In Defense of Complementarianism: A Response to Allen Yeh (Part 1)

Last week on The Scriptorium Dr. Allen Yeh made a non-theological case for egalitarianism. The theologian in me immediately wants to respond by asking, “Why bother? If there is a theological case to be made, who cares what culture has to say?” Indeed, I am concerned that Dr. Yeh chooses to lead with the non-theological case (his theological case will follow shortly). Perhaps he is allowing his cultural cart to be put before the theological horse. Nevertheless, it can sometimes be beneficial to examine one’s theology from a sociological or cultural perspective, if only in an attempt to avoid cultural bias. What follows is a brief response to Dr. Yeh’s argument.

After first calling everyone to recognize that “women in ministry” is a misnomer for this debate because no one thinks that women should be absent from all forms of ministry, Dr. Yeh makes five “cultural/sociological” points in defense of egalitarianism.

People exist in communities but they are also individuals. It’s one thing to generalize about a whole group (i.e. all women should do such-and-such) but people have different gifts, talents, personalities, and inclinations, and it is just as ridiculous to say “all women need to be homemakers” as it is to say “all men need to be athletes.”…

This is a bad analogy. It would indeed be ridiculous to say that all women (or men) should do only one type of activity, if that were the complementarian position. But complementarians argue that there is one type of activity that women are not called to do. The question would then be whether it is ridiculous to exclude women from this particular activity.

Competence needs to be a consideration as well. It is widely acknowledged that among Billy Graham’s children, his daughter, Anne Graham Lotz, is by far the best preacher. However, it is Franklin Graham who inherited his father’s ministry. I realize that ability is not the sole criteria for doing something, but does it not feel like a waste of Anne’s preaching ability if she does not exercise it?

Two points in response: First, women who are gifted teachers need not be excluded from teaching per se. As Dr. Yeh pointed out in his initial comment, not even complementarians deny that women ought to be involved in some aspects of ministry. In the case of a gifted female teacher, she could be a youth pastor, lead a women’s group, etc. Second, suppose a church has to make a choice between two preachers, one who is not so gifted but will faithfully bring good exposition of the Scriptures each week, and one who is a very gifted speaker but does not agree fully with the theology of the church. Which should they choose? Depending on how significant the theological differences are, it seems clear that the church ought to choose right theology over good speaking ability. Likewise, theology should always be a higher priority than the perceived gifts of an individual (it is the Holy Spirit, after all, who gives the Word of God power, not man). Yeh seems implicitly to agree with this when he notes that ability cannot be the “sole criteria” here, but he doesn’t allow his admission to actually inform his argument, since he takes the case of Anne’s superior ability in and of itself as an argument for egalitarianism.

Where the rubber meets the road: It’s one thing to remain in the realm of theory, but quite another when you put it into practice. I hardly know of anyone at Biola who would have a problem with sitting under the tutelage of a female professor…

The only thing that this comment proves is that many evangelicals don’t follow their theology consistently. It doesn’t constitute support for egalitarianism. Moreover, it confuses the office of church elder with that of seminary (or college) professor, which is not even a New Testament category. I am a complementarian, yet I have no scruples about female professors because I do not believe that the Bible prohibits women from teaching in such a capacity. According to complementarianism, the Bible’s restriction of female service in the church is actually an extremely limited one, and thus any honest debate must be equally limited.

Let’s call a spade a spade: in complementarian churches, the pastor’s wife is essentially the female pastor in all but name. Even complementarians cannot deny that women need women to minister to them…

Dr. Yeh is actually making two points here. First, he is arguing that many women function as pastors (if only of women’s or children’s groups), but aren’t called “pastors” by name. This is true, and I agree with Dr. Yeh that they should be recognized by name for the work that they do. I have no problem referring to a woman as a “Women’s Pastor” or “Children’s Pastor.” The issue is whether she serves in the specific role of exercising authority over men. Remember that the New Testament only mentions two offices, Elder and Deacon. Any other unofficial offices that we create to meet needs in the church (youth group, women’s group, etc) should not be closed to women unless it serves the same function as Elder (it is not at all clear to me that women should be excluded from serving as Deacons).

Second, Dr. Yeh argues that women need women to minister to them. As I have already pointed out, complementarians would agree, and would not deny that women can be teachers/pastors over other women (or children).

Complementarians say that the greatest defense of their position is the Bible and quote verses such as 1 Cor. 14:35 and 1 Tim. 2:12 which say that women should be silent. However, they conveniently leave out verses about women praying and prophesying (1 Cor. 11:4-6) and serving as deaconesses (Rom. 16:1) which I would say involves speech. Let’s not proof-text here, but take the whole canon of Scripture!

This is probably Dr. Yeh’s weakest argument. While it may be true that some complementarians are guilty of this sort of proof-texting, it is certainly not true of many of the better defenders of complementarianism such as Wayne Grudem, John Piper, and Biola’s own Robert Saucy, all of whom deal directly with the passages that Dr. Yeh mentions.

In the near future, I hope to respond to Dr. Yeh’s second post (which is forthcoming), defending Egalitarianism from a theological perspective.

Update: Click here to read part two of my response to Dr. Yeh.

Click here to read part three of my response to Dr. Yeh. ‘

Published by

David Nilsen

David graduated from Biola University in 2008, with a B.A. in Philosophy. He studied Historical Theology for three years at Westminster Seminary in California (his essays on Theology, Church History and Eastern Orthodoxy can be found here). David has been blogging about Philosophy, Politics and Culture since 2004. He has contributed to The White Horse Inn and The Gospel Coalition. You can also follow him on Twitter.

  • miliukov

    For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten theology, that whosoever misses the point can best can win every worthless argument when writing blog posts.

  • Mike Kozlinski

    Touche, miliukov… except your preferred mode is the combox to said blog posts…

  • Dan S.

    The issue seems to come down to prophecy vs. teaching. Scripture makes clear that women prophesied in the assemblies (1 Cor 11), which refutes the notion that women in all cultures across time must never be allowed to speak during church gatherings.

    If you believe that God gifts women to prophesy during a worship service but not to teach men, the question becomes: What is it about teaching that requires a higher level of spiritual authority than prophecy?

    Put another way, what is it about “womanhood” that makes females unfit to preach/teach Scriptural truth if adult males are present in the audience?

    Of course, some would say that women can serve as missionary preachers/evangelists (provided they are unmarried), write theology books, Bible commentaries, or teach at parachurch conferences outside their local congregation as long as they are not called “pastors.”

    So are we talking mainly about job titles or the actual teaching of Scriptural truth to men by women? I’m assuming that Priscilla was not merely a sidekick in Acts 18 when she and Aquilla both verbally instructed Apollos about the nature of baptism.

  • David Nilsen


    “What is it about teaching that requires a higher level of spiritual authority than prophecy?”

    Teaching requires more authority than prophecy because teaching is the means by which prophecy is interpreted (which is where the true understanding and applied meaning of the prophecy comes from). So, to translate what’s going on in 1 Cor. 11 and 14 to a modern context, prophecy would be the equivalent of reading Scripture. There’s nothing particularly authoritative about the act of reading the words of the Bible, the authority is located entirely in the words themselves. Preaching is a different matter, however, because it involves the faithful expounding and application of the words of Scripture. This is why the office of elder/preacher is a special one in the church, and why (historically, at least) not just anyone in the congregation is allowed to preach. But in principle, there’s no reason why anyone, women included, could not be appointed as “reader” in the church.

    “Put another way, what is it about “womanhood” that makes females unfit to preach/teach Scriptural truth if adult males are present in the audience?”

    Although you began with the phrase, “Put another way”, I think it’s important to point out that you’ve asked a completely different question here. Your first question was about the teaching of Scripture and the nature of prophecy. This question is more subjective and, frankly, is not a question that the Bible answers in great detail. And I think it’s to the Bible that we need to look to answer this question, not to our own gut feelings about what seems right to us. One of my professors told a story about his wife, who grew up in a charismatic church that had no problem with female pastors. One Sunday she preached to the entire congregation, and decided that there was something wrong with it, and now she embraces complementarianism. Should we make her experience normative? Should her experience be any LESS normative than a women who feels comfortable preaching over men? The point is that the Word of God is the only normative foundation we have to look to, so we can’t place too much emphasis on what our culture says or what we personally feel is right. This is true for both feminist as well as chauvinist tendencies in our culture.

  • David Nilsen

    Dan, one more comment I missed:

    “I’m assuming that Priscilla was not merely a sidekick in Acts 18 when she and Aquilla both verbally instructed Apollos about the nature of baptism.”

    That’s sort of the point, right? We can only ASSUME exactly what role Priscilla played in this scenario. It’s also important to note that she did not teach Apollos alone, but was with her husband, and they were not in the context of public worship and/or the official church “eldership” (which is what Paul’s prohibitive comments about women are specifically directed at).

  • Lindsay Stallones

    I still find non-sacramental complementarianism an exceedingly difficult position to defend. When you look at the historical status of women in the 1st century in the Roman world (especially in a province like Judea and the Greek city-states), it makes perfect practical sense for Paul to forbid a woman to teach. But you have to revert to the medieval view of women as fundamentally weaker intellectually than men (which is really just a white-washed version of the Greek view of women as defective men) to maintain this position.

    I can understand complementarianism (and am a fierce advocate of it) in the context of sacramental theology. When the priest is the bearer of the Real Spiritual Food of the most precious Body and Blood of Christ, then the gender of the priest who signifies Christ to the congregation becomes as important as the elements of wine and bread. I would no sooner say a woman could be a priest in that context than I’d say Snapple and potato chips are a fine substitute for the elements.

    But that’s because in sacramental theology, things aren’t merely symbols. If a woman shouldn’t hold authority intellectually over a man for fundamental spiritual purposes, I don’t see how that can’t be applied to Christian education, day-to-day life in conversation, and a myriad of other circumstances.

    How is evangelical complementarianism not a corruption based on the Greek and medieval ideals rather than founded in Scripture? And why is it always men advocating it? :)

  • David Nilsen


    Dr. Yeh will be making a theological case for Egalitarianism soon, and I’ll be responding to him (obviously from an evangelical perspective), so I’ll wait until then to give a more full response to your comments. Briefly, however:

    First, you seem to be assuming that the only options are radical sacramentalism (a la Rome and Constantinople) and “mere” symbolism (of the Anabaptists and their heirs). This is a false dichotomy. See Westminster Confession chapters 27-29, and the Larger Catechism questions 161-177, for the Reformed theology of the Sacraments (I’m not saying that a Reformed complementarian would argue the same sacramental case that you would, but something similar could possibly be an option when the sacraments are not merely symbols).

    Second, evangelical complementarians explicitly deny the Greek view of womanhood (they argue for equality of persons but inequality of function), and claim that their view is based upon Scripture alone. At the very worst, then, they can only be guilty of drawing the right conclusion from Scripture without having the sufficient theological tools/concepts to fully understand that conclusion (i.e. they’re merely guilty of “biblicism”, not of adopting a false Greek anthropology).

  • Michael Duenes

    Thanks for this rejoinder to Dr. Yeh. Just one point to comment on here. Dr. Yeh’s point about men not needing to be athletes and women not needing to be domestic is not well made for the following reason: Athleticism is not to men as domesticity is to women. Having and nurturing babies is something germane to the nature of femininity, whereas being athletic has no such connection to the essential nature of masculinity. Dr. Yeh smuggles in his assumption even as he tries to argue for it, viz. there is little if any distinction between masculinity and femininity, apart from “the plumbing.”

  • Doug Robinson

    The Trinity is a unity of complementariness rather than egalitarianism. This is because the Father is the authority figure to whom the Son submits, the Holy spirit submits to both the Father and the Son without any loss of importance or worth. The Trinity is thus the model for a discussion at the deepest levels. The Church likewise is to submit to Christ as he submits to the Father.

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