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How Can We Reconcile the Complementarian / Egalitarian Divide in Our Churches?

The conversation around women in Church leadership can be highly contentious. And it makes sense that it would. Your view on this topic has very real and practical ramifications for how your church operates.

Churches today exist mostly within two camps, though each side is more of a spectrum of practices than a set standard across the board. But most churches would identify as either complementarian or egalitarian.

Complementarianism affirms that men and women are equal in value, worth, and dignity as God’s image-bearers, but believes that they are given different roles within the home, the Church, and society at large. On the other hand, Egalitarianism affirms that men and women are equal in value and worth and likewise empowered to fulfill any role or responsibility that’s in line with their natural and spiritual giftings.

Both of these views are developed out of the desire to practically apply scripture with regard to how much leadership authority women are called to exercise in the local Church.

The trouble is that scripture isn’t as black and white as we would like it to be. Faithful followers of Jesus fall on either side of the divide based on their understanding of the relevant New Testament passages. So how do we know which view to hold to?

Here are some strengths and weaknesses of each camp in how they often carry out their view on women in Church leadership.

Strength of Complementarianism: The uniqueness of men and women is celebrated.

The greatest strength of complementarianism is that it understands and celebrates that men and women are inherently different—not only in our physical makeup but also in our spiritual makeup and in the way we view life. Men and women bring different perspectives and strengths to the Church.

Complementarianism seeks to fully recognize the natural and spiritual differences in men and women and to see them as good. This allows men and women to operate in different roles freely and without judgment.

Weakness of Complementarianism: Some may begin to believe that women are “equal but less.”

The trouble with the complementarian view is that it lends itself to seeing women as less than men. While it’s not always the case, some practical executions of this view sees the natural role of women as inferior to men.

This can be seen largely through the leadership roles women are allowed to hold in the church. For example, in many complementarian churches, the only leadership roles women are allowed to fill are in women’s and children’s ministries. And while these ministries are vital to any church, many women have gifts that would be a better fit somewhere else in the church.

Additionally, in this view, some male leaders are also prone to arrogance and have often acted unkindly and even oppressively toward the women in their churches.

Strength of Egalitarianism: The gifts and contributions of women are celebrated.

While complementarianism celebrates the differences of men and women, egalitarians focus on the gifts of women. In this view, women who have the same gifts as men are able to fulfill the same roles as men.

In many ways, egalitarianism has a broader understanding of equality between men and women and often seeks to promote the voices and valuable insights of women that have too often been silenced.

Weakness of Egalitarianism: The uniqueness of men and women can be minimized.

Egalitarianism’s greatest strength can also give way to its greatest weakness. In the clear effort to see men and women as equal and capable of sharing gifts, this view doesn’t always celebrate the different ways the same gift is used. While a woman can do anything a man can do; it’s also important to note that they do it differently--and that matters.

Women and men approach and view life differently, which is good, but that can get lost in the efforts toward maintaining equality.

At the end of the day, neither of these two views seems to capture everything God has to say about the relationship between men and women in Church leadership. So regardless of where you fall between Complementarian and Egalitarian, here are 4 tips for how to hold a biblical view of gender roles:

1. Allow scripture to dictate your view more than culture.

The Church should never thoughtlessly follow whatever the culture values, especially where cultural values run counter to biblical principles. How a church operates with regard to gender roles must ultimately rest on how they have faithfully studied and understood the scriptures.

No leader, in good conscience, can change their church’s systems and structures in a way that contradicts their understanding of scripture simply because it is a wider cultural norm.

On the other hand, the Church doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Sometimes culture does have something to teach the church about valuing women, regardless of our leadership structures. We see this in particular with the #MeToo movement, which has sought to dignify the stories of women who have suffered sexual abuse.

Unfortunately, the church has not been immune to such abuses. The church would do well to pay attention to such an effort to listen to the stories of women.

2. Be consistent in the way you apply your theology.

Some Complementarian churches would never think of ever giving a woman the title of “pastor.” And yet these same churches will often give women job responsibilities that are similar to those of male staff members. And they will award the man the title of “pastor” while awarding the woman the title of “director.” This is often a distinction without a difference—other than gender.

This is completely inconsistent. Complementarian churches should maintain uniformity in how they award job titles and do so on the basis of responsibilities, not gender. This may mean calling both the male and female “directors.” Or, if they are both acting in pastoral capacities, they should both enjoy the distinction of the title “pastor.”

Likewise, many churches who call themselves Egalitarian have never had a woman lead pastor, or even women in high positions of leadership in their church. If they truly believe that women are called to fulfill these roles, then they need to reflect it in the way they staff their churches. Anything less simply amounts to virtue signaling.

3. Be intentional about celebrating, cultivating, and empowering the giftedness of women in your church.

Regardless of whether you believe a woman should hold the role of pastor or not, there are gifted women in your church. Every follower of Jesus has spiritual gifts. So every church needs to not only celebrate the uniqueness of those gifts but also find a space for women to use their gifts.

And we have to be intentional. Unfortunately, a culture of valuing women and strategically empowering them to use their spiritual gifts does not naturally occur in most churches. It is always the result of leaders who intentionally seek to make it the cultural norm.

If we fail to do this, we will not only hinder the ability for our women to fulfill their purpose in Jesus; we will also hamper the spiritual growth and vibrancy of our churches.

4. Maintain a posture of service, not heavy-handed authority.

At the heart of this conversation needs to be a desire for both men and women to serve each other and the mission of Jesus in a way that is both effective and God-honoring. It’s not about who the boss is or who’s in charge. It’s about how we can best love and value one another as people created in the image of God.

God’s heart isn’t that his people would constantly be in conflict over who has more control or power. That misses the point entirely. The way of Jesus is to use the power we have been given to serve one another rather than ourselves.

Our churches will never get this perfectly right, but we are still perfectly loved.

This conversation can often be overwhelming. We know how important it is, and it can be hard for church leaders to know exactly what to do in every situation. But it’s okay that none of our churches will ever get this perfectly right. We are still perfectly loved.

And so long as we continually strive to love and value each other more to the measure with which Jesus has loved and valued us, we will have been faithful.


headshot of Dale and Tamara Chamberlain togetherDale and Tamara Chamberlain are authors and speakers who are passionate about loving and serving Jesus together. They love having conversations and creating community around the abundant life that Jesus promised us. They both hold M.Div degrees from Talbot School of Theology. You can connect with Dale and Tamara at herandhymn.com.

Photo Credit: ©GettyImages/Bulat-Silvia

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