Soft Complementarians: Holding to Headship and the Gifting of Women

The place of women serving, leading, and teaching in the Church is frequently a topic of discussion, seemingly heightened in 2023 as Christian denominations such as Christian and Missionary Alliance (CMA) and the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) have made national news over their discussions and decisions regarding the role of women in a local church. The CMA has adopted a “soft complementarian” position where women can be given the title of “pastor,” and the SBC has voted to disfellowship two churches for women serving in pastoral roles.

Churches making changes in how they have functioned and in what titles women hold has surely caused some of the debate, but the broader culture has also elevated the conversation by effectively linking discussions on race, women, and sexuality together. The culture essentially says, “If you advocate for one, you must advocate for all three. If you are for women and for minorities, then you must also be for affirming same-sex relationships.” Thus, some Christians who hold to a historical view of sexuality (that sex is God’s gift within the confines of a marriage between a man and woman) assume that if a Christian or a church has a view that women should exercise their spiritual gifts of leadership and teaching within the church, then the leader or church must be on a trajectory away from the Church’s historic position on sexuality.

The concern is not without merit, as denominations who have “gone affirming” moved to an egalitarian position first. Likewise, the “trajectory hermeneutic”—an approach to reading and studying the Bible that does not view the Scripture as having a final word but rather asks “where is the Bible going?” or “what is the trajectory of the Bible on this topic?”—is often applied to gender roles within a church before it is applied to sexuality.

While I am understanding and appreciative of the concern, it is inaccurate to say that all who believe women should lead and teach got there through a trajectory hermeneutic—as some hold tightly to the Word being complete and abhor the view that Scripture is not finished or authoritative. They also don’t adopt the culture’s view of race, women, and sexuality, but receive their conviction for all three from Scripture—that the Image of God is placed on every ethnicity and both genders and that the historic view of marriage must not be compromised because it is a beautiful metaphor of the gospel. Groups like the Wesleyans, denominations like the Church of God (Anderson), and many Pentecostal groups hold tightly to the historic position on sexuality and have women pastoring and preaching within their churches. They got to their position on “women in ministry” not because of the culture or because of a trajectory hermeneutic but because of passages like “your sons and daughters will prophesy” (Acts 2:17) and often their view of the Kingdom of God. One may disagree with their application of certain passages without accusing them of being on a slippery slope away from the counter-cultural convictions about sexuality that they faithfully hold. It is helpful to ask someone how they got where they are before assuming it was because of cultural compromise or a trajectory hermeneutic.

“How did you get there?” would also be a wise and gracious question to pose to the soft complementarian position.

“Soft complementarian,” as it is commonly called, is neither “complementarian” or “egalitarian”—the two views that are typically featured in the debates. Some prefer “broad, gift-based complementarian” to describe their position, and I use that term interchangeably with “soft complementarian.” I have pastored Mariners Church for the last five years, a church which has never been affiliated with a denomination and has held the same “soft complementarian” position for over three decades, a position deeply influenced by my predecessor’s mentor—none other than John Stott. (If these terms are new to you, the attached position paper could be helpful.)

Broad, gifted-based complementarian

In the debates between complementarians and egalitarians, the position of “soft complementarian” has often been misrepresented. I am not expecting to convince anyone to hold a soft complementarian position, as if I am going to introduce some new way of thinking or passage that has been overlooked. In times of debate, most of our views only get crystalized. I have read the thoughtful counterpoints to each point I will make by scholars I respect and can articulate them fairly and graciously. Instead of trying to convince you, I hope to help you understand and be able to articulate the soft complementarian position. Before you dismiss soft complementarianism as a middle-way attempt to appease both sides, please consider that John Stott and J.I. Packer might be called soft complementarians today. You may not agree with them, but it would be kind and generous to try and understand the viewpoint. I have joked that the only people who believe there is such a thing as a soft complementarian position are soft complementarians, since stronger complementarians view us as egalitarians who have gone too far, and egalitarians view us as complementarians who have not gone far enough.

What makes us complementarian?

In theology, the order of things matters so much. For example, someone who is reformed in their view of salvation believes regeneration comes before conversion and someone who is not reformed believes conversion happens before regeneration. When it comes to being a complementarian, a lot comes down to when male headship entered our world. An egalitarian believes male headship happened after the Fall or is even a product of the Fall. A complementarian believes male headship happened before the Fall: Eve coming from Adam’s side, Adam naming Eve, and the Apostle Paul rooting male headship in Genesis 2. We are complementarian because we believe in biblical headship—both in the home and the Church.

What makes us broad and gift-based?

Why put a qualifier in front of complementarian? We believe the spiritual gifts were given by God to His people to serve His body, the Church. When we read the lists of spiritual gifts in the Scripture, we don’t see any mention of gender. Women were given gifts of teaching, leadership, and exhortation to bless His people. And this is where soft complementarians diverge from other complementarians: we believe pastoring is a spiritual gift. When we read Ephesians 4:11-13 and see “pastors/teachers,” we believe women are able to use those gifts as we don’t see gender in that passage. We are broad, gift-based complementarians because we believe all spiritual gifts are given to both men and women.

But don’t all complementarians believe in both headship and spiritual gifts given to both genders? Yes, they do. Soft complementarians include all spiritual gifts listed in the Bible, such as pastoring and preaching, as gifts women receive and exercise for the whole body while still holding to biblical headship. This happens by dividing roles and gifts (such as separating the role of elder from the role of pastor or the gift of pastoring), rather than assuming they must always be combined.

Elders and pastors

Many of my narrow complementarian friends equate elder and pastor as the same role. They point to passages like 1 Peter 5:1-5 where the elders are encouraged to pastor/shepherd the people as evidence that the roles are the same. Soft complementarians point to Ephesians 4:11, where gender is not mentioned, as being the only place where “pastor” is in the noun form to describe a role, and that while elders must shepherd (verb form) people, their role as elder is different from the role of pastor. Meaning someone can be a pastor without being an elder just as someone can be an evangelist without being an elder. Similarly, an elder would also do the work of evangelism but not be an evangelist.

Soft complementarians often separate the role of pastor and elder into two distinct roles. In a soft complementarian context, women with the gift of pastoring and teaching and leading are encouraged to use those gifts under the leadership of the elders. Practically, being soft complementarian often means male headship is expressed in the role of husband at home and elder and senior pastor at church.

Separating elder and pastor (It is not only soft complementarians)

Some churches who insist elder and pastor are synonymous divide the two roles anyway; they just don’t give those doing the actual overseeing the title “elders” and may actually be more egalitarian in their structure than the soft complementarians they criticize of compromise. To be clearer, some churches who describe themselves as “complementarian because we only have male pastors” have pastors receive direction and accountability from a group of trustees or a personnel team consisting of men and women – meaning the headship in the church was placed in an egalitarian group of men and women. For all the emphasis on “pastor” and “elder” being the same office, there is a lot of oversight being conducted by non-pastors. Some churches who say the role of elder and pastor are synonymous have pastors on their church staff who are not elders and elders who are not pastors. There are other common inconsistencies too, such as a man in a youth ministry role being called pastor while his predecessor was a woman in the exact same role but was called director and neither of them were elders.

The inconsistencies in some narrow complementarian contexts are not the reasons for being soft complementarian, however. They must not be. The theological conviction of both headship and gifts to both genders that flows from the text must be what gets one to a soft complementarian position. And of the God-breathed text, what about? …

What about preaching and 1 Timothy 2:12?

Almost any time a woman preaches or teaches, someone will post on social media, “I do not allow a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; instead, she is to remain quiet” (1 Timothy 2:12) as a slam dunk on the church or the woman who has taught. Or to let us know, because surely, we just never read the passage! There are multiple interpretations of the passage held by scholars who believe the Scripture is inerrant.

  • The complementarians who view the role of elder, pastor, and bishop as synonymous, view the passage as a clear prohibition from women teaching in mixed church gatherings. There is debate among them as to what gathering this applies to: only Sunday worship services, large Sunday school classes with both men and women, all gatherings during the week, and if this applies to teenagers, etc.
  • Some soft complementarians believe the passage is connected to the role of elder. They believe since the following verses focus on the qualifications of an elder that “teaching with authority” is about the elders defining and declaring the doctrines of the church. The elders define and teach doctrine, and since women in the early church exhorted and prophesied (1 Corinthians 11:5), women can and should do so today under the leadership of the elders.
  • Other soft complementarians, including J.I. Packer, believe no one exercises 1 Timothy 2:12 today—that this was a command during the times of the apostles, that the Word is now complete, and that all of us who preach are simply applying and encouraging people in what has already been handed down once and for all from the apostles.

Soft complementarians aren’t eliminating the verse from their Bibles or merely articulating contextual differences; they have wrestled with and thought through that passage in light of the whole counsel of Scripture.

About my soft-complementarian friends

  • We disappoint people on both sides. Egalitarians think we are limiting women. Some complementarians think we have compromised Scripture. Both criticisms are a challenge to us because we champion women using their gifts and place women in significant ministry roles knowing the body of Christ is blessed. And we love the Scripture, believing it is breathed by God for our benefit.
  • We want to keep our position on women in ministry as secondary—in other words, we have gospel partnerships with those who differ. We are perplexed when some leaders joke about differing views on other secondary issues but go scorched Earth on this secondary issue. For example, some ministry leaders make jovial jokes about differing modes of baptism in the same style of banter one would employ talking smack over sports, yet declare someone with a different view on women in ministry to be a heretic or on a slippery slope to apostasy. I’m deeply thankful for committed complementarians and committed egalitarians who are preaching the gospel and doing good, gospel work. We long for our view on women in ministry to be rightly viewed as a secondary issue. Because of our desire to keep the topic secondary, we don’t write much, talk much, or post much about it.
  • At the same time, we know this discussion is really, really personal to gifted women. Yes, intellectually we know this doctrine is secondary. We long to keep it there, but we never want women to feel secondary. I have never had the experience of listening to people debate if I should be able to use gifts and in what settings. For a woman who is gifted to lead or teach, the discussion isn’t merely intellectual. It is very personal as she longs to steward her gifts for Christ and His Kingdom.
  • Most of the complementarians are kind to us. While the aforementioned is painful, it is a rarity. Most of the not-soft complementarians who disagree with our position appreciate our commitment to Scripture, our desire for consistency, and say, “Though I am not where you are, I see how you got there.”
  • We know we must be clear on sexuality. Because the culture has linked conversations about gender, minorities, and sexuality together and because we are viewed by many as being more “for women” than other viewpoints, the burden is on us to provide gracious clarity around God’s design for sexuality.
  • We believe our position is biblically faithful. We are not looking for a middle position to appease two different groups. We are looking to hold on to two clear biblical truths at the same time. We can’t let go of either male headship or women using their gifts in the whole body. This position allows us to hold both.
  • We hold our position humbly and happily. Some of us have been a stronger version of complementarian and struggled that we were not helping women use their gifts adequately enough. Some of us have been egalitarian and struggled to see headship as a result of the Fall in light of New Testament passages. Because we have moved into this position through reading, praying, and learning, we don’t feel we have it all figured out. Yet because we view the position as secondary, we aren’t overwhelmed by being less certain on this than we are on the atonement, the inerrancy of Scripture, the gospel, etc.

A personal word

Jesus called my mom to Himself when she made a New Year’s commitment to read through the Scripture. She didn’t get far before God rescued her in Mark 8:34. Because she was converted reading the Scripture, she found a church down the road in the New Orleans area that taught the Bible—a Southern Baptist church. We became the only ones in our extended family who went to a Baptist church. After God rescued me, in part because of the ministry of that church, He called me to preach and used the ministry of the Baptist Student Union at my college campus to do so. I received my master’s and doctoral degrees from Southern Seminary, a Southern Baptist institution, and I am profoundly grateful for the education I received. I served churches through the ministry of Lifeway Christian Resources, owned by the SBC, as senior vice-president for seven years and loved my time there. When I left Lifeway to become the Senior Pastor of Mariners, people asked me if I would ever write about why I left the SBC. I had never and still have never considered it. Moving to Southern California to serve Mariners was overwhelmingly about what God was calling me to, not about what I was leaving behind. In my mind I was not leaving friends. They are still friends. Nor was I leaving what I learned: to have a heart for people to meet Jesus and a conviction that the Bible is the sole authority for faith and practice.

Clearly, on a secondary issue (the role of women in the church), I was moving toward a different place for years and ultimately landed there, but that hasn’t changed my relationship with friends who are still in the SBC. Honestly, I wasn’t certain I was actually moving toward a different place, as many of my friends in the SBC believed the phrase in the Baptist Faith and Message (the doctrinal statement of the SBC) about the office of pastor being reserved for men was about the office of senior pastor—which I also believe as a soft complementarian. While in my roles within the SBC I submitted myself to my leaders and the doctrinal positions. Today, I don’t view my narrower complementarian friends as against women. Yes, I know some try to paint complementarians that way, and surely there are some who are, but my friends desire to see women flourish. And they don’t view me as against the Scripture. When we are together, we talk about primary doctrinal issues anyway, or about the joy of gospel ministry, our families, sports, or cigars.

What I appreciate about them is they articulate our position—the broad, gift-based complementarian position—as we ourselves would. They don’t hold us up as a straw man just to tear us down. Attached is our church’s position paper.