In the wake of fourth-wave feminism, we come again to a question that has plagued womankind since the fall in Genesis: What is a woman’s role? Now hold your horses, folks, this is a much more nuanced issue than it first appears. It extends to the role of men and women in the church and in the home. (Let the record show that there is much more to this question than what is presented in this article, but here you’ll find a pretty good start.) The perspective that I intend to explore here is called complementarianism, which, simply put, means that women are not made to teach with authority or lead men spiritually. This excludes women from being pastors, elders, or spiritual decision makers for their homes.
I know this is tough, but please don’t stop reading just yet.
Why would any sane woman subscribe to such a seemingly limiting view on gender roles? Are we not just as capable as our male counterparts? What fresh misogyny is this?!?!
All good questions, ladies!!! As a self-proclaimed sane and capable woman (and a sinner saved by grace), let me offer some insight as to why this position on gender roles has persisted in the church for the last 2,000 years.
To best understand the complementarian perspective in spite of my subconscious twenty-first-century biases, I have found it helpful to examine both what complementarianism is and what it isn’t.
Gender roles in ministry are not actually as archaic as you might think. The role of women in ministry has been hotly contested since the founding of the early church. It is incorrect to assume that now is the first time in history when women have been “empowered” enough to unveil a “better” interpretation of the scriptures on women’s role in the church. (see Daughters of the Church: Women and Ministry from New Testament Times to Present ). In fact, gender roles as outlined by complementarianism are very full of biblical wisdom. That means, rather than an institute of blind tradition, gender roles are an institution set up by our eternal God.
While interpretations of passages dealing with gender roles abound, it is important to read these scriptures in context with their intended meaning intact. When we come to this scripture with humble hearts, the truth behind complementarianism becomes clear. Genesis 2 gives woman the purpose and designation of “helper” or ezer when she is first created. This Hebrew word ezer is the same one used for the Holy Spirit other places in scripture (e.g. Deut. 33:26, Psalm 33:20, Hosea 13:9). This position of the woman as a helper is therefore clearly a necessary one and an important one. “It is not good that man should be alone,” declares the Lord in Genesis 2:18, so what would have been the point of God creating another human with the same person as man separately from man? For this answer, we must continue digging in scripture.
Complementarianism also isn’t legalistic. The Bible is clear when it commands that we not add to or take away from scripture (Deut. 4:2, Deut. 12:32, Rev. 22:18), but many people claim that imposing restrictive roles on women in ministry does just that– it reads too much into the role assigned to women in the Bible. But within the appropriate interpretations of biblical gender roles, complementarianism is actually very liberating. The fall of Adam and Eve put a nasty kink in the desire of woman, that our desire would be for our husbands and they would rule over us (Gen. 3:16b). Since then we have been enslaved to a strange longing for control, whether that is being “the neck that turns the head” or “the one who wears the pants.” The complementarian perspective, along with any other renewed perspective we gain as we learn more about God through His Word, satisfies our longing for purpose in a way that is pleasing to God rather than a way which leads us to demean and reject our brothers in Christ. What on the outside might feel oppressive to women specifically (scriptures like 1 Timothy 2:11-15) actually stems from the oppression of sin on humanity, but give us hope for redemption in our God-given purpose of being uniquely created to complement our male counterparts as child-bearers, encouragers, and upright believers.
So finally, this idea isn’t anti-woman. Let me repeat it so that I am not misheard: COMPLEMENTARITY IS NOT A FORM OF OPPRESSION. Because of the oppression that women have faced throughout history (due in part to the curse of Eve in Genesis 3), it is often easy to overcorrect and attempt to throw out our God-given differences altogether. Many will argue that the place women are put in scripture is fundamentally less-than men and in fact contributes to the ubiquitous violence committed against women. But, sister, I am here to tell you: the Bible does anything but stifle women. In fact, it is very edifying to not just womankind, but humanity as a whole! There are numerous examples of strong women in scripture who hold positions in leadership (Judges 4:4, Esther 4:14, Exodus 15:20), business (Acts 16:14, Proverbs 31:18), church work (2 Kings 22:14, Romans 16:1), homemaking, and even combat (Judges 4:21, Exodus 38:8 if you want to get speculative) without compromising their role as ezer. And these are just a few examples, I could go on. Although the Bible does establish different roles for men and women in some aspects purpose, the personhood and equality of the genders is made clear throughout scripture (Genesis 1:27). We are all encouraged to use our gifts within the role we are given, being male or female.
Reading this may have hurt you. Sister, trust me, I feel your frustration. The thought that I need men to lead me in my church and in my future home is terrifying. But the burden is not mine and yours to bear alone; men need us to support them, counsel them, and mediate disputes. Man and woman comprise two halves of the whole of humanity which the Lord has created to bring glory to Himself. But zooming out, our deep and frightening need of each other becomes infinitesimally insignificant compared with the deep and raw need we have for Christ. Even more, our need for each other reminds us of our need for Him, and isn’t that the point of it all?
(Rooted and Redeemed wants to thank Shannon Mann for writing this thoughtful and insightful article for us)