Complementarianism is the theological view that while women and men share ontological equality (i.e. both are made in the image of God), they nonetheless properly have different roles in church, the home and the wider society. The way this often cashes out in church is that women should not teach or be in authority over men. Most complementarians (at least most that I meet) don’t have a problem with women teaching men in areas other than theology and related disciplines. So, for example, they would be open to a woman being an English professor or even the head architect of a new church building project. But they would insist that women should not teach in the church. One of the favorite passages of complementarians comes from 1 Timothy 2:11-15:
A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. 12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve. 14 And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. 15 But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.
Of course the egalitarians (those who defend the position that ontological gender equality equates to equality of leadership roles as well) have their responses as to how passages like 1 Timothy 2:11-15 are best interpreted. But that’s not my interest here.
Instead, I will argue that the complementarian position becomes mired in hopeless casuistry when faced with the endless complexity of real life circumstances.
Let’s start off with a concrete scenario that I once presented to a complementarian:
The year is 1960. A world famous female Christian professor of the Bible is flying in a Twin Otter in the Arctic with two relatively uneducated non-Christian oil riggers. Suddenly the plane goes down in a blizzard hundreds of kilometers off their planned flight route. The three are uninjured but they recognize it is unlikely that they will be found for months. And so they quickly set up camp. Once they are settled and have secure food and shelter, the professor begins teaching the Bible to the two oil workers. Is that okay?
The complementarian replied:
Yes, that’s okay because the two oil workers are not Christians. But if they become Christians then she can no longer teach them. Instead, they must begin teaching her.
Nothing I said from that point on could dissuade my complementarian friend from this conclusion. He was adamant: Paul was clear that women cannot teach men. So there really is nothing else to discuss.
Perhaps there is a way around my friend’s rigorous stipulation. For example, maybe the professor could write lecture notes to the oil riggers and then the oil riggers could read those notes back to the professor so that in the process of “teaching” the professor they could receive their own instruction. Is this a viable loophole?
Unfortunately, I can’t help but view such reasoning as the worst kind of casuistry.
Another way to poke holes in complementarian casuistry is by considering the blurring of topics. Can a woman teach a man biblical theology? No? What about historical theology? No? What about church history? No? What about secular history with significant tracts of church-related issues?
Can a woman teach a man systematic theology? No? What about philosophical theology? No? What about philosophy of religion? No? What about philosophy with significant sections of philosophy of religion?
Can a woman teach a man presbyterian governance? No? What about the presbyterial roots of modern representational democracies? No? What about modern representational democracy that makes reference to the presbyterial roots of modern representational democracies?
Once again, we are emeshed in endless casuistry.
Finally, what happens to the teaching authority of a “male” pastor who, it turns out, was born a hermaphrodite? What do you do with people who don’t fit into cleanly defined gender categories in the first place?
In comparison to this dizzying complexity we have the egalitarian position that makes a simple observation: If you’re gifted at teaching then teach. If you’re gifted at leading then lead. And if you’re gifted at making endless casuistic qualifications … then become a complementarian.