The basic positions may not have shifted in the ministry-and-gender conversation, but the cultural context around it has. Kara Hartley looks at it from the complementarian point of view. Kara is the Archdeacon for Women in the Diocese of Sydney.

 When it comes to the ongoing disagreements in evangelicalism about the Scriptural teaching on the roles of women in Christian leadership the phrase from Ecclesiastes 1:9 comes to mind, ‘There’s nothing new under the sun.’ That is not to say nothing has been written. On the contrary, over the last 20 years there have been numerous books, blogs, articles, and talks given to the topic. Commentators from both sides continue to advocate their position with passion and vigour. I have been asked to write about whether there have been any new developments in these debates, without necessarily repeating all that has gone before. My conclusion is that despite all the ink that’s been spilled (or keyboards that have been thumped) no real game-changing arguments have emerged. The disagreements so passionately debated are generally a rehash of what has been said already. Yet while the arguments haven’t necessarily changed, the context in which we have them has. Various conversations around sexuality and gender, movements like #metoo and issues relating to domestic violence have certainly placed a renewed spotlight on Scripture’s teaching on roles of men and women, in both the home and in the church.

 

Given these cultural shifts and conversations, it is now as important as ever to be clear on how both to read and to apply the Bible to all aspects of life. Evangelicals are, of course, committed to the final and absolute authority of the Bible as the written word of the living God. We read the Bible with confidence, knowing that what God teaches us there is good and for the lasting benefit and enrichment of his people. We believe that the loving God who addresses us here is able to do so effectively. We seek to let the words of the text determine our theologising, rather than possible extra-biblical historical reconstructions or lived experience, and we read each text within the context of the chapter, book and the whole of Scripture. We also pay careful attention to how each particular text contributes to the Bible’s testimony to Christ. We believe that the sacred writings (in the original context the Old Testament but clearly extending to the New Testament even as it is being written) are able to make us wise for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ (2 Tim. 3:15).

Appreciating this establishes the way we need to approach the ongoing differences between egalitarian and complementarian views on the roles of men and women in relation to leadership in the church, and headship and submission in marriage. What is clear as the debates continue is that neither side has changed the fundamental arguments for their respective positions. The theological principles foundational to the complementarian framework remain unchanged. These include the following:

1. Complementarians affirm the equality of women and men, made in the image of God (Genesis 1-2) Women and men are equal in essence and worth.
2. Complementarians believe that while there is equality between men and women they exercise some distinctive roles in the church and family life.
3. Complementarians continue to affirm that the gifts of women and men are to be used for the building and benefit of the church, in ways that reflect their gender distinction.
4. Very importantly, complementarians continue to repudiate the misuse of Scripture to promote, justify or condone any inappropriate, evil, and sinful behavior of abuse within marriage.

Historically some of these principles have been debated and lived out differently in different places. For example, in some parts of US evangelical culture, there have been expressions of complementarianism which have gone beyond Scripture to posit one-size-fits-all prescriptions for ‘manhood’ and ‘womanhood’, rather than focusing where the Bible does, on godliness for all in our diversity, and specific roles and functions for some within certain relationships.

In Australia, particularly in the last 10 years, positive steps have been taken in complementarian thinking and practice to enable and explore the biblical model of women and men ministering together and alongside each other in partnership. One example is the Priscilla and Aquila Centre at Moore College. Its mission is giving a renewed focus on how to promote and celebrate the ministries of women, in partnership with, rather than in isolation from, men and the ministries of men. There is a deep commitment to encourage, strengthen, and improve the practical expression of complementarianism, teaching and modeling biblically faithful patterns of men and women in partnership in ministry.

In recent years the doctrine of the Trinity has been a locus for debate on the roles of men and women. Despite there being differences of thought amongst complementarians, most particularly in Australia, they do not rely upon the doctrine of the Trinity as a basis for this teaching. It is anchored more in what we see as the consistent teaching of Scripture about the nature of male and female relationships and in particular the teaching of the New Testament in places such as Ephesians 5, 1 Corinthians 11, 1 Timothy 2. However, in the last ten years a debate has arisen about the way some have appealed to the doctrine of the Trinity. The debate is more complex and nuanced than many people realised (and some blog posts on either side were decidedly unhelpful), especially since on both sides there is an insistence upon the absolute equality of the divine persons. The Father, Son and Spirit are one in being and are worthy of the same honour and worship. However, the question remained as to whether that absolute equality entailed reciprocity of relation or whether it could coexist with asymmetrical relations. Complementarians insist that the Father and the Son are not simply interchangeable. The Father is not the Son and the Son is not the Father. There is something about sonship which properly attaches to the second person of the Trinity but not to the first person of the Trinity. Could absolute and entire equality within the Trinity coexist with the voluntary submission of the Son in eternity? The debate continues, with both sides appealing to ancient and modern theologians whose arguments resemble their own. Sadly, far too often caricature and misrepresentation has distorted the conversation.

As mentioned earlier there are some cultural changes and conversations, which have also caused some to question the legitimacy of a complementarian reading of the Scriptures. Domestic abuse is one such matter. Complementarians have been accused that teaching headship and submission in marriage empowers abusers, particularly husbands, to be violent towards their wives. Calls to remove teaching on male headship and female submission have grown louder. There have been attempts to argue for direct causal links between this teaching and domestic abuse. There are several comments to be made. Firstly, The Bible is God’s good word to us and passages like Ephesians 5 need to be handled carefully and wisely, but not ignored. Secondly, to suggest causal links between the teaching on headship and submission and abuse means that logically there shouldn’t be domestic abuse in egalitarian churches. But of course this is not the case. Thirdly, and following on, domestic abuse exists fundamentally because of sin and this sin requires true and sincere repentance. It could not be clearer that God’s word offers no comfort, justification or cover for anyone to get their way through violence or threats. Instead, violence and threats, especially against those without power and authority, are expressly and repeatedly condemned. In addition to these specific sins, God explicitly forbids abuse within marriage: in particular, the misuse of his pattern for marriage as an excuse for abuse (Col. 3:19; Mal. 2:14–16 NIV; Prov. 11:29 ESV). Indeed, in the same two passages where Paul instructs wives to submit voluntarily to their husbands, Colossians 3 and Ephesians 5, he speaks forcefully to husbands about their responsibilities to their wives, and forbids them from being harsh and commands them to love their wives as they love their own bodies—nourishing and cherishing them, not hating them (Col. 3:19; Eph. 5:28–29).

Additionally, suggesting a causal link between this teaching and domestic abuse ignores the reality of male victims in domestic relationships. While statistically they make up a much smaller representation than women, in a community of men and women we must give attention to men who suffer in this way. To suggest headship and submission are the reason domestic abuse exists in the church fails to account for male victims. In the development of the Sydney Diocese Domestic Abuse policy we provided comments on various passages of scripture, rejecting their misuse and providing explanation of the correct way to understand and apply them. What is clear from this report is that using the Bible to justify abuse is a great evil. A complementarian framework for understanding the Bible does not promote, endorse or allow for abuse from men to women. Any suggestion that it does is at best, misunderstanding the issue—or at worst, mischievous.

Overall, the debates continue but the main arguments behind them don’t change. Perhaps that’s because the hermeneutical methods behind them haven’t changed either. Whatever avenues our culture goes down on issues concerning men and women, as evangelicals we must continue to humble ourselves before God’s word and allow it to be our final authority on all matters of life and doctrine. This is the non-negotiable.

When it comes to the ongoing disagreements in evangelicalism about the Scriptural teaching on the roles of women in Christian leadership the phrase from Ecclesiastes 1:9 comes to mind, ‘There’s nothing new under the sun.’ That is not to say nothing has been written. On the contrary, over the last 20 years there have been numerous books, blogs, articles, and talks given to the topic. Commentators from both sides continue to advocate their position with passion and vigour. I have been asked to write about whether there have been any new developments in these debates, without necessarily repeating all that has gone before. My conclusion is that despite all the ink that’s been spilled (or keyboards that have been thumped) no real game-changing arguments have emerged. The disagreements so passionately debated are generally a rehash of what has been said already. Yet while the arguments haven’t necessarily changed, the context in which we have them has. Various conversations around sexuality and gender, movements like #metoo and issues relating to domestic violence have certainly placed a renewed spotlight on Scripture’s teaching on roles of men and women, in both the home and in the church.

Given these cultural shifts and conversations, it is now as important as ever to be clear on how both to read and to apply the Bible to all aspects of life. Evangelicals are, of course, committed to the final and absolute authority of the Bible as the written word of the living God. We read the Bible with confidence, knowing that what God teaches us there is good and for the lasting benefit and enrichment of his people. We believe that the loving God who addresses us here is able to do so effectively. We seek to let the words of the text determine our theologising, rather than possible extra-biblical historical reconstructions or lived experience, and we read each text within the context of the chapter, book and the whole of Scripture. We also pay careful attention to how each particular text contributes to the Bible’s testimony to Christ. We believe that the sacred writings (in the original context the Old Testament but clearly extending to the New Testament even as it is being written) are able to make us wise for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ (2 Tim. 3:15).

Appreciating this establishes the way we need to approach the ongoing differences between egalitarian and complementarian views on the roles of men and women in relation to leadership in the church, and headship and submission in marriage. What is clear as the debates continue is that neither side has changed the fundamental arguments for their respective positions. The theological principles foundational to the complementarian framework remain unchanged. These include the following:

1. Complementarians affirm the equality of women and men, made in the image of God (Genesis 1-2) Women and men are equal in essence and worth.

2. Complementarians believe that while there is equality between men and women they exercise some distinctive roles in the church and family life.

3. Complementarians continue to affirm that the gifts of women and men are to be used for the building and benefit of the church, in ways that reflect their gender distinction.

4. Very importantly, complementarians continue to repudiate the misuse of Scripture to promote, justify or condone any inappropriate, evil, and sinful behavior of abuse within marriage.

Historically some of these principles have been debated and lived out differently in different places. For example, in some parts of US evangelical culture, there have been expressions of complementarianism which have gone beyond Scripture to posit one-size-fits-all prescriptions for ‘manhood’ and ‘womanhood’, rather than focusing where the Bible does, on godliness for all in our diversity, and specific roles and functions for some within certain relationships.

In Australia, particularly in the last 10 years, positive steps have been taken in complementarian thinking and practice to enable and explore the biblical model of women and men ministering together and alongside each other in partnership. One example is the Priscilla and Aquila Centre at Moore College. Its mission is giving a renewed focus on how to promote and celebrate the ministries of women, in partnership with, rather than in isolation from, men and the ministries of men. There is a deep commitment to encourage, strengthen, and improve the practical expression of complementarianism, teaching and modeling biblically faithful patterns of men and women in partnership in ministry.

In recent years the doctrine of the Trinity has been a locus for debate on the roles of men and women. Despite there being differences of thought amongst complementarians, most particularly in Australia, they do not rely upon the doctrine of the Trinity as a basis for this teaching. It is anchored more in what we see as the consistent teaching of Scripture about the nature of male and female relationships and in particular the teaching of the New Testament in places such as Ephesians 5, 1 Corinthians 11, 1 Timothy 2. However, in the last ten years a debate has arisen about the way some have appealed to the doctrine of the Trinity. The debate is more complex and nuanced than many people realised (and some blog posts on either side were decidedly unhelpful), especially since on both sides there is an insistence upon the absolute equality of the divine persons. The Father, Son and Spirit are one in being and are worthy of the same honour and worship. However, the question remained as to whether that absolute equality entailed reciprocity of relation or whether it could coexist with asymmetrical relations. Complementarians insist that the Father and the Son are not simply interchangeable. The Father is not the Son and the Son is not the Father. There is something about sonship which properly attaches to the second person of the Trinity but not to the first person of the Trinity. Could absolute and entire equality within the Trinity coexist with the voluntary submission of the Son in eternity? The debate continues, with both sides appealing to ancient and modern theologians whose arguments resemble their own. Sadly, far too often caricature and misrepresentation has distorted the conversation.

As mentioned earlier there are some cultural changes and conversations, which have also caused some to question the legitimacy of a complementarian reading of the Scriptures. Domestic abuse is one such matter. Complementarians have been accused that teaching headship and submission in marriage empowers abusers, particularly husbands, to be violent towards their wives. Calls to remove teaching on male headship and female submission have grown louder. There have been attempts to argue for direct causal links between this teaching and domestic abuse. There are several comments to be made. Firstly, The Bible is God’s good word to us and passages like Ephesians 5 need to be handled carefully and wisely, but not ignored. Secondly, to suggest causal links between the teaching on headship and submission and abuse means that logically there shouldn’t be domestic abuse in egalitarian churches. But of course this is not the case. Thirdly, and following on, domestic abuse exists fundamentally because of sin and this sin requires true and sincere repentance. It could not be clearer that God’s word offers no comfort, justification or cover for anyone to get their way through violence or threats. Instead, violence and threats, especially against those without power and authority, are expressly and repeatedly condemned. In addition to these specific sins, God explicitly forbids abuse within marriage: in particular, the misuse of his pattern for marriage as an excuse for abuse (Col. 3:19; Mal. 2:14–16 NIV; Prov. 11:29 ESV). Indeed, in the same two passages where Paul instructs wives to submit voluntarily to their husbands, Colossians 3 and Ephesians 5, he speaks forcefully to husbands about their responsibilities to their wives, and forbids them from being harsh and commands them to love their wives as they love their own bodies—nourishing and cherishing them, not hating them (Col. 3:19; Eph. 5:28–29).

Additionally, suggesting a causal link between this teaching and domestic abuse ignores the reality of male victims in domestic relationships. While statistically they make up a much smaller representation than women, in a community of men and women we must give attention to men who suffer in this way. To suggest headship and submission are the reason domestic abuse exists in the church fails to account for male victims. In the development of the Sydney Diocese Domestic Abuse policy we provided comments on various passages of scripture, rejecting their misuse and providing explanation of the correct way to understand and apply them. What is clear from this report is that using the Bible to justify abuse is a great evil. A complementarian framework for understanding the Bible does not promote, endorse or allow for abuse from men to women. Any suggestion that it does is at best, misunderstanding the issue—or at worst, mischievous.

Overall, the debates continue but the main arguments behind them don’t change. Perhaps that’s because the hermeneutical methods behind them haven’t changed either. Whatever avenues our culture goes down on issues concerning men and women, as evangelicals we must continue to humble ourselves before God’s word and allow it to be our final authority on all matters of life and doctrine. This is the non-negotiable.