Why Can’t Complementarians and Egalitarians Get Along?

Why Can’t Complementarians and Egalitarians Get Along?

This week, representatives of the Southern Baptist Convention who assembled in New Orleans overwhelmingly upheld the decision to disfellowship two churches for awarding the title of pastor to women. 

One was Fern Creek Baptist Church, a small congregation in Kentucky whose senior pastor is a woman. The other was Saddleback Church, now-formerly the denomination’s single largest church, which does not allow women to serve as elders but does allow them to preach and awards them the title of pastor if their role involves shepherding a ministry within the church. 

In other words, the SBC has indicated that the denomination has rejected not only egalitarianism (by a factor of 91%), but also any form of complementarianism that is not of the strictest variety. Saddleback’s appeal to remain in the SBC was rejected by roughly 88% of those who voted at the Convention.

Further, if the standard that was used to disfellowship Saddleback were to be applied across the denomination, the SBC would need to oust hundreds, if not thousands, of churches—including many that were planted with the support, both financial and moral, of SBC church planting agencies. 

It remains to be seen if that will happen, or if a wave of churches will voluntarily leave. The possibility is real, as later in the same meeting, the SBC voted to amend its constitution to specify that it “affirms, appoints, or employs only men as any kind of pastor or elder as qualified by Scripture,” pending a two-thirds affirmative vote at next year’s annual meeting.

Despite its unscrupulous 19th century beginnings as a denomination forged in opposition to the slavery abolitionist movement, the Southern Baptist Convention ostensibly exists to bring together independent local churches, pooling resources and support for the sake of mission. 

However, the denomination has been bleeding membership in recent years amid controversies involving race and sexual abuse. In 2022, the SBC saw its largest single-year drop in membership in a century.

Some have wondered why the denomination would be so divided over reforms to address its clergy sex abuse crisis two decades in the making but so united on kicking churches out over the titles they give their staff members. In a press conference at the SBC annual meeting, Saddleback Church founding pastor Rick Warren said, “It’s not really smart when you are losing a half-million members a year to kick out people who want to fellowship with you.”

To be sure, sexual abuse reforms have continued to move forward, albeit slowly. But at every turn, even the most common sense reforms have been challenged by large scale campaigns from animated right-wing groups within the denomination. 

These groups remain the minority, but far less so than Rick Warren is. Mike Stone, who campaigned for SBC president on the platform of scuttling the current sexual abuse reform trajectory, garnered 31% of the vote to lead the denomination forward. Warren, who said that women can be gifted preachers and leaders, got less than 12% support to even be allowed to remain in the denomination. 

In response to the notion that the SBC is hampering its own stated goal of building a broad coalition of autonomous churches to reach the lost for Christ by focusing on purging its role book of churches with women serving as pastors at a time when the denomination is already bleeding membership, some SBC leaders have argued that this is a matter of theological principle. 

The denomination has long contended that it is “non-confessional,” meaning that the litmus test for being affiliated with the denomination requires only close alignment with Southern Baptist theological distinctives, rather than unilateral agreement. 

When it comes to women who preach, however, this is a hill the denomination sees as worth dying on. 

Al Mohler, a well-respected theological scholar and longtime SBC leader, said in his official response to Rick Warren’s appeal that disfellowshipping Saddleback was a “matter of biblical commitment” and an “issue of biblical authority,” which he says “unequivocally, we believe, limits the office of pastor to men.”

On the Sunday before the annual meeting, Mike Stone preached a sermon he titled “Women in Ministry and the Authority of Scripture,” in which he said, “There’s a growing trend in the American church that I might call ‘theological transgenderism.’ By that, I mean a trend to blur the lines of gender distinctions and in some cases to deny that those distinctions exist at all.”

Stone went on to argue that while trans activists “take a scalpel to and thereby mutilate the physical body, their theological counterparts take a scalpel to and mutilate the Word of God, turning it into Swiss cheese, slicing and dicing it, cutting away anything that doesn’t match their self-assigned, self-affirming, self-appointed role.”

William Wolfe, another influential Southern Baptist, said that it was embarrassing that the denomination was even allowing the senior pastor of Fern Creek Baptist Church, a woman, to speak at the meeting to appeal her church’s ouster, later adding, “‘Female pastors’ shouldn’t have standing to address the SBC,” as they are “in rebellion against God’s Word.”

Similar sentiments have been echoed throughout the SBC. Thus, the general consensus is that the role of women in church leadership is not an area where Southern Baptists, or even Christians generally, can agree to disagree—even slightly. Instead, a stand against egalitarianism and soft complementarianism is tantamount to defending not only the created order but the Bible itself. 

Of note is the fact that this is the exact same argument Southern Baptists used to support American slavery and later racial segregation, but I digress.  

Nevertheless, the fact of the matter is that the Bible isn’t as clearly complementarian as some Southern Baptists would have us think. 

Throughout the New Testament, we see women operating in pastoral capacities. Phoebe was a deacon who carried Paul’s letter to the churches in Rome to read and explain it to them. Lydia was the leader of the church in Philippi. Priscilla is the one who taught the highly esteemed preacher Apollos how to preach. Junia was not only an apostle (a term that was initially reserved for the 12 disciples of Jesus but the meaning of which was later expanded to include other important early church leaders), but was also highly regarded among the apostles.

Further, the proper interpretation of the key passages that would seem to limit the ministry of women, such as 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 and 1 Timothy 2:8-15 is anything but settled. While the English translation of these passages tend to favor a complementarian interpretation, a look at the original Greek is far more opaque. 

In other words, the Bible doesn’t “clearly say” that women should be disallowed from all forms of leadership in the church. Complementarianism, in various forms, is a faithful reading of the New Testament. But so is egalitarianism. There are biblical inerrantists who are egalitarians—not in spite of what the Bible says, but because of what the Bible says. 

Many complementarians, including a not insignificant number of Southern Baptists, argue that even conceding that someone can hold to egalitarianism and remain an orthodox Christian is a slippery slope toward a form of progressive Christianity that rejects the Bible’s teachings on any number of other issues, including matters of gender and sexuality.

If you look at mainline denominations like the United Methodist Church or Presbyterian Church (USA), which are both egalitarian and LGBTQ+ affirming, the theory seems to hold up. But what about Pentecostals, who represent the fastest growing Christian tradition in the world? The vast majority of them are simultaneously egalitarian and staunchly conservative on sexual ethics. 

So, by pure numbers, the vast majority of global egalitarian Christians never slip down the slope. And that’s because they weren’t going downhill to begin with. They just have a different—but still orthodox—interpretation on the role of women in church leadership than complementarians. 

Christian egalitarians, complementarians, and all those who fall between love the same Jesus. We serve the same mission. Refusing to work with one another seems like cutting off the church’s nose to spite its face. 

We would be well served to stop fighting a culture war against each other and instead unite around our common mission. 

Many seem to disagree with me on this point, including a growing number of egalitarians who argue that complementarianism, in any form, is necessarily harmful and abusive

But this isn’t helpful. Christians of various theological stripes must stop assuming the worst of each other. We can do more together than we can apart. We just need to think more inclusively about who “we” includes. 

Is it possible for complementarians and egalitarians to get along? Of course it is. Just, unfortunately for now, not in the Southern Baptist Convention.