Wrestling with Women in the Church

Derek Ouellette —  January 9, 2012

I ended off 2011 on a bit of a sour note here on Covenant of Love. The complementarian/egalitarian debate is one that I have avoided for a long, long time. My approach has generally been that of the ostridge. I have friends who are complementarian, and others who are egalitarian. Me? I stayed far away from the difficult Bible passages and have been passive about women in authority in the Church or teaching or head covering. Frankly, if I accept that a woman cannot have certain roles in the church based on 1 Timothy 2, than I should accept also that my wife ought to wear a head covering in church. Since I don’t expect the latter, why should I accept the first?

I should point out that I have no personal vested interested in this subject. As a member of the Nazarene institution, I should naturally lean toward Wesley’s egalitarianism. But the influences I have had most of my life have been complementarianism. My philosophical approach is post-conservative. I’m open to Open Theism (an advocate even!) and I find the arguments of Conditionalism persuasive (though not 100% convincing). I’ve come to reject Dispensationalism despite my upbringing and now embrace Amillennialism with the whole package of Covenant Theology. And all of that is just scratching the surface of how my views have changed over the years. So I can’t be accused fairly of digging my heals into complementarian sand out of stubborn bias. Indeed the basic tenant of a “post-conservative” approach to the Christian faith is “the habit of keeping all of our traditions and beliefs open to revision in light of further biblical insight and study“.

On Facebook I often post articles to garner conversation. I usually don’t take a position on the articles. Rather I seek to learn from my friends, to gather insight to help me think things through. My hope of course is also that we will all learn from each other and from the articles themselves and in doing so, we will grow as a community closer to each other and to Christ.

In early December Scot McKnight released his first ebook, Junia Is Not Alone. I liked it. I think the book puts to rest the question of Junia’s gender. Shortly afterwards a blogger named Alastair Roberts wrote an article in response titled Some Lengthy Thoughts On Women Leadership. The article was good. In fact, even worthy of McKnight himself leaving a comment in response at the bottom of the post. Roberts accepted McKnight’s main thesis, that Junia was a woman. But he took issue with McKnight’s colouring of history, that Junia and other women in the Bible have all been suppressed intentionally (he used the word “conspiracy”) by men. Whether one agrees with Roberts or not, the article deserves (in my opinion) a great deal of respect.

It was in light of this that I made the fumbled attempted to join the discussion. I wrote the article titled Egalitarianism Swallowed Up By Complementarianism. My source book for that article was Margaret Kostenberger’s book, Jesus and the Feminist. While I’ve read many things in books and articles that interact with this subject, Kostenberger’s book is really the only one that I read to deal specifically with this subject (if we don’t count McKnight’s book, The Blue Parakeet).

I know the complementarian position quite well. Questions arise about why Genesis depicts God as creating man first and then woman and why Paul appeals to this Genesis account (transcending culture, so the argument goes) in 1 Timothy 2 and 1 Corinthians 14. The little bit that I have read by egalitarians seems to indicate (at first glance) an inadequate handling of this complementarian argument. Indeed while reading The Blue Parakeet with great interest (I was looking forward to McKnight pointing the way to an egalitarian reading of 1 Timothy 2!), it was painfully anti-climatic when Scot, in exegeting 1 Timothy 2, ignores Paul’s reference to the garden which is the linch-pin of the discussion for many complementarians. (When I tried to have this discussion with a friend using The Blue Parakeet as my source, he just kept pointing to that key passage which McKnight skipped over.)

But my approach to the Bible has shifted in recent years. “The Bible said it” is no longer an adequate answer for me. I don’t think this represents a lack of faith in the Bible or God, rather it represents an acknowledgment on my part that I don’t have all of the answers. I may not have studied a passage deep enough, or may be looking at it from the wrong angle, or may be asking the wrong questions. I believe God is reasonable. If there is some type of hierarchy in the church, I need a reason for that. To say “well, the Bible says so”, if what the Bible says goes against reason, I don’t buy it. The Bible also says not to get tattoos (Leviticus 19:28). But to enforce an abstinence of tattoos is not enough. I want to know why the Bible says not to get a tattoo. When seeking to answer that question one may quickly discover that the Bible is not telling everyone everywhere never to get tattoos. Rather it is commanding the Israelites not to get a tattoo because they had just been liberated from Egypt where tattoos were marks of ownership and enslavement. They were now free and should not bear those marks. It’s the same with the discussion at hand (or any discussion for that matter). It seems unreasonable, even ridiculous, to say that no woman can teach or have authority over a man in church. Yet the Bible says as much, which begs the question “why”. In answering that question we may discover an answer that steers us away from using those key passages as universally applicable texts.

Or perhaps we can come at it from a different angle, one I think most of my Facebook friends take. We could simply conclude that such a belief is not worthy of the God revealed in Jesus Christ. We could say, for example, that whatever that means it cannot be that. This approach wouldn’t be new to me. Calvinism. I reject it out of hand. I agree with Roger Olson that the image of god that surfaces in Calvinism is more akin to something like the devil. Yet Calvinism has some very (very) strong biblical support, particular in the Old Testament. Free-will theists have wrestled with the biblical revelation of a God who commands genocide and some (such as Greg Boyd or Peter Enns) have been attempting to find a new hermeneutic to avoid the difficulty. Calvinists have it easy. They accept that God commanded it because God commands all things. The Bible says it, they believe it, that settles it. But it doesn’t settle it for the rest of us. In the end I may have to take a similar position for the question of women in leadership as I do with Calvinism. That is, despite some difficult passages, I can’t accept complementarianism.

Some of my friends may be annoyed that I’m even wrestling with this. I should just jump to the chase, wave off the contrary verses, partake in some joyful name-calling, and blissfully yet unreflectively embrace egalitarianism. But that wouldn’t be very “post-conservative” of me would it? I only put the issue of Calvinism to rest when I came to some biblically satisfying tensions pressed against some strong counter-arguments.

So off to wrestle I go. For the first quarter of 2012 I’m going to make an effort to explore this question from the egalitarian perspective and to try and come away with solid biblical, theological and philosophical reasons for their case over-against a complementarian reading. I have started and will continue to work through three books: 1) Women in the Church: Reclaiming the Ideal by Carroll Osburn, 2) How I Changed My Mind About Women In Leadership: Compelling Stories from Prominent Evangelicals and 3) Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity Without Hierarchy.

The State of Affairs:

The current state of the discussion is not healthy. Not productive. Not Christ-like.

“Prejudices on two extremes have resulted in heated discussions of women, particularly in churches. Diverse views are held with almost fanatical zeal. The mere mention of the topic evokes deep-seated feelings and emotions all across the spectrum of thought. Many turn to the Bible, but with different presuppositions, agendas, and traditional arguments. On both extremes, the complex matter of women in the church has become a matter of belief upon which fellowship hinges. For others, it is a matter of opinion to be researched and discussed. Unfortunately, if one seeks middle ground on this issue, one should be prepared to dive for cover, as shots will be fired from both directions. No more volatile topic exists in the church today… The topic of women in the church is not solely a religious issue; it is rooted deeply in the culture in which we live.

“I fear that the way we are now addressing the matter can only lead to extremism, chaos, and hardening of attitudes. If we are to investigate the matter afresh, we must find a more productive approach.” ~Carroll Osburn, Women in the Church p.1-2 (Carroll is an egalitarian)

Wherever I land on this, one thing I want to avoid is an ungodly attitude toward those I disagree with (“Humility applied to conviction does not mean believing things any less; it means treating those who hold contrary beliefs with respect and friendship” ~ John Dickson). In any case I invite you to join along with me and in fact help me out by sharing your perspective.

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Derek Ouellette

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

    Yay Derek!!! This kind of writing and thinking is why you’re one of my heroes! Thanks for the broad overview and perspective. I also want to say I think you’ve made an excellent selection of egalitarian books to sample.

    I think the quote of the day comes from Rachel Held Evans in an article I see you also endorsed on FB. She writes:

    “Whether we like to admit it or not, the Bible was written at a time in history when most women were owned by their husbands.

    “Technically speaking, it is biblical for a woman to be sold by her father to pay off debt (Exodus 21:7), biblical for her to be forced to marry her rapist (Exodus 22:16-17), biblical for her to remain silent in church (1 Corinthians 14:34-35), biblical for her to cover her head (1 Corinthians 11:6), and biblical for her to be one of many wives (Deuteronomy 21:15-17).

    “With this in mind, I don’t know anyone who is actually advocating a return to biblical womanhood. What most in the ‘biblical womanhood’ movement are advocating instead is a return to the June Cleaver culture of pre-feminist America, a culture that looked nothing like that of Vashti and Esther, Leah and Rachel, Tamar and Bathsheba, Mary and Martha.”


    Derek, I’m in your corner and rooting for you!

  • PLTK

    Looking forward to this. Just bought “How I Changed My Mind…” and am going to read it as well as a few other books on the subject. I am struggling with this as we currently attend a church that permits women in most roles, but not as elders or head pastors and this is one of the reasons I have so far decided not to become a member (there are some theological issues too). Love the church, but sometimes believe our family needs to look elsewhere. My eight-year-old daughter just asked me “why can’t women be preachers” last week which again threw the issue in my face.

  • http://www.theruthlessmonk.blogspot.com LCK

    Wonderful post, Derek. I look forward to reading about your journey. While I haven’t done any heavy research on the egal/comp debate, the most helpful book I have read on the subject is “Two Views on Women in Ministry” (Zondervan 2005). A few of the contributors do go into detail about the argument from Genesis (which I have never found persuasive, by the way).

    And it is either this book or Willilam Webb’s “Slaves, Women, and Homosexuals,” that persuasively demonstrates that Wilberforce’s argument against slavery had to have come from a moral sensibility outside the Bible because it cannot be supported from Scripture.

    I look forward to the next few months…

    • http://covenantoflove.net Derek Ouellette

      Thanks. I’ve added “Slaves, Women, and Homosexuals” to my list.

  • Joel M. Ellis

    “The Bible said it” is no longer an adequate answer for me. I don’t think this represents a lack of faith in the Bible or God, rather it represents an acknowledgment on my part that I don’t have all of the answers. I may not have studied a passage deep enough, or may be looking at it from the wrong angle, or may be asking the wrong questions. I believe God is reasonable. If there is some type of hierarchy in the church, I need a reason for that. To say “well, the Bible says so”, if what the Bible says goes against reason, I don’t buy it.

    I think this is a large part of the surge in egalitarianism in recent years, but while I sympathize with what you say above, I think it contains a fatal flaw. It is one thing to affirm a text is unclear or to acknowledge one is unsettled in his/her opinion on a particular issue. It is another to admit the biblical instruction is clear but insufficient unless and until the command makes sense to me. The latter is in danger of making reason the ultimate arbiter of what truths revealed in scripture will and will not be accepted.

    I truly appreciate your attitude, the way you write, the humility and sensitivity with which you speak, and your blog has been a blessing to me. I find your posts thought provoking and helpful. Please don’t take my remarks as personally critical in any way. I think you are honest, humble, and appropriately cautious in thinking through this issue.

    I recognize it is rarely enough to say, “The Bible says it; that settles it.” This is frequently (almost always?) an oversimplification. But we should not shy from admitting what the Bible does say, even if we do not understand (or agree with) why or how it may say it. The Bible DOES say a woman is not to teach or exercise authority over a man, regardless of whether it makes sense to me or how I feel about it. The question is: Why does it say this, and What does it (practically) mean, both then and now? I know that is something you have been and will be thinking a lot about, and I will be thinking, studying, and praying along with you.

  • roberth

    Did you actually endorse an article where the person interprets ex 22: 16-17 as rape? That is just shallow and ignorant. If you think that then how can you come to a proper understanding on this issue with such loaded(and incorrect) baggage?

    It is saying the man seduced her not raped her.

  • Aaron

    Man that picture is incredible

  • http://www.drewchapados.net Drew Chapados

    A couple of questions/observations–I appreciate your spirit in this and while I lean to complementarianism I see much to sympathize with the egalitarian side and am not going to sit in judgment on those I disagree with.
    Question 1–do you believe the home is fully egalitarian?
    Observation 1–I like your article–but the point that 1 Timothy 2 applying to teaching authoritatively in the church is equivalent to the veil issue of 1 Corinthians 11 might not be as clear as you made it. While 1 Corinthians 11 is difficult–hair, veils, angels–the message of the veil could be primarily a message of appropriateness and not straight up doctrine. Meaning–would a woman not having a veil mean the same today as it would have in Corinth?

    in regards to the home–why for instance do some insist that the home is still complementarian because of the scriptures but the church would not be?

  • Jeniene

    I was forwarded this article so have not read any of the rest of your work; however, I found this to be refreshing and encouraging.

    My church background was one of egalitarianism and honestly, I never realized that there were other views regarding women in church. I was confronted with all other attitudes in college and it was very confusing for me. Ultimately, my husband and I found a church that seemed to fit (or at least sit middle of the road) on our theological differences and I admit that I didn’t think about the role of women much after that.

    Then I entered seminary — I was accepted into two different schools, one that viewed women as only acceptable in home-maker or missionary roles and one that viewed women as completely equal within the body. I chose the latter, and I am much better for it.

    I have discovered, as a woman, that views other than egalitarian tend to, by default, devalue women. This is a subtle devaluation, however women have bought into the attitude that they are ONLY “Christian” if they fit a certain stereotype. This is more damaging to women and young girls than the argument over leadership in the church. On one hand, we say that we believe that we are created in the image of God and on the other hand we tell half of our congregational body that they are to disregard the callings that they feel — whether that is in church leadership or even, to some extremes, working outside of the home.

    We all have ministries, designed and given to us by our Lord and Creator, it is highly arrogant of us to then degrade those callings because of a belief that only those people containing certain sexual organs are ACCEPTABLE in leadership.

    I tend to stay away from the fray, however when asked my opinion I have to speak up and my words are simple: “As women, we are just as much at fault for our current situation in the church as the men that we like to blame.”