Sunday, 16 February 2014

Can an Egalitarian attend a Complementarian Church?

Definitions: Egalitarians “believe that leadership is not determined by gender but by the gifting and calling of the Holy Spirit, and that God calls all believers to submit to one another.”  In contrast , Complementarians “believe the Bible establishes male authority over women, making male leadership the standard.” Carolyn Curtis James.

Imagine attending a church where half the congregation is BLACK and half are WHITE.  After a while you notice that no BLACK PEOPLE ever take up collection or make announcements; they almost never get called on to pray, they never lead worship and they never preach.  On the few odd occasions when they do speak or pray they always pray for THE LEADERS (who are white) and always encourage the other BLACK PEOPLE to submit to the LEADERS.  Imagine that when you ask some of the BLACK PEOPLE how they feel about this they say, “Oh, we’re quite happy being behind the scenes we don’t want to preach or pray up front.” Your mind boggles.  Do they really think that just because they personally don’t want to do these things, this makes discrimination ok?  You speak to the leaders and are told, “This is minor issue.  Don’t create disunity in the church because of your view.”  

I sincerely hope that we would all say, “This church DISCRIMINATES against blacks, this is not biblical, I must speak out against this!”

Well this is what is happening in my church, not against BLACK PEOPLE, but against WOMEN.  And despite my husband and I having challenged the leadership on this issue we have been given two conflicting messages: Firstly they have denied that they discriminate.  They have said that they really want women included in lots of these activities – yet in the year-and-a-half we have attended nothing has changed. Secondly they have said, yes they do discriminate against women; women cannot be elders or pastors because the Bible says so and consequently they discriminate only because God discriminates against women.

It is evident to me as I experience reality that God does not gift everyone equally, be it in intelligence, ability, strength or circumstances.  It is likewise undeniable that God has gifted some women (and some men) with minds to understand and interpret theological matters, with great character, with the ability to teach, and with the ability to lead.  There are fine examples of these in almost every sphere of society.  Are we to believe that God gifts women with these gifts and then denies them to use them in the church (or even in society as some teach) for no good reason?  That presents a rather cruel and capricious picture of God.  Whenever one’s theology creates a picture of God that is at odds with Jesus, who showed us what God is like, then it is our theology that needs examination.

When I look at Jesus I see a man who took time to speak and reason with women as worthy recipients of his time and expertise.  I see a man who validated Mary (Martha’s sister) in her desire to study and learn (be a disciple) rather than serving the men from the kitchen.  And ultimately (as NT Wright says is pivotal) Jesus chooses women to be the first evangelists at the resurrection.  I think Jesus went out of His way to make it clear that God does not discriminate.
Paul’s letters are sometimes hard to understand (as Peter says) and yet if we take to heart the practice of interpreting the unclear and minor passages in the light of the character of Jesus and the broad teaching of scripture, we can find our way.

God creates men and women in the image of God.  This truth flies in the face of all near-Middle-Eastern teaching of the time.  Both.  Equally.  In the image of God. Women do not bear an ounce less of the image of God. (Gen 1)

Then when the kingdom is inaugurated the God declares: the Spirit is poured out on both men and women and they will prophesy (speak of God).  Both.  Equally. (Acts 2)

Paul again affirms that in Jesus our categories for defining and keeping people separate are invalidated, for there is now neither male nor female, slave nor free, Jew nor Greek. (Gal 3)
And then we can add on the practice of the early church: references to Phoebe, a carrier of the gospel, Priscilla and Aquilla, a wife and husband who taught and instructed together, Junia, the female Apostle.  God’s unchanging view of women is evident even in the Old Testament where we see a host of women who lead and changed the destiny of Israel by their outspoken faith.  In recent history there is the overwhelming evidence of women who have preached and ministered in the last 3 centuries, Susanna Wesley, Corrie Ten Boom, Evangeline Booth, Mother Theresa, and many others.  And this despite the ongoing discrimination, oppression and abuse of women in both secular and Christian society.

Are we to dismiss all these women as upstarts and sinners?

Only when we have really studied, and considered, and meditated on these broad truths are we at the appropriate place to come to so-called ‘tricky’ passages such as 1 Timothy 3. And when we do we should examine these with caution, careful not to insert a literal and 21st century interpretation.   Then we become alert to the fact that “husband of but one wife” occurs in a list of character qualities and speaks to polygamy and not gender.  It excludes neither unmarried men nor women.  We might notice that the words “in the same way wives...” implies that women too must qualify for leadership.

Every single one of these so-called ‘tricky’ verses has been amply exegeted by competent scholars, such as Gordon Fee and NT Wright, some of today’s foremost New Testament scholars, and others some of whom I have referenced below.

As for me, I have studied much around this issue and I am both confident and at peace.  I have seen God use and bless my preaching.  I have seen him bless the leadership of other women.  I have a wonderful husband who is as much a feminist and egalitarian as myself and is not remotely threatened by my gifts.  I have been in churches where women’s gifts are celebrated and encouraged.  I love that God loves who I am and wants me to be free indeed.  This is why I will not subject myself or my children to a church that makes women less than men.  It’s not what the bible teaches and it’s not true to the character of God.

My top recommendations for books/articles on this topic are:
1.    Women Caught in the Conflict by Rebecca Merril Groothuis
2.       Biblical Equality Complementarity without Hierarchy Ed. Ronald W. Pierce & Rebecca M. Groothuis
3.       Different but Equal by Derek Morphew
4.       A Year of Biblical Womanhood by Rachel Held Evans
5.       Women’s Service in the Church by NT Wright (

Excellent Websites with relevant archives include:
1.       Rachel Held Evans
2.       Sarah Bessey
3.       Facebook: The Junia Project
4.       Facebook: Christians for Biblical Equality

Futher Bibliography:
1. Why not Women? by Loren Cunningham
2. The Trinity and Subordinationism by Kevin Giles
3. Slaves, Women & Homosexuals by William J. Webb
4. What Paul really said about Women by John T. Bristow
5. Jesus Feminist by Sarah Bessey


  1. Well stated. In my view, Paul's directives regarding women, indeed all scripture, must be read with an intimate knowledge of the cultural history of the times. Non-egalitarian church leaders tend to interpret scripture in a vacuum; they fail to conduct a whole Bible review before espousing the "true" interpretation of targeted scripture. Taken out of context, scripture can be manipulated to justify about anything.

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  3. Very powerful points, Natalie. We must not underestimate the impact of equating patriarchy with racism. It's a very useful and effective analogy.

    Recently on Facebook, someone posted an article taking Complementarians to task over something, but he began his article this way:

    "I'm very happy for my complementarian friends to do church planting in Sydney, however..."

    To which a friend commented, "I'm very happy for my racist friends to do church planting in Sydney...."

    When you put the shoe on the racist foot, it doesn't fit. It's outrageous. And thus it should be for it paints teh picture as it truly is.

    Thank you for adding a wonderful voice to the dialogue!

    1. Thanks Greg, the article doesn't communicate what an agonising decision it was and we are still awaiting some fall out from our home group.

  4. Well done, Natalie! We at applaud you for standing up for women :)

    1. Thanks Gail, as you know it has been a long agonising decision. Perhaps slightly easier in that there were a couple of other issues in the church, but this was at least 70%. Still have some friends there to tell...

  5. Natalie, what a beautifully written piece. there comes a point where injustice cannot be tolerated, as much as God does allow the 'weeds to grow with the wheat'. I am sorry for this community, for not hearing and taking on board all you have to offer, and equally I feel for your sense of loss - but I know that you and your gifts will be used for God's glory, and for your blessing.

  6. Hi Natalie - it sounds like you're still in the hard part... but I still believe that you will "reap with joy" - I hope you're able to read part III - there is reason to have great hope... I took a copy of your awesome resource list! Thanks for compiling it!