An Egalitarian of a Different Sort

Derek Ouellette —  December 20, 2011

In a previous post I came out of the complimentarian closet (so to speak) and staked my claim that “complimentarianism” is a good word and we shouldn’t allow one group to own it. In the process I suggested quite bluntly that the Bible is not a text for feminists (a ground I still stand on). Yet I still fancy myself an egalitarian, if somewhat of a different sort. (Though, in general, I don’t like the term.) Allow me to explain.

The keen reader would have picked up on the fact that in my last article I narrowed in on my experience of an egalitarianism that seeks unqualified equality which, in effect, flattens out all gender distinctions. At the very least I think this is where egalitarianism may potentially lead to if proper checks and balances are not in place, and of course most egalitarians reject such uniformity (just read the comments of the last post to see). The same goes of course for complimentarianism where a real danger is domination, oppression and abuse, though those adjectives do not accurately portray complimentarianism as a whole.

What was absent from that article was the issue of women in leadership. Women ordained as ministers. Female bishops. Lady authors writing books of a doctrinal nature and so on. And this, let’s face it, is the real issue. In this regard I guess you could say that I am a full-fledged egalitarian for the following reasons.

1) When I think about men and women I can’t think of any reasons (in the natural) that would disqualify a woman from leading or teaching. I know some women who are far more gifted in this area than some men, and I know some men who are far more gifted in this area than some women. So, from this perspective it seems the only reason to deny women from teaching or leading men would be by some type of prejudice (i.e. “women are just not supposed to do that, it’s unnatural”).

2) When asked, “what does the Bible say”, it’s no secret that the Bible depicts many women in leadership. Some examples are Pheobe (Deacon), Junia (Apostle), Priscilla (Teacher), and Phillips daughters (Prophets) which calls for a revaluation of 1 Timothy 2. We are also told that men and women will prophecy in the Church in Acts 2 and 1 Corinthians 11 which seems to call for a reinterpretation of 1 Corinthians 14 since, unless I’m mistaken, to prophecy in the Church requires verbal communication (as opposed to remaining silent). To paraphrase someone I read somewhere, whatever passage that talk about silencing women means, it cannot mean that. We need to discuss how to understand the phenomenon of women in leadership in the early church against passages like 1 Timothy 2 and 1 Corinthians 14, which I want to take up more fully in future posts along these lines.

Aside from those two points I’d like to draw your attention to several problems involving definitions.

3) How do we define “teach”? It’s an interesting question to ask. Recently Tim Challies explained why in his church they do not allow women to do the scripture reading, claiming that it is a type of teaching (here). Scot McKnight rebutted saying “Anyone who says reading Scripture is a teaching ministry is just making stuff up.” Well, no, actually Challies has a valid point, and I would suggest that McKnight let him have it because it makes that position more difficult to keep in good conscience. How do we define “teach”? Are not worship leaders “teachers”? I know many complimentarians who have no problem with female worship leaders. Isn’t prophecying a type of “teaching”? Isn’t writing books a type of “teaching”? Where do we draw the line?

4) How do we define “Church”? This is another curious question. When Paul spoke about “Church” in the first century, he did not mean it as we do today (what with our steeples and official hierarchical positions and ordinations and all). When Paul speaks of “in church” (as opposed to “at home”) he has in mind not so much a place as a community. When the people of God gather together. Now then, when a group of Christian friends happen to hang out for pizza, pop and a movie on a Friday night, and a woman in excitement of something she discovered in the Bible that week wants to share it with all of her Christian friends, should she first whisper it to her husband (if he’s present) and otherwise remain silent, waiting for him to share her news? Most complimentarians I know would say that she should share what she learned. And yet that is more what the first century church looked like than most churches today.

5) How do we define “Men”? Another curious question. Today we define men usually as someone who is over 18 or over 21. Complimentarians would say that women can teach women and children, but not men. Usually youth groups with ages ranging from 13 to 18 are included in the allowance of women to teach and exercise authority. But in the first century (at least while Paul was writing and a good percentage of the church were still Jews), a man was someone who had gone through his bar mitzvah at about age 13. So really, in complimentarian churches, women should be restricted to teaching ages 12 and under.


When we start thinking and paying close attention to some of the difficulties we ignore by taking our worldviews for granted, we discover that most complimentarians do not strictly follow what Paul says in 1 Timothy 2 or 1 Corinthians 14. Paul says in the first, unequivocally, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man”, yet most complimentarians will qualify Paul where Paul does not qualify himself, saying that as long as she is under some man (her husband or dad), she can teach. But Paul does not say that.

The point is that all of this is way more complicated than most people realize, but when all of the evidence is allowed to weigh in, I think that no one can make sweeping or general conclusions about women in the church in terms of authority and giftings. This post is already too long and I want to explore this and other related points in upcoming posts.

I suppose, though, before I go that I need to say something about the title. I consider myself an egalitarian “of a different sort”. The reason is two fold.

1) I do recognize male spiritual headship in the home. Most egalitarians would reject this outright. I’ll explain in an upcoming post.

2) Egalitarians typically have a sour attitude toward complimentarians which I do not share. They typically misappropriate them and apply terms to them that don’t belong, confusing complimentarians with their more extreme counterparts.

Take a look at this comic strip:

From the perspective of the girl in the bikini, the Muslim woman is in an abusive, oppressive and controlling culture forced upon her by men. But from the Muslim woman’s perspective, the reality is exactly the opposite. This is a simile for how most egalitarians I observe chatter around the web about complimentarians. They see themselves as so liberating (like the girl in the bikini) that they can’t imagine a culture where certain roles are regulated based on gender. They see complimentarians as creating an oppressive, controlling, male dominating culture. But like the Muslim woman, I don’t know any complimentarian woman who would agree with that assessment.

There is a book by an egalitarian titled Women in the Church: Reclaiming the Ideal. The book obviously pushes for an egalitarian position, but what we all need to learn from this book is that egalitarians and complimentarians are not as far apart as is typically caricatured.

In sum, I’m a complimentarian when it comes to the home (to be explained later), and an egalitarian when it comes to the church and society.

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Derek Ouellette

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a husband, new dad, speaker, writer, christian. see my profile here.
  • Aaron

    “in his church they do not allow women to do the scripture reading” – this seems so ridiculous, what about women quoted in holy scripture. It seems to me that to be consistent they would have to skip over sections of scripture where women are quoted, like Mary’s Song in Luke 1.

    • Derek Ouellette


  • Kristen

    I would say that both the women in the picture are still dressing for the male eye– one to attract it and one to hide from it. Real freedom would be in being able to dress in appropriate, comfortable attire for whatever one is doing, without feeling the need to think about how one is going to appear to men. . .

    As far as this: “Paul says in the first, unequivocally, ‘I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man,'” it’s curious how equivocal that phrase really is when you look at it more closely. Why does Paul say, “I do not permit” rather than “a woman must not”? If he’s giving an eternal command from God, wouldn’t he just say “must not”?Also, did you know that the word he uses there for “exercise authority” is not the usual Greek word for the exercise of ordinary authority, but was a word that had a decided negative connotation at the time he was writing? The word more like means something like “domineer over” or “usurp authority from” (which is in fact the way the KJV translates it).

    In fact, there are various other issues around that whole passage, such as the apparently “clear” yet highly contradictory assertion that women are saved by having babies, that keep this whole section of scripture from being far from the clear, plain sense many people like to claim for it. . .