
Women and men approach and view life differently, which is good. But that can get lost in our efforts of maintaining equality.
It should also be noted that while complementarian churches are often the subject of abuse scandals, egalitarian churches seem no more immune to abusive leadership dynamics. One prime example is Bill Hybels of Willow Creek.
Settling the Divide (Even if We Still Disagree)
At the end of the day, neither of these two views seems to capture everything God has to say about the relationship between men and women in church leadership.
So regardless of where you fall between complementarian and egalitarian, here are 4 encouragements for how to hold a biblical view of gender roles.
1. Allow scripture to dictate your stance more than your culture.
The church should never thoughtlessly follow whatever the culture values, especially where cultural values run counter to biblical principles. How a church operates with regard to gender roles must ultimately rest on how its leadership has faithfully studied and understood the scriptures. And because the theological point of order is already so enmeshed with cultural practices, we need to take extra care that we are parsing out the two.
No leader, in good conscience, can change their church’s systems and structures in a way that contradicts their understanding of scripture simply because it is a wider cultural norm.
On the other hand, the church doesn’t exist in a cultural vacuum. Sometimes culture does have something to teach the church about valuing women, regardless of our leadership structures. We see this in particular with the #MeToo movement, which has sought to dignify the stories of women who have suffered sexual abuse. Unfortunately, the church has not been immune to such abuses. The church would do well to actively seek to listen to the stories of women.The church does not exist in a cultural vacuum. Click To Tweet
2. Be consistent in the way you apply your theology.
Some complementarian churches would never think of giving a woman the title of “pastor.” And yet these same churches will often give women job responsibilities that are similar to those of male staff members. They will award the man the title of “pastor” while designating the woman with the title of “director.” This is often a distinction without a difference—and one that always favors men.
This is completely inconsistent. Complementarian churches should maintain uniformity in how they award job titles and do so on the basis of responsibilities, not gender. This may mean calling both the male and female “directors.” Or, if they are both acting in pastoral capacities, they should both enjoy the distinction of the title “pastor.”
Likewise, many churches who call themselves egalitarian have never had a woman lead pastor, or even women in high positions of leadership in their church. If they truly believe that women are called to fulfill these roles, then they need to reflect it in the way they staff their churches. Anything less simply amounts to virtue signaling.Churches need to consistently apply their theological stance on women in leadership in ever practical setting. Click To Tweet
3. Be intentional about celebrating, cultivating, and empowering the giftedness of women in your church.
Regardless of whether you believe a woman should hold the role of pastor or not, there are gifted women in your church. Every follower of Jesus has spiritual gifts. So every church needs to not only celebrate the uniqueness of those gifts but also find a space for women to use them.
We have to be intentional. Unfortunately, a culture of valuing women and strategically empowering them to use their spiritual gifts does not naturally occur in most churches. It is always the result of leaders who intentionally seek to make it the cultural norm.
If we fail to do this, we will not only hinder the ability of our women to fulfill their purpose in Jesus; we will also hamper the spiritual growth and vibrancy of our churches.Every follower of Jesus has spiritual gifts. So every church needs to not only celebrate the uniqueness of those gifts but also find a space for women to use them. Click To Tweet
4. Maintain a posture of service, not heavy-handed authority.
At the heart of this conversation needs to be a desire for both men and women to serve each other and the mission of Jesus in a way that is both effective and God-honoring. It’s not about who the “boss” is or who’s in charge. It’s about how we can best love and value one another as people created in the image of God.
God’s heart isn’t that his people would constantly be in conflict over who has more control or power. That misses the point entirely. The way of Jesus is to use the power we have been given to serve one another rather than ourselves.God's heart isn't that his people would constantly be in conflict over who has more control or power. Click To Tweet
Our churches will never get this perfectly right, but we are still perfectly loved.
This conversation can often be overwhelming. We know how important it is, and it can be hard for church leaders to know exactly what to do in every situation. But it’s okay that none of our churches will ever get this perfectly right. We are still perfectly loved.
And so long as we continually strive to love and value each other more to the measure with which Jesus has loved and valued us, we will have been faithful.
A version of this article originally appeared here.
Other Resources to Check Out
If you’re interested into diving deeper into this topic, here are some valuable resources that could help.
- “Neither Complementarian nor Egalitarian: A Kingdom Corrective to the Evangelical Gender Debate” by Michelle Lee-Barnewall
- “Engendered: God’s Gift of Gender Difference in Relationship” by Sam A. Andreades