One Woman’s Insights on Church, Women, Authority, and Creating a Culture of Happy Complementarians
Today’s blog features an article by Whitney Woollard titled, “Delighting in Authority: How to Create a Culture of Happy Complementarians.” My daughter Angela passed it on to me, and it’s terrific.
Women in church leadership is a huge issue and there are related biblical issues at stake. (If you’re interested, I share some more thoughts here.) The widespread perception among both unbelievers and believers in our culture is that conservative Bible-believing churches—especially those that are also politically conservative—are the last bastion of cultural chauvinism, dedicated to stereotyping, subjecting, and minimizing the equality, worth, intelligence, and gifting of women. We are thought to foster disrespect and, indirectly, abuse.
Unless we intentionally show this isn’t true—and demonstrate an authentic (not merely superficial) respect for women as intelligent and gifted students and teachers of God’s Word—many of our girls and young women will drift away from the church, or turn to churches that are egalitarian. Others may stay but never discover and use their gifts. Furthermore, there’s a large segment of culture we won’t reach.
We shouldn’t ever violate what Scripture commands in an attempt to be relevant, but we should exercise the freedom to do what Scripture allows to grant women the widest and deepest and most meaningful roles in Christ’s body.
That’s why we need to hear from voices like Whitney’s. She’s a writer, speaker, and women’s Bible teacher here in Portland, Oregon. You can learn more at whitneywoollard.com. —Randy Alcorn
Delighting in Authority: How to Create a Culture of Happy Complementarians
By Whitney Woollard
If I were a man, I would be a church planter.
I’m a strong leader with the gifts and wiring essential to the call. I thrive when casting vision, making disciples, training leaders, preaching the Word, and evangelizing the lost. I’ve been “thinking in sermons” since I was fifteen. I can’t help but target potential leaders. I constantly wonder how to reach my community. It’s instinctive. When I hear a powerful sermon, I feel a compulsion to preach. When someone leaves the church, I can’t sleep at night. When I study a text, I obsess over theological clarity.
But I’m a woman—a woman who believes God has spoken authoritatively in his Word on all matters pertaining to life and godliness. A woman whose conscience is bound by the conviction that the authoritative teaching office of God’s covenant community is reserved for men. I’ll never plant a church as the lead pastor/elder  not because I’m incompetent or lack the desire but because I believe the Word speaks with authority on this issue, and I trust the God who authored it. In fact, I delight in the authority of the Word, my husband, and the local church. I’m convinced everything God ordains, including various spheres of authority, is the best possible plan for his glory and my good. I’m what you would call a happy complementarian. 
“Coming Out” as a Happy Complementarian
Unfortunately, not everyone delights in God-ordained authority. On the one hand, pop-culture has done a fine job of convincing women that femininity and freedom can only be found in throwing off the patriarchal shackles of previous generations to discover our “true, empowered selves.” I’m told my feelings and desires are the ultimate source of authority. Even an unbeliever would encourage me to plant a church if that meant “following my heart.” Today in Portland, Oregon—where I live—to be a strong woman is to reject any limitations on what I can or should do.
On the other hand, some Christian sub-cultures (particularly strands of fundamentalism that uphold a view of complementarianism suspiciously close to subordination) have created miserable women who outwardly affirm complementarian convictions while inwardly despising authority. Some have tragically suffered spiritual abuse from leaders and no longer know how to distinguish godly authority from an ungodly authoritarian. Others feel so trapped by manmade traditions and superficial limitations that they become like caged animals provoked even by innocent bystanders. They’re the bristly ones who affirm male headship but are bitterly offended at the slightest talk of authority.
I want to reject both extremes, even if it invites disapproval. I’m tired of apologizing for being a strong female and a conservative complementarian. In one circle, I’m too educated, too theological, too opinionated, and ask too many questions. In another circle, I’m too conservative, too prudish, too restricted, and don’t speak enough.
It’s time for the church to create space in its local assemblies for strong females who happily affirm authority (e.g., male headship and eldership) while advocating for more opportunities for women to flourish according to their gifts and qualification. Imagine how the gospel could be displayed to the watching world if churches were filled with biblically-minded women who embraced God-ordained authority as a blessing rather than a burden? This counter-cultural impulse would offer continual opportunities to share the gospel with a world that’s desperate for truth.
How Can Pastors Help Female Leaders Delight in Authority?
But how can you do this when the overwhelming voice of culture smacks of anti-authority sentiments? The ideas below are neither novel nor exhaustive, but they do come from someone whose entire life is and has been directly affected by her views on authority.
1. Cultivate a High View of God’s Word.
Any discussion on authority must begin and end with the Bible. To start anywhere else is to build your “theological house” on the sand. Too often, people will start with a John Piper sermon or a CBMW article without pushing women to grapple with the biblical texts themselves. But only the Word of God has the power to penetrate to our innermost being and shed light on areas we desperately try to hide—like our anti-authority predispositions.
It was a high view of God’s Word that brought me to my current convictions. Early in my Christian walk, I realized I had a dog in the “egalitarian versus complementarian” fight. I applied myself to the Scriptures, earnestly desiring to know what God said about leadership roles in the local church. I came to the conclusion that the authoritative teaching office of God’s covenant community throughout redemptive history has always been and should continue to be restricted to men (e.g., priests in the Old Testament, apostles during the Apostolic age, and elders in the New Covenant). And after coming to this conclusion, I felt joy! God gave me a clear conviction on this matter, and the issue has been settled ever since. My conscience is held captive to the Word of God. And to echo Luther, I believe to act against conscience is neither safe for me, nor open to me.
By constantly pointing to the Word, pastors can help women become the kind of people who are controlled by biblical conviction rather than personal preferences or pragmatism. Encourage them to search the Scriptures and see what God says about women in leadership. Discuss the central, debated texts and facilitate open dialogue. Create environments where women can ask questions as they wrestle with the issues. Help them think well about the Scriptures and be willing to graciously challenge any preconceived notions that may not be rooted in the Word. Ultimately, equip them to make informed decisions based on good exegesis that leads to God-glorifying convictions.
2. Cultivate a High View of Women.
From Genesis to Revelation, the testimony of Scripture is that both male and female are created beings invested with great dignity, value, and worth. And both are tasked with the awesome responsibility of making visible the invisible God through their work and service. The church should be the primary place where the glorious image of God is showcased through men and women carrying out the Great Commission together with mutual love and respect.
All too often, however, the church has devalued women by not providing provision for them to serve and flourish within their respective gifts. I see this regularly with women who have leadership and teaching ability. The church may have a strong position articulated on paper, but functionally they don’t know what to do with these women . . . so all too often they don’t do anything. This isn’t necessarily malicious or calculated; I think it’s just the state of affairs in conservative churches today—but it’s one in need of continual reformation. As a female gifted to lead, I can tell you it’s not helpful (in fact, it’s confusing) to form a theology of women in leadership that never gets implemented.
I have been in churches (large “progressive” churches) where my husband and I agreed with everything on paper, but I wasn’t actually allowed to do anything within my gift set. It turned out a young woman without kids could never teach women. This reveals a low view of women that’s too pervasive in many conservative complementarian churches. Women are an essential part of the body, gifted by the Spirit to serve the church, and they should be encouraged to minister in all the ways the Bible permits.
Part of good, God-ordained male leadership is creating environments in which women feel valued, protected, and encouraged to serve in the ways God has wired them. Show women you value them by forming a robust, biblical theology of women in leadership and then actually implementing it. Here are a few suggestions:
- Provide opportunities for aspiring female teachers to get proper training so they can teach and preach the Scriptures to other women well. Perhaps consider one of these Simeon Trust workshops for women.
- Offer seminary-like classes on basic Bible, theology, and spiritual formation for your women.
- Give the women’s Bible study team time each semester to go over the curriculum and help them teach it well.
- Invite feedback from women on your sermons, on the worship, on the formation of small groups, and on the Sunday School classes.
- Ask women how you could better serve them in the way you preach, pray, and lead. After all, on average half of your congregation are women so wouldn’t it be helpful to get insight into the spiritual needs of your women . . . from a woman?
- Have women do things like serve communion, pray, read Scripture, or share their testimonies from the front. I cannot tell you how encouraging it is when I visit a church and hear a woman pray or read Scripture. It communicates volumes to the women sitting in your pews.
- Periodically ask yourself, “Are the women in my congregation flourishing? Are they being provided various opportunities to serve? Are they being treated as co-heirs of eternal life and partners in ministry?”
Every one of these points comes from the practice of my local church, a conservative, Bible-teaching, gospel-centered, Baptist church. I recently told my pastor I would be complementarian wherever I go because my conscience is bound to biblical convictions, but he sure does make it easier for me to be a happy complementarian!
I’ve been a Christian for fifteen years, and this is one of the first churches where the lead pastor has made me feel like a blessing rather than a burden for being a theologically-minded woman. That’s fifteen years of struggling to find my place in the local church because I was made to feel like a burden for the way God wired me. I’m not entertaining self-pity here, but I do think that’s sad.
I believe many women would be more willing to graciously embrace male authority in the church if they felt valued by the male leadership and given opportunities to serve Jesus in meaningful ways. Pastors, I urge you to use your God-ordained authority to help female leaders to flourish in your church. Make authority a pleasant experience for them.
How Can Female Leaders Help Pastors Delight in Authority?
Part of being a “happy” complementarian is helping facilitate a culture in which male leaders find joy in leading us. We should (along with all believers) submit to authority in a way that helps leaders care for our souls “with joy and not groaning” (Heb. 13:17).
I’ll be the first to confess I haven’t always done this well. I can’t imagine how much “groaning” I’ve caused my pastors in the past. But, through much repentance and grace, I’m growing. Here are helpful suggestions I’ve learned along the way, primarily through my own sin and short-comings:
- Give others a “category” for you. Oftentimes, people just aren’t sure what to do with strong, theologically-minded women. Graciously help them see that you’re a woman who loves Jesus, delights in male authority, and desires to teach the Bible to other women.
- Speak highly of the male leadership in your church and home (if married). One of the most harmful things a woman can do is publicly criticize her pastor or husband. If we truly delight in male headship, our words should reflect it.
- Look for ways to encourage your pastors and elders. For example, tell them when a sermon was especially helpful or mention specific ways you’re praying for them.
- Thank your leadership for the current opportunities women are given to serve the church. Let them know it doesn’t go unnoticed.
- Be quick to communicate and slow to assume. Communicate that you have a passion for teaching women the Bible rather than assuming leadership knows and is intentionally withholding the role from you. A lot of hurt feelings are built upon false assumptions.
- Ask if there is or will ever be provision to serve within your gifts. Display a willingness to be trained and equipped accordingly. Show your pastor(s) that you’re also willing to serve outside of your gifts in order to help the church.
Ladies, let’s make authority a pleasant experience for the men in leadership over us by being a blessing to the body. May our words, actions, and attitudes help them view their God-ordained role as a delight.
Finding Freedom within Limitations
The Psalmist declares, “I run in the path of your commands for you have set my heart free” (Ps. 119:32).
This reflects my heart on the issue of authority. Years ago, I bowed before God’s infinite wisdom on the matter of women in leadership and discovered the path beneath my feet was broadened. There’s a delightful freedom to be experienced when one accepts God-given boundaries. My conscience is clear, my convictions are firm, and my ministry is meaningful.
I’m not sad that I’m not and couldn’t be a church planter or lead pastor. I don’t feel restricted or resentful. Instead, I feel full. Submitting to the authority of God’s Word, specifically as it plays out in the local church, has freed me to run in the path of God’s commands. I have found great freedom within authority.
What about you?
 This truth doesn’t mean women cannot be involved in church plants. Of course they can. They should be! A well-rounded planting team would include trained, equipped women in the core group. I’m speaking to the lead, authoritative role as the church planter.
 A complementarian holds the theological view that men and women are created equal in dignity, value, and worth but hold differing, complimentary roles in marriage, family, and the local church.
This article was originally posted on 9Marks and is reposted by permission of the author.
Photo by Ben White on Christianpics.co