We continue with our discussion of complementarianism. Complementarianism is the biblical belief that both men and women are made in the image of God, are equal in dignity and worth, yet have differing God-given roles to play in the church and the home.
In this series of posts, I’m trying to articulate a view of complementarianism that safeguards the Bible’s teaching about gender roles while celebrating and affirming the wide and rich roles women may and should play in the church and the family. These posts are born of an angst about the way complementarians sometimes emphasize what women can not do more than we relish what women should do. In the second post I tried to argue for the necessity of women being discipled or taught in the local church and the necessity of their making disciples or teaching in ways that honor and protect male leadership and authority.
I’m not sure I was as clear as I would like to be in the second post. So let me offer a brief summary borrowing from a statement framed by the Session at Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia in 1992:
“The Session of this church affirms that all positions of leadership and service are open to women, except for the authoritative teaching and disciplinary role that the Bible, in 1 Timothy 2:12-14, reserves for men. In the Presbyterian form of church government that role is embodied solely in the Session, composed of ruling and teaching elders. Aside from that function, women are encouraged to seek out all avenues of leadership and service, including Bible teaching, leading small groups, serving on the various church boards and committees, assisting in deaconal work and by any other means fully exercising their gifts for the greater benefit of the body of Jesus Christ.” (Philip Graham Ryken, 1 Timothy: Reformed Expository Commentary (P&R), pp. 97-98).
That captures my understanding pretty well. And it more importantly strikes the Bible’s tone, which encourages as much as it guards, a tone we very much needed in our churches. We want to see the sisters in our churches “fully exercising their gifts for the greater benefit of the body of Jesus Christ” in every biblically sanctioned way possible. Women are not to lead the church, serve as elders, or teach in an elder’s capacity, but that’s not the only thing the Bible says about the service of women. We can and should give more attention to those things the Bible affirms, not just what it negates.
Women in Missions
Missions is one area women are to be active in serving the Lord. The Great Commission of Matthew 28:18-20 applies as much to our sisters as our brothers–praise God! I’m grateful for the legion of women who desire to invest their lives in the spread of Christ’s Name to all nations for the salvation and eternal joy of souls. Where would we be without these sisters?
Very few people would dispute the rightness of women serving on the mission field. Few would argue this is a role women should not play. But, in our effort to be practicing complementarians, I fear we’ve sometimes treated our sisters as though they were “second string” players on the team. Let me give you an example of a well-meaning appeal I’ve often heard that left me feeling this way.
I attended a missions event that featured a number of faithful missionaries serving in difficult places and one or two respected Christian pastors. The conference was great. I was edified at the accounts of gospel faithfulness, suffering, perseverance, and joy the speakers shared. Few of those who shared were women, except in cases where wives accompanied their husbands and contributed in some way. That didn’t bother me. What bothered me was a thread of emphasis running through the conference: “We need more men on the mission field? Where are all the men?”
Now, the appeal for men to get off their duffs and get in the game is perfectly legitimate and necessary. But here’s how the appeal was made on a number of occasions. “We see young women signing up to go to the field all the time. There are plenty of women who seem ready to serve. But where are all the young men?”
The charitable reaction to that comment is to regard the speakers as intending to honor the sisters while challenging the men. I think that reading fits to some extent. However, that word “but” clanged like a brass gong in my ears. It felt patronizing. “Yeah, yeah. We thank you sisters for coming along but this is really a man’s work.” The challenge seems to include a rather paternalistic assumption. In so far as that paternalism exists, it reduces the honor that should be accorded our faithful sisters.
Which brings me to another observation. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed hearing older women veterans of the mission field speak at various conferences and venues. How enriched the entire church is because of the speaking and writing of Elisabeth Elliot and Helen Roseveare, for example. The church rightly honors women such as these, who risked their lives for the gospel (Phil. 2:29-30).
But it’s as though such honor is given only to older women. Younger women are steered toward home and domestic life rather than service on the mission field. Single women are often counseled to build their lives around an anticipated husband by delaying commitment to the mission field “until they find a spouse.” We sometimes encourage sisters to wait on the Lord for missions in order to actively seek a spouse and family. It seems we should reverse this: we should encourage the sisters to wait on the Lord for spouse and family while actively seeking to be on mission. That, it seems to me, is the thrust of Paul’s encouragement that singles remain single so that they can give themselves to the Lord without distraction of spouse and family and with undivided love (1 Cor. 7:17-35). We seem to lack a vision for single sisters that encourages them to be joyfully and fruitfully on mission for Jesus while waiting on the Lord for His will in family matters or seeking contentment as a single.
For married sisters, we need an approach that not only offers counsel and teaching about seeing their primary roles as wife and mother (if they have children) as part of how they fulfill the Great Commission, but also help them see and understand the even wider part they play in helping engage the entire family as a unit in making disciples of all nations. Marriage should not mean being sidelined in the work of missions, but should mean having even greater leadership from a godly husband, greater resources, and a larger team for doing the work of missions. I wonder if so much female loneliness, dissatisfaction, and feeling as though their gifts were squandered could be helped if our complementarian view of marriage gave explicit attention to how a wife and mother continues to function as a missionary.
The Trouble with Paternalism
One final observation. There also exists the protective instinct brothers have toward our sisters that sometimes gets turned up a bit too high. We brothers should lay down our lives for our sisters and should think carefully and prayerfully about every possible way we can honor and protect them in life–but not to the extent of “protecting” them from the risks of living on the bleeding edge of the gospel. I’ve heard speakers suggest that women shouldn’t go to difficult places for fear they would be hurt or worse. Meanwhile, they seem to view men as daring and full of faith for taking the same risks. But not women, especially single women.
The problem with paternalism is that it robs many of our sisters of the encouragement to pour out their lives as an offering in the work of missions, including the right risk of serving in difficult lands.
But on what grounds would we deny our sisters the great reward of suffering persecution and death for the Name of Jesus Christ? (Matt. 5:10-12; Acts 5:40-41; Rev. 6:9-11). Is not the glory of Christ worth the sacrifice of their lives as well? I think so. And I pray the Lord makes all our sisters so radical for Him that they count their lives as nothing for the surpassing greatness of knowing Jesus Christ, of knowing the power of His resurrection, and of participating in His suffering, becoming like Him in His death (Phil. 3:8, 10). Identifying with Christ in His suffering and risking our lives for the salvation of souls in missions is not the special province of men. But sometimes it seems our view of complementarity tempts us to treat it and discuss it as though it were.
Complementarity should mean brothers take a lead role in making sure the women of our churches are fully prepared to be on mission. It should mean the male leaders of the church cast a special eye toward the unique needs of our sisters and take steps with the older women of the church to serve those needs with the hopes of advancing the gospel through missions. Complementarity should mean calling our sisters to come with us in the joyful, soul-saving, life-sacrificing, reward-winning purpose of reaching every nation. The challenge for more men to be at the fore is correct. But it should not diminish the role of women in the Great Commission in the process.