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WRF Member Dr. John Norwood Discusses "Complementarianism and the Ministry of the Church"

WRF Member Dr. John Norwood Discusses "Complementarianism and the Ministry of the Church"

“Complementarianism” refers to the Bible’s teaching that men and women are created with equal value by God and have “complementary” roles within the church and family.

[1]  These roles are also of equal value, are interdependent, are given in Scripture, and are the will of God. Our submission to these roles is out of obedient love for the Lord and in acknowledgment of His authority over us.

 The Lord made men and women in His image (Genesis 1:26-27), as moral agents and as the stewards over the earth (Genesis 1:28).  Women and men are equal in their status as God’s image bearers.  Moreover, women and men, who are disciples of Jesus Christ, are equal in their status as children of God (Galatians 3:26-29).  There are no “second class citizens” in the Kingdom of Heaven.

Spiritual gifts are given without regard to gender (Romans 12:3-8).  We see spiritually gifted men and women throughout the entire Bible.  Both heroes and heroines are celebrated for their faith (Hebrews 11:1-10).  However, while spiritual gifts and examples of faithfulness are not limited by gender, some roles are gender specific.[2]  While any individual man may have a nurturing nature, men cannot be mothers.  Women do not sire children and men do not give birth. This difference is created by God and He calls it “good” (Genesis 1:31).  Such a distinction in roles is not limited to procreation, but is extended to both the family (1 Corinthians 11:2-3; Ephesians 5:22-33; Colossians 3:18-19; 1 Peter 3:1-7) and the church (1 Corinthians 11:4-15; 1 Timothy 2:8-15). 

There are some who hold to a complementary position and believe the distinction in roles even restricts a woman from preaching.  However, the Bible gives evidence that delivering a word from the Lord is not exclusive to men.  The Old Testament speaks of women who were prophetesses (Exodus 15:20; Judges 4:4; 2 Kings 22:14; 2 Chronicles 34:22).   In the New Testament, we see women giving prophetic utterance prior to the birth of the New Testament church (Luke 1:41-45; 1:46-55; 2:36-38). Also, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon all believers on the Day of Pentecost, empowering “sons and daughters to prophesy,” is viewed as the fulfillment of the prophesy of Joel (Acts 2:16-18; see also Joel 2:28-29).  We see that the Apostle Paul gives instructions for women who pray and prophesy as he discusses propriety and order in in public worship (1 Corinthians 11:5). And, Philip, one of the first seven deacons and an evangelist (Acts 6:5-6; 8:4-40), had four daughters who prophesied (Acts 21:8-9). 

So, while the Apostle Paul tells the Corinthians that women are to remain silent in church and ask questions of their husbands[3] at home (1 Corinthians 14:34-35), we know that this must be interpreted in consideration of the evidence from the aforementioned scriptures that indicated he did permit women to prophesy,[4] even in worship.  When considering the full context of 1 Corinthians 14, it becomes apparent that the apostle is dealing with the issue of orderly worship, what shall be permitted in the conduct of a worship (v.27-29), and particularly the issue of “judging” prophesies offered during worship (v.29-33).  It specifically addresses “speaking” or “questioning” in regard to evaluating what is uttered as “prophetic” in order to determine its authenticity; this is an authoritative deliberation, a doctrinal determination, which within the context of the chapter appears to be the role of men… or at least certain men.  When considered with the apostle’s command in 1 Timothy 2:12, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet,”[5] we see that a common prohibition of women exercising authority[6] over men is raised.  However, it must be restated, that to interpret either 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 or 1 Timothy 2:12 to be absolute prohibitions against women speaking at all in worship in any way, would conflict with Acts 2:16-18, 1 Corinthians 11:5, and Acts 21:8-9. Therefore, since scripture interprets scripture, we must conclude that there is one sense in which women are not to “speak” in the church, and another sense in which they may.  The common thread between the prohibition in 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 and 1 Timothy 2:12 appears to be the context of women having some form of authority over men in the church or speaking in the form of an authoritative doctrinal determination for the entire church.

If the sense in which women may “speak” includes proclaiming the word of God (prophesying as in the case of preaching[7]), then in what sense would a woman “speaking” fall under the prohibition of authoritative doctrinal determinations and judicial authority within the church? Could it be within the context of leadership? One form of church leadership is the order of deacons.  Church tradition points to the order of deacons being established in Acts 6 when seven men were selected to “serve” from among the believers in the Jerusalem congregation and were ordained at the hands of the Apostles. The Apostle Paul gives specific requirements for the office in 1 Timothy 3:8-13, where he also makes reference to what is a character description for what is often translated as “their wives” (v.11).  It should be noted here that the Greek term used (γυναῖκας / γυνή),[8] forms of which are actually more often translated as “woman,” “woman’s,” or “women[9]” instead of “wife” or “wives” (130 out of 220 times in the New Testament).[10] While it is possible that the use of the term here does refer to the wives of male deacons, it is also possible that it could refer to women that serve in the office.  This latter possibility is further strengthened in that the requirements for the office of overseer (bishop, overseeing elder, a.k.a. pastor) mentioned just prior to the instructions regarding deacons, include no parallel instruction for their wives (1 Timothy 3:1-7). Given the role of the overseer and the more stringent requirements for that office, the absence of any mention of the required characteristics of the overseer’s wife is curious and may lend insight into how the mention of γυναῖκας (γυνή) in the following section could be received (more on this later).  Moreover, the term used for “deacon” (διάκονος), which means “servant,” is also used to refer to Phoebe (rendered as διάκονον) in Romans 16:1, a woman whom the Apostle Paul describes as  “…a servant of the church at Cenchreae.” While the term “διάκονος“ (διάκονον) is used to refer to both the office of deacon and also as a generic term for “servant,” it is interesting to note that in Romans 16:1, Phoebe’s designation by the Apostle Paul is specific and not generic.  The apostle commends her and introduces her in an uncommon way.  She is not referred to as a “servant of the Lord,” which is the more common usage, but as a διάκονον of a specific congregation.[11] Phoebe’s designation is unique when compared to the remaining individuals listed in the apostle’s greeting, who are variously referred to as “fellow workers,” “fellow prisoners,” “kinsman,” etc. The apostle gives specific instructions on how she is to be received and assisted, “…welcome her in the Lord in a way worthy of the saints, and help her in whatever she may need from you, for she has been a patron of many and of myself as well” (Romans 16:2).  Phoebe’s status may have been that of a faithful, but unofficial, “servant of the church” or she may have been a woman deacon.  There is room for biblically faithful debate on how the passage should be interpreted; but, the issue should not be overlooked.  Some may argue that considering the possibility the Scripture allows for women deacons is precluded by 1 Timothy3:12; “…Let deacons each be the husband of one wife….” However, given the cultural context of the time, the practice of polygamy was typically related to multiple wives, not multiple husbands; so a mention of women being the wife of one husband would have been unnecessary. Regardless, such a prohibition for men certainly implies the same for any women to which it may apply.

While Scripture may allow for the possibility of women deacons, the role of deacons has not traditionally been that of “ruling” in the manner certain elders are referenced, as in 1 Timothy 5:17; “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching.”  There is a distinction between the role of the elder and that of the deacon.  The term translated “rule” in the verse is “προεστῶτες”[12] which refers to “overseeing,” “ruling over” or “maintaining” and is likely related to the role of the “overseer” mentioned in 1 Timothy 3:1-7.  In essence, elders oversee and maintain the ministries of the church.  The role of elders being in judicial leadership, making authoritative doctrinal determinations for the entire church, is supported by the account in Acts 15:1-29, as elders participated in determining church doctrine, alongside the apostles, during the Council of Jerusalem. While official titles may vary, based upon the history and tradition of a congregation or denomination, the office of those who fulfill this overseeing role of judicial leadership, making authoritative doctrinal determinations for the church, must meet the criteria established in 1 Timothy 3:1-7, while also submitting to the restrictions of 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 and 1 Timothy 2:12 as previously discussed.

Scripture commands both men and women to use their spiritual gifts in the ministry of the church (Romans 12:3-8). Moreover, a faithful complementarian interpretation of Scripture may open the ministry of proclaiming the gospel,[13] and the office of deacon, to qualified disciples regardless of gender.  However, the office of the “ruling” elder (overseer, bishop, a.k.a. pastor), that carries the responsibility of judicial leadership, has been restricted in Scripture to exclusively apply to qualified men.  The gender restriction of this position of “headship” in the church does not deny the value, importance, intelligence, and spiritual gifting of women,[14] nor does it preclude women from other types of leadership, nor does it necessarily apply to non-clerical or secular vocations.  Likewise, biblical headship is servant-leadership (Matthew 20:25-28; John 13:5-17); it is self-sacrificing, example setting, and shepherding the church in submission to the Lord Jesus Christ, who is the “good shepherd.”


For many sincere Christians, complementarianism seems to be a relic of the past and no longer applicable to modern culture.  I began in ordained ministry as an egalitarian, believing that no roles in the church were gender specific. However, because the Bible is the Word of God, it should be the first and final authority in the life of disciples and of any Christian congregation or denomination. Delving deeper into the truths of the Bible and growing in my understanding of biblical doctrine led me, albeit slowly and reluctantly, to perceiving that the Bible teaches complementarianism.

Part of embracing Christ as Lord means submitting to Scripture even when we wish it took a different position on an issue… even when we, in our fleshly nature, don’t like what it has to say about something over which we may feel quite differently.  We must interpret the Word of God rightly, not trying to twist it to fit our whims, our feelings, our preferences, the culture, or popular opinion.  Submitting to God means submitting to His Word, especially when we find it hard to do so.  We must bear in mind that we are sinners, saved by grace; so our opinions and feelings are still impacted and influenced by sin.  The Holy Spirit uses Scripture to shape us, delivering us from bondage to our sinful tendencies, preferences, and perspectives.  The disciples of Jesus Christ have been born anew into a life of loving the Lord, cherishing His Word, and obeying Him.

Christians who seek to submit to the Word of God, even when striving to rightly interpret and apply Scripture, may still differ in their interpretive conclusions on some points of practice and doctrine.  We all must continue to strive for greater illumination in our understanding of Scripture and pray for grace to obediently submit to it.  With those who strive to submit to the Lord in the light of His Word, patience over our non-critical differences should guide our interactions, remembering the old principle, “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.”[15]


[1] This is distinguished from “egalitarianism” which asserts that there is no difference in the roles of men and women in the family or the church, which is an increasingly popular position among Christians influenced by modern social movements.

[2] The term “gender” is used to exclusively refer to inherent birth gender, as the Bible does not recognize a difference between inherent birth gender and “gender identity.” 

[3] It is likely that the apostle’s instruction within this context would include encouraging unmarried women to inquire privately of their believing fathers, or brothers, or knowledgeable women.

[4] “Prophesying” is proclaiming the truth of God.  The term need not merely refer to foretelling future events, but also includes the proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ (i.e., preaching).

[5] All scripture quotes are from the English Standard Version (ESV).

[6] The Apostle Paul’s prohibition against women “teaching” men must not be taken out of context to mean “no form of teaching regarding anything at all.” Contrary to such a position is the fact that Priscilla joined with her husband Aquila in instructing Apollos in Acts 18:24-26. Rather, this should be viewed together with “exercising authority” over men in the church.  It is authoritative doctrinal instruction, i.e. determination of orthodox belief and practice, that is in view.

[7] Some who hold to complementarianism would disagree with this statement and still prohibit women from preaching. 

[8] The grammatical form used in the verse in the Greek N.T. is γυναῖκας, and listed as γυνή in both Strong’s Concordance and New American Standard Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible. 

[9] The New American Standard Version translates the term in 1 Timothy 3:11 as “women.”

[10] According to the New American Standard Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible.

[11] This author has not found any parallel usage elsewhere in the New Testament.

[12] Indicating the grammatical form in the Greek N.T., and listed as προΐστημι in both Strong’s Concordance and New American Standard Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible.

[13] We must remember that the first humans to announce the resurrection of Jesus were women who had been instructed to do so by either angels or Jesus (Matthew 29:2-10; Mark 16:1-13; Luke 24:1-10; John 20:11-18).

[14] Neither gender has an exclusive claim to wisdom and insight. This author continues to learn much about the faith and growing in grace from godly women.

[15] Quote is credited to the Lutheran theologian, Rupertus Meldenius (c.1627).


Complementarianism and the Ministry of the Church: A Brief Overview (by WRF Member Rev. Pastor J. R. Norwood, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.) Copyright©2019 by Dr. J.R. Norwood, All Rights Reserved -- May be copied in whole or in part for educational purposes with proper citation.


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