I recently did some teaching at the Manchester School of Theology looking at how we engage with Scripture as men and as women, and on how women and men relate to one another in the church. If you are interested, the recordings of these sessions are available here and here.
In the second session, we dove into the egalitarian/complementarian debate. These terms articulate different views on the role men and women play in the home and/or church. Both would agree that women and men are equal in value, dignity and worth, and both recognise biological differences. The point of disagreement is whether or not the Bible teachers there are different roles open to men and women in church life and in marriage. Complementarian views range from ‘soft’ complementarian positions that affirm and encourage women and men into almost all roles, including preaching and teaching, with a distinction being made for a small and tightly defined number of roles such as elder or senior pastor, through to ‘full’ complementarian positions which would see a much more widely applicable complementarity that would apply to things like preaching and in some cases even to meeting hosting, community group leading and more.
This is the first of two follow-up posts to that session, where I share what seem to me to be the best arguments for each position. In this post, I will focus on the best three arguments for egalitarianism.
1. The emphasis on sameness in the creation accounts
Genesis 1:26 speaks of God creating humankind in his image (some translations use the word ‘man’ here, but it is clear that the reference is to the human race as a whole, so ‘humanity’ or humankind is more accurate). In the following verse it is explicitly clarified that both male and female are in God’s image, and that there is something in our maleness and femaleness together that reflects the image. Egalitarians and complementarians alike would affirm this point, but it is worth noting that nothing is said in this verse about difference but rather the emphasis is on what is alike (image bearing). In verse 28, the humans are given a task by God and nothing in the verse suggests that the task is divided up between them, it is a joint commission to fill the earth and subdue it. Where dominion is mentioned in these verses it is the dominion that humans exercise together over creation, not a dominion that one human exercises over another (a concept that we do not see until after the fall).
It is a similar story in the second telling of the creation account in Genesis 2:18-25. The man is alone and this is not good, and so there is the need for a suitable ‘helper’ (the Hebrew word ‘ezer’ is a strong word often used of powerful military forces or of God himself). None of the animals are deemed suitable, but the woman is. The text emphasises that she is made of the same stuff that Adam is (created from his rib) and his reason for celebration that he gives in his song of praise is that she is ‘bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh’. Adam’s delight is not in finding one who is different to him, or even one who is ‘complementary’ to him, but rather in finding one who is ‘like’ him.
When Jesus and the New Testament authors were asked about social issues of their day, they would often refer back to how things were in the beginning to see God’s heart, and in these passages we see an emphasis on the sameness, equality and shared mission given by God to the man and the woman.
2. The revolutionary nature of the kingdom of God
On the day of Pentecost, Peter stood before a crowd of confused people to explain what had happened in the upper room when God poured out his Spirit on the disciples. His explanation was to quote the prophet Joel:
‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.’ (Acts 2:17-18)
The first thing Peter emphasises about the age of the Spirit is that everybody gets to play. This is no longer an age where ministry resides in the hands of a few, but now all of God’s people have the Spirit and will make him known together. He specifically highlights how distinctions of gender, age and social class have been rendered irrelevant to the work of the Spirit in this new age.
This follows the pattern established by Jesus in his own ministry, who had named female disciples (Luke 8:1-3), who had Mary sitting at his feet learning as a disciple does with a rabbi (Luke 10:39; cf. Acts 22:3), and who charged the women at the tomb with the task of proclaiming the good news of his resurrection.
Later in the New Testament, Paul writes to the Galatians that ‘there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.’ (Gal 3:28)
It is sometimes observed by complementarians that none of these verses are speaking directly to the question of church leadership. Whilst this is technically correct, the principles espoused seem to be wide ranging and have applications that shape many different areas of life, and they show the New Testament age to be one where barriers are broken down in Christ and where the whole body of Christ is empowered for ministry without distinction on the basis of race, age, social class or gender.
3. Examples of female leaders in the New Testament
The New Testament is littered with references to different leaders who were partnering with Paul and the other apostles in spreading through the known world. Many of these people are mentioned only briefly and can often be overlooked, but when we dive into them we see the prophecy of Joel that Peter quoted at Pentecost being lived out. Men and women, old and young, slaves and free, Jews and Gentiles, all together ministering the gospel and leading in different ways.
A few of the notable female leaders that we see are:
Phoebe (Romans 16:1-2): Phoebe is described as a deacon (servant) of the church in Cenchreae, suggesting that she held an official leadership position within that church, probably focussed on some area of service, She was also a benefactor who funded the ministries of Paul others. Perhaps most significantly, Paul is commending her to the church in Rome, and endorsement that lent his credibility to her whilst she was in Rome. This form of commendation was associated with ancient letter-bearers, and Phoebe’s responsibility would have been to act as Paul’s representative, to deliver his letter to the Roman church and, in accordance with the customs of the time, to read the letter aloud to the gathered church and to be on hand to answer whatever questions they had about it’s content. You could say that Phoebe led the first ever Bible Study on the letter to the Romans!
Priscilla (Acts 18:1-4, 24-28, Romans 16:3-4): Priscilla, along with her husband Aquila, were the original New Testament power couple. They were involved in church planting, hosting a church in their house, and were hospitable in allowing Paul to stay in their house. They also had a teaching ministry that carried a level of seniority that allowed them to take aside even one like Apollos and correct him where his teaching had been deficient.
It is particularly noteworthy that their ‘couple name’ is ‘Priscilla and Aquila’ rather than the other way round. Name order of ministry teams is significant in Acts, and we see ‘Barnabas and Saul’ eventually become ‘Saul and Barnabas’ as Saul grows in maturity and gifting and beings to take the lead in the partnership. By listing her name first, Luke is suggesting that she had, in the words of complementarian authors Fitzpatrick and Schumacher, “a more prominent ministry role than her husband”.
Junia (Romans 16:7): Junia has been poorly treated by Bible translators over the years. The early church read the plain meaning of this verse that she was both female and an apostle, as can be seen from the Church Father John Chrysostom who wrote:
‘”Greet Andronicus and Junia . . . who are outstanding among the apostles”: To be an apostle is something great. But to be outstanding among the apostles— just think what a wonderful song of praise that is! They were outstanding on the basis of their works and virtuous actions. Indeed, how great the wisdom of this woman must have been that she was even deemed worthy of the title of apostle.’
Nevertheless, through the years there have been attempts to either suggest that she was male and known as ‘Junias’ (e.g. NIV 1978) or that she was not an apostle herself but simply known to them (e.g. ESV). These readings miss the plain sense that Junia was an example of a female apostle. What is less clear is exactly what sense the word ‘apostle’ is meant in this case. It is clearly not suggesting she is one of the twelve, but whether it means an apostle like James and Barnabas, or a sent-out missionary (or even one of the seventy-two sent out by Jesus) is not specified.
Lydia (Acts 16:15,40), Chloe (1 Corinthians 1:11) & Nympha (Colossians 4:15): These three women are referred to in the New Testament as representatives of house churches. Lydia’s home was the meeting place of the church in Philippi, and Nympha also hosted a house church. We are not told where the church Chloe was part of met, but reference is made to ‘Chloe’s people’. In none of these situations is a different (male) leaders mentioned.
House churches were a key part of the church structure of the New Testament, and it seems that the church grew through multiple house churches in a city or region that were together seen as the church in that place with elders appointed “in every town” (Titus 1:5).
It is likely (though we can’t prove with certainty) that in these situations we are not simply talking about wealthy women offering up space in their home for a church led by somebody else to use. The house churches are associated with them and it is probable that they led them in some way. If the names mentioned were male, this question would not even be asked.
My purpose in this post and the next (and also in the School of Theology session) is not to convince you of one position or the other. My hopes instead are:
(1) to be of help as you wrestle with the Scriptures for yourself and reason it through for yourself
(2) to encourage a spirit of kindness that recognises that the issue is not clear cut, and that people who reach a different conclusion to you are not ‘selling out to culture’ or trying to do harm to anybody, but sincerely trying to understand what Scripture is saying and apply it in ways that will see people flourish.
Read the accompanying post: ‘The Best Three Arguments For Complementarianism’