July 24, 2020

Stop Muddying the Waters: A Plea for Robust Complementarianism

I read an article in Christianity Today claiming that recent research indicated most evangelicals support women leaders in the church.

So once again, the spotlight is on the role of women in the church. For the sake of clarity, here’s how we define complementarianism in our 20schemes Foundation Documents:

Women participate equally with men in the priesthood of all believers. Their role is crucial, their wisdom, grace and commitment exemplary. While Scripture teaches that a woman’s role is not identical to that of men in every respect, and that pastoral leadership is assigned to men, it also teaches that women are equal in value to men.

To be honest, I’ve not been keen to dive into the whole social media debate, especially lately. Sometimes I feel that, even when someone may be speaking solid biblical truth, it’s not done in the most helpful way. In fact, I’d suggest it has been detrimental at times. Let’s face it, Twitter isn’t exactly the best format to have a decent, God-honouring debate about this topic.

No Surprise

The article I mentioned above discusses research conducted in March by political scientists Paul Djupe and Hannah Smothers. Some of the highlights are as follows.

Qualified women should be allowed to:

  • Teach Sunday school—86.9% (Sunday school referred to as theological teaching for adults before or after the main service on Sunday)
  • Lead worship—82.1%
  • Preach at a Women’s Conference—81%
  • Preach on a Sunday Morning—72.8%

I’m just not that surprised by some of the suggested findings. To be honest, what surprises me is that others are. We have been debating this issue for decades. There are reams of great, biblically solid books, eloquent articles, blogs (a few I’ve written myself), and Twitter feeds on this issue. Yet still, with everything out there, 72.8%, of ‘self-identified evangelicals’ think that women should be allowed to preach on a Sunday morning.

No More Mixed Messages

When it comes to women in leadership, we evangelicals aren’t exactly the clearest. A lot of the time, we send mixed messages. It’s confusing! What we say with our mouths doesn’t always follow through in our actions. Claire Smith speaks about this in her seriously helpful book God’s Good Design:

Even some churches that do not permit women to serve as lead pastors and elders at times allow women to share on Sundays as guest speakers or preachers—making a distinction between the ‘special teaching’ they believe to be restricted to qualified male leaders.

Here’s Smith again on 1 Corinthians 14:

This text also touches on a recent notion that some sermons are more about ‘exhortation’ than ‘teaching’, and so, in light of verse 31, it is okay for women to preach these sermons. There is an older variation on this, which sees preaching itself as prophecy. In both cases, the time of formal public Bible teaching is relabelled or replaced so it is no longer considered to be ‘teaching’ and the restrictions of 1 Timothy 2:12 allegedly do not apply.

I’ve been in discussions where such relabelling goes on. I remember sitting with a group of people—who would say they were complementarian—discussing whether a woman could preach on a Sunday. The suggestion from some participants seemed to be that ‘a woman could preach if an elder was present’.

So they were complementarian by name but egalitarian by nature. How is this not muddying the waters and confusing people? I can understand that many may be trying to enable and seek ways for women to participate in the Sunday service, but we need to be sure we aren’t fudging biblical truth in the process.

Importance of Titles

But, sadly, it’s not just with Sunday pulpit time that we confuse and muddy the waters. We can also have a tendency to do the same with church roles and job titles. Many good evangelical churches I know, who would say that they come from a complementarian perspective, confuse people by having female ‘music pastors’ or ‘youth pastors’ (small ‘p’). They are not elders or teaching pastors, but this does have an overall impact on our congregations and wider community.

Someone once suggested I was the women’s pastor at Niddrie, and I was horrified. Job titles matter. In fact, when we started our women’s ministry at Niddrie, we used to call our women’s care team the ‘women’s pastoral team’ (small ‘p’).

I remember early on, when we had some visitors from overseas, the team got completely hung up on the name for the care team—Were we women’s pastors? The small ‘p’ in pastoral team was very clear to us but, to others on the outside, it was confusing and caused concern. So I changed the name. The name change didn’t change what we did—that is, it didn’t change the responsibility we had, how we served our church, community, and elders—but it did save any confusion or misunderstandings that may have had a detrimental impact. In other words, providing clarity helped.


I have the privilege of being asked to speak at events all over the world. If I’m being honest, I prefer speaking at women’s conferences, but there are times when I do speak in a mixed setting, primarily about women’s ministry. My elders have agreed—in fact have asked me—to do this. I don’t preach, expound the Word, or exegete the text in a mixed setting. And, before I speak in a mixed setting, usually one of the elders will get up and go through a little blurb that explains our church’s stance.

To some, this may seem like overkill—Is it really necessary to have a disclaimer before a speaker? I’m not going to lie and tell you that I love this moment. It feels a bit like the BBC voice-over guy warning the viewer of something they need to be aware of before the programme starts. But, hear this—It doesn’t matter how I feel. It’s about my elders bringing clarity, stating our biblical stance as a church and drawing a crystal-clear line.

And guess what? Never, in all these years, has anyone complained about this disclaimer. In fact, the clarity has made life easier, particularly for me. It might make me feel uncomfortable at times but, in bringing clarity, my elders are actually protecting me from the pushback, hassle, and harsh comments that can and may come.

Different Discussion

I am saddened by the Christianity Today article, but probably not for the reasons you think. What makes me sad is that with all these reams of good books, discussions, resources, and surveys out there, we are still so narrow in the discussion on women in ministry. It’s a good and worthwhile debate, as I’ve said in the past. But seriously, when is the discussion going to focus on more than this one issue? I know I have said this before but, really? It feels like the same old debate rehashed, just from a different direction.

When are we going to actually start talking about how we equip and release the gifted, faithful, and theologically astute women in our congregations, in a biblical way, for the acts of service that they have been called to?

It’s clear from this survey that over 80% of ‘self-identified evangelicals’ think qualified and gifted women have a role to play in our congregations—don’t you think it’s about time we worked this out practically? A good place to start could be to stop muddying the waters and confusing people by being ‘complementarian’ by name but egalitarian by nature. Have this discussion, but take the next step—moving the discussion on to how women can serve within a solid biblical framework. This may mean we need to actually have the hard discussions as congregations, be crystal clear in our stance, and work out how to invest, equip, and biblically release women to serve.

Here at 20schemes, I’m so thankful that our women’s ministry isn’t a tag-on. It’s not tokenistic. It’s genuinely an integral part of what we do. I’m thankful that our elders at Niddrie have seen the importance and have seriously invested in our ministry. They have helped us work though the realities and practicalities of being complementarian by both name and nature. It’s been hard, and there have times we have had to review and change things that haven’t worked. We haven’t got it all sorted, but we are trying.

We have developed training to help equip and prepare women for ministry. At this point, someone always emails and asks if they can have our training material for their church, and my answer is always the same—No. But, your women can access our training and take part. For more info email [email protected].

20schemes Training

  • Women’s Ministry Ragged Elective—For women who have been tasked by their elders to consider women’s ministry in their context. (Distance learning course, starts Sept 20)
  • Ministry Wives Training—Distance learning course, starts Sept 20
  • Women’s Pre-conferences—Twice a year (In conjunction with our 20schemes Weekender)
  • 20schemes Equip Titus 2 Course—Online course for any church member who wants to be more active (Coming September 2020)
  • Women’s ministry Intensive Week: This is a condensed version of the Women’s Ministry Ragged Elective

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