My title is a taxonomy of three views on the historically controversial question about the function/role women may serve in the public assembly of the church. I do not seek to advocate a position here, but to lay out the positions Christians have typically held, along with the hermeneutical reading strategies used to ground these positions in Scripture.

For me, the “labels” simply facilitate discussion. I attach neither a pejorative nor affirming meaning to any of these terms. They are only descriptors.

1.  Traditionalists assert a “strong” principle of “male headship” (or male spiritual leadership) and interpret this to mean that women are not permitted a “leading” voice in the assembly. This not only includes reading Scripture, preaching, or presiding at the table but also excludes women from making announcements, audibly requesting prayers, voicing a prayer, asking questions, or testifying about an answered prayer. In other words, women must be “silent” in the public assembly of believers. Consequently, women have no “voice” in the assembly other than singing with the congregation (including, for some, responsive readings) or their public confession of faith before baptism (which usually consists in a brief answer to a question, such as “Yes” or “I do”). This is also extended beyond the assembly as women are excluded from other leadership functions in the church structure or ministries. For example, typically and historically, women cannot chair committees on which men sit, teach in any setting where men are present, or vote in “business meetings.”

Among Traditionalists there are some variations and exceptions. For example, in some congregations (particularly African American ones) women are encouraged to make prayer requests or offer testimonies in the assembly. Generally, however, women may not “speak” in the public assembly.

This is an historic position among Churches of Christ. For example, both David Lipscomb and James A. Harding believed women should not speak in any public way when the church was assembled for worship. However, they did encourage women to teach all who would listen (male, female, children) privately in classes and homes. They believed the distinction between public and private was key for the application of traditionalist principles. For Traditionalists like Lipscomb and Harding, women were also excluded from the vote, public leadership of any organization, and even from entering into some professions (e.g., lawyer or doctor). They believed the “order of creation” applied not only to home and church but also to society and culture as well.

What kind of hermeneutical strategy grounds this theology? Essentially it is something like this. Biblical texts are timeless and normative statements to which every situation and culture must conform. Every statement in Scripture is absolute and is never relative to or dependent upon the circumstances, situations, or occasions in which they are written except those that apply to dispensational distinctions (e.g., “Mosaic Law” in contrast to “New Testament” instructions). Thus, every application contained in Scripture should be reproduced in our situation. As a result, texts like 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 and 1 Timothy 2:12 are understood as normative, timeless statements of God’s intent for women in church assemblies. These function as “positive laws” (to use Harding’s phrase) to which the church must conform in order to remain faithful to its biblical calling, and these laws are rooted in creation itself since God created man as the head of woman from the beginning, which is reflected in the point that man was created before woman.

2. Complementarians assert a “soft” principle of “male headship” (or male spiritual leadership) in regard to role and function. Typically, they think of this headship as responsibility and accountability rather than some kind of strict authority. Men are not empowered to order women to conform as much as men are accountable for the spiritual health of the community. As such men, as Christ-like “heads,” should serve women, empower them, and sacrifice for them. Consequently, this view maintains that many traditional practices are oppressive and deny women the freedom God permits and encourages. As a result, this group is open to more significant and visible participation by women in church life and the assembly since not all leadership is a “headship” function.

For example, Complementarians do not regard every function in the assembly as a “headship” function. When Scripture is read, the authority lies in the text; when prayers are prayed, this serves the community rather than exercising authority over it; and whoever passes the trays, serves the community rather than standing over it.

There is a wide range of applications within this group. Some are fairly limited in this permission and stand closer to the Traditionalist while some encourage a broad inclusion, including exhorting the church, teaching in its theological schools, teaching Bible classes in the church, etc. Some churches encourage the participation of women in the assembly in every way except as senior minister (the “regular preacher,” some might say) and as elders within the community.

Churches of Christ have known such Complementarians in its history. For example, the churches influenced by Benjamin Franklin and Daniel Sommer regarded the participation of women as both a privilege (honor to participate) and a right (justice). They encouraged women to read Scripture, lead singing, and exhort the church on occasion, though preaching was not permitted. There were also similar congregations in Texas in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

What kind of hermeneutical strategy grounds this theology? Essentially, it is something like this. Biblical texts contain the principles (theology) to be applied though the application of those principles may vary from culture to culture. We read Scripture to discern theological principles. Today we apply the principles rather than necessarily duplicating the applications. The same principle may yield different applications given different circumstances (both in the past and the present).

The key principle for Complementarians is “headship.” Their understanding of the principle, however, does not entail exclusion from all leadership functions in the assembly. For example, they understand 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 to address an assembled community where women audibly pray and prophesy even while they honor their “heads.”  In other words, male headship–drawn from 1 Corinthians 11:3–does not deny women all forms of leadership. Women may have a voice in the assembly as long as they honor their heads when they do so, and men–when they are Christ-like heads–empower women to participate because it is their privilege and gift to participate.

The principle of headship is rooted in creation. Complementarians believe the original vision for humanity included male headship, which is then played out in the history of God’s people (priests are men, Jesus called only male apostles in his ministry, and men serve as elders in the early church). Though the principle is the same (male headship), the application is both different and the same. While head-coverings are no longer required, women still have the privilege of exercising their gifts in the assembly.

3. Egalitarians assert the full equality of role relationships and functions within the leadership and ministry of the church. This position opens all functions in the church/assembly to women according to their gifts though this should be advocated with cultural sensitivity and deference to local customs and traditions.

Egalitarians seek to open all facets of the church to the inclusion of women. While some couch this primarily in the language of rights and justice, others frame it in the light of gifts and privileges, and still others emphasize both. At the very least, Egalitarians suggest the inclusion of women’s gifts is for the common good of the body, and if the Holy Spirit gifted women in particular ways (just as the Spirit gifted men), then the church should use these gifts for the edification of the body of Christ.

To what degree cultural sensitivity comes into play is difficult. On one hand, some assert a kind of justice that demands inclusion regardless of local customs and subcultures. However, most affirm, for the sake of love and unity, a more sensitive approach that calls for mutual formation toward the goal of full inclusion. This acknowledges that the cultural path to equality in some congregations is a long one.

On the other hand, some believe that the cultural situation in the United States calls for the full inclusion of women. Unlike the Greco-Roman culture of the early Roman Empire, the inclusion of women is not a cultural scandal, which biblical writers both accommodated and subverted to some extent. In this view, it is the exclusion of women that is a cultural scandal in the United States, and if Egalitarians are correct in their understanding of biblical theology, it is the church that oppresses women when it should be liberating them.

What kind of hermeneutical strategy grounds this theology? Egalitarians typically read Scripture as a witness to the goals of God. Scripture points us beyond its own circumstances and specific applications through “seed” texts (e.g., Galatians 3:28), paradigm shifts in the story (e.g., the pouring out of the Spirit on women in Acts 2), and the original vision of equality in creation fulfilled in new creation (Genesis 1-2). This approach suggests God calls us to live in the future Scripture imagines.

Scripture address people within a culture. For example, the Torah addresses what to do with women who are captured in battle, or how women inherit from their parents. These case laws assume cultural values (e.g., patriarchy) while at the same time seeking to subvert them in mild ways; contemporary Christians recognize the problematic patriarchy here. They point us to something beyond culture. Deborah is an example of this kind of “seed” vision within the text which empowers women beyond cultural constraints.

Egalitarians believe Scripture points us toward a new vision of humanity—a new creation—where humanity is one. This captures the original vision of creation itself, and moves us into a new age (new creation) where men and women are equally empowered for ministry and service in the community of God. Some in Churches of Christ now advocate this perspective and some congregations have embraced it.

Slavery was accommodated in the biblical text (and subverted in significant ways), yet we understand that the gospel contains the seeds for its abolition. In a similar fashion, Egalitarians believe patriarchy was also accommodated (and subverted in significant ways as well), and that the gospel contains the seeds for its abolition. Consequently, the seed texts (e.g., Gal 3:28) and vision texts (e.g., Acts 2) call us into a future where God’s people are one rather than divided by gender in the ministry of the body of Christ.

Within many Churches of Christ Traditionalists, Complementarians, and Egalitarians live side-by-side. Congregations vary in their practice, and discussions will become ever more explicit as culture continues to raise the questions and press for responses. Our first task, it seems to me, is mutual understanding. We must first listen and listen carefully. Do I understand what the other is saying, how they read Scripture, and what their desire for the church is in love and unity? We cannot talk if we first do not listen.


John Mark HicksJohn Mark Hicks serves as professor of theology in the Hazelip School of Theology in the College of Bible and Ministry at Lipscomb University, where he has taught since 2000. His new book, Meeting God at The Shack: A Journey of Spiritual Recovery, will be released this month (February 2017). You can read his blog at www.johnmarkhicks.com.

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  • Terrell Lee
    Fair summary. Thanks. I agree that careful listening is needed. Mixed with a load of patience, humility, and love we should be ok.