Tag Archives: Complementarianism

You Asked: Should Women Be Military Chaplains?

Editors’ note: Send your theological, biblical, and practical ministry questions to ask@thegospelcoalition.org along with your full name, city, and state. We’ll pass them along to The Gospel Coalition’s Council members and other friends for an answer we can share.

Jon S. from St. Louis writes,

I have a female complementarian friend who believes that it is not biblical for women to be pastors, but is considering becoming a military chaplain. Why would or why wouldn’t it be biblical for a women to become a military chaplain? What are the differences or similarities to the pastoral office?

We asked Mark Coppenger to answer the question. Coppenger is a professor of Christian apologetics and vice president for extension education at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. A retired infantry officer, Coppenger is the son of a naval chaplain and son-in-law of an army chaplain.


To this question, my own Southern Baptist denomination says no, though, for a season, it took the other tack. The change came after the 2000 update of our doctrinal statement, the Baptist Faith and Message, which now reads, “While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.”

army-chaplainSimilar circumstances and convictions led earlier to the formation of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, whose Danvers Statement declares, “In the church, redemption in Christ gives men and women an equal share in the blessings of salvation; nevertheless, some governing and teaching roles within the church are restricted to men.”

The SBC’s sticking point was ordination to the gospel ministry, required by the military, but denied for women by the vast majority of SBC churches, who expressed their convictions on the subject as early as 1984. A resolution urged that churches not be swayed “by modern cultural, sociological, and ecclesiastical trends or by emotional factors,” and, encouraged, in light of biblical authority, “the service of women in all aspects of church life and work other than pastoral functions and leadership roles entailing ordination.”

Women in the Ranks

Be that as it may, don’t we need women chaplains to minister to the influx of women in the ranks? This might be more compelling if these women chaplains were assigned to women only—sister to sister. But that would be an unacceptable to the military and non-military politicians in charge. They insist that “a chaplain is a chaplain is a chaplain.”

Of course, base chapels aren’t real churches with member rolls and discipline. As one chaplain put it, they serve more as missionaries than pastors, “performing or providing” religious counsel as needed to the various groups in their zone of ministry—more like drinking fountains to which thirsty personnel may come to drink at their leisure than parents who say, “Drink your milk.”

But I believe this description understates reality. According to Army Regulation 165-1 (Army Chaplain Corps Activities), chaplains’ job description includes the “conduct of worship,” performance of “rites, sacraments, and ordinances,” and the “conduct of marriages, burials, baptisms, confirmations, blessings, daily prayers, and other required religious ministrations.” And while they are often called upon to do more generic duty pertaining to troop and family welfare (e.g., next-of-kin notification; substance abuse counseling), they are unmistakably charged to act as de facto pastors for many of the faithful. And for this work, the Army insists on pastor-level ordination. This arrangement has been in place for 40 years, with the appearance of Christian, Jewish, Hindu, and Buddhist women chaplains, some rising to the rank of admiral and general.

Some Christian groups are more sanguine than others over endorsement. Army Chaplain Arlene Williams found her way from the Baptist fellowship of her youth to the Church of God, more open to women preachers. She had some early disappointments: “I would hear, I’ll send my females over to you, but they didn’t understand that I was there to provide guidance for males and females.” But things got better at a new post, where she was looking forward to her first preaching stint to the troops. She enthused, “We need more women chaplains. . . . Women are nurturers by nature, and we can nurture women and men in faith. I encourage all females who are interested in being a female chaplain to just do it. It’s a very fulfilling ministry.”

Band of Sisters

Yet nurturing doesn’t tell the whole story, as Chaplain Delana Small well knows. A graduate of Evangel College, she’s endorsed by the Assemblies of God. At present, she serves with an all-male battalion of the 101st in Afghanistan. She joins many other military women who have served with distinction in Iraq and Afghanistan, some of whose stories are told in Kirsten Holmstedt’s book Band of Sisters. She offers inspiring accounts of women in harm’s way, often at loss of limb and life. But the question lingers, “Why are they there in the first place?”

In some instances, their presence is arguably essential, as with nurses, who’ve served in the wartime tradition of Florence Nightingale, “The Lady with the Lamp” in the Crimean War. Even then, we need to recognize the cost. Navy Lieutenant Estrella Salinas left two children behind, “well aware she could be killed and her children could be left motherless.”

Whatever case one might make for the need for women nurses in war, there is no corresponding military case for women chaplains. There are plenty of evangelical male ministers to go around, and since “a chaplain is a chaplain is a chaplain,” the men are capable of pastoral care and leadership for both genders, just as they are in the churches. To the social engineers, it doesn’t matter. To Christian men and women, it certainly should.

Don’t Mess With Her, Man

Male leadership in the church and the home is designed by God to be characterized by tender strength, courageous protection, and self-giving devotion. Male authoritarianism is about neither. Indeed, it’s a pathetic distortion that broadcasts a gospel lie (Eph. 5:32).

Today is the United Nations International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, a fitting occasion to rehearse some of God’s thoughts on the matter. As it turns out, he has quite a lot to say about (and to) the sort of men who would ever dare harm their brides. Consider just a sampling:

“Husbands, love your wives, and do not be harsh with them” (Col. 3:19).

“Likewise, husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered” (1 Pet. 3:7).

“But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. For people will be lovers of self . . . proud, arrogant, abusive . . . heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people” (2 Tim. 3:1-5).

“Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful. . . . Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Cor. 13:4-7).

“Now the works of the flesh are evident . . . enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God” (Gal. 5:19-21).

“Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Eph. 4:29-32).

“Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord'” (Rom. 12:17-19).

“Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up of her. . . . In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church” (Eph. 5:25, 28-29).

“[The] LORD was witness between you and the wife of your youth, to whom you have been faithless, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant. Did he not make them one, with a portion of the Spirit in their union? And what was the one God seeking? Godly offspring. So guard yourselves in your spirit, and let none of you be faithless to the wife of your youth” (Mal. 2:14-16).

“Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (James 1:19-20).

“[The LORD’s] soul hates . . . the one who loves violence” (Ps. 11:5).

That last verse is particularly scary, isn’t it? You’d think it would simply say God hates violence. Instead, it says God hates the violent. He hates wife-beaters.

No matter how it’s spun, abusing women is unacceptable. Always. No asterisks.

God calls husbands to love their wives (Col. 3:19; Eph. 5:25, 33), to enjoy them (Eccl. 9:9), to understand them (1 Pet. 3:7), to honor them (1 Pet. 3:7), to nourish them (Eph. 5:29), to cherish them (Eph. 5:29), to provide for them (1 Tim. 5:8), to praise them (Prov. 31:28), and, well, you get the point.

Brothers, may the Lord deliver us from ever tolerating a pugnacious coward who would dare damage one of his beautiful image-bearers.

Women Around the World

A mere 314 million of the world’s more than 7 billion inhabitants live in the United States. Under God’s sovereign care the world enjoys myriad cultures and subcultures, varying governments and authorities. God is creative. God himself is diverse in his nature as three in one (Gen 1:26). And as man made in his image began to fill the Earth, and sinned against him by striving to make a name for ourselves (Gen 11), we too became diverse and distinct from one another.

Yet God has given us one Word, translated in many languages and versions. Scripture contains the very words of God (Ps 19:7; 1 Thess 2:13). For “all Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim 3:16-17). God doesn’t say that Scripture is only useful to certain people or certain cultures. The Word of God has authority over all people. The Word is useful for every tribe and tongue.

In light of God’s beautiful diversity, I asked a few women how God’s Word and their culture affect the application of Scripture as it relates to femininity. Here is a taste of how they responded according to their singular experiences in varied cultures.


Joanna Mathew, Indian, lives in Dubai

What is your culture like in regards to male/female relationships and interactions?

Joanna Mathew: India is a diverse country with many different cultures. So my answers may not be true of all Indians but are based on my own experience. Typically, Indians are very conservative when it comes to interactions between single men and women. For example, I went to a girl’s school, and we weren’t allowed to interact with the boys from the boy’s school. It is typically forbidden to date, and marrying for love (as opposed to an arranged marriage) is sometimes frowned upon. This is because sexual purity is held in very high regard and not because the Indian culture places a low value on love.

Within marriage, the man is the dominant partner. Obedience to the husband and respect for his family are prized virtues in the Indian culture. In some families, women are esteemed and treated really well, whereas in others they are considered second-class citizens and are treated poorly. The latter attitude has changed a lot in recent years as women are being empowered.

When you became a Christian, was the concept of being equal in personhood but assigned different roles new to you? What about submission? Was that a new concept?

JM: I am fortunate in that my culture has set me up well to accept the teachings of Scripture. I never found it unusual that women were to submit to their husbands or be their helpers. I was surprised, though, to find that God designed these roles; they aren’t just something we came up with. I was also amazed to learn that God modeled them after the relationship between Christ and the church. It helped me understand the importance of honoring these roles.

Even though submission was not a new concept for me, I realized that the reason a Christian wife submits to her husband is very different to the reason a non-Christian wife does. In my culture, women tend to submit because of fear, social pressure, weakness, or just because it is what they have always known. A Christian woman submits to her husband because God asks it of her and because her marriage is modeled after the intimate relationship between Christ and the church. She submits to her husband because God first loved her in Christ, and she does it by the power of the Holy Spirit.

My mom taught me how a submissive wife doesn’t mean a passive wife, but one who actively seeks good for her family and respectfully spurs her husband on to growing in Christ-likeness. My father loved my mother deeply in ways that, even as children, we could see and appreciate. My mother has struggled with her health for many years, and through all that time, he made innumerable sacrifices to care for us. He never complained but was always strong, kind, and encouraging. His example of self-sacrificial leadership really brought the Scriptures to life for me.

Is there anything about biblical femininity that you find difficult? Any due to your background or culture?

JM: I find Peter’s exhortation about inner beauty in 1 Peter 3:3-4 both wonderful and very challenging. When I first read this passage I was struck by how many years I had spent desiring more physical beauty without a thought to inner beauty. My struggle is further compounded by the fact that I live in the consumer center of Asia, where only your outer self matters. A quiet and gentle spirit is often misunderstood to mean weak and timid. While this is a challenge, I am surrounded in church by women who are truly beautiful on the inside and whose lives are a wonderful picture of the gospel, and that really motivates me to work hard at my inner beauty.

I have also struggled with what Scripture says about only men teaching in church. This has more to do with my personality than my background. I love teaching, and I feel that God has given me some gifts to be able to do so. Again, I have been encouraged by other women in my church who have put their ability to teach to good use by leading women’s groups and retreats and teaching children. This has really helped me find a place where I can be useful and also respond well to male leadership in my church. And over time I have come to really appreciate and understand God’s wisdom in setting men up as the leaders of the body.


Yvette Knight, Jamaican, African descent, lives in New York City

Tell me about your upbringing.

Yvette Knight: I was raised in a very strict, religious, God-fearing home. I went to church and to Sunday school. At the time, Jamaica was considered a religious country. Dancing, drinking, and wearing makeup were not considered the “Christian” thing, and so there was none of that as part of my upbringing.

My mother raised me. She was a single mom and worked to raise two women. Having her as an example made it easier for me to see women outside of the very traditional cultural role of my upbringing.

What is your culture like in regards to male/female relationships and interactions?

YK: As it relates to gender roles, the Jamaican culture was very traditional. Men are considered to be the leaders and the head. Men were the breadwinners, and women had the responsibility of taking care of the home and the children.

What are your thoughts on the roles of men and women from Scripture?

YK: Because I am a complementarian, there is nothing about biblical femininity that I find difficult. My understanding of my position (as a woman) in Christ was very liberating.


Maria Rosales, Latina, lives in Tennessee

What is your culture like in regards to male/female relationships and interactions? 

Maria Rosales: Latino culture is very traditional when it comes to gender roles. Men are to work to provide for the home, and women are the caregivers and homemakers. Women serve their husbands and their children. Men are tough, dominant, and supposed to be “machos.” Three of my sisters and my mom have been stay-at-home moms who care for their children and care for their home. I remember one time, my brother in law told me I should be in the kitchen instead of going to school. There is no basis or reason for this other than culture and what is expected of male and females.

Have you ever experienced patriarchy? 

MR: No, but I have been part of a matriarchy. As an environmentalist working for a nonprofit on clean energy issues, our organization was run by women (not on purpose, but everyone was proud of it). The youth climate movement sees itself as the next great social movement (following women’s rights and civil rights movements). We had readings and discussions about anti-oppression, equality, and how to dismantle institutionalized oppression, which includes sexism. It was a great opportunity to see how progressive views differ from biblical views of issues like these.

When you became a Christian were women’s roles a new concept? 

MR: It was new, but exciting. I’ve seen women under complete submission, and I’ve seen women take on leadership roles and do it all. Christian women’s roles were refreshing, exciting, and different than anything I’d seen before. After seeing women in our church live out their calling, this new view of women’s roles became irresistible to me.

I found it freeing after understanding this is the way God designed it to be. Environmental culture told me women need to strive for equality. God’s Word says we are already equal because we’re made in his image. Latino culture told me women should submit and serve for no reason. God’s Word says women are to submit and serve the leadership of their husbands just as the church submits to Christ. The Word of God is the perfect balance between two extremes with the right justification.


Jane Doe*, Chinese, lives in the Southern United States

(Jane Doe is anonymous to protect her parents, who are missionaries in a closed country.)

Tell us about your background.

Jane Doe: My father was a pastor and held a day job working for a Christian publishing company. He traveled all around the world for his job and for mission work—more frequently the older I got. My mother was a stay-at-home mom. Much of her time was dedicated to her family and the church.

Did you have a model for womanhood growing up?

JD: My model was my mother. She always stood by and supported my dad, and never seemed to miss a morning reading her Bible. She is loving, generous towards others, humble, stretched every dollar, and prayed fervently—God has always been the main vision and guide in her life.

What is your culture like in regards to male/female relationships and interactions?

JD: The traditional view of Chinese culture is that men are the head of the household; they more valued than women. Familial wealth, status, and power would be passed down through men. I know there have been many changes since the Cultural Revolution, so this isn’t as widespread as it used to be. Women have gained more rights and value and are seen as more equals to men.

Have you found the application of the Word as it relates to womanhood to be easy or difficult? 

JD: As a college student and a newlywed, I saw submission as a bending of my will, ideas, independence, and person to someone else completely; that my every choice and act in life would be determined by my spouse. I saw biblical femininity as being a woman restricted in clothing choice, volume of voice, freedom to speak one’s thoughts, and finding joy only in a clean and pleasant home, home-cooked meals, and child-rearing.

At some point after being newly married, I gave my struggles over to God. Since submission and leadership were in the Bible, I knew they were good things, but wasn’t sure how they should look in my marriage and life. I asked God to change my heart. I could never change my heart on my own, and I wasn’t sure what to believe. I knew that God could transform my heart, help me to see clearly, and guide me.

Now, after seven years of marriage, femininity and submission do not feel restrictive or a list of do’s and don’ts. In our marriage there is an easy rhythm in the ways I submit and my husband leads. I assume that submission and leadership look different in every family. In our family, I trust and respect my husband’s judgment in our family’s big life-changing decisions. I feel able to disagree or share my thoughts and know that he will listen and guide our family according to my opinions and desires as well. He does not order my every act and daily task as I might have thought these roles would’ve looked like. I put him first before myself, and he also puts me first before himself. Within striving to be a godly example of biblical submission and femininity, there is not a list of wrongs and rights that I must keep in order to be deemed as godly. No more confusion and legalism, instead I seek to love God and my husband.


Women’s roles can look different for someone in India or New York City than for someone in Nashville or Dallas. God’s Word, rather than bending to context, challenges every culture. Nevertheless, these varying cultures, when submitted to the Word, can and do look differently while remaining faithful to the Bible.

Isn’t Scripture Enough for the Gender Debate?

Gerald Hiestand recently wrote a review of How I Changed My Mind About Women in Leadership (Zondervan) for The Gospel Coalition. He makes the point that the book serves “a useful purpose for complementarians who desire to better understand the existential angst that drove their egalitarian brethren beyond the complementarian fold.” His takeaway is four suggestions as to how complementarians can address that “existential angst.”

The common objection raised against Hiestand’s review was, “Do we need to address the egalitarian existential dilemma? Isn’t Scripture enough?” For Protestants, that’s a fair question. Scripture is sufficient and, for complementarians, it is clear about matters concerning women in ministry. However, the existential dilemma for egalitarians is real and complementarians should not be too dismissive.

Let me clarify what I mean by “existential dilemma.” I don’t have in mind the angst of Jean Paul Sartre, but rather, that complementarianism is unsatisfying to egalitarians. It doesn’t make sense of reality to some. A woman could say, “I am gifted at teaching and preaching. Why would God give me these gifts and desires if I’m not supposed to use them? There must be a different explanation for the restrictive passages in the Bible.” Or there’s the argument that, “Evangelicals have been on the wrong side of justice issues before, such as slavery. How are we sure that we’re not on the wrong side of the women-in-ministry debate?” Pastors should take these concerns seriously and labor to answer them appropriately.

I find John Frame’s “tri-perspectivalism” helpful here. For Frame, knowledge has three perspectives to it: the normative perspective, situational perspective, and existential perspective.

  1. The normative perspective asks, “What do God’s norms [the Bible] direct us to believe?”
  2. The situational perspective asks, “What are the facts?”
  3. The existential perspective asks, “What belief is most satisfying to a believing heart?”

According to Frame (and I think he’s right), “You can’t have one perspective without the others, and with each, you will have the others.” All three perspectives are interdependent.

Now let’s adapt this to the discussion of women in ministry. For complementarians, we believe that God directs us by his Word to restrict women from particular ministry positions (normative). We believe it makes sense of how God created us, both male and female (situational). And assuming that we happily hold to this position, it’s satisfying (existential). We should conform our worldview and feelings around the Word of God—the norm above all norms. But, as with the examples above, one perspective can affect the other two since they are dependent upon each other. A situational perspective can dramatically affect the way the we interpret Scripture, a normative perspective. Therefore, our arguments—especially for pastors—should be persuasive to the situational and existential perspective, as well as the normative.

If we believe complementarianism is biblical, then we can trust that complementarianism makes sense of reality and can be satisfying to believing hearts. To borrow an illustration David Powlison uses for biblical counseling, making the case for complementarianism to another is like jazz. Jazz demands the ability to improvise around a “call-and-response” pattern to a composition. It’s not chaos. It’s centered around one reality—one musical reality—as it bobs and weaves. In the same way, we shouldn’t be scared to move the discussion beyond biblical imperatives, bobbing and weaving from one perspective to the next, knowing full well that each is a perspective of the same reality of God’s design. We can be compelling about interpretive matters in Scripture, as well as to the matters of the human heart. Complementarians are strong on Scripture—praise God for it—but we often perform poorly as we move from the normative perspective to the situational and existential perspectives.

Below are ways, especially for pastors, that might help us think more clearly about the situational and existential realities of our listeners:

  1. Be mindful that there may be women listening to you who have been abused by their husbands or there may be some who have watched their mothers be mistreated by their fathers. A complementarian vision for the family and local church can often times feel like a knife in the ribs. Any argument for authority will sound like a breeding ground for abuse cases. We should be mindful that there are some who may need complementarianism packaged more sensitively. We must not only be mindful of such listeners, but defend them against the abusers. Abuse is horribly sinful and church leaders should actively defend the abused. To be complacent in such matters is grievous. However, complementarianism can be very compelling when men defend the helpless.
  2. We should understand that more and more Christians, especially in the last 20 years, have grown up in local churches where women are in explicit or functional leadership. Or they grew up in homes where the father hasn’t faithfully led his family, leaving much of the decision making and leadership to the wife. Egalitarianism makes perfect sense of their reality and such interpretations of Scripture can seem very compelling. As pastors bring Scripture to bear upon the hearts and lives of such people, keeping these situations in mind can help make a case for complementarianism more persuasive.
  3. I remember sitting with 60,000 other college students, enthralled by the life-changing message of “Don’t Waste Your Life” by John Piper at Passion OneDay 2000 in Memphis, Tennessee. I had never heard anyone preach like that. Like most young Christians, Piper had a huge impact on me. I picked up as many of his books as I could, including Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, which he edited with Wayne Grudem. I can’t imagine that book having the same impact on me without Piper already having affected my life in other areas. So I’m sympathetic to those who shape their views on women in ministry based on someone else’s view—a pastor or author—who has helped shape so many other areas of their lives. We should not be so quick to accuse them of not taking the Bible seriously. To be sure, we should bring the Bible to bear on them, all the while being careful not to undermine the impact someone else has had on their life (in other ways) for good.
  4. Some just need to see it worked out in the life of the church. They need to see that women can joyfully submit to the leadership of their husbands and their pastors. They need to see men who are faithful and kind, strong and loving, courageous and humble in leading their family. For some, consistently watching faithful Christians delighting in God’s design finally causes an “It works!” reaction.

Let’s be quick to recognize that the hangups people often have with complementarianism aren’t just interpretive issues. Unfortunately, they often are more complicated and time-consuming than a rumble over Ephesians 5 or 1 Timothy 2. But the slow plodding, patient appealing, and faithful example will often bear much fruit.