[AssemblyHUB’s mission is “to facilitate open and honest interest and discussion about assembly principles, practices and the Christian life. To encourage acceptance and appreciation for the views of others in relation to personal conviction.”
In this Women and Men Series (WAMS 2018), we are introducing, what are to some, controversial topics. We intend to foster discussion not to come across as absolute authorities on any subject.]
Belief in complementary gender roles is not an assembly distinctive.
Assemblies hold to a strong complementarian position – meaning that we believe that God created men and women equal in value and personhood (Gen 1:26-28) but with distinct roles and responsibilities within marriage (Ephesians 5), family (Colossians 3) and the church (1st Corinthians 11 & 14, 1st Timothy 2).
We have held to this position tightly and rightly, in spite of the prevailing mood of our time which decries any limits to the roles and offices of women as sexist and outdated. Biblical gender roles, beautifully displayed, are a powerful testimony to gospel truths and a compelling answer to both egalitarianism (the belief that there is no difference between male and female) and patriarchalism (a system of heavy-handed male domination).
The great difficulty lies less in finding the complementary gender roles described in Scripture as it does in applying them real-time.
For example, 1st Timothy 2:11-12 states that a woman should “learn in silence” and that she ought to “be in silence,” but to my knowledge, there are no churches that take this to mean literal “silence”. Are women permitted to sing aloud? What about special music or a solo? An enthusiastic ‘amen’ after a prayer or a powerful point in a sermon? Can she give a missionary report? Or read out a passage? Can she perform special music for a song that she composed, or is that just preaching a sermon while modulating the voice?
More recently, I’ve asked myself this question:
In which scenario is a woman exercising greater spiritual authority over a man: when a man requests a hymn by Fanny Crosby or when a woman requests a hymn by Isaac Watts?
Confusion on this point have led some assemblies to curious or inconsistent practices. For example, a female pianist may choose all the hymns for a Sunday service, but she is not permitted to call out a song at the Lord’s Supper. And we’ve all seen women whisper fervently into their husbands’ ear as he amplifies her requests to the prayer meeting. Is this really what the apostle Paul had in mind?
And while we strive to fit our practices neatly within the Scriptural mandate, we must acknowledge that there are a number of verses that sit less comfortably. What does Paul mean when he insists that a woman must cover her head when she prays and prophesies (1st Corinthians 11:5) if he really means for her to do neither (I can’t think of a way to prophesy silently)? What of Priscilla (Acts 18:26), Anna (Luke 2:36), or the Prophetesses (Acts 21:9)? What of Euodia and Synthyche who contended at Paul’s side for the gospel (Philippians 4:3)?
To reconcile these challenges, some congregations have asked the question, “what then is meant by silence, if not absolute silence?” Many have taken direction on this point from the very next verse which seems to qualify the silence. “I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority.” It is through this directive that many God-honouring, Bible-believing folks will involve women in every activity and ministry of the church, with the only exceptions that they do not teach authoritatively (ie. preach to a mixed congregation) nor do they serve in the authoritative offices of pastor, elder or deacon.
The goal of this article is not to push for wholesale changes or any change at all, but to emphasize that belief in complementary gender roles is not an assembly distinctive. Many other churches and denominations hold to important distinctions in the roles of men and women, they simply draw a different line than ours.
In the same way, it is very possible for an assembly to engage in thoughtful, prayerful and respectful conversations about the extent of women participation in any one of their meetings without rejecting biblical gender roles. Can women share prayer requests or participate audibly in a discussional Bible study? Can they call out a hymn or pray out loud? These conversations do not represent a rejection of the distinctions between men and women. Instead, they are a healthy debate over the location of the line.
The principle is biblical. It’s application is a matter of prayer and discernment. Otherwise stated, a belief in complementarianism does not necessarily result in identical complementarian practices.