Go Big or Go Home: Why Complemegalitarianism Doesn’t Work (3)

(This is part three of a three part series. Here is part one and part two.)


The fourth word, following equality, complementarity, and responsibility, is ministry. In this section Stott looks at the implications of headship for ministry. Here again we see Stott hesitating between two positions. On the one hand, he rejects the efforts of those who want to limit 1 Timothy 2:8-15 because of a never-seen-in-the-text heretical feminist movement in Ephesus. Stott believes the principle of submission is rooted in creation (“for Adam was formed first, then Eve”). Yet on the other hand, he thinks the requirement of silence is a culture-bound application of submission similar to head coverings (349). Stott figures the prohibition in 1 Corinthians 14 might have been addressed to talkative women as opposed to all women (348). He never considers that the silence in the second half of 1 Timothy 2:12 is Paul’s explanation of “I do not a permit a women to teach” in the first half of the verse. Likewise, he doesn’t consider the argument that 1 Corinthians 11 (women praying and prophesying) is not at odds with 1 Corinthians 14 (let them keep silent) when you consider the context of the latter is the authoritative weighing of prophecy (14:29).

In the end, Stott’s position is a half-way house between egalitarianism and complementarianism. He believes because the Spirit is bestowed on both sexes, no gifts are restricted to one or the other, and therefore, there should be no limitations on the exercise of those gifts (348). But the logic of this position runs into Stott’s exegesis when later he requires that women can teach men “provided that in so doing they are not usurping any improper authority over them” (349). With the right explanations, complementarians agree that it is not wrong for women to teach. Women can certainly teach other women and they should instruct children (Titus 2). The example of Priscilla and Aquila correcting Apollos may suggest that one-on-one teaching by a woman to a man is legitimate (though not all complementarians think this is a fair inference from Acts 18:26). The point is, women are not forbidden to teach nor are they prohibited from exercising their gifts. But they must teach and exercise those gifts in their God-given roles. The Bible allows for, gives examples of, and even expects lots ministry from women. Imagine how impoverished the church would be without the contributions of women! But what Scripture does not allow is for women in the church to teach or have authority over men. Preaching, governing, and eldering are the work of qualified men.

So there is a complementarian way to affirm the ministry of women while still maintaining God’s design for men and women. But this isn’t how Stott explains his proviso. Instead he gives three conditions women must meet in order to teach men. 1) The content must be true. 2) The teaching should be in a team context. 3) And the women must not be rude swashbucklers. These are fine conditions, but with the possible exception of the second one, they are conditions for any teacher, not just for women. It’s hard to see how these conditions do anything to guard the authority men are to exercise in the church. Even the requirement for team teaching feels arbitrary. Are we really to think that if Paul saw a woman preaching in Timothy’s church he would have said “Don’t worry about it. She’s part of a team that includes men.”? Over the long run, this attempt to meet the culture halfway will just get us into more trouble. Our rules—that the Senior Pastor must be a man or that the women preaching is under the authority of the elders—will seem like meager attempts to get the letter of the law right without abiding by any of the spirit of it. We’ll look like the boyfriend and girlfriend trying to justify making-out into the wee hours of the morning in a dark, empty room because they “didn’t go all the way.” The logic, not to mention the restraint, won’t hold for very long.


I love John Stott. He’s done more for the Lord than I could ever dream. But this chapter felt like a convoluted effort to rationalize a ministry direction that can’t be supported in the text. Stott takes big categories like equality and servant leadership and then uses them to negate the particulars of Scripture. So he concludes that “what is forbidden women is not leadership but domineering over men” (353). Likewise, he asserts “the central issue is not what offices are open to women (presbyter, rector, bishop), but whether their leadership style is consistent with Jesus’ teaching on servanthood” (353). But Genesis 1-2, Ephesians 5, 1 Corinthians 11 and 14, 1 Timothy 2 and 3 are not about style at all. They are about the roles of men and women. To say the Bible is only concerned about how women teach not only begs the question “why these special instructions for women when men are to be servants too” it also twists the pertinent passages into a discussion of matters palatable to us but foreign to the texts themselves.

Complementarianism is a big deal not just because the roles of men and women matter and ordering the church God’s way matters. Complementarianism matters, perhaps most of all, because how we handle the Scriptures matter. I know, love, and respect many egalitarians. But the sloppy exegesis, special pleading, and hermeneutical sidestepping required to get to Stott’s modified complemegalitarianism (not to mention positions far to the left of his) are troubling. They make the text get where the text just ain’t supposed to go. And that’s not the way forward in ministry, whether it’s a third way or not.