Biblical Arguments for Complementarianism

Woman - I can do all things through Christ

We can do all things in Christ… unless you’re a woman…

The arguments used from the Bible for complementarian gender roles in the leadership of the church are pretty straightforward. I don’t really need to explain any of them, because they all fall in the “the Bible says it; I believe it; let’s do it” stream of arguments. Like I argued for why I don’t think homosexuality is a sin, though, this type of argument usually doesn’t actually look at what the Bible really says – it just grabs the snippets that can be twisted to support that view. So starting with those oft-quoted texts on women in church leadership:

11 A woman[a] should learn in quietness and full submission. 12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man;[b] she must be quiet. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve. 14 And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. 15 But women[c] will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety. (1 Timothy 2:11-15 NIV 2011)

6 An elder must be blameless, faithful to his wife, a man whose children believe[a] and are not open to the charge of being wild and disobedient. (Titus 1:6 NIV 2011)

3 Likewise, teach the older women to be reverent in the way they live, not to be slanderers or addicted to much wine, but to teach what is good. 4 Then they can urge the younger women to love their husbands and children, 5 to be self-controlled and pure, to be busy at home, to be kind, and to be subject to their husbands, so that no one will malign the word of God. (Titus 2:3-5 NIV 2011)

Case closed? I’m not so convinced. This is one of those posts when I have to pull out a bit more biblical studies information. All of the quotes condemning women from church leadership come in the pastoral epistles (Timothy and Titus) which were the latest of the writings made in Paul’s name. I do say “in Paul’s name” and not “by Paul” because it is likely that somebody else wrote that, especially if you also believe the standard church tradition that Paul died in Nero’s persecution in 64 CE. These two letters were clearly written after that, and few scholars think Paul wrote it. What’s that mean for the debate? Well, maybe not that much except that we can see a bit of a glimpse at the evolution of gender roles which happened in the church.

In the first generation, around when Paul’s earliest letters were written – the ones that are no doubt written by Paul himself – the ratio of male to female leadership in the church was about 50/50. In Romans 16 we see some of the examples of this, as women are listed along with the men. Complementarians essentially have to ignore these women and every other women honoured as a leader throughout Scripture. We also see female leaders elsewhere in that first generation of writings. It stays that way until about 100 CE and then slowly declined until it was virtually nothing by about 300. Noticeably 100 is still about a generation after Timothy and Titus were written, so obviously the church who had those writings did not interpret it as an absolute rule against all female leadership.  That or else they just all deliberately disobeyed, which doesn’t make a whole lot of sense considering that they did keep these letters as authoritative.

What scholars mostly agree happen is this. The first generation believed that Jesus would come back within their lifetime.  Being able to survive in their society was thus not all that important because they only had to make it another few years. All that mattered was getting the word of the Gospel out to people, and part of that Gospel includes that there “is no male or female, because we are all one in Christ” (Galatians 3:28). As they began to realize that members of their church were starting to die and Jesus hadn’t come back yet, they needed to institutionalize so that the church could continue farther than their generation. Often we look at that institutionalizing as a bad thing, but simply put the church would not have survived without some semblance of structure. And it needed to be a structure that would work within their specific context, which included educated male leadership.

As to the education aspect, this is one point that complementarians tend to ignore. This is particularly relevant to the first quoted text above. Like Eve led Adam astray, all women are doomed to also lead men astray… right? Take a look back at the Genesis story its referencing. It is often simply assumed that Eve, like Adam, had been told what fruit not to eat. ;If you look at it, though, Eve hadn’t been created yet when that command was given! I would argue that the reason that Eve was deceived was not because she was inherently weaker as a woman, but because she had not had the first-hand experience of being told by God. Did the serpent target Eve instead of Adam because she was a weak woman or because she hadn’t had the personal experience with God to work from on this particular issue? Eve was tricked, sure, but Adam who was with her, deliberately went against the first-hand experience of hearing this from God that he had. I’d argue that this is why other texts refer to Adam’s sin, not Eve’s – he was the one who knew better but did it anyway. So we look at this text in Timothy, knowing that women were not educated in that context, and we see the comparison to Eve, who was not educated. Yes, there is a direct parallel, but the parallel is not simply their genitalia; it’s a lack of educated personal experience.  Paul does allow female leadership elsewhere, so him opposing it here is clearly contextual and it cannot be justified as a blanket statement against all female leadership.

Along with many who have studied this period of history, I argue that women were cut from leadership as a giving in to cultural pressure as well as the simple realistic fact that they did not have access to the education in order to manage a church that could survive in their culture. The part I find the most amusing is that in claiming the Bible and these texts as their ultimate authority, complementarians need to ignore the various texts where women are great leaders in the early church. Fast forward to today’s world and our society, where women are respected and educated – except maybe by the complementarian church – and I have to ask why some churches think it is still a requirement for today?

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.