Equal, but Not?

Updated: Oct 29, 2019


We had no idea when we decided to do an online theology class that we would be discussing the "proper" roles of women in the church. But the professor brought it up and we wanted to discuss it. Not that any of these women wanted to have a leadership role in their church. It was all they can do to work full time, go to church, serve at church, do this Bible study group, take care of their families, and live their lives.

I already wrote a post on how it began that we got on this subject. See Women's Proper Roles in the Church dated 2/13/19. Right after I published that post I had a friend from another state text me on the subject. He comes from a denomination which permits women leadership roles in the church. He's experiencing a personal debate on this and didn't understand why the debate even exists. I tried to explain it to him that some think it is a biblical command.

I have a unique perspective being a member forty plus years of the Presbyterian Church, spending thirteen years at a Community Church, and now being at a Baptist Church. I've seen how these different denominations vary on the roles women are allowed to have in the church.

I have spent a considerable amount of time looking into this subject.

1.) I have read the entirety of Scripture.

2.) I have taken a theology class by the past president of a seminary (PhD) who taught briefly on this subject.

3.) Before I ever taught a Bible class at a church I contacted the following people to get their wise counsel:

* A woman who has undergraduate degrees in chemical engineering and accounting, a masters from seminary in Christian Thinking and her doctorate in teaching (an overachiever!)

* A woman who has her masters from a different seminary.

* The above PhD professor.

* And a man who has his masters degree from a seminary.

4.) I have read many commentaries, study Bible text notes, and articles on this subject. Hours and hours.

5.) I have studied the websites of Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW) - complementarians; and Christians for Biblical Equality (CBE) - egalitarians.

6. I attended a debate at a local seminary on complentarianism versus egalitarianism.

7. I have studied the Scripture verses and passages cited by both sides.

I know enough about both arguments to have an intelligent conversation on the subject.

Definition of terms for women's roles in the church:

Complementarian - Women are equal in the sight of God, but should have different roles that complement men's roles. Seen as traditional and conservative.

Egalitarian - Women are equal and can do anything men can do. Seen as non-traditional and liberal.

Basically this means on the extreme ends of the spectrum, in a church which holds to complementarian views, women may not teach men, lead a ministry or become a pastor; and on the egalitarian extreme side of the scale women can do it all. Most churches fall somewhere in-between.

Which side is biblical? Does the Bible give a universal principle on this or are people using specific texts that were for specific issues in a specific setting to make their case?

This is the third time I have walked through this exercise to find the answer. The first time was before I ever taught a class in which men would be present. (I very much believe the Bible is authoritative for my life.) The second time was when I was leading a women's group in the study of 1 Timothy. The third time is this Theology Survey I class my women's group is doing.

We decided to see what the Bible has to say.

We began with prayer. We laid the ground rules. Do not assume what the Bible says. Let's look it up. We must look at the entirety of Scripture to see if it there is a universal teaching that is applicable. We must let Scripture interpret Scripture. Whatever the Bible says, if we believe it is the holy word of God, then we must make it authoritative for our lives.

And then the Bible gymnastics began!

We began with the complementarian argument and looked up and read every Scripture passage that they based their argument on. We looked at study Bible text notes and commentaries when we needed further clarification on what the Scripture was saying. Then we did the same thing on the egalitarian side.

What made this really interesting is my women's group has Protestants from several denominations and Catholics in it! We read from different versions of the Bible too! What diverse experiences with regards to this subject.

We used some excellent sources to determine the position of each side. A senior pastor of a First Baptist Church in California wrote an article outlining his complementarian stance which outlined it point by point with the accompanying Scripture. His article was featured on The Gospel Coalition. And a woman who has been featured in The Washington Post, The Guardian, Christianity Today, The CNN Belief Blog, and on NPR, The BBC, and The Today Show wrote several articles on her egalitarian stance. She served on President Obama’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. We walked through each of their arguments point by point.

And here's what we found. The Bible is not clear on this subject! It just isn't.

To be honest, both sides had some valid points and some serious flaws in their reasoning. One side would list their first argument. We'd agree with it. Then another argument. We'd agree. Then a third argument. We sort of agreed. And so forth. But the thing is statement A is true, statement B is true, statement C is probably true, etc., but just because those statements were true did not make the conclusion true! The connection between the points and the conclusion was just not there.

Here is an example of a type of reasoning we must avoid (from a theology class I took):

All babies cry. (True)

Nobody likes crying. (True)

Therefore, nobody likes babies. (NOT True)

You cannot jump to that conclusion based on the first two points.

And this is what we found for both the complementarian and the egalitarian arguments! Each verse and passage was one piece to the puzzle, but when you put it all together, the puzzle was not complete! We'd go yes, that is true. Yes, that is true. What???? How on earth did they conclude that?

What we were able to agree on: An authority has been established in the church. What we could not conclude was that the authority had to be male.

Can a woman pastor a church?

Can a woman teach men?

Can a woman be an elder?

Can a woman lead a ministry?

My friend said, "The jury is still out." And I dare say it is a hung jury!

Were we reading Scripture colored by the very fact that we are female?

Are men reading Scripture skewed by the fact that they are male?

I'd say yes to both to some degree.

Men and women are different. We were created differently. We approach things differently. But in our ability to know Scripture, have spiritual maturity, and have a heart for God and a willingness to serve Him; we are equal.

We did acknowledge that culture even today in 2019 isn't quite ready for women to have equality on spiritual matters. There are some who would dismiss anything a woman has to say and therefore, the woman is ineffective in that role.

We also acknowledged that male authority in churches is probably more of a church tradition thing than a clear biblical commandment. When our pastors go to seminary they are taught male authority in the church and they then teach it in the church. Traditionally men have always had the authority and historically women have been considered second class.

And we discussed that if anyone leans towards the egalitarian side of the argument that we will be called feminists, liberal and unwilling to submit to church authority. Which bugged us! We thought the egalitarian side had some excellent points and shouldn't be so quickly dismissed.

Where do I stand? The women were surprised by my response. I said I believe women are equal in God's sight - both here on earth and in heaven. So I fall on the egalitarian side. But having said that, I would feel more comfortable being at a church where the pastors are male. Gasp! Why? I'm not sure. Perhaps because I'm older and old-school on this. Perhaps because it was the way I was raised. Perhaps I still hear my father's voice in my head that there are some things women shouldn't do. Who knows?

[Update: My Christian girlfriend read this and said perhaps I am more comfortable with male ministers because the Spirit is convicting me. Hmmmm. Perhaps. Perhaps not.]

We talked about one last thing. Unity in the church. St. Augustine said:

In essentials, unity.

In non-essentials, liberty.

And in all things, charity.

The church should work towards unity. The problem is some people look at the male authority in the church as an essential and others look at it is a non-essential. And many when discussing it are forgetting about the charity thing. But that is a discussion for another time.

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