What is egalitarianism?
Egalitarianism and complementarianism are terms that refer to two different views on the role of women in the church. Egalitarianism, meaning “equal,” is the view that men and women have equal roles and that women can serve in any capacity a man can, or vice versa. Complementarianism, meaning “complementary,” is the view that men and women are equal in status before God but have different roles as designed by God. In this view, there are unique roles for men and unique roles for women. While complementarianism has been the historic or traditional view in most of Christendom, egalitarianism has grown steadily over the last century. Now, egalitarianism is a popular, in-vogue view that aligns well with Western culture, which values equality and the equal rights of women. Complementarianism is a counter-cultural view that conflicts with modern Western sentiments in that it restricts women from certain roles. Sometimes, it is implied that complementarians have archaic views, or that they are sexists or male chauvinists seeking to maintain the suppression of women. Both egalitarians and complementarians argue their position from the Bible.
Personal and biblical reflections on egalitarianism
I believe the biblical evidence clearly supports the complementarian view. I have no doubt that Paul the Apostle, who wrote more on the subject than anyone else, was a complementarian. While some theological doctrines are still perplexing to me after years of study, the complementarian/egalitarian debate is a no-brainer to me. After studying the verses that egalitarians use to support their view, I find it hard to believe that they could actually conclude—from biblical evidence alone—that their view is the most biblical. I see parallels in how those who support homosexuality try to do so from the Bible, sometimes completely disregarding clear scriptures that address the topic. It feels to me as if egalitarians are grasping at straws and trying to bring an agenda onto the Bible—rather than letting the Bible determine the agenda.
For me, the fact that Jesus chose twelve men as disciples, that elders are to be male, that women are to be silent and under the authority of men in the church, and that wives are to submit to their husbands are enough to convince me of a complementary role of women and men. These hold considerably more weight than the fact that Deborah was a female judge of Israel, that there were female prophetesses, that Phoebe may have been a deacon, that Junia/s may have been a female apostle, that Lydia hosted a house church in her house, that Priscilla was likely a more prominent figure than her husband Aquila, and that all believers are equal in Christ.
Thankfully, I am not alone in these “old-fashioned” views on the role of women in the church. A number of leading theologians and pastors also subscribe to the complementarian view, including John Piper, Wayne Grudem, D. A. Carson, Matt Chandler, Douglas Moo, and John MacArthur—among a host of others. For an excellent book on the complementarian position, read Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood by Wayne Grudem and John Piper.
Church planting movements and egalitarianism
Historically, church planting movements (loosely defined), such as Methodist or Baptist church planting in America, were largely complementarian. However, most (if not all) modern church planting movement resources and proponents promote or endorse an egalitarian view. In my eight years spent in a church planting movement organization, not once was it suggested that men should be the leaders of the church. There was never a recommendation—or even the slightest hint—that biblically qualified elders should be appointed in every town or city (Titus 1:5). Additionally, I have never read any promotional CPM/DMM literature that espouses or promotes a complementarian view. In fact, the opposite is true. Most (if not all) church planting movement case studies explicitly support an egalitarian view. Here are some examples:
- “Our stand from the very beginning has been that men and women are equal. Just as God calls men, he calls women as well. If men can make disciples, women can make disciples. So we have many women who are leaders and church planters in the movement. They have discipled people and won whole households. We have no problem with appointing women as leaders in the church. The head of our organization is a woman, a wonderful servant leader” (John and Coles 2019, 228).
- “I built a leadership team for the province—a band of leaders consisting of six brothers and one sister. Resti, the only female among the seven top leaders, was chosen as head of the Spiritual Multiplication department” (Larson 2018, loc. 2251).
- “From the beginning, women were both allowed and encouraged to start new discovery Bible studies (DBS), to establish new churches, to pastor new churches, and to be involved in movement leadership” (Arlund and Foard 2021, sec. Uganda Case Study).
- “Within the movement, about 60 percent of the believers are women and about 80-90 percent of the leaders are women” (Arlund and Foard 2021, sec. India Case Study).
- “It was never questioned within the movement whether women could be spiritual leaders or pastors” (Arlund and Foard 2021, sec. Chinese Muslims Case Study).
Other CPM/DMM authors are less explicit in stating their position on women in ministry. Garrison (2004) did not state his view but made three references to women leading the church (Lovelace 2007). Smith and Kai (2011) devote one chapter (Chapter 17) to reproducing leaders, and while they discuss character qualifications for leadership, they strip away any gender qualifications reflected in verses like Titus 1:6: “An elder must be faithful to his wife, a man whose children believe.” Authors with (or formerly with) the IMB, such as David Garrison, David Watson, and Steve Smith, have probably been more implicit in their views due to their organizational affiliation. John Mark Terry, the editor of Missiology: An Introduction (B&H, 2015) and former professor at Malaysia Baptist Theological Seminary, said that IMB missionaries were egalitarian in practice but couldn’t embrace egalitarianism publicly (Terry 2019). This is because the doctrinal statement of the Southern Baptist Convention, “The Baptist Faith and Message,” upholds a complementarian view. It almost certainly would have created an issue among Southern Baptist churches, who give financially to the IMB, if the explicit practice of the IMB or its missionaries differed from Southern Baptist theology.
The egalitarian position of most movement practitioners is not just an oversight or bad theology; it aligns perfectly with the agenda of movement practitioners to create conditions that are as reproducible as possible. Any sort of constraints or conditions regarding leadership must be eliminated in order to make it possible for movements to occur. As Massey wrote, this is “to validate the CPM pragmatic need for rapidity” (2012, 123). For biblical church leadership, you need men, and sometimes men who believe are in short supply. In many movements, women have been more responsive to the gospel, and this has created a supply issue for church leadership.
Movement proponents have devised two solutions to this problem. The first is to embrace an egalitarian view and to fill positions normally held by men with women. In this regard, the movement drives theology rather than the opposite. I suspect that many missionaries who once embraced a complementarian view now support the opposing side after hearing of movements and movement methods. The second solution is to replace biblical titles like “elder” and “deacon” with secular-sounding ones like “leader” or “trainer.” In doing so, any biblical qualifications can be bypassed since there are no explicit biblical qualifications for a “trainer.”
How critical resources have addressed egalitarianism
Nearly all critical resources have addressed this issue in only a sentence or two in passing. Only one critic, Serworwora (2014), an Indonesian, used more than a paragraph in speaking to the issue (he used two pages). I find it interesting that an Asian addresses this more than Westerners, and I do wonder if this reflects the difficulty for culturally egalitarian Westerners to confront the issues. Regardless, the following are a few critical quotes arranged chronologically.
- “The first biblical issue appears with the need for lay leadership of the church. Garrison developed two controversies discussed in this section. First, he made three direct references to women leading the church. If the issue was service or a leadership position, that would not create a problem, however, since Garrison omitted any reference to offices in the church, one must assume the leader would take the position of pastor if it is a biblical church with biblical offices” (Lovelace 2007, 68).
- “This definition of laity at the practical level [in Garrison 2004] creates a larger pool of candidates for pastoral leadership for rapid forward movement but is it consistent with the New Testament’s clear affirmation of the office/function of pastor, which can only be occupied by those who meet the qualifications for such office expressed in 1 Timothy 2:12; 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9? Paul clearly restricts this pastoral role to the man who is spiritually gifted, mature, and set apart by the congregation.” (Massey 2007, para. 4 under “Rapid Reproduction…”).
- “A number of questions and concerns arise from this egalitarian interpretation and approach to church leadership structures. First, what pastoral leadership role does this approach allow for women in light of the Pauline parameters in 1 Timothy 2:12 (Garrison 2004, 189)?” (Massey 2007, para. 6 under “Rapid Reproduction…”).
- “Doctrine and Scripture are once again conformed and eisegetically pressed into service to validate the CPM pragmatic need for rapidity. First, Garrison gives latitude for women to serve as leaders of the entire church contrary to the Pauline prohibition in 1 Tim 2:12” (Massey 2012, 123).
- “It is clear that this movement put no prohibition for women to be the leaders of the church and in contradiction with what the Bible teaches” (Serworwora 2014, 99).
- “In the New Testament, the office of elder is the only place we see distinction of gender in relation to serving the church. Both men and women are equally valuable and full of dignity, but the office of elder is reserved for men” (Abner 2019, 59).
- “The doctrine of the church establishes that it is God’s will that his people be formed in visible, local congregations led by qualified men committed to the Word, fellowship, worship, prayer, sacrament, and mission” (Vegas and Kocman 2021, 158).
- “A mature church should be led by men who are qualified shepherds and teachers” (Rhodes 2022, 192).
As I have argued elsewhere, it is unlikely that CPM/DMM proponents will be swayed by these quotes or any other biblical arguments. The oldest quote above is now fifteen years old, and there has been no change in movements thinking and methods on these issues within that time. On the contrary, the most recent books, such as Farah (2021), continue to endorse and promote the egalitarian view.
Is it possible to be a complementarian and carry out an effective strategy for world evangelization? I believe it is. It might not look quite like modern movement proponents hope it looks, but the mission will be accomplished. Jesus will build His church, and we have nearly two millennia of Christian missions carried out predominantly by those with complementarian views. God has given us guidelines in His Word for how His mission is to be conducted, and we would do well to keep our practices consistent with what He has revealed to us.
Abner, Robert Christopher. 2019. “An Embryonic Ecclesiology Enabling Church Planting Movements to Flourish.” Ph.D. Dissertation, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Arlund, Pam, and Regina Foard. 2021. “From Her Perspective: Women and Multiplication Movements.” In Motus Dei: The Movement of God to Disciple the Nations, edited by Warrick Farah, 205–18. William Carey Publishing.
Farah, Warrick, ed. 2021. Motus Dei: The Movement of God to Disciple the Nations. Littleton, CO: William Carey Publishing.
Garrison, David. 2004. Church Planting Movements: How God Is Redeeming a Lost World. Midlothian, VA: WIGTake Resources.
John, Victor, and Dave Coles. 2019. Bhojpuri Breakthrough: A Movement That Keeps Multiplying. Monument, CO: WIGTake Resources, Kindle Edition.
Larson, Trevor. 2018. Focus on Fruit! Movement Case Studies & Fruitful Practices. A Toolkit for Movement Activists: Book 2. Kindle Edition.
Lovelace, Hoyt. 2007. “Is Church Planting Movement Methodology Viable? An Examination of Selected Controversies Associated with the CPM Strategy.” The Journal of Evangelism and Missions 6 (Spring): 59–77.
Massey, John D. 2007. “Assessing the Shape of Ecclesiology in Church Planting Movements Missiology.” Regional Meeting of the Evangelical Missiological Society. Memphis, TN.
———. 2012. “Wrinkling Time in the Missionary Task: A Theological Review of Church Planting Movements Methodology.” Southwestern Journal of Theology 55, no. 1 (Fall): 100–137.
Rhodes, Matt. 2022. No Shortcut to Success: A Manifesto for Modern Missions. Wheaton, IL: Crossway.
Serworwora, John Henry. 2014. “The Ecclesiology of Training for Trainers: The Issue of Method and 1 Timothy 3:6.” Great Commission Research Journal 6, no. 1: 91–114.
Smith, Steve, and Ying Kai. 2011. T4T: A Discipleship Re-Revolution. Monument, CO: WIGTake Resources, Kindle.
Terry, John Mark. 2019. Phone Interview.
Vegas, Chad, and Alex Kocman. 2021. Missions by the Book: How Theology and Missions Walk Together. Cape Coral, FL: Founders Press.
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