Distinctives (2): Complementary Roles of Men and Women
We’re in the second week of our series on our theological distinctives: those points of doctrine which are of secondary importance, but which we feel are important enough to affirm and teach for the life of our church.
This week we’re going to be talking about probably the most divisive point on our list: the complementary roles of men and women in the church and in the home. Simply put, this doctrine says that men and women were created in the image of God, equal in value and dignity; but that we were created different from one another, and as such God gives us unique and complementary roles to fulfill in the home and in the church.
This subject is divisive because we all come to this table with preconceived ideas of what it means—ideas which come from our culture, our education, even our disposition. But if we come to the table with our hands open, willing to lay aside our own ideas and hear what God actually says in his Word, we always find that what he says is better than what we had in mind.
Now, we’ve talked about this subject before, and at some length. But for the most part, we’ve focused mainly on how this plays out in the home. So because of that, today we’re going to focus more on how this plays out in the life of our church. (If you want to know more about how this plays out in the home, go to our website: we’ve done lots of teaching on the subject.)
But before we get into it, we need to set the stage, to see the big picture that should cover all of this.
And that big picture is this: nothing God calls us to do individually, or collectively as the church, is an end in itself. Everything he calls us to do is meant to point our eyes upward to himself, and his glory.
Our eternal God—Father, Son and Holy Spirit—is complete in himself, and created the world out of the simple love he had within himself. He created human beings to be a people, a family who would see his glory and enjoy him forever.
We rebelled against him, but that didn’t stop him—he sent his Son to live our life and die our death and come back to life and ascend to heaven, in order to unite us to the Father. Because we are in Christ, we are now the Father’s children, members of his family.
And as his family, united to the Father, we are necessarily united to one another; we were brought into this family to help one another see and enjoy his glory together.
I say that because all the questions we usually ask about this topic, some of which we’ll answer today, can be distractions from the main goal of it all if we’re not careful. It’s not just about who “gets to” do this or who “gets to” do that in the church. It’s about the glory that God’s design is meant to help us see.
So to see that, we have to start again at the beginning and look more closely at what God said about us as men and women when he created us. To do that, I’ll invite you to go to Genesis 2 with me.
Man and Woman at Creation (Genesis 2.15-23)
Let’s remember the context. Genesis 1 tells the story of creation from a wide-angle perspective: it goes through the seven days of creation, and what God did on a global scale.
Genesis 2 tells the same story, but this time telling it from a ground-level perspective, going into much more detail on the subject of human life.
God creates the world, creates all the animals of the world, and then in v. 7, we read:
...the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature.
Then in v. 15:
15 The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it. 16 And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, 17 but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.”
18 Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.” 19 Now out of the ground the Lord God had formed every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens and brought them to the man to see what he would call them. And whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. 20 The man gave names to all livestock and to the birds of the heavens and to every beast of the field. But for Adam there was not found a helper fit for him. 21 So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. 22 And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. 23 Then the man said,
“This at last is bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called Woman,
because she was taken out of Man.”
There’s a lot to see there, but for today’s purposes, we need to mainly see one thing.
God creates Adam (the name “Adam” means “man”), and gives him a job to do: he puts him in the garden to work it and keep it. And the first thing God says after giving the man this job is that he can’t do it alone. He needs a helper “fit for him” (or “corresponding to him”).
So God brings all the animals to Adam, and the first job Adam is given as intendant of creation is the task of naming the animals. So he names all the animals (not “Fluffy” or “Bob”—he names the difference species).
But of course, there is no animal there that “corresponds to” Adam: none of them are like him.
So God puts Adam to sleep, and takes out one of his ribs, and from the rib, God creates a woman.
We need to see that this new creature God creates is a part of the man. She is not something else, something “other,” like the animals. She is made of “the same stuff” as man.
God takes the rib and creates the woman, and then brings her to the man. And Adam, when he sees her, gives this beautiful poetic refrain praising the goodness of the woman, and in this refrain he emphasizes exactly the same point: she is “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh”—she is made of the same stuff as me; she is like me; she corresponds to me.
This is why earlier, in chapter 1 verse 27, we read:
So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.
God creates man (“man” in the collective sense of “humanity”) in his image, and he creates humanity male and female. Both in his image. Both like one another. There is a distinction, which is first and foremost anatomical—he creates them male and female. But the fundamental characteristic of both man and woman is that they are created in the image of God.
So there is one idea that runs through this entire text, and I want us to see it very, very clearly.
The first word of the Bible on the subject of men and women is not one of distinction, but one of sameness. The very first thing the Bible teaches us about men and women is not how they are different, but how they are the same.
Men and women are more alike than they are different. There are differences between us, of course; but we are first and foremost human beings, made in the image of God. Our differences have to come in second place, under that reality.
What About the New Testament?
Now, I know what some of you are going to say. All this celebration of our sameness sounds great…but it’s Genesis 2. This is before the fall, before sin.
After this, in the Old Testament, we seem to see women thrown to the sidelines. There are a lot of reasons for that—coming from questions of culture, and the curse of sin—but the Old Testament is sometimes brutal, so we kind of expect it.
In the New Testament, we think, it will surely be better.
But, according to many people, things don’t actually change that much, because in the New Testament, we have the apostle Paul.
Paul gets a lot of flack on this subject, because complementarian roles in the church come directly from his letters. And in those letters, he says some things that can be troubling if we take them out of context.
So let’s look at some examples from Paul’s letters, case by case, to see what he really thinks.
1 Timothy 3.1-7: Elders
Go to 1 Timothy 3. We’re going to read two verses in a minute, but just to set the context, in chapter 2 Paul has been speaking about the way Christians are to conduct themselves in their regular gatherings. And he says in v. 12 that teaching with authority is a responsibility reserved for certain qualified men.
And in chapter 3, Paul tells us what kind of man is qualified to receive this responsibility of authority in the church (we’re just going to read v. 1-2):
The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. 2 Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach…
…and so on. Paul goes on to describe more qualifications for elders in v. 3-7.
So he’s very clear: those who are given the authority of overseeing and teaching the church are certain qualified men. Not all men, but certain qualified men, who fit certain criteria. There will be people—men and women—who will meet these moral criteria, without being elders. But all elders must meet these criteria.
That said, what does Paul say about women?
1 Timothy 2.11-12: The Way to Learn
1 Timothy 2.11-12:
11 Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. 12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet.
Now before we get angry, we should notice two things, one of which we’ve already seen.
In v. 12 he gives the framework that he’s going to explain in chapter 3 (which we read just before): that the elders, who carry the responsibility of teaching with authority in the church, must be qualified men; and he’ll give those qualifications just after.
Secondly, we must see the first half of v. 11—already, in those words “Let a woman learn”, we have an idea of where his mind is, if we know a bit about the historical context.
The idea that a woman should “learn” shattered ancient stereotypes. Women were considered second-class citizens at this time and place; they were not educated; they weren’t supposed to “learn” anything. (In the Jerusalem Talmud, Sotah 3:4, 19a, we see this horrible phrase: “Better to burn the Torah than to teach it to a woman.”)
So Paul’s insistence that women should learn is already a massive departure from the norm.
Women, he says, have a responsibility to learn God’s Word—he expects women in the church to be biblically literate.
But what about his insistence that women learn “quietly, with all submissiveness”?
Well, the context of Timothy’s church, the church in Ephesus, is important, and we see it in Paul’s letter. Some women in the church in Ephesus were, Paul says, “going about from house to house…[being] gossips and busybodies, saying what they should not.”
So Paul is insisting that women in the church not be like that: they should have a quiet disposition when learning about the Bible, just like everyone else. As Thomas Lea and Hayne Griffin point out, “Paul was not demanding physical silence but a teachable spirit.” Paul is intentionally singling out women here because many women in Timothy’s church were struggling with this teachability in a particular way.
And if we read the rest of the Bible, we clearly see that this is true for men as well. Every Christian in the church, man or woman, who sits under the authority of the elders, should learn in this same way; we should all be teachable and respectful of the preaching of the Word. (Myself included: when Paul or Arnaud preach the Word as elders, I learn under their authority as elders.)
Now at this point, I want to get to the bottom line I know some of you are thinking right now: Why this separation? Why do the apostles insist that elders be men? Why can’t women be pastors? (That is the question in most people’s minds when they talk about this.)
The Bible gives us some clues—in v. 13, Paul links the role of teaching with authority, to creation, before sin; and in v. 14 he makes a link to what happened at the fall. Let me just be frank with you all. Those verses (v. 14 in particular) is an incredibly difficult verse to interpret. I’ve heard (as recently as last night, and from men whose ministry I admire and have profited from) people suggest that women are naturally more gullible than men and are vulnerable when they go around without a ‘protector.’
We don’t have the time to see all of this right now (and I preached a whole sermon on just this passage in our series on 1 Timothy, if you want to look it up on the website). Let me just say that I do not believe that Paul is saying women shouldn’t be elders or teach because men are wiser, less gullible or stronger—that women shouldn’t be elders because they are by their nature incapable of leading. And I don’t believe that because I know women. I know women who are far wiser, far more discerning, and far stronger than me.
So we need to recognize that when we ask the question, ‘Why can’t women be elders?’ the Bible doesn’t give a very clear answer.
And that’s okay—it doesn’t need to.
Here’s what we have to understand: everything the Bible says, it says for a reason. And by the same token, everything it doesn’t say, it leaves out for a reason. If we come to the Bible to find specific answers to questions arising from our modern era, we’re going to be disappointed, because it’s just not interested in answering all of those questions.
There is not a single word missing from the Bible that should be in it—the Holy Spirit knew what he was doing when he inspired these words.
So what can we take from what is here, and from what is not here?
We can take that a) this is how God ordained the church to be governed (by certain qualified men acting as elders) and b) that it has nothing to do with our value or ability, and everything to do with trusting that God only commands good things to his people.
Because that’s what it comes down to, right? When we ask, ‘Why can’t women be elders?’ The underlying question is, ‘When God says elders should be men, is that really a good thing? Can I trust God to only command good things?’
And I’d suggest that before you’ll ever be able to start digesting difficult verses like v. 14, you need to be firmly convinced about that underlying question—Can God be trusted to only command good things? That if you, as a woman, accept this vision of complementarian roles, you will not be handicapped in your ministry?
The Bible tells us that the answer to that question is yes—and we see that at the end of Paul’s letter to the Romans.
Romans 16.1-15: Women Who Serve the Church
At the end of Romans, Paul includes (as he often does) greetings to specific members of the church. But what is interesting about this list is the sheer number of women he includes, and the way in which he speaks about them.
He specifically greets Prisca, Mary, Junia, Tryphaena, Tryphosa, Persis, Rufus’s mother, Julia, and Nereus’s sister.
And look at the way he describes them: he calls Prisca a “fellow worker in Christ Jesus” (v. 3). He uses the term “to work,” or “to labor” to speak of how Mary (v. 6), Tryphaena, Tryphosa, and Persis (v. 12) served the church. While Prisca is mentioned as a “fellow worker” along with her husband Aquila, these other mentions of “labor” and “hard work” are only used for women.
So we can conclude that these women were vitally involved in the hard work of ministry to the church.
In addition, before that, in v. 1-2, he mentions Phoebe. Phoebe was, he says, “a deacon of the church at Cenchreae”—she served in an official capacity as deacon of her church, and is the only person in this list to receive such a title. Clearly Paul thinks very highly of her: he commends her heartily, instructing the church in Rome to “welcome her in the Lord in a way worthy of the saints” (v. 2).
We’ll stop there, but these are not the only places we see Paul speaking of women in this way. The accusation that Paul, or any of the New Testament writers, viewed women as second-class members simply does not hold up to careful study of the text.
Women were held in honor in the early church, and worked diligently in the ministry of the gospel, just like their brothers.
Distinctions in the Church
Now here’s why we needed to see all that: no church which holds to complementarian theology would contradict what I’ve just said about women being held in honor. But practically speaking, the church (on the whole) has had a hard time living out what we affirm.
We’ve affirmed that certain qualified men should be elders, and that’s good. But we’ve taken it a good deal further than that.
We’ve put the men over here, and the women over here. Men do these things, and women do these things. If you’ve spent any time in church, you’ve surely seen it: women do children’s church, and men lead Bible studies. Women organize church meals, and men do the Scripture readings during corporate worship. Women serve coffee, and men serve Communion.
ALL of those responsibilities are necessary and worthy of honor. But when we separate the genders in these ways, both genders end up handicapped.
The young men end up believing they could one day be church leaders because they’re men (which, as we’ve seen, is false). And because the main roles of service in the church have historically been given to men, the young women can end up with the idea that the church doesn’t really want their help, unless it concerns cooking or kids (which is, obviously, also false).
In everything God gives us to do as a body, as the church, men and women are both necessary allies in this work, because we are both created in God’s image.
So the big question is, how can we, as men and women, honor the sameness we see in Genesis 2, and at the same time affirm and celebrate the distinctions which God created between us?
We could speak about the answer to that question all day; but we need to start by developing an appropriate vision of service in the church, and an appropriate vision of discipleship in the church.
Service in the Church
As we’ve said, the elders in our church are qualified men who have been observed and approved as qualified—myself, Paul and Arnaud. We do it this way because we believe that the Bible is inarguably clear that this is the way elders in the church should be chosen.
In every other possible capacity, we believe the Bible gives us a lot of freedom.
Every task is open except those of preaching the Word and actually administering, or presenting, the time of Communion (tasks which fall under the responsibility of the elders, because they are commonly viewed as “authoritative” acts).
Deacons in our church are both qualified men and women (qualified according to the criteria for deacons in 1 Timothy 3).
Men and women serve on the welcome teams.
Both men and women serve in children’s church.
Both men and women lead worship under the supervision of the elders.
Both men and women distribute the elements during Communion.
Both men and women lead our home group discussions; and in gender-specific contexts, women lead the women’s Bible studies, and men—not just the elders—lead the men’s Bible studies. (In addition, the men and women who lead these studies are called to seek out and train other men and women to know their Bibles and to lead future studies.)
Mixed-gender teaching environments, such as our marriage prep classes or our members’ classes, can either led by an elder, by a man and a woman together, or both. (Loanne recently co-taught a marriage prep class along with me.)
On top of all of that, as you know, Deborah Prisk will be joining our staff in the fall. Let me just take a minute to talk about Debs (she’s not here, so she won’t be embarrassed by my praising her a bit).
Deborah is a wonderful Bible teacher, theologian and disciple of Christ. Loanne and I have known her for longer than we’ve known any of you, because we actually worked together at our sister church in Lagny-sur-Marne while interning there. And she’ll be joining us to do here what she did in Lagny for many years: to work to train women in the church in discipleship.
Debs fully agrees with this view of complementarian roles in the church: she will serve under the authority of the elders.
But it would be a wild mistake to think that we will be planning out her tasks for her, or that her service in the church will only be limited to women.
Debs knows far more about practical discipleship than I do, and she’s honestly a better theologian than I am. She has knowledge I need to learn, as you all do. She will be regularly interacting with our elder team and the other deacons, to help us figure out together how we can better live out the gospel in the church. And she’ll be learning from you as well.
Do you see the point of all this?
Men and women are not competitors in the work of the gospel; we are ALLIES in the work of the gospel.
I think Jen Wilkin is absolutely right to point out that if discussions of church life are relegated only to men, what we will essentially end up having is a single-parent family, with only father figures (the elders) free to influence. And if we do that, we deprive ourselves of the kind of motherly influence that we all need. Men and women are not interchangeable; we need both.
But we need to go a little further than just talking about roles in the church if we are going to do justice to this subject, because just as we need both men and women to participate in roles of responsibility, you need each other—brothers and sisters—to build up the body, as disciples of Christ.
Discipleship in the Family of God
We use the word “discipleship” a lot in the church; what do we mean when we say it?
Discipleship is very simply when one disciple of Christ helps another disciple of Christ to better understand the Word of God, and to better live that Word out in practice.
Historically, discipleship is something that we have segregated—men disciple men, and women disciple women.
There’s wisdom in that: that’s why in our church we don’t have mixed-gender discipleship groups. There are things you share in some contexts which would be inappropriate in a mixed-gender environment—things could get very confusing very quickly.
But if you’re only discipling other Christians when you meet with your groups, then—I’m sorry—you’re doing it wrong; discipleship should be happening every minute of every day.
And this “everyday discipleship” should not only happen with members of the same sex.
The idea that you should only do theology or live out discipleship with people of the same sex is ridiculous, because God created us, men and women, in his image, to be allies in this work. It would be crazy to imagine that I shouldn't learn from a fellow image-bearer of God just because she happens to be a woman.
I recently heard someone say this, and it is so true: I have learned more about theology from my wife than from any class I've taken or any book I've read. Not just through conversations we've had together or with other people—though that’s true too—but especially through watching her live out the practical implications of the gospel.
I was a very immature Christian when we met, and she grew in her faith more quickly than I did. So during the early years of our marriage, I was watching someone a little further down the road from me figure out what becoming like Christ and living like Christ looks like.
That is discipleship, and it should be happening with all of us. We should be learning these things from our brothers and sisters.
Now, I’m going to address the men for a moment just for the sake of clarity, but what I’ll say holds true for women as well.
Brothers, you need to be very wise and very careful about how and where and when you have conversations with your sisters, single or married. It’s not going to be the same as it is with the guys, because again—we don’t want to lean so heavily on the sameness of men and women that we forget our differences. (Think of Priscilla and Aquila discipling Apollos in Acts 18. Priscilla wasn’t discipling this young man alone; her husband was present.)
You need to make sure you do this in a group, not one-on-one; that you’re not creating a false sense of intimacy with any of your sisters; that there is not even the possibility of any ambiguity, or potential for temptation. Safeguards are wise, and vitally important.
But we’ve gone from putting up wise safeguards to making outright prohibitions on discipleship with our sisters, and that’s not wise either, nor is it biblical. We need safeguards, but we can’t stop there.
All of us need to go deeper. We need to work on our hearts and ask ourselves, How do I see this man or this woman in front of me? As a potential mate? Or as a brother or sister in Christ?
I’ll never forget a conversation Loanne and I were having with a young couple fairly recently. We were talking about marriage, and Loanne said something that completely floored me.
She said (of the two of us), “The most fundamental relationship of our lives is not the relationship of husband and wife, but of brother and sister.”
I had never thought of that—or at least I’d never heard it so clearly stated.
Loanne will be my wife until one of us dies; but she will be my sister for all eternity.
Guys, when you look at your sisters, and ladies, when you look at your brothers, you need to see it: you are FAMILY. You CANNOT—you MUST not—primarily see the men and women around you as potential spouses, or (God forbid) potential sexual partners.
They are your brothers. They are your sisters.
You are a family.
And how dysfunctional is the family which lives a segregated life, in which the brothers only have meaningful, influential relationships with their brothers, and not their sisters?
Men, you cannot do discipleship or theology well without your sisters. Women, you cannot do theology or discipleship well without your brothers.
We need each other, and we are responsible for one another. So we are called to protect each other, to take care of each other, and to learn from each other.
Now before we close, let me speak real quickly to anyone here who is not a believer. What should you take away from all of this?
I hope, at minimum, that you’ve seen that church isn’t the unwelcoming, exclusive boys’ club some people say it is.
But I hope that’s not all you see.
As we saw at the very beginning, the big takeaway here, for all of us, is that God created us to be his people. We were separated from him because of our rebellion against him, so he sent his Son to take our place, to take our rebellion on himself, and to be punished so that we wouldn’t have to. On the cross, Christ paid the penalty for our sin, and gave us the perfect life he had lived, so that we could be reconciled to God.
And because of his work, we have been adopted into his family as brothers and sisters.
I don’t know what kind of a family life you have, or had growing up. But no matter if it was good or bad, it’s temporary. Every family lasts only as long as its members are alive, or as long as they don’t leave.
But God didn’t create the family unit as an end in itself. He created families—mom, dad, sister, brother—to reflect THE family he created us to be a part of: this family, the family of God, united in Christ, who will see and enjoy God’s glory for all eternity. This family is not temporary; this family will be family for all eternity.
So take a moment to think about this wonderful reality:
How good must Christ be, to save us into a family in which the ones we love will never die, and our Father will never leave?
God created all of us to see and enjoy his glory together, and because of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, he invites all men and women to come to him in faith, and to be adopted into his family.
So if you don’t know Jesus this morning, place your faith in him; repent of your rebellion; and rest in the knowledge that Christ will not turn away anyone who comes to him in faith. Be adopted by the Father, and know that your family will be your family forever.