Traditional, Complementarian, or Egalitarian?

[An audio version is available here (under January 8)]

In this post I have no interest in advocating for any position, and my taxonomy is primarily applied to the historically controversial question about what function/role may women serve in the public assembly of the church gathered to communally praise/worship God. Rather than advocating a position, my goal is to further mutual understanding, that is, what positions have Christians typically held, and what hermeneutical reading strategies have grounded these positions in Scripture?

For me, the “labels” simply facilitate discussion by providing a way to locate particular understandings. I attach neither a pejorative nor an affirming meaning to any of these terms. They are only descriptors.

There is, of course, much more one could say about each of these positions both historically and theologically as well as exegetically (what do the biblical texts actually say?). My goal is to summarize rather than to fully articulate these positions in all their nuances.

1.  Traditionalists assert a “strong” principle of “male headship” (or, male spiritual leadership) and interpret this to mean that women are not permitted a “leading” voice in the assembly. This not only includes reading Scripture, preaching, or presiding at the table but also excludes women from making announcements, audibly requesting prayers, voicing a prayer, asking questions, or testifying about an answered prayer.  In other words, women must be “silent” in the public assembly of believers; women may not audibly lead the assembly in any way. Consequently, women have no “voice” in the assembly other than singing with the congregation (including, for some, responsive readings) or their public confession of faith before baptism (which usually consists in a brief answer to a question, such as, “Yes” or “I do”).   This is also extended beyond the assembly as women are excluded from other leadership functions in the church structure or ministries. For example, typically and historically, women cannot chair committees on which men sit, teach in any setting where men are present, or  vote in “men’s business meetings.”

Among Traditionalists, there are some variations and exceptions.  For example, in some congregations (particularly African American ones) women are encouraged to make prayer requests or offer testimonies in the assembly.  Generally, however, women may not “speak” (audibly lead) in the public assembly.

This is an historic position among Churches of Christ.  For example, both David Lipscomb and James A. Harding believed women should not speak in any public way when the church was assembled for worship because they thought the Bible taught such. However, they did encourage women to teach all who would listen (male, female, children) privately in classes and homes. They believed the distinction between public and private settings was key for the application of traditionalist principles (for more on this, see this blog).

For Traditionalists, like Lipscomb and Harding, women were also excluded from the vote, public leadership of any organization, and some even objected to their entrance into some professors (e.g., Lawyer or Doctor).  They believed the “order of creation” (Adam was created first, then Even) applied not only to home and church but also to society and culture as well. (For more information on this, see this link or this blog).

What kind of hermeneutical strategy grounds this theology?  Essentially, it is something like this. Biblical texts are timeless and normative statements to which every situation and culture must conform. Every statement in Scripture is absolute and is never relative to or dependent upon the circumstances, situations, or occasions in which they are written except those that apply to dispensational distinctions (e.g., “Mosaic Law” in contrast to “New Testament” instructions). Thus, every application contained in Scripture should be reproduced in our situation.

As a result, texts like 1 Corinthans 14:34-35 and 1 Timothy 2:12 are understood as normative, timeless statements of God’s intent for women in the public assemblies of the church.  These function as explicit directives or “positive laws” (to use Harding’s phrase) to which the church must conform in order to remain faithful to its calling, and these laws are rooted in creation itself since God created man as the head of woman from the beginning, which is reflected in the order of creation as well as the reason for creation (woman was created for man, not man for woman).

2. Complementarians assert a “soft” principle of “male headship” (or, male spiritual leadership) in terms of role and function. Typically, they think of this leadership or headship in terms of responsibility and accountability rather than some kind of strict authority. Men are not empowered to order women to conform as much as men are accountable for the spiritual health of the community. As such, men, as Christlike “heads,” should  serve women, empower them, and sacrifice for them. Consequently, it maintains many traditional practices are oppressive and deny women the freedom God permits and encourages. As a result, this group is open to more significant and visible participation by women in church life and in the assembly since, importantly, not every form of leadership bears a “headship” function.

For example, Complementarians do not regard every function in the assembly as a “headship” function.  When Scripture is read, the authority lies in the text; when prayers are prayed, this serves the community rather than exercising authority over it; and whoever passes the trays, serves the community rather than standing over it.

There are a wide range of applications within this group.  Some are fairly limited in this permission and stand closer to Traditionalists while some encourage a broad inclusion, including exhorting the church, teaching in its theological schools, teaching Bible classes in the church, etc. Some churches encourage the participation of women in the assembly in every way except as senior minister (the “regular preacher,” some might say) and as (ruling) elders within the community.

Churches of Christ have known such Complementarians in its history. For example, the churches north of the Ohio who were influenced by Benjamin Franklin and Daniel Sommer regarded the participation of women as both a privilege (the honor to participate) and a right (a matter of justice). They encouraged women to read Scripture, lead singing, and exhort the church on occasion, though preaching as well as ruling as elders was not permitted. There were also similar congregations in Texas in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. (For more information, see this link.)

What kind of hermeneutical strategy grounds this theology? Essentially, it is something like this.  Biblical texts contain the principles (theology) to be applied though the application of those principles may vary from culture to culture. We read Scripture to discern theological principles. Today we apply the principles rather than necessarily duplicating the applications. The same principle may yield different applications given different circumstances (both in the past and the present).

A key principle for Complementarians is “headship.”  Their understanding of the principle, however, does not entail exclusion from all leadership functions in the assembly. For example, they believe 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 addresses an assembled community where women audibly prayed and prophesied even while they honored their “heads.”  In other words, male headship–drawn from 1 Corinthians 11:3–does not deny women all forms of leadership.  Women in Corinth, for example, prayed and prophesied in the assembly without subverting headship or dishonoring their heads. This means women may have a voice in the assembly as long as they honor their heads when they do so, and men–when they are Christlike heads–empower women to participate because it is their privilege and gift to participate.

The principle of headship is rooted in creation. Complementarians believe the original vision for humanity included male headship, which is then played out in the history of God’s people (priests are men, Jesus called only male apostles in his ministry, and men serve as elders in the early church), and when this leadership is abdicated (as in the case of Adam and Eve) serious consequences follow.

Though the principle is the same (male headship), the application is both different and the same.  While head-coverings are no longer required, women still have the privilege of exercising their gifts in the assembly as long as they honor their heads.

3. Egalitarians assert the full equality of role relationships and functions within the leadership and ministry of the church. This position opens all functions in the church/assembly to women according to their gifts though the intent is to advocate for such with cultural sensitivity and deference to local customs or traditions.

Egalitarians seek to open all facets of the church to the inclusion of women. While some couch this primarily in the language of rights and justice, others frame it in the light of gifts and privileges, and still others emphasize both. At the very least, Egalitarians suggest the inclusion of women’s gifts is for the common good of the body, and if the Holy Spirit gifted women in  particular ways (just as the Spirit gifted men as well), then the Spirit calls the church to use these gifts for the edification of the body of Christ.

To what degree cultural sensitivity comes into play is difficult. On one hand, some assert a kind of justice which demands inclusion irrespective of local customs and subcultures.  However, many affirm, for the sake of love and unity, a more sensitive approach which calls for mutual formation toward the goal of full inclusion. This acknowledges that the cultural path to equality in some congregations is a long one.

On the other hand, the cultural situation in the United States calls for the full inclusion of women. Unlike the Greco-Roman culture of the early Roman Empire, the inclusion of women is not a cultural scandal, which biblical writers both accommodated and subverted to some extent. Rather, the exclusion of women is a cultural scandal in the present United States, and if Egalitarians are correct in their understanding of biblical theology, it is the church who oppresses women when it should be liberating them.

What kind of hermeneutical strategy grounds this theology? Egalitarians typically read Scripture as a witness to the goals of God.  Scripture points us beyond its own circumstances and specific applications through “seed” texts (e.g., Galatians 3:28), paradigm shifts in the story (e.g., the pouring out of the Spirit on women in Acts 2), and the original vision of equality in creation fulfilled in new creation (Genesis 1-2). This approach suggests God calls us to live in the future Scripture imagines.

Scripture address people within a culture. For example, the Torah addresses what to do with women who are captured in battle, or how women inherit from their parents (which they do not unless there are no male heirs). These encultured case laws assume cultural values (e.g., patriarchy) while at the same time seeking to subvert them in mild ways, and contemporary Christians recognize the problematic patriarchy in such texts. Yet, the mild subversion of some patriarchy in some of these texts point us to something beyond culture.  Deborah is an example of this kind of “seed” vision within the text which empowers women beyond cultural (patriarchical) constraints.

Egalitarians believe Scripture points us toward a new vision of humanity–a new creation–where humanity is one. This captures the original vision of creation itself, and it moves us into a new age (new creation) where men and women are equally empowered for ministry and service in the community of God as expression of the priesthood of all believers. Some in Churches of Christ now advocate this perspective (see this blog), and some congregations have embraced it.

Slavery was accommodated in the biblical text (and subverted in significant ways), yet we understand that the gospel contains the seeds for its abolition. In a similar fashion, Egalitarians believe patriarchy was also accommodated (and subverted in significant ways as well), yet the gospel contains the seeds and vision for its abolition. Consequently, the seed texts (e.g., Galatians 3:28) and vision texts (e.g., Acts 2) call us into a future where God’s people are one rather than divided by gender in the ministry of the body of Christ.

I imagine within many congregations of the Churches of Christ Traditionalists, Complementarians, and Egalitarians live side-by-side in their communities.  Congregations vary in their practice, and discussions will become ever more explicit as culture raises the questions for us and presses the church for a response.

Our first task, it seems to me, is mutual understanding. We must first listen and listen carefully. Do I understand what the other is saying, how they read Scripture, and what their desire for the church is in love and unity? We cannot talk if we do not first listen.

May God have mercy!

Below are some questions for possible use among those who want to discuss these thoughts in their community.

  1. How do you see these same three positions mirrored in various cultures throughout the world? For example, in some cultures, “Traditionalism” is still practiced in society. How has this changed in US culture over the years?
  1. Given these three positions, how has this changed in “church” cultures in the last few centuries or even decades?
  1. What do you regard as the key point—whether biblical text, cultural situation, or theological idea—in each of these positions?
  1. In what ways are you able to appreciate each position? State how you may complement each position and value something in each?
  1. One goal is “mutual understanding,” that is, we understand why each holds the position they do and we can appreciate the reasons why they do. How is that working for you?


8 Responses to “Traditional, Complementarian, or Egalitarian?”

  1.   Charles Stelding Says:

    Christians are those “upon whom the ends of the ages have come” (Paul). We live on the hinge between the present age and the age to come. We are male and female because we live in the present age and must conform to society’s norms, but we are also members of a community shaped by Christ’s sacrifice, making gender a matter of indifference (so Gal. 3:28).

    For the earliest Christians there was a curious eschatological tension between apostolic teaching of the “already/not yet” idea which obliterates all gender distinctions, yet teaches submission of women and slaves, wearing of head coverings, etc.

    They saw the “already” lived out in surprising ways in the life of the early church: women hosted churches; they were deacons/ministers, co-workers, apostles, and prophets. But the patriarchal language we read in the NT arose in places where women were claiming a radical new sort of freedom based on their understanding of their participation in the new creation in Christ. But those claims to freedom were sometimes disrupting the life of the congregation and were reined in. It was an imbalanced eschatology.

    This “already/not yet” tension was no easier for Christians in the ancient world to grasp than it is for us today. The NT writers grappled with specific problems which arose from misunderstandings of this eschatological tension. Although Christians begin to taste the new life of the age to come, they still experience the reality of this present world as well. We still await aspects of our redemption that we do not yet see. “For the present form of the world is passing away.”

    It seems to me that if a congregation experiences no disruptive result when a woman fully participates in the life of the church, that practice is encouraged by the NT writers. But if there is tension and scandal of women’s participation in a different cultural setting, it should be avoided with the expectation and hope that such tension will pass away.

  2. Profile photo of John Mark Hicks  John Mark Hicks Says:

    Thanks, Charles, for your perspective. I do not intend to advocate. You do extend the picture I gave of an Egalitarian’s reading of Scripture.

  3.   David Himes Says:

    There are things we agree on, Charles!

  4.   Robert Floyd Says:

    Thank you for a well written, objective description of the three points of view. Out of curiosity, did you get input from advocates of the three positions in fleshing this out?

    And thank you, thank you, thank you, for emphasizing the importance of listening to each other. As Covey quoted, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” That is, sadly, too often lacking in the Kingdom.

    • Profile photo of John Mark Hicks  John Mark Hicks Says:

      Yes, I have had many discussions of the years. I have attempted to listen, and I myself have found myself advancing different positions at different times. You might say, at one time or another, I have been insider to all three positions. 🙂

  5.   Terrell Lee Says:

    Excellent summary John Mark. And thanks for recognizing what each perspective brings to the table. I believe your demeanor is an essential element in the way forward in this discussion. What has helped me in this discussion and others like it is to know the names of God-loving, God-fearing, Bible-devoted, Jesus-imitators who fall all over the spectrum of viewpoints. The only way forward is to continue to love, study, and respect one another. And the reason for continued study is that we recognize that we don’t have all the answers. And if we don’t have all the answers there is yet room to learn. And if there is yet room to learn then there is the possibility I might need to alter my conclusions. And if I have to alter my conclusions I might need to talk about the tentative nature of conclusions. So humility and wisdom are needed.

  6.   Anita Hassey Says:

    Your “taxonomy” is impressive, John Mark. I have forwarded it to members of our congregation in the hope of opening discussion. These helpful summaries provide a clear look at how churches of Christ have approached this issue over time and where their “hermeneutical strategies” come from. Thanks very much.

  7.   Jeremy Ridgell Says:

    I am flattered to have been likened to one who is studious as such, just the other day in an online debate I was referenced to “sounding like John Mark Hicks” and eureka! I had this website tagged in my favorites of things to read over, (I had to finish graduating first) It saddens me that most of our lay members make no sincere commitments to be studious in advancing the historical depths surrounding our principle theology in company to what has been pronounced as custom(tradition) The conversation needs to be had, but it’s only a certain few who are seasoned enough to critically think on this subject in relationship with a canonical foundation! Good Stuff!

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