It’s not surprising, given the volatile nature of sex in our world, that the divinely designed complementarity of men and women is a disputed topic. On the one hand, we want to be humble before the Lord and before each other, acknowledging that we can make interpretive mistakes.
On the other hand, we don’t want to undermine practical biblical authority by declaring that all we have are “interpretations.” The existence of rival interpretations does not preclude that one of them is right or at least more correct than another. “Come now, let us reason together” is necessary advice for God’s people today as much as it ever has been (Isa. 1:18).
With that in mind, let me address a number of common objections to complementarianism.
Objection 1: Galatians 3:28
“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” (Gal. 3:28).
For some Christians, this text settles the question of sex roles in the church. While Paul’s teachings in 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy were more occasional, they argue, this is clearly transcultural. Galatians 3:28 is the verse. Nothing can be understood about men and women apart from it, and every verse must go through it in order to have validity.
But aside from the questionable approach of making this verse the final word on the subject, does it teach what some Christians claim? Does Galatians 3:28 obliterate sex-specific roles in the church?
Consider the broader context of Galatians. Paul is trying to forge a theological path through the Jew-Gentile controversy ravaging the church. The main issue at stake is whether Gentiles have to start living like Jews in order to be saved. This in turn brings Paul back to the larger question of what it means to be a true Jew in the first place. Do we receive the Spirit by the law, or by believing (3:2)? Are we justified by the law, or through faith (2:16)? Paul’s clear answer is that we are declared right before God through faith in Christ.
But some Jews were in danger of missing the boat. Peter, for example, had to be rebuked because he refused table fellowship with Gentiles (Gal. 2:11–14). Apparently, some in Galatia were making the similar error of thinking Jews and Gentiles were on a different spiritual plane. Against this error, Paul strenuously argues that we are all one in Christ.
So what does it mean that we are all one? In what way is there neither male nor female? Does sexual difference cease to matter for those in Christ? Certainly not, or the logic behind Paul’s condemnation of same-sex sexual intimacy would not make sense (Rom. 1:18–32).
Nowhere in Paul’s letters do we get the smallest hint that male and female have ceased to be important categories for life and ministry. Paul is not obliterating sexual difference across the board. Rather, he is reminding the Galatians that when it comes to being right before God and being together in Christ, the markers of sex, ethnicity, and station are of no advantage.
Nowhere in Paul’s letters do we get the smallest hint that male and female have ceased to be important categories for life and ministry.
At the risk of importing our modern sensibilities into the biblical world, we can say, in a carefully defined sense, that Paul teaches an equality between the sexes. Both men and women are held prisoners under the law (3:23), both are justified by faith (3:24), both are set free from the bonds of the law (3:25), both are sons of God in Christ (3:26), both are clothed in Christ (3:27), and both belong to Christ as heirs according to the promise (3:29). Paul’s point is not that maleness and femaleness are abolished in Christ, but that sexual difference neither moves one closer to God nor makes one farther from him.
Objection 2: Ephesians 5:21
“submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Eph. 5:21).
No one should deny that we are to love one another, prefer others above ourselves, deal gently with each other, respond kindly, and treat others with respect and humility. That’s a kind of “mutual submission” I suppose, but is that what the text is talking about? Some Christians maintain that mutual submission cancels out differences in marital responsibilities and structures of authority. Even if wives are told to submit to their husbands (and the Greek word is implied but not stated in verse 22), this is only in the context of already submitting to one another. That’s the argument, but does it hold up?
The key to understanding verse 21 is to look at what comes next. Following the injunction to submit to one another, Paul outlines the proper relationship between different parties. Wives should submit to husbands, children obey their parents, and slaves obey their masters. Paul has in mind specific relationships when he commands mutual submission.
His concern is not that everyone deal graciously and respectfully with one another (though that’s a good idea too) but that Christians submit to those who are in authority over them: wives to husbands, children to parents, slaves to masters. Submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ means that we submit to those whose position entails authority over us. (It is also worth pointing out that the “one another” language does not always imply reciprocity. See, for example, Matt. 24:10; Luke 12:1; 1 Cor. 7:5; 11:33.)
Any other meaning of Ephesians 5:21 does not do justice to the Greek. The word for submission (hypotasso) is never used in the New Testament as a generic love and respect for others. Hypotasso occurs 37 times in the New Testament outside of Ephesians 5:21, always with reference to a relationship in which one party has authority over another.
Thus, Jesus submits (hypotasso) to his parents (Luke 2:51), demons to the disciples (Luke 10:17, 20), the flesh to the law (Rom. 8:7), creation to futility (Rom. 8:20), the Jews to God’s righteousness (Rom. 10:3), citizens to their rulers and governing officials (Rom. 13:1, 5; Titus 3:1; 1 Pet. 2:13), spirit of the prophets to the prophets (1 Cor. 14:32), women in churches (1 Cor. 14:34), Christians to God (Heb. 12:9; James 4:7), all things to Christ or God (1 Cor. 15:27–28; Eph. 1:22; Phil. 3:21; Heb. 2:5, 8; 1 Pet. 3:22), the Son to God (1 Cor. 15:28), wives to husbands (Eph. 5:24; Col. 3:18; 1 Pet. 3:1, 5), slaves to masters (Titus 2:9; 1 Pet. 2:18); the younger to their elders (1 Pet. 5:5), and Christians to gospel workers (1 Cor. 16:16). Nowhere in the New Testament does hypotasso refer to the reciprocal virtues of patience, kindness, and humility. It is always for one party or person or thing lining up under the authority of another.
Objection 3: Slavery
Christians are often embarrassed by the Bible’s seeming indifference toward, or even endorsement of, slavery. Since the New Testament household codes command the wife’s submission and the slave’s obedience, some Christians conclude that both injunctions must be cultural. They argue that God did not create slavery or male headship; he simply regulated them. And even though the New Testament does not overturn these patterns, it does encourage equality and respect among all people, sowing the seeds for the full emancipation of women and slaves in the future.
What are we to make of this argument? The best way to approach this objection is to start with an honest assessment of the Bible’s perspective on slavery. It’s true that the Bible does not condemn slavery outright. Remember, however, that slavery in the ancient world was not about race. In America, you can’t talk about slavery without talking about blacks and whites. But that wasn’t the context in the ancient world. Slavery was a lot of things, but it wasn’t a race thing.
But still, why didn’t Paul, or Jesus for that matter, denounce the institution of slavery? For starters, their goal was not political and social revolution. To be sure, political and social change followed in their wake, but their primary goal was spiritual. They proclaimed a message of faith and repentance and reconciliation with God. They simply did not comment on every political and social issue of the day. In fact, Paul in the book of Acts is eager to demonstrate that being a Christian did not make one a rabble-rouser or insurrectionist.
More to the point, the New Testament does not condemn slavery outright because slavery in the ancient world was not always undesirable (considering the alternatives). Some persons sold themselves into slavery to escape grinding poverty. Others entered into slavery with hopes of paying off debts or coming out on the other side as Roman citizens. Slavery didn’t have to be a permanent condition. It could be a step toward a better lot in life.
Of course, we don’t want to paint a rosy picture of slavery in the ancient world. It was dehumanizing and unbearable. Masters could treat their slaves cruelly and force them—male and female, young and old—into sexual degradation. Nevertheless, slavery could be a manageable way out of dire poverty.
In the Old Testament, for example, there were a number of ways for slaves to gain their freedoms. In some circumstances, you were set free after six years. Other times, a relative could purchase your freedom or you could purchase it yourself. And at the Year of Jubilee, Hebrew slaves were released and received back their inheritance. The Old Testament regulated slavery in a number of ways without ever explicitly condemning it.
While the Bible does not condemn slavery outright, it never condones slavery, and certainly never commends it. Slavery is not celebrated as a God-given gift like children are. Slavery was not pronounced good before the fall like work was. John Chrysostom, preaching in the fourth century, explained the marriage passage in Ephesians 5 and the slavery passage in Ephesians 6 in very different language. On why wives should submit to their husbands, he writes:
Because when they are in harmony, the children are well brought up, and the domestics are in good order, and neighbors, and friends, and relations enjoy the fragrance. . . . And just as when the generals of an army are at peace with one another, all things are in due subordination . . . so, I say, it is here. Wherefore, saith he, “Wives, be in subjection unto your husbands, as unto the Lord.”
Chrysostom assumes submission in marriage to be an unqualified good. But when it comes to slavery in Ephesians 6, he comments:
But should anyone ask, whence is slavery, and why it has found entrance into human life . . . I will tell you. Slavery is the fruit of covetousness, of degradation, of savagery; since Noah, we know, had no servant, nor had Abel, nor Seth, no, nor they who came after them. The thing was the fruit of sin, of rebellion against parents.
Clearly, Chrysostom’s approach to slavery is much different than to submission. Headship and submission in marriage were self-evident to him, even when justification for the institution of slavery was not.
Slavery is never rooted in God’s good purposes for his creation. In fact, slavery as it developed in the New World would have been outlawed in the Old Testament. “Whoever steals a man and sells him, and anyone found in possession of him, shall be put to death” (Ex. 21:16). That command alone would not allow for anything like the African slave trade. Likewise 1 Timothy 1:8–10:
Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully, understanding this, that the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality, enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine.
The Bible clearly condemns taking someone captive and selling him into slavery.
While Paul did not encourage widespread political revolution and the overthrow of the institution of slavery, he did encourage slaves to gain their freedom if possible. “Each one should remain in the condition in which he was called. Were you a bondservant when called? Do not be concerned about it. (But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity)” (1 Cor. 7:20–21). When Paul sent Onesimus, the runaway slave turned Christian, back to his Christian master, Philemon, Paul gave Philemon this advice:
For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, no longer as a bondservant but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother—especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord. (Philem. 15–16)
Far from commending slavery an inherent good, Paul encouraged slaves to gain their freedom if possible. He exhorted masters like Philemon to welcome their slaves, not as slaves, but as brothers.
The bottom line is that the Bible, without commending it to us, regulated the institution of slavery where it existed. I imagine if Paul were writing to families today with stepchildren and stepparents, he might say something like, “Children, obey your stepdads, for this is right in the Lord. Stepdads, love your stepchildren as if they were your very own. For God loves you though you once did not belong to him.”
If that’s what Paul wrote to us, we would know how children and stepdads should relate to each other, but we wouldn’t have any warrant for thinking that Paul was in favor of divorce and remarriage. We would realize he is not commenting one way or the other on the situation. He is simply regulating an arrangement that already exists and has no signs of going away, even if the arrangement was not a part of God’s good design from the beginning.
Objection 4: Women in Ministry in the Bible
“What about all the women engaged in ministry in the Bible?” some may ask. Women in ministry is not the problem (it is to be encouraged). The problem is women in inappropriate positions of ministry. Some Christians, of course, argue that there are no inappropriate roles for women.
To bolster their claim, they point to what they see as myriad women throughout the Bible in positions of leadership. For example, one might argue that the commands in 1 Timothy 2 must be uniquely for the situation in Ephesus, because a number of women throughout the Bible taught and exercised authority over men.
The existence of rival interpretations does not preclude that one of them is right or at least more correct than another.
Let’s look briefly at several of the most common examples and see if these women exercised the kind of authority and engaged in the kind of teaching out of step with the pattern in Genesis and the activities prohibited by Paul.
Deborah seems to be a glaring exception to the rule laid out in 1 Timothy 2. She was a prophetess, and a judge, and she oversaw a period of victory and peace in Israel (Judg. 4–5). While Deborah fulfilled these important roles, she performed them uniquely as a woman and in different ways than the men who had served in these capacities.
First, she seems to be the only judge with no military function. Deborah, instead, is instructed to send for Barak (a man) to conduct the military maneuvers (4:5–7). Even when Deborah goes with Barak into battle, he is the one who leads the 10,000 men into the fray (4:10, 14–16).
Second, Barak is rebuked for insisting that Deborah go with him in the first place. Deborah willingly handed over the leadership to Barak and then shamed him for his hesitation (4:9). Hence, the glory would not go to Barak but to Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite (4:9, 22). Third, whatever sort of authority Deborah shared with Barak, it was not a priestly or teaching authority.
Besides Deborah, several other women are called prophetesses in the Old and New Testaments: Miriam (Ex. 15:20), Huldah (2 Kings 22:14), Noadiah (Neh. 6:14), Anna (Luke 2:36), and Philip’s daughters (Acts 21:8–9). Two comments may help put the ministry of prophetesses in its proper context.
First, recall that New Testament prophecy was not identical with other forms of word ministry. Congregational prophets in the New Testament were given occasional Spirit-prompted utterances that needed to be weighed against accepted teaching. Philip’s daughters and the prophets at Corinth were not the same as preachers or authoritative teachers.
Second, in the Old Testament, where prophecy carries absolute authority, we see women prophetesses carrying out their ministry differently from male prophets. Miriam ministered to women (Ex. 15:20), and Deborah and Huldah prophesied more privately than publicly. In contrast to prophets such as Isaiah or Jeremiah who publicly declared the word of the Lord for all to hear, Deborah judged among those who came to her in private (Judg. 4:5) and instructed Barak individually, while Huldah prophesied privately to the messengers Josiah sent to her (2 Kings 22:14–20). Noadiah, the only other prophetess mentioned in the Old Testament, opposed Nehemiah along with the wicked prophet Shemaiah. The example of Noadiah, disobedient as she was, tells us nothing about God’s design for women in ministry.
Mentioned three times in the book of Acts and three times in the Epistles, Priscilla/Prisca was obviously well known in the early church (Acts 18:2, 18, 26; Rom. 16:3; 1 Cor. 16:19; 2 Tim. 4:19). She is most often listed first before her husband, Aquilla, which may or may not be significant.
Perhaps she was the more prominent of the two, or maybe she converted before her husband, or maybe the disciples just got to know her first (like when you are friends with Sally for a long time and then she marries Joe so you refer to them as “Sally and Joe”). In any case, together they instructed the influential teacher Apollos. But again, this teaching was done in private (Acts 18:26). Priscilla may have been learned, wise, and influential, but there is no indication that she exercised teaching authority over men.
Paul commends Phoebe to the Romans as a diakonos of the church in Cenchrea (Rom. 16:1). This may mean that Phoebe was a deaconess or that she was more generally a servant. The word itself is ambiguous. In either case, there is no indication that Phoebe the servant was a teacher or leader over men.
Paul gives Andronicus and Junia greetings, hailing them as “outstanding among the apostles” (Rom. 16:7, NIV). Some Christians use this verse to argue that a woman can exercise authority over men because Junia (a woman) was an apostle. This is a thin argument for several reasons.
First, it is likely that Junia (iounian in Greek) is a man, not a woman. Second, “outstanding among the apostles” suggests that Junia was held in esteem by the apostles, not that she was an apostle. Third, even if Junia was a woman and was an apostle, it is not clear that she was an apostle like the Twelve. “Apostle” can be used in a less technical sense as a messenger or representative (2 Cor. 8:23; Phil. 2:25).
Euodia and Syntyche
Euodia and Syntyche (both women) were fellow workers with Paul, who contended at his side in the cause of the gospel (Phil. 4:3). Nothing here implies teaching or authority over men. There are hundreds of ways to work for the cause of this gospel without violating the norms established in 1 Timothy and the patterns found in the rest of Scripture.
Without apology, we ought to fully affirm the important work Euodia and Syntyche performed, and millions of women continue to do, in the cause of the gospel, without thinking that their presence in ministry somehow overturns the biblical teaching on men and women in the church.
Some maintain that the “elect lady” in 2 John is the pastor/elder of the church. The elect lady, however, is not the pastor of the church; she is the church. Not only is the letter much too general to be addressed to a specific person (cf. 3 John), and not only is female imagery often used of the church (cf. Eph. 5; Rev. 12), but, most decisively, John uses the second-person plural throughout 2 John, indicating that he has not an individual in mind but a body of believers (vv. 6, 8, 10, 12).
Objection 5: Gifts and Calling
Women have vital spiritual gifts, including gifts of teaching and leadership. We all know women who are great organizers, administrators, communicators, and leaders. No one wants to waste those gifts. But the Bible stipulates certain ways in which these gifts are to be used. Women can, and should, exercise powerful gifts of teaching, provided it is not over men. Surely teaching children and other women is not a waste of a woman’s gifts?
Moreover, the fact that people have benefited from women’s gifts wrongly used (having teaching authority over men) is an argument based on effect more than obedience. That God uses us at all, when we as a church seem to stray from his word so frequently, is a testimony to God’s grace, not a blueprint for ministry.
God has blessed the public teaching of women over men despite themselves, just as God has used me to bless others despite myself. The goal in both cases is to know the truth more clearly and approximate it more nearly. “But it works” is the wrong measure of our faithfulness.
That God uses us at all, when we as a church seem to stray from his word so frequently, is a testimony to God’s grace, not a blueprint for ministry.
Likewise, we cannot make decisions about church leadership by a general appeal to the priesthood of all believers. I’ve heard it said, “Yes, yes, the priests in the Old Testament were all male, but that has no bearing on New Testament leadership models, because now we are all ‘a royal priesthood’ and ‘holy nation’” (see 1 Pet. 2:9). It is true that we—women as well as men—are a royal priesthood.
But Peter’s New Testament description of the church was simply a reiteration of God’s word given to the people at Sinai when he declared, “You shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex. 19:6). The priesthood of all believers is an Old Testament idea (and it is about our corporate holiness, not our corporate gifting). If an all-male priesthood was consistent with an every-person kingdom of priests in the Old Testament, there is no reason to think that an all-male eldership is inconsistent with the priesthood of believers in the New Testament.
Similarly, the appeal to calling is not very convincing. Years ago, the Roman Catholic periodical First Things ran two essays on the ordination of women (for and against). The woman writing in favor of women’s ordination concluded her piece by appealing to a sense of calling:
Much has been said here of why there is no reason not to ordain women. A word or two as to why it should be done is yet needed. . . . As Sister Thekla once said, “The only justification for the monastic life lies simply in the fact that God calls some people to it.” By the same token, the only justification for the ordination of women lies in the fact that God calls some women to it.
Though a call may be honestly felt, making such an appeal the decisive factor is dangerously subjective. I have no problem with people referring to their vocation, pastoral or otherwise, as a “calling,” if by that they simply mean to acknowledge a spiritual purpose in their work. But as a decision-making tool, trying to discern one’s calling by internal feelings and impressions is an unsure guide. God’s objective revelation in Scripture must have priority over our subjective understanding of God’s will for our lives.