The gender role controversy and what the Bible says

Written by Dagmar Morgan-Sinclair

Abuse, sexual misconduct, and adultery in the Church have featured prominently in our news feeds recently. As a woman serving in ministry in a church, I experience the ongoing flurry of revelations—so many stories, petitions, documentaries, reports and news stories—in a particular way. 

I have seen first-hand the challenges women face inside church walls, whether in serving, in leadership, or in the pews. And I continue to wonder what all these surfacing stories mean for the future of women in the Church—their safety, their leadership, their ministries—and how men can help create a better way forward for them and for women.

Watch a deeper conversation on this topic with Dagmar Morgan-Sinclair and Love Is Moving editor Ilana Reimer.

“Women in the Church” can refer to many things. It can refer to women’s role in the church community (what capacity they can serve), their leadership role (or if they should even have one), and their treatment (especially in the context of abuse and marginalization). 

But it is impossible to talk about these individual topics without also looking at how Christians view gender roles. This is because many of the challenges facing the Church are deeply seated in polarized views on how men and women should engage in the Church and what the Bible says about it.

This polarization can compel people to shy away from the discussion. However, it is because of this deep division that it becomes even more important to unpack our views. This means looking at how we arrived at the perspectives we have, what questions we still may have, and how all these facets inform our faith journeys and lives. Considering the current rash of church scandals in the media, the time is ripe for a deeper dive.

So, what does the Bible say about women and men? The answer is not a simple one. The many views range from conservative to very liberal and everywhere in between. In broad strokes, there are two schools of thought: complementarian and egalitarian.

Those with a complementarian view believe women and men are equal in the eyes of God but occupy different roles in marriage and church leadership. This means women should not be leaders in their home or church and should not serve as pastors or church leaders (different denominations vary on precisely what forms of leadership women can and cannot hold). 

For some brief context, here are the primary Bible verses interpreted as supporting complementarianism. Genesis 2:18 says God made a helper suitable for man. Ephesians 5:21-33 outlines that women should submit to their husbands as they do the Lord and that husbands should love their wives like Christ loved the Church. Both these verses pertain to marriage and home life, whereas Titus 2:3-5 and 1 Timothy 2:9-15 pertain to women in the Church, saying women should submit to their husbands, be busy at home, remain quiet in churches, and should not teach men or assume authority over them. In interpreting these scriptures, the complementarian view asserts women and men should follow the pattern of these verses for how to conduct family life and church leadership. 

The egalitarian view also affirms men and women are equal in Christ. This view holds that there are no gender role distinctions within the Church and that, therefore, women can occupy similar places and interchange roles with men within churches and families. 

Here are some of the primary Bible verses interpreted to support egalitarianism. Galatians 3:26-29 states there is neither Jew nor gentile, neither slave nor free, nor female or male, all are one in Christ. Mark 16:9 portrays women as the first to witness the resurrection and relay the news to others. In Romans 16:1-7, Paul lists women who were deacons, judges, “co-workers in Christ,” and one woman, Junia, whom he described as “outstanding among the apostles.” Further examples of women being acknowledged as church leaders are found in Colossians 4, 2 John 1, and in Acts 16.

Much of the debate around what women can or can’t do in the Church circles around Paul’s writings in 1 Timothy 2:11-12, which states, “Let women learn quietly with all submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet.” 

As Cynthia Long Westfall points out in her book Paul and Gender, “Every interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:11-15 comes to conclusions about the text through an interpretive process. There are several major exegetical crossroads or turning points where scholars make crucial choices before they directly approach the passage in question, choices that affect the outcome.” She continues, “Some of these choices appear to be relatively unexamined assumptions.” 

Both complementarian and egalitarian proponents would do well to recognize that everyone may come to the table with assumptions about these texts. What is paramount is understanding each other’s view of word definitions, usage, translations, and how these affect our views and the implementation of those beliefs.

Our understanding of historical context also shapes modern interpretations. What do we know about the world and culture of Ephesus during the time the text was written? 

According to multiple scholars, including Westfall, an important aspect of cultural context is how deeply attached the society in Ephesus was to the goddess Artemis, as Acts 19 describes. In this context, the false teachings Paul refers to in 1 Timothy could easily be goddess worship and sacrifice intermingling with Christian teachings. This is in line with Paul’s stated purpose for writing to Ephesus, to combat false teaching and the teaching of “myths and endless genealogies” (1 Timothy 1:3). 

Another sticky point is the use of the word “authority” in the text. In an article on her blog called “1 Timothy 2:12 in context,” theologian Marg Mowczko writes that the word in Greek, authentein, is translated as domineering and is generally associated with violent crimes and being forced to do something.

Mowczko writes that Paul did not use any of the words usually used to convey “exercise authority.” Thus, while the verse could mean “women should not be in authority over a man” it could also mean “women should not be domineering, violent or aggressive.” In Paul and Gender, Westfall says this could range from dishonouring actions to lethal force. For this reason, the believer should take caution in interpreting what Paul was saying. Within even just one small part of the text, there are vast differences in interpretation. 

The problem comes less from where we define ourselves between complementarian and egalitarian and more from the potential to use these viewpoints to hurt, block, or dominate the other. This is where we lose nuance and conversations that seek to understand.

Recognizing a shared desire to serve Jesus well, our response should be more about how we walk out our beliefs regardless of whether they are complementarian, egalitarian, or any of the places in-between. 

We need to ask ourselves why we believe what we do, and if what we believe honours or fails to honour men and women. Is it harmful or helpful? Are we motivated by power or by service? And do our beliefs display the love of Jesus?

These polarized views may not be able to reconcile in the middle, but the Church does need to do the hard work of understanding the other with humility and openness. This calls for setting aside assumptions or broad brushstrokes that paint differing beliefs into narrow boxes. Scripture calls us to a higher purpose. To love radically, create space for the marginalized, to listen, and to be with one another.

In the end, the Church cannot fulfill its work without women and men working together. In Better Together, Danielle Strickland writes that in Genesis, as God was creating everything, He declared, “it is good.” That is, until He created man, and man was all alone. Then, God declares that “it is not good.” 

Woman is described at creation using a word usually translated as “helper,” which comes from the Hebrew word ezer, meaning tutor, helper, saviour. Now that humankind included both women and men, God no longer described His creation as just good. It was very good. Strickland contends that leading together is what God intended. Men can feel lonely, isolated, and burdened in leadership while women feel limited and stuck on the outside.

When men and women are united in what Strickland calls shared humanity and shared leadership, we can continue the work of the kingdom. There is room within this approach for elements of complementarian and egalitarian views. There is room for support and accountability, and there is room for the Church to thrive and create a space where it becomes less about drawing lines and more about serving the other. We do not have to throw out entire bodies of thought to continue to seek new ways to meet each other as Christ would, with grace.