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Complementarianism: The belief that women are not allowed to teach the Bible to men, or have authority over men. Some believe this pertains only in the context of the local church, while others believe that it applies in every type of situation.
Egalitarianism: The belief that women are allowed to teach and lead as pastors and elders—given every opportunity as men.
Among the doctrinal issues within the Church today, there’s no debate more heated and divisive than the one that is going on now between complementarians and egalitarians. The contention between the two sides may be at an all-time high….at least in America. This is a particularly hot issue in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC).
Complimentarians typically accuse egalitarians of being disobedient to the “plain teaching of Scripture.” They accuse them of making the Bible say what they want it to say. They accuse them of giving in to cultural pressure. Such accusations are baseless. The truth is, it’s just a difference in how they interpret the Bible. When one takes an honest and unbiased approach to Scripture about this subject, it must be acknowledged that there’s a reasonable case to be made for the egalitarian position. Once you get past the idea that 1 Timothy 2:12 means all women in all churches for all time, it’s easy to see, or at least it should be, IMO. It’s not as cut and dried as complementarians believe. This subject is just as debatable as the doctrine of election or eschatology. It’s simply a matter of interpretation. The egalitarian position should be given just as much consideration and respect as the other.
I’ve been a Baptist or Baptistic in my theology nearly my whole Christian life. Therefore, my position regarding the role of women in our local church assemblies has traditionally been in line with their core beliefs, which includes a complementarian viewpoint regarding the role of women. However, for the past few years I’ve been sitting on the fence about this. I’ve been rethinking and restudying this whole matter. What follows in this study is, what I believe to be, a reasonable interpretation.
Complementarians don’t have to agree, but neither should anyone be regarded as liberal or drifting from the truth by holding an egalitarian understanding. Such is completely unwarranted. Further, egalitarians may not agree with all my interpretations regarding the controversial passages, but we can agree on the bottom line: the Bible does, in fact, provide support for women leadership and teaching positions in the local church.
This is a bit lengthy, but there’s a lot to cover.
Where do we start?
First, we must identify the controversial passages of Scripture regarding this subject.
Second, we need to determine if there are any plain references to women teaching or serving as leaders in a local church setting.
Third, we need to determine which other scriptures should serve as our foundational verses, allowing us to interpret the more controversial verses.
(1 Timothy 2:11-12) 11 A woman must learn quietly with all submissiveness. 12 But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man. She must remain quiet.
(1 Corinthians 14:33-35) – 33 For God is not a God of disorder but of peace—as in all the congregations of the Lord’s people. 34 Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. 35 If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church. (NIV)
(1 Corinthians 11:3) – 3 But I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God. (NIV)
(Ephesians 5:22-24) – 22 Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands. (ESV) [Col 3:18; 1 Pet 3:1]
(1 Peter 3:1-7) – 1 In the same way, wives, be subject to your own husbands. Then, even if some are disobedient to the word, they will be won over without a word by the way you live, 2 when they see your pure and reverent conduct. 3 Let your beauty not be external—the braiding of hair and wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes— 4 but the inner person of the heart, the lasting beauty of a gentle and tranquil spirit, which is precious in God’s sight. 5 For in the same way the holy women who hoped in God long ago adorned themselves by being subject to their husbands, 6 like Sarah who obeyed Abraham, calling him lord. You become her children when you do what is good and have no fear in doing so. 7 Husbands, in the same way, treat your wives with consideration as the weaker partners and show them honor as fellow heirs of the grace of life. In this way nothing will hinder your prayers.
1 Timothy 3:1-12
Paul Recognized and Approved Female Teacher-Leaders
(1 Cor 11:3-5) – 3 But I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God. 4 Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head. 5 But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head—it is the same as having her head shaved. (NIV)
Here we see that Paul recognizes men “praying and prophesying” (first part); that’s a given. But he also recognizes women “praying and prophesying” (second part). You can’t accept the first part without accepting the second part. It’s only reasonable to conclude that Paul recognized and approved the role of women praying and prophesying in the local assembly of believers, just as he did the men.
If that’s not enough to convince us, Paul confirms this allowance three chapters later in chapter 14. But before we see what Paul reveals about the role of women in that chapter, we first have to see how the gift of prophecy is defined. He does that for us too.
Those who had the gift of prophecy, were called prophets. Prophets were not individuals who merely prophesied about the future, but primarily those who spoke for God, who spoke the very words of God. This is especially important to realize in the context of the New Testament. While they may have prophesied about future events, their primary role was speaking God’s Word. In the context of the NT, the prophets spoke the teachings of the Christian faith as it was revealed to them — while the NT Scriptures were being written. Christians in the early Church didn’t have the completed NT Scriptures as we have today. Yet they had the same need to learn the truths of the Christian faith as we have (post completion of the NT Scriptures). I’m not saying the prophets spoke the exact words as they were written by the NT writers, but they spoke the substance of what is written in those Scriptures. Consider the following passages:
(Ephesians 2:19-20) – 19 So then you are no longer foreigners and noncitizens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of God’s household, 20 because you have been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone.
(Ephesians 3:4-6) – 4 When you read this, you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ, 5 which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit. 6 This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel. (ESV)
(1 Corinthians 12:28) – 28 And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, helping, administrating, and various kinds of tongues. (ESV)
God chose the Apostles and prophets to establish, teach, and lead the Church. The gift of prophecy (prophets) was second only to the gift of apostleship (Apostles). Since God chose the Apostles for this work, I think it’s likely that they all had the gift of prophecy. However, not everyone who had the gift of prophecy were Apostles. There were many others who had this gift, including women — as he reveals in 1 Corinthians 11 and 14.
Notice that the gift prophecy came before the gift of teaching, which is a gift that pastors (elders/overseers) have. The truths of the Christian faith had to be revealed before they could be taught. The prophets revealed the truths, while the pastors and other teachers gave the sense.
The Apostles and prophets held a place of highest prominence in the Church. Therefore, it’s absolutely certain that the prophets were recognized as leaders, serving side by side with the Apostles, as they together built the foundation of the Church (Eph 2:20). Again, this included women. We’ll look at this further next.
Note: Even if you believe the gift of prophecy is still active today, we must recognize the unique use and all-important role that this gift served in the early years of the Church while the NT Scriptures were being written and the Church was being established.
In 1 Corinthians 14 Paul describes the gift of prophecy and its purpose, and reveals that both men and women had this gift:
(1 Cor 14:3-4) – 3 But the one who prophesies speaks to people for their strengthening, encouragement, and consolation. 4 The one who speaks in a tongue builds himself up, but the one who prophesies builds up the church.
Paul is clear that the gift of prophecy is for the purpose of “strengthening, encouragement, and consolation…….for building up the church.” This only happens through the revelation and teaching of the Word of God. Those with this gift received a revelation from God, and then someone else gave the sense or the meaning. I believe it’s likely that most who had this gift, also had the gift of teaching, since they are so closely related (1 Cor 14:29). The gift of prophecy was needed while the NT Scriptures were being written. The early Christians had the same need to know the teachings of the Christian faith as we do.
(1 Cor 14:6) – 6 Now, brothers and sisters, if I come to you speaking in tongues, how will I help you unless I speak to you with a revelation or with knowledge or prophecy or teaching?
The gift of tongues had a very limited use, while the gift of prophecy was all-important, as it clearly provided the teachings of Christianity in their own language.
(1 Cor 14:12) – 12 It is the same with you. Since you are eager for manifestations of the Spirit, seek to abound in order to strengthen the church.
Again, Paul emphasizes the fact that the gift of prophecy “strengthened the church,” which is accomplished through the clear revelation and teaching of the Word of God.
(1Cor 14:18-19) – 18 I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you, 19 but in the church I want to speak five words with my mind to instruct others, rather than ten thousand words in a tongue.
Speaking “five words” in their own language via the gift of prophecy, had far more value than “ten thousand words in a tongue.” If you don’t understand the words, then it’s useless; it has no power to edify.
(1 Cor 14:24-25) – 24 But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or uninformed person enters, he will be convicted by all, he will be called to account by all. 25 The secrets of his heart are disclosed, and in this way he will fall down with his face to the ground and worship God, declaring, “God is really among you.”
Here through the use of the word “all,” Paul indicates that the gift of prophecy was practiced by both men and women. He makes no distinction. While this may be a hypothetical situation, the point is, Paul makes no distinction between men and women using this gift. If Paul absolutely forbade the use of this gift among women in the local assembly, it’s highly unlikely that he would include them here. Paul continues to reiterate the fact that it’s the gift of prophecy that changes lives.
(1 Cor 14:26) – 26 What should you do then, brothers and sisters? When you come together, each one has a song, has a lesson, has a revelation, has a tongue, has an interpretation. Let all these things be done for the strengthening of the church.
Again, Paul indicates that both men and women provided a “lesson, a revelation, a tongue, an interpretation.” Are we to believe that out of this list, women only sang “songs?” I don’t believe so, for Paul says in Colossians 3:16 to “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and exhorting one another with all wisdom…” Teaching via “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” (Col 3:16) is just one way of instructing one another; we’re obviously not limited to that. The point is, men and women teach one another.
Getting back to our present text, Paul again emphasizes that the gift of prophecy was for the purpose of “strengthening the church,” which only comes through the revelation (prophecy) and teaching of God’s Word.
(1 Cor 14:29-31) – 29 Two or three prophets should speak and the others should evaluate what is said. 30 And if someone sitting down receives a revelation, the person who is speaking should conclude. 31 For you can all prophesy one after another, so all can learn and be encouraged.
Over and over Paul emphasizes the great importance of the gift of prophecy, because while the NT Scriptures were being written in the early years of the Church, this gift was needed to provide the teachings of the Christian faith, the same teachings that we have in the completed NT today.
Furthermore, with what Paul says in chapter 11 about women “praying and prophesying,” it’s clear that he’s bringing that forward in this chapter. I would also like to point out that in regard to the gift of tongues in those days, whatever that gift was, it provided the teachings of the Christianity, but was very limited and had to be interpreted. Both men and women spoke in tongues (1 Cor 14:5,23).
There’s nothing in this chapter (leading up to 1 Cor 14:34-35) that would indicate that it was only men who had the gift of prophecy and that it was only men who used this gift in the assembly of believers. I think that would be an unreasonable conclusion. Again, I think only a positional bias would lead one to come to that conclusion. All indications are, both men and women were blessed with this gift, in order to be a blessing to others through the Word of God that they revealed.
Therefore, when we come to 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, we must realize that Paul could not have been forbidding women from teaching in local church gatherings. I think it’s clear that he had something else in mind in that passage, which we will discuss later.
The Daughters of Philip the Evangelist
(Acts 21:8-9) – 8 On the next day we left and came to Caesarea, and entered the house of Philip the evangelist, who was one of the seven, and stayed with him. 9 (He had four unmarried daughters who prophesied.)
Philip the evangelist had “four unmarried daughters who prophesied.” These women weren’t just out in the wilderness somewhere prophesying (speaking God’s Word) to a bunch of women and children! Knowing what we know about the gift of prophecy, knowing how important this gift was in delivering the teachings of the Christian faith, we know that these women had to have used this gift in the local assembly of believers (1 Cor 12:28; 1 Cor 14:4,6,12,19,26,29-31). Even if they used this gift in other settings, the primary place for using this gift was among the people of Christ, as they gathered together to hear the Word of God. This gift was primarily for the purpose of building up the Church, to strengthen and edify God’s people. The central place for doing that was in local church gatherings. This can only mean that God used both men and women to speak to His people in those gatherings!
This obviously carried over once the NT Scriptures were completed. The same teachings that were revealed to and by the prophets, are now what we have in the 27 books of the New Testament. As I said before, I’m not saying the prophets spoke the exact words of the NT Scriptures, but what they delivered was the substance of those Scriptures. The reason we can be confident of that is because Christians in those days had the same need to understand the gospel of Christ and His teachings that we do. Thus, the gift of prophecy was absolutely essential until the New Testament was completed. Women played a major role in that, in the same capacity and calling of men.
In Luke 1:39-55 we see that both Elizabeth and Mary (the mother of Jesus) were “filled with the Spirit” and spoke the Word of God. Mary in particular prophesied at length. Then there was “Anna, the daughter of Phanuel,” whom Luke identified as a “prophetess.” Luke said this about her:
(Luke 2:38) – 38 At that moment, she came up to them and began to give thanks to God and to speak about the child to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem.
All three of these women spoke the Word of God. What’s also important to realize is that every time their words are read in church services, it’s the voice of women who are speaking, as the Holy Spirit spoke through them. Whoever reads their words, are merely the messengers. Are we to believe that God would speak through women in those days (about Christ), and at the same time prohibit women from reading and explaining their words in the local assembly today? I believe such an idea is inconsistent, which doesn’t bode well for the complementarian position.
In regard to Apollos and the message he was speaking, Priscilla and her husband Aquila “took him aside and explained the way of God to him more accurately,” which took place in the synagogue in Ephesus. Along with her husband, God used this woman to speak the message of Christ to this man more accurately (Acts 18:24-28).
Huldah the prophetess (2 Kings 22:14-20; 2 Chr 34:22-28): Huldah prophesied. She spoke the Word of God. She was a messenger of the LORD. So we see prophetesses in both the OT and NT. Both under law and grace, we see God speaking through women to men. We’ll get to this passage in a bit, but 2 Timothy 2:11-15 can’t mean what complementarians believe it does. Nor can their understanding regarding headship be correct as they apply it to women’s roles in the church; we’ll get to that subject later, as well. Complementarians can’t just ignore or explain away the fact that God spoke through women in both Testaments to deliver His Word to men. This is where we need to start, not with 2 Timothy 2.
For a very informative study about Euodia and Syntyche, I encourage you to read Marg Mowczko’s article, titled “Euodia and Syntyche: Women Church Leaders at Philippi.”
Headship Favors Egalitarianism
We now come to the subject of headship, which is a primary key to properly understanding the role of women in the Church. Complementarians believe that the headship of the Father and Son validates or favors their position. I believe it’s just the opposite. Complementarians focus on just two aspects of the Divine Headship, which is subordination & different roles. They either miss or don’t acknowledge a major component of this Headship, which is shared authority. Here are the passages that deal with headship:
(1 Corinthians 11:3-5) – 3 But I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God. 4 Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head. 5 But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head—it is the same as having her head shaved. (NIV)
(Ephesians 5:22-24) – 21 submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ. 22 Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands. (ESV)
We see that God (the Father) is head of Christ, Christ is head of man, and man is head of woman. This is a pattern of subordination (subject to). Just as the Son is subordinate to the Father, so is woman subordinate to man. However, this is true positionally, which I will discuss in a bit.
Complementarians use this pattern to argue their case against women teaching and leading over men. They argue that, while each Person of the Trinity is equal to each other in every way, they each have different roles. To use one example, it was Jesus who left His throne in Heaven to become man. It was Jesus who died on the cross for our sins and rose from the dead. This is not true of the Father or the Holy Spirit. This was unique to the Son.
Therefore, following the pattern of headship between the Father and Son, complementarians argue that although men and women are equal, they have different roles, since women are subordinate to men. In other words, they interpret this pattern to mean that men are to lead and teach, and women are to follow and learn from them. That’s their respective roles, from their viewpoint.
I included verse 5 (1 Cor 11:5) because I think it’s significant that Paul mentions women praying and prophesying immediately after he talks about headship. Any notion that this headship prohibits women from speaking the word of God (reveal, teach) in the local assembly of believers – where both men and women are present – is immediately squelched. Yet, complementarians either overlook this connection, disregard it, or explain it away in some fashion. Whatever point Paul is making regarding this headship, we cannot overlook the fact that he validates the practice of women praying and speaking God’s Word in the local gathering of believers (vs. 5) in that context, just as much as he’s validating men doing the same thing (vs. 4).
A major oversight of application
As I mentioned in the beginning of this section, complementarians focus only on subordination of headship and different roles. What they overlook in this pattern between the Father and Son is their shared authority. As Jesus Himself said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” (Matt 28:18). He also said (regarding His life) “I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. ” (Jn 17:17-18). Further: Jesus created the universe (Col 1:15-17) and co-rules with His Father, sitting at His right hand (Eph 1:20; Col 3:1; He 1:3,13; He 12:2); Jesus has authority to forgive sins (Matt 9:6); Jesus has been given authority over all humanity, even giving eternal life to all who have been given to Him (Jn 17:2).
Recognition of this shared authority that Jesus has with the Father is absolutely necessary, because it’s authority that we’re dealing with in this discussion of women’s roles in the church. This shared authority between the Father and Son, provides a clear pattern for men and women in our service to Christ in the local assembly.
God the Father is head of Christ. Yet, they share the same authority. We must not miss the significance of this. Since the Father and Son have a shared authority, this headship (subordination) is to be understood as a positional relationship. Yes, the Son is subject to the Father, but in practice they have the same authority over all things. We can’t talk about headship and different roles, without talking about this shared authority. We can’t accept certain aspects of it while rejecting this one. This shared authority must be applied to men and women in the local church (and in the home).
Yes, man is head of woman, and yes, the husband is head of the wife (Eph 5:23), but this is to be understood as a positional relationship. If we’re going to follow the pattern provided by the Father and Son, then we must apply this shared authority they have to men and women (and husband and wives) in our service to Christ.
Which brings us to 1 Corinthians 11:10, where Paul refers to a “symbol of authority” on the head of women. Based on what we’ve learned about headship, this should be understood as a shared authority, which Paul confirms in the next verse, where he says that “in the Lord woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. For just as woman came from man, so man comes through woman. But all things come from God” (1 Cor 11:11-12). Positionally, I believe this symbol of authority refers to the authority of man over woman, but in practice it’s an authority that they share, just as the Father and Son do. Just as the authority of the Father is given to the Son, it follows that the authority of man is given to woman, because that’s the pattern we see in the Divine Headship. We must not confuse position with practice. Our position in Christ and how that’s lived out in practice is something we all know about (state & standing). Therefore, it’s important that we recognize and make that distinction in male/female relationships — both in the church and in marriage.
Note 1: In regard to “the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church” (Eph 5:23), I believe this helps confirm a shared authority between husband and wife (man and woman), because both men and women are members of the Church. This puts us on an equal level. I believe it pictures both the position and practice of headship between husband and wife and man and woman. Positionally man is head of woman, but in practice we have a shared authority as equals in Christ (Gal 3:28) as co-members of His Church, of whom He is head.
Note 2: In regard to verse 3 and 5 (1 Cor 11:3,5), most translations consistently translate the same Greek words as “man” and “woman” in both verses (and throughout context), instead of “husband” and “wife,” while some translations read “husband and wife” in verse 3, but “man” and “woman” in verse 5 (and throughout context).
The ESV is the only major translation that has “husband” and “wife” in both places (and throughout context). The ESV notes on these two Greek words says: “Greek gunē. This term may refer to a woman or a wife, depending on the context,” and “Greek anēr. This term may refer to a man or a husband, depending on the context.” Yet, the context of this chapter is not about the husband and wife relationship, but about men and women in general. Furthermore, it makes no sense to translate those words as “husband” and “wife” in verse 3, but then translate the same Greek words as “man” and “woman” in verse 5 (and throughout context). Context and consistency requires the use of “man” and “woman” in both places and throughout Paul’s discussion.
Note 3: If you’re not comfortable with the way I described this headship and authority (position/practice), let’s keep it simple and just recognize it for what it is. There’s a hierarchy involved between the Father and Son, man and woman, husband and wife. But at the same time, the Son is given “all authority in heaven and on earth.” Both the hierarchy and the shared authority between the Father and Son are facts. Therefore, if we’re going to recognize the hierarchy between the Father and Son to interpret the role of women in relation to men, then we must also apply the example of their shared authority to the man/woman and husband/wife relationship. We really don’t have to go beyond this as an explanation (although I think the above discussion is helpful).
Explaining the Controversial Passages
Now that a biblical basis for the egalitarian position has been firmly established, we need to discuss the primary controversial passages that seem to support the complementarian position. It should be noted that even if my interpretations are incorrect on all these passages, it nevertheless seems certain that the New Testament promotes the allowance of women teaching and leading in the local church. There’s enough biblical support to come to that conclusion. That’s what we must keep in mind as we examine these passages. Therefore, whatever our interpretations are, we can still rest in the fact the Bible supports the role of women in the church as leader-teachers. That’s the most important point that needs to be made here.
Since we’ve already been discussing Ephesians 5 and headship, we’ll continue in Ephesians 5 and take a closer look at that first:
21 submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ. 22 Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands. (ESV)
In verse 21 Paul instructs us to “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ,” and this subject of submission introduces the verses that follow (Eph 5:22-6:9), where he gives examples of submission between husband and wife, children and parents, slaves and masters — all “out of reverence for Christ.” Paul talks about the responsibilities of both parties in each relationship. Obedience is not in view, except in children to parents and slaves to masters. We must not make the mistake of interpreting submission as obedience in the husband-wife relationship. In other words, Paul is not saying that wives are to obey their husbands. I was in extreme fundamentalist churches for about ten years where wives were practically put on the same level as the children. This is a warped interpretation of what Paul is conveying here.
What this does mean, first of all, is that husbands and wives are to submit to one another. It’s a mutual submission. Context is everything. In verse 19, Paul talks about “speaking to one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.” Then instructs us to “submit to one another” in verse 21. That’s the context.
So what did Paul have in mind in this mutual submission between the husband and wife? He talks about it throughout this whole passage (thru verse 33). I believe this submission to each other is in the sense of devotion to one another. Wives are to be totally devoted to their own husbands “as to the Lord” (vs. 21). Again, Paul is not saying that the wife is to be obedient to her husband as she is to the Lord. Otherwise, that puts wives on the same level as the children to their parents, and the husband as lord (master) over his wife. Thus wives are to have an undivided devotion to their husband, just as the Church is devoted (submits) to Christ (vs. 24), and to no one else. Our allegiance is to Christ, and to Him alone. Likewise, wives to their husbands (and husbands to wives).
Paul specifically instructs wives to “respect” their husbands, and husbands are to “love their wives as Christ loved the church and gave himself for her,” and as they do “their own bodies.” (Eph 5:25,28,33). I believe Paul is addressing the needs of each one. Generally, while husbands want to be loved by their wives, I think it’s more important for them to be respected by their wives — while wives would rather be loved, and have a need to be loved. Again, respect does not mean obey! In verse 31 Paul refers to the fact that the husband and wife become “one flesh.” This speaks of a oneness that they have. They are in a oneness relationship, where they live their lives side by side, just as Eve was created from the side of Adam (Ge 2:21-23). Paul also instructs wives to love their husbands in Titus 2:4. This describes an equal and shared treatment of one another.
For husbands to “love their wives as Christ loved the church and gave himself for her,” means to give of themselves to her sacrificially, as Jesus gave of Himself:
(Phil 2:5-8) – 5 You should have the same attitude toward one another that Christ Jesus had, 6 who though he existed in the form of God did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself by taking on the form of a slave, by looking like other men, and by sharing in human nature. 8 He humbled himself, by becoming obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross!
Jesus is our example in all our relationships and in our service to Him, as Jesus Himself said, “the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, (Matt 20:24-28). This speaks of “equality” (Ph 2:5) in a shared service — in both the home and in the assembly of believers, as those who are one in Him (Gal 3:28). The idea that the husband and males are the sole authority in the home and in the local church is contrary to these passages and to the whole of New Testament teaching.
I already talked about headship (Eph 5:23) in the previous section, so there’s no need to discuss that any further here, except to say that this is a positional subordination. In practice husbands and wives (men and women) have a shared authority, just as the Father and Son have a shared authority. If husbands and wives are being selflessly devoted to one another, always seeking to please the other, then there is no conflict in this shared authority — just as there is no conflict in the shared authority between the Father and Son.
The way complementarians interpret this submission and headship (subordination), it comes too close to putting wives (women in general), on the same level as obedient children to their parents, where men rule both the home and the church. That’s not what Paul was teaching! He doesn’t instruct the wives to obey (authority) their husbands. He only gives this instruction to children and slaves in this passage. We must make that distinction.
Since 1 Peter 3:1-7 is similar to this Ephesians 5 passage, we’ll continue there in this same vein of thought:
1 Peter 3:1-7
1 In the same way, wives, be subject to your own husbands. Then, even if some are disobedient to the word, they will be won over without a word by the way you live, 2 when they see your pure and reverent conduct. 3 Let your beauty not be external—the braiding of hair and wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes— 4 but the inner person of the heart, the lasting beauty of a gentle and tranquil spirit, which is precious in God’s sight. 5 For in the same way the holy women who hoped in God long ago adorned themselves by being subject to their husbands, 6 like Sarah who obeyed Abraham, calling him lord. You become her children when you do what is good and have no fear in doing so. 7 Husbands, in the same way, treat your wives with consideration as the weaker partners and show them honor as fellow heirs of the grace of life. In this way nothing will hinder your prayers.
Since this passage is similar to the one in Ephesians 5, it needs to be interpreted basically the same way.
Subject to, obey = To honor, a humble yielding of one’s will to the will of another, with the desire to please another.
While this pertains to wives in this context, this is essentially what the husband is commanded to do in Ephesians 5 (and in verse 7 of this passage), where he’s commanded to love his wife “as Christ loved the Church and gave himself for her” (Eph 5:25). Loving in such a manner means to give of oneself in such a loving way that we “give honor to (vs. 7), humbly yield our will to the will of another, with the desire to please another.” We see an equality and an equal balance between the husband and wife — not “equal but with different roles,” but equal and with a mutual submission and a shared authority — because: Wives and husbands are essentially commanded to treat each other the same way, but it’s described differently. In other words, how it’s all lived out in practice, it amounts to the same thing, where there is total harmony between them (as with the Father and Son). It must be emphasized that this type of relationship equates to mutual submission and shared authority, because there is essentially no difference in the way they function in their relationship (practice):
One honors the other (1 Pe 3:7; Ro 12:10). One yields their will to the other. One puts the other ahead of the other (Ph 2:3). One considers the needs and desires of the other ahead of their own (Phi 2:4). They seek to please the other. One seeks the benefit of the other. One loves and respects the other. One respects the opinion and wisdom of the other. One teaches the other (Col 3:16), Etc. This is the type of teaching that we see throughout the New Testament. All the commands in the NT regarding relationships (how we’re to treat one another), we’re to apply to the husband/wife (man/woman) relationship, as well. The whole New Testament speaks of equality in Christ, a oneness in Christ, and a shared authority between us in our service to Christ.
“like Sarah who obeyed Abraham, calling him lord”
We need to take a closer look at this phrase. Peter is quoting Genesis 18:12. Expositor’s Bible Commentary about this phrase:
“The great model of womanly submission is Sarah, whose respect and obedience to Abraham extended to her speech—she “called him her master.” Such terminology was not uncommon in the ancient world (cf. Ge 18:12).”
While this was common in the Jewish, patriarchal culture of those days, Peter was not instructing Christian wives to call their husbands “lord” (master), as those who are in Christ of the New Covenant. Neither was he instructing wives to “obey” their husbands, as though slaves to masters, or as children to parents. This is a misapplication, and one that has been greatly abused. Peter was merely giving an example from the Old Testament of what submission looked like in that culture, in that era, which carries over to the New Testament as “to honor, to humbly yield one’s will to the will of another, with the desire to please another.” Again, this is no less than what husbands are to do toward their wives as those who are in Christ (1 Pe 3:7).
If complementarians believe Peter was instructing wives to live in obedience to their husbands, then they should also insist on wives calling their husbands “lord or master.” You can’t accept one part of it while rejecting the other. You can’t have it both ways. If pastors and other Bible teachers are going to teach wives to obey their husbands, then they should also teach them to call them lord or master — which is something I’ve never heard them do. They zero in on the word “obeyed,” while totally ignoring the “calling him lord” part. This reflects a biased point of view.
What Paul says in the Ephesians passage and what Peter says in this passage, points to an equality and an equal treatment between husbands and wives (Eph 5:25 & Tit 2:4), as well as between men and women in general. It points to a mutual submission and a shared authority. That’s who we are in Christ (Gal 3:28).
Note: I believe it must have been a major adjustment for Jewish Christians – who were brought up in a patriarchal culture – in the beginning of the Church era. Transitioning from Old Covenant to New Covenant was difficult in many ways for them. The relationships and roles between men and women was one of those difficulties. Firmly held understandings and beliefs and lifestyles don’t change overnight.
1 Timothy 2:11-12
11 A woman must learn quietly with all submissiveness. 12 But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man. She must remain quiet.
This is the primary passage complementarians use to support their position. It’s also one of the most difficult (includes verses 13-15) — even though they insist that this statement should be accepted as it sounds on the surface, and should be used as the foundational verse for understanding the roles of women in the church. But given what we’ve learned so far, and given that there are so many different interpretations for this whole passage (1 Ti 2:11-15), they simply aren’t correct in their assessment. Since we already know that Paul recognized and encouraged women to lead and teach in the assembly of believers, we know that Paul does not mean what these two verses mean on the surface. He must have known about a particular situation in that church (Ephesus) that he was addressing.
While we’re not given the details about that situation, based on what Paul says in these two verses (and in verses 13-15), I believe he gives us clues. If we think through it carefully enough, I believe we can come to a reasonable and sensible understanding of what Paul was addressing.
The first thing we see is that women were to “learn quietly with all submissiveness.” Paul was encouraging the women to “learn.” And obviously, they were to learn according to the truth. And they were to do that “quietly.” They were to be completely “submissive” to the male authority who were teaching in this church. Apparently this church had all male leaders at that particular time, as 1 Timothy 3:1-13 suggests.
Each of these three words (learn, quietly, submit) gives us a picture of the situation there. Apparently there was a group of women who were deceived (which is confirmed in the verses that follow), and not learning according to the truth. It could have been gnosticism, which was a problem in the early years of the church. Or perhaps more likely, it could have been related to the religion of that city, which was “Artemis of the Ephesians” (Acts 19:28). But whatever it was, they were being very loud and vocal about it, and influencing other believers — particularly other women, apparently. Instead of learning in humility from the leaders and teachers in their church, they were taking over and spreading their false doctrine. Thus, at this particular time, instead of learning the truth in humility from the male leaders there, they were being very loud and disruptive with their false teaching.
Therefore, Paul didn’t “permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man” at that time, under those circumstances. The NET Notes are very instructive on this matter of “authority” that Paul is talking about:
NET Notes: “tn According to BDAG 150 s.v. αὐθεντέω this Greek verb means “to assume a stance of independent authority, give orders to, dictate to” (cf. JB “tell a man what to do”).
To “assume a stance of independent authority:” I believe that was the situation in this church. The women were assuming a stance of independent authority, rather than learning and submitting to the authority that God had placed over them. This phrase independent authority is a key to interpreting Paul’s intended meaning of this passage. It suggests prideful rebellion.
Therefore, this was a situational decision he made for this particular church for that particular time. This was not a sweeping restriction against all women for all churches for all time. Knowing what we know from the previous sections of this study, this cannot possibly be what Paul meant. For the church of Ephesus at that time, it’s evident that there was a problem of deception, a lack of humility, rebellion, and the spreading of false teaching on the part of a certain group of women who went rogue. This is the picture that we have here. Again, the following verses confirms this:
(1 Tim 2:13-15) – 13 For Adam was formed first and then Eve. 14 And Adam was not deceived, but the woman, because she was fully deceived, fell into transgression. 15 But she will be delivered through childbearing, if she continues in faith and love and holiness with self-control.
This is a very difficult passage to interpret, and there are a lot of interpretations for it. To save time and space, I’m not going to go into all the different interpretations. You can read commentaries for that. I’ll just present what I believe Paul is talking about. It’s directly connected to what he said in verses 11-12. It forms a unit.
First of all, I don’t believe Paul is teaching doctrine in these verses. He’s just using an example from the Old Testament and applying it to this particular situation. Pastors do this regularly in their sermons. Assuming that Paul is making a doctrinal statement about women, is assuming too much, and turning this into something that it’s not.
“Adam was formed first and then Eve.”
Why did Paul mention this? What happened between the time God created Adam and the time He created Eve? That’s a key to making sense out of these verses. As we see in Genesis 2:7-9,15-17, God commanded Adam not to “eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will surely die.” Therefore, I believe the point Paul is making is that Adam received this command from God directly, while Eve apparently heard it from Adam. In other words, Adam heard it right from the Source, and so it had a greater impact on him and understood the situation better than Eve did. Therefore, “Adam was “not deceived.” On the other hand, since Eve received this command from God second hand, she was more easily deceived in this particular situation.
When Eve was lured in by the crafty words of Satan to partake of the forbidden tree (Ge 3:1-6), she should have talked to Adam about it first! That’s where she made her mistake. She knew that God had commanded them not to eat of the fruit of that particular tree (Ge 2:17; Ge 3:11). Therefore, she should have acted wisely and talked to Adam about this situation before she ate the fruit of that tree.
Likewise, the women in this church should have acted wisely and talked to their leaders and teachers about this teaching they were learning, to make sure they were learning according to the truth. But they didn’t do that. Like Eve, they were lured in by the crafty words of Satan (through whomever they were learning from), and like Eve, they didn’t confer with their leader-teachers before partaking of the fruit of this false teaching. They should have run this new teaching past them first.
What Paul was not suggesting is that women are more easily deceived than men, as apparently many Christians believe to be the case when they interpret this passage. Are we really to believe that women have a more natural inclination towards being deceived than men? Especially Christian women who have the same Holy Spirit to teach us as the men do? There’s no sense to that, nor is that idea taught anywhere in the New Testament. It’s been my observation throughout my lifetime that men are just as easily deceived as women are. Look around, I’m sure you will see the same thing.
We now come to the most perplexing statement that Paul makes in this whole passage. Again, the interpretations are many. Verse 15:
(1 Tim 2:15) – 15 But she will be delivered through childbearing, if she continues in faith and love and holiness with self-control.
In order to interpret this correctly, we have to keep it in the context of Paul’s discussion. Again, Paul was not making a doctrinal statement. He was not teaching doctrine here. He was merely using an example from the Old Testament and applying it to that particular situation. Therefore, we have to answer the question, “delivered” (saved) from what? In context, I believe Paul has to be referring to being delivered from deception (and the consequences of it: no salvation, or whatever the case may be). Thus, these women would be delivered from being further deceived, and the resulting consequences of being deceived (straying completely and forever away from the truth of Christ). That seems clear enough, but what does that have to do with “childbearing” (childbirth). Some believe that Paul was referring to the childbearing of women in general, while others believe he was referring to the birth of Christ through Mary (which results in salvation through Him). I don’t believe either is in view.
I believe Paul was referring specifically to the childbearing of Eve. So now we must ask, how is one delivered from deception and its consequences through the childbearing of Eve? Keeping in mind that Paul is just using that situation with Eve as an example to make a point, Paul is saying that the women who were causing problems (and others who would follow their example), would be delivered from the same type of deception and consequences that befell Eve. As a consequence of Eve’s deception and disobedience (“fell into transgression”), she died both spiritually and physically (eventually). God also multiplied her pain in giving birth (Ge 3:16). Accordingly, in referring to Eve’s childbearing, Paul was referring to her multiplied pain in childbearing, which was part of the consequences of her deception and disobedience to God. Deception and false teaching results in pain and multiplied pain as one continues in it — which leads away from Christ and salvation in Him.
In other words, the women in this church who were causing problems with their false teaching, would be saved from deception and the consequences of it, via the example of Eve and what her multiplied pain-childbearing represents (being deceived, spiritual death, separation from God). I believe Paul mentions Eve’s childbearing as a general reference to that whole situation with her. He then adds, “if she continues in faith and love and holiness with self-control.” That’s the evidence of someone who has repented, is walking in true faith in Christ, walking in humble obedience to God, and submitting to those whom He has placed over them as their spiritual leaders.
Once the women in this church had been properly taught (learning and understanding the true teachings of Christ), then they would be allowed to lead and teach, as long as they were gifted for it, and as long as they were approved for such work.
Note: It’s difficult to determine if the women in question were born-again believers or not. Verses 9 & 10 (1 Ti 2:9-10) suggest Paul had believers in mind. But verses 13-15 (1 Ti 2:13-15) suggest he had unsaved women in their midst in mind. Such is the difficulty in interpreting this passage. But either way, involved here is deception, consequences and being delivered from both.
If they were saved, it could be that upon learning of their equality and oneness (with men) in Christ (Gal 3:28; Eph 2:11-16), these women felt liberated. Such was not always the case in the cultures of that day (and in our day too in certain parts of the world. For example, Islamic cultures). With this newfound freedom, they may have taken it too far, and began to “assume a stance of independent authority” (NET Notes above), teaching things they should not, lacking in true “faith and love and holiness with self-control.” This may have been a factor in that situation Paul was addressing.
I believe the interpretation given for this passage makes good sense, and deserves as much consideration as any other. This passage (verses 11-15) is just so difficult. It amazes me that complementarians think this passage is plainly stated and clearly understood, focusing primarily on verses 11-12. But that’s simply not true. When taken as a whole and factor in verses 13-15 (as we should), this passage is anything but plainly stated and clearly understood. The reality is, Paul didn’t make it clear what he was actually talking about, and for whatever reason, this is the way the Holy Spirit led him. Even Peter, himself an Apostle, said of Paul: “Some things in these letters are hard to understand” (2 Pe 3:16). So, we just need to do the best we can to interpret what he meant. This happens to be my best…..at least for now. I’ll continue to study.
1 Corinthians 14:33-35
33 For God is not a God of disorder but of peace—as in all the congregations of the Lord’s people. 34 Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. 35 If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church. (NIV)
This passage is a lot easier to interpret than the one in 1 Timothy 2:11-15. The explanation is also a lot shorter.
Since Paul recognizes and encourages women to prophesy (reveal God Word, teach) in chapter 11 and throughout this same chapter (14), we know that he cannot be prohibiting women from doing so! That wouldn’t make any sense. Accordingly, I think the simple answer is, there were women in this church who were being disruptive, talking a lot and asking a lot of questions during the services, while the Word of God was being revealed and explained. Like the women in the church of Ephesus (1 Tim 2:11-15), they needed to submit to their leaders and learn quietly, saving their questions for their husbands at home.
It could also be (like the women in Ephesus), that they were injecting their own ideas about what was being taught. But generally, I believe the problem was that there were certain ungifted women who were being disruptive or out of order — as Paul mentions in the verse immediately before he gave this command about women being silent (1 Cor 14:33). Thus Paul was seeking to maintain proper order in the services, not prohibiting women from teaching and leading (those who were gifted for it).
Perhaps (if not likely) another factor is that there was jealousy involved with many of these women. The Corinthian church had serious pride problems, and there were many who were using their gifts for selfish reasons, and not for the good of their fellow believers. Many of these women may have observed the giftedness (prophesying, teaching) of other women and tried to advance themselves in the eyes of others by speaking about things they had no understanding about (ungifted, untaught). Paul had to put a stop to it.
As in the Ephesian church, Paul was addressing a particular situation in the Corinthian church at that time. He was not making a doctrinal statement that excludes women from teaching and leading in the local assembly of believers. It’s important to realize that Paul was likely informed about the situation in both churches, and he was instructing them about those situations.
For further reading about the gift of prophecy, I would like to encourage you to read my series on the Gifts of the Spirit, particularly my commentary on 1 Corinthians chapters 12 & 14:
1 Timothy 3:1-13 & Titus 1:5-9
Complementarians view these passages as validation of their position, because Paul states these requirements for being an overseer (elder) and deacon with men in view. However, it’s not at all surprising that Paul does this. I think it’s fair to say that in every culture and in every generation it’s been mostly men who have served as leaders in the local church. It may also be true that there are, and always have been, more men than women who “aspire” to serve in this capacity. Therefore, Paul provides these requirements with the most common practice in view. Furthermore, there may have been only male leaders in these churches at that particular time.
However, since we already know that Paul recognized, approved and encouraged female teaching and leadership in the local assembly, we know that he must have written this as a template for women also, where we make the adjustments as needed. I really believe it’s that simple. While nothing more really needs to be said about this, I would like to point out one thing in regard to 1 Timothy 3:5,12:
5 But if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for the church of God?
12 Deacons must be husbands of one wife and good managers of their children and their own households.
One of the requirements for leading as an overseer or as a deacon is that they need to be good managers of their households. I think this is important to consider, because in the same book of 1 Timothy, Paul actually identifies the wife as the manager of the home:
(1 Tim 5:14) – 14 So I would have younger widows marry, bear children, manage their households, and give the adversary no occasion for slander. (ESV)
Paul says that both the husband and wife are to be managers of their homes. This is a shared authority and a shared responsibility that they have, as we discussed before. This is no small detail that we must not overlook. It’s just another indication that Paul had both men and women in view when giving these requirements for church leadership.
I know these interpretations aren’t going to satisfy everyone, nor will everyone agree with the resulting positional conclusion. The walls of deeply held convictions don’t fall easily, especially when held for decades, as was the case with me. It took years for me to get to this point once I started rethinking the complementarian position. All those years I sincerely believed that I had the truth on my side. It was a matter of interpretation. It’s a matter of interpretation for those on both sides of the issue. Therefore, I don’t believe it’s helpful to hurl accusations at one another. We need to extend grace to each other and realize that it’s a matter of what we believe the Bible teaches on this subject.
I now believe that women have been short-changed in opportunities to serve the Lord. I also believe that complementarian churches have – to some degree – missed out, by not having the opportunity to hear a woman’s perspective. Women have a perspective that men don’t have. Together they can provide a balance of perspectives in both application of Scripture and in decision-making as elder-teachers. This is a benefit that Christians don’t have in those churches.
I believe women have a lot to offer by way of leadership, particularly as pastors. Personally, I may have the gift of teaching, but I lack in shepherd-giftedness. For example, my wife is a good Bible teacher, but she also has a true shepherd’s heart. She has a genuine love and compassion for others, a truly caring person. She’s an example of the type of women-shepherding that complementarian churches have missed out on. A church with a blend of male and female leadership provides a wonderful balance. I have to believe now that this is the way the Lord intended it. One of my guiding principles for living life is “balance in all things.” This is the perfect example of that.
A combination of male and female church leader-teachers removes any air of superiority between the two sexes, and promotes humility. I’ve seen this type of attitude in churches where men rule like kings. It’s not a healthy environment, and can be very toxic. I’m not saying that all male-led churches have this problem, but I know that it’s a problem in many churches. Having a shared authority removes that type of atmosphere, where everyone is respected and regarded as an equal, as one, just as Paul reveals in Galatians 3:28. Just as the husband and wife (mom and dad) provide a healthy and needed balance in the home, it serves the same purpose in the local church.
I must admit, having been a complementarian for decades, this will take some getting used to. But in all sincerity, I can’t deny what I now see in Scripture, as I’ve laid out before you in this study. This is a life-changer for me. I hope this has been as beneficial for you as it’s been for me. Even if you’re not yet convinced, I pray that you’ll at least be able to see that there’s an actual biblical basis for the egalitarian position, and that you’ll have a new respect for your brothers and sisters in Christ who hold this view.