Image for On Gender and the Bible: Practical Advice by Complementarian Women for Local Churches (Part 7)

On Gender and the Bible: Practical Advice by Complementarian Women for Local Churches (Part 7)

Photo of Renée SprolesRenée Sproles | Bio

Renée Sproles

Renée Webb Sproles is from Murfreesboro, TN, where she directed The School of Christian Thought for five years at North Boulevard Church. She is a 15-year homeschool veteran. She is also a founder and co-director of the Discipleship Tutorial in Murfreesboro, where she has taught government, economics, personal finance, health, study skills, English grammar, and writing. She is the mother of two grown children, Houston and Emma, who is married to Thomas Goodwyn. With her husband, David, Renée has co-taught parenting classes for 20 years and currently teaches a marriage and family class of 100 students each week. Renée is the author of On Gender: What the Bible Says about Men and Women (Renew, 2019).
Photo of Michelle EagleMichelle Eagle | Bio

Michelle Eagle

Michelle currently quarterbacks the Discipleship Ministry at Harpeth Christian Church in Franklin, TN. Prior to joining the ministry team at Harpeth, Michelle was a Physician Assistant working with HIV infected mothers and their children in Jacksonville, FL. After a family move to TN in 2008, Michelle began volunteering in the home groups ministry at Harpeth which led to a staff administrative position. A lot of experience has been gained over the years and she takes great pleasure in coordinating and educating home group leaders, as well as matching church members to groups. Much of her experience has been gained through supporting women while they work the 12 steps of Celebrate Recovery. Michelle finds great joy in helping women grow in their relationship with Christ.

Change is at the heart of leadership because a leader’s job is to take people from where they are to where they need to be. You can’t do that without ushering in change.” –Carey Nieuwhof.

For those who have followed this series of articles over the past weeks, you know that Renew upholds gender complementarity as God’s good design for men and women. (See articles 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6.) Indeed, it is beautifully described from the creation of male and female in the beginning pages of Genesis to Paul’s letters which explain marriage and the church.

In this article, we will address the how-to’s of practicing broad complementarianism in our churches, as found in Scripture. To move to an egalitarian position or remain entrenched in rigid traditionalism are both errors that dishonor God and hurt men and women. We must, with the help of the Holy Spirit, seek to align ourselves with what we find in Scripture for our good and God’s glory. Many times, this alignment involves change, and change can be difficult at best and divisive at worst, even when it is for our good.

Think about Moses and Aaron. They were liberating the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt, a change one would think should rank among the least controversial across the greatest number of people. Yet once they began traversing the wilderness, the grumbling began. “Would that we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the meat pots and ate bread to the full, for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger,” they complained to Moses (Exodus 16:3). Change, even liberating change, can be hard.

Likely, you have a church filled with strong-minded, educated, successful, faithful, Spirit-driven women. You desire your church to empower such women to their fullest ability while remaining true to the norms of Scripture. Perhaps you are now asking the question, What does a healthy complementarian church look like in my context? We sat down with Michelle Eagle, Discipleship and Women’s Minister at Harpeth Christian Church, and Renee Sproles, co-founder of Discipleship Tutorial and former director of the School of Christian Thought at North Boulevard Church of Christ, to get their perspectives on the practical working out of complementarian theology in the local church.

Q: What can male elders and senior ministers/pastors do to facilitate the full inclusion of women in the many roles that are available to them?

Sproles: Many leaders in churches who practice a rigid, traditionalist type of complementarianism are hesitant to bring up the issue of more fully involving women. They aren’t up for the pushback from a noisy minority and think, Maybe they won’t notice that women have no visible part in our assemblies. Perhaps people don’t mind that all the elders and teaching ministers are men. After all, our children’s minister is a woman. I can guarantee you this is wrong-minded. We definitely notice the absence of women in visible positions, and our young men and women particularly notice and mind even more than previous generations.

On the other hand, many leaders in churches which have practiced egalitarianism (or who hold egalitarian views) may be hesitant to restrict the role of elder and senior minister/pastor to men. They think, How in the world can I stop including women in these roles if we already have them there? Won’t it seem regressive or oppressive? Does this teaching even still apply to the church today? A lot of women are leaders in the workplace: they are board members, CEO’s, lawyers, judges, doctors, professors, and more. Isn’t it kind of embarrassing to restrict women, even in a small way, at church?

I think many of us have trouble with a conflation of the secular world and gospel community. When the Church of England was considering ordaining women as priests, C.S. Lewis made a thoughtful point about the difference between the two. In the secular world, men and women can and must be treated as unisex, as interchangeable citizens and workers as a safeguard. However, that is a fiction we are allowed to shed when we return to the world of reality, God’s world. There we may resume our real identities as men and women.

The innovators are really implying that sex is something superficial, irrelevant to the spiritual life. To say that men and women are equally eligible for a certain profession is to say that for the purposes of that profession their sex is irrelevant. We are, within that context, treating both as neuters.

As the State grows more like a hive or an ant-hill it needs an increasing number of workers who can be treated as neuters. This may be inevitable for our secular life. But in our Christian life we must return to reality. There we are not homogeneous units, but different and complementary organs of a mystical body… And the kind of equality which implies that the equals are interchangeable (like counters or identical machines) is, among humans, a legal fiction. It may be a useful legal fiction. But in church we turn our back on fictions. One of the ends for which sex was created was to symbolize to us the hidden things of God. One of the functions of human marriage is to express the nature of the union between Christ and the Church. We have no authority to take the living and sensitive figures which God has painted on the canvas of our nature and shift them about as if they were mere geometrical figures.

This is what common sense will call “mystical.” Exactly. The Church claims to be the bearer of a revelation. If that claim is false then we want not to make priestesses but to abolish priests. If it is true, then we should expect to find in the Church an element which unbelievers will call irrational and which believers will call supra-rational.[1] 

Sam Allberry, in an interview with Rosaria Butterfield and Jackie Hill Perry, noted a similar distinction between the secular world and the church.

If you take the framework of submission and leadership out of the Gospel, out of the example of Christ, it is ugly. Because, I think fallen minds cannot be trusted with that subject. It is because we see this in the life of Christ himself, we are able to see it in a wholesome, healthy way. We can use these things to bless the other person. The husband is loving his wife the way that Christ loved the church, and I think it’s uniquely beautiful within a Gospel-shaped context. I don’t think it can be beautiful apart from that.[2]

Eagle: If you don’t talk about the fact that your church follows the biblical standard of complementarianism, meaning men and women are equally loved and valued in the eyes of God but have separate and distinct roles in the church body and in the family, you will face a different kind of problem. On one hand, you will eventually be found out by women that you actually want to keep the positions of leadership within your church. But on the other hand, instead of giving women and men the chance to listen and investigate the biblical doctrines you strive to uphold, you will give them the legitimacy to assume that what the world believes is true about the conservative Christian church: it’s a good ole boys club or worse, anti-woman.

Q: How did we get here in the first place, with so many churches embracing egalitarian doctrine while others remain entrenched in rigid traditionalism?

Eagle: I believe many women have had an identity crisis in recent decades. I know that I did. As long as I can remember, I was told by the world and my parents that I could do and be anything. I went to college and began practicing medicine as a Physician Assistant. I treated patients and led an office staff competently. I was active in church and was asked to be an elder. During this time, my husband was not a spiritual head for me. Because I had witnessed similar dynamics growing up, I took on the role of leader within my home with ease and confidence. My professional, personal, and childhood experience all reinforced the idea that a woman and a man are equal in every respect and, as such, were equally qualified in all areas of life. Why would this not also apply to my roles in the church? My identity was in what I could do, not in who God said I was.

I turned to Galatians 3:28, which is actually talking about salvation, and applied it to all roles in marriage and the church just as I did in the workplace. Men and women weren’t just equal in my mind, we were interchangeable based on our talents and gifts.

My perspective was that if the church limited the roles I could fill, then obviously, they doubted my abilities and must be against me. That is how my worldview was shaped from childhood, reinforced by what the world told me was true.

I believed that Christians needed to be counter-cultural in so many areas, but I couldn’t apply it to gender roles. The idea that I can do anything better than a man was deeply imbedded in my soul. It was also evident in my world: many of the men around me were not living examples of sacrificial spiritual leaders; many women in my life had been deeply wounded by the men who were supposed to love and care for them. Raising a young woman to be independent and self-sufficient (as a stop-gap against the deficiencies of men) was a no-brainer, especially since I believed that there was no role that I could not fill and probably do a better job than a man.

Sproles: By my 30’s and early 40’s, I also believed I was egalitarian. For all of my life, I lived in two different worlds. The culture at my church, my Christian school, and my university, was what I would now describe as rigid complementarianism or traditionalism. I never saw a single woman pray, read Scripture, or even speak in gatherings where men were present. Only male teachers and boys could participate upfront in chapel at school, and a female teacher couldn’t pray aloud in the classroom if boys were present.

However, my family life was very different. A high-functioning team, my mom and dad started their own business out of our garage while raising three kids. My grandparents lived behind us on their farm, and they too relied on each other’s strengths and complemented one another in ways that helped them thrive. At 21, I married a man who loves me to this day with a self-sacrificial fierceness and loyalty that is hard to describe. He too has ministered to me with words of affirmation, prayers of blessing, and attentiveness to the needs of me and our two children. Our mutual submission, respect, and love made us a high-functioning team.

The dissonance between my church life and home life grew as I entered my late-20’s. Why does my church believe women can’t pray when 1 Corinthians 11 clearly indicates they were, and Paul does not forbid them to continue? Why are men the only ones baptizing people? Why are female teachers relegated to the children’s ministry? I was loved and empowered at home but felt insulted at church. Without looking more closely at what Scripture had to say about this, I simply declared that if that was what complementarianism was, I wasn’t that. The other option in my mind was to become egalitarian.

Q: What changed for each of you?

Eagle: Well, I developed more spiritual maturity, and as my husband grew in his, I became increasingly aware that how my beliefs played out in my marriage and church were not in line with God’s best. This created confusion and uncertainty. I wondered, Does God really think I’m less than my husband? Does He think that I can’t teach or lead the church as well as my male counterparts?

I was putting this challenging question in a different category than some of the other countercultural questions I was wrestling with like forgiveness, turning the other cheek, having the light of Jesus’s hope in a dark world, or loving my enemy.

The issue of gender got to the root of who I am, and I believed that equality in gender meant men and women are interchangeable. What took a long time to tease apart was that, while women are made in God’s image and equally loved by Him, the genders are designed for different roles. I had confused my roles with my identity. I saw some of the roles of women as being less than that of a man instead of just being different: power equated to value.

As my husband grew in his spiritual formation, we changed churches. God was renovating my marriage and was emphatically telling me to let my husband be my head. This was extremely uncomfortable, and I am so grateful that I was discipled by a woman that was divorced and understood firsthand what it looked like to lose a marriage. She coached me in real time situations, showing me how to handle them in a God-honoring way instead of a worldly way. She taught me to hold my sharp tongue and to approach conversations with respect, instead of taking an adversarial stance.

Sproles: When I came on staff at North Boulevard, I began to have some conversations on gender with our senior minister, David Young. Taking my frustrations seriously, he encouraged me to dig into Scripture and see what I found there. He engaged me in lots of conversations about what I was learning. At about the same time, I was reading Reason for God by Tim Keller and came across this passage that changed how I was approaching the topic of gender.

Now, what happens if you eliminate anything from the Bible that offends your sensibility and crosses your will? If you pick and choose what you want to believe and reject the rest, how will you ever have a God who can contradict you?…Only if your God can say things that outrage you and make you struggle (as in real friendship or marriage!) will you know that you have gotten hold of a real God and not a figment of your imagination. So an authoritative Bible is not the enemy of a personal relationship with God. It is the precondition for it.[3]

I needed to look again at the texts that talked about gender in marriage and church and let them offend me. (And they did, at first!) However, what I eventually discovered was that I wasn’t egalitarian, after all. I was using the word egalitarian in response to the heavy-handed complementarianism in my church and schools. Scripture portrayed a beautiful, broad complementarianism that was empowering and valuable for men and women.

Q: Tell us about your experience working as paid staff at your church. How does a complementarian theology play out in that environment?

Eagle: I joined the staff at Harpeth Christian Church as an administrative assistant to the home group minister. It was a 10-hour-a-week position making $10 per hour. This man was a respectful minister, but he didn’t know my past job experience very well. As I worked for him, God taught me humility and how to submit to male leadership. I was frustrated and God met me in my frustration. He put people in my path who reminded me to bloom where I was planted instead of constantly moving on and being dissatisfied.

That minister moved on and our lead pastor, Bobby Harrington, filled in for the position of Home Groups minister. This required that I increase my hours as well as my responsibility. I became part of the team. We had conversations about how best to move this ministry forward, and I was asked to implement those directives. Eventually another minister was hired. On one occasion, this minister was very disrespectful to me. Bobby found out about it and it was not tolerated. He called me to get details from my side and, as he did, he apologized for not protecting me and said that no man on staff will treat another person, especially a woman, this way. He viewed his role as lead pastor and leader of the staff also as protector. He wasn’t looking at it from a human resources perspective but from the biblical call to headship.

As I worked with other ministers on staff and had more interactions with men in the church, it became evident that they respected and loved how God had designed women differently than men. We are to complement one another not compete, and I felt that tangibly on staff. My opinions and experiences were heard and valued. We didn’t always agree, and the decisions didn’t always go my way, but I knew that I had not just been not dismissed.

Sproles: After David Young and I began to have more and more conversations about gender and the church, he became more intentional in engaging the women on staff at our weekly meetings and other team settings. When you come from a long tradition of rigid complementarianism, this is no small thing. Women were invited to pray or read Scripture alongside men in meetings, and certainly we were always viewed as valuable members of the staff. Our voices and opinions were heard and respected. This was an excellent step in embracing the freedoms of complementarity we find in Scripture.

Q: How can a culture of complementarity be cultivated in churches today?

Eagle: The best way to cultivate this is through discipleship. Women need to disciple women in what it really looks like to follow Jesus in a world that wants to define our worth very differently than God does. If you are a lead pastor or discipleship minister, you must have a strong program that actively disciples women, not just puts on conferences or does women’s Bible studies. Those are great and need to happen but, just like men, women need to be in each other’s lives, guiding and shaping them to conform to God’s truths instead of passively allowing the world to mold how we create our identity. We need women in our lives who are not afraid to tell us when we misstep and give us examples of our mistakes. We need to hear that male leadership will not always be perfect, and yet we must respect them.

Women coming from different backgrounds will react very differently to male leadership, so I suggest that you match young, strong, women with women who will understand the struggle. If I had been discipled by a woman who had a strong, godly father and a husband who led their family as God directed him, I would not have related at all. Most of those women will not struggle with male leadership. Let God lead the matching of women to disciple makers who will understand and be able to guide them from personal experience.

Sproles: Yes. I had such a different experience from you, Michelle, in terms of discipleship and headship in the church (rigid) and home (healthy). Indeed, almost all Churches of Christ are so different from the egalitarian church experience of your early marriage. Many of our women are so used to male-dominated church settings that they don’t question it. It’s just the way it is. They don’t see themselves as the strong help God made them to be, and therefore, they are hesitant to speak up and offer their perspectives. Some are even are afraid to pray aloud around other women, much less other men, even their husbands! Because of these experiences of women in our churches, we need intentional woman-to-woman discipleship that will spur them to embrace their role as strong help.

In addition, many men feel unequipped or inadequate in their role as the sacrificial, loving head of their wives. In the parenting class that my husband and I have co-taught for almost 20 years, we’ve reached a tipping point: a majority of our young moms and dads now come from divorced homes. They know they want to be different from the example of their parents, yet they are afraid that they’ll repeat the same failures in their role as head and strong help. Asserting sacrificial authority scares and confuses the men, because they haven’t experienced the headship they so desperately want to live out for their family’s good and their obedience. They too need discipleship in this area.

Eagle: So, you must develop a team of male and female disciple makers. That will mean that you will have to put time and resources into developing women leaders, just as you do the men on your team. Do not assume that, if you send the men on your staff to a discipleship conference, they will gather and bring back the information to the women disciple makers. Training is necessary for the women on your team whether they are paid staff or volunteers. Do not leave discipleship up to chance in the female population of your church. If you do, you will reap what you sow.

If your church is like most in the U.S., ours included, women will bring their families to church. They will do the web searches, talk to their friends, and suggest which church to try when the family is church shopping. Many are the spiritual heads of their families. While that is not ideal, we are grateful for whatever circumstances brings a family through our church doors. We are teaching them truth on Sunday mornings and in our home groups, and hopefully the husbands and fathers are discovering their role as leaders of their families. Do not expect the women to just step down gracefully. They must be discipled to understand and be equipped to allow their husbands to step into godly male leadership. In most women’s minds, they have been leading spiritually and it has been going fine, so why should she trust this role reversal?

Disciple men specifically in their role as servant leaders. Teach them the practical ways to love their wives and daughters in way that looks like God’s call. Men must have other men in their lives that are living this out and are willing to call it out in them. Examples must be shared over coffee as well from the stage. And the best place to showcase the appropriate, God-honoring roles of men and women is in the home. The world is discipling our men to be passive and telling them that, in remaining passive, they are best serving their families. This is a lie that men must call out in other men, through discipling relationships.

Disciple men specifically in their role as servant leaders. Teach them the practical ways to love their wives and daughters in way that looks like God’s call.

Q: What can lead ministers/pastors and elders do to create an environment where women are honored, maximizing their talents and spiritual gifts?

Here’s a list of steps to take if you are serious about creating an environment which empowers women to maximize their talents and spiritual gifts in the context of the church:

  1. Respect women
  2. Protect women
  3. Actively seek women out
  4. Showcase women
  5. Support women
  6. Encourage teamwork
  7. Bring on-stage diversity

#1 – Respect Women

Eagle: Show respect to the women in your church, on your staff, and serving as key volunteers. Women need to feel loved. We need to know that we are valued. There are ways to subtly do this that women will not miss. It may seem trivial to a man, but a woman will pick up on nuances that will help her understand that the lead pastor values women.

In sermons, mention your wife in the sermon prep or having conversations about getting her opinion about important topics. Speak often about how amazing your wife is and choose ways that are not traditionally expected. I remember Bobby talking about how his wife was such a wonderful example to their kids because they knew that when they woke up early, they’d always catch her at the kitchen table starting her day off in the Word. He said how much he respected her commitment to start every day that way and was grateful his kids had that example. From that small story in a sermon, I knew that Bobby respected and valued his wife and her spiritual contribution to their family.

Give sermon illustrations that involve strong independent women leading in biblically appropriate areas and not just children’s ministry. Make the goal to show what God does deem appropriate, instead of what he doesn’t. We have a husband-wife team that leads our community service outreach. Most of the correspondence and the stage time is shared between the husband and wife. She is competent and passionate about this ministry and it is obvious that they are partners in leading it.

Sproles: I wholeheartedly agree. One of the consequences of rigid complementarianism is that many men, consciously or unconsciously, don’t highly value the input of intelligent, competent, strong women in their marriage or in the church. I honestly think that many times this is not malicious; it’s just what happens after years of misapplying Scripture and living it out wrongly. Repentance involves respect for women in actions and in speech. Through announcements, sermons, articles in a newsletter, and live or video interviews with women, let the church know the valuable contributions women have made. Leaders should speak to and about their spouses with respect, modeling healthy complementarianism.

My husband and I co-teach a marriage and family class on Sunday mornings. We have been interviewed on Sunday morning, showing the congregation that our church values healthy marriages, and seeks out male and female perspectives on such important matters.

#2 – Protect Women

Eagle: Lead ministers/pastors and elders must get involved in marriages that are messy. I have heard from many women that they did not feel protected or supported when they went to church leadership when their marriages were falling apart, especially when their husband had an addiction or was unfaithful. Thankfully, this is completely foreign to me in my experience in our complementarian church. I have seen our leadership surround couples and hold men accountable for their actions when they are made aware of them. I have seen church discipline using Matthew 18 save marriages and allow women the confidence to submit to male leadership that was not their spouse when necessary.

While this can be abused by some women, err on the side of protecting the woman and being the tough love that many men need. Do not allow women to feel alone or unsafe to come to leadership when they are in difficult situations in their marriages. I have had several women come to me with marital problems, and I have never hesitated to go to our leadership for help. I know that these men will drop everything they are doing to intervene and protect a wife and children when the situation necessitates it and that they will stay involved. We have systems in place to do this. We have a very active Celebrate Recovery program as well as counselors and money dedicated to helping families navigate difficult times. No woman should feel alone or abandoned by her church leadership.

#3 – Actively Seek out Women

Eagle: Look for ways to include women in the decision-making processes. I’m not an advocate for committees and bogging down the system with lots of meetings, but you should know the skills and resources you have in your church. Here’s an example: women will be less likely to tell you that they are a mortgage broker than a man is. Typically, it isn’t as likely that when you first meet a woman you ask about their occupation. But if your church is looking to refinance, see if there are any women brokers. Or, when it is time to put that addition on the church, include women on the team that have the experience you are looking for. A woman may be a stay-at-home mom now, but she could have been a structural engineer before she had kids and decided to stay home.

When you are evaluating new ministries to include in your church, look for those women who are passionate about them. I guarantee that there are confident female leaders in your church who are leading somewhere. You might as well tap into them to move the agenda of your church forward. These women will put their energies into advocacy groups, homeschool tutorial boards, PTOs at school, community service organizations, and lots of other places that are not your church unless you actively recruit them for ministries that align with the vision of your church.

If your eldership is wrestling with a topic, look for a woman’s voice to weigh in. Do not be afraid to seek them out. If you are a church leader, you should not use the excuse of male leadership to ignore the wealth of knowledge and experience the women in your church have.

Sproles: It is critical to remember that every woman, because she’s a part of the body of Christ, has a role to play in the church’s work and the gospel going forth in all the world. Taylor Turkington, director of the Women’s Training Network for The Gospel Coalition, noted:

[It is] helpful when leaders in the church, the shepherds, the pastors, and elders are strategizing for all the disciples in the church, the men and the women…What does it look like to equip the saints for the work of the ministry, including the women in the church and the different kinds of women? Some women are gifted in children’s ministry and in cooking and hospitality, and other women are gifted in strategy and communication and design and even the vision for things that need to be done…There’s lots of different things that women can be gifted in, and it’s beautiful when the elders are able to [equip them] and it can be discouraging when they don’t.[4]

The broad participation of women in the body of Christ is so important. Women might serve on or lead the finance committee, sermon team, adult teaching ministry, or inner-city ministry. You get the idea. We need to allow women to participate in a myriad of ways in the church and not relegate them to the children’s ministry. This isn’t diminishing the work of children’s ministry: it is vitally important! However, we should remember that all of Jesus’s followers, men and women, are commanded to make disciples, baptizing and teaching them. We must encourage one another, instruct one another, and help one another grow into maturity, and this means women should be active participants in the life of the church.

#4 – Showcase Women Leaders

Eagle: When your church stands for complementarianism, you will not have a problem showcasing male leadership. It will be obvious as soon as anyone looks at the website and views an entire male board of elders and male teaching ministers/pastors, but what won’t be obvious is the positive influence that women have in your church, especially in non-traditional women’s roles. Do not back away from highlighting the women who are making a difference in your church and in the community. Definitely use examples of women in the Bible, as well as in the local, national, and international community in your sermons as illustrations. You will not lose respect from men by doing this, but you will gain so much more from the women in your sphere of influence. Many ministers/pastors in preparing sermons think about how their words will land with the young people in the audience, but it may not cross their minds about how they can do this to reach at least 50% of their audience by highlighting women, and not just as their roles as moms.

The broad participation of women in the body of Christ is so important.

#5 – Be the Example

Eagle: Involve men in supportive roles. When a woman sees a man who is involved in children’s ministry or serving in an area that is normally dominated by women, it gives her hope for male leadership. It shows a humility that says, I’m so at ease in my role as a male leader, I can serve at the potluck (or I can teach the kindergarteners or hold babies in the nursery) just as comfortably as I can serve as an elder. It sounds counterintuitive, but seeing a man serving in a role that is generally reserved for women encourages male servant leadership. It shows a population of men what it looks like to support and empower their wives and daughters. No job is greater than another, and nothing is off the table when it comes to serving one another. It doesn’t lower our respect or give the appearance that a woman is running over her husband; rather, it honors the wife. As lead pastor or other men in leadership roles, serve at the potluck alongside your wives. Take a turn in children’s ministry, then talk about it from the stage.

#6 – Serve as a Team

Eagle: I am a full-time staff member as one of our Discipleship and Women’s Ministers and my husband is an elder in our church. Separating the staff and elder’s wife role can be challenging, but we had very healthy conversations with Bobby, our lead pastor, prior to my husband becoming an elder, as I was already on staff. There are things that, as a staff member, I go through our executive minister or Bobby to take to the elders, instead of going directly to my husband. As an elder, he has to keep certain issues confidential. But beside those few and far between scenarios, we do much ministry together. We meet with couples; we bounce disciple-making plans off one another and lean into each other’s strengths.

We also share this process with other people. My husband wants me to succeed in my ministry efforts, and I want to support his. I do not hesitate to ask him when I need tech support for an online women’s event, but I also let the women know that he is doing that. I want them to appreciate the way he supports my ministry efforts from behind the scenes, even as an elder. If I have a discipleship training, he is usually there as a participant but also as a support for my role. He wants to be an example to the men in the audience that he loves me well by helping me in my ministerial responsibilities. When I teach, I share stories that showcase the men in my life that love me well. I intentionally share that the elders are excited about a women’s event or that Bobby is concerned for a specific issue that is of particular importance to women.

When an elder’s wife responsibility comes up, or my husband is teaching a class, I try to be by his side and supportive in whatever way I can be. We are transparent with those around us about our struggles and our victories. When we meet with couples; we admit that we don’t get it right all the time, and we make a point of sharing the positive ways that our spouse loves us well. Because leadership needs to be an example of the church at its best, find ways to involve your wife in the church that showcase how you work as a team. Show off each other’s strengths. This will provide both men and women examples that are countercultural but biblical.

Sproles: My husband and I taught a parenting class with two other married couples for almost 20 years. This not only blessed us personally, but it was the training ground for serving together in ministry. A few years ago, our elders asked us to begin a Sunday morning class for families, so now we teach people in all stages of life, not just those raising children. This ministry is encouraged by the leadership. I know of other husbands and wives who have served in the children’s ministry together or who are devoted to missions, serving on the committee, hosting missionaries, and traveling together to see how the ministry is going first-hand. Leveraging the strengths of men and women in teamwork blesses not only the particular men and women working together but also the body of Christ as a whole.

#7 – On-Stage Diversity

Eagle: Give women stage time and video time. If there is a Scripture reading, prayer, devotional, or announcements, share the stage with women. Go out of your way to look for women to serve in this way and include a variety of ages. As their kids get older, many women lose their sense of purpose; let young women, more seasoned women, and everyone in between participate in the Sunday morning service to show diversity on your stage. This may seem subtle to you, but it will not go unnoticed by women. Recently, we showed a video that I did coming from a blog I’d written for Renew.org about Jeremiah. I got wonderful feedback from men and women. Another recent video was a Priscilla Shirer clip. Lead pastors need to insist that there is a woman’s voice regularly featured from the stage, live or on video. This needs to be an intentional process and one that a complementarian church will have to work at, but it will be worth the effort.

Sproles: I spoke to one minister who helped take a rigidly complementarian church to a healthier version of complementarianism. The elders did a study which they eventually presented it to the church in summary form. They also offered a more comprehensive packet of materials to their members for those who wanted the detailed theological arguments. Finally, the senior minister preached two or three sermons on the topic. Their principle was to get women more involved as the rule rather than the exception, citing the long-term best interests of the entire congregation. They didn’t want any surprises that would disrupt the unity of the church, so they committed to limit the changes to what was publicly discussed, returning to the topic if they broadened their scope for female participation.

All these steps were helpful, but we all know that change can still be very hard, even with prayerful consideration and much study. So, the leadership of the church took pains to implement visible changes slowly. One practical step in this process was to move the Scripture reading and prayers via microphones to the back of the auditorium on Sunday mornings. In this way, men and women could read Scripture and pray and were simply heard, not seen. Eventually, both men and women moved to the front of the auditorium, and the transition was well-received. Using video testimonies of women or conducting interviews with women during the assemblies was another gentle way to help the congregation get their practice aligned with their theology. Small groups were encouraged to use both men and women in teaching and prayer.

I appreciate this church’s courage to do the hard thing and obey God’s teaching on men and women where they had previously been in error. Many times, obedience precedes understanding, and so it is the responsibility and privilege of godly leadership to help us get there.

Eagle: Complementarianism is God’s best for the church. In our society (both within the church and in our families), it is an uphill battle worth fighting. Our men need to be taught servant leadership and our women need to understand and submit to the roles that God has empowered us to fill. The leadership of our churches need to encourage headship and strong help in families, constantly seeking examples of how this plays out in ways that bless men and women. As male leaders of churches, you have the position given by God to make a difference, to initiate change. Do not back down from it just because we (the strong women in your church body) can start to put up a fight. When we see that you are fighting for us and not against us, that you are protecting and serving, we will understand that God is honored by complementarianism and that we are at our best when we work with it instead of against.

Sproles: I also encourage leaders in rigidly complementarian churches to not back down just because your church is overreaching in its application of 1 Timothy 2 or 1 Corinthians 14. Repent of the church’s past mistakes and teach us the beautiful complementarity we find in Scripture. Then, help us live that way. When we see you are for us and not against us, we will trust your leadership, know your love for God’s Word, and your concern for each of us in the body of Christ.

Good leaders facilitate change and point people to God while doing it. Moses and Aaron told Israel,

“At evening you shall know that it was theLord who brought you out of the land of Egypt, and in the morning you shall see the glory of theLord, because he has heard your grumbling against theLord. For what are we, that you grumble against us?”

…And as soon as Aaron spoke to the whole congregation of the people of Israel, they looked toward the wilderness, and behold, the glory of the Lord appeared in the cloud (Exodus 16:6-10).

Scripture upholds a beautiful standard of complementarity for men and women. God is glorified when we get this right. The church, as the bride of Christ, must wrestle with these truths and live them out in ways that include both women and men as revealed in Scripture. In a culture that insists equality means sameness and in religious traditions that silence the voices of women, we can do better. Leaders can make the changes necessary for the benefit of women (and men!) and for the glory of God.

[1] C.S. Lewis, “Priestesses in the Church,” in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics by C.S. Lewis (ed. Walter Hooper; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970). An online version of this essay can be found at http://files.allsaintsaustin.org/files/Lewis-Priestesses_In_The_Church.pdf

[2] Sam Allbery, Jackie Hill Perry, Rosaria Butterfield, “How to Depict the Beauty of Complementarity,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=15IS87Ad3HE

[3] Tim Keller, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism (New York: Riverhead Books, Penguin Group, 2008), 118.

[4] “How to Encourage the Ministry of Women in Your Church,” https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/podcasts/tgc-podcast/encourage-ministry-women-church/