Foundations: No.79 Autumn 2020

Complementarianism, Quo Vadis?
A British Perspective on Current Debate and Practice

This article examines the current state of complementarian practice and attitudes within UK churches, seeking to understand how, where and why change might be occurring. The research is twofold: the first part is an overview of recent publications and online discussion of complementarianism and related matters. Here questions are raised about the causes for and possible consequences of disease with some theological models and cultural expressions of sex-difference. The second part of the article is an examination, by way of interview and surveys, of practice in churches which could be described as complementarian. Here we consider the way the Church is responding to contemporary culture’s growing concern for equality of opportunity and representation, as well as the influence of different ecclesiologies and social settings on practice and change.

While the question of how men and women are different and how they do and should relate to each other have been topics for discussion since the earliest times, it seems as though right now the debate is more widespread and vociferous than ever. The tenets and discourse of feminism are mainstream in western culture, shaping society through equal rights legislation, educational expectations and childcare provision, as well as providing a lens through which the world can be evaluated. In the last seven years discussion has become ever more personal and fastmoving, caused variously by the #metoo movement; popularisation of critical gender theory and what J. K. Rowling describes as a misogynistic “backlash against feminism and a porn-saturated online culture”, as well as the proliferation of social media and blogging.[1]  

It is no wonder, then, that many in UK evangelical churches are discussing certain questions of doctrine and practice with renewed concern and urgency. The right desire not to place unnecessary stumbling blocks before a new generation, as well as an awareness of how power can so easily be abused, even in Bible-believing churches, has brought under scrutiny our understanding of sexual difference, and our leadership structures and styles. The generation of conservative Christians, many of whom wholeheartedly embraced complementarianism in the 90s, seem now to be questioning at least some of its foundations, and different interpretations of sex and gender have been proposed.[2] Though this is about who does what on a Sunday, it runs much further into questions of human ontology, Christology and eschatology. This paper will be an overview of some recent debates and publications in the UK and the US, in addition to a survey of current attitudes and practice in UK conservative evangelical churches and seminaries, examining the factors for and results of change. The conclusion will raise some further questions which demand careful attention.

I. Recent publications and discussions

1. Looking Back

Many of today’s conversations about sex and gender in both the world and the Church have their roots in the arguments of 1970s second-wave feminism. As laws were made outlawing sex discrimination in the workplace and women protested against what they saw as the restrictions of traditional marriage, some evangelicals began to revise traditional interpretations of key Bible passages. They argued “that restrictive roles for women do not reflect an accurate interpretation of the texts”, and in this they were continuing an earlier movement which had seen women ordained in the late nineteenth century.[3] Setting themselves apart from the radical theology of Christian feminists, these writers and scholars sought to hold onto the authority of Scripture and doctrinal orthodoxy, whilst arguing for the ordination of women and against a wife’s submission in marriage.

In response to this and to the social impact of secular feminism, the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood was founded in 1987 to promote what it called complementarianism, “the biblically derived view that men and women are complementary, possessing equal dignity and worth as the image of God, and called to different roles that each glorify him”.[4] This position was articulated in the Danvers Statement and stood in conscious opposition to hierarchicalism and traditionalism as well as the new egalitarianism.[5] Known as “the big blue book”, Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood was published in 1991 (the year before the Church of England General Synod voted for the ordination of women to the priesthood) and gave confidence to a generation of conservative believers in the US and UK by supporting and applying these ideas in some depth.

This broad collection of papers, offering exegesis of key texts, reflection on doctrine and commentary on differences between the sexes, maintained that, “no man or woman who feels a passion from God to make His grace known in word and deed need ever live without a fulfilling ministry for the glory of Christ and the good of this fallen world”.[6]  Other books followed, both popular and more academic, published in the UK and US promoting women’s ministry alongside male headship in the Church, and arguing for the dignity of voluntary wifely submission and a husband’s servant leadership.[7]  At the same time, of course, evangelical egalitarians were also publishing their own books, most notably Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity without Hierarchy in 2005 (IVP), a book comparable to RBMW in its breadth, scholarship and irenic tone. The key words in the title point to the competing claims of the movements; both saw men and women as different and complementary but the egalitarians insisted that “complementarianism” itself is necessarily hierarchical.

2. Our Current Climate

The question of hierarchy and equality has not gone away; indeed, discussions have intensified with the affiliations of many shifting over the last five years. Readers here may well have followed the recent discussions regarding the eternal subordination of the Son (ESS).[8] The debate had been ongoing for years before this more public eruption, but criticism of the idea and accusations of heresy emerged in popular American blogs in 2016.[9]  Though this conception of the doctrine of God had repeatedly been part of the articulation of complementarianism by several key figures, notably Bruce Ware and Wayne Grudem, it was not logically essential to the presentation of complementarianism in RBMW. Nevertheless, ESS became almost a symbol of all that was perceived to be wrong with CBMW, though the organisation rapidly and publicly distanced itself, to some degree, from the doctrine.[10]

In the UK some key leaders stepped up to defend EFS (eternal functional submission, a more nuanced expression of ESS) and others argued against it, but it seems not to have become a popular concern, being seen by many as an American issue, perhaps reflecting a certain biblicism and distrust in systematic theology.[11] Few of the women’s workers I asked had kept up with the arguments and one observed, “I find the debate has become so emotive and divisive it has become unhelpful to follow”.[12]  Though some have been turned off by the debate, others have been pushed to deeper theological thought and more careful expression of doctrine, particularly regarding trinitarian taxis, divine simplicity and the eternal Covenant of Redemption.[13] As Alistair Roberts points out, there is a “dangerous tendency to present a one dimensional and reductive account of a richly multifaceted relation” as regards the Trinity and the sexes.[14]

A second focus of the those writing against CBMW or some cultural expressions of complementarianism has been the statements coming from some key leaders about the distinctions between men and women and the way they should interact. John Piper in particular received opprobrium for his statements about women in the workplace, and other US conservative church leaders have similarly been criticised for what have been described as variously 1950s, Victorian or even Aristotelean hierarchical ideals.[15] Aimee Byrd and Rachel Green Miller in recent books identify these views which make clear distinctions about the way women and men should relate to each other beyond the context of marriage and church leadership as patriarchal and intrinsically oppressive, laden with stereotypes and implying an ontological difference between the sexes, undermining claims of equality. They make the claim that complementarianism, as expressed in some parts of RBMW, entails that every woman must submit to every man, that every man has authority over every woman. This is not the case, though it may be implied by some culturally US conservative writers.

In addition, Byrd and others object not only to the marketing of separate “gendered” resources for Christian men and women, but also to some separate church and parachurch ministries.[16] While both these writers accept a view of male headship in the family and male eldership in the Church, and also acknowledge that there are some differences between men and women, anger and frustration is palpable in their writing. Some of the language and concepts of feminist discourse, seem to have been co-opted uncritically in such criticisms.[17] However important questions are being asked by them and others, which I discuss below.

Further claims of misogyny have been raised in relation to attitudes to divorce and domestic abuse from those well within the conservative camp. The way that complementarian teaching has been used by abusers to justify even violent treatment of spouses while the church has remained inactive, has been logged by conservatives and liberals alike.[18]  In addition, teaching on sexual purity and modesty and the promotion of “courtship” rather than dating, though not necessarily connected to complementarianism, has been condemned as teaching which further limits women and elevates men, by placing responsibility for male behaviour on women and girls whilst denying them autonomy. One critic writes that “these teachings led to guilt and shame as well as profound ignorance about sex” and connects this with the “rigid gender norms characterized by women’s submission and male authority [which] are at the very heart of the evangelical subculture. Purity culture reinforces that structure.”[19] These accusations seem only to be confirmed by the tragically frequent exposés of inadequate responses to accusations of sexual abuse in some well-known conservative churches as well as instances of sexual infidelity or spiritual abuse by leaders. Complementarianism is seen to be implicated in cultures with unchecked power and exploitation of the vulnerable.  

3. The Broad and the Narrow

Most of these debates and publications come from the US and demonstrate what Kevin De Young has described as a division between “broad” and “narrow” versions of complementarianism[20] – that is, between those who would want a “broad” interpretation of complementarianism (which could be seen as a theological worldview, applying key texts regarding marriage and the church to the whole of life and emphasising fundamental differences of nature between men and women) and “narrow” complementarians (who espouse a more biblicist view, reluctant to go beyond the immediate application of these texts, emphasising significant similarity between men and women).[21] Exemplifying this latter, as well as some of the writers already cited, might be The Village Church in Texas, where Matt Chandler, head of Acts 29, is senior pastor. Their statement about church jobs says, “Every role is open to both men and women, except the roles of preaching the Word of God and officiating the ordinances (baptism/the Lord’s Supper) [which] are reserved for elders/pastors/qualified men”.[22] John Piper would stand as an example of the broader type, who would keep as male-only more elements of gathered worship and express concern about how a woman can maintain her femininity while employed in some roles. Kevin De Young points out that the concerns of the narrow are not with the stated aims of mainstream complementarians in RBMW; rather, they are with a distorted application of these ideas in some churches and teaching.[23]

This “broad and narrow” description is, of course, limited and belies an emerging conversation. Certainly, some conservative Christians will find that their personal convictions will not necessarily fit into such neat categories, but might span both. There has also been a palpable squeamishness (particularly, but not exclusively, by “narrow” complementarians) around explanations, other than Ephesians 5, for biblical injunctions to submission and headship.[24]  A more adequate answer, and one not dependent on stereotype or neuro-science, is needed to the questions of “why” male elders and “why” submissive wives. Natalie Brand’s Complementarian Spirituality, which explores marital imagery used to describe union with Christ has been a helpful contribution, but calls for supplementary work.[25] Alistair Roberts has blogged and spoken on gender prolifically and is due to publish on the topic very soon, with a focus on ontology, locating difference between the sexes in essence, rather than role or performance.[26] This, though, could raise questions regarding imago Dei, and it may well be that, though the language of roles is excluded, stereotypes are reinstated which alienate those who feel they don’t fit the mould. Related to essential difference is Nancy Pearcey’s accessible book Love Thy Body which considers the great significance of our embodied state as male and female.[27] This is fertile and urgent ground for theological research. Some, dissatisfied with complementarianism, might, however, move in another direction. Michelle Lee-Barnewall in Neither Complementarian nor Egalitarian has commented helpfully on the motifs of reversal and unity in key passages around gender, and Andrew Bartlett’s Men and Women in Christ explores key texts with some interesting conclusions.[28]

Importantly for our purposes here, however, many of those kicking against what they perceive as an extreme and oppressive cultural complementarianism are responding to phenomena much more prevalent in the US than the UK.  Nevertheless, “breadth” and “narrowness” are evident in our churches, and there is evidence of frustration and change on both sides.

II. Complementarianism in British Churches

The last thirty years have been a time of considerable change and growth for conservative Christianity in the UK as well as a time of significant social reshaping. As society has changed, so has the role and profile of women in churches, as well as the perception of how men and women should interrelate. Here the focus will be on participation of women in our churches, rather than on Christian marriage, which is much harder to quantify.

1. Growing Opportunities

Although Church attendance figures continue to decline overall, numbers in evangelical churches are generally growing, albeit in a very modest way.[29] An increased presence and activity of conservative scholars in academic theology, the popularisation of church planting and the development of numerous interdenominational bodies, such as the Proclamation Trust, Christianity Explored Ministries and the Gospel Partnerships for example, are all indicators of health and confidence.[30] This greater resourcing of the Church is also, in part, a reflection of our digital age in which networking is easier, information much more accessible and expectations of professionalism higher in all aspects of life. The growth of the internet means that leaders of smaller churches have access to the output of larger ones very easily: blogs, podcasts, social media, and in particular the conduit of The Gospel Coalition’s website, all provide a constant supply of ideas and expectations of what good ministry could and should look like, both for clergy and laity.[31] Material created by women, or about complementarianism itself (as we have already discussed) often models or suggests avenues for complementarian ministry. It is no wonder then, that this more confident conservative church will want to develop and clarify how their ministries, including evangelism and ministries to women and children, are run.

Models of church leadership have developed as well, with a greater embrace of paid, team ministries and more training and use of lay people. Apprenticeship roles which were relatively rare thirty years ago are now very common, with some larger churches in university towns taking on groups of up to ten trainees for one- or two-year stints. Very many young women are taking up these roles. The increase of home groups and one-to-one Bible studies have provided more opportunities for lay people to teach Scripture to others. Within Sunday gathered worship, interviews, book reviews and longer music slots have opened opportunities for different voices to speak (but not preach). This greater complexity in ministry, along with issues of legal compliance, has meant that non-teaching roles (such as administrator, operations manager or music director) have sprung up and are often performed by women.

At the same time, the last thirty years have seen a significant increase in women in the workplace, including those with small children.[32] This has been accompanied by a massive rise in those going to university, where now women outnumber men.[33] The result of this is that below the age of 30 women, on average, earn slightly more than men, and that between the ages of 20-40 the gender pay gap is negligible.[34] The women’s pension age has risen and many retired or semi-retired women find themselves providing childcare or care for ageing parents. The number of women who, for generations, were both recipients and providers of daytime women’s ministry, who visited those in hospital and the elderly, ran after-school children’s clubs and toddler groups, has considerably diminished in number. At the same time the expectation of some congregations that a pastor’s wife would be an unpaid worker has diminished; often now wives are in paid work and some who are labouring for the church are given more formal recognition by way of a title and a salary. It seems, then, that for churches which hold to the view that women are not qualified to be elders, there is an increasing need for the “set aside” ministry of women.  

Over the last thirty years multiple training opportunities have arisen in the UK for women committed to a complementarian position. The Cornhill Training Course began in London in 1991 and slightly more recently similar courses have been developed by most of the now 14 regional Gospel Partnerships. Women and men learn Bible-handling skills, church history and doctrine side-by-side, as well as taking part in preaching/exposition workshops, and though the uptake is still mostly male, women do follow this route in large numbers. Cornhill began with an intake which was 20% female; today female participation is double that. More recently London Seminary’s Flourish Course and the Church Society’s online Priscilla course have begun, offering similar training to all-female cohorts.  

Higher level theological education is also being pursued by women. Oak Hill College and Union School of Theology provide under- and post-graduate diplomas and degrees in theology which are open to both men and women and geared towards ministry. Union is so keen to encourage women into serious study that they offer scholarships specifically for women.[35] Whether or not this has made a difference is unclear, but this year 41% of BA, 14% of GDip and 13% of MTh students will be female. Certainly, the possibility of studying in a local “Learning Community” makes studying much easier for those, male or female, with families. The Biblical Counselling UK course provides another avenue many women have taken to be equipped for ministry in their local churches and beyond; its certificated training, run in conjunction with CCEF and Oak Hill College, is increasingly popular. As time has passed, some women who studied with these institutions are now teaching in them, bringing their own valuable feminine insights into theology, biblical studies and pastoral issues. Amongst these we might particularly note the role of “Tutor for Women” which has been developed at UST, which highlights the desire to see women supported and developed within theological studies.

All these training developments, which allow women to be equipped for ministry in an academic environment supportive of a complementarian reading of Scripture, are vital to the health of the church. Though some may still question the cost-benefit of training women who will never serve as an elder, or who (as did one of my questionnaire respondents, see the Division of Labour section below) might ask if apprentice-style posts are “creating an expectation that there are ministry jobs out there which in reality don’t exist”, the real value of increased training is evident. Carrie Sandom, women’s director of the Cornhill Course, reports that all the female students who have completed the full four years’ training ended up in paid positions in churches. Those who did fewer years are being used, perhaps not as church employees, but as volunteers running Bible studies, offering pastoral care and being involved in evangelism. The influence of such well-equipped women is huge, as with confidence they can serve a younger generation of women and children to stand in an increasingly secular and feminist age, as well as provide wise, theologically-informed support to elders.[36] In addition, without such opportunities for training, women keen to serve in their own complementarian churches may well receive theological education in an egalitarian setting which might well redirect their ministries.

2. Set-Aside Women

As we might expect from the numbers of women going through some or other form of training, numbers being set aside for ministry by their churches are growing. One hundred and fifty-nine female workers, including 119 in paid posts, have been identified in the 148 churches overseen by the Bishop of Maidstone under the Church of England’s “alternative provision”.[37] These 159 women serve in the various fields of music, children’s and youth work, school outreach, student work, families’ care, pastoral ministry, counselling and administration; the majority, though, have the pastoral care of women as their primary responsibility.  Such high numbers are, in part, down to some very well resourced, flagship churches with large teams, such as St Ebbe’s in Oxford which employs five women on a staff of fourteen. This may also may represent a conviction of the importance of investment in ministry to and by women as part of a conscious, considered embrace of complementarianism in the context of the Church of England’s egalitarianism.

Among FIEC churches, the number of women known to the organisation as set aside workers grew from approximately seven in 2000, to thirty in 2012 and then doubled to sixty in 2019, which means that almost a tenth of their churches have a female worker.[38] Like the Anglican complementarian congregations, these churches are spread around the country, not just in more affluent areas. They tend to be larger than average, often in university towns, with a female worker often being the third appointment made, alongside a Pastor and Assistant. There are, however, smaller churches, and in particular church plants, which have made the strategic choice to have a female employee as a first appointment in addition to the Pastor, or as part of the initial leadership team, in large part because of their ministry contexts and evangelistic focus. 20schemes exemplifies this approach, with a Director for Women’s Ministries at the heart of the organisation, training and preparing female workers for church plants in the schemes (Scottish council housing estates) where there are many single-parent families and high levels of unemployment and social need, making for greater opportunities for involvement in the lives of locals.[39]

Among Grace Baptist Churches there appears to be a similar pattern, with a few larger churches employing more than one woman and then church plants and the occasional smaller congregation having female workers.[40] Alongside these local church examples, it is worth noting the number of women who have been employed for decades in evangelical parachurch organisations, such as UCCF and Friends International, and increasingly now in key roles in other mission, apologetics, mercy ministry and campaigning bodies.[41]

3. Division of Labour

In seeking to find out more about the ministries of female church workers I sent a questionnaire to those who work for FIEC churches and received twelve replies. I also sent a similar questionnaire to leaders of complementarian churches of different sizes and groupings and received a smaller number of replies. Though these are clearly not a scientific sample, they do give a snapshot of complementarian ministry in a diverse range of contexts.

All the women who responded are involved in Bible teaching to women and most were busy with some form of outreach, whether that was in the form of English lessons to recent arrivals, managing a toddler group or leading Christianity Explored. A large proportion of women were involved in counselling or pastoral support of women. Four identified that they were involved in training other women to lead as a main part of their role. These are unsurprising findings and fit with the responses from church leaders, whether or not they had a paid woman on staff; all were encouraging of women teaching the Bible and providing pastoral care to other women and to children, as well as evangelism.  This represents an uncontroversial element of complementarianism and is in line with historic Church practice.

There was more diversity over the role of women in gathered worship. All leaders surveyed regularly used women for Bible readings (though one said that he was “a tiny bit uncomfortable with it but live with it”), and all bar one were happy to have women praying the pastoral prayer. Five of the thirteen female church workers at times deliver children’s talks and six of them “lead services”, but all indicated that they might at times read the Scriptures or pray.[42] In several churches where service leading and Bible teaching were reserved for men (elders in most cases), women were invited to speak on church history, international/local needs or personal experience during the service, providing testimony in the broadest sense, which exhorted and informed the congregation.[43] This small range seems representative of the different forms of complementarian practice to be seen today.

As far as a biblical rationale for female participation in these elements of gathered worship, 1 Corinthians 11 is read by the vast majority as establishing a precedent for an “up front” female presence in worship through its references to prayer and prophecy. Clearly, though, there is some diversity of interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:11-12 in UK churches which would describe themselves as complementarian. None would take the admonition to “silence” in an exclusive and literal manner (e.g. singing), but there seems to be some differences of opinion over whether the verb is about exercising or assuming authority or indeed whether “teach” and “exercise authority” are separate elements or a single activity, i.e. “teach with authority”.[44] This latter reading is seen by some as allowing forms of public teaching which are non-authoritative, such as a children’s talk, or teaching by one person whose authority is derived from someone else, for example a woman preaches and it is made clear that she is under the authority of a male elder, or a woman preaches infrequently so that her voice is not seen as central to the church’s leadership.

Another area of some diversity is involvement in the leadership of mixed mid-week groups; five of the thirteen women surveyed were involved in leading homegroups (mostly alongside male leaders) and two women had sole responsibility for leading a mixed student group. One pastor expressed the genuine complexity of these teaching scenarios: “Is leading a Bible study ‘leading’ in the biblical sense? I think an argument can be made [for it to be seen as]… facilitating a conversation, however that can get you into all sorts of issues of ‘is this bible teaching authoritative?’”. The function of home groups and young adult groups can vary enormously between churches, and even between groups, dependent on the relationships between participants; whether they are networks providing pastoral care and/or teaching hubs will make a difference to their leadership need. Even the content of the teaching within the group, whether this is a discussion of the text from Sunday, discussion about evangelism or apologetics, or a completely separate scripture or theological focus, whether resources are provided by the pastor, or the leaders prepares the study from scratch, will all make a difference to the dynamics of authority and leadership. So, it is no wonder that there are different approaches. One church surveyed has only elders leading studies, another has an elder and a woman from a “woman’s pastoral team” for each group; one had “some women” who led mixed groups; another church had female “assistant leaders” alongside male leaders in mixed groups, a slim majority had men from the congregation, not necessarily elders or deacons, to lead these groups.

One feature of complementarianism has been the emphasis on male elderships listening to the voices of women in their congregations.[45] In my questionnaires I sought to find out how this worked in practice, conscious that often the women elders most listen to can be their own wives, for good or ill.  When asked about how women were involved in decision-making processes one pastor noted that he liaised with “mature women” as well as elders’ wives; most others mentioned women on the diaconates of their churches, or those employed by the church. For none of these men was there a distinct and structured means of women in the congregation expressing their thinking on spiritual development or the vision of the church, though the means available to men were equally open to women.[46]

One leader was honest enough to say that “some women have had certain input they say they would have liked to give to the elders, but couldn’t pluck up the courage to come to us” and reflected on the reasons for this – whether a “hangover from a more rigid form of church leadership” or a certain kind of immaturity that women might be “more susceptible to”.  Certainly, it could be argued that some women, looking at a male eldership, whether or not women are in diaconate roles, may feel that their concerns about spiritual issues in the church cannot be expressed. The issue of representation is important here; teaching might ostensibly encourage female participation, but without role-models demonstrating this, many will feel that it is not for them. This can be applied to other areas of church life, from informal prayer to evangelism.

All of the leaders surveyed (in non-Church of England congregations) believed that the Bible allows for female deacons, and all except one had this structure in their church.[47] So elders were used to discussing with women practical and financial matters, as well as those questions arising from the evangelistic and mercy ministries run by women in the church. Where women were employed, three communicated with the elders via email, four had regular conversations with the pastor to discuss their work and five were included in regular staff meetings, with three mentioning that they were at times invited to elders’ meetings to share ideas. In this way most of the women were happy that their ideas and concerns were being heard and taken into account.[48] It is notable, however, that of the thirteen women surveyed only two had any oversight or mentoring from a woman, leaving them potentially without the support of someone who might be alert to the unique opportunities and difficulties of ministry for women, and potentially isolated should difficulties within the staff team or church arise. This may, in part, be due to the relatively recent growth in employment of women in smaller churches; older women with this kind of experience are few and far between.

4. Attitudes within Churches

A last question I asked both pastors and female workers was about the attitudes within their wider congregation to complementarian views. As might have been expected, all indicated that there were some within their settings who disagreed. One church leader working in a university town commented, “Lots of younger women… have questions, and occasionally real frustrations… Inevitably our position will be a turn-off for some and they won’t settle with us”.  In contrast, in a different, small town church it was seen that, “traditional stereotypes of what women should and shouldn’t do have been… somewhat uprooted and replaced with… an increasingly biblical model.” Still, women’s ministries were described as “a fledgling creature” and quite a distance from the vision of the pastor. In a church plant on a housing estate, in contrast, “new converts… don’t have an issue with it because they just trust in what the Bible says”. So, some individual churches appear to be facing divergent types of progressive or traditional resistance to a biblical view of equal and different, and some face both pressures simultaneously. These differences are to a considerable degree due to the social context of the churches, as well as the tradition of the congregation. Most respondents, however, indicated that the majority of their congregations were happy with the position of the church leadership, which in all cases had been explained clearly in membership classes or in sermons, and that those who weren’t comfortable were still prepared to view this as a secondary issue.

Perhaps surprisingly, more than half of the women workers I corresponded with had not kept up with recent publications or online discussions (such as those referred to earlier) regarding complementarianism; if employees are not following these, then it is also unlikely that church members or lay elders are. Clearly, then, there is an ongoing need for teaching on these matters, and regular re-evaluation by elders of their church’s approach to the equal flourishing of men and women.

5. Reasons for Differing Patterns

It is worthwhile noting here, then, that visible differences between the use of women in Sunday gatherings are of course not just about textual interpretation, but can often be about the need for unity and wisdom; church leaders may inherit modes of practice and take time to make changes or they might change their own minds about what obedience to Scripture should look like. Most church leaders on the questionnaire wrote about times of change and some of them described ongoing wrestling in their own minds. Several of my respondents, male and female, mentioned the difficulty of such periods of re-evaluation. For female church workers, who are not party to elders’ meetings and for whom the issues have a direct impact in a way they do not for men, this can be especially trying. One women’s worker testified of her grief at having to lay down one ministry she had served in for several years because a change in pastor precipitated a discussion at elder level which had not been had before. She said, “I don’t want to be a boat-rocker, but that is what I’ve become”.

Others expressed the pain caused by having the validity of their roles or ministry questioned by co-workers and congregation, some who felt the woman should be doing more leading, others who felt that she was going beyond scriptural warrant. One woman testified that, “occasionally I get asked to do more than I feel comfortable with as a woman” though she felt able to resolve this with “some good chats”. All these women were keen to submit to their elders’ leadership and to speak in a manner that honoured them, but their examples indicate a need for clarity of thought, decisiveness and protection of female workers by their elders.

In addition, (and perhaps more significantly) decisions about whether a woman can lead a service, speak about an encouragement, give a children’s talk or preach are often significantly influenced by theological and church order commitments other than those of complementarianism, as well as being inflected by denominational tradition. Pentecostal churches, like those in the Newfrontiers network, have a history of female public ministry shaped in part by their convictions about the nature of prophecy today.[49] Those with cessationist convictions will find that 1 Corinthians 11 proves perhaps less permissive; if New Testament-type prophecy is no longer operational in the church today, then these verses only set a clear precedent for women praying in public, though some may consider that (as one of my respondents stated) they, imply the “appropriateness of a more informal word-ministry”. On this issue, Dr Ros Clarke of the Church Society has written a thought-provoking paper which deserves greater attention.[50] She argues that aspects of the priestly and prophetic Old Testament roles have an ongoing significance for the Church. The first role, she contends is “teaching, shepherding and administering sacraments” to a congregation of God’s people by a man called by God; the second role, open to men and women, is about “specific messages to speak into particular situations” so is time-limited but not limited to sex. Again, the issue of who does what is seen to be tied to more broad theological and hermeneutical issues than might initially seem to be the case.

Anglicans who operate with church wardens and PCCs have to work out whether these are, or are not, equivalent to eldership and diaconate, and have to manoeuvre in a political culture making difficult choices regarding funding and compliance, with the result that church practice may be less reflective of the convictions of the pastor and many in the congregation than in other church settings. Other forms of church government or tradition may also contribute to the outworking of complementarianism. A congregational structure or other traditions which have placed more emphasis on “every-member ministry” and be more used to the involvement of men who are not elders leading parts of a service or mid-week meetings, might be more likely to encourage the participation of women in similar ways. In contrast, Presbyterian and other elder-ruled churches, which arguably have a greater sense of hierarchy, may be more inclined to see some elements of public worship as only appropriate for the ordained leaders. Again, churches with a more set liturgical structure, or more frequently celebrating the Lord’s Supper, might have different approaches to the involvement of women in leadership. A leader who views the Lord’s Day gathering as a celebration of covenant renewal, and the elders as having something of a priestly role, will make different choices from the leader who sees it as primarily a singing and preaching/teaching meeting. Questions about who does what are very often answered on the basis of the authoritative, or perhaps even representative nature of these actions, rather than who is capable of doing them well.

It is important that we acknowledge these interconnections of ecclesiology and complementarian practice so that we do not oversimplify arguments. Neither should we draw conclusions from the shop window of a Sunday service about how much women’s ministry is valued. Having said this, without the visible championing of women, the use of teaching illustrations featuring women and the deliberate seeking out of women’s ideas and opinions, a truly complementarian ministry cannot be said to be flourishing. Though we have not considered marriage here, such a modelling of courageously sacrificial servant leadership, as well as direct teaching, will surely prosper the health of Christian marriages. The practice of semper reformanda applies to all elements of church life, not least the way the two sexes are loved and discipled, so this must be an area of church life for elders to examine.[51] Such activity should be undergirded by ongoing theological and biblical work. There is a clear and urgent need for irenic and meticulous research around imago Dei, sex and gender, which will drive Christ’s Church to worship and to prophetic witness in a world which is so deeply confused.


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