Relationships can be difficult. One of the perennial issues for humans is how to relate as men and women. These conversations have changed over time, but they have not gotten any easier. For Christians, there is a deep conviction that God has made us male and female, equal but distinct. This is good. But what does it mean for this deep conviction to be realised in our practical life? In this episode of the CCL podcast, we explore how we might embrace complementarianism with Priscilla & Aquila Centre Director and Moore College lecturer Jane Tooher.
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Runtime: 28:03 min.
Please note: This transcript has been edited for readability.
Chase Kuhn: Relationships can be difficult. One of the perennial issues for humans is how to relate as men and women. These conversations have changed over time, but they have not gotten any easier. For Christians, there is a deep conviction that God has made us male and female, equal but distinct. This is good. But what does it mean for this deep conviction to be realised in our practical life? Today on the podcast, we explore how we might embrace complementarianism.
CK: Hello and welcome to the Centre for Christian Living podcast. My name is Chase Kuhn. I’m coming to you from Moore Theological College in Sydney, Australia. Today, I’m very glad to have on the podcast my dear friend Jane Tooher.
Jane is a fellow colleague of mine here at Moore College. She lectures in ministry and church history, and she directs one of our partner centres: the Priscilla & Aquila Centre. Jane, so nice to have you today.
Jane Tooher: Thank you so much for having me, Chase! It’s great to be here.
CK: It’s a such a joy. I see you every day at work Laughter and it’s great to be doing this podcast together.
Jane, tell us just briefly about the Priscilla & Aquila Centre and what it seeks to do.
JT: So the Priscilla & Aquila Centre assumes a position of complementarity. Moore College has gender complementarity as one of its official values. It’s really looking at how we can think about that in practice. So the Centre does work on the key passages and other parts of Scripture, but I think a lot of work has been done on that. This is really thinking more the application end of complementarianism. How can we be encouraging women in various biblically appropriate ministries? But also trying to think really seriously and creatively how men and women can partner together.
CK: That’s great: partnership between men and women is so crucial to the health of the local church.
What is complementarianism?
CK: Complementarity might be a foreign concept to some. It’s a concept that’s been around for decades now in its terminology, but in theory, it’s been around for a very long time. How do you explain what complementarianism is to people who may be unaware
JT: Yes, so it is a debated term and some people think it’s past it’s “used by” date, because it’s become more controversial for some. I would just say that it means that men and women are created equal, but God hasn’t created us exactly the same. I can bring something that a guy can’t bring, and vice versa, just by very nature of our sex. That’s really important. He’s given us each other for the building of the church and for the spread of the gospel. We complement each other in that—in marriage, in friendships, in ministering together, in all of life. God didn’t just create one male or two males; he created male and female. We’re created in the image of God to glorify him together.
CK: That’s excellent.
Complementarianism and personal background
CK: You’ve just finished a book on this—a book that’s just been published called Embracing Complementarianism. You wrote it with a mutual friend of ours: Graham Beynon in the UK. Hello, Graham, if you’re listening! We miss you and hope you’re doing well there.
One of the things that you address in that book is some of the problems that people have with biblical complementarity and, I suspect, a lot it issues out of misunderstandings. Some of the things that you address, rightly so, is you say that nobody comes to this cold. Everybody has a personal history—that is, I myself as a man have a history of relationships with women, a history of social contexts where I’ve seen relationships between men and women play out, certain expectations that have developed around that. You as a woman have similar things. Maybe somebody we know, or maybe you or others, have been mistreated, etcetera. None of us comes into it cold. How do you think personal history colours this?
JT: Yeah, I think personal history has a lot to do with it, depending on our own personal histories. In one sense, like a lot of other issues, we have to come and sit under God’s word and see what God is saying to us. His word is not just right, but it’s good, it’s freeing and it’s best for us.
I think we need to be honest with ourselves about how our background, for good or bad, has formed us and played into us. We can overreact against our background and go too much the other way, whether it be too conservative or much, much less conservative. I think it helps just being honest about ourselves and realising what’s formed us, what family background we’ve had, what church background we’ve had, and what educational philosophies we’ve had.
For some of my girlfriends, they went to schools where they were told they can rule the world—do everything. They can have everything. Motherhood was seen as “Yeah, be a mother, but don’t spend much time at home at all. Earn heaps of money as well. Do everything.” So I think if that’s been your norm, that’s very different to someone else with a much more, say, conservative background. Both those backgrounds have good in them, and also potentially some weaknesses and bad things in them. So keep weighing up our personalities and our backgrounds with what Scripture is saying.
CK: That’s so helpful and it’s such a hard process to constantly be reforming ourselves under God’s word. I guess that’s a prayerful process and a patient process, and one in which we have to be humbly submitting ourselves to the Scriptures and doing that in community, listening with other people. I love the way that you’ve encouraged us to just keep on thinking about life, where we are bringing all of life under the Scriptures.
JT: It’s hard to be objective about yourself. Because this is an issue that is such a part of who we are—because it’s part of our very essence and our being—it can be hard to talk about it objectively. We can’t really, to a certain extent, because it is talking about what it means to be male and what it means to be female. So being real with God and being prepared to sit under his word, but trusting Christian brothers and sisters to speak hard truths to us and being willing to listen to them as well is, I think, in the end, ultimately good for us. It might be painful at first, but ultimately it’s good for us.
CK: Yes, all of us have blind spots, don’t we. We’re all culturally formed. I’ve been privileged to live in three very distinct contexts for extended periods of time—even more than that if I count less extended periods of time. I’ve lived in Los Angeles, in the American South and now in Sydney. In each of those places, I have noticed very distinctive ways where men and women relate differently, and the societal expectations about what constitutes masculinity or femininity. I think your book is very wise in helping us to be aware that we have to disentangle some of the cultural expectations from what biblical expectations are. Even those of us who have maybe been in Christian circles in those contexts, we may have had more colouring from the culture around us than we actually have from the Scriptures. So it’s a really difficult process to discern the truth in that.
JT: Yeah, so we can assume, “Okay, that’s complementarian” when we haven’t necessarily done the hard work in Scripture on ourselves. So we just go along with our tradition or our experience or what we think is right. But is it actually what Scripture is saying? Are we saying more than what Scripture is saying? Are we saying less? Are we saying contrary to what Scripture is saying? So I think for any of us, we need to keep going back. I think also as part of our personalities, or as part of our sinful nature, we may think, “Oh, we like doing it this way”. But is it actually what God’s word is saying?
CK: That’s so helpful.
Complementarianism and traditionalism
CK: You challenge us in the book around culture, and you say that there’s a real danger of traditionalism. You say,
Traditionalism means that we always run with the decisions of the past, and our practice is never really questioned or re-examined. … At its worst, traditionalism excuses us from ever developing convictions of our own.1
JT: Yeah, that’s the business of life and also the safety. We want to be doing the right thing. We don’t want to disobey God. So we just keep on doing the same old, same old. It takes a lot more effort and energy to do hard work on the Scriptures, and also to be thinking creatively about how we can be living out the different gifts that men and women have in our congregations—how we can be using them much more fully. That takes a lot more effort. It’s just comfortable and easy to keep on being traditional, in whatever that tradition is.
When I say that word, it can sound like I’m meaning “conservative” and “old-fashioned”. But your tradition may be hip and happening, and you may have been doing that for years. We need to just keep coming back to Scripture.
CK: There is a laziness on both sides, isn’t there. The kind of traditionalism we would see in the old-fashioned, you might paint it as super conservative or even maybe fundamentalist, or whatever people might envision “traditionalism” being, which is lazy in on its own. It’s because you’re inheriting something, not thinking hard for yourself. You’re just doing what you’ve been told forever.
Not all of that is bad, of course, because you hope that people ahead of you or before you have actually thought hard about the Scriptures and taught you these things. But there is another laziness on the other side, where there is the progressive nature of the culture around us that we feel we must embrace. That’s lazy in its own way too, because it’s not filtering what is being told to us from the world through the Scriptures either.
JT: Yeah, exactly. Both are lazy in that sense. You’re exactly right, Chase! Again, it comes down to our doctrine of Scripture: we really do believe in the clarity of Scripture. That doesn’t mean that things aren’t hard in Scripture. But we will be able to know what it means, because of the character of God—that he reveals his word to us. He wants us to be able to be obedient to him. It’s on each one of us to keep looking at Scripture and seeing what it means, particularly if you’re in leadership in church. If you’re an under-shepherd of God’s flock, you have a real responsibility to work out what God’s word is saying about the ministries of men and women—about men and women more generally—and to teach your flock what that actually means and refute error on this topic as well, just like you would on any other issue.
It’s a responsibility, but it’s also a great joy, because when we do the hard work and look at what God is saying, we potentially break from those traditions that we’ve been having and realise, “Oh, we could be doing so much more than what we’re doing!” Or maybe some of the things that we have been doing, we shouldn’t be doing, and we need to stop, because it’s not actually for the church’s good or for our good.
Why you should do the hard work
CK: One of the things I really like about your book is so often around college, where you and I teach, and in churches we visit, or people you correspond with, people are looking for quick and ready answers. They just say, “Tell me what I need to do. Tell me what I cannot do.” They’re always looking for the boundary lines so that they can colour within them. In one sense, that’s fair enough: they want to be faithful. But again, it’s that temptation to not do the hard work. So what I love in your book is that you encourage people to do the work.
You do set them up, I think, for success in that work—both methodologically: you tell them how to go about doing that work, but you also give some pretty clear direction on some key passages that I think are very useful, as you and Graham work through those sections of the Scriptures.
But why is it that you avoid giving people ready-made answers about what to do and not to do?
JT: A student just the other day said, “I read your book and I was wanting the answer to ‘Can I lead a Bible study group?’ and then you didn’t give me the answer. You made me try and work out the answer myself!”
Why? It comes back again to the doctrine of Scripture and who God is. You’re an adult: you can work this out yourself. So it’s treating people seriously and it’s making them responsible before God. I’m not the Pope. I’m not going to just tell you what you should do. It’s not a cult. I’m not going to tell you what to think. It’s treating people with respect, but actually making them responsible before God. You can know things and really delight in Scripture yourself.
I don’t think you’re actually going to be really convinced about a position until you’ve done the hard work yourself. You’re not going to really know the depths and the joys of it. I might hear a truth be told to me and then I might share that with someone else. But if I haven’t actually done the hard work myself, I’m not completely convinced of it. Then how long will I hold that position if people challenge me on it? Am I really convinced about why I hold that position?
I think we can hold positions because someone has told us something, and we don’t necessarily hold it with joy. We just hold it because “Oh yeah, we think this is right. We’ve been told it’s true. It’s right.” I think us doing the hard work ourselves means we end up following the normal pattern of the Christian life: we move from that trusting and obedience to actual joy, and that leads to sharing it with others. So I think if we do the hard work ourselves, we’re much more likely to share it with others, because we get it on a much deeper level.
With this issue, I think that’s definitely the case: the more hard work we do on it, the more we realise complementarianism is not just “Oh, women shouldn’t be presbyters”. It’s not as narrow as that. It’s actually massive and it’s not just talking about the key passages that we may go to, like 1 Corinthians 11, 14, 1 Timothy 2, and so on. It’s all the “one another” commands. It’s how Jesus relates to women throughout the Gospels. It’s so much. So much can help us.
CK: Yeah. We can easily get bogged down, otherwise, in the debates, rather than embracing a much bigger, broader, more wonderful view.
CK: I love that. That’s just good teaching method.
CK: As we take a break from our program, I want to direct your attention to a few resources to help you as you continue to think about men and women in the church together.
The first is the new book that we’ve been speaking about today by Jane Tooher and Graham Beynon, entitled Embracing Complementarianism: Turning Biblical Convictions into Positive Church Culture. The book is recently published by The Good Book Company, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. In fact, you can read my review of the many strengths of the book on the Moore College website.
Second, while you’re on the Moore College website, you can click on the link to the Priscilla & Aquila Centre, or go there directly at paa.moore.edu.au. Jane Tooher serves as the Director of the centre, which seeks to provide resources to encourage the ministries of women in partnership with men. There you’ll find a wealth of media that should help you and your church as you seek to embrace complementarianism.
I encourage you to register for our final live event in 2022. As we conclude our series of events looking at “Commanding the heart” in Matthew 5, we’ll look at the topic of vengeance. From the dawn of time, systems of justice have demanded recompense for wrongs. The most fundamental systems have been kind for kind—that is, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a life for a life, and so on. In fact, this sort of rudimentary justice system is biblical and lies at the foundation of much of the law in Scripture. But in the Kingdom, Jesus tells us that there is no room for vengeance. Indeed, life in the Kingdom demands forbearance and forgiveness.
What does this mean for us practically? Is there any justice? I invite you to join us on October 19 as Dr Andrew Errington leads us to discover how Jesus transforms our expectations and pursuits of justice, and leads us away from vengeance. Head over to ccl.moore.edu.au to register.
Now let’s get back to our program.
The importance of church leaders forming position papers
CK: One of the things you’ve encouraged in your book is for churches to develop a position paper. You’ve run with a particular church polity in the book, something that’s familiar especially within Graham’s circles in particular, looking at church eldership and how eldership might form up a position paper. Broadly speaking, though, you say, if not elders, then whoever is actually facilitating the leadership of your church, whatever polity you have, it’s right and good for you to sit down and work out a position paper—almost a living document, if you will. Why would they do that and why would that help in a community context?
JT: This is a real hobby horse of mine. I did get a bit of pushback for this. I wanted it to be longer in the book than it actually is. I think this is really important and I would encourage especially church leadership—whether it be a board of elders, a single pastor, the church staff, others assisting a sole pastor—to do it.
Working out a position paper a difficult thing to do. But looking at those key passages and working out what you actually believe about the ministries of men and women is really important. You have a responsibility to do that. Having done that and been convinced, you’ll gain a lot more clarity about what you believe and why you believe it. Then that will lead to joy, and then you’ll realise even more the beauty and how wonderful it is that God has gifted different men and women in the church, and us ministering together as co-workers in Christ. It’s fantastic for the church and for the spread of the gospel.
I think it’s really key that people have a position paper. You don’t have to have one. But I think it makes it easier. It’s a living document in that you’re not saying necessarily that, “Okay, everything I’m saying is definitely true and I’m never wrong”. You’re prepared to listen to people. I would suggest that once the church leadership writes this paper, they communicate it to their congregation members. That just really helps pastorally as well. Even if a congregation member doesn’t necessarily agree with the church leadership’s position, at least that congregation member can trust you and know where you’re coming from. Also, if someone is wanting to set up a particular type of ministry, the church has a position paper, and so they can come and have that conversation with the pastor and the pastor can say, “Well, actually, no, because it doesn’t align with our position papers on the ministries of men and women” or “Yes, that could be a really good fit”.
I keep saying “the ministries of men and women” because too often, we can think complementarianism and we just say, “Oh, it’s the women’s ministry issue”. But true complementarianism is about the ministries of men and women. It’s not just a women’s ministry issue; it’s for men as well.
CK: I love that: men and women together. Men and women rightly assuming their place in the body. Men and women rightly working together for mutual edification.
JT: Sure. That doesn’t mean that, at times, there’s not single-sex ministries. There’s a time and place for that, and that’s good. But I think too often we don’t think enough about the number of ministries we could be doing together.
CK: Yes, I think you’re absolutely right. Just following on from what you’ve just said, in my personal experience, I’ve known the value of these kinds of living documents as policies, and not even just policies, but as position papers. It does help when you have people enquiring about certain issues or asking questions. It makes it feel less in-the-moment and on-the-spot, personally directed or otherwise. It’s actually something that is articulated, well formed and shared amongst the body that has been developed by the leadership through careful consideration. It also then becomes a real helpful pathway for communication and leading for change. I think you’ve wisely set out some really helpful principles for how to lead for change effectively, and that is to provide this position paper, invite enquiries and engagement from people, and then begin to then push this out through the community.
Part of that joy that you’re advocating for is actually a mutual accountability to the truth. It’s not just that we say this and we leave it; we say it and we mean it, and now we together hold each other to account and embrace this together as a body.
JT: Yeah, exactly.
CK: It’s lovely.
Putting complementarianism into practice
CK: Just moving on from this, then, one of the challenges throughout your book is to embrace this good order that God has given to us, and given to us for our relationships. What you push people to over and over again is “Don’t just say it. Do something about it.” You can say you’re complementarian. You can say your church is complementarian. But often things fall through the cracks: they get missed in the gaps. Why do you think it’s so easily overlooked?
JT: I think people are busy with life and ministry, and we just keep doing what we normally do. It takes time and effort to think about other people. That includes the opposite sex. It takes time and effort to be creative in our ministries.
Also, we don’t necessarily have a robust theology of gifts in the congregation. We place a priority—and I think a right priority—on the sermon. In our Western culture, we are very individualistic as well, so we don’t naturally think corporately. It’s hard for us to keep on thinking about the church as a church family, which we should be doing. So we don’t necessarily naturally have the default of thinking of corporate—of other people. I think the fact that we get stuck in a rut of traditions, we’re very individualistic, we’re also busy, and we don’t have a great theology, often, of God has gifted every single person in the congregation for the building of the church, and we don’t necessarily take the time and effort to explore those gifts. When we do, obviously a lot of those gifts will be from males and a lot of those gifts will be from females. How can we be using those gifts to complementing each other for the sake of glorifying God?
CK: Yeah. I love that it’s more than just a quota. It’s not just that I have to have a woman involved or two women involved, just because I have to tick a box. I should desire to have women involved, because the women can do things differently—from a different angle, a difference perspective, with different ways of using their gifts that I can. That’s something lovely.
JT: Yeah. I wonder do we actually believe that the church is missing out if women aren’t contributing in a significant way? That’s not a quota thing. I don’t mean that at all. It’s just by very fact that if you truly believe that gender is a gift and that, theologically and biblically, that God has created us differently (there’s obviously a lot of “We’re the same in lots of ways” as well, but there’s differences that the other can’t bring), the church will be lacking. The church will be missing out if women aren’t actively contributing in a meaningful way.
CK: Yeah, amen! Just a moment ago, you said how the emphases that we put in our ministries—especially about upfront, especially the sermon on a Sunday—can actually cut our legs out from underneath us. One of the challenges you put that I found very confronting in the book is about sexism. You say,
Some sexism that denigrates women is overt and obvious, but much of it is more subtle. It is about assumptions we make and tendencies we have, which we may not be very aware of. The term used today is “unconscious bias”: a blind spot where you don’t see how you are prejudiced in some way.2
I found that so confronting, and in part because of just even sometimes, the good routines that we have—maybe even the necessary routines just in the constraints of our time—represent unconscious bias. We’re actually selling ourselves short, because we’re not making the most of the good gifts that God has given to us—namely, as a man leading a church, I may not incorporate the gifts of my sisters the way that I would be benefitting from so much more richly. As a body, we would be benefitting from them. That takes time, thoughtfulness, self-reflection, self-awareness and input from others. This is difficult in the demands of life. But it’s a thing. It’s a real thing—that we could be unconsciously biased this way.
JT: Yeah, you’ve said that really well. There’s not much more to add, except I think it’s really important to not keep thinking that male is the norm. Actually male and female is the norm. They’re both really good. It’s easy to keep on doing the things the way you’ve always done things. There are limitations of time, like you said. But, yeah.
CK: Well, thank you, Jane. This is going to be the first instalment that we will do on two parts of your book. I’m so excited about your book. I’ve read it cover to cover. I cannot recommend it highly enough, and I hope many people will take it and read it.
As we conclude this section, before we move to our next section, let me just give you this quote that Jane and Graham have written: “If God has spoken about gender—and if he always speaks what is right and true, and if his ways are always good and freeing for us—then we ignore what he says at our peril”.3 That’s so helpful and so confronting. May we work towards embracing biblical complementarity.
Jane, I’m looking forward to the next half of our conversation. Thanks so much for what you’ve already said.
JT: Thank you, Chase!
CK: To benefit from more resources from the Centre for Christian Living, please visit ccl.moore.edu.au, where you’ll find a host of resources, including past podcast episodes, videos from our live events and articles published through the Centre. We’d love for you to subscribe to our podcast and for you to leave us a review so more people can discover our resources.
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As always, I would like to thank Moore College for its support of the Centre for Christian Living, and to thank to my assistant, Karen Beilharz, for her work in editing and transcribing the episodes. The music for our podcast was generously provided by James West.
1 Graham Beynon and Jane Tooher, Embracing Complementarianism: Turning biblical convictions into positive church culture, London: The Good Book Company, 2022: 113-114.
2 Ibid, 45.
3 Ibid, 11-12.