My professional pilgrimage has been marked by a sometimes painful series of movements between Christian academic institutions falling on opposite sides of the gender issue, or what has come to be called the complementarian/egalitarian divide. This has given me opportunity to observe the dynamics that exist in both types of communities.
I am convinced that all positions of service and leadership in the life of the local church should be open to women or men based entirely on calling and gifts — an egalitarian view. But in this column I am not going to rehearse the arguments for or against this view.
Instead, motivated by my experiences, I want to ask complementarians — those who believe that the role of women complements, but is not the same as, the role of men — to consider a series of questions about the way in which women are treated in your ministry setting. I want to ask you some questions aimed to help you keep the application of your approach as biblical as possible.
I do so with respect for your view and a shared commitment to seeing it lived out in a way that upholds the dignity of women. I also do so knowing that egalitarian communities are also flawed and do not always live out the full meaning of their commitments.
1. Are you successfully communicating to young men the conviction that a complementarian perspective must elevate rather than diminish the dignity of women, and therefore inculcating a moral commitment on their part to act accordingly?
It has been my experience that a context of male leadership, and steady teaching that reinforces it, can sometimes lead young men to a rather boorish attitude toward the women in their midst. While perhaps church leaders are teaching a highly nuanced complementarian view stripped of classic male chauvinism, this is not always successfully transmitted to the next generation. Many young Christian women, and even some sensitive young men, come to associate the complementarian position with outright sexism and male chauvinism, and therefore reject it. How can you prevent this outcome?
2. Are you absolutely clear on which positions of Christian service (you believe) are barred to women?
Complementarians often seem to lack either consensus or precision related to this question. Is it only the senior pastor position that is banned for women? What about co-pastor or pastoral team arrangements? Is it all ordained positions? All positions in which adult men are taught? All ministerial positions? All paid positions? What about seminary or Christian college professors? In what fields?
Doctrinal precision requires clarity on your part about which positions are barred to women, with clear biblical warrants offered. Otherwise, what often remains is a kind of blanket discouragement for women to think of themselves as ministers, or to pursue ministry positions in the church. What can also occur is a wide variety of approaches, even within the same church, about what the Bible actually teaches concerning the role of women in the church.
3. Once you have determined what positions of Christian service are barred to women, you have therefore also determined which positions are permitted. Are you active in encouraging women to pursue the positions that are permitted?
It is possible to take very different approaches related to encouraging the use of women's gifts from within versions of the complementarian position. For example, in Catholicism women are barred from the priesthood, but in daily and weekly Catholic life they are otherwise highly visible—in teaching, worship, committee work and local service.
Yet some complementarian settings seem to go out of their way to present an entirely male face to the world, all the way down to the ushers handing out the programs and the men taking up the offering. Is there really biblical warrant for excluding women from these and other roles? Are you aggressively looking for ways to affirm and make use of the gifts of women in all roles not barred by your understanding of Scripture?
4. When women occupy positions of church leadership that parallel those of men, are their positions named equally and are the individuals involved treated equally?
Many larger churches have internships for promising young men and sometimes also promising young women. Consider a church that has a female youth ministry intern and a male one. Are they paid the same? Is one called “youth ministry intern” and the other called “youth assistant”? Are they both actively apprenticed by older leaders? Are they given a similar mix of “ministry-type” and “non-ministry type” duties? Are they treated with similar respect for their contributions? In my experience, this is often not the case, with women interns treated more as office assistants than as ministry peers.
Other questions could be asked. Ultimately, I believe these types of questions expose weaknesses in complementarianism that cannot be mended from within that paradigm. These weaknesses contribute to my embrace of the egalitarian view.
David Gushee is distinguished university professor of Christian ethics at Mercer University in Macon, Ga.