During the last forty years, evangelicals have debated whether or not the Bible allows for women to occupy the role of elder or bishop. Egalitarians maintain that men and women may take the office of elder, while complementarians believe in a male-only episcopate. A host of other notions around gender and roles also appear in such discussions.
Yet I have noticed a recent shift in arguments. Yes, both sides still claim the Bible as their source for their conclusions. But egalitarians argue that complementarian teaching is inherently harmful or at least that it controls women. And since harming women is wrong (everyone agrees on this), it follows that complementarianism is wrong.
A New Egalitarian form of Argument
To cite one example, Aimee Byrd explains in a recent article how she used to believe in complementarian teaching, but now she knows who pays the price for it (i.e. women). Sheila Gregoire explains in a comment how her body reacts—presumably due to experiencing trauma or seeing so much of it—when she considers complementarian teaching. She explains, “I just can’t do it anymore. Like, I physically can’t. My body has all those reactions as well.”
I trust that both Byrd and Gregoire have experienced all sorts of unkindness. My point here is not to deny their experience but narrate one example of what seems to be a common pattern. Egalitarians (or those who are at least anti-complementarian) argue:
- Major premise: Abuse and traumatizing women are wrong (and all agree)
- Minor premise: Complementarian churches have lots of abuse and trauma in them
- Conclusion: Complementarian promotes abuse and trauma and is therefore wrong.
Now, churches that promote a late twentieth-century teaching called complementarianism could promote such things in their congregations. We might say they imbibed some modern and rotten theology. Recently, I met someone who basically followed Bill Gothard’s teaching of the family. Admittedly, I find such teachings bizarre and wrong. I had never encountered them before.
When I read Beth Allison Barr’s book on The Making of Biblical Womanhood, I found her negative examples of patriarchy wild and outside of my experience. You can read my review of her book by clicking here.
My suspicion is that those most critical of complementarianism have left a form of fundamentalism as well. And such an exodus often characterizes why they reject so strongly complementarianism. It, after all, encodes a gendered teaching on men and women in pervasive ways.
I also suspect there are many things evangelicals should reject that go under the name of complementarianism. As noted, when I heard about Bill Gothard or some of the things that Beth Barr narrates, I found them both foreign and incorrect.
With all that said, I still wonder if the argument that I described above masks the real debate at hand: what does the Bible teach about the role of a pastor and of men and women generally?
Where the Argument lies
For the last two millennia, all Orthodox, all Roman Catholic, and historical Protestants held to a male-only episcopate. Even today, the vast majority of Christians worldwide hold such a position. Did we all just get it wrong?
I remember once hearing a female scholar whom I respect explain that the early church—almost immediately after the New Testament was written—fell into the cultural norms of Greco-Roman society. For this reason, women had their voices suppressed.
I find that answer unsatisfying not least of which because Jesus said, “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matt 16:18). And egalitarianism means that almost all pastors for two millennia have gotten this basic question wrong. Does that make sense?
This argument sounds like one I have heard before, namely, that the Reformation restarted the church after it fell away around after the New Testament was written. As if, Thomas Aquinas or John of Damascus or Bulus al-Bushi are not part of the same body of Christ that we are today. It is a bizarre thought, but one that seems to evacuate the Providence of God and the promise of Christ of their power.
Granted, the evils that Byrd, Gregoire, and Barr have called out—I am all for calling them out! And yet I cannot countenance the argument that everyone who affirms a male-only episcopate is somehow an abuser or has enabled or supported such abuses.
I notice that Dani Treweek has argued something similar in a Twitter thread, part of which I am citing here (with minor editing; see the thread for yourself here). She summarizes a playbook for egalitarians, which includes the following:
- Don’t engage on the theological & exegetical questions. Assume they are either self-evidently settled (in favour of an egalitarian reading) or secondary, even irrelevant to the real issue.
- Focus on the harm perpetrated. Even the comps know that many of “their own” have tragically caused harm (even if some won’t admit it). No reasonable (especially female) comp interlocutor will be able to (or should want to) say that there isn’t a case to be answered for.
- Here’s the key: Insist the harm is so ingrained it must be systemic (rather than it maybe being the result of pervasive misuse/abuse of good theology). Don’t argue for this. Insist on it as self evident based on the irrefutable experience of countless women “everywhere”.
Treweek continues her argument after this, but I wanted to cite this portion because it supports my argument above. Treweek grants that theological and exegesis are important, but she also notes how the ‘“new egalitarian’ playbook” works: “Focus on the harm perpetrated” and “Insist the harm is so ingrained it must be systemic.”
And when one does this, it feels impossible to defend complementarianism because the experience of women everywhere confirms that it is harmful.
Where to go from here
I am not sure where to go from here if indeed that is where the argument is today. We could in North America simply abandon the term complementarian. But that seems too squirrely and does not solve the real problem. Complementarian practice under a different name would simply be called patriarchalism.
This crisis partly calls for more theological and practical work that explains why Holy Scripture teaches a male-only episcopate. God does not act in arbitrary ways. A male-only episcopate is not a random or eclectic practice of the first century.
Some deeper truth is at hand; some rational and explainable reason exists. God created the natural order to work in a specific way. Women, for example, have a capacity men cannot possess, namely, the natural capacity to grow and nurture new life in their wombs. This reality creates a real difference between men and women.
And it is one example of many. These kinds of natural truths when observed, affirmed, and shown how Scripture teaches them—after all, Eve was called “the mother of all living” in Genesis—tell us something deep about the nature of creation.
By making strong biblical and reasonable cases for why the Bible teaches a distinction between men and women as well as why Scripture teaches a male-only episcopate, we can return to this conclusion with renewed strength. Truth is true. And God never commands something that does not lead to human flourishing.