Conclusions on the Egalitarian vs Complementarian debate

Conclusions on the Egalitarian vs Complementarian debate October 11, 2012

I did briefly consider writing a whole series about the gender issue following on from my debate with Rachel Held Evans and Owen Strachan, as well as two other recent posts here on my blog:

I had wondered about dealing in detail with the arguments of Rachel Held Evans in her series entitled Mutuality 2012.  However, I decided instead to post a single post listing my own conclusions having read her series, reflected again on my spectrum post, and re-read the list of key Bible passages that I put together (so far hardly anyone has suggested I missed any vital passages for discussion, interestingly)  I suspect few people will agree with everything I say here, and it is possible that I may annoy some on both sides of the fence!

  • The Bible is clearly not an anti-woman book. In the context of a patriarchal society throughout both Testaments, women are honored, valued, liberated, and praised.
  • When God described Eve as a helper suited for Adam, it was never intended to denigrate her, quite the contrary it teaches that man without a wife is incomplete, and indeed needs help.
  • Abraham is not to be held up as an example of how to relate to women (indeed nor are most of the Patriarchs!)
  • Jesus himself took almost every possible opportunity to honor and dignify women, teaching them, speaking with them (even “sinners”), having a group of women who followed him, and perhaps most of all in appearing to women first and sending them to be the first proclaimers of the gospel of his resurrection to the men!
  • Despite Jesus incredible scandalous disregard for many of societies norms he did not appoint even one women as an Apostle.  If he had, this would have settled the argument for every complementarian I know.
  • The Bible does hold out all kinds of leadership roles for women. In particular, prophecy, evangelism, leading Bible studies, and various other ways of helping the church, including it seems deaconesses. The man some egalitarians reject as a mysogynist, Paul, praises many women for being partners with him in the gospel. Is seems very likely that many complementarian churches today have not followed Paul’s personal practices as closely as they think!
  • There is no evidence, however, that women in New Testament churches were ever appointed as elders.
  • There seems to be an assymatry prescribed in the relationship between a husband and wife, and that is intended to reflect a similar assymymatry between Christ and the Church, and for that matter between God and Christ. In other words, if a woman submits to her husband, it does not devalue her, any more than Jesus is devalued because he submits to God.
  • Women, however, are to be treated with incredible honor, and a husband who is called to lay down his life for his wife should never get the warped idea that he is meant to oppress, dominate, or demean his wife in any way.
  • The abuses of patriarchalism over centuries cannot be simply airbrushed out of history, and men today must ensure we do not repeat the mistakes of our forefathers.
  • On a similar note, I will say it again: none of this should ever provide any excuse or cover for any form of abuse. See for example  my post “your authority ends at the bedroom door“)
  • I can find nothing in the Bible that suggests a woman must not work outside of the home, even if she has children. (See Proverbs 31!)
  • Egalitarians and Complementarians often approach the Bible very differently, and use different translations. Thus it is immediately apparent in Rachel’s first post in her series she uses a translation which removes language form Genesis 1 that many complementarians believe supports male leadership.
  • It is wrong to be overly wooden and literalistic in Bible interpretation and use that literalism to also reject other passages.  For example, some claim that the Bible commends polygamy, when in fact it merely truthfully reports that it was going on, and in many places demonstrates its massive weaknesses (eg the rivalry seen in the family of Faith in Genesis) and elsewhere does make clear that the ideal for marriage is one man, one woman for life.
  • Egalitarians who confess to having a bit of a problem with the Apostle Paul do little to reassure those of us who worry that they do not see the Bible as inerrant and authoritative.
  • It takes exegetical gymnastics that make my eyes water like this to remove some of the key passages from relevance to us today.
  • There is, however, need for great discernment in precisely how to apply the Bible today, and which verses like “greet one another with a holy kiss” prescribe a culturally bound behavior which nonetheless is the expression of a culturally independent principle, so that today we are to apply the same principle in a different way, ie to perhaps hug one another or shake hands if that is more comfortable in our society.

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  • You covered a lot in that post. I think you are pretty fair. One question it brought to my mind was your point about Jesus not appointing any female apostles. An “apostle” is one who is “sent”, yes? In that case, in Luke 10:1 where Jesus “sends out” 70 people in pairs, isn’t it possible some of them could have been women? 🙂

  • Luma Simms

    I listened to that debate and appreciated what you had to say. The asymmetry between man and woman was put there by God, it is not a social construct. I think this point needs to be made more often and more clearly. I like your conclusions.

    The Asymmetry God Built Into Man and Woman

    Luma Simms

  • Spot on Adrian. When Rachel so effectively demolishes the inspiration and authority of Scripture in the way she did in that 7th post in her series, there remains little ground on which to debate the issue.

    • I may have missed something, so this is a genuine question, but where does Rachel demolish the inspiration and authority of Scripture in that post? As far as I can tell, what she was doing was research into the historical background of 1 Timothy in Ephesus and attempting to show how the interpretation of what God inspired Paul to write may not be so clear cut as complementarians would argue. Last time I looked, this is what we should all be doing when reading our Bibles, carrying out responsible exegesis rather than reading them as though they were written directly to us with no differences in context or culture in the intervening period.

      Granted, you may not agree with her that the research she presents means that Paul’s use of the creation account is less-than-universal in application, but I couldn’t see where she claimed Paul was less-than-inspired in his use of the Genesis accounts, or where she claimed that Scripture has no authority in these matters.

  • Alan Molineaux

    Hi Adrian. Thanks for this. Just a few thoughts.

    1) you can use Jesus’ choice of disciples as a precedent – he didn’t use Gentiles either.

    2) using the fact that some egals don’t like Paul is like me complaining that some comps demand full submission in the bedroom. The question is how do we interpret the bible. It is possible to hand a high view of scripture and conclude an egalitarian position.

    3) we all do exegetical gymnastics to depending upon your perspective.

    I am sure your church stream will be under increasing internal
    Pressure to face this again in the next few years. I trust you will do so with courage.

  • Don Johnson

    Hi Adrian,

    I am egalitarian as I understand Jesus, Paul, Peter, etc. to have been egalitarians in their 1st century culture. Obviously you and I understand some verses differently. I am offering to explain how I understand them if you wish. I accept the Bible as inspired and authoritative for faith and practice, but it needs to be interpreted in context.

  • Katherinez

    Dear Adrian,
    Since Jesus chose 12 Jewish men as his first disciples, and you’re reasoning that he was making a statement then that only men should be leaders for all cultures for all time, shouldn’t you then deduce that church leaders should also be Jewish? Aren’t you picking and choosing what examples are of cultural significance and which examples should be followed for all time?

    I thought RHE made several good points that stood out for me:

    1. That the curse of man’s rule over women is just that–a curse. Childbirth is generally accompanied by great pain, but we don’t hesitate to alleviate that curse in today’s society. Why not strive to alleviate the curse of man’s rule by striving for equality in all areas?

    2. How do you explain away Deborah’s gifted rule over the people in the O.T., or Junia being mentioned as an Apostle in the N.T.?

    3. The 1 Cor 11 verses about women praying with head coverings point directly back to the beginning of creation. If you point back to creation to prove male headship, why do you not use these verses then to insist that women still cover their heads?

    Thank you for your gracious and thoughtful conversation about this sticky topic!

  • ian

    A question to all complimentarians here. What I never see described is what a complimentarian marriage looks like in practical terms. I fail to see how a marriage with a “head” can be anything but oppressive. That’s not to say complimentarian husbands oppress their wives – I just suspect for many their marriage is more egalitarian than they think. Authority only really comes into play when there is a disagreement between two parties – but I can’t think of any circumstances in a marriage where a man playing the “headship card” wouldn’t be either petty (what movie we watch) or oppressive (I understand that you don’t want to move to a new city, but I’ve made my decision). Any decision with serious consequences should surely be discussed until a mutual decision is arrived at. I expect most complimentarian husbands allow for that, but if so – how are you not egalitarian?

    • kash

      God is our head- does he oppress us???

  • Jeanne

    I think you should read this book, it’s a must read on the subject:
    Men and Women in the Church: Building Consensus on Christian Leadership by Sarah Sumner.
    I pray that God will reveal the truth to you. You may know some weird egalitarians (If some of them think Paul is a mysoginist, then they didn’t understand what he said, nor did complementarians by the way) but this book is written by a woman who’s neither a complementarian nor an egalitarian, her view is very balanced and much more biblical that any of this two views. I really hope you’ll read it, God will change your life through it like He did for me, just ask him sincerely to free you from traditions, lies you bought on the subject and to reveal his truth to you! 🙂

  • sydney

    Won’t you miss your freedom on e you be one a submissive wife?

  • Jenn

    Interesting reading. My husband and I tried our best with the Complementarian model and were miserable. After years of being told that it would work if we had the “right” relationship with Christ, we began attending an Egalitarian church and let the dynamic of our relationship naturally fall into place based on our strengths, weaknesses, and gifts instead of gender. Our home is now peaceful and well-run. We are co-heads of our household (with God binding us together) and our sons are growing up seeing both men and women as teachers, elders, pastors, etc. in our church and community.

    • Welcome to the blog Jenn. I certainly welcome people of all different persuasions on this issue here. Feel free to chat a bit more about how your egalitarian marriage works out in practice.

  • Alastair B

    Hi Adrian, which books/authors on both sides of this debate would you recommend? Kind regards, Alastair

  • Ian

    Having just come across this 14 months down the line, I want to comment on one thing – Adrian’s statement that “It takes exegetical gymnastics that make my eyes water like this to remove some of the key passages from relevance to us today” with a link to an article by Rachel Held Evans at

    I read the latter piece by Rachel H-E and concluded that she is someone who has an extremely high view of scripture. I don’t see her approach as “exegetical gymnastics” in any way, rather, she is deeply concerned to understand and apply the Bible correctly. Her approach seems far more rigorous that the proof-texts of the complementarians.

  • Eric Breaux
  • Guest

    What I would like to know why I hear the harping on the woman submit, submit when the Bible clearly says to submit to one another. I grew up complementation but now I’m coming out as egalitarian. For me it has been very damaging. I have had no ambitions to do anything. I need a spouse who will support me too! Not confine me into a box of what I can and can not do. I have no desire to be a leader but I have a burning desire to be validated as a person and equal human being. This bears witness with my spirit! I don’t wish to argue but my marriage has not worked well either with the complementation view. Women must be heard, loved, and validated, not marginalized, sexualized, and diminished. I just want my contributions to be equal to my husband. I have raised kids, stayed home, bit my tongue for too long. This is no way for anyone to live. It is nice to say I’m not happy without being judged.