There are legitimately challenging questions facing churches on what the biblical roles of women in the life of the church should be. While there are two “general” positions on the role of women (complementarian and egalitarian), the whole issue really exists on a spectrum. On one end of the spectrum are egalitarians who believe that texts such as Galatians 3:28 in essence do away with all distinctions between men and women and they become interchangeable. On the other end of the spectrum you have extreme complementarians who believe that all women are always subservient to all men. Most churches end up somewhere between these two extremes, with the most common egalitarians arguing that men and women still possess created distinctions physically and psychologically, but that there is no distinction in their giftedness or roles in the church. The most common complementarian position is that God created men and women as equal but distinct beings and that He has called men to lead in the church.
I believe that the Scriptures teach a complementarian position. However, I will be the first to acknowledge that the question of the role of women in the local church has not been handled well by those on either side of this divide. Too many complementarians take the “it’s better to be safe than sorry” route and restrict women from doing things in church that Scripture does not speak to. Churches do things such as not allow women to pray in front of the church, read scripture, or give testimony, all in the name of a vague notion of men “leading.” An error is still an error, whichever side of the issue it falls on. Needless to say, this is an area where there needs to be more intelligent conversations taking place.
Sue Edwards and Kelley Mathews have entered the conversation with their book 40 Questions
About Women in Ministry. This is part of the 40 Questions series published by Kregel. Unfortunately, the
book does not do much to advance discussion or shed light on the issues that separate egalitarians and
complementarians. Two major issues emerge in the very beginning of the book. First, the authors “hope
to present the primary views clearly in everyday language, representing each fairly” (17). This is an
admirable goal. An author should be able to present an opposing viewpoint in a way that someone
holding that viewpoint would say “yes, that is what I believe.” This task was not accomplished. The
authors of the book are both egalitarians, and their sympathies and opinions bleed onto the pages
A second major issue from the beginning is the author’s determination to shape the discussion
by changing the names given to the different positions. Instead of “egalitarian,” the authors choose the
term “heterarch.” I will let egalitarians decide if that best describes their position or not. My main issue
is with the change from “complementarian” to “hierarch.” This change is partly because the authors
believe that the term “complementarian” involves “sleight of hand.” I could not disagree more. The
term was carefully chosen by those who hold to it as a representation of what they believe the
scriptures teach. It is not to be changed lightly, especially by those in opposition to it.
These two issues that occur at the very beginning of the book make the rest of the book hard to
read with anything resembling objectivity. Now, lest you think that I am completely biased against the
quality of the book because I disagree with the theological position taken, I would challenge that
assumption. 40 Questions About Arminianism was an excellent book that I highly recommend despite
the fact that I disagree with many of the author’s conclusions.
A common theme in the book is making arguments from the text using a lot of conjecture and
words like “possible.” For example, the authors argue that Junia in Romans 16 was an Apostle. They
dismiss out of hand the argument that there were “Apostles” (those who were chosen by Christ and saw
Him after the resurrection) and “apostles” (sent-ones, or messengers of the church). Instead, a
convoluted argument is made about how Junia could actually be one of the “Apostles” (152-153).
Edwards and Mathews also try to make the case that the reason women were not priests in the Old
Testament was because of their menstrual cycles (283).
In another section, the authors bring in a secular study about how marriages that “share power”
are more successful than marriages that don’t. This was supported by a lengthy citation from an online
message board (229-230). There seemed to be very little point or substance to this section from a
biblical perspective, and this is the first book I’ve ever read that cited online message boards in the
There are some positive aspects to the book. Edwards and Mathews bring out a helpful
scriptural argument about the nature of the one-flesh union that is very well laid out (168-169), and
they address some issues that are of vital importance in this discussion, such as the difference between
giftedness and roles in the church. This is an area where many churches are struggling to draw
conclusive lines. Are women gifted as pastors and just not allowed to serve in that capacity? This is a
whole conversation unto itself.
Ultimately, the argument in the book (and to a degree in the whole conversation) boils down to
one of interpretation. The authors go back to Galatians 3:26-28 as eliminating the distinctions in roles
between men and women (290). The problem is that they want an interpretation that only eliminates
certain distinctions. “There is no male or female” is taken to mean that role distinctions are eliminated.
But the authors would stop short of the argument that follows the same logic of this text and argues
that homosexuality and transgenderism are legitimate.
This book had a lot of potential, and subject matter is a needed area of discussion. If the book
was called “40 Questions About Egalitarianism” it would have succeeded better in the task. Instead, the
book fell short and created more questions than it answered. I would recommend that curious readers
instead read a well-written book from an egalitarian and one from a complementarian to better get a
grasp on the debate surrounding this issue.
I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.