I’ve been assuming to this point that the terms “complementarian” and “egalitarian” are understood by my readers, but I should explain my understanding of the terms.
Generally speaking, “complementarianism” is the view that even though men and women are of equal worth and value before God, positions of authority in the church are nevertheless reserved for men. Along with this view is the idea that men should be leaders and initiators in the home as well. “Egalitarianism” in its simplest definition is the view that church office should be open to men and women, and that husbands and wives should exercise joint authority in the home.
I think these definitions are fair and would be acceptable to advocates of each position. There are many permutations of each position, and different approaches to specific passages. But if we were to place the different views on a spectrum with “radical feminism” at one end and “biblical patriarchy” on the other, my definitions would be closest to the median that divides Christians who affirm women’s ordination from those who don’t.
Some advocates believe that there is no fundamental difference between the most moderate and most extreme views on the other side of that median–that is, some complementarians believe that the logic of biblical egalitarians will always lead to an erasure of the differences between the sexes, and some egalitarians equate complementarianism with patriarchy (the idea that men are inherently superior to women in worth and ability). I do not think these characterizations are fair or helpful; many complementarians exhibit great respect for women (many are women), and many egalitarians affirm the complementarity of the sexes yet without hierarchy.
In any case, these two moderate stances adjacent to the median are the ones that I have most experience with, and the ones that I feel have most biblical support, so I will focus on them. (I don’t think many advocates of “biblical patriarchy” or “radical feminism” are open to dialogue with moderates on the other side, anyway.)
Complementarianism was the default position in the churches in which I was raised, which included a cessationist Messianic Jewish congregation, a conservative Baptist church, and a C&MA church. While I was in college, I also attended a conservative Baptist church, and later an independent church with Mennonite roots. While I was in seminary and graduate school, I was involved in another conservative Baptist church, and a conservative Reformed church (PCA). Even though I have never held church office, I have been involved in music ministry, teaching ministry, preaching, small-group leadership, and youth ministry in these churches, and I have been a paid staff member at three of them.
I have worked closely with pastors and elders at these churches (all men), as well as lay leaders (men and women). I must say that in these complementarian churches, I did not observe behavior or attitudes among these leaders that I would have characterized as sexist or demeaning to women (unless one assumes that excluding them from the office of elder is inherently sexist). Rather, there was a general understanding that ordained leadership offices were only open to men, which was never questioned–even though women were frequently encouraged to hold other positions of leadership and were supported in ministry initiatives.
In retrospect, I think that this is partly attributable to cultural factors. In the mostly middle- to upper-class white churches that I’ve attended, many women are married to men with high-paying professional jobs and therefore only need to work part-time or not at all. I believe this has the effect of encouraging women to be involved in volunteer ministry, which perhaps “softens the blow” of them not being able to hold church office or become staff pastors. I’m not saying that’s a good thing, but it might be one factor in the sustained success of many complementarian churches.
More important, I think, is the self-selection that draws certain men and women to either complementarian or egalitarian Christian churches. Christians whose natural inclinations tend to align with traditional gender roles tend to marry each other and attend the same complementarian churches. Then, when they look around at the mostly harmonious marriages in their mostly successful church, it confirms their view that men should lead and women should follow, that men should initiate and women should nurture and maintain. In reality, they have merely coalesced around one set of preferences and inclinations that may work for some churches and marriages, but is not necessarily biblically prescribed. What is not seen in these churches is women who are single and could have potential for ordained leadership and teaching but leave those congregations because those roles are not open to them. Or, there may be marriages in which the men are content to follow and support while the women lead and initiate (and it works for them), but who leave when pressured to conform to roles that do not suit them.
So that leads to the question: Does Scripture actually prescribe distinct gender roles? Are those “non-traditional” couples that I just described “kicking against the goads,” or are they rightly uncomfortable with complementarian teachings that are derived from an incorrect application of Scripture? Are the women who seek ordained leadership trying to seize what they ought not to have, or are they being suppressed based on contextually relative commands in Scripture that are erroneously extrapolated to every time and place?
Again, the purpose of this series is not to weigh all the arguments, but to lay out my own journey to changing positions. Having been in a “complementarian bubble” my whole life, I had seen only one side of the story: the women and men in churches who were naturally drawn to complementarianism (or who also merely assumed it and didn’t see any point in challenging it).