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Explainer: why some churches teach that women are ‘separate but equal’

Some Christians interpret Biblical teachings to say that women are essentially equal to men, but should be submissive to male leaders in the church and home. Shutterstock

Explainer: why some churches teach that women are ‘separate but equal’

Complementarianism is the idea held in some faiths that men and women play different, complementary roles in life, society and – particularly – religious practice.

Rather than regarding women as essentially inferior or incapable of leading, women are regarded as “equal”. This view is a way of interpreting patriarchal religious doctrines and reconciling their authority with modern sensibilities.

Within Christianity, some texts in the New Testament have been cited to deny women the right to be priests and pastors for much of its history. One of these is found in 1 Timothy 2:12:

I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent.

Another text often cited as evidence that women should not be in leadership roles in churches is found in 1 Corinthians 14:34-35:

Women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.

However, complementarian approaches are highly controversial within global Christianity. Even those who believe men and women do have innately different roles have very different ideas about what that means. Can women preach? Or take leadership roles? Should they be submissive to their husbands?

According to Mary Kassian, who claims to have helped coin the term, Christian complementarians believe that men and women must exercise different functions:

Males were designed to shine the spotlight on Christ’s relationship to the church (and the LORD God’s relationship to Christ) in a way that females cannot, […] females were designed to shine the spotlight on the Church’s relationship to Christ (and Christ’s relationship to the LORD God) in a way that males cannot.

Therefore, it is argued – in most Sydney Anglican churches, for example – that women should not lead in religious communities because they have complementary, non-leadership, roles.

Such a view is promoted by the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, which was established in 1987. The controversial American preacher Mark Driscoll has been a strong advocate of complementarianism, as are prominent US-based evangelical theologians John Piper and Tim Keller.

Former pastor of Seattle’s Mars Hill Church, Mark Driscoll, has strongly advocated for complementarianism. Mars Hill Church Seattle/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

However, in 2014, John Dickson, a highly respected Australian evangelist, writer, researcher and Anglican minister published the e-book Hearing Her Voice: A Case for Women Giving Sermons in order to challenge the traditional complementarian view, arguing that women should be involved in pulpit ministries.

Is complementarianism supported by the Bible?

Despite the texts cited above, the Biblical case for the subordination of women in churches is far from clear. St Paul in Romans 16 makes a point of greeting Phoebe as a “deacon of the church” (a rank of minister), as well as Junia, who he regarded as “prominent among the apostles.”

In Acts 18:26, Priscilla is acknowledged as a teacher, along with her husband Aquila, and the four daughters of Philip in Acts 21:9, far from being silent, exercised the gift of prophecy or inspired speech.

Also, as Catherine Kroger has pointed out, the New Testament names several women leaders in the early house churches of Christianity.

Some critical scholarship supports an alternative position known as “egalitarianism”. Those who hold to the egalitarian position regard women and men as fully equal, and believe there should be no gender-based restrictions upon which roles women can exercise in families, societies, or churches.

New Testament scholar Ben Witherington III argues that the passages in 1 Timothy and 1 Corinthians quoted above were intended to correct particular problems in the specific churches they were addressed to, and should not be regarded as a ban on women speaking in churches for all time.

Others emphasise the precedence of other texts, such as Paul’s statement in Galatians 3:28 that there is “neither male nor female” in the faith.

Complementarianism and Pentecostalism

Global Pentecostalism is a diverse group of Christians with some shared spiritual practices. This movement tends to communicate theological concepts orally – via the sermon, music, or in testimonies – and it emphasises the autonomy of local congregations.

In principle, Pentecostalism is an egalitarian form of Christianity. The Azusa Street Revival in Los Angeles, often attributed as the birthplace of Pentecostalism, included many women. It was seen as the fulfilment of the Acts 2 prophecy, in which God’s Spirit was poured out freely upon men and women, the young and the old. Famously, Clara Lum ran their Apostolic Faith newsletter.

The leaders of the Apostolic Faith Mission, many of which were women, 1908. Alaniaris/Wikimedia Commons

Early Pentecostal preachers and church leaders were often women, including Sarah Jane Lancaster (who founded the Australian Christian Churches denomination with which Hillsong Church is associated).

However, in reality the picture is sometimes more complex. As movements grew, women were often provided a spiritual “covering” via male leaders. This would mean that a female leader would be required to be in an accountable relationship with a male, perhaps her husband or a more senior minister, preserving a de facto “male headship.” Sometimes a church board authorises women to exercise every role except formal senior leadership.

There are also some conservative Pentecostal movements (such as the US Apostolic Church or Italian Assemblies of God) that promote submission within the family and require women to wear modest attire, with minimal makeup and jewellery, and to cover their head during the worship service.

Today, many Australian megachurch Pentecostal leaders do not identify with these terms. Some may be considered “soft complementarian,” in that they hold to notions of male “headship” in marriage, but rarely within the church.

The disagreements between egalitarians and complementarians may appear baffling to onlookers, as for many in secular society any role restrictions based on gender would seem anachronistic or offensive. Recent history indicates that Christian women are gaining a slowly increasing role in the Australian church via pulpit ministry, in church boardrooms and bishoprics, and also in marriage.



The authors would like to acknowledge the assistance of Dr Jennifer Carson of Ghost Media, who helped with the writing of this piece.

The standfirst of this article was changed on December 22, 2016 to reflect that complementarianism is a view held by some Australian churches, not “widely held” as it originally said.

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