How clear is the Bible on gender roles?

I love it when the Bible is clear. “Jesus is the Son of God.” Nice.

It’s a little more frustrating when the Bible is not clear: the nature of communion, precise forms of church government, whether the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. But, at least when it’s not clear, I can admit that there’s plenty of room for disagreement. If the Bible’s not clear, let’s talk.

But, what if I’m not clear about whether or not the Bible is clear?

This came up recently in a discussion on the question of gender roles in the church. According one perspective, the Bible is really clear on this issue: the role of elder/pastor is for men only. Since the Bible is clear, we simply need to affirm what it says regardless of our personal or cultural perspectives. And, given the Bible’s clarity, those who chose to have women serve as elders/pastors are being either intentionally or unintentionally disobedient to scripture.

The other perspective in the discussion actually agreed with the complementation position, but disagreed with respect to the Bible’s clarity on this issue. According to this view, there is enough ambiguity in the biblical texts that faithful, biblical Christians can legitimately come to different conclusions. So, interestingly, the resulting discussion wasn’t about the question of gender roles itself – everyone agreed on that – but on the clarity of the Bible at this point and what that means for how we assess contrary perspectives.

And, lest you think that this is just a complementarian thing, I’ve had exactly the same discussion with egalitarians – some of whom argue that the Bible clearly supports their view and see complementarians as being disobedience to Scripture, and others who disagree with complementarianism but still see the issue through the lens of legitimate diversity.

So, the issue really comes down to a question of how you determine when you think the Bible speaks with sufficient clarity on an issue for you to take a clear stance in opposition to other perspectives, or when you think that the Bible is ambiguous enough to leave room for legitimately different perspectives.

I’d be very curious to hear what you all think about this. Whether you’re a complementation or an egalitarian, where does this fall on your scale of biblical clarity? Is it something that you think is clear and that Christians can and should take a stand on? Or is it something that you think is rather opaque – you may have personal convictions, but you’re not troubled when other evangelicals disagree?

Just to be clear, I’m not looking for a debate on complementarianism/egalitarianism itself. But, I would like to hear how you rate the debate itself. Is it central and clear, or somewhat peripheral and murky?


About Marc Cortez

Theology Prof and Dean at Western Seminary, husband, father, & blogger, who loves theology, church history, ministry, pop culture, books, and life in general.

Posted on August 4, 2011, in Anthropology, Leadership, Pastoral Theology and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 17 Comments.

  1. I recently read a report linked to by Rod Decker on a controversial passage in Timothy and its interpretation by the NIV11 committee. While I can’t find the link to it now, the author was very gracious in his approach to say that he thought, though he was a “comp” basically we do have to acknowledge that the word in question is the only word of its kind in the NT and has limited usage in known literature…

    Therefore to paraphrase his conclusions – we all need to pull our heads in and admit that there is some justification on either side in the ways of interpreting the scripture and neither is actually heretical as such in understanding what Authority really means.

    I personally use the frame work of inclusiveness and gifting to understand the scriptures. Does and is my understanding of Scripture supported by the fact that it is the Spirit of God who calls and gifts all within the fabric and framework of the church. And does and is my understanding of Scripture supported that Paul says that in Christ there is neither Male or Female, Slave or Free, Jew or Gentile…

    The way I see it is that we need to ensure we are full of grace and mercy…and like Justin Taylor said in a recent link you provided…why do we who believe in the graces of God act like we don’t to those who disagree with us…

    Therefore I believe that every Christian needs to belong to a local body…and submit to the way that local body is run… if you don’t like it, under God, you are required to seek him about the possibility of finding another church home… so if your an eg and find it difficult to fellowship in a comp church…Dont! And like wise if your a comp and find it difficult to fellowship in a eg church… Don’t.

    However… personally I have learnt and benefited from many things from others who hold and practice many different theological beliefs to my own and the question I would be asking myself as to why I found something difficult to fellowship with another was the issue of pride or was it a genuine difficulty.

  2. i am a complementarian… think the bible is clear about some gender roles but not all… gender roles in principle in some spots and gender roles addressed specifically… over all i think the bible speaks to this in clarity but is open for discussion when discussing who takes care of the finances… i don’t think complementarianism and egalitarianism are binary… i think we all engage in both it just depends on which is dominant (pun? no? lol)… men and women are equal in worth different in role (just in case the pun didnt sit well)… i do think it is an issue to be discussed. the theological views here will drive how social interactions between genders play out (whether we like it or not). however it does not get me anxious if a person is an egalitarian… but i do think it is a little weird/different… like “huh… not how i read it or what i would like in a relationship.”

  3. I’m egalitarian. I think the scriptures are murky, to be honest, but I’ve come to my position after much study. I don’t feel like I’ve ignored the scriptures, but I’m not going to deny that my being a woman and feeling called to ministry shapes how I hear and understand the scriptures. I have friends who disagree and we live in peace. But that doesn’t mean I don’t “take a stand”. It’s an issue that has such enormous implications for the world, the church, the family – we can disagree and love each other, but we can’t avoid the subject.

  4. Great question to raise, Marc – your ThM seminars must be the best in the land!

    It seems like whilst all protestant evangelicals would want to maintain some form of scripture’s clarity in their doctrine of scripture, this doesn’t yet begin to ask the question about what it’s clear about, or what particular conditions might mean for its clarity (i.e., the Spirit bringing the text to bear on the reader who’s walking in community with a local congregation seeking to be faithful to Christ). Particular passages, of course, are not equally clear to all, at all times. So the conditions for its clarity are critical.

    But on the issue of the gender debate, the debate seems to be totally one of hermeneutics – how scripture is approached, read, and understood before appropriated. It’s interesting that the egalitarians seem to have done much more work on developing a reasonable and consistent hermeneutic that relates directly to the gender issue, while the complementarians haven’t really. I.e., is there an overarching way that the Bible says that it ought to be read in light of the whole thing? And how does this help us make sense of particular passages that either fit or don’t fit into our normal ecclesial and domestic life? Seems like complementarians could do a bit better here.

  5. Currently I’m egalitarian. My reasons are split between what I take to be the biblical position and on the other hand some philosophical considerations. For scripture I take the greetings by Paul at the end of Romans to be highly significant along with the Gal 3:28. Philosophically I understand the role of pastor/elder/priest as a matter of gifting/talent or ability and not a matter of ontology. That is, in what would role differential be grounded? It seems to me that in order to make a successful argument for such a wide ranging and significant prohibition one will need to say that it is grounded in the nature, or essence, of maleness and femaleness. But I can’t see how this argument could be made. I’m not saying there are no secondary differences between the sexes, of course there are, but ontologically they are the same. Are we not all new creations (a new essence, the same Spirit in all) in Christ, and indeed the same kind of new creation?

    Does that mean that the scriptures are clear? Probably not. Neither is it a clear and distinct idea, one that the light of reason shows us without potential room for debate. What does it take for something to be of such clarity that it is indisputable? I don’t know if I could put out a coherent set of conditions for that. Certainly some statements are more clear than others, though 100% certainty is doubtful for any.

  6. I am egalitarian, but I think it is a very complex topic because (1) we must examine the broad view of Scripture; (2) we must exegete difficult passages on the subject asking about literary and historical context; (3) we need to consider the tradition of the church; (4) we must ask if the tradition should change in light of culture (e.g. like slavery or owing people [credit]); and (5) we must acknowledge our own horizon on the matter realizing that our experience influences our interpretation of Scripture and understanding of the value of tradition.

  7. “the role of elder/pastor is for men only” … On this issue, the Bible is murky. No where is this directly stated. (Because of this, I am rather undecided). However, on the issue of marriage roles, the Bible is a bit more clear.

    I wonder, is it possible to be a egalitarian with church roles and complementarian with marriage roles? It does seem raise some issues.

  8. Stan Grenz was complementarian in marriage and egalitarian in church roles. He had a marvelous marriage where his wife was also one of his pastors at his church.

    Pastor is a cultural office, not a biblical office. So a complementarian can affirm women pastors as I do if by “pastor” you mean on office doing soul care in the church. Elder is the name for the ones who work as a team to oversee the pastoral and teaching of the church as a whole. It seems quite clear to me, one whose heart is egalitarian by the way, that the biblical teaching and description is for male elders combined with a very open style of leadership where all interested people participate ala Acts 6 and 15 as opposed to the closed door leadership so common in American churches. Women are very important part of the leadership of a church as Acts 1 and Romans 16 make very clear. But elders are men, it seems. A question that pushes me is why Jesus, who went completely against culture by having women disciples and in so many other ways, chose only men to be Apostles? Sure feels “soft complementarian” to me.

    • @Gerry

      Thanks for the example.
      “He had a marvelous marriage where his wife was also one of his pastors at his church.” As in his wife was a co-pastor who resided under his authority (ie. one of his pastors)?

      Do you know of an example of where the husband came under the authority of his wife–where she was the pastor and he was not?

      “Pastor is a cultural office, not a biblical office.” I suppose that depends on how you define “pastor” and “office”.

      It is amazing how much of this debate revolves around how we define terms.

  9. One of the things that makes me nervous in discussions of what is “clear” in the Bible is that what seems clear to me is at least partially driven by “plausibility structures” – i.e. the presuppositional framework that we (largely) receive from our context and that inclines us to see some things as more plausible than others. Which raises the question of whether the “clarity” that I perceive comes from the text, from my cultural plausibility structures, or (more likely) some combination of the two. And, if it’s either of the latter two, then I’m hesitant to use the language of clarity too quickly. As Josh and Jason point out, it’s both important and difficult to identify the conditions under which we can say that something is/isn’t clear. Some things may still be clear in Scripture (indeed, I think many things are), but I do think caution is in order.

  10. Blake, as Gerry points out, some have held this kind of hybrid position, though it’s definitely not a common approach.

  11. Gerry, you say that complementarianism seems “quite clear to me.” Do you draw a distinction between readings that seem clear to you and those that are sufficiently clear that they should be clear to everyone? For example, I think my understanding of the imago Dei is a good one and it now seems pretty clear to me that this is what the text means. But, I don’t make the next step and conclude that it is similarly clear to everyone. So, I’m not surprised when people disagree or just read it differently, even though I still think the text seems pretty clear as I read it. If you make a similar distinction between “clear to me” and “should be clear to everyone,” where do you put the complementarian/egalitarian issue?

  12. Marc, you stated, “I love it when the Bible is clear. ‘Jesus is the Son of God.'” Ironically, there are people in the world who would argue that the Bible is not clear on this. How do you define “Son of God.” The Jehovah’s Witnesses (and Arius) would argue that by “son”, the Bible means Jesus is one of God’s created beings. So, how clear is the Bible? Shouldn’t this be clear to everyone? And yet, it isn’t.

    What can we be clear on? What can we be sure of? How can we be sure of it?

    • Of course the debate is not on whether the Bible affirms that Jesus is the “Son of God,” but precisely what that means. You’re point is well-taken, though, and goes right to the heart of the question. What does it mean to say that something is “more clear” in the Bible? I think that’s a harder question to answer than we often acknowledge.

      Again, though, I don’t want to be heard as saying that I don’t think the Bible is clear on anything. I do think the Bible clearly affirms that Jesus is the Son of God and that this indicates his special relationship to God (I’m actually not as convinced that this refers directly to his deity) and mission in the world. And, I could add many other things to the list that I think the Bible speaks clear to. And, I could list lots of things that the Bible doesn’t speak clearly to. Where I struggle is in finding a meaningful way to think about the grey area in the middle.

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