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The Trouble with Men and Women: Exercises in love and unity

Christians differ in conscience and conviction about what the Bible says about a number of issues. Really everything is disputed somewhere, but if we can concede that there are some things that are utterly essential and others that are open to some dispute, some which are essential for unity, others over which there is room to differ, then one of the most contentious is the role of women.

The issue basically comes down to the role of men and women in marriage, and the role of men and women in the church particularly with regard to leadership and teaching. On the one side is the egalitarian who notes that men and women are both created in God's image and that there is no male and female in Christ. On the other the complementarian who agrees with the previous statement but says that this equality includes order which says men are to lead in the home and the church.

The missional movement in which I work takes no position on this issue, regarding it as a matter on which we can disagree and still carry out our mission, consequently you can find students, staff and churches in our partnership who hold a full range of views on the issues.

Our partner publishing house IVP-UK have published a volume by Grudem on Complementarianism and one edited by Groothuis and Fee on Egalitarianism. Fee spoke at our Staff Training Conference a few years ago. My church and its wider family are broadly complementarian (to varying degrees), and I would agree with the stance my church takes. Churches need to decide a position as they appoint leaders and have more to do with marriage than a purely student context ever will.

My experience is that those who are opposed to the complementarian viewpoint tend to be concerned that it is oppressive to women who will find themselves dominated in the home and their ability to serve in the church restricted. Hannah expresses her experience here of being within the same student movement and church family as I am. I don't doubt there is some abuse, from all theological positions, and that is shameful and without excuse. In the church I hurt other members and other members hurt me through negligence, weakness through our own deliberate fault; but we are called to love by the one who loved us, the propitiation and expiation for our sins.

In marriage what's really at stake is the issue of men stepping up to take responsibility for their household, unlike the original shirker Adam; and women partnering with their husbands rather than being led astray by an outsider, unlike Eve. Both Adam and Eve are held responsible for the fall. The women in our church seem far from oppressed and more liberated and empowered by their husbands leading. Moreover the real issue is that male leadership is to be Christlike leadership which means giving themselves up to death for their wives, and similarly the wife being like the church dies to live a new life in Christ. I think the application of these doctrines makes for a better marriage, one in which my sin is confronted by the gospel of grace rather than accomodated.

In the church one has to deal with the maleness of instructions about the qualifications for leaders in 1 Timothy 4, Titus 1 and the restrictions of 1 Timothy 2 one way or another. I think this has to come in view of a body ministry, which I'm glad our church practises. This means that the elder or the preacher is not the key ministry to have, but rather that every ministry matters in the church - indeed leaders equip the saints for ministry - saying a woman can't be an elder is just saying a woman isn't a man because she's a woman it's no degredation or restriction of her ability to contribute to the body. Where would the body be without women? On a Sunday morning (and at other times) I'm as benefited by the prayers and prophecies and other contributions of women in our church as by the service of other men in the body.

In my mind the issue matters because marriage is meant to be the best echo of Christ and the church and there are ways in which that echo is meant to be heard, and because the life of the church is to look like Christ's body and reflect the life of the Triune God too. Order is something that is evident in creation, the world was formless but God spoke to bring form and orderliness because he too is a God of order not of chaos. I find it hard to see how anyone can draw Egalitarian convictions from the Scripture, but doubtless my brothers and sisters in Christ would query how I can draw my Complementarian views (and a whole host of other conclusions) from Scripture too!

In my workplace though we're not running a church we're a partnership between churches and the principle issue, ahead of having my own doctrinal way, is to have love, and that means some Christian Unions lovingly don't have women teaching and others do - on the basis of how we can best serve and bear with one another's consciences in these matters.

There is liberty. We unite on the gospel. We admit our differences. And we love one another.

Issues that can divide us don't have to be papered over - we can face them head on, respecting that there is room for disagreement with brothers and sisters, without abandoning our own convictions but in pursuit of love. When opportunity comes to teach on what it is to be a man or a woman I want to tread carefully and respectfully, admitting that Bible-loving people have drawn other conclusions on the issue to those I have drawn.

The Egalitarian Evangelical is doubtlessly trying to be Christlike - today I choose to assume the best of others though I confess I've not always done so. This Complementarian Evangelical is also trying to be Christlike, and if so that has got to mean loving others and dying to my self not least because I'm saying that as a husband I want to walk in Christ's footsteps and lay my life down for my wife, a pursuit that doesn't sit well with the arrogance, laziness, pride or divisiveness that I might easily be prone to embrace.


  1. Hi Dave, it's good to get an alternative response to the sentiments expressed in my posts on this :) Just wondering if you guessed which group of churches I used to be part of by the reference to the magazine interview with Mark Driscoll, or something else?

  2. I was going on the magazine interview.

  3. Fair enough, i thought that might be the case!

  4. Amazing how tangental sentences can sometimes jump out and have more (subjective) impact for the reader than the main point of the article... The post was great, the sentence "Today I choose to assume the best of others", brilliantly challenging. Cheers. (cu @ forum?)

  5. In a way, that "tangent" is the point. I'm not sure the post is really about the men/women issue, more about how we treat those with whom we differ.

    I'll be at forum, teaching the Transformed by the Gracious God track and doing an afternoon workshop (interview with Terry Virgo) - come along and introduce yourself.

  6. Tricky, though, innit? Because in a CU you do have to do one or the other - there is no neutral third position. So who do we ask to back down? Whose convictions get sacrificed (in practice)?

    I found this the most complex issue I dealt with as a CUSW...

  7. I agree it is tricky and that there really is no neutral position.

    My strategy is that the majority should offer to back down for the sake of the minority who will already feel ostracised by being a minority, allowing that minority to either say "Thank you for loving us, please do accomodate us" or "Thank you for loving us, but its ok to go with the majority"

    In some CUs the majority would say no to women speaking, in others the majority would say yes - the challenge is for them to exercise love not power. I think the same principle holds for all other secondary issues which effect the running of a CU - be that the exercise of charismatic gifts or some other issue. Issues of Calvinist or Arminian preachers really didn't ought to be an issue - the doctrinal basis of fellowship clearly allows for both whatever the members think.

    It's more difficult when it's should there or should there not be a women preaching, a tongue with interpretation or a prophecy given because either you do, or you don't.

    That said - the training meetings of a CU are a long way from being the main thing that the CU is about, and so whether or not women preach at those meetings really ought to be lower on the list than "how can we as people loved in the gospel take that gospel to our campus most effectively?"

    Whether everyone would see this my way I don't know!

  8. My only experience of CUs is RUCU, which as you know essentially takes a complimentarian position. How do other CUs "lovingly have women teaching"?

    I mean from the practical point of view, how do they avoid it being such a big deal that people refuse to sit under the teaching of the women? Or is it a model that can only work in CUs where there isn't a significant number who feel so strongly against women preaching?

  9. Tim, actually what I'm suggesting is the opposite.

    Where most think women should teach then perhaps they should act in love for their gospel-loving brothers and sisters who read scripture differently, and act in a way that helps them to know that they too belong in a Christian Union that is a fellowship based around core doctrines not around where you stand on the issue of women teaching or not teaching.

    My suggestion is that we die to ourselves on secondary matters and pursue love of one another - bearing with differences, acting in the best interest of others rather than ourselves.

    The flipside to your CU would be one in which the majority hold an egalatarian view (which does happen too), there a complementarian may find it difficult to hear women teaching a mixed group, and may find himself thinking I don't belong here despite holding to the same core doctrines as the rest of the group. The question is: how can the egalatarians love their brother or sister with whom they disagree?

    Does that make sense? I'm arguing we let ourselves be wronged, or at least make the genuine offer to let ourselves be wronged so that our brothers and sister with whom we disagree don't have to be. Unity always costs - the easy way is to make it cost other people, the hard way is to let it cost me.

    The resultant unity is substantial and based on the core doctrines alone with an honesty that we do really disagree on other matters, yet still the gospel holds us together in our mission.

  10. Great post - as has been said, the general principle of loving is so important. It's actually being involved in a CU that has taught me how to love Christians with whom I disagree, and to believe that they have genuine motives of wanting to follow Christ, rather than trying to "evade the clear teaching of Scripture", which is what I was taught about (e.g) paedobaptists, egalitarians, Lutheran-approach-to-the-Law people etc.
    Perhaps the most challenging thought though, is in the comments - that the majority should try and offer to accommodate the minority, rather than the other way around. In CU leadership this thought never crossed my mind, and I realise now how much I appealed to a combination of maintaining the status quo and meeting the needs of the majority. You're quite right that this isn't the Christian way of doing things - CU isn't a democracy; it's better, and more loving, than that.

  11. Sorry Dave, I should have made myself clearer. I understand your suggestion (though I can't say I agree. There's loving someone and accommodating their beliefs, but surely going against your own conscience as a leader is wrong? Can we really recommend CU execs should do something they believe is wrong in order to show love to anyone, regardless of whether they are in the majority or the minority?).

    My question was more aimed at finding out how CUs with an egalitarian bias generally work this out in practice. Do they follow your suggestion and go with the minority? Do they go with the majority? How do they avoid problems rising from the group whose opinion is not followed (again, regardless of whether it is the majority or minority view)?

  12. Hi Tim,

    I suspect CUs with an egalatarian majority probably practice egalatarian speaker selection, just as CUs with complementarian majorities probably practice a complementarian bias. I'm arguing each should do the opposite because our unity is on the matters in the doctrinal basis of our fellowship not the secondary beliefs of the majority.

    A leader has to serve those they lead and to serve the purpose of the body they lead. The CUs purpose is mission with evangelical unity - which very much means going against my own beliefs on (important) secondary matters for the sake of love and unity. Massive love is shown when I offer to do that rather than impose my conscience on someone else... It means I'm saying "I'd rather be wronged than wrong you, I'll die to myself rather than killing you".

    I'm a fun-loving charismatic Calvinist but if I'm leading a CU whose basis of fellowship is core evangelical doctrines that means I don't automatically impose my charismatic or Calvinistic biases, I look to love and secure a fellowship based on those core doctrines. If I'm the pastor of a charismatic Calvinist church then that's different.

  13. I like your suggestion that those with the majority/ power sacrifice themselves for the sake of the minority/ the weak.

    But I'm not sure it will actually work for the CU where the majority do not think it is right for women to preach/ teach.

    For the majority who feel it is not right to have women preach and teach to a CU, yielding to the minority would (from the perspective of their consciences) involve them in committing a sin.

    Whereas, since even the most right-on egalitarian would never interpret the (from their perspective) biblical imperative to 'have women preach' as something that must always be done, a CU in which they were the majority could yield to the complementarian minority without having committed any sin of conscience.

    In other words, usually speaking, the not-having of something the bible allows does not involve someone in a sin in the way that the doing of something the bible forbids does. And this is true even if the bible doesn't actually forbid what those with tender consciences think it forbids, since their sin is against conscience (Cf. Romans 14, whatever is not of faith is a sin...).

    Does that make sense? I'm aware it might sound like a cheeky attempt (as a complementarian) to suggest that 'my camp' would always get its way, but I assure it's not. I'm just very uncomfortable about people being asked to do something they think the bible forbids (whether or not they're right), whereas I'm less bothered with people being asked to not do something which they think the bible allows.

  14. Pete, I suspect in most cases the offer to serve the minority would be met with "thank you for the offer, we wouldn't want you to go against your conscience so do stick with your way" which ends up looking the same but something profoundly different has happened. In either senario unity has a cost - and its always easier to make someone else pay the cost than for me to pay it.

    If that kind of majority also admitted that it's consciences were the issue, that the majority had a tender conscience on the issue then that would be better than a pat "everything thinks men can teach" - which again is about attitude, honesty and service. We love to think of others as the weaker brother rather than ourselves being the weaker ones.

    The other counter to your suggestion is that the minority think it would be sinful not to let a woman preach... perhaps in part we should recognise that persuading ourselves that being wronged on a secondary is utterly sinful is a problem.

    The question is, can I not allow myself to be convinced of what the Bible says on a secondary doctrine while recognising that sincere evangelical brothers and sisters draw a different conclusion, which makes me hold a bit looser to my view...

  15. '...perhaps in part we should recognise that persuading ourselves that being wronged on a secondary is utterly sinful is a problem.'

    I agree, if we're talking about 'being wronged' i.e. a situation where I'm passive with respect to the issue.

    For example, that's why I'd gladly attend Oak Hill Chapel services when women preached there, even though I'm a complementarian. The issue in such circumstances is whether or not the error (as I see it) is big enough to disrupt christian fellowship (which it isn't), or whether I ought to just sit tight for the sake of my brothers and sisters (which I should and did).

    It's a very different situation though, if I'm the one being asked to book the speaker or something. Which is more the scenario I'm talking about for CUs. Asking someone to actively engage in something their consciences (in obedience to scripture as they understand it) think is wrong, is seriously problematic.

    'The other counter to your suggestion is that the minority think it would be sinful not to let a woman preach...'

    I see that. I'm not totally sure here, however, I do think there might be some faulty thinking going on here. I don't think it's sinful to not do something we are allowed to do. But it is sinful to do something we aren't allowed to. So, the egalitarian minority would have to believe that scripture commands that we MUST have women preachers, such that for a CU to never have them would be sinning. Which, while not impossible, would be pretty hard to really argue for.

  16. Hi Dave,

    I'm with Pete and others here. Going against our conscience is a serious issue, and I think we misunderstand evangelical unity if it requires us to do so.

    I just couldn't see Paul instructing a group of Christians who had an issue with food sacrificed to idols, to go down to the pagan temple with their 'minority' friends who thought it was OK just to make them feel more included.

  17. Scott, we're not talking about participating in pagan rituals (as in Brian McLaren celebrating Ramadan this year) though are we... we're talking about Christians together pursuing godliness.

    Really I'm just trying to use the Comp/Egali debate as a context for arguing that we should love one another and that love implies dying. It just strikes me that I'm always going to be good at suggesting someone else should die so we can unite, but not so much that I should.

    Conscience should be taken very seriously, which is why I advocate clear communication. I've heard egalitarians argue that their conscience really is offended (rightly or wrongly) by the suggestion that women shouldn't preach.

    Either someone's conscience takes a beating or an issue like this becomes a reason to be divided despite unity on doctrines of Scripture, Christ, Atonement etc. In the local church these issues have to be hammered out one way or the other for the life of the church, for marriage etc; and people can join different churches to suit their secondaries... in a CU I want to believe we can unite even though there is secondary difference, the only question is how. On which, because conscience is at stake then the policy will be localised and temporary, I simply suggest that it's a bit rough and unloving of the majority to step on the conscience of a minority just because there are more of them. And like I say, I think the issue has to be played in both directions... what should happen if as a complementarian you're in the minority? Does the majority impose egalitarian views? Do you leave if they do? Should the majority lovingly sacrifice the freedom they think Scripture gives them to include you? Etc.

  18. Hi Dave,

    Please don't read my comments as suggesting that I'm against what you say here:

    'in a CU I want to believe we can unite even though there is secondary difference,'

    And I am in full agreement here:

    'Really I'm just trying to use the Comp/Egali debate as a context for arguing that we should love one another and that love implies dying. It just strikes me that I'm always going to be good at suggesting someone else should die so we can unite, but not so much that I should.'

    It's just that there's all sorts of 'dying' going on in the Christian life. Including the dying that is submission to God and his word, even on secondary matters. What we're discussing here is not about dying vs not-dying, but about how we put together two aspects of the dying that the bible calls us to.

    I think all I'm really saying is that perhaps the majority-minority way of looking at it isn't the best way of making the way through this kind of ethical maze? And I say that even though i think there is something attractive about looking at it that way - the powerful yield to the weak. It's just interesting that when it came to the meat issue in Rome and Corinth Paul didn't define 'powerful' and 'weak' in numerical terms, and I think this whole business of conscience is part of the reason why.

  19. I agree - and to be fair majority/minority language probably fosters party-mentality, and it's hard to see who is who anyway...

    Conscience is a good way forward, and a more complex one, requiring all the more love and care for one another.

    Appreciating the interaction.

  20. It's all very tricky, but love demands that we put the hard work in to make (a) way(s) forward on these things. The temporary-transitory nature of CU membership is both a gift (helping people to temporarily put up with things for short-term missional reasons) and a hindrance (CUSWs have to visit the same issues, and fight the same fires, every couple of years at least?) in all this.

    Am likewise appreciating the discussion.

    Also appreciating this 'nod' in the direction of your Anglican past:

    'through negligence, weakness through our own deliberate fault'


  21. It was for freedom I was set free, but that doesn't mean there's not some great treasure to dig up in the Anglican field.

  22. Hi Dave,

    Been thinking over this post, and wondering whether to comment or not.

    I really like the emphasis on thinking through not just the presenting issue of gender, but the related and important issue of the way that we express unity and love in the process of dealing with the issue. We will certainly be judged on both!

    Yet, I remain unconvinced that your solution as an expression of love is really that...

    I've done a bit of thinking about NT passages like 1 Cor 12-14 and Rom 14...but I still can't think of any example in the NT of acting on the basis of someone else's convictions, not your own.

    I see in Rom 14 for instance an instruction to be loving towards the weaker brother- which works out here as not constantly bringing up your differences in order to rebuke gives us freedom to be silent on issues we disagree on...

    But I can't see any example of what you're attach your solution to the word love, but I wonder if that's as obvious as it first sounds...

    I'm still in the process of thinking it through, so would love to hear others' thing I've tried doing is applying Dave's suggestion to other issues Christians might disagree on...would it make sense in another context? (a little left field - but - what about if you had Christians who insisted on swearing as part of their attempt to be all things to all men and insisted that they thought this was helpful in reaching others with similar would Dave's solution apply?)

  23. I think mostly I'm building from love as described in 1 Corinthians 13, but that's certainly not all there is on the subject - and the passages you cite need to be considered. I guess I'm really thinking about what it means to bear with others, and prefer them ahead of ourselves...

    We can potentially disagree on everything and make every interpretation valid... but we don't. So I'm not suggesting this approach on core doctrine, or on things that don't have a Biblical basis in any sane context (like Christians using bad language...) - I thought I'd pick one where it seems serious evangelicals do differ.

    Still working it out.

  24. Thanks Dave -

    Yep - on 1 Cor 13 - I think you've got the burden of proof to demonstrate that your position is actually a demonstration of love in this instance. The point of difference is not the command to love - but that this is an example of it! I'm not convinced.

    To suggest something positive I think love might mean refusing to break off from contexts where you find other people's interpretations frustratingly unbiblical...that's a temptation I see as a legitimate area of struggle..

    on the core / non core distinction - I'm with you largely - my example isn't a great example of that (although that all depends on your context I suspect!). although find another example and we'd still have similar issues I suspect...

    thanks Dave...

  25. But how far do you take this/where is the line drawn? I appreciate the sentiment of imitating Christ's humility to egalitarians, but what about when it comes to say, homosexuality? I used to hold more liberal views on this issue (because said views were consistent with my egalitarian beliefs) and people in the CU rightly corrected me.

    I mention this because it is another issue that relates to the wider debate on gender roles, and is not referred to in the CU doctrinal basis, but most evangelical Christians would argue strongly against having a speaker who was a practising homosexual (and rightly so). How do you resolve that problem?

  26. This comment has been removed by the author.

  27. Dave, just to clarify, I was referring to 1 Corinthians 8 where Paul says he thinks eating food sacrificed to idols is actually OK (albeit in the context of a plea for love and the giving up of our freedoms to serve others. I just don't think that's the same as going against your conscience on something you believe scripture forbids.)

    I love your desire to preserve unity despite secondary differences though. It's a very precious thing

  28. Nick - partly I guess I'm building on other posts on the topic here over the last year or two hence the lack of exegesis of 1 Cor 13 above (a blogging flaw). I'll revisit or dig out some more stuff on that, and I think in light of your helpful comments I'll go spend some time in Romans 14 too.

    Scott - here I have the problem of trying to extrapolate from the examples we are given to ones we face today! The whole issue of secondary doctrinal differences does seem to be there in the New Testament but probably not on the issues we dispute today in evangelicalism...

  29. OK, it looks like I'm a bit behind the curve, but I posted some thoughts on how this debate relates to Romans 14, and also to eldership authority. You can read them here:

  30. Hey Dave - yep - sorry if I came in part way through a conversation on 1 Cor 13 - I haven't kept up with my blog reading recently!

    My guess is that 1 Cor 13 will tell you more about the imperative to seek the good of your neighbour generally, rather than resolve this issue specifically - hence deferring it to other passages. But happy to hear if you think you're convinced from 1 Cor 13 alone.

    I did write a paper on the topic a few years ago now - as I reflect now - more based on the theory rather than from personal experience! IFES makes a great context to work hard at putting it into practice. You can get it in pdf here:

    I think Eph 4 and Rom 14 affected the outcome the most.


  31. On Samuel's comments
    (thanks for the link...the bacon sandwich looked awesome!)
    I think it's worth comparing Paul's advice in Romans 14 (strong bearing with the weak) with his outright confrontation of Peter in Gal 2 (on eating with Gentiles) first sight it seems that Paul is not entirely consistent!

    I think we've got to see the pastor making judgement calls on what is going on.

    It's worth recognising that Rom 14 shows that Paul does take sides in the debate - and I suspect he would be keen to teach the weaker brothers in a context of his choosing.

    In other words - we shouldn't absolutise Rom 14 into a universal principle - it is more an example of Paul making a pastoral call that teaching on this issue, at this time, would not be acting in love...I suspect he'd be looking for a context where he'd be able to teach them without it seeming like it's rubbing salt in the wounds.

    So one of the applications would be to decide on what the best context I can find to address a particular issue, rather than to never address difficult issues. That just becomes a conspiracy of silence and I don't think Romans 14 is supporting that.

  32. In most cases I imagine if a group of Christians with differences actually sat down and talked about things with an Ephesians 4 vision of unity plus Ephesians 4 and 1 Corinthians 13 (which is love your neighbour, but particularly in the church family - when people come to use a gift to elevate themselves rather than to build the body) then most disputes dissipate - usually we find we have far more in common than we allowed ourselves to believe when we were busy defining ourselves by our secondaries instead of our primaries.


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