Two Views: Complementarian—Men Are Authoritative Teachers

By Joe Harvey

Joe Harvey and Lana West adapted these articles from presentations they made to a doctor of ministry class at Lincoln (Illinois) Christian Seminary.  Be sure to read Lana West’s  article.


As Christianity moves through the first decade of the 21st century, it has entered a cultural vortex pulling it toward political correctness and moral relativism. It’s only natural that students of the Bible and theology react on many fronts, and some of the most heated discussions revolve around issues of gender discrimination and “traditionalist” (presumably nonprogressive) modes of thinking. The question of women’s role in church leadership is always at the center of these conversations.

This generation is naturally suspicious of the male-dominated history of church leadership. It certainly doesn’t set well with our cultural emphasis on equality and social tolerance. As a consequence, more and more denominations are examining the role of women in ministry, and church leaders are being pressed for an answer to the question that a previous generation of Christians rarely asked: What does the Bible teach about the role of women in church leadership?

Evangelical Christian theologians have generally given one of two responses. The complementarian view (sometimes called the hierarchical view) is the traditional view that sees the roles of women in church leadership permanently restricted. While there is always a range of perspectives, generally these biblical commentators and theologians maintain that such a restriction is clearly taught in the Bible and transcends cultural considerations.

In contrast, the egalitarian view, among evangelical Christian scholars, holds to the authority of the Bible as well, but maintains there is no distinction between church leadership role possibilities for men and women.

The breadth of the debate between complementarians and egalitarians is wide. The issues are complex and relate to matters of cultural context, theological schemas, grammatical analysis, and even preferences of translators. For our purposes this week, this essay provides a broad-based overview of the complementarian view only, with arguments to support the following proposition:

Women should not serve in ministry leadership roles because they are not to exercise authority over men. This principle is established through God’s creation design, illustrated in the Old Testament, reinforced in the ministry of Jesus, and stipulated in the teachings of Paul.

Creation Design

God’s creation design illustrates his will in this matter. Paul points this out in 1 Corinthians 11:8, 9, when he states, “For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; neither was man created for woman, but woman for man.”

This statement aptly describes what we find in the creation account of Genesis. What we discover there is a clear sense of subordination of woman to man. This is demonstrated in at least four ways: (1) woman is created after man and as a “helper suitable for him” (Genesis 2:18); (2) man names woman (Genesis 3:20); (3) God interacts first and foremost with Adam; and (4) Eve’s punishment for sin is directly related to her exercise of inappropriate authority (Genesis 3:16).

Based on these observations, we conclude there is a clear distinction between Adam and Eve in terms of function and authority. Woman was, in some sense, made for man and, while they may be equal in value, they are not equal in all respects.

Old Testament Illustrations

The rest of the Old Testament abundantly illustrates the subordinate relationship of woman to man. Consider the following facts:

• The national covenant was made with the men.

• The Ten Commandments were directed to men (“your neighbor’s wife”).

• Counts were made of males only.

• Only men could initiate a divorce.

• Land was divided and passed down to the men (unless that was not possible, as in Numbers 27:1-11).

• Only men performed priestly duties (but neighboring nations had priestesses).

• Sacrifices usually used male animals.

• There are numerous examples of women being accountable to men, who were accountable to God.

Craig Blomberg summarizes the Old Testament data well: “No one disputes that the relationship described in the rest of the OT [after the creation and fall narratives] reflects the practice of patriarchy—predominately male leadership in home, religion, and society” (Beck, 2005, p. 132).

The Ministry of Jesus

Still, one might say the Old Testament picture is a distorted one. If so, we might expect Jesus to set the record straight.

When we examine the role of women during the ministry of Jesus we notice five women (four of whom were Gentiles) listed in Jesus’ genealogy (Matthew 1:1-17). We also see that Jesus treated women with respect and regard. Examples include the sinful woman (Luke 7:36-50), the Syrophoenician woman (Mark 7:24-30), Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38-42), and the Samaritan woman (John 4:1-42).

What’s more, we note the following:

• Women were the first witnesses to the resurrection.

• Women were present and supportive throughout his ministry.

• Women are used along with men as characters in Jesus’ parables (such as the lost coin and lost sheep).

At the same time we must note that women had limited involvement in Jesus’ ministry. There were no women among the twelve (even though Jesus was willing to be scandalized in other ways). There is no indication women were among the 72 sent out by Jesus to preach concerning the kingdom of God (Luke 10:1-24).

While Jesus clearly challenged cultural norms in his interactions with women and demonstrated equal love and respect for them, he did not teach or demonstrate anything that was principally contradictory to the Old Testament picture of the unique leadership role of men. He was himself an authoritative leader and trained his male disciples to extend his ministry.

Paul’s Teaching

As we turn our attention to the teaching of Paul, we find the passages most critical to the matter at hand. In opposition to the view presented thus far, many focus on Paul’s words at the close of his letter, in Romans 16. Paul describes women using Greek terms that may designate them as church leaders.

Phoebe, in 16:1, 2, is described as a “servant” or “deacon” of the church in Cenchrea. Since this is the only place where the term is linked with a local church, some conclude it is best translated “deacon” and thus demonstrates Paul recognized this woman as a church leader. But the generic translation “servant” better suits the fact that the word is a masculine term with no feminine form occurring in Greek at that time. Even if we grant that Phoebe was a deaconess, she could be performing roles appropriate for women in relation to other women and children (teaching, baptizing, and counseling).

Other examples from Romans 16 include his descriptions related to Priscilla and Junias. As with Phoebe, these references are not decisive and are not contextually focused on the issue of women in church leadership. We must look elsewhere for Paul’s teaching on this subject.

In 1 Corinthians 14:33-35, Paul writes:

For God is not a God of disorder but of peace. As in all the congregations of the saints, women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the Law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.

The historical occasion of this text has been variously understood. Some suggest it concerns women who inappropriately interrupted church teaching events. In such a case, we find the key concept is submission of the wife to the husband’s home instruction. Perhaps it’s best to see this passage in the context of prophetic gifts and see the women in question as those who presume to authenticate prophecies—which should be left to the elders.

Either way, this passage is consistent with a belief that women have a different role in the life of the church than do men. That role is best delineated in Paul’s instruction to Timothy.

The linchpin verse of this study is 1 Timothy 2:12, where Paul writes, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent.” Evangelical interpreters agree that this passage is a response to the activity of male false teachers (1 Timothy 1:20). The text indicates that these men have influenced some women to assume inappropriate teaching roles.

Paul writes to remind them to learn in quietness and submission (to the male leadership) and stop trying to teach or have authority over “a man” in the church assembly (see 1 Timothy 3:14, 15). A closer look at verse 12 supports this interpretation:

• “I do not permit” (epitrepo): Nothing in the context suggests this is a temporary restriction. It cannot be argued, as some suggest, that the present tense of the verb means it is a temporary injunction. Paul has 1,429 occurrences of present tense in his 13 letters, and no one would argue they all refer to a restricted time frame.

• “a woman”: The object of Paul’s injunction is not restricted to false women teachers or even Ephesian women. He appears to be writing in regard to women in general.

• “to teach” (didaskein): This is the common word for teach used throughout the New Testament. It does not seem to refer to false or negative teaching (contrast 1 Timothy 1:3; 6:3). In other words, it is teaching in general and not just bad teaching that is under consideration.

• “or to have authority” (authen-tein): This is the only New Testament occurrence of this word. That it refers to “legitimate” authority may be seen in that it occurs 82 times in Greek literature of the New Testament times and is always positive. Accordingly, Paul is not addressing the use of bad authority.

• “over a man”: The text does not say “her man” (a husband), and it seems very general.

• “she must keep silent”: She should literally have a quiet attitude. This is the attitude for learning for both men and women (1 Timothy 2:2, “peaceful and quiet”).

The 12th verse must, of course, be viewed within its larger context. It cannot be dismissed as irrelevant just because it has been written in response to a specific situation in the ancient past.

In the next few verses, Paul appeals back to the created order of things. It is often the case that we appeal to the basic truths when presented with a specifically challenging situation. And so this discussion comes full circle.

A Countercultural Call

While the cultural climate of our times rightfully presses for the dismantling of prejudice and discrimination against women, it must not unduly influence our understanding of what the Bible teaches about the role of women in church leadership. For those of us who are compelled to let the Scriptures sit in judgment of our thinking and guide us to God’s perspective, there is a countercultural call to recognize that men and women are not equal in all respects.

Men have, as loving servant-leaders, been given the authoritative leadership roles in the churches. There are many ministry opportunities open to women, but authoritative teaching roles are not among them.

From Moses to Paul, the same message is repeated. Just as the role of priest was reserved for men in the Old Testament, so the authoritative teaching roles are reserved for men in the New Testament. We must assume that the designer knows how best to direct his creation and his church.


Joe Harvey recommends the following five volumes, which he studied as background for writing this study.

–James R. Beck, ed., Two Views of Women in Ministry (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005).

–Bonnidell Clouse and Robert G. Clouse, eds., Women in Ministry: Four Views (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1989).

–Craig S. Keener, Paul, Women & Wives (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 1992).

–Andreas J. Kostenberger and Thomas R. Schreiner, eds., Women in the Church (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005).

–Bruce M. Metzger, ed., Word Biblical Commentary, Vol. 46, Pastoral Epistles, by William D. Mounce (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2000).

Joe Harvey is senior associate minister with LifeBridge Christian Church, Longmont, Colorado.

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