August 5, 2006

In Defense of Moderate Complementarianism

Peter Kirk at Speaker of Truth (also of Better Bibles Blog fame) has recently completed a fascinating six-part series on "Scholarly and Fundamentalist Approaches to the Bible." The series begins with a discussion of Al Mohler's ("fundamentalist") claim that permitting female elders and deacons contradicts the "clear teaching" of Scripture. Taking the fundamentalist approach, Peter says, we take a few verses as our standard, without seriously inquiring into their context, call the most obvious interpretation of these few verses (in English, out of context) the "clear teaching of Scripture," and then find creative ways to explain away every verse that seems to contradict this teaching. Peter goes on to compare this with a scholarly interpretation of Titus 1:6, and argues convincingly (he convinced me, at least) that in context and with proper lexicography and hermeneutics, this verse has little or nothing to do with the gender of overseers, and doesn't necessarily preclude women from taking the position. Peter rightly points out that those he calls 'fundamentalists' often refer to various doctrines as "the clear teaching of Scripture" when they are anything but clear, and I would not charge Peter, who is a gender egalitarian, with denying the authority of Scripture or ignoring its teachings. This is a complicated issue, and there is room for some disagreement. However, I do think that the teaching of Scripture is, on the whole, clear enough for the Church to base its structure on, and I will argue here that that teaching is in favor of what I will call a moderate complentarian position.

Since I am looking here for the "whole council of Scripture," I will not be able to apply Peter's "scholarly approach" to each passage in depth, but will necessarily refer to more Scriptures than can be studied in depth in one post. However, I will try to avoid fundamentalist 'Scripture stacking' or proof-texting by including revelant facts about the context of the verses.

First, let's have some definitions. I take gender egalitarianism as the claim that any differences of position or role which exist between men and women (excluding, I suppose, those directly related to reproduction) are merely artifacts of culture and not part of a normative order which God has commanded for this world. In particular, women may hold any position within the Church. Complementarianism is the converse claim. Complementarians hold that at least some of the differences in position between men and women on earth are part of a divinely ordained order of creation, and are to be taken as normative and binding upon Christians. In particular, virtually all complementarians claim that (1) men must function in some sense as 'heads of household' and (2) women may not serve as pastors. The moderate complementarian position which is my current best understanding of the teaching of Scripture claims in particular that:

  1. Men must function as 'heads of household,' exemplifying Christ's self-sacrificing servant-leadership

  2. Women may not serve as overseers/elders (I believe that the New Testament uses the terms interchangeably)

  3. Women may not have the habit or position of teaching or being in positions of authority over adult men within the church.

  4. Women may serve as deacons

  5. Women may work outside the home, but (ideally) ought not to be required to do so against their will

  6. Men may stay home and cook and clean and take care of the kids, provided (1) and (5) above are satisfied, and this is a valuable use of time for a man, just as much as it is for a woman

Those who have a lot of experience in this debate will recognize why I am calling my position 'moderate:' many complementarians deny (4), (5), and (6) and wouldn't like my wording of (3), since they don't think that women can ever teach or exercise authority over men, even in extreme situations. I won't necessarily try to defend all six of these points individually in what follows, but I will try to show that the total Biblical position lies in between the egalitarian position and the more extreme complementarian position. (Some complementarians, based on 1 Corinthians 11, like to talk about gender roles in connection with trinitarian theology and 'headship', but I don't understand that very well so I'm going to ignore it for now.)

Let's begin from the passage Peter discussed, in Titus 1, and the parallel passage in 1 Timothy 3. Peter has argued (and, as I said before, I am at least for the moment, convinced) that the phrase "husband of one wife" refers to marital fidelity in general, regardless of gender (the argument has to do with the use of this phrase on Greek headstones belonging to women). He has also pointed out, and I am strongly in agreement with this, that a little three word phrase cannot be a basis for so far-reaching a doctrine as complementarianism. However, there are other items of note in these two passages.

Both seem to have essentially the same context: Paul has left both Timothy and Titus in charge of infant congregations which Paul founded. Timothy and Titus seem to be serving as sole overseer in both cases, and Paul thinks that this ought to be remedied. The churches have become mature enough that members of the congregation can be brought into these positions, and Paul sends Timothy and Titus directions on whom to ordain. The instructions are very similar to each other. So, are there any lines besides "the husband of one wife" in either passage that are relevant to gender roles? Maybe.

The whole of Titus 1:6 reads, "[and elder must be] someone who is blameless, the husband of one wife, having faithful children not accused of wildness or rebellion." The first requirement Paul gives for an elder has to do with his family. It seems rather strange (to me) that the disposition of the elder's children should be a qualification. Fortunately, the next verse begins with the partical gar (usually translated "for"), which signals that verse 7 is going to explain 6. In the HCSB (which I have been quoting so far), 7 begins "For an overseer, as God's manager, must be..." and proceed to list characteristics. (Note that this passage is high on my list of reasons for supposing that elder and overseer are interchangeable terms in Scripture.) Alternately (and perhaps better) the beginning of the verse could be translated, "For an overseer must be like a manager of God's house." (the Greek for 'manager,' oikonomos implies that the thing managed is a household - it comes from oikos, 'house,' and nomos, 'law' or 'rule.') Similarly in 1 Timothy 3:4-5, Paul says, "[an overseer must be] one who manages his own household completely, having his children under control with all dignity. (If anyone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he take care of God's church?)" The idea, it seems, has to do with God's entrusting to a person a smaller thing first, then a larger thing: the person who has been faithful in the management of the household God has given him can be entrusted with the management of the church.

Does this require that an elder/overseer have a family? Actually, I think it might (though certainly it needn't be a large family). This is, however, most certainly open to question.

Does this actually have to do with gender roles? Well, an egalitarian would most likely say no, since they don't see any problem with female heads of household. Let's look briefly at what the Scripture has to say:

The key passages on marriage are, I believe, Ephesians 5:21-33 and 1 Peter 3:1-8. I take Ephesians 5:21 ("submitting to one another in the fear of Christ") to be a topic statement, and 5:22-6:9 to be an account of precisely how this submission plays out in the everyday relationships. This passage commands wives to submit to their husbands "as to the Lord", for the husband is head of the wife, as also Christ is head of the Church." (22-23) Husbands are commanded to "love [their] wives, just as also Christ loved the Church, and gave Himself for her, to make her holy, cleansing her in the washing of water by the word." (25-26) In other words, the wife's submission seems to be in some degree of obedience (though certainly not absolute, unquestioning obedience), and the husband's submission is in his willingness to sacrifice for his wife, putting her needs ahead of his own. Later, Paul summarizes the passage by says "each one of you is to love his wife as himself, and the wife is to respect her husband." The word for respect is fobeo, literally "fear." Again, this speaks to some kind of obedience and respect (clearly, though, the context makes it "fear" as in "the fear of God" and not as in "the fear of spiders" or some such).

The passage in 1 Peter also comes in a general discussion of submission. The section begins at 2:13 with the command to "submit to every human institution because of the Lord." Peter actually seems in this case to be discussing not the ideal, but the behavior of a Christian when someone in authority is misbehaving. After talking about unjust suffering at the hands of political authorities and slavemasters, Peter writes, "Wives, in the same way, submit yourselves to your husbands so that, even if some disobey the Christian message, they may be won over without a message by the way their wives live, when they observe your pure and reverent lives ... For in the past, the holy women who hoped in God also ... [submitted] to their husbands, just as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him Lord." (3:1-2, 5-6) Again this command (disturbing to our modern ears) for obedience, first to bad husbands (those who "disobey the Christian message"), and then to good husbands (Abraham). Finally, Peter addresses the husbands: "husbands, in the same way, live with your wives with understanding of their weaker nature yet showing them honor as co-heirs of the grace of life" (3:7). (The HCSB footnotes on the phrase "understanding of their weaker nature," "Lit understanding as the weaker vessel" - I think the term 'vessel' to refer primarily, and perhaps exclusively, to the physical body.)

Might these passages be culturally dependent? The 1 Peter passage certainly could be, as it begins by talking about submissiong to human institutions. However, marriage is a divine institution (Gen. 2:24), so interpreting the section on marriage to be included under that heading would be somewhat problematic. Additionally, Peter applies this to Sarah and then also to women of his own day, some 2000 years later. Why should it cease to apply today, 2000 years from Peter? The Ephesians passage is more directly applicable, because Paul explains (5:23) why this is, and his reasoning has to do with eternal theological truths, and not temporal cultural ideas.

Thus it does seem that there is some concept of male servant-leadership in marriage. Persumably this applies by extension to the household as a whole, especially since Paul implies in Ephesians 3:14-15 Paul, playing on the etymological derivation of Greek patria, 'family,' from pater, 'father,' seems to assert that families are so-called because the relationship of the father to the family is analogous to the relationship of God the Father to the creation. When God is pictured with feminine metaphors in Scirpture (and He IS pictured with feminine metaphors) the picture is never of his authority (but feel free to offer counter-examples to that claim if anyone has any).

Does it follow from this discussion that only men can be the oikonomoi of their households? Maybe. According to LSJ, Aeschines uses the feminine form oikonoma (and Greek masculine plurals are used for mixed gender groups) for housewives or housekeepers. Titus 2:5, however, uses a different word, oikouros which doesn't necessarily mean "homemaker" as HCSB and NKJV have it, but simply "mistress of the house" (LSJ). The word etymologically means "house-watcher," and needn't imply any particular idea of what the "mistress of the house's" duties are (though any Biblical conception of this must allow for the activities mentioned in Proverbs 31, which go a lot further than simply cooking, cleaning, and watching the kids). Oikonomos is never used in the feminine in the New Testament.

There is, however, also 1 Timothy 5:14 where Paul says that women should "manage their households." The word here is oikodespoteo, which is very interesting. The oikodespotes is actually literally the "master of the house," whereas the oikonomos is the steward. Since the oikodespotes was actually higher than the oikonomos (the latter often being a slave) in the traditional Greek household, there is something funny going on here, which is a legitimate difficulty for the position I am arguing for.

Based on these considerations, I conclude that it is likely, though not certain, that these passages require that an elder/overseer be a male head of household.

However, there is a problem here: very similar language is used regarding deacons in 1 Timothy 3:12, but we have a clear counter-example in the form of Phoebe, the female deacon Paul mentions favorably at Romans 16:1. Fortunately, this problem has a solution, and this solution lies in a second difficulty with 1 Timothy 3: the ambiguous use of gunaikos in 3:11. The solution is to regard 3:11 as not referring to the wives of deacons, but as a separate list of requirements for female deacons.

Unlike the egalitarian reading of these passages, this reading allows a simple and straightforward interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:11-15. 2:12 uses present infinitives, rather than the more common aorist infinitive, and therefore has progressive/repeated aspect, whence my assertion that it prohibits not all teaching by women, but simply placing women in the habit or position of teaching. Also, the HCSB's "have authority" is a very weak translation of authenteo which really means something like "tyrannically dominate." Thus the prohibition of 1 Timothy 2 cannot be regarded as doing much more than supporting the requirement that elders/overseers be male. It doesn't place extensive additional restrictions on women.

Could this be culturally dependent? Again, I think we must say no, since Paul clearly attributes it (albeit rather confusingly) to the order of creation.

Finally, let us consider some considerations which ought to further moderate our complementarian position. First, from 1 Corinthians 11:5 we know that women are permitted to pray aloud and to prophesy in church meetings (even if we don't understand anything else 1 Corinthians 11 is saying). It should be noted that to 'prophesy' in the New Testament sense means simply to speak forth the mind of God. When someone says "let me share with you what God has been teaching me lately" this is prophecy in the New Testament sense. Furthermore, to 'preach' (kerusso) in the strict sense, meaning to proclaim the gospel to non-believers, is a duty of every Christian, regardless of gender. To 'testify' (marturomai) to God is likewise a universal duty. Much of what pastors do when they preach in our sense of the word is prophesying, preaching, and testifying in the NT senses of those words, and women are nowhere prohibited from doing these things. They are simply prohibited from being elders/overseers and from being in the habit or position of teaching or tyrannically dominating adult men in the Church.

Finally, we must leave room for Deborah (see esp. Judges 4) - that is, the case where, due to extenuating circumstances (in this case, Barak's refusal to follow God's command without Deborah) lead God to call a woman to a task he ordinarily wouldn't (in this case, lead the army). Thus there may be situations that permit the relaxing of even these principles. For instance, the modern American Church is overwhelmingly female. Might there be a case in which no male who met all of the requirements of a pastor/elder/overseer could be found, and might a woman who met the other, more important requirements be rightly permitted to take the position? I think the answer here is yes, but that the woman's position here ought to be seen as temporary or transitional in nature. Likewise, there are cases where a woman's perspective on a subject will be very helpful to the body as a whole and a man simply doesn't have this perspective. In this case also it may be permissible for a woman to teach men (occasionally, not regularly).

Thus, as I have said, I believe that the Biblical position falls between the gender egalitarian position and the more extreme forms of the complementarian position, in what I have called a moderate complementarianism. I have not addressed every passage of Scripture, nor have I answered every objection. I think it would be very helpful and interesting to have some civil, intelligent, biblical debate on this subject, and would welcome criticism of the position I have outlined, whether from egalitarians or more radical complementarians.

Posted by Kenny at August 5, 2006 3:26 PM
TrackBack URL for this entry:


I'm not sure this is far enough toward egalitarianism to be a moderate view. Many complementarians would agree with every point you make. There are more conservative views, of course. I think the deacon issue is wide open among complementarians, with a good number of people on both sides. Kostenberger, for instance, is with you on this, while Mohler is not. Kostenberger isn't really considered a moderate because of that, though. He's a hard-liner on most issues (as you are on the most central ones) with a moderating view on this one issue (as you have with several).

The other two places that I think are leading you to call this moderate are 5 and 6. Very rarely have I encountered the view that women have an absolute moral obligation to stay home and cook and care for kids. Only in very fundamentalist circles do you get that. Some in those circles are still complementarian, taking the gender roles to be based on differences in nature between men and women but still insisting on equality of nature amidst difference of nature. Many, I think, don't really believe in the equality of nature and are thus not complementarian.

If you're seeing this issue as making you moderate merely because there is a more conservative complementarian position, then ok. But I don't think this means you are way to the left of the majority of complementarians. I think the view you're expressing here is pretty standard among complementarians today.

The one way that I think this is more moderate than is common among egalitarians is in 5 and 6. I think most complementarians would say that there's nothing absolutely wrong with a stay-home dad, but I think most complementarians would say that the ideal is stay-home moms and bread-winning dads. You seem to be distancing yourself from that. But I think the view you're giving on this particular issue does appear among prominent complementarians.

There is a view that is more regularly called a moderate complementarian view, defended by Craig Blomberg. He ends up denying two of your theses in a more liberal direction. He sees no reason to disallow women as elders, as long as there's a head elder who is a man, and he also has no problem with women preaching over men, as long as they are under male leadership in doing so. So he denies 2 and 3 but affirms all your other points, which makes him quite clearly not an egalitarian.

I have once encountered someone who denied 1 but affirmed 2 and 3. I thought that was strange. This would also be a moderate complementarian view in the opposite direction from Blomberg's.

I think my main concern with calling this a moderate complementarianism is that it makes it sound as if most complementarians are way to the right of what you're saying, and I think that's not even close to true. Many complementarians are close enough to you to agree with 4-5 of your statements as is or with very small modifications. I think that might lead to people seeing complementarianism itself as more extreme than it really is, and I think that would be an unfortunate consequence of your word choice.

Posted by: Jeremy Pierce at August 6, 2006 12:08 AM

Jeremy: I can see your concern here, and I think you are right to say that I'm in the mainstream of complementarians here. That is, in fact, mostly what I mean by 'moderate.' I simply want to say that there is such a thing as 'extreme' or 'radical' complementarianism and I don't want to defend that. It seems to me that most egalitarians spend their time arguing against radical complementarianism, and I don't want to bother with that. But no, I don't think the position I'm taking is closer to the egalitarian position than the mainstream. I have encountered views more radical than mine on many occasions (often, surprisingly, coming from women - I knew one woman who seriously thought that it was wrong for a woman to ever speak in church, even to make an announcement), and on even more occasions I've had egalitarians make my view out to be one of these radical positions.

By the way, I saw your recent post on the subject right after I wrote this, and I certainly am trying to carve out some space between the egalitarians and Augustine, just as you said. I'm just pointing out that there are some views which can be properly characterized as complementarian but are nevertheless more similar to Augustine's view than to mine in actual practice.

Posted by: Kenny at August 6, 2006 12:25 AM

Kenny, thanks for your positive comments about my series.

The form of egalitarianism which I hold would exclude marriage as well as reproduction from the areas where gender is irrelevant. That is, I hold, as the Bible does, that marriage should be between a man and a women, so no "gay weddings" at least in church. I would expect each couple to work out for themselves the roles within marriage, but would personally prefer an equal partnership. I could try to justify this biblically, but I won't do so here.

Posted by: Peter Kirk at August 7, 2006 7:01 AM

Peter - yes, I should perhaps have specified that I intended Biblical marriage to be included in matters "related to reproduction." I phrased it that way because I understand (and by all means correct me if I'm wrong) that even within Biblical marriage the only gender differences egalitarians recognize as universal and ordained by God are those that have to do with the process of reproduction (since you say, for instance, that the process of making life decisions for the couple/family is not one where men and women have differing roles ordained by God). So not all of marriage is excluded from the egalitarian assertions about gender roles (or rather, about not having well-defined gender roles).

Posted by: Kenny at August 7, 2006 7:10 AM

I think my main concern is with views that are not complementarian that try to claim the label. Anyone who thinks men and women are not equal before God in any sense related to salvation itself would not be a complementarian. See a recent comment on my post that you linked to for someone trying to confuse such a view with complementarianism. If Christ isn't a direct mediator with God for every believer but wives someone have a husband as a mediator with the mediator, then it's not complementarianism even if people are using the term to describe such a view. There clearly are more extreme versions of complementarianism, but what I wanted to say is that many of the views egalitarians have in mind when they hear complementarian claims are simply not complementarian.

Posted by: Jeremy Pierce at August 10, 2006 6:21 AM

WelL it's a very well said article indeed.I just want to comment on this phrase "many complementarians deny (4), (5), and (6) and wouldn't like my wording of (3).

I will support it with this sentences, that men and women have different but complementary roles and responsibilities in marriage, family life, religious leadership, and elsewhere. The word complementary and its cognates are currently used to denote this view. For those whose complementarian view is biblically-prescribed, these separate roles preclude women from specific functions of ministry within the Church. It assigns leadership roles to men and support roles to women, based on the interpretation of certain biblical passages. One of its precepts is that while women may assist in the decision making process, the ultimate authority for the decision is the purview of the male in marriage, courtship, and in the polity of churches subscribing to this view.

Contrasting viewpoints maintain either that women and men should share identical authority and responsibilities in marriage, religion and elsewhere Egalitarianism, or that men and women are of intrinsically different worth a position usually known as chauvinism, usually male, although female varieties do exist).

Complementarianism holds that "God has created men and women equal in their essential dignity and human person hood, but different and complementary in function with male headship in the home and in the Church."

The complementarian position is seen to uphold what has been the most traditional teaching on gender roles in the church. However, the terms traditionalist or hierarchicalist are usually avoided by complementarians, as the former “implies an unwillingness to let Scripture challenge traditional patterns of behavior”, while the latter overemphasizes structured authority while giving no suggestion of equality or the beauty of mutual interdependence.

Therefore, they prefer the term complementarian, “since it suggests both equality and beneficial differences”.

According to "— Article XVIII. The Family"
The husband and wife are of equal worth before God, since both are created in God's image. The marriage relationship models the way God relates to his people. A husband is to love his wife as Christ loved the church. He has the God-given responsibility to provide for, to protect, and to lead his family. A wife is to submit herself graciously to the servant leadership of her husband even as the church willingly submits to the headship of Christ. She, being in the image of God as is her husband and thus equal to him, has the God-given responsibility to respect her husband and to serve as his helper in managing the household and nurturing the next generation.


my blog : Infection pulmonaire 

Posted by: vernice at September 16, 2011 5:15 PM

Post a comment

Return to