Complementarianism in the Gray Areas
Some people with complementarian convictions may have questions in what might be called “gray areas.” These questions can include: Can a woman teach a mixed-gender Sunday school class? Is a woman allowed to preach as a guest in a church?
These are questions I hear somewhat regularly as I seek to encourage women in their understanding of their biblical roles,in the home and the church. Sometimes these questions are purely an academic exercise; other times they stem from a woman’s experience, or perhaps her desire to serve the church in these ways.
COED SUNDAY SCHOOLS?
My answer to these questions is quite consistent: first, women should not teach a Sunday school class in which adult males are present. In our American evangelical churches, which are committed to the authority and proclamation of the Word of God, our adult Sunday school classes are second in importance only to the worship gathering.
These classes, usually, are venues in which the Bible, or at the least biblical principles, are taught, with application made to living our lives as Christians. In many churches, the length of time for a Sunday school class is longer than the sermon. The teaching done in these classes is, or certainly ought to be, significant for the discipleship of church members.
Given the importance of these adult Sunday school classes, my understanding is that the teaching of such classes should be limited to qualified males.
Second, a woman should not be allowed to preach as a guest in a church, even under the “authority” of the elders of that church. Again, the preaching of the Word is of highest importance in the life of the church, and God’s Word itself clearly limits this preaching to be done by qualified males.
“I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man” (1 Tim. 2:12). Paul prohibits both teaching and exercising authority. Though teaching involves the exercise of authority, these terms are are not synonymous. And Paul precludes both. It is difficult, therefore, to know how we can square the practice of a female guest preacher with this command.
The idea that a woman can be a “guest preacher” under the authority of the elders of the church runs against the ultimate authority of the Lord over his church. And just as a wife should never follow her husband into sin, so a woman should never follow an elder board into sinful disobedience of God’s clear instruction.
In the midst of all the questions regarding women in ministry, every conversation must be framed by the reality that ministry is not a right—it’s a privilege. The issue is not about men versus women. The issue is that God cares deeply about his church, and he has the prerogative to say whom he does and does not choose to lead his flock (Ezekiel 34).
Simply being a man does not necessitate qualification for ministry. In fact, most men we know will not serve as leaders of the church. God has created, foreknown, purchased, redeemed, loved, saved, and is sanctifying his church. No wonder he wants to protect it from harm.
Now let us look at the basics of biblical roles within the church.
We learn from 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9 that elders are to be qualified men. We also learn that elders are to fulfill particular ministries in the church, most pointedly teaching and exercising authority, managing the church body (1 Timothy 3:4-5), and being able to rebuke (Titus 1:9). Elders are to “hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught” (Titus 1:9). Elders are given the sober responsibility to teach and apply the Word of God in a way that is faithful and effective. Thus, 1 Timothy 2:12—“I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather she is to remain quiet”—seems to clearly limit the function of elder, as well as the office of elder, to qualified men.
In my opinion, these passages clearly prohibit women from teaching the Word of God to men. All adult members of a church are to receive their primary teaching in biblical exposition and doctrinal training from qualified men. This is the authority structure that God has put into place, and it is good. Additionally, this is the uniform testimony of the Bible. As theologian Wayne Grudem said,
I base my position [of not allowing a woman to teach/preach to men] on a pattern in the whole Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, where there is never an instance where a woman does teaching of God’s Word to an assembled group of men. It was the priests in the Old Testament who did the Bible teaching or the teaching of God’s law, and they were all men. In the New Testament, elders all had to be men. So that’s consistent with Paul’s specific instruction in 1 Timothy 2:12 where Paul says, ‘I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather she is to remain quiet. For Adam was formed first then Eve and Adam was not deceived. But, the woman who was deceived then became a transgressor.’ That is not an isolated passage.
As we think about authority and submission within the church, we need to be reminded that our sinful inclinations rebel against such things. No one likes being told what to do, and we especially don’t like being told what we cannot do. Our hearts are inclined toward autonomy, and restrictions of any kind are hard to swallow. In addition, our Western culture prizes independence and disregards any structure of authority, any hierarchy. But we must remember that authority and submission are part of the biblical narrative, even part of the Godhead himself.
MODELING THE TRINITY
So, as we live according to God’s clear teaching and instruction, our varying roles of authority and submission model Trinitarian relationships. The eternal Son was sent by the Father to become incarnate and accomplish the will of the Father. It was his joy to obey the Father, to do and say only what the Father wanted him to do and say (John 8:28).
It is apparent the Father and the Son are equal in worth and value since each is fully God, yet they model a relationship marked by authority and submission in the roles they carry out as eternal Father and eternal Son. In the same way, men and women within the church are equal in worth and value even as they live out differing roles.
The truth is, God designed his church this way, because he is the original designer of men and women. God knows what will work best. When women push to take on roles that are intended for men, it is far too easy for men to then sit back, passively letting the women “run the show.” It seems quite obvious that as churches become more “feminized,” men become less active and involved, and may even quit attending. We must constantly have our minds and hearts recalibrated by God’s Word, seeing his authority as completely appropriate and completely beneficial. He is God, and we are not, I trust you know from experience, as I do, that appropriate submission to appropriate authority brings blessing, order, and flourishing to all involved.
Now, we must also affirm that women are qualified, indeed strongly encouraged, to teach other women (Titus 2) and children. Indeed, there are many instances in which it is far more appropriate to have women instructing women. This ensures that women who are gifted by the Lord with teaching ability have plenty of options for serving the church with their gifts. God so orchestrates a church body that all of the members are gifted in ways that all of the members need (1 Cor 12:22-23). There is no higher value to preaching and teaching than to other, more “behind-the-scenes” gifts; at least there is no such superior value in God’s economy.
WHEN DO BOYS BECOME MEN?
But what about women teaching children? And when do young boys become men? At what point should young men in the church start receiving their primary biblical teaching from men rather than women? As my husband says, at what point does a man become bald? We know when a man has hair, and when he has no hair. In between, it is a bit difficult to say! This seems true for boys growing into manhood. It is difficult to say when a boy becomes a man. And such passages to adulthood can vary from culture to culture.
It seems true to say that at some point during senior high years, young boys become mature enough to be treated as young adults. It may be prudent to restrict the teaching of senior high boys (or mixed classes) to qualified men. May God give adult men the grace to see this is a high calling and responsibility to invest in the lives of the young people in their church.
We never want to be unnecessarily restrictive in ways women participate in church life. The Bible is clear that walking in God’s commands leads to life; man-made rules, however, produce discouragement and death. Therefore, we want to be careful to hold to the commands that God has made and not add to them.
READING, PRAYING, SERVING COMMUNION, TESTIFYING?
In our church, women participate in public reading of the Word, in prayer, in serving the Lord’s Supper, and in other ways deemed appropriate by our elder board. Certainly there is room for a woman to share her testimony, or to tell of some experience (perhaps a missions trip) to a group of men and women. This might be during a Sunday morning worship service.
Following God’s wise guidelines for church leadership does not preclude women from being thriving, functioning members of the Body. We are co-heirs of grace.
GROWTH IN MATURITY
Growth in Christian maturity involves seeing and embracing the good of God’s ways and submitting to his good and right authority. As a Christian woman, I am called to grow in this by submitting to the rightful authorities he has placed in my life, including the authority of the elders in my church. My submission to authority (elders, my husband, civil government) models Christ’s submission to his heavenly Father. As I grow in knowing God, understanding his kindness and grace, being thankful for his redemptive plan accomplished through Christ—all of this helps me grow in glad-hearted submission. As Romans 8:32 reminds us, God has met our deepest need for a Savior in Christ Jesus; he is for us, and we can trust him to graciously give us all things, including appropriate opportunities to exercise the very gifts he has so kindly bestowed.
Rather than chafing at what seems to be God’s clear restrictions upon a woman’s role in the church, may all of us seek to honor the Lord by seeing his order in the church as good and lovely as we gratefully and whole-heartedly carry out the work of the church. For women who are gifted in teaching, there are women and children around you who need gospel truth, biblical and theological training, and spiritual discipleship. And may we all be faithful with the tasks God gives us, knowing that the days are short.