I was once a feminist. In my early twenties, I became a complementarian, with the view that God made men and women equal but with different roles and responsibilities. It didn’t happen overnight; I studied the Bible, read books by complementarians and egalitarians, and joined in discussions, until I was convinced that the Bible teaches that God wants men to be servant leaders, and women to be helpers by their side as, together, we make Christ known.
It wasn’t an easy position to come to, and it’s not always an easy one to hold. It’s an unpopular viewpoint in Melbourne and much of Australia, and it doesn’t sit easily with family, friends or the wider church or culture. It’s led to a few uncomfortable moments! I’ve also had to battle my own desires for power and recognition.
Over time, I’ve only become more convinced that God’s plan for men and women is good. I’ve seen women cared for and honoured, and their teaching gifts nurtured and encouraged. I’ve seen men grow strong, gentle and servant-hearted. There’s something beautiful about servant leadership and trusting submission that displays the truth of the gospel in a way nothing else can (Eph 5:22-33).
So I rejoiced when I saw the plans for a complementarian conference in Melbourne: Equal and Complementary, held on the 23rd of October at Holy Trinity Anglican Church. It was organized by an interdenominational group of men and women concerned that egalitarianism is taught and accepted without question in most Melbourne churches (for example, an international egalitarian conference was held here in June), but there’s little teaching on complementarianism. About 150 people came, a mixture of ages, backgrounds, denominations and viewpoints.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from Equal and Complementary. Would God’s word be apologized for and watered down? Would there be an attempt to placate every person and accommodate every position? There’s nothing wrong with open debate, but it’s good to hear the Bible simply and clearly taught. I wasn’t disappointed; the talks were clear and courageous, and I went away encouraged and challenged to believe, obey and think hard about God’s word.
The first speaker was Presbyterian pastor and theologian Neil Chambers. He brought years of theological reflection and pastoral experience to the topic of hermeneutics—the interpretation of God’s word—and reminded us that there’s no gulf we can’t cross when we read the Bible, for it’s the word of God, not just the word of men, and it’s written for us. Scripture is sufficient for its own interpretation: historical information can illuminate but not determine its meaning. God’s word is clear; the mystery isn’t how much of the Bible is misunderstood, but how much has been understood by so many for so long (2 Tim 3:16-17; 2 Pet 1:21; Rom 15:4; 1 Cor 10:11). Neil’s conclusion was sobering: “This is the one I esteem: he who is humble and contrite in spirit, and trembles at my word” (Isa 66:2).
Martin Pakula, an Anglican theologian, writer and Bible teacher, spoke next on the much-debated text of 1 Tim 2:8-15, calling us to believe and submit to its plain teaching: that women are not to teach or have authority over men in the church. It’s not that women are never to teach (for example, men and women teach one another in private conversation and through singing—Acts 18:26; Col 3:16), but that women are not to teach in the technical sense of the authoritative instruction of the gospel and the Bible in a congregational setting. Instead, women are to “learn in quietness” (1 Tim 2:11 cf. 1 Tim 2:2)—that is, not in “silence” (cf. 1 Cor 11:5), but by listening attentively and without argument in submission to authority. He asked us, will we use a liberal hermeneutic to avoid the plain teaching of Scripture, or will we believe and obey God’s word? I appreciated the fact that Martin was unapologetic, consistent and clear.
At this point, some of the women in the audience may have been feeling a little discouraged. If I’m not to teach or have authority over men in the church, what ministries are open to me? So it was refreshing to hear the third speaker, Fiona McLean, talk about the many ministries God gives to women. She addressed the feminism and individualism of our culture, dealt with objections to and pitfalls of complementarianism, and gave a worked example of its application. It was good to hear a woman’s perspective, and I’ve rarely heard such a precise, thorough and thoughtful talk dealing with issues of this complexity.
I went away with lots to think about, and I’ve had some pretty intense discussions since the conference! If there’s a ‘spectrum’ of teaching, as Martin suggested, some of which is appropriate for women and some not, where do we draw the line? Obviously, complementarians will have different view on this; but at least we can struggle to understand and apply God’s word.
The best thing about Equal and Complementary, for me, was hearing complementarianism taught with clarity and conviction as God’s good word to us. Sometimes it’s (rather patronizingly) suggested that men are complementarian because it advantages them (which it rarely does in our culture) and that complementarian women are oppressed. In fact, as all three speakers testified, we’re complementarian because we believe it’s what God teaches in the Bible, and we see how both men and women are blessed and benefited by it.
Fiona put words to my feelings:
In the end, I want my worldview to be shaped by God’s word, the Bible. Where the Bible’s teaching grates against the culture in which I live, I want to make sure that I am neither misinterpreting the Bible, not capitulating to our culture … As a complementarian woman, I feel affirmed and valued. When men live out the complementarian view, this has enormous benefits for women! All believers, men and women, have a valuable part to play in God’s mission in the world, whether in paid or unpaid work, formal or informal, church-based or home-based or elsewhere. Let’s get on with it!
Martin Pakula has agreed to help me respond to any comments arising from this post or the talks at the conference.