Eight Views of Women in the Church, Home, and Society within the Inerrancy Camp

Lately, an old post I wrote about different views of women in the church and home has been receiving some airtime and critique. The post was designed to show the spectrum of views held by those who self-identify as holding to the verbal plenary inspiration of scripture. Biola’s Octavio Esqueda writing for Christianity Today rightly observed about my outline that, “Not all egalitarians would identify as feminists, and not all complementarians would call themselves extreme traditionalists or patriarchal.

Therefore, although not perfect, this outline provides a useful description of possibilities within the broad main positions.” It’s true—the list is not exhaustive or perfect; yet it does give us some categories and a summary of rationales. Based on some of the feedback, I’m fleshing it out a bit here (so this post will be long). The views are as follows:


Traditionalists believe women are not made in the image of God directly, but derive their image-bearing status via men:

 “Man is the image of God directly; woman is the image of God only through the man. Because man was created by God in His image first, man alone was created in a direct and unmediated fashion as the image of God manifesting then the glory of God in man” (Bruce Ware).

They also believe women are more easily deceived than men, but that women are also masters at deceiving. For those holding this view, women are ontologically inferior to men, so people who believe this make statements such as “Women are the devil’s gateway” (Tertullian). The label “traditionalist” is not original to me but comes from George and Dora Winston, whose book title includes the very word: Recovering Biblical Ministry by Women: An Exegetical Response to Traditionalism and Feminism. In addition to Tertullian, there are others. Here’s a sampling: 

Didymus the Blind (313–398) – The man is more able than the woman to fight and defend himself against the trickery of the adversary.

John Crysostom (347–407) – The sex [woman] is weak and fickle.

Augustine (354–430) – [Satan made] his assault upon the weaker part of that human alliance, that he might gradually gain the whole, and not supposing the man would readily give ear to him or be deceived …

Bonaventure (1217–1274) – The devil…sought to bring about the fall of the weaker woman, so that through her he might then overthrow the stronger sex.

Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) – The power of rational discernment is by nature stronger in man.

Erasmus (1466–1536) – The man could not have been taken in either way by the serpent’s promises or by the allure of this fruit.

Martin Luther (1483–1546) – By divine and human right, Adam is the master of the woman…There was a greater wisdom in Adam than in the woman.

John Knox (1514–1572) – That the weak, the sick, and impotent persons shall nourish and keep the whole and strong, and finally, that the foolish, mad and frantic shall govern the discrete, and give counsel to such as be sober of mind? And such be all woman, compared to man in bearing of authority… Nature, I say, does paint them further to be weak, frail, impatient, feeble and foolish; and experience has declared them to be inconstant, variable, cruel and lacking the spirit of counsel and regiment.

John Wesley (1703–1771) She [woman] is more easily deceived, and more easily deceives.

But such thinking is not limited to those of the past.

Not all of the Church Fathers saw in Eve a prototype of all women, nor did they extrapolate about what her behavior revealed about all women for all time. Some examples:

 “If you ask about the worst, the woman sinned—and so did Adam. The serpent deceived them both; it was not the case that one was weaker and the other stronger. But consider something better: Christ saves both by his passion. Was he made flesh for the man? He was made flesh also for the woman. Did he die for the man? The woman also is saved by his death. He is called the seed of David, and so perhaps you think the man is honored? But he is born of a virgin, and this is on behalf of women. Therefore he says that the two shall be one flesh [Gen 2:24], so the one flesh is to have equal honor” (Gregory of Nazianzus, 329–390)

“Since, as the apostle says, ‘The woman, being deceived, was in transgression’ [1 Tim 2:14] and her disobedience led the revolt against God, for this cause she became the first witness of the resurrection [John 20:1-18] that she might correct the outcome of her disobedience by her faith in the resurrection. And just as at the beginning she became a minister and adviser to her husband on behalf of the words of the serpent and brought into human life the beginning of evil and its consequences, so in ministering the words of Christ—who put to death the rebellious dragon—to his disciples she became humanity’s guide to faith. It was fitting that the first sentence of death be annulled through her” (Gregory of Nyssa, 335–392)

For this reason, we refer to #1 as the “traditionalist” view but not the “historical” view; there was no one “historical” view.

COMPLEMENTARIAN (spectrum of about 6 views)

Whereas traditionalists see a creation-level difference between men and women, complementarians affirm the full ontological equality of male and female. Yet complementarians hold a wide range of views about how that equality is expressed. The phrase they often use to describe their position is “ontologically equal, functionally different.” And women’s “functionality” finds its expression in varying degrees of hierarchy. The rationale for difference in hierarchy is not (as for the traditionalist) grounded in women’s innate weakness, but in gender differences.

2. Complementarians who hold to hardline male/authority and female/submission in home, church, and society (e.g., Doug Wilson, John MacArthur). Two quotes:

“He [Adam] wasn’t deceived, so he wasn’t there through this whole process of deception. Or else if he had been there he would have been in the conversation, believe me.” John MacArthur, The Fall of Man.

“However we try, the sexual act cannot be made into an egalitarian pleasuring party. A man penetrates, conquers, colonizes, plants. A woman receives, surrenders, accepts. This is of course offensive to all egalitarians, and so our culture has rebelled against the concept of authority and submission in marriage. This means that we have sought to suppress the concepts of authority and submission as they relate to the marriage bed (Doug Wilson, from his book Fidelity: What it Means to be a One-Woman Man) 

3. Complementarians who believe in “male headship,” which is synonymous with authority and applies to all men having authority over all women. But while they are open to the possibility that women are more easily deceived than men, they are persuaded otherwise. Still, authority in their view is innate in males; it happens at a created level. Those holding this view see the phrase “head of” (e.g., 1 Cor. 11:3; Eph. 5:23) as being synonymous with “leader over.” So a female world ruler, for example, would be seen as going against the created order because it violates the headship innate to all males. A sample quote:

 “The God-given sense of responsibility for leadership in a mature man will not generally allow him to flourish long under personal, directive leadership of a female superior” (John Piper quoting J. I. Packer in Piper/Grudem’s Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism.)

4. Complementarians who believe that “male headship” or authority of male over female applies in marriage and in the church, but not necessarily in other institutions or society in general. They pair “head” with “submit,” but they see this head/submit pattern only in scriptures relating to the family and church, not in society at large. The rationale for male leadership in home and church is that men by design are more suited for authority in the home and church than are women, who are made for nurture and relationship. A sample quote:

“Could it not be possible that one gender is more suited for a particular function by God’s design than the other? It does not seem to be adequate to simply assert equality without also dealing with differences and how these play out in practical functioning together” (Robert Saucy and Judith TenElshof in their bookWomen and Men in Ministry: A Complementary Perspective).

5.   Complementarians who do not believe in “male headship,” only “husband headship”; they hold that authority in the male/female relationship applies only between a husband and wife. Noting that “head” as a descriptor of a male in the NT appears only in marriage contexts, those who hold this view see “head” as a marriage role. They pair “head” with “submission,” drawing from verses about marriage, but they would never apply the word “head” to suggest it means authority in any other human relationship. Thus, single women have more freedom in the church than do married women. A sample quote:

“Authority is not based on being and ontology, but on God’s delegating of it for specific purposes” (George and Dora Winston, Recovering Biblical Ministry by Women: An Exegetical Response to Traditionalism and Feminism).

6.  Complementarians who argue “head” goes with body and “submit” goes not with “head” but “love” (so, never headship, which would be parallel to bodyship). Those who hold this view would not alter the word “head” to add “ship.” They see “head” as part of a metaphor, not a leadership picture, but a oneness picture. These complementarians believe that head (rather than headship) is a scriptural metaphor, not a leadership description. They argue that the husband still has authority over his wife, but in a more organic way as a head is connected to a body.


7. Some do not fit cleanly in either camp. They don’t believe in hierarchy, but they do believe that the wife, as her husband’s equal, chooses to voluntarily submit in the same way that the husband voluntarily lays down his life. Those in this category favor the pairing of agape/submit language vs. the pairing of either head/submit on the one hand or speaking only of “mutual submission” in marriage on the other—though they see that in Scripture, too. Those in this category would differentiate between the phrase “head of” and “head over.” They also note that the LSJ Greek lexicon does not list “authority” as a possible synonym/definition for “head.” See Sarah Sumner’s chapter on “head” in her book Men and Women in the Church: Building Consensus on Christian Leadership.


Egalitarians do not believe in gender hierarchy. They do believe in gender differences; but they don’t believe such differences result in one having greater authority. They hold to mutual submission as the ideal in marriage, and they see no limits for women in church ministry. As for submission, many egalitarians believe submission can happen without hierarchy (e.g., Ronald Pierce, F. F. Bruce, Gordon Fee, Craig Keener, Lynn Cohick). Many believe Paul uses “head” as a synonym for  “source” rather than for “authority.”

* * *

Complementarians defining egalitarians

Complementarians draw the line between themselves and egalitarians at different paces. In other words, they may refer to others who believe in hierarchy as “egalitarian” if those others are less conservative than those in their own category (e.g., a person defined above as a “2” might refer to a “5” as “egalitarian”). Here are the four different places where complementarians may draw the line or what they may use as litmus tests to distinguish between themselves:

1.    At the bishop level. They may believe the bishop must be male, but they don’t necessarily have elders in their structure. The bishop might not even reside in their town. So the church may function with what looks like complete gender equality. But they still have that one position that must be filled by a male.

2.    At the elder level. They believe women can preach with men present, as long as women are not elders. The elder board is the ruling board. They may emphasize that pastor/preacher is a spiritual gift, not an office. So women may “exercise their gift of pastoring or teaching” as long as they speak “under the authority” of male elders and there are no female elders.

3.    At women preaching. Anyone who lets a woman preach with men in the room (some exceptions made for women who are famous) must be egalitarian.

4. Ordination. “Anyone who ordains women must be egalitarian.”

Egalitarians defining complementarians 

Egalitarians have only one litmus test for determining whether a person is or is not an egalitarian: hierarchy. They believe equality before God has human social ramifications that lead them to reject any authority assumed on the basis of sex alone.

It is important to note that both camps believe in gender differences. Egalitarians believe those differences have no bearing on hierarchy in home/church/society; complementarians believe those differences mean men/women have different roles relating to authority in the home/church, and—some believe—in society.

Where do you fall? Have you worked through the passages and issues so you know where you stand and why?

See chart with related material. 

Sandra Glahn, who holds a Master of Theology degree from Dallas Theological Seminary (DTS) and a PhD in The Humanities—Aesthetic Studies from the University of Texas/Dallas, is a professor at DTS. This creator of the Coffee Cup Bible Series (AMG) based on the NET Bible is the author or coauthor of more than twenty books. She's the wife of one husband, mother of one daughter, and owner of two cats. Chocolate and travel make her smile. You can follow her on Twitter @sandraglahn ; on FB /Aspire2 ; and find her at her web site: aspire2.com.


Leave a Reply