Volumes have been written on complementarian (men and women have different roles or functions, based on gender) and egalitarian (gender is not a factor) roles in the church. A simple Google search will provide you with a myriad of articles, scholarly and otherwise, on the topics. Therefore, I will not use this space in outlining the arguments.
Instead, I’d like to point out that it is possible to be both complementarian (of a different sort) and egalitarian.
Each role or ministry gifting in the Body is meant to complement another. A preacher won’t have much success in preaching if he doesn’t have a place to give his sermon. A teacher won’t have a class to teach if nobody knows when they’re supposed to meet. All the monetary giving in the world won’t make a difference if there isn’t a person to organize and disperse it. A nursery can’t function with a toddler in charge.
As Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 12 and Romans 12:1-15:13, every Christian has a part to play. Every part of the Body is necessary. And nobody – NOBODY – but Christ is the Head. All are to function based on His direction and His discretion in gifting.
I have been in churches where the complementary nature of gifts and roles were interpreted as gender-related in nature. Women did the nursery work, organized the potlucks, kept the church clean and sang in choirs or worship bands. Men did the preaching and the teaching. This is based largely on 1 Timothy 2:12 (“I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet”) and 1 Corinthians 14:34 (“Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says”). No discussion of context, either textual or historical, occurred.
In these churches, I felt frustrated. I don’t like to cook and I’m not good at it. Babies in groups larger than two overwhelm me. Nobody wants me to sing. Sure, I can clean, but my parents taught my brother and I both to take care of things. We all lived in the house, so we were all supposed to pitch in. I often wondered if I was rebellious or wrong somehow, to have no desire to participate in these women’s areas. I wanted to teach. (I still want to teach). It never mattered to me who I was teaching. It could be a 5-year-old or a 50-year-old. Man or woman. I just wanted to share what I had learned with others so that we could grow together.
As you might guess, I am now in an egalitarian church. The process in getting there was difficult. My husband and I spent months questioning. He wondered why he was drawn to children’s ministry, the usual purview of the ladies. I wondered why I was drawn to heavy theological discussion. Without realizing it, we were questioning God Himself. Had the Lord messed up? Had He meant to grace me with children’s ministry and my husband with teaching? Did the signals get crossed?
That, to me, is the great danger of understanding complementarianism from a gender-based viewpoint. Each man and woman are given different gifts, to be sure, but trying to assign men __________ roles and women ___________ roles puts the Lord in a box. It puts His people in a box. And it also exposes our prejudices. Many strict complementarian churches are happy to support women missionaries. Do they honestly believe that these women will not preach to mixed-gender audiences? Is this overlooked as some kind of necessary evil until native, male pastors rise up? Or is it quite simply fine for a Western woman to preach and teach a non-Western man?
You be the judge.
There are dangers in the egalitarian framework, too. I may have the gift of teaching, but I do my Lord, my church and myself a disservice if I refuse to exercise that gift in anything other than a mixed-gender group. My pastor is a man and there isn’t anything inherently anti-woman in that. If we start getting into an affirmative-action mindset, if we start pursuing a certain quota of women in certain positions, we end up placing limits on the Lord.
The thing that both complementarians and egalitarians must realize is that the Lord will do what He sees fit. He will raise up to whatever position whoever He wills. Just as He marked out the changing of the seasons from winter to spring, so too does He mark out different ministry seasons. I’m teaching children right now. I never, ever imagined that I would be doing that. And yet I feel no less fulfilled, no less useful, than when I taught adults. Whenever this chapter comes to a close, I know He’ll have something good for me.
Focusing on gender, from whatever stance, causes us to lock out half the church. The Body needs men. The Body needs women. We all need each other.
Grace and peace along the way,