“Egalitarian” and “Complementarian”: What’s the Main Difference?
When people talk to me about what the Bible says regarding the role of women in ministry, usually they’re asking if I think a woman may preach. But these folks don’t actually ask “Do you think women may preach?” They ask if I’m a complementarian or an egalitarian. Why? Because the complementarian and egalitarian camps appear to be the two opposing poles in the debate about whether the Bible restricts women from participating in some ministries. Especially public ones.
I’m always careful how I answer, because different people draw the line between the two camps at very different places. So if I identify with one or the other label, I risk pigeonholing myself—usually in ways in which I do not intend.
For example, one of my friends does not believe a woman should fill the role of senior pastor. In her view, a woman may be used of God to preach in a mixed-sex gathering, but that would differ from holding the office of senior pastor. This woman’s view makes her a complementarian, yet someone recently described her to me as an egalitarian.
I know of no egalitarians who would say that women cannot be senior pastors.
My goal is not to discuss where the camps differ in how they interpret verses such as “Let the women be silent in the churches” found in 1 Corinthians 14. Nor am I interested in talking about what it means for a woman to saved through childbearing from 1 Timothy. I have already done that elsewhere on this blog site. Nor do I wish to to talk about women’s head coverings when they pray or prophesy—a topic we find in 1 Corinthians 11, which I have also discussed here.
Rather, allow me to provide some foundational information that will help us all use the same labels to mean the same things. That way, we can have sensible conversations about these important verses with less misunderstanding.
Complementarians are the ones who generally draw these lines in different places, assigning the label “egalitarian” to others who self-identify in their own camp. And they do so because people within the complementarian camp people draw the line between the camps in at least three different places.
Ordination. Some say ordination is what separates complementarians from egalitarians. Those who believe this say a woman cannot be ordained, and thus she may not deliver a homily or serve in communion in denominations that restrict these, or really any eccelesiastical tasks, to men.
Preaching. Some draw the line at preaching. They say if a woman preaches in a mixed group, the inviting group must be egalitarian. That’s because, in their view, complementarians don't have women preaching. The seminary where I teach invites women to preach in chapel, so the school has been described as “egalitarian” in their official view of women. That would be incorrect.
Male elder rule. Some draw the line at the office of elder. These folks would restrict that office to men only. Yet in the view of some holding this view, these men might legitimately invite a woman to deliver a message in a mixed-group setting.
Some say the line dividing complementarians and egalitarians exists only within the church. For example, a complementarian might believe only men should be senior pastors or the leaders in the home, but in a public setting such as a female US president or even a female boss supervising a male employee, they would see no such limitation. But others say authority is innate in maleness, at a created level. Thus in any setting, women should not have authority over men.
All of these in some way suggest males possess authority in roles in which women may not.
Authority. Egalitarians themselves draw the line at authority. That is, they see no authority inherent in maleness. Thus they do not believe men would have authority over women in a way that women would not also have authority over men. Egalitarians do believe in authority. They just don’t think it’s limited to males in the church and the home, and certainly not in society at large.
Interestingly enough, most of the labeling differences regarding the role of women in the church and home happen within the complementarian camp. My friend who believes in male authority in the church was labeled an egalitarian because of her view of women preaching. And the person describing her was another complementarian. Certainly a complementarian who believes in women preaching differs from one who does not. But he or she would still self-identify as a complementarian.
I’m not saying labels are bad. At least, not always. Words such as “Protestant,” “evangelical,” “Lutheran,” and “Pentecostal” can help us. Even words such as “egalitarian” and “complementarian” can help. But they do so only as long as we all mean the same thing when we use them.