The Complementarian Woman: Permitted or Pursued?
I recently had an exchange with a young church planter who wanted my thoughts on how to address the needs of women within his church. He told me it was clear what women are permitted to do from a doctrinal standpoint, but that he was not comfortable that his responsibility to women ended with simply identifying that list.
I asked him to think about that word—permit. It is a word women in complementarian settings hear with some frequency, and how our male leaders use it shapes our ability to contribute to church life. The challenge for any pastor would be to consider whether he is crafting a church culture that permits women to serve or one that pursues women to serve. Because a culture of permission will not ensure complementarity functions as it should.
Consider the analogy of marriage. Most pastors would counsel a young husband that he must pursue his wife to keep their union strong—that he must make a study of her needs and wants, that he must celebrate her strengths and find ways to leverage them for the good of their marriage. They would warn against the dangers of passivity. I submit that similar awareness is necessary on the part of male leadership in complementarian churches. A culture of permission can communicate passivity and dismissiveness to our women. They long to be pursued.
The negative implications of a culture of permission become clear if we overlay them onto other areas of ministry. Imagine if we swapped the language of pursuit for the language of permission in our church bulletins:
- If you need community, you are permitted to join a community group.
- If you battle addiction, you are permitted to go to Celebrate Recovery.
- If you are interested in serving, you are permitted to serve in the nursery.
Now consider if we applied the language of pursuit to the way we speak about women's roles. We would have to alter our speaking—and our thinking—rather dramatically.
- It is one thing to say women are permitted to be deacons, and quite another to actively seek out and install women in that role.
- It is one thing to say women are permitted to pray in the assembly or give announcements, and quite another to ensure that they have a voice on the platform.
- It is one thing to say that women are permitted to teach women, and quite another to deliberately cultivate and celebrate their teaching gifts.
I am not certain when it became common to speak of permitting rather than pursuing women to serve, but I admit that it grieves me. Yes, there is that well-worn verse in 1 Timothy, but it seems a shame to let one occurrence of a term dominate our language and practice. It may be that permission vocabulary persists because of the unfortunate woman-as-usurper stereotype that sometimes underlies complementarian thought.
And I can't help but reflect on how far removed that vocabulary is from the words of Adam at the creation of Eve: "This is at last bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh." Adam's words are a hymn of thanksgiving, a joyful acknowledgment that one has arrived whose contributions will bring vital and necessary completeness to the imago Dei. It is a hymn intoned not in the language of permission but in the language of pursuit.
How sweet a thing when a woman of apparent ministry gifting elicits from male leadership not "Oh, no," but "At last!" God help complementarians if we spend our energies fastidiously chalking the boundaries of a racecourse we never urge or equip our women to run. I have to think that egalitarians would grow quieter in their critiques if we could point to more women within our ranks who convincingly demonstrate equal, complementary value in our churches.
Women who flourish in ministry can point to not just female leaders who affirmed them but also to male leaders who championed and cultivated them. That has certainly been my story. Glenn Smith asked me to shepherd and teach women even before I knew the depth of my desire to do so. John Bisagno affirmed and mentored me when I had no idea what I was doing. Mark Hartman taught me the beauty of a well-run ministry. Matt Chandler and Collin Hansen gave me a voice. And every day for 20 years, Jeff Wilkin has spoken unmitigated blessing and encouragement to me. Would that all women in the church could know such grace.
So here is the suggestion I offered to that young church planter: Do you desire to leverage the equal complementary value of women in your church? Don't give us a chance to ask permission. Get out ahead of us. You approach us with what you intend to empower us to do. End the culture of permission and you will dispel the stigma of submission. We are not usurpers, we are the possessors of every capacity you lack and the celebrators of every capacity you possess.
Brothers, don't permit us. Pursue us.
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For further reading: see Thabiti Anyabwile's insightful thoughts on this subject in a series of four posts: