Let me begin by laying the framework for our discussion. My goal is not to convince anyone of either position. Instead, I want to lay out the biblical reasoning for each in what I hope will be fair and impartial terms. I should add, the premise from which I am working is that egalitarians and complementarians believe Scripture is both inerrant and authoritative. To be sure, there are in both camps who either implicitly or explicitly deny this premise; that is an entirely different discussion.
Time simply does not permit me to deal with each of the nuances represented within each position. I hope my assessment will represent a robust view of each, but it is impossible to be exhaustive; this should be a launching point into further study and discussion.
Biblical case for egalitarian view
We need to begin by defining the word “egalitarian.” Douglas Groothus, an evangelical apologist and self-described egalitarian, defines his view this way:
“[Egalitarianism] is the biblically-based view that gender, in and of itself, neither privileges nor curtails a believer’s gifting or calling to any ministry in the church or home. In particular, the exercise of spiritual authority, as biblically defined, is deemed as much a female believer’s privilege and responsibility as it is a male believer’s.”
The majority of biblical arguments for an egalitarian view begin with creation. Egalitarians point to the creation account in Genesis wherein God creates both men and women in His image. Further, God gives both men and women the task of exercising rule over creation. Egalitarians argue the text in Genesis is void of any distinction of roles between men and women (Gen. 1:26–27). An egalitarian view generally considers the hierarchy of genders — namely, patriarchy — to be a result of the fall in Genesis 3. Accordingly, many egalitarians point to the curse pronounced on women in Genesis 3:16 as proof that a distinction of roles between men and women was a result of the fall, and therefore inconsistent with what God intended in His creation.
Egalitarians, in support of their view, point to several accounts wherein women are seemingly given leadership roles. For example, an egalitarian may highlight Priscilla, a woman, recorded in Acts 18 as teaching Christian doctrines to Apollos, a man. Others may point to the Samaritan woman in John 4 wherein we’re told, “Many Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony,” which evidences the ability of women to teach people regardless of gender (John 4:39). Egalitarians point to these and many other texts to show that God’s design was for men and women to share leadership equally in the New Testament Church and as a foretaste of the Kingdom to come.
Perhaps the chief critique of the egalitarian view is Paul’s admonition to Timothy in 1 Timothy 2 wherein he writes, “Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet” (1 Tim. 2:11–12). In response, most egalitarians argue that Paul was writing specifically to a particular church, plagued with false teaching from women; therefore this text is not prescriptive for all churches, but that particular one.
Like any good biblical view, egalitarians look to Christ’s complete work as the eternal cure to the sin of gender hierarchy. Egalitarians point to Galatians 3:28 where Paul writes that because of Christ’s work “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” In seeking to see Jesus’ Kingdom come on Earth as it is in Heaven, egalitarians oppose any form of gender hierarchy in all spheres including, most important for our discussion, the ordination of congregational leadership.
Biblical case for complementarian view
We’ll start this section the same way, with a definition. Jonathan Leeman, an evangelical writer, theologian and complementarian, defines his view this way:
“Complementarianism teaches that God created men and women equal in worth and dignity and yet he assigned them different roles in the church and home.”
Like its counterpart, many complementarian viewpoints are rooted in creation. As is implicit in Leeman’s definition, complementarians affirm that women were equally created in the image of God. However, most would argue that Paul articulates how Genesis 1 reflects a distinction in gender roles in 1 Timothy 2 when he writes:
“I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor” (1 Tim. 2:12–14).
While complementarians believe men and women were created to have differing or “complementary” roles, most affirm that the fall in Genesis, as with everything else, corrupted God’s good design. Many complementarians point to Genesis 3:15–16 where we are told that because of the fall, there will be “enmity” between man and woman.
Perhaps the most notable stance among complementarians is the argument that Scripture sets forth a gender hierarchy in both the home and the church. In support of this position as it relates to the home, complementarians point to Ephesians 5 where Paul writes, “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior” (Eph. 5:22–23). Others point to Colossians 3:18 which uses similar “submission” language as evidence to support that God has given different roles to men and women in the home, and further, that men offer headship in the home.
As for the church, most, if not all, complementarians hold to a view that there are offices reserved for men. They point to several of Paul’s writings in their assertion that the office of pastor (or elder) is restricted to men. Many complementarians argue that when listing the qualifications for pastors in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1, Paul requires that pastors must be “the husband of one wife,” which is evidence that only men can serve as pastors. This argument often is bolstered by texts like 1 Corinthians 14:34 which states in part, “ … the women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says.”
To be clear, many complementarians disagree on how specifics apply. Can women teach men at all? Can women teach on the Lord’s day? Can women serve as deacons? But they are united in their view that the cross of Jesus ensures that in Christ’s coming Kingdom, men and women will serve in perfectly complementary roles, as was intended in creation.
Let me reiterate: There is much more nuance in each of these than I can attempt to show here. If I can encourage people of both viewpoints, let me say this: We need to deeply examine our views to determine which parts of our theology are cultural and which are biblical. Unbiblical manifestations of complementarianism — often an effort to appease conservative cultural norms — have led some to demean women who are serving faithfully in the Lord’s church. That is not biblical. Conversely, unbiblical manifestations of egalitarianism — often an effort to appease a more progressive culture — have led some to throw out the teaching of Scripture as it relates to gender. This is equally unbiblical. Whatever your view, be sure it is born of biblical fidelity, not cultural expedience.
I would also add, it is important for you and your local church to have a clear position, for a variety of reasons. That said, I believe there will be people in eternity with whom you disagreed on this issue; be mindful how you engage with brothers and sisters. As we sang in the Black Baptist church I grew up in, “We’ll understand it better by and by.”
If you want to do more study on the topic, we recommend Two Views on Women in Ministry published by Zondervan.