What the Bible really says on men and women: A 10 point critique of ‘complementarianism’ (1)

OK, after outlining Claire Smith and Howard Marshall on 1 Timothy 2, I’m doing a series of posts on 10 reasons why I find the complementarian argument unconvincing. This one is a starter, 10 others will follow.

And in outlining these objections, I’m trying to imagine a robust debate with people I know and respect who don’t agree with me, not a war with enemies.

For Christians from both sides can agree on a lot: men and women are different(!); they are equal, both created in the image of God; both sexes are gifted by the Spirit for ministry; and no-one, whether male or female, has any ‘right’ to leadership. Leadership is a gift and calling of God to a life of loving and serving others under the shadow of the cross.

That said, this is not a trivial issue. It fundamentally touches upon understandings of leadership, ministry, Bible interpretation, the dignity and value of women, and whether half of the global church is permanently barred from serving the Lord using their gifts of leading, preaching and pastoring simply because of their gender.

‘Complementarianism’ is in fact a one-sided view where particular leadership roles are only open to men. There are no corresponding ‘roles’ that are only open to women. So it is more historically and theologically accurate to call ‘complementarianism’ what it is; a recent word for a patriarchal and hierarchical view of men and women in leadership and in marriage.

For this reason, I prefer to qualify the word ‘complementarianism’ with another word, ‘hierarchialist’, C-H for short. I’m using C-H because ‘complementarianism’ is a misleading term. It used to be called simply ‘the hierarchical view’ until somewhere around the last quarter of the 20th century. ‘Complementarian’ seems to have been coined to soften what is really been said here – that there is a divine hierarchical order to male-female relationships.

I’m not using those words in a derogatory way but arguing that they accurately describe the male-only leadership model. [And the specific language is very much an in-house evangelical / Protestant debate. The Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches have their own particular versions of hierarchical male-only leadership which are not directly being discussed here but are also implicitly rejected by an egalitarian perspective].

Most ‘complementarians’, if pushed, are ‘soft’ rather than ‘hard’ hierarchialists. They accepts a certain amount of cultural context to the Bible’s teaching about women and men, but insist that there is a divine hierarchical order to fixed gender roles. Her primary role is of submissive wife and mother (if there are children) and his as a loving sort of boss. She can minister actively in church, but leadership roles of pastoring, being an elder or teaching men are closed to her. Women are equal ontologically (in being) with men, they are not equal in role – such as authority, leadership, preaching.

Bottom line, I just don’t see hierarchical fixed gender relationships being endorsed as God’s ‘good design’ in the NT. Sure, some Christians may choose to structure their marriages this way and maybe that works well for them, I hope it does. But to extend this as a divine rule for all Christians in marriage and in church leadership in all cultures for all times is, for the following 10 reasons, in my view fatally flawed.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

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