Complementarian Organizations and Where Women Belong

The Gospel-Centered Woman seeks to equip lay leaders and pastors in the local church for gospel focused women’s discipleship.  We hope this article on the differences in parachurch organizations and local churches for discipleship will be helpful when thinking through both discipling women and using the women in our congregations as God has gifted them.

If a woman speaks and a man learns something, did she teach him?

Last week, The Gospel Coalition held their National Conference in Orlando, FL. And last week, Jen Michel, author, speaker, and conference attendee, wrote a piece that probably surprised a few folks. Returning from the conference, Michel was struck by the lack of female representation, both in speakers and other attendees, which led her to ask the question: Where do women belong in complementarian organizations?

First a little background. The Gospel Coalition hosts two conferences on alternating years. One is referred to as the “National Conference” and is open to both men and women; however, the attendance leans heavily male, and if my observations are correct, toward those “in ministry.” Because of this, TGC (which holds a complementarian view of gender) does not invite women to be plenary speakers, although a few women teach breakout sessions. It should also be noted that plenary speakers, while not necessarily full-time pastors, tend to be ordained men with a high degree of theological education.

On the alternate year, TGC hosts a “Women’s Conference” which functions more classically as a lay conference. From outward appearances, it is more heavily attended by lay (female) members of the church than the National Conference; and while the speakers are overwhelming female, the form and structure is hardly distinguishable from the National Conference.

I’ve attended both, and I’ll be honest: I’ve always been confused by the relationship between the two. I’m not confused that a parachurch organization hosts a National Conference. I’m not confused that a parachurch organization hosts a Women’s Conference. I’m confused that the same organization hosts both.

The best I can figure is that TGC is trying to walk the difficult line of supporting more robust women’s discipleship at the same time that they are trying to honor one of their defining tenets—complementarianism.

But here’s the thing: Michel’s question (and my confusion) is less about TGC being a complementarian organization than about TGC being a parachurch organization. What TGC is really wrestling with is how ecclesiology works out in a multi-denominational setting. The questions under the question are about the differences between laity and elders, finding unity in context of diversity, and the relationship between the local church and parachurch organizations.

And unfortunately for Michel and a whole bunch of other complementarian women, these questions land on our heads.

Still, I understand that there isn’t an easy answer to “Where do women belong in complementarian organizations?” There are, however, some principles that could clarify the process of wrestling with it:

1. Remember that human beings flourish through male and female cooperation. Genesis 1 teaches us that God made mankind in His image, “male and female He made them.” But not only are men and women equal image bearers, we are dependent image bearers—dependent on Him and each other to accomplish the work of glorifying Him. God designed human beings so that if we don’t work together as male and female, we won’t survive. So while we are distinct, these distinctions only make sense in context of cooperation, not in separateness. (Try having a baby by yourself.) Of all people, complementarians should be the first to visibly honor and celebrate this truth in practice. How ever it works out, coalescing around the gospel should bring men and women into closer proximity, not greater distance.

2. Remember the difference between parachurch organizations and the local church. It’s interesting that Michel doesn’t ask “Where do women belong in complementarian churches?” She seems very at peace with where she belongs in her own complementarian church. Instead she asks a more difficult question that reveals evangelicalism’s complicated relationship with parachurch organizations.

Ironically, the parachurch model both expands and limits our ability to practice our faith. While an organization like TGC can connect us to co-laborers, it can’t tell us who a co-laborer is or whether that co-laborer is functioning within the bounds of Scripture. And the reason it can’t is because the authority to make this determination is invested in the local church. The leaders of TGC do not act as elders (as they would quickly affirm), nor do they watch for your soul.

When we confuse parachurch organizations with the local church, we end up with a muddled mess. We can’t definitively answer a question of “where does a woman belong in a complementarian organization?” because applications about teaching and authority only make sense in context of a community that actually possesses authority. Some would say to simply “err on the safe side” and apply the dynamics of local church ministry to parachurch organizations. But doing this may actually minimize the significance of the local church the same way that calling a woman to submit to all men diminishes the significance of her submission to her own husband.

3. Remember the influence of denominational differences. Speaking of working across denominational boundaries, we must not underestimate the influence that our church traditions have on application. I am part of a church with a classic Baptist ecclesiology which means that we take a fairly populist approach to the functioning of the church. We honor the office of pastor/elder (and reserve it for men), but actively seek to include laity in public gatherings and decision making. This means that women are free to pray publicly, speak from the platform, and serve on various boards of the church.

Other traditions prioritize the office of elder in public gatherings. The fact that TGC (also heavily reformed) doesn’t invite women to speak at plenary sessions may have less to do with gender and more to do with the fact that they invite ordained men to speak. At the same time, some denominations see teaching as a speaking gift and separate it from the office of elder which they understand as a gift of ruling and administration. Point being, even if you share a principle, it doesn’t mean that you will share application. So just because a woman is/isn’t doing something that she would/wouldn’t do in your church, doesn’t mean she is too conservative/liberal. More likely, her church tradition defines authority, teaching, and leadership differently than yours does.

4. Remember that both conservatives and liberals can be off the mark.
Because of denominational diversity, parachurch organizations are forced to find some level of common ground. To do this, they must determine which teachings are essential to their identity and consider questions of Christian liberty. Unfortunately, for those of us who are conservative, it’s easy to give all conservatives a pass in the name of conservatism. We think we are deferring to the “weaker brother” when in reality, we might be enabling compromise. Those who would restrict women’s involvement beyond the scope of Scripture “just to be careful” are as dangerous to the mission of the church as those who blur gender distinctions. Both are minimizing the Scripture.

5. Remember the difference between speaking and teaching with authority. Here’s a question: If a woman speaks and a man learns something, did she “teach” him? Sometimes, in our vigilance to protect male and female roles, we can forget the simplest things. Like the fact that listening is always considered a virtue in the Scripture. Wise people place a priority on hearing.

I often wonder how our churches would be different if we put a priority on hearing from women. I’m not talking about Teaching with authority—that distinct prevue of pastors/elders to both teach and determine the boundaries of sound doctrine. I’m talking about the simple truth that the Scripture commands us to teach each other. And because it does, it also assumes that we would listen to each other.

Perhaps my populist roots are showing too much, but I believe that women have things to teach men. Women can be gifted to communicate truth even if they aren’t called to eldership roles. As a woman writing in context of the church, I am called to “prophesy” – or speak forth truth in the most compelling, accurate way possible, trusting that the Holy Spirit will accomplish His will through it. At the same time, I cannot hold you to account for what you hear; only your local church has that authority.

Those of us who have been around this conversation for a while know that it won’t be easily resolved. That’s why I appreciate Michel’s conclusion: She suggests a measured patience and the willingness to be conciliatory while we’re all working through this together. Because in the end, that’s how the church of God moves forward—male and female together.

By Hannah Anderson

8 thoughts on “Complementarian Organizations and Where Women Belong

  1. IMHO, TGC actively confuses the issue by making defining characteristics of their work ones that are defining characteristics of a local church – only ordained, elder-qualified men make up the council, and complementarianism is a defining tenet. That creates the impression of some kind of Reformed Magesterium/Presbytery/TGC Denomination. Bu then, when one or more council members has come under significant and warranted question for leadership failures, unwise alliances or other character-besmirching choices within the context of their ministries, suddenly they’re a parachurch organization and what each leader chooses to do shouldn’t reflect on the coalition as a whole.

    If they truly wish to be considered a parachurch organization, one solution would be to invite women to join the Council alongside the men. They wouldn’t have to set aside their complementarian convictions; in fact, this decision would reinforce the distinction between local church and parachurch quite well.

  2. Great post.
    I agree with Rachael– TGC could and should have women on their board– unless they have made being ordained a qualification. If that is the case, then a large swath of men have been disqualified from service on the board as well.

    • I think everyone on The Gospel Coalition council is ordained currently. I think that is prerequisite, though someone may correct me.


  3. “I often wonder how our churches would be different if we put a priority on hearing from women.”

    My mind boggles at the possibility. What a redemptive question that would be to ask. Thanks for this, Hannah.

  4. Just getting back from vacation, so a little behind in responding to this, but thank you for your thoughtful teasing out of the real issue here. It is more complex than just “what’s the role of women?” or “how do the church and para-church relate?”. There is much to think and pray about, and our hearts need the wise, reasonableness of this post.

  5. Parachurch organizations are not exempt from following church governance. Yes, it is quite a bit trickier when they are inter-denominational; however, the only way para-ministries can remain effective and accountable is to follow agreed upon good governance practices.

    Also, one element that I don’t see addressed here is what these TGC conferences are actually designed for. Equipping men for ministry is going to look different from how we equip women for ministry, because men and women have different, but equally valuable, ministerial emphases and roles.

    My take is that the proper ordinary context for what you are calling for at the end of the article is to be found within our local church body, such as a Sunday school class or a small (co-ed) community group, where we place ourselves under the authority of the elders of our local church. Perhaps we would be asked to share our testimony in a mixed crowd, outside of our immediate church context, or to participate in a Q&A forum or some such thing. Either of these would need to done within the context of the authority of male leaders (similar to what Rosaria Butterfield or Nancy Leigh Demoss have done at similar conferences).

    I see the two separate conferences as a very good thing. As a woman, I feel like I am much better served to be able to attend a conference specifically geared toward equipping women than only having conferences out there that are based on a male ministry model. My 2 cents worth… Thnx.

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