The Conversation Behind the Conversation: How Ecclesiological Assumptions Shape Our Complementarianism


Which leadership positions can women occupy in the local church? How can churches best platform women with teaching gifts? How we respond to these questions reveals as much about our ecclesiology as it does our complementarianism. Behind many of our complementarian debates are significant differences about how we view the church.

Two people can agree on the same complementarian principles, but they might put those principles into practice very differently because of their different assumptions about ecclesiology, such that the first person looks functionally egalitarian to the second, while the second looks functionally patriarchal to the first.

Once again, much hangs on our ecclesiology. Would you expect anything less from the 9Marks guys?

More to the point, faulty views of the church create complementarian chaos. The further our doctrine of the church strays from biblical norms, the more we find ourselves straining complementarian principles to fit our context. Wrong assumptions about the church and programmatic approaches to church ministry run the risk of undermining complementarian principles.

This point about the church is really the conversation behind many of our conversations about complementarianism. It’s the issue behind the issue. Our complementarian debates are often downstream from our ecclesiological ones.

In this article, I’ll explore how our understanding of two things—our individual spiritual gifts and church ministry more broadly—relate to complementarianism. In another article, Alex Duke will consider how unbiblical polity structures create complementarian chaos and how returning to biblical authority structures goes a long way in resolving many of the debates currently swirling among complementarians.


Very often, our conversations within complementarian circles focus on asking how we can communicate value to women and honor their unique gifts. It’s a good question and deserves all the attention we can give to it. The trouble is, we often respond to this question in a way that represents a flawed view of spiritual gifts, church ministry, and how we value and affirm one another.

For instance, one complementarian pastor recently noted that failing to hire women with teaching gifts to the ministry staff or excluding them from mixed-gender leadership positions “marginalizes” them. Others have argued that, if you’re failing to create platforms for women with teaching gifts, you don’t value their contribution to the church.

Of course, it might be wise and good for your church to hire a woman or to create more public teaching platforms. Yet my concern is with the line of reasoning represented in the previous paragraph. It assumes that our gifts should dictate the type of ministry we ought to do. It also assumes that we communicate value to church members by creating platforms or programs for their gifts.


Let’s be clear, the Bible doesn’t have one theology of spiritual gifts for men and another one for women. Both are called to exercise their gifts for the good of the congregation. The question is how those gifts are exercised in the church.

The New Testament regularly teaches that Christ, in his grace, gives spiritual gifts to his people. Paul says these gifts are nothing less than a “manifestation of the Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:7), a visible demonstration of God’s grace and power that edifies the congregation. And yet, many Christians I know (both men and women) live with disappointment and even frustration that they’re not given much opportunity to exercise their gifts—especially if those gifts seem to correspond with public elements of the church’s life like “teaching” or “leading” (Rom. 12:8).

My hunch, however, is that these frustrations emerge not from our lack of opportunities to use our gifts but from a misguided, programmatic understanding of how our gifts should function in the life of the church. People assume their gift should be employed in a certain type of ministry. “I have the gift of administration, so I should do the finances. I have the gift of service, so I should organize the potlucks. I have the gift of teaching, so I should teach a class.” We look to plug our gifts into some pre-fabricated program or position within the church.

But why assume we can’t teach because we don’t have a class or can’t administer because we’re not part of the church’s formal administration? None of that means our gifts have to lie dormant and languish. The Bible says the church is a family. We serve where there is need. We can still “teach” in one-on-one discipling relationships. We can “administer” by helping a newly-married couple get their finances in order. We can “lead” by motivating those in our range of influence to gather regularly for an informal prayer group. We use our gifts according to the needs of the church and the opportunities the Lord provides. After all, God gave us the gift for the common good, not our own personal fulfillment.

In general, how we think about our gifts is downstream from our view of the church. If your church intuitions are programmatic, then you’re going to conceive of how you use your gifts through programming and platforms. If your church intuitions are familial, then you’ll look around the room and see who needs help. Remember how our mothers, busy with preparing the house for company and a holiday meal, told us not to wait to be asked to help, but to jump right in and find something to do? And how would your mother have responded if you had said, “Mom, washing dishes is not my gift. Picking out music is”?

These points apply to everyone—both men and women. Yes, we should be eager to find ways to do what we’re good at. But finally, what dictates our ministry is what our church needs. As I’ve argued elsewhere, one way brothers who aspire to the pastorate should spend their time is by serving in the nursery and by mowing the grass. You’ve got teaching gifts? Great! The four-year-olds need someone with sound doctrine.


Returning then to complementarianism: Women who are gifted to teach should teach. Perhaps your church shies away from programs. Perhaps there aren’t many opportunities to publicly use your gift, or the opportunities that do exist are already taken by others. If that’s your situation, then remember: your gift doesn’t need to sit on a shelf collecting dust. God may not grant you the exact platform you desire for your gift, but that doesn’t mean you can’t exercise it.

To any sisters who may feel disheartened or frustrated that they don’t have an outlet for public teaching, just know that many of your brothers are in the same place. I personally know many brothers in various churches who can preach the lights out but who only rarely—if ever—have public teaching opportunities.

Are they squandering their gifts? No. They’re teaching in children’s Sunday School, over lunch with a friend, at a nearby soup kitchen, at home with their wife and children, in their small groups, even with two or three people every Sunday after service in the lobby. And neither are you squandering your gift. All of us are simply using our gifts wherever God places us.


But what about the troubling assertion that churches fail to value women if they don’t utilize their teaching gifts in a particular—usually programmatic, public—type of way? Is this truly the case?

Of course, I’m not advocating that women only serve behind-the-scenes. Instead, I’m suggesting that this line of reasoning actually devalues both women and men in the church because it suggests that behind-the-scenes, support roles are marginal and insignificant. It seems to suggest that behind-the-scenes, ordinary members are less valuable than those with public platforms or stations of leadership. Members are marginal, while leaders have value. Public ministry matters, private ministry is less significant.

When we equate “value” in ministry with public platforms and leadership, we imply something unfortunate and unhelpful about unglamorous Christian service—the context where most Christians live out their commitment to Jesus. By equating value with calling or ministry responsibility, we, in effect, turn most church members into second-class Christians.

In the course of a year, my own church of roughly 700 members sees maybe 40 people teach or exercise leadership in a public context. I suggest that we aggressively avoid any type of reasoning that implies the other 660 members—those who carry the load of day-to-day ministry in the church—are merely marginal players in God’s kingdom.


How then do complementarian churches move forward? Start by reminding your church, both the men and the women, that possessing a gift doesn’t entitle them to a certain ministry. Dignify the work of membership and encourage members to jump into one another’s lives, not just the programs.

As you encourage this type of ministry, a few men and women will emerge as particularly gifted in teaching and will know how to get stuff done. A man in your congregation capably and consistently gathers small groups of men for prayer and evangelism. A woman in your church seems to have an endless stream of women in her house for discipling conversations. Both have meaningful and positive spiritual effects on those in their circle of influence. As these individuals emerge, equip them, encourage them in their ministry, and hold them up as examples to their brothers and sisters.

But recognize that at this point the paths before men and women diverge. The Bible has a mandated “program” that formally recognizes men who can teach and lead: the elder board. It also has a mandated time where qualified men engage in public teaching: the sermon. But the Bible doesn’t mandate any such institutional structure within the church for women. Instead, it upholds the indispensable value of women teaching women (Titus 2:3–5)—and pastors should aggressively pursue equipping gifted women to engage that ministry. Of course, that ministry will look different from church to church. Some will seek to carry out Titus 2 with programs, others by developing a culture of women discipling women.

So yes, the church is asymmetrical at this point: qualified men can be pastors, women can’t. Qualified men can preach, women can’t. But it’s also the case that men can’t fulfill Titus 2, they can’t engage in intimate, personal discipling relationships with women or model biblical womanhood to sisters in the congregation—only a woman can do that. Both men and women are utterly necessary to carry out the mission of the church.

Complementarians should labor to have churches full of women “mighty in the Scriptures.” Paul commended the entire Berean congregation for evaluating the scriptural integrity of his preaching, which surely included insightful, theologically articulate women. Labor to equip women to disciple other women in the congregation and to teach in appropriate contexts.

If your church deems it wise to hire a women’s ministry director or to create a programmatic context where a few women can do public teaching for other women, go for it. But don’t point to those programs and platforms as the place where real ministry happens and women are valued.

Instead, value both women and men by upholding the priesthood of all believers and dignifying the ordinary life of the church and the responsibilities that come attached to church membership. Remind your congregation that the one who receives a prophet, receives a prophet’s reward (Matt. 10:41). Remind them that everyone is called to exercise their gifts according to their church’s needs in the spheres the Lord has placed them—and these contexts are anything but marginal.

Sam Emadi

Sam Emadi is senior pastor at Hunsinger Lane Baptist Church in Louisville, KY.

9Marks articles are made possible by readers like you. Donate Today.