The issue of women in church leadership is often described as the complementarian vs. egalitarian debate, but an important debate is taking place among complementarians themselves.
Although denominations vary and nuances abound, for much of Church history leadership roles such as lead pastor and elders have been reserved for men, often backed by tradition and what appears to be scriptural exegesis on the subject. Broadly speaking, what are known as complementarians, generally believe that women are forbidden from holding certain offices in the church. By contrast, theological egalitarians insist that Scripture does not warrant such restrictions.
Amid widespread sexual abuse and corruption scandals rocking evangelical churches and denominations, the question about how women are treated in the church and precise ways in which they can and should lead has risen to the fore yet again.
In recent months, controversy has surrounded popular Bible teacher and speaker Beth Moore as she has suggested that her denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, has put too many restrictions on women, and that overemphasis on the subject ultimately impedes the furtherance of the Gospel.
To explore these questions in greater depth, The Christian Post spoke with two theologically adept women who maintain that Scripture holds that certain offices are reserved for men in the church while also addressing how and why misogyny manifests in part 1. It will be followed by an in-depth interview with an egalitarian scholar in part 2.
A glimpse into the debate
The text most often used as proof that women are not allowed to preach in church are the Apostle Paul's words in 1 Timothy 2:12–13, which reads: "I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man;[b] she must be quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve."
For Aimee Byrd, a theologian and author with the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, the belief that the senior pastoral role is reserved for men is not based on the contested Scriptures.
"We need a more biblically theological explanation about women preachers in the church than a biblicist one, of just pulling out a verse and saying, 'OK, here's what this means,' and proof-texting," Byrd said in an interview with CP at a coffee shop in Frederick, Maryland, where she resides with her family.
"There is so much dispute over even what the word 'authority' means in 1 Timothy 2 because it is the only place in Scripture where that Greek word is used, and how it was used at the time," Byrd said.
The word authority is often used as a blanket power word when it really means you have been authorized by someone to do a particular thing.
"So we need to ask the question: What is it that you are authorized for and what is that specific task? My pastor is authorized by God to preach the Word, to shepherd His people, to guard even. But he's not authorized to tell me what to wear today. He's not authorized to tell me what to listen to. He doesn't even have a blanket authority over his own parishioners' lives. It's a specific authority.
"And it's not that women don't have any authority and that men never submit. Laymen are also supposed to submit to the authority of the church government, so we need to be specific when we are using those words."
Byrd maintains it's essential for Christians thinking deeply about the issue to return to Genesis, particularly the first three chapters, stressing all of Scripture should be read through that lens.
"God charged Adam, commissioned him to guard, to keep the garden, the sanctuary temple. Before even the creation of Eve we see this. And that's a priestly word. I think you need to make a priestly argument, then, for a preacher for the so-called complementarian view."
In several ways, "Adam is called to sacrifice before Eve, and one way is that he has to lay down his own life for the creation of Eve. Just as the church flows out of Christ's side, so Eve comes from the side of man. There is a sacrifice there. He is the one who is told to 'leave father and mother and cling to the wife,'" she said, "which is exactly what Christ does when He becomes incarnate, leaving the Heavenly realm to come to Earth to cling to His bride."
Even the bodily differences showcase this reality, she pointed out.
"Adam is told to guard the temple. And even the way God has created men to be stronger than women physically, more muscle mass and bone density, there's a reason for that. Women are given this ability to create life within themselves, which makes them vulnerable. Our bodies are made to create and nurture life, and that makes us vulnerable. Even the way that man is created is showing that he needs to lay his life down for another. He needs from the outside to join into this family," she said.
"I would even use the word 'submission' to say that man is called to submit in those three areas. Complementarians don't always like to use the words 'submission' and 'male' next to each other," she said, "but I don't know what else you would call that, and it's quite beautiful."
In Ephesians 5, Paul explains how the husband is to be like Christ in loving his wife.
"And it's funny because Paul uses a lot of women's work language to describe what he's to do and serve his wife. But what is he to do? He's to get underneath her and elevate her; he's to promote her holiness," Byrd said.
Such a description differs from the way many complementarians describe the "ism," she elaborated.
"It's not that we're one-half plus one-half equals one whole. It's one whole plus one whole creates a third thing," she said, noting Pope John Paul II's writing on the subject, adding that the role of women in the New Testament cannot be ignored.
"It's exciting to read about the early Church in Scripture. You see women active in Christ's ministry. You see women traveling with Him, providing for Him, like Joanna and Susanna, and Lydia is pretty much one of the founders of the church plant in Philippi."
"Phoebe, who delivered the epistle to the Romans, had to be the first interpreter of the Romans. Who were they going to ask? Has the smartest person read Romans without a question? So who are they [the Roman church] going to ask questions to? The person Paul authorizes to deliver the letter. Obviously he poured into her. It's not like they could depend on any other types of communication from Paul except for waiting for another letter. She was a very important asset to him."
In the discussion about order in worship and what men and women can and cannot do, it will be acknowledged that men and women have equal value and worth before God, but that the "roles" are different. Byrd argues the term is woefully inadequate and urges that it be scrapped.
"Roles" is a theater term, she notes, "like we're acting or playing a part."
"But we use that to describe manhood and womanhood, like it's our ontology, our essence, and it's not," she stressed, noting that many evangelicals borrow terms and ideas from the culture instead of asking deeper questions like, "What is the whole meta-narrative here in Scripture?" And, "Why did God even create woman?" or "Why did God make woman second."
Referencing the words of Sister Prudence Allan, Byrd says that in regard to that last question, Eve was created second as an eschatological marker. When man, Adam, sees Eve, he sees what he is to become; he sees his telos, his end, the Bride of Christ. This is why the Apostle Paul says in 1 Corinthians that woman is the glory of man, she explained.
"So if you're then going to use an argument for male ordination it's that God creates animals in the middle before He creates woman and none of them can respond to Adam's voice. None of them can. Then He creates woman who is a liturgical responder. So there's reciprocity there. She is to be a corresponding ally, strength to man."
Agree to Disagree?
Though it is given lip-service that the issues dividing complementarians and egalitarians are secondary doctrines, Byrd thinks that it has become first-order doctrine categories in language and the way we stereotype and look at people.
The debate over gender in the church, she says, "is like two pieces of land separated by a vast ocean, and we treat them like they are some kind of slippery slope to a complete secularized thinking."
"We're being led by our fears because maybe we'll see other denominations where they went ahead on women's ordination and then they also caved on sexual ethics, and some will use those examples as case studies. But there are plenty of denominations, like the EPC (Evangelical Presbyterian Church), that within Anglicanism, have not and see those as totally separate issues."
"There are plenty of egalitarians, a lot of them, who believe in the authority of Scripture. And so their arguments are coming from real, hard exegetical work, sincere biblical interpretation. And they submit to the authority of Scripture."
She emphasized: "Yet on the other side, strangely, I've seen first-order doctrinal issues such as the Trinity being compromised, being taught in error, by the biggest complementarian organization and teaching their complementarian theology ... based on that error, which is huge. We're talking about orthodoxy here, what the Church has been confessing for centuries."
The Eternal Subordination of the Son debate
For what are sometimes referred to as hard complementarians, the belief that women are not permitted to be ordained as leaders in the pastoral role has been derived from a view of how the Trinity functions within the Godhead — that the Son is, has been, is now, and always will be submissive to the Father.
"When speaking of the subordination of the Son to the Father, it is always in the context of redemption, the Incarnate Christ. It's not that He is always and in every way submissive. But this view of the Trinity is then projected onto human relationships, creating a gender hierarchy between men and women, with men dominating women," Byrd said, unpacking the concept.
When Byrd is invited to speak at various churches and theological arenas, she routinely hears from women who say they want to grow as disciples of Jesus, be invested in, and yet, it's the men on whom church leadership focuses. The women want to participate in the theological life of the church and yet they feel like a threat and are always trying to think of ways to be a part and not be considered "dangerous."
"I don't think all these male leaders think that way. I think it's a blind spot, one they don't see because pastors go to seminary, get training, and it's all men. And then they come to church and all the leaders are men. So what do they have? A male culture in the church," Byrd said.
She was once asked to speak at Reformed Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C., to talk to a preaching and communications class about making sure they are not only preaching to the men in the congregation but the women as well. Recognizing his own blind spot, a professor there invited her to speak, telling her he had been preaching for five years before he realized he was only preaching to men, even though women were present.
"What happens then is that 'women's ministry' becomes a thing. And it is its own thing, and then you actually have functional ministers of women in the women's ministry. We really need to look at the actual church government in our different denominations and what that means. And how the woman's voice is needed and beneficial for the whole church, not just for the women," Byrd said.
The misogyny problem
But it is more than women being ignored.
Julie Roys, an author and investigative journalist who is now the host of The Roys Report, says she sometimes hesitates to even call herself a complementarian because she doesn't know what that means to people.
"I hate to say this, but there is so much misogyny inherent in so many complementarian churches that I think when a lot of people hear complementarian, they just think misogyny," Roys, author of Redeeming the Feminine Soul, said in an interview with CP.
"When I hear complementarians say women can't preach because they are women or Eve was more easily deceived, it just makes me cringe. I cringe at things that are said by my own tribe on this issue."
She believes that some in her tribe focus on sex roles obsessively and as a result God's glorious vision for manhood and womanhood is lost.
"It's almost as if some complementarians say that God created men and women just so He could tell 50 percent of the population what they could and could not do — more of what they could not do. And they never get to the bigger reason why. It's like telling a child because I said so, or because the Bible says so.
"So a lot of women are just sitting there thinking, 'Well, does God just hate women?' Is this what this is about? Is God a chauvinist, a misogynist?'
That was how Roys felt for years, yet she could not embrace the egalitarian position because she felt that it flattened gender and contradicted certain Scriptures. For example, the Bible several times refers to the fact that Adam was created first as a basis for distinct roles between men and women (1 Cor. 11:7-8, 1 Tim. 2:12-14).
"But by that same token, egalitarians have razed the entire forest. So I think what we need to get back to is why is it that God created men and women," she reiterated.
It wasn't until Roys was 40 that someone explained how the Trinitarian symbolism was inherent — the one-flesh union of male and female — that there was something about the male-female relationship that reflects God's image.
The one flesh union of male and female in marriage was intended to be an icon, a symbol of Trinitarian life and love. In that marital union, two separate, different people come together in love to form a picture of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as One yet separate Persons.
Roys came upon this theology as articulated by Pope John Paul II and took it to Moody Bible institute, an evangelical school in Chicago where she was employed at the time, and asked professors there if they considered it biblically orthodox. She did so without mentioning Pope John Paul's authorship.
They responded that indeed it was.
"Well then why didn't anybody [in the evangelical world] teach it?" she asked.
"For me, it was like a light bulb went on. I began to see this beautiful interplay between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and the union between man and woman. Then you go forward to Ephesians 5 and you see that now, the husband and the wife is the reflection of Christ's relationship to the Church, this one flesh union taking on this other meaning. That we are called up into the life and love of the Trinity through Christ's relationship with His Church.
"It's not this described as gender roles, but as the husband sacrificing himself for his wife just as Jesus sacrificed for the church. It's a love relationship."
But because gender roles were taught in such hierarchical fashion, the message of God's design was obscured.
"The first thing you think about in the Trinity isn't hierarchy, it's union. You think of love, of the Father glorifying the Son, the Son glorifying the Father, and the Holy Spirit, and He glorifies them both, points to both of them. It's the beauty, this organic relationship."
"And women are repulsed by complementarianism because it's not expressed as loving and an organic unity that men and women should reflect in their marriage, but also in the church," Roys continued. "There should be this beautiful relationship and interplay, and I think that a lot of it comes down to the fact that men in the church, our leaders in the church say that they honor women but they don't honor women. And they don't truly embrace women's gifting and exalt women, and glory in what they uniquely bring to the table. You just don't see that.
"What you see is a lot of men saying you can't do this and you can't do that. And they are being, what feels like to a lot of women, a good ole boy network."
And perhaps no one has shined a light on this more effectively in recent months than Beth Moore.
The theological debate over gender and leadership, thought among prominent figures in the SBC to have been an issue that was resolved and settled as part of the "Conservative resurgence" — an intra-denominational movement aimed at reorienting the SBC away from a liberal trajectory — was thus reignited.
"When I see all this stuff happening with Beth Moore I can't help but ask the question: To what level is this misogyny and to what level is this doctrine and theology?" Roys said commenting on the contentiousness.
"And I'm not meaning to point the finger because there are plenty of church leaders who I know for whom this is a doctrinal issue and understand it is a doctrinal issue. And I appreciate what they're saying. At the same time, I do feel like we are unaware of our own misogyny in the church and it really gets stirred up into this theology and doctrine. But really what's driving it is misogyny. And we're just not aware of it. "
The author and radio host believes theologians sometimes speak to things that are beyond the scope of human knowledge.
Roys once told a prominent Southern Baptist male leader that complementarians have planted their flag on the wrong hill — that women can't teach and preach in the church — and they have anchored it mostly on the disputed passage in 1 Timothy 2. The proper place to plant the flag is in the whole scope of Scripture, particularly its emphasis on the symbolic significance of male and female, the union that reflects the transcendent relationship to the Church.
"Scripture begins in Genesis with a marriage and ends in Revelation with a wedding feast, and marriage. To quote John Paul II, he said marriage is the key to interpreting everything in between. It is the grand symbol, the grand metaphor of Scripture," Roys said.
"We need to get back to that, and instead of making preaching the big, main thing," she added. "And I think that if more complementarians would truly bless and welcome the gifting of women, this debate would begin to dissipate."