Women and men and the Bible and the church

PARK ASKS:

What are the major scriptural passages [and interpretations] relative to a complementarian and egalitarian approach to gender roles in the church?

THE GUY ANSWERS:

This is a big one.

First, about that lingo:

“Egalitarians” say the Bible teaches across-the-board equality without regard to gender. Period. Nevertheless, this supposedly “liberal” view is held by many people who are commonly called “conservatives.”

“Complementarians” — note that it’s “complement,” not “compliment” — say the Bible establishes different roles for men and women in the church and, most add, in the home. For instance, no female pastors. Obviously not a politically-correct stance but in conscience they believe the Bible is clear about this.

These two terms are used almost exclusively in the ongoing debate among U.S. Evangelical Protestants. Though some Evangelical denominations have ordained women since the 19th Century, influential theologians like the Rev. J.I. Packer, an Anglican, say the Bible rules out female clergy. Meanwhile, there’s no dispute in U.S. “Mainline” Protestant churches that began ordaining women in the 1950s through the 1970s. Of course, Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches have always barred women from the priesthood (with parallels among non-Christian faiths).

While other Christians rely more upon church tradition and hierarchical decrees, Protestants follow “scripture alone” in setting policy. Both of the Evangelical camps maintain they’re being faithful to the Bible and agree on the spiritual equality of both sexes as taught in Genesis 1:27 (“in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them”) and Galatians 3:28 (“there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus”). Egalitarians say those verses require full equality; complementarians say they don’t rule out a division of labor and gifts based on gender.

America’s largest Protestant body, the Southern Baptist Convention with 46,000 local congregations, has officially gone complementarian. The SBC rewrote its doctrinal platform, the Baptist Faith and Message, to specify that “the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture” and that “a wife is to submit herself graciously to the servant leadership of her husband.” (Local Baptist congregations are, of course, free to disagree.)

Per Park’s question, The Guy will look only at the church aspect, sidestepping the intriguing relationship between husbands and wives in the home.

Years ago The Guy discussed the church issue at length with the late James Montgomery Boice, a very intelligent conservative (whose very intelligent wife led a private academy). His Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia left what’s now the Presbyterian Church (USA) when it began requiring congregations to name women as lay “ruling elders” and barred complementarian clergy candidates. Unlike some, Boice said I Corinthians 14:33-36 (“the women should keep silence”) merely addressed a local problem, since women spoke in church elsewhere in the New Testament. He also thought the 1st Century church appointed female ”deacons,” not seen as an office with teaching authority.

To Boice, it all boiled down to I Timothy 2:11-14 and this notoriously difficult passage: “I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over men; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve…” He concluded that makes the gender line God’s design from the creation. The like-minded E.S.V. Study Bible says this means “women are not permitted to publicly teach … men in church” and “women are not permitted to exercise authority over men in church,” though that doesn’t apply to women in government or commerce. As in Catholic pronouncements, such Protestants also point out that Jesus chose only male apostles.

Evangelical egalitarians, typified by the Free Methodist Church policy, explain that I Timothy was deeply concerned about doctrinal heresies in Ephesus (see chapter 1) presumably spread by troublesome women (see chapter 5), and that the passage means women shouldn’t “usurp” authority or be “domineering” over men. Walter Kaiser, retired president of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, says Adam as “formed” means “educated,” and refers to the immature and untrained women in Ephesus. The late E. Earle Ellis of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary thought the Greek in I Timothy 2 should be translated “wife” and “husband” because the passage refers back to Adam and Eve, and therefore means wives shouldn’t disrupt relationships with husbands during church participation.

Unlike the I Timothy situation, others note, a Protestant female pastor doesn’t rule by herself but shares authority with lay leaders. Egalitarians also emphasize the Old Testament vision of women as prophets (Joel 2:28-29) quoted by Peter in the church’s founding sermon at Pentecost (Acts 2). They say New Testament equality is reflected in baptism for everyone replacing male circumcision, and in passages depicting female leaders. (But is the “apostle” named in Romans 16:7 a female “Junia,” as in 31 English translations, or a male “Junias”?).

The preceding only touches upon a complex discussion. There’s much more from the complementarian Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood at http://cbmw.org and the egalitarian Christians for Biblical Equality at www.cbeinternational.org. Of particular value:

* Though partisan, the C.B.M.W. posts a reasonably fair comparison of the two sides at: http://cbmw.org/uncategorized/summaries-of-the-egalitarian-and-complementarian-positions

* A 2000 Christian Reformed Church study details both biblical viewpoints: http://www.crcna.org/sites/default/files/2000_report_womeninoffice.doc

QUESTION FOR THE GUY? Leave it in our comments pages or at his site.

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About Richard Ostling

Richard N. Ostling, a religion writer for the Associated Press, was formerly senior correspondent for Time magazine, where he wrote twenty-three cover stories and was the religion writer for many years. He has also covered religion for the CBS Radio Network and the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer on PBS-TV.