On Apple Stores and the DMV: Two Kinds of Churches that Create Complementarian Chaos
Walking into an Apple Store is equal parts dazzling and dizzying. The space is pristine, minimalist, white as baby teeth. It looks like it’s been carved out from a bar of soap.
The experience is transfixing. But it’s also extremely disorienting.
Why do I say that? Because in an Apple Store aesthetics crowd out clarity, and the traditional markers of a “store” have vanished. There are no cash registers, no blinking numbers to signify an open aisle, and no clear signs pointing toward either “Customer Service” or “Check Out.”
Many times, I’ve walked into an Apple Store and just stood there, awkwardly staring at people while trying to intuit the identity of someone with both the ability and the authority to help.
It all looked pretty, but it was chaos.
Walking into the Department of Motor Vehicles, on the other hand, is an affront both to human senses and to human decency. The space is dingy and damp—flooded by flickering fluorescent light. It looks like a bathroom where a bar of soap should go.
It seems like you’re surrounded by people with the ability and authority to help, but every employee appears to have left their willingness at home.
Nonetheless, you take a number, but deep down you know you’ll miss your turn because the stupid thing on the wall looks like it’s showing a “3” but it’s actually an “8”—someone forgot to swap the bulbs.
Your number finally gets called, and you’re spiked with trepidation and uncertainty. After all, every DMV decision gets passed through a menagerie of ad hoc deliberative bodies, each with their own goofy arcana. I’m sorry, what you’ve got here is Form A4–33. You needed to fill out Form 33–A4. I’m sorry, this line is for Registered Licenses; you need to be in the next building over, where there’s a line for Licensed Registration.
The whole thing is a mess.
OUR COMPLEMENTARIAN CONFUSION
Why am I talking about Apple Stores and the DMV? What in the world does this have to do with complementarianism?
Simply put, I’ve been in churches whose authority structures are like an Apple Store’s, and I’ve been in churches whose authority structures are like the DMV’s. In both cases—but in different ways—chaos bubbles up to the surface.
Let me explain.
Why is the DMV so bad? Who—or what—can we blame for the wanton inefficiency? I suspect there are many ways we could answer this question. Skimped budgets! Overworked and underpaid staff! Gummed-up org charts! Soulless bureaucracy!
Sure, fine. But if I could whittle all those explanations down to a single cause, if I could get at the problem behind the problems listed above, it would be something like this: The DMV is the way that it is because of its unthinking adherence to tradition. The budgets are skimped because they’ve always been—same for the underpaid staff, the gummed-up org charts, and the soullessness of bureaucrats.
Some churches are like this. Their ad hoc deliberative bodies are called . . . can you think of it? That’s right—committees. Some pastors reading this just felt a tingle down their spine.
I know of churches who are laden with enough committees to sink the Titanic. The Committee on Flowers. The Committee on Lawn Care. The Committee on Giving. The Committee on Hospitality. The Committee on Committees—wait, never mind, that’s the SBC.
Many of these are benign bodies that do genuinely helpful and necessary work. Someone’s gotta mow the lawn and prune the tulips and count the money and reach out to the visitors.
But unfortunately, the committees don’t stop there: there’s also the Committee on Missions, the Committee on Music, the Committee on Outreach & Evangelism, the Committee on Personnel (responsible for finding, interviewing, and recommending pastoral hires), the Committee on Budget, the Committee on Bylaws. I could go on, but you get the point.
This second list of committees may be benign bodies that do helpful and necessary work. But they may also be malignant; they may function as archipelagos of authority, autonomous and disconnected from the larger mission and vision of the church and against biblical norms.
It’s hard to imagine how this would matter for the Committee on Lawn Care. But for the Committees on Missions and Budgets and Music and Personnel, the downsides become clear.
The elders want to move one way when it comes to outreach; the committee another. Since the latter group has formal, decision-making authority, guess who wins?
Or the elders want to hire a certain kind of man for a new pastoral opening. But the personnel committee—designed to reflect various minority subsets of the congregation—all have their own opinions. Some jibe with the elders’; others don’t. The result is a compromise candidate, à la James Garfield. Everyone is appeased but no one is pleased.
Why are DMV churches this way? Well, again, I assume there are lots of possible answers to that question. But I suspect the cleanest answer is one you’ve heard before: well, pastor, that’s how it’s always been! It’s the same unthinking adherence to tradition—not biblical tradition, mind you, but (usually) Baptist tradition.
DMV Churches & Complementarianism
How do DMV churches make complementarianism seem chaotic? In a few ways.
In some churches, it unfairly disbars women from places where they could do much good. For example, I once sat through a long conversation about whether or not a woman could be the “head” of a Hospitality Committee, whether or not that violated Paul’s Spirit-inspired prohibition in 1 Timothy 2:12. Some said, of course it does! Paul says women ought not teach or have authority over a man, and committees wield authority—ipso facto a woman cannot be the head of a committee.
In other churches, this same structure allows for the opposite error. It unwisely propels women into places they ought not be, into roles and functions that may end up violating Paul’s command. For example, a woman serves as the head of a Budget Committee, and so she holds the steering wheel throughout the entire process, one that should be steered by the elders. Or she’s in charge of the Personnel Committee, and so she leads the way in finding the next pastor. Or she picks all the music and plans all the services as part of the Music Committee. None of these constructions necessarily violate 1 Timothy 2:12, but they might.
The error is placing women into pastoral roles with pastoral duties under the guise of “committees.” I want to be clear: none is this is nefarious business. It’s not cloak-and-dagger deception. It’s just, again, how it’s always been—happy Christians showing up to do what they’ve done with joy in the Lord and love for the saints.
But sometimes, how it’s always been isn’t how it ought to be. We all need to be reminded of this.
After reading this, you shouldn’t be asking yourself, “Well, wait, does the Bible say women can serve as the head of a committee?” It’s a pointless question. It’s like asking, “Does the Bible say women can serve as the Second Vice President of the Kentucky Baptist Convention?” It’s a made-up role with made-up qualifications.
Instead, the question you ought to be asking is this: “Has our adherence to traditional decision-making undermined the opportunity of women? Or has it perhaps pushed women into positions that approximate pastoral functions and therefore ought to be reserved for men?”
In both situations—but in different ways and depending on the intuitions of the decision-makers—chaos bubbles up to the surface.
Apple Store Churches
In these churches, the lines of authority seem chaotic because, like Apple Stores, they’re unclear and inexact. Put another way, they’ve been deconstructed from “traditional” offices and “traditional models,” and so the markers of a “church” have vanished—or at least faded to the background. “Leadership teams” are emphasized more than elders; staff positions like “ministry director” are leaned on more than pastors, deacons, or regular church members.
What explains this? Lots of things, I suspect. But perhaps most preeminent is that in these churches it’s not tradition that has its hands on the wheel, but market-driven intuitions. Whereas DMV churches look to the past for wisdom and direction, Apple Store churches tend to look forward, guided and spurred on by opportunity and innovation and the constant specter of growth.
Apple Store Churches and Complementarianism
On the outside, many of these churches look pristine and fine-tuned. In fact, they don’t even really look like a church—and their authority structures don’t either. But once you get inside and dig around a little bit, you realize that in many cases biblical clarity has been blurred.
There aren’t committees, but rather a host of equally extra-biblical jobs and positions. Many—perhaps most—of these are perfectly in-sync with Scripture. For example, a church is fully free to hire a woman to devote her time to leading its ministry to women. Furthermore, such a staffing decision might not only be acceptable but optimal—a way of shoring up a long-held deficiency in disciple-making. That’s been repeated several times throughout this Journal because it’s true.
But some roles seem less clear. Some churches call women “pastors” and not “elders.” Some might place women on leadership or executive teams which sit atop all staff on the org-chart; some of those teams work alongside the elders, creating a kind of bicameral, two-lever decision-making structure in the church. Some might hire women as “directors” of various ministries that, like the committee situation above, unwisely impinge on roles and functions that ought to be reserved for pastors.
Again, the error is placing women into pastoral roles with pastoral duties. There’s no cloak-and-dagger here, either. It’s just churches trying their best to steward the growing opportunities the Lord has provided, and so they’ve hired happy and gifted Christians to get to work. (Read Sam Emadi’s article for more on this.)
I know, I know. Vagueness abounds. But that’s because Apple Store churches are so different, and, even with the best of intentions, there are countless ways to drift away from the Bible’s commands about men and women in the church.
WHAT DO YOU WANT ME TO DO ABOUT THIS?
Okay, so what’s the fix? Well, the point of this piece is to identify two different-looking, yet similarly compromised church contexts that result in complementarian chaos. The remedy is simple, yet slow-moving. The remedy is to, as best you can, locate your church’s decision-making structures in biblical offices and be careful that your practices don’t accidentally make an end-around on what the Bible teaches about the role of men and women in the church.
At a more granular level, here are a few recommendations.
1. Figure out what you think the Bible teaches about the identity and job description of pastors/elders.
Yes, they’re the same office. Don’t divide them—to do so is to take your first step on a frozen pond at the end of winter.
Whether it’s a full-time, salaried job or a volunteer “committee” position, if something requires the function and job description of an elder—that is, leading the church and teaching the Word—then it’s almost certainly best to reserve that for a man, whatever you call the position.
2. Figure out what you think the Bible teaches about the job description of deacons.
What do deacons do? Can women be deacons? (Some say yes; some say no.) How do they function in relation to the elders? In relation to each other? These are all necessary questions.
I’m convinced that much of this complementarian chaos could be alleviated by a broader, deeper, and frankly more rigorously biblical understanding of diaconal ministry. Rather than task-specific committees, perhaps consider task-specific deacons. That might go a long way clarifying roles and avoiding needless conversations about who can do what.
3. Speaking of committees, kill them—or at least clarify their roles.
The problem with committees isn’t that they exist but that their existence sometimes becomes essential to the life and health of a church. As a result, this extra-biblical thing rises up to the level of biblical mandate.
But unlike elder and deacon, we can flip through the Old Testament, the Apocrypha, and the New Testament all day, and we’ll never find a single, Spirit-inspired word of advice—not a qualification, not an implicit job description, not even a sanctioned nod at their existence. And so we make it all up, which isn’t necessarily bad. We make up stuff all the time, but we shouldn’t slap a “Obviously-Fine” sticker on all our made-up stuff.
If you decide to keep committees, then hold onto them loosely, and make sure their work doesn’t drift toward pastoral work.
The burden of this Journal is to help Christians deal with what we’ve called a moment of reckoning for complementarians. We’re convinced that this moment has come not first and foremost because we’re confused about complementarianism (though some indeed are), but because we’re confused about ecclesiology. As a result, confused and conflicted ecclesiological intuitions push self-proclaimed complementarians in certain directions—directions that run aground certain complementarian practices.
We fix this problem not by asking questions like “Can women preach?” but by rewiring our intuitions and rebuilding our decision-making structures from the ground up.