The Complementarian Woman: Permitted or Pursued?

I recently had an exchange with a young church planter who wanted my thoughts on how to address the needs of women within his church. He told me it was clear what women are permitted to do from a doctrinal standpoint, but that he was not comfortable that his responsibility to women ended with simply identifying that list.

I asked him to think about that word—permit. It is a word women in complementarian settings hear with some frequency, and how our male leaders use it shapes our ability to contribute to church life. The challenge for any pastor would be to consider whether he is crafting a church culture that permits women to serve or one that pursues women to serve. Because a culture of permission will not ensure complementarity functions as it should.

Consider the analogy of marriage. Most pastors would counsel a young husband that he must pursue his wife to keep their union strong—that he must make a study of her needs and wants, that he must celebrate her strengths and find ways to leverage them for the good of their marriage. They would warn against the dangers of passivity. I submit that similar awareness is necessary on the part of male leadership in complementarian churches. A culture of permission can communicate passivity and dismissiveness to our women. They long to be pursued.

The negative implications of a culture of permission become clear if we overlay them onto other areas of ministry. Imagine if we swapped the language of pursuit for the language of permission in our church bulletins:

  • If you need community, you are permitted to join a community group.
  • If you battle addiction, you are permitted to go to Celebrate Recovery.
  • If you are interested in serving, you are permitted to serve in the nursery.

Now consider if we applied the language of pursuit to the way we speak about women’s roles. We would have to alter our speaking—and our thinking—rather dramatically.

  • It is one thing to say women are permitted to be deacons, and quite another to actively seek out and install women in that role.
  • It is one thing to say women are permitted to pray in the assembly or give announcements, and quite another to ensure that they have a voice on the platform.
  • It is one thing to say that women are permitted to teach women, and quite another to deliberately cultivate and celebrate their teaching gifts.

I am not certain when it became common to speak of permitting rather than pursuing women to serve, but I admit that it grieves me. Yes, there is that well-worn verse in 1 Timothy, but it seems a shame to let one occurrence of a term dominate our language and practice. It may be that permission vocabulary persists because of the unfortunate woman-as-usurper stereotype that sometimes underlies complementarian thought.

And I can’t help but reflect on how far removed that vocabulary is from the words of Adam at the creation of Eve: “This is at last bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.” Adam’s words are a hymn of thanksgiving, a joyful acknowledgment that one has arrived whose contributions will bring vital and necessary completeness to the imago Dei. It is a hymn intoned not in the language of permission but in the language of pursuit. 

How sweet a thing when a woman of apparent ministry gifting elicits from male leadership not “Oh, no,” but “At last!” God help complementarians if we spend our energies fastidiously chalking the boundaries of a racecourse we never urge or equip our women to run. I have to think that egalitarians would grow quieter in their critiques if we could point to more women within our ranks who convincingly demonstrate equal, complementary value in our churches.

Women who flourish in ministry can point to not just female leaders who affirmed them but also to male leaders who championed and cultivated them. That has certainly been my story. Glenn Smith asked me to shepherd and teach women even before I knew the depth of my desire to do so. John Bisagno affirmed and mentored me when I had no idea what I was doing. Mark Hartman taught me the beauty of a well-run ministry. Matt Chandler and Collin Hansen gave me a voice. And every day for 20 years, Jeff Wilkin has spoken unmitigated blessing and encouragement to me. Would that all women in the church could know such grace.

So here is the suggestion I offered to that young church planter: Do you desire to leverage the equal complementary value of women in your church? Don’t give us a chance to ask permission. Get out ahead of us. You approach us with what you intend to empower us to do. End the culture of permission and you will dispel the stigma of submission. We are not usurpers, we are the possessors of every capacity you lack and the celebrators of every capacity you possess.

Brothers, don’t permit us. Pursue us. 

* * * * * * * * * *

For further reading: see Thabiti Anyabwile’s insightful thoughts on this subject in a series of four posts:

  • Lou G.

    This is a great post, Jen. Thank you for writing it.
    Personally, I am encouraged by how Ligon Duncan and Susan Hunt teamed up to write a series of books on Womens Ministry for the PCA. According to Susan, women from many other denominations contact her more and more trying to learn about being intentional about Womens Ministry. Having a great churchman, elder, and teacher like Ligon Duncan lay out the Biblical foundations for women serving in the local church has been immensely helpful to the women in our settings. One of the emphases I remember reading is that Paul charged Timothy to pursue, encourage and teach the more mature women to teach the younger women in the oft-quoted Titus 2 passage. One of our Womens ministry leaders gave a report to our presbytery last year and mentioned that verse and thanked our pastors in our presbytery for being so proactive in bringing the women into our ministry efforts.

    I think we could still do quite a bit more, of course, but wanted to thank you for the article and let you know that there are pockets of complementarians out here who’ve been doing this sort of thing for a while, even before “complementarian” was such a commonly used descriptor.

  • Teren

    Thank you, Jen! I’m praying that these beautiful insights will be received by many pastors as “Priscilla” words and that the gospel will be more beautifully and fully proclaimed because of them.

    • Stafford

      Amen, Teren!

  • john

    1 Timothy 2 is not the only place that Paul uses permissiveness language. He also uses it in 1 Corinthians 14.

    • Rachael Starke

      That’s certainly true. But to Jen and Thabiti’s point, what is more generous – to spend all our time talking about the fence, or the wide expanse of opportunity that’s inside it?

      • Tim

        And to have that discussion take place in full acknowledgment that all of us, woman and men both, have been set free from being fenced (Gal. 5:1) as the Spirit of Christ lives in us.

      • john

        It depends on who you’re talking to.

        For instance, there were women in my church who asked me to help them think through what women were permitted to do in church. They had grown up in a very narrow church tradition that had essentially forbade women from doing anything but sitting in the pew and cooking for the potluck. They had been taught all of their lives that scripture forbade them from doing much else.

        Now, when I actually went through scripture with them and showed them all the things that women are permitted to do in the context of the local church, they were actually reluctant to do some of them. It takes a long time to uproot long-held convictions even when there is scripture staring you in the face. They wouldn’t have felt comfortable with other women leading a prayer, reading scripture publicly and several other aspects of local church ministry. It was nearly identical to the situation of Romans 14.

        So which is more generous in this situation? For me to immediately begin encouraging these women to do all kinds of things in church despite their conscious objections? Or, is it more generous for me to actually answer the question they have and help them work through past issues by patiently and persistently pointing to scripture that shows them that they are “permitted” to do all kinds of things?

        So, it depends on who you’re talking to. Hope that makes sense.

    • Lou G.

      john, while that is true, I’m not sure about the point you’re making. If you’re saying that because Paul uses permissive language twice, then Jen’s post is in error, I would remind you that Paul also charged Titus to get women into ministry in Titus 2.
      The reason why what Jen is wrote is so helpful is because her point is not being made, whilst the approach that focuses solely on what is and isn’t permitted for women has been the main message of the current complementarian crowd.

      • Hermonta Godwin

        Paul charges Titus to get older women into ministry to teach younger women what? To be obedient to their husbands. Why would such teaching need to be stressed if the usurper instinct is not the expected struggle of women? If such is the natural struggle of women, then the permit language should be expected to be used more than pursuit language.

        Lastly, how often is Titus 2 brought up as some sort of blank check for women in ministry while forgetting what Paul explicitly instructs in that chapter.

        • Rachael Starke

          Hermonta, You raise some important hermeneutical questions that quite a few TGC blog followers have been discussing. Not everyone interprets the curse on women as described in Genesis 2 as one of usurping. Wendy Alsup argues for an alternate interpretation- that women feel a strong desire from men what can only be fulfilled in Christ. This discussion demonstrates clearly how the interpretation re: women wanting to be usurpers lead to just this kind of narrowed thinking about the roles women can play in kingdom life. The answer to usurpation must logically be being precluded from leadership.

          As for the specific questions around Titus 2, context plays an important role. This passage is one of many that make connections back and forth between gospel doctrine known and gospel doctrine expressed. Women are to actively love their families, not passively tolerate them. They are to work while at home, not be self indulgent. They are to submit to their husbands, not rebel against them. This is good because this is at its root the embodiment of the life and character of Jesus. Without our actions rooted in the reality of all of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, that list gets diluted to not much more than a moralistic list. The “ministry” that Titus wants women to have is to teach younger women all of what is good in the gospel, not just a narrow subset of its application to one season and one identity.

          • Hermonta Godwin

            I understand that there are various interpretations of Gen. 2, but I didn’t address them because I did not address Gen. 2. My question was if one wishes to interpret Gen. 2 etc in that alternative fashion, then how does one make sense of the wording of Titus 2?

            Next, it is true that beliefs/ideas have consequences but I see no argument that the consequences of the usurper line of thought are somehow wrong because it implies that the role of women in church leadership etc should be narrower than other lines of thought seem to imply. Broader roles does not imply more in accordance with the Bible etc.

            Next, as far as Titus 2 goes, context does matter as well as the actual wording used. It seems that you view Titus 2 as a blank check for Older women to teach younger women the Christian world and life view. Even if one wants to say that a women’s Bible study etc does not need to be limited in topics, one would still need to recognize that the actual command with specific items should be emphasized. If the details didn’t matter, and the only issue was not to teach falsehood, then Paul would have said such.

            If this is the case, then the question becomes why are these things emphasized and not others. The easiest way to understand such is that these are issue that women naturally struggle with doing and having others who have done it and flourished can and is helpful.

            Lastly, the Bible is against Women holding authority and teaching men in the Church and not that men should not hold authority over or teach women. If the normal process is men teaching women, then why should Titus 2 be interpreted as some super broad view of women teaching women everything that they need to know for the Christian life?

        • Lou G.

          Hermonta, while you are asking good questions that surely deserve the best answers, I will refer you to reach any or all of the books co-authored by Ligon Duncan and Susan Hunt. Those are the best on this subject. They are thoroughly Biblical and will help keep the wheels on the theological track.

        • EMSoliDeoGloria

          Hermonta, that’s a great question indeed. For the answer, I think maybe we need to re-read and re-examine our presuppositions about the text.

          Titus 2:3-5
          Young’s Literal Translation (YLT)
          3 aged women, in like manner, in deportment as doth become sacred persons, not false accusers, to much wine not enslaved, of good things teachers,
          4 that they may make the young women sober-minded, to be lovers of [their] husbands, lovers of [their] children,
          5 sober, pure, keepers of [their own] houses, good, subject to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be evil spoken of.

          I used Young’s literal translation (to which the ESV hews closer than the NIV) because older women ARE NEVER told to teach the younger to obey their husbands. Look closely, they aren’t. Rather pastors are told to cultivate godly character in the older women, including the gift of teaching what is good. Now that is a pretty broad subject, for above all, God is good. The pattern of teaching in that day was that teachers would have disciples, who would learn what they taught and transmit it. The pastor was to transmit godly teaching to the older women and the older women were in turn to teach what is good. The result of this would be that godly character would also be formed in the younger women. And the result of that is that they too would live in appropriate ways, so that God’s word would not be maligned. But notice that right living was to be the fruit of sound teaching. It isn’t that the older women were to go around teaching the younger one’s Christian home ec (“mind that the dishes don’t set in the sink overnight, keep up with the laundry , love your kids and obey your man, girls, and don’t forget to put on your makeup before he comes home from work so he sees you at your best”). NO, NOT AT ALL. As the well taught older women of godly character transmitted sound teaching to the younger women, the younger women would be sanctified by the Holy Spirit. They, like their teachers, would grow in the fruits of the Spirit. Teaching what is good (and teaching isn’t a lecture here, it is discipling in word and deed) will lead to caught values that do the gospel credit in the community: women who are sober and not drunk, manage their households well instead of being lazy busybodies, who love their families, are morally pure, thoughtful and not frivolous, living in the order proper to their culture – submissive to their husbands.

          All of this is fruit of sound teaching / discipleship. From which it follows that women should be well taught, well discipled and also be teachers of what is good (again, that is quite broad, not a limited list at all) who disciple others too.

          • Margaret

            Gosh, I love this! I’ve never really heard it put quite this way, but it allows for the vast variety of these fruits of good teaching to be expressed. I’ve always chafed at the idea that I need to be taught how to keep home, how to obey my husband, how to be a good parent to my children when the way I keep my home and the way I submit to my (unique) husband and the way I teach my children may look different from what others expect. It is still done well, but with my own unique creativity and weaknesses and strengths that my husband understands and encourages. I do often get sad at the quality of teaching in women’s ministries, that it is too focused on how women should be wives and mothers and not enough on strength of doctrine or relationship building. I am blessed to be in a church where I have been called on to help lead in our women’s ministry and while I understand the need for support for mothers and wives (and have benefitted from it in the past), my personal preference has been to share the wealth of information spiritual bolstering I received while getting my seminary degree.

            • EMSoliDeoGloria

              Margaret, I really think that an errant interpretation of Titus 2:3-5 has severely narrowed women’s ministries in some churches to a sort of Christian home economics class. It becomes all about application – someone’s idea of what it looks like to love husband’s and children, keep house, etc. That isn’t what the Holy Spirit or the inspired apostle intended, as a closer study of the passage makes clear.

              I love how 2 Cor 3:18 explains sanctification:

              And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.

              We are changed – transformed – sanctified – conformed to the image of Christ, as we behold Jesus. We are not changed by conforming to a formula or even applying good principles. When women are deprived of theology proper (even for the best of reasons) we are starved spiritually in our churches of God’s means of change. We must behold HIM to be changed.

              The fruit of making the fruit the focus of teaching is bad. And sobriety, love of husbands, purity, love of children… all these things are fruit. Fruit is the result of a mature tree. It isn’t the means to a mature tree. Let’s behold the Savior together, and be changed.

            • Margaret

              Thank you so much for clarifying this for me! Amen!

      • john

        The only point I’m making is that Paul uses permissiveness language in more than one place.

  • Tim

    Good job, Jen. I’d say that not only women but men should be pursued. After all, that’s what God has done for women and men since the beginning. He has pursued us relentlessly.

    But pursuing men has not been the deficiency, and frankly it’s shameful that much of the church has historically limited its pursuit in the area of ministry development to men only. I think much of the American evangelical church has a lot to answer for in that area, actively suppressing half the Body of Christ by adopting that permit-mindset.


  • David

    This is a topic I’ve been wrestling through. Perhaps someone can discuss the implications of 1 Cor. 14:26-32 – not sure if there is a polyvalence here or not. Seems that Paul is ordering that there only be 2 or 3 people who speak in tongues, and none of those should be women. The implication seems to be because the men are the ones who should guide the church spiritually. Not the women. The polyvalence being that he’s speaking specifically of speaking in tongues, but also implying that it is a general truth based on the law that the women stay in the background, basically. Or should it be discussed that being a deacon was never meant to take part in the spiritual direction of the church, but to rather see to facilitating the direction communicated by the elders, as was done in Acts 6? Thus the deaconship IS in the background. I would love for someone to walk through this passage with me.

    • Lou G.

      David, where do you see “and none of those should be women” in 1 Cor. 14:26-32?

      • David

        That’s what it seems he’s specifically/contextually talking about when he said “women should remain silent” though it seems he may be using a polyvalent.

        • Lou G.

          I’m not sure that most read it the way you are though – applying that one statement to the entire chapter. Otherwise, women couldn’t pray or sing or read in church. Plus, Paul is addressing everyone in the church in the specific verses you quoted, not only men. Paul uses the Greek adelphos to refer to all members of the church.

  • Lauren

    The thing that bothers me is, since when did women need to be permitted to work in ministry? That sounds a little…I’m not sure how else to put this…misogynist. I get that women shouldn’t be pastors, and I support that wholeheartedly. But “permitted”? That doesn’t sound complementarian at all.

    • Kristin

      I was once part of an Acts 29 church who spoke this way constantly. Although women were “permitted” to be deacons on the technical level, none of the 10 deacons were women. Same goes for community group leaders and every ministry leader except Childrens ministry. And there was no women’s ministry. It *is* misogynist. But I don’t think they/ most people are conscious of that fact.

  • Chancellor C. Roberts, II

    Lou G., where in Titus 2 does Paul charge Titus to get women into ministry? And I don’t mean your interpretation of the passage, but the actual words of the text in the context of Paul’s epistle.

    The rest of this post is in response to the article and to everyone who has commented thus far.

    The fact of the matter is that God has established different roles for men and women – not just in creation and in marriage, but in the Church. Women are committing rebellion and treason against God by presuming to even question those roles (the roles assigned by God, not roles assigned by worldly cultures). As for this language that women should be “pursued,” as opposed to “permitted,” suggests women are setting themselves up as something superior – as if to say “If you want ME to serve the Church, then you must pursue me, woo me, entice me, beg me, plead with me, kiss my feet…”

    Men and women are EQUAL in the salvation God grants them and in their relationship with Him. To use the passage egalitarians misuse, in Christ there is no male or female. However, there are different roles assigned to male and female – not greater or lesser roles, just different. Women don’t need to be pursued or begged or enticed or whatever, they need to submit to God and obey His call to them. And church leaders need to stop committing rebellion and treason against God in their preventing women from obeying God’s call to them to serve in the roles He has assigned.

    The issue of being “permitted” is a problem in a lot of churches and it doesn’t just apply to how church leaders view women. The problem is that in Western Christianity in particular we have this ungodly mindset that in order to do “ministry” (we need to look at how we’re using that word), people must be ordained “professionals” and that the people in the pews are supposed to just sit there and be fed. Oh, the lay person might be allowed to teach Sunday school or serve as a deacon (which, biblically, is not a leadership position); but the “real” work of the church can only be done by pastors and (in those churches that have them) elders.

    This notion that women must be pursued is to suggest that they are sovereign over God and that church leaders are supposed to pursue (beg, plead with, entice, woo, etc.) them before they will obey God’s call to them to fulfill the roles God has assigned. It’s much like the pastor who once told a man in his congregation that he must wait for his wife to allow (permit) him to fulfill his God-assigned role in the marriage, as if to say that his wife is the sovereign instead of God, that women don’t have to obey God, but have to permit God to tell them what to do.

    Women, get over yourselves! It isn’t about you and what you need, it’s about God and His glory. It isn’t about you getting your supposed “needs” met, it’s about you dying to yourselves, taking up your crosses and following Him in the roles He has assigned.

    Men, just because God put you in certain roles doesn’t make you better than or superior to women. You are just as deserving of eternity in the Lake of Fire as they are. Your salvation is just as much by God’s grace alone as theirs. It’s the man’s (Adam’s) sin that is imputed (charged to) the rest of humanity, not the woman’s (Eve’s). Who do you think you are to presume to keep women from fulfilling the roles that God has assigned to them?

    Much of what we do in the church has nothing whatsoever to do with biblical roles of men and women (e.g., reading announcements as if the church were some sort of club, separate “ministries” for men, women, children, young, old, married, single…). The real issue is women who are trying to usurp men’s roles by trying to get into the pulpit to preach or to serve in church leadership (and, in today’s churches, we’ve unscripturally elevated the role of deacon to a leadership role, which leaves women out).

    We need to be careful to separate what is biblical from what is cultural. Just because we do certain things in the church doesn’t mean they’re biblical. There’s nothing in the Bible, for example, about reading announcements or having all kinds of specialized activities that we call “ministries” or so many of the other things that we do as “church.” The biblical stuff must be obeyed; the cultural stuff is pretty much irrelevant.

    • Rachael Starke

      Chancellor, respectfully, Jen Wilkins uses the term “pursue” in a very specific way, and not at all in the way you have read. Perhaps the analogy of marriage is a little overstated, but as she clearly describes in her examples, this is about men in leadership being intentional in investing in the spiritual growth and maturity of women by acknowledging womens’ gifts in the examples she describes, and actively, visibly cultivating them.

      • Chancellor C. Roberts, II

        The leadership of the local church is to be intentional about equipping ALL of the saints to do the work of serving God (the meaning of “ministry” in Ephesians 4:11-12), regardless of whether they’re male or female. To fail to do this is to disobey God.

    • Lou G.

      Chancellor, since you asked me a question directly, I’ll answer that question:
      Titus 2:3 “Likewise, teach the older women to be reverent in the way they live, not to be slanderers or addicted to much wine, but to teach what is good. 4 Then they can urge the younger women to love their husbands and children, 5 to be self-controlled and pure, to be busy at home, to be kind, and to be subject to their husbands, so that no one will malign the word of God.”

      I will also quote the PCA’s statement on the purpose of a Titus 2 Ministry in the church:
      “The goals of an effective Titus 2 Ministry are:

      •for women to be equipped to apply the principles of Biblical womenhood to all of life.

      •for women to be equipped to spiritually mentor other women and to show and tell the next generation the Biblical principles of womanhood.

      • for some women to become Titus 2 group leaders in their women’s groups.

      •for all participants to be strengthened in their love for and service to the church.

      As far as most of your other comments, you seem to not grasp what is being discussed. None of the women here have even remotely suggested that they want to be in a pulpit or preaching to the whole church. As I have suggested in my other comments, there seems to be an enormous need for those just coming to the complementarian table to sit down and read Ligon Duncan for a while. You may or may not agree with him and Susan Hunt, but you will have a much better understanding of why the church needs women’s ministry and how it is done Biblically:

      • Chancellor C. Roberts, II

        I guess it all depends on how we’re defining “ministry.” The passage you quoted from Titus isn’t really about “ministry” as it is about the character women are to have. Older women do have a (gasp) teaching role in the church, but the role is to teach younger women the characteristics women are to have, particularly in the home. Usually when the discussion of women in ministry comes up, it’s about women in the pulpit or in church leadership.

      • Roger

        WOW! Thank you Lou, for the link to the book by Ligon Duncan! The Gospel Coalition ought to write to him and ask permission to reproduce that book one chapter at a time on this website. It answers most of the objections that people are manufacturing on this site, coming from both sides of the argument.

        Publishing pages or chapters from his book on this site would be the most helpful and beneficial thing TGC could do regarding the topic. I’m so glad you shared that link, because I was able to read the first two chapters online – outstanding.

  • JohnM

    Assuming “most” pastors would “counsel a young husband that he must pursue his wife to keep their union strong—that he must make a study of her needs and wants, that he must celebrate her strengths and find ways to leverage them for the good of their marriage.” what scriptural reference would they use to convince said your man?

    Or what passages would you use to convince church leaders to pursue women, in the sense intended? Which is something they kinda sorta tend to major in anyway.

  • Nick

    While I very much appreciate this post, I think the exhortation is incomplete. Scripture uses language of pursuit & language of permission. We have to work to reconcile this in our hearts, right? In all fairness though, the article does reference other posts.

    • Chancellor C. Roberts, II

      Nick, where does scripture use “language of pursuit [and] language of permission” in the context of women in ministry?

  • Lindsay

    I highly recommend the book Mixed Ministry by Sue Edwards to anyone interested in this topic, new to vocational ministry, etc. It’s all about men and women working alongside one another in ministry. It’s theologically complementarian and jives with the post here about inclusion and pursuit vs. exclusion and permission.

    • EMSoliDeoGloria

      Thank you, Lindsay, I’ve put it on my Goodreads reading list.

  • Christian Vagabond

    I think the language of “permission is much more common than Wilkins assumes, it’s simply stated indirectly. So rather than say “women are permitted to…” churches will say “we are looking for women to volunteer for X” or “Se are looking for men to lead X ministry.” The gender -specific requests state the culture of permission.Also, many churches have policies that are self-evident enough that the culture of permission doesn’t need to be stated. A church with only female volunteers in children’s ministry and only male ministry leaders doesn’t need to spell out where women are permitted to volunteer.

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  • MzEllen

    We need the “permit” language, because the world is pushing full on feminism in the pulpit, the line being, “if women aren’t teaching men, and having authority over men, they are silenced and stifled.” If we can say, women are not permitted in the key leadership roles in the church and home, but they *are* permitted in all these other ways,

    “permission” language is valid and necessary for the framework of “pursuing” – why do you pursue women for positions that they are not permitted to hold? Before you “pursue” women for a position, you must first determine whether they are “permitted” to hold it.

  • Mark

    The general cultural context, along with our general ecclesiastical context is one that that finds the idea of women NOT permitted anything to be misogynistic. Thus, Paul’s not granting “permission” for women to exercise authority over a man (1 Tim. 2:12) is utter foolishness to most of the world around us and many within the church. Thus, as Luther says, “If I profess with the loudest voice and clearest exposition every portion of the truth of God except precisely that little point which the world and the devil are at that moment attacking, I am not confessing Christ, however boldly I may be professing Christ.”

    Should women be strongly encouraged to use their time, interests, talents, money, influence, and love to serve the body? Absolutely. Without hesitation. As long as that service is biblcally-normed… JUST LIKE MEN!

    But to think that the real issue (or a more significant issue that the gender-bending confusion our people face) is women being “permitted” and not “persued” seems myopic and confused.

    • Chancellor C. Roberts, II

      Mark, you made some excellent points. The biggest problem we face, it seems, is trying to conform the Church to the wicked, ungodly world views of the surrounding culture (all non-Christian world views are automatically wicked and ungodly simply because they are not Christian). So, we have all these women (and some men) going around promoting rebellion and treason against God and His word by pushing these ungodly notions such as women need to be pursued (as if they’re the sovereigns), men have to wait until their wives give them permission to fulfill the roles in the marriage that God has assigned (not to mention the abomination of women trying to change the men in their lives and then, once they’ve sufficiently changed and emasculated these men, complain that they’re not “the man I fell in love with”). Then there’s the whole “happy wife, happy life” mantra that puts the wife at the head of the home.

      And let’s not even get into all these women who are presuming to usurp the role of men by teaching through the books they write. (We might say “teaching doctrine,” but that’s really redundant since doctrine is just another name for teaching).

      We need to stop this wickedness of trying to conform the Church to the world as so many women (and not a few men) are doing when they presume to question the roles that God has assigned.

  • Little Sheep

    WOW …Jen Wilkin, where have you been all these years? I’d given up reading TGC in part due to this issue. You have stated so graciously what I & I believe multiplied thousands of women are experiencing in complementarian churches. The continual reminders of what we’re not allowed & not supposed to be doing/saying/exercising authority over yet leaving out the affirmation of what we can do besides work in nursery & the kitchen. It almost seems sometimes like the men have forgotten that women are also made in God’s image & likeness yet all of that gets flushed down the toilet because of one or two verses in the bible that override the thousands of others that offer some balance.
    As an aspiring writer myself, I have found that the way to get my article accepted is to just put my first initials & last name because in Reformed circles, women shouldn’t be speaking to men about spiritual things so the females voice in theological issues, hasn’t been very welcome.
    Thanks again for your article, you’ve given me much encouragement & hope!

  • Jeremey

    Good stuff. The language of “permission” may have been pressed too far, and I need this reminder myself. Thank you.

    I also think MzEllen is wise to remind us that the church is in the midst of a much larger discussion that is responding to an intensive feminist agenda, and in many ways I think that this sets the tone of the conversation. In my experience, the “permission” language has been prevalent partially because of the extensive pressure to answer a very specific recurring question: “can a woman lead (fill in the blank) in the church”. Can a woman lead a small a group meeting? Can a woman lead a neighborhood Bible study? Can a woman lead worship?

    Every church has to answer these questions, so there’s a need to have that discussion from time to time. Part of the challenge that I have faced (as a pastor) is that I am having this conversation over and over again. As long as the question is, “can a woman lead…”, I think we are going to have to keep the language of “permission” close at hand, since God’s word provides us with some restrictions. Some things will be “permissible” to lead, and others will not – and it’s hard to avoid answering this question in those terms. The question seems to frame the answer…perhaps not entirely, but at least to some extent.

    Therefore, if we want to calm some of the “permissive” language among those who value the complementarian design, can I humbly suggest that we spend more time asking a different (and probably more Biblical) question? What if the prevalent question from our sisters (and brothers) were not “can I lead”, but instead, “how can I serve the church?” Would this not unleash an outpouring of ministry from women within our churches? I suspect that most pastors would be leap for joy if their church were filled with men and women who care far more about who needs help than they do about who’s allowed to facilitate a Bible study. However, as long as questions about women’s ministry are regularly framed in terms of a desire for leadership positions, I think we will find regular references to what is permissible. I’m not sure we can avoid it.

    So yes – let’s pursue the gifts of our women and watch out for obsessing about what they are “permitted” to do. And let’s also make sure that our churches are filled with men and women alike who are far more obsessed with serving than they are with having leadership positions.

    • Margaret

      I agree with you in theory, but I wonder if it’s always a question of, “What can *I lead*?” My husband and I lead a small group mainly because we’ve asked that question, what can we do? But we have had a surprisingly diffucult time in conversations with friends who might be similarly able to start one. Not that we’re running around commissioning small groups with authority, but we’ve been surprised at the extreme amount of balking when we challenge those we know to get involved. It seems like it’s a double edged sword, on the one hand the pastor’s job isn’t to run around installing programs with leadership teams and begging for help with them, on the other, I’ve seen pastors go so far to the opposite extreme that no one knows how to help, what do to, or that they may even be needed. This goes for men and women. It’s likely hugely dependent on your individual church, and these internet conversations are tainted by years of personal histories, but I haven’t noticed too much of that kind of prideful response at my church, especially not from the women. Our flourishing, ably-led women’s ministry has consistent difficulty finding leaders to help with our weekly programs. The only reason I’ve led is because I’ve been specifically “pursued” to when it wasn’t even on my radar.

      • Jeremey

        Hi Margaret – I think you’re right that some of this (maybe much of this) will depend on the individual church culture. Part of my point was just to suggest that the reason for the widespread culture of “permissive” language among complementarians is that it may be the result of decades of a widespread pursuit of leadership questions by women. Even in some complementarian churches there can be a culture of “how much am I allowed to do?” rather than “how can I help?”. In other words, there is probably a rational explanation for why this language has a notable presence in the larger complementarian discussion. It hasn’t appeared out of thin air. It has grown from a soil that is saturated with leadership-oriented questions. My suggestion is that we make a concerted effort to cultivate a “helper” language and culture among our women, broadly speaking, and I think we will find that our women’s gifts will be more eagerly pursued. I also think the “permissive” language will die down. Church leaders will probably gravitate towards and utilize the gifts of women who offer open-handed help. They will probably tend to hesitate and start carefully qualifying their statements if they are responding to questions from women about leadership positions.

        • Tim

          Good insights on the basis of the word choices, Jeremy. I think too that it would help if we used different words than permit/pursue altogether. I’d rather we use words that track closer to Scripture. For example, what if we all talked about the way that Christ frees us to serve him or if leadership talked to people about exploring with them the freedom they have to serve in the body? Freedom in Jesus, and doing kingdom work. That’s what God has for us all.


    • Chancellor C. Roberts, II

      Jeremy, you said something that is really important: “What if the prevalent question from our sisters (and brothers) were not “can I lead”, but instead, ‘how can I serve the church?’ Would this not unleash an outpouring of ministry from women within our churches?”

      However, I think part of the problem is with how we understand the word “ministry.” Besides the extreme of wanting to attach it to pretty much everything, there’s the opposite extreme of “ministry” can only be done by “professionals” trained in cemetery and “ordained” by a denomination. And let’s not even get into the silliness of attaching the title “pastor” to everything done in the church (e.g. “children’s pastor,” “administrative pastor,” “music pastor,” maybe eventually the “janitorial pastor”). The word “ministry,” as used in the New Testament, simply means “service.” Thus, “ministry” is nothing more than the service we render to God and to the Church.

      So, when we’re talking about women in “ministry,” I think it’s really important that we clarify what we mean by that. The general understanding is that women in “ministry” means women who are in rebellion against God by presuming to teach or preach from the pulpit (or leading Bible studies or doing any other kind of teaching other than what is specifically identified for them in scripture) or presuming to be pastors or elders or so-called “worship leaders” (who are actually leading praise, not worship; worship, as that word is used in scripture, means to humble and prostrate yourself). Then there’s the idolatry of elevating the pastor’s wife above the other women by calling her “First Lady.”

      We need to reclaim the biblical use of the word “ministry” and scrap our modern use of it.

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  • Pastor Paul

    I see Wilkin’s strong and earnest desire to further spur complementarians on to needed forms of practical application of biblical doctrine. Brothers, we really do need to joyfully “pursue” our sisters, as we work alongside one another in Gospel ministry.

    With that said, I’m not so sure exchanging “permit” for “pursue” is the best way to encourage and exhort practical application.

    The Word of God is not up for word exchanging or replacement. While our various English Bibles have translated manuscripts of the original biblical languages using English synonyms to communicate the intended message, scholars are bound to do so with a careful hermeneutic. In other words, when Paul uses the Greek term epitrepo in 1 Timothy 2:12, he wrote epitrepo under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. The term is translated into English as “permit” “allow” or “suffer” depending on your version. Epitrepo literally means the Apostle Paul does not “turn to, transfer, commit, instruct to permit, allow, give leave to” a woman… No Greek scholar would ever translate epitrepo as “pursue.”

    It is indeed a slippery slope to start exchanging words in the Word of God especially if it’s done so in order to best fit our culture today. An extreme application of this would be to exchange Paul’s phrase of “Wives submit to your own husbands…” with “Wives partner with your own husbands…” It’s not that husbands and wives shouldn’t partner together in marriage, they obviously should! The Holy Spirit breathed out specific words to the human authors of Scripture.

    Wilkin writes, “I am not certain when it became common to speak of permitting rather than pursuing women to serve, but I admit that it grieves me. Yes, there is that well-worn verse in 1 Timothy, but it seems a shame to let one occurrence of a term dominate our language and practice. It may be that permission vocabulary persists because of the unfortunate woman-as-usurper stereotype that sometimes underlies complementarian thought.”

    The speech of “permitting rather than pursuing women to serve” was established when it was inspired by the Holy Spirit Himself back in 1 Timothy 2:12. And it is these antiquated, old-school, unaffected by cultural popularity, timeless, and “well-worn verses” that are God-breathed and profitable for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness.

    I do hope this article grabs the attention of men who are qualified and called to biblically lead our churches. Part of the reason why an article like needs to be written is due to the fact that male leadership in the church has not been actively pursuing godly women to work alongside in the ministry. Wilkin says, “It may be that permission vocabulary persists because of the unfortunate woman-as-usurper stereotype that sometimes underlies complementarian thought.” In short, the “permission vocabulary” persists and exists because God said it. And while the “woman-as-usurper stereotype” come and go, the greater onus lies on the men who are called to lead biblically and obediently to the One who called them. Part of leading biblically and obediently is lovingly partnering with our sisters in Christ.

    In other words, the problem is not semantics. The problem is a gross neglect of our sisters in the Lord and not seeing them as wonderful co-laborers in Gospel ministry. The Lord Jesus and the Apostle Paul are the best examples of applying 1 Timothy 2:12. They fully understood what it meant for them as men to permit women to minister. And they passionately applied this truth in their practical pursuit of women to co-labor alongside them in the ministry.

    Replacing or exchanging words of Holy Writ is not the answer. It’s the continual sanctification of our hearts and minds in this area of how biblical complementarian thinking plays out practically in ministry and in the home, that is needed most.

    • Jen Wilkin

      Hi Pastor Paul,

      I appreciate your thoughtful treatment of the post, and I am grateful that you, too want to see women valued in ministry.

      I want to reassure you that I would never suggest that we exchange or replace the words of scripture with the words of man to suit our inclinations. Like most complementarian women, I know exactly where the word “permit” comes from. I did not suggest that we exchange or replace it in 1 Timothy 2:12. I suggested that if we become too focused on a prohibition we tend to lose sight of the field for staring at the fence. My post does not question how scripture uses the term. Rather, it questions how we use the term. I would submit that semantics do matter: The words we choose to emphasize and the words we choose to de-emphasize almost always reveal something about what we value. It is important to know what is permitted (or not permitted), but it is equally important to know what is needful or commendable. Mine is a plea for us to reflect on where our emphasis lies.

      Thank you for your encouragement to male leaders to engage in “practical pursuit of women to co-labor alongside them in the ministry.” I can see that you understand the need, and that gives me a great deal of joy.

      Warm regards,
      Jen Wilkin

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