Complementarianism – a family perspective

For most of my adult life, one of the most potentially contentious conversations in church life has been the question of men and women in church leadership.  Women have been allowed to preach in the Methodist Church and some other denominations for a long time, they have also served as ministers/pastors in those contexts.  However, it was only in the 1990s that the Church of England allowed women to be ordained into the clergy and very recently indeed that the bar was lifted on women bishops.

Generally speaking the view within independent evangelicalism has remained that eldership and public teaching roles should be restricted to men, though some churches have started to include female elders.  A lot more churches would include female deacons but there are still some who see this role as male only.

I am a complementarian. This starts with my understanding of what the Bible says about family dynamics and works through into church roles too.  Namely I think that we have to take seriously Ephesians 5:23 and 1 Corinthians 11:3 where the husband is described as the head of his wife. In 1 Corinthians 11, this has implications not just for home life but church life too. I believe that this is seen in 1 Timothy 2 and 3 where eldership and the primary authoritative teaching roles in the church are a male responsibility.

However, I am an Evangelical who believes that all Scripture is God breathed and so I also need to take very seriously that:

1.       Ephesians 5:21 talks about mutual submission. We are to submit one to another. This is worked out for the husband in sacrificial love for his wife, imitating Christ’s love for the church (Ephesians 5:25)

2.       1 Corinthians 11:5 where Paul’s teaching about headship is focused on contexts where women are speaking in church both through prayer and prophesy.

Those verses will help me think even more carefully about how men and women are meant to work together for the Gospel in the life of the church.  I go into a bit more detail on this in the paper male and female leadership and teaching roles which is available from our publications page.

In that paper, I also pick up on the point that as well as the specific local church roles of elder and deacon mentioned in 1 Timothy 3, we see a variety of men and women taking on prominent roles in the life of the church during the New Testament period. This includes Phoebe as a deacon but it also includes Priscilla with Aquilla instructing Apollos, Junia described as outstanding among the apostles and a whole variety of co-workers with Paul

So that is part of the picture. However, another part of the picture links to what I have said about how the church is meant to function as a family not as a country club or as a business.  I think that escaping those two models will help us to approach the question of men and women in a better way.

You see, if I think of a business hierarchy, then it looks like the top jobs are given to men and they may occasionally let a token woman have a middle ranking responsibility.  With the country club model, it looks like there is still one of those rooms where the inner circle is permitted in to smoke cigars and drink sherry. On the door is a sign which says “men only” and you have a strong feeling that if you cross the threshold then you’ll find a bunch of privileged white, well off males and conversation that is sexist.

But what if we tear up those models? What if we start thinking about family life? What if we remember that there is no hierarchy and that in fact our leaders are called to serve, some to serve tables and some to serve the word? 

Well, then we start to think about how families function, including and especially those who take the whole of Ephesians 5 seriously.  Does a husband in a happy and healthy home announce that as he is “the head” he is off down to his shed to consider the future direction of the family? Does he then emerge from his shed and summon the whole family to gather so that he may pronounce his decision to them. Of course, I’m sure that you will find some families that function like that but they will probably be rare and most complementarians would not recognise their behaviour as an accurate application of Biblical teaching. No, in a family context, husband and wife will talk together and pray together, seeking to come to a united decision. As they do so, their decisions should be governed by three principles

1.       A desire to serve and glorify Christ, being obedient to his will

2.       A desire to put the needs of the other first, before their own needs

3.       A desire to look after the needs and concerns of the whole family.

Now, I happen to believe that gender is not interchangeable and nor are the roles of husband and wife. The husband will always be the husband in the situation and the wife will always be the wife. You cannot swap the roles around but they do not exist in a hierarchy or in independent domains. Life is lived together, situations are faced together, the couple pray together and normally decide together.

I wonder if this might help us to think a little more about leadership in the true. It should certainly help us think about leadership generally but hopefully also help us to think again about what it means to be complementarian.  What I mean is that rather than seeing the elders as an elite, I will see them as part of the family.  Instead of elders being those who sit in their secluded meetings, coming to decisions and then making pronouncements, they will be engaged in the life of the church and involving the wider leadership and wider church membership in decisions. Proposals will not come to the church members as a “fait accompli” and you won’t have the situation where the members vote against the elders and in effect no-confidence them. Rather, the elders will be taking their role seriously to ensure that the whole church is being thoroughly equipped by God’s Word so that it will come to one mind, united in Christ and listening to the Holy Spirit. 

Importantly this also asks probing questions of the elders themselves. Are they only elders when they are sat in the elders meeting? Is the fact that they are elders based on appointment, title and position in the hierarchy? Is this a role that they can set aside, a hat they can take off along the lines of “I want to talk to you as a friend, not as an elder…” I would say no. It is vital that elders discharge their duties not just by attending meetings but by how they live, act and speak in the congregation.