Shopping Cart


Reply to the Melbourne Hierarchical-Complementarians

Monday, 28 February 2011  | Kevin Giles


On Saturday 23rd October 2010 I attended the, ‘Equal and Complementary: men and women in ministry’ conference held at Holy Trinity, Doncaster. Over a hundred people were present, many, I suspect university students from AFES groups. The speakers were Neil Chamber, a Presbyterian minister, Martin Pakula, a lecturer at the Bible College of Victoria and part time lecturer at Ridley Melbourne and Fiona McLean, a well informed Anglican laywoman. This conference followed the well attended ‘Better Together’ conference organised by Christians for Biblical Equality in Melbourne, June, 2010.


The three speakers were convinced that the Bible forbids  women from teaching the Bible in Christian gatherings where men were present, and from holding positions of authority in the church. In the home women are to submit to their husband’s authority. This is what the Bible teaches, we were told time and time again. It is not just one interpretation of what the Bible says but what the Bible actually says, and thus to disobey what they were teaching would be to disobey God himself.  In this conflict, one side  argues that the Bible makes the subordination of women the God-given unchanging and unchangeable ideal; the other side that the Bible makes the spiritual and social equality of the two differentiated sexes the God-given ideal. Some may put their position more gently and graciously but there is no middle ground. Either the Bible teaches that God has given men authority over women or it does not. It is true that those who argue today for the subordination of women want to apply this only in the church and the home, and not to society in general ut But while they claim their position is the historic one, this exemption of ‘‘society’ was not known before the late nineteenth century. What is more, if women’s subordination is grounded in the creation order, as  those who adopt this position insist, then it subordinates women to men in all contexts. What is based in creation applies to all of creation.  

Obfuscating terminology

From the title of the conference: ‘Equal and Complementary: Men and Women in Ministry’, I think most people would infer that the speakers would be affirming 1. gender ‘equality’ in a social setting, in this case in the church and the home; 2. ‘complementarity’ in the sense that neither man alone of woman alone is the fullness of humanity, and, 3. the words, ‘men and women in ministry’ would refer to men and women ministering side by side. In no instance was this case. The ‘equality’ affirmed was entirely spiritual and the complementarity was that of the benevolent master and servant or teacher and pupil. In the home wives were under the authority of their husband, and in the church men were to lead and to teach. It was almost as if the language was chosen to obfuscate what was really on the agenda for the day.

Many people are puzzled as to why those who insist on male leadership in home and church speak of themselves as ‘complementarians.’ It is confusing because the Bible makes it quite clear that the two sexes make up the fullness of humanity – they ‘complement’ each other (Gen. 1:27-28). Since 1975 when I first wrote affirming gender equality I have spoken of the complementarity of the sexes, as have most other evangelical egalitarians. God has differentiated  us as men and women,  so that each brings something distinctive to the whole of life. It was only in 1990 that for the first time those who had been calling themselves ‘traditionalist’ or ‘conservatives’ began calling themselves ‘complementarians’. Because all Christians are ‘complementarians’ I refer to my debating opponents as ‘hierarchical–complementarians’ to seek to overcome the confusion and encourage them to use this name as self-designation.

I must admit I also found it inconsistent to find a woman teaching at a conference organised by those who dogmatically believe that women should not teach men in church. What was so amusing about this was that Fiona McLean  was by far the most gifted teacher of the day, and thereby  demonstrated to all present that women make excellent  teachers!

The three foundational assertions.

There were three foundational beliefs held by each of the conference speakers that repeatedly came to the fore.

1. What ‘we’ teach is what the Bible teaches. It is not one interpretation of what the Bible says, it is its ‘plain’ meaning.

2. What ‘we’ are saying on the man-woman relationship is what Christians have believed from the time of the apostles.

3. Egalitarian evangelicals, denigrated as ‘evangelical-feminists,’ have a ‘liberal hermeneutic’ (way of interpreting the Bible) in which they ignore the bits they do not like; their ultimate authority is the culture of the day, and even if many of the better known and most respected evangelicals leaders argue for the egalitarian position they are not to be listened to. They are wrong.

None of these beliefs stands up when examined.. They exclude the egalitarian position before it is considered.  If evangelical-egalitarians are in fact liberals who do not stand under the authority of the Bible, they are put out of court before they get a hearing. Nothing they say has to be taken seriously or examined. Such an approach has nothing to commend it. People should commit themselves to critically examine both positions as put by their best exponents.

However the speakers at this conference confidently put their case without referring to any of the evangelical egalitarian exegetical work of the last fifteen years. To dismiss egalitarian exegesis without at least reading carefully Discovery Biblical Equality: Complementarity without Hierarchy, edited by R. Pierce and M. Groothius (IVP, 2005) and Man and Woman in Christ: An Exegetical and Theological Study by Philip Payne (Zondervan, 2009) is reprehensible and unscholarly.  

A liberal hermeneneutic?

All of the speakers argued, more or less subtly, that what sharply separated evangelical hierarchical-complementarians and egalitarian-complementarians was acceptance or not of biblical authority. The former submitted to what the Bible ‘plainly’ said on the man–woman relationship, the latter did not. For them the ultimate authority was culture. But does anyone really think that evangelicals of the stature of John Stott, Leon Morris, F. F. Bruce, Howard Marshall, Tom Wright, Mary Evans, Gordon Fee and countless other evangelical leaders, can so easily be dismissed because they affirm co-equality? Let’s be quite honest, this is a debate about the interpretation of scripture, and a very large number of the most respected evangelical exegetes profoundly disagree with the hierarchical-complementary interpretation of scripture on the male-female relationship.

The assertion that egalitarian evangelicals pick and choose what they like in the Bible, adopting a ‘liberal hermeneutic’ does not bear scrutiny. As an egalitarian I think this is exactly what hierarchical-complementarians do.  Both sides have a carefully thought out hermeneutic, one is thoroughly consistent and compelling, one is not.

Egalitarians insist that on the question of the man-woman relationship, the Bible should be read and interpreted in exactly the same way as it would be on any other question. The biblical theologian should begin where the Bible begins, Genesis chapter one, and then progressively move through scripture, studying the Gospels before Acts and Paul and then lastly the General epistles and the Book of Revelation. Because diversity is acknowledged in scripture no one verse should be thought to give the overall perspective of scripture.

In stark contrast, hierarchical-complementarians begin with 1 Tim. 2:11-14 and from this vantage point interpret the whole Bible. One text that says things found nowhere else in scripture, and indeed seemingly contradicting much else in scripture, is taken as the proof text to settle the question in dispute.  We need to ask  of those who build so much on one text, first, are they interpreting this one text correctly and second, is it a valid hermeneutic to sum up ‘what the Bible teaches’ on any matter by giving so much weight to one text that has no direct parallel in the whole Bible?

I for one think not. It seems to me the hierarchical-complementarian hermeneutic ends up making the fallen order where the woman is subordinated to the man (Gen. 3:16) the God-given ideal thereby eclipsing what the Bible puts first and makes the ideal, the substantive co-equality of the two differentiated sexes, the very thing Jesus emphasises.


In many ways this was a sad conference. I do not think anyone was convinced  who was not already convinced that God has set men over women as the ideal. Indeed, many have told me they now have an aversion to the so called ‘complementarian’ position because the arguments put were so negative and unconvincing. What is needed is for the two sides to sit down together and talk about what the Bible actually teaches, rather than shouting at each other from far apart. If you would like a much more detailed response to what the speakers said at this conference, please email me on kngiles@gmail.com.


Wilson Lim
February 28, 2011, 10:03PM
Kevin, appreciate your well thought analysis. It is a pity that the presenters did not address the arguments of the other side of the debate. I would certainly like to get a copy of your more detailed response. Further if you could recommend any other good article/books for arguments for women in ministry, it would be greatly appreciated.
February 28, 2011, 11:26PM
Kevin you're right when you state that it's all about our hermeneutic. Sadly pejorative titles like "evangelical feminists" abound. I'm tempted to respond with Tony Campolo's quip about "evangelical chauvinists" but this adds nothing of positive value to the debate.

It is discomforting to think that God's whole vision of new creation in Christ is so commonly overlooked; the fact that we, the body of Christ, a new humanity, are called to be a signpost of the world to come, pointing to the reality of redeemed relationships and the abolition of discriminatory axes of diversity. Or do we men continue to rule the roost for eternity?
Blair Davis
March 1, 2011, 9:12AM
Christianity is not Judaism. It's jewish culture in the Bible that puts men above women.
Jesus died to restore 'that what was lost' referring to the fall, i.e. He restored God's original intention of equality in all areas of life, secular and religious.
James Garth
March 1, 2011, 9:28AM
An excellent article, thanks for sharing it!

It concerns me greatly that some hierarchical-complementarians would dismiss egalitarian evangelical perspectives without first engaging in some depth with some of the robust scholarship and thoughtful hermeneutics that have proceeded from the likes of N.T.Wright. It's permissible to disagree with their hermeneutic, but not to dismiss or fail to acknowledge it.

It's also worth noting that these sorts of belief systems do have practical real-life consequences. I am reminded of Dr. Joan Centrella (Chief of the Gravitational Astrophysics Laboratory, NASA) who writes in her chapter of the book 'Real Scientists, Real Faith' that she was once confronted by some men from her church (not too long after she returned to church after many years away). They told her that it was not permissible for her to teach the Bible or hold a position of authority in the church, which is precisely the position described above.

Dr Centrella responded by saying that it seemed odd that she was capable of directly leading a large team of research scientists, managing complex, multi-million dollar projects at NASA, and conduct leading research into black holes and cosmology, and yet was somehow not capable of teaching or leading a church group, purely on the grounds of her being a female!

Michael Boswell
March 2, 2011, 8:03PM
Kevin is right! It is a question of hermeneutics. I also feel it is what Jesus did and said. We often forget what Jesus said. We need to remember that all four Gospel's point to the idea that women were first to testify about Jesus' resurrection and they taught men about it. The cultural considerations Paul gives in some of his letters put this in a different light.

Got something to add?

  • Your Comment


Online Resources

subscribe to engage.mail

follow us

Latest Articles