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Navigating Authority in a Complementarian Church

by | Jul 1, 2020 | Blog, Deacons, Leadership, Theology

There have always been challenges when addressing issues of sexuality and gender, and the shake-ups with the #metoo and #churchtoo movements have only served to highlight the struggle. As a woman with a generous complementarian theology, I would offer four principles from God’s word that I hope are both timely and timeless as we continue to face these challenges.

  • Acknowledge Authority
  • Accept Responsibility
  • Aim for Fellowship
  • Appeal to Love

Acknowledge Authority

All of us have some measure of authority given to us by God. “Complementarianism” recognizes that men and women are equal in complementary ways and have different spheres of authority by God’s design. While I do not wish to quarrel over where those spheres are drawn here, I do wish to point out that it’s important to be able to discern and honor them. We must first acknowledge that both men and women are made in the image of God and have a measure of authority in the lives of others. Both men and women have authority and responsibility in the church in different but overlapping spheres. For example, women are called to shepherd (or disciple) other women and men are called to disciple other men. Elders, men appointed by God, are called to shepherd the entire flock, both men and women, those who disciple and those who are being discipled. Likewise, both husbands and wives have authority in a marriage in complementary but overlapping ways. There are governors, bosses, teachers, parents, and many other positions in society whose spheres of authority overlap ours. 1 Peter 2:14 exhorts us to be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution and authority within those institutions.

Though we are called to be subject to the authorities over us, we must keep in mind that no one has absolute authority over another. Absolute authority belongs to Christ alone. If any of us are tempted to exercise authority beyond our spheres or to submit to authority which is against that of Christ, this is wrong.

Both men and women must acknowledge the spheres of authority that have been given to us, and respect how our authority interacts with the authority of others, including the ultimate authority of Christ.

Accept Responsibility

One way to view authority is that we are being given the ability, by designation, to carry out the responsibilities given to us. It is tragic to either give authority to one who has no sense of responsibility for the outcome, or to give responsibility to one who has no authority to carry it out. Exercising authority under Christ and over other men and women does not manifest itself through demands for unquestioned obedience to us, but in humbly accepting and gently exercising the responsibility given to us. Jesus explained to his disciples, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant” (Matthew 20:25-26). Whatever responsibilities we have been given, we carry them out in order to serve others, not our egos. However small or large our spheres of authority, we are called, both men and women, to use our authority to carry out our responsibilities in service to others. For example, leaders have the responsibility to lead, and this requires an appropriate and respectful exercise of authority. It also requires of those under them an appropriate and respectful exercise of submission. 

In 2 Corinthians 4:26, he says, “What we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake.” Accepting and exercising responsibility within our spheres of authority as men and women under Christ’s authority serves him and those who belong to him.

Aim for Fellowship

Paul, when addressing issues in the Corinthian church, does not desire to demand obedience from them. He certainly does not deny his authority as an apostle, but he would rather them obey out of love, and not out of compulsion. In verse 10:1, he encourages them to carry out their responsibilities, saying, “I, Paul, myself entreat you, by the meekness and gentleness of Christ….”

The word for “entreat” is parakaleo, which means to call to one’s side. It is a request that includes assurance of comfort. Paul wants the Corinthians by his side, sharing his joy as co-laborers for the gospel. While mere obedience could be demanded, he knew joyful fellowship as co-laborers could not.

As we exercise authority to carry out our responsibilities, our ultimate aim is not simply obedience, but fellowship in Christ. Yes, obedience to our Lord is key to fellowship with him, but he died for his friends, not his captives. He died so that we might be children and heirs, not slaves and beggars. Like Paul, in our spheres of authority, we appeal to others as our brothers and sisters to act according to the grace of the gospel. We want them beside us as equals to share our joy as we serve our Lord.

Aiming for fellowship with our brothers and sisters acknowledges the goal of the gospel, which is the fellowship of love with God in Christ, and with each other as equal image bearers.

So how do we do this?

Appeal to Love

The apostle Paul had a large sphere of authority and responsibility as an apostle. Instead of coercing obedience through power or fear, he urged others toward joyful obedience to Christ. Another time Paul used the word parakaleo, as a concept that includes the comfort of fellowship, is in a letter to a man named Philemon. He writes, “…though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal (parakaleo) to you….” In appealing to love, he left room for Christ to exercise his lordship in Philemon’s heart. The fellowship of love is the fertile soil for God’s work to come to fruition in the lives of others.

Christ is the only one who transforms hearts, and his work results in joyful obedience from the very center of our beings. When we appeal to the love we share as brothers and sisters, who are equally image bearers of God, it honors Christ’s authority and allows him to work in the lives of others. Our love for God and love for others is what guides us as we seek to navigate the overlapping spheres of authority God has graciously given us.

I think we can agree that the application of these four principles will require a great deal of wisdom and grace, so let’s look at a way forward through what can seem like very complex terrain.


An Important Note

Before concluding, it’s necessary to note that the application of the principles is not always cut and dry. Acknowledging authority, accepting responsibility, aiming for fellowship, and appealing to love requires a great deal of discernment. Elders, men charged with shepherding the flock, must accept responsibility for those entrusted to their care by first acknowledging the spheres of authority given to the men and women they have been called to lead, then leading them to accept responsibility within their own spheres. When authority has been overstepped or responsibility abdicated, every believer must work together to address these sins out of love, in hopes of restoration to fellowship, first of all with God, and then with each other. Whatever our spheres of authority, we are called to use them for the good of those who are in more vulnerable positions. With this in mind, restoration to personal fellowship in some situations where authority has been grossly overstepped or severely neglected may not be safe for those who are vulnerable, as in the case of abuse. Aiming for fellowship in situations of abuse may not be an appropriate goal. We must humbly, and patiently, seek wisdom concerning instances of abuse in any form.

The Way Forward

While today, #metoo and #churchtoo movements highlight the challenges of navigating authority, as well as the abuse of it, especially concerning issues of sexuality and gender, the challenge of navigating authority within a complementarian setting has always required a great deal of wisdom and grace. Trust between men and women has been deeply shaken since the Fall. Constant suspicion is the best defense the world can offer. However, those who belong to Christ have been called to trust. It is not a naive trust, for we of all people should be aware of the evil in human hearts. Our trust is not in people, but in Christ who has all authority in heaven and on earth.

Using our authority in submission to Christ to bear our responsibilities in service out of love for the sake of joyful fellowship is a beautiful picture of the gospel.

Paul said in his letter to the Corinthians in verse 12:31 that the “more excellent” way to interact with each other, including interactions between men and women in complementarian churches, is the way of love. To quote him, “Love is patient and kind; it does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”

For love’s sake, like Paul, I appeal to you brothers and sisters in Christ, choose the more excellent way.




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