4 Ways Complementarian Church Leaders Can Dignify Women

At a recent conference, Todd Friel hosted a panel discussion with John MacArthur and Phil Johnson that included a rapid fire response segment. Friel would give a word or phrase, and each panelist was to give a short, free association response. 

The first phrase Friel offered was “Beth Moore.” To which John MacArthur replied, 

“Go home.”

And the crowd responded with thunderous laughter and applause.

Beth Moore has been a faithful bible teacher for many decades, and she is the founder of Living Proof Ministries. She has recently come under fire for advocating for women being allowed to preach in SBC churches.

In the conversation that ensued between Friel, MacArthur, and Johnson, MacArthur expanded upon his initial response.

“I think the Church is caving into women preachers…When the leaders of evangelicalism roll over for women preachers, the feminists have really won the battle…They want to be senators, preachers, congressmen, [the] president, the power structure in a university. They want power, not equality…This is why we can’t let the culture exegete the bible.”

When Friel asked MacArthur whether there is room for disagreement, referring to “soft complementarianism,” MacArthur baldly replied, “I don’t know about terms. I just know women are not allowed to preach.”

The crowd again jeered and laughed.

This is very troubling.

To be honest, I was beside myself when I listened to the audio of this conversation. This is not the heart of Jesus. This is SO far from the heart of Jesus.

Women in church leadership is a hotly argued debate, and I understand that faithful followers of Jesus fall on either side of the complementarian/egalitarian divide. But let me talk to my complementarian brothers and sisters right now. Just because you don’t affirm women elders, that doesn’t mean that you’re allowed to disregard women in general. 

What I find most troubling about John MacArthur’s words (and the crowd’s response to them) isn’t so much the theological beliefs he holds. It’s the tone with which he chose to dispense them.

The Church has to do better than this. We have to hold our women in higher regard than this.

Regardless of your theological convictions about gender roles in Church leadership, here are 4 things Church leaders can do to better dignify women. 

The Church has to do better than this. We have to hold our women in higher regard than this. Click To Tweet

1. Be bold in the ways you empower Women.

Sometimes our labels really serve to limit us. The terms “complementarian” and “egalitarian” are no different. So regardless of where you fall on the spectrum between those two terms, if you’re in Church leadership, you need to intentionally seek to empower the women of your church to use their spiritual gifts. 

What’s more is you need to be bold about it. Because, unfortunately, a culture of empowering women does not often naturally occur in churches. 

And let’s be clear: God has gifted many women with abilities that transcend the women’s and children’s departments of your church (as important as those departments are).

As much as your church’s doctrinal statement, your denomination’s position paper, and your personal conscience will allow, seek to empower women to use their gifts. And as you do so, you may find that one or all three of those things may need some adjusting.

Empower women to serve your church in such ways that suit them and allow them to make a meaningful impact. Insofar as you have failed to do so, you have failed to equip the saints for the work of ministry (Ephesians 4:12).

Let's be clear: God has gifted many women with abilities that transcend the women's and children's departments of your church (as important as those departments are.) Click To Tweet

2. Be comfortable with differences of opinion. 

Listen, the bible isn’t as clear as we’d like it to be on this issue. Anyone who says that it’s perfectly clear and simple either hasn’t studied it well enough or is being intellectually dishonest. 

And yet most people feel deeply for this issue–on either side. As well they should. It’s an important issue.

So you should know that if you’re serious about dignifying women in your church by putting them in key positions of leadership, you will become a polarizing character. Some will tell you that you’ve “gone liberal” while others will criticize you for not having done enough.

But don’t worry about all the noise. Lead as best you can, full of prayer and humility, and don’t take it personally when people don’t agree. 

And maybe you don’t even agree with me on how much leadership women should be allowed to assume in the Church. I can live with that. But the following two points are still for you.

If you're serious about dignifying women by putting them in key positions of leadership, you'll be a polarizing character. Some will tell you that you've 'gone liberal' while others will criticize you for not having done enough. Click To Tweet

3. Don’t assume that culture has absolutely nothing to teach us.

Part of MacArthur’s frustration with women in leadership stems from his apparent belief that anything and everything in culture is inherently devoid of goodness and truth. This causes him to attack efforts to empower those who have historically been disenfranchised, including but not limited to women.

In that same panel discussion, MacArthur spoke of the #MeToo Movement with displeasure equal to his ire for women preachers.

“The #MeToo Movement, again, is the culture reclaiming ground in the church.”

To MacArthur, #MeToo isn’t a movement to dignify the stories of sexual abuse survivors but is rather simply part and parcel of a godless culture seeking to promote women above men.

MacArthur further digressed to express his disapproval of efforts to give a voice to female leadership at the scholarly level, dismissing it as another worldly, cultural phenomenon.

“There was a panel discussion of Southern Baptist leaders who said there should never be another translation committee without a Latino, an African American, and a woman on it. Translation of the bible? How about somebody who knows Greek and Hebrew!”

His implicit assumption that women and people of color necessarily don’t know biblical Greek and Hebrew aside, MacArthur misses the fact that we should embrace truth wherever we find it. 

Because all truth is God’s truth. It’s good to hear from scholars who are women–and people of color. It’s good to listen to the stories of women who have been abused and to put systems in place to prevent future abuse is a good thing. These things are truth. We should embrace them.

And I’m not saying that we should accept anything and everything from culture. But we should at least honestly engage with all of it. We are called to “test everything, and hold fast to what is good” (1 Thess. 5:21). 

To me, it stands as an open rebuke to American evangelicalism when the culture leads the way in dignifying women created in the image of God, leaving the Church to play catchup. 

But since that’s the position we’re in when it comes to women (and people of color), we need to be honest about it. We need to be repentant and humble about it. We need to be willing to learn, to grow, to change. This will serve us so much better than digging in our heels and acting as though we’re already perfect. 

It stands as an open rebuke to American evangelicalism when the culture leads the way in dignifying women created in the image of God, leaving the Church to play catchup. Click To Tweet

4. ABOVE ALL, be kind and respectful, never minimizing a woman’s gifting.

MacArthur’s most troubling quote in that conversation is probably the following. 

“Just because you have the skill to sell jewelry on the tv sales channel, it doesn’t mean you should be preaching. There are people who have certain hocking skills, natural abilities to sell. They have energy and personality and all of that. But that doesn’t qualify you to preach.”

I cannot fully express how crass I find this remark. Not only does MacArthur minimize and ignore the decades of faithful service and leadership that Beth Moore has offered the Church, he does so with such misogynistic flare. I half expected him to add that Moore should return to the kitchen.

There’s no part of this statement that can be justified. This is not a theological argument. This is not a conviction held humbly and in submission to the authority of Scripture. It’s sexism. There is simply no two ways about it. 

Regardless of your theological convictions, you are not allowed to be hurtful and unkind to other people created in the image of God. Let alone another follower of Jesus.

Jesus came dignifying women over and against a culture that devalued and ignored them. To contribute in any way to the very kind of culture that Jesus came fighting against is nothing short of anti-Christ.

Jesus came dignifying women over and against a culture that devalued and ignored them. To contribute in any way to the very kind of culture that Jesus came fighting against is nothing short of anti-Christ. Click To Tweet

Do not neglect the weightier matters of the law.

It’s possible to be theologically right and still be morally wrong. In fact, this is what Jesus condemned the Pharisees for. 

This is what he had to say to them.

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.” (Matthew 23:23)

Theological precision is not the most important thing to God. Compassion, mercy, and protection for the vulnerable are. 

When arguing about theology, never forget about people. Take care not to neglect the weightier matters of the law. 

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