Christianity,  Complementarianism,  Egalitarianism,  Theology/Bible

Can Complementarianism include female associate pastors?

Someone recently asked me a question about complementarianism, and I thought it might be useful to share with readers more broadly the answer that I gave privately–especially in light of recent controversies in the Southern Baptist Convention concerning women serving as pastors. Here’s the question followed by my lightly edited answer.

Do you think complementarianism is a big enough tent to include those who restrict the office of elder/senior pastor to men but still allow women to serve in associate pastors roles?

From a normative perspective, I think the answer is clearly no. If we take The Danvers Statement as baseline complementarianism, it says that some governing and teaching roles are limited to men as qualified by scripture. If the office of pastor isn’t limited to men, then what office would be? Since there are only two offices and the New Testament makes no distinctions between senior and associate pastors, it would seem that all pastor/elder/overseers would need to meet biblical qualifications. If someone were to argue that associate pastors don’t need to meet biblical qualifications, on what biblical basis would senior pastors be required to meet all qualifications? Once you accept an exception for the one, it necessarily entails an exception for the other. So from a normative perspective, I would say no. Consistent complementarianism would not allow women to serve as pastors–senior, associate, or otherwise.

But the question is probably as much historical as it is normative. How has Danvers previously been understood and received by complementarians since the publication of Danvers in 1987? This question may be a little more complicated. Ironically, the Baptist Faith & Message (BF&M) is more narrow and specific than Danvers when it comes to the office of pastor. The BF&M identifies only two offices–elder/pastor/overseer and deacon. Danvers doesn’t name or enumerate any offices but rather limits women in terms of function: “some governing and teaching roles.” As I understand the history, the reason for the generic nature of the language is the inter-denominational representation involved with the founding of Danvers and CBMW. Stakeholders ranged from low church baptist (e.g., John Piper) to high church Anglican (e.g. J. I. Packer) and everything in between. So they chose language to accommodate a wide variety of ecclesiastical arrangements but that still reflected biblical parameters—most notably 1 Timothy 2:12, which also uses functional terminology without referring to office directly.

I have asked framers about the generic language before, and they say that they chose the language that they did in order to reflect scripture and to distinguish themselves from egalitarians. Egalitarians would accept no limitations on women teaching or exercising authority, while all complementarians would at the very least restrict some of those roles.

I don’t think any of the framers of Danvers were facing the exact same challenges in 1987 that we are facing now in 2024. They didn’t employ the generic language because they had in mind accommodating female associate pastors but not female senior pastors. That was a practice that became more widespread during the 2000’s and afterward, and then in many cases not for theological reasons but for pragmatic ones. More recently, folks like Sam Storms have tried to give a biblical and theological footing for appointing women as pastors within a complementarian framework. But again, these are newer developments that weren’t necessarily in the minds of the framers when they drafted the language.

Bottom line: Danvers’s emphasis on created order and its prohibition of women from governing and teaching necessarily imply that women cannot serve in a church office that requires teaching and governing men. And there is no question that pastoring requires shepherding men. Some people might then object, “Well then, Danvers allows for a woman to be a pastor so long as she doesn’t teach or govern men.” To which I would respond by pressing our denomination’s more specific confessional arrangements, which would preclude such a practice.

In the SBC, the Baptist Faith & Message only recognizes two offices within the church–pastor/elder/overseer and deacon. It also says that all pastors have to meet certain biblical qualifications. Notice that all pastors should meet these qualifications–senior, associate, or otherwise. The Bible doesn’t allow us to set aside biblical qualifications for pastors simply because we give a pastor an associate title. All pastors should be biblically qualified for the office, which means that all pastors should be men as qualified by Scripture.