On the other side there is the complementarian case. This starts from the position that men and women are different and ‘complementary’ to each other. The argument is then often used to suggest that it is appropriate to reserve some roles for men and others for women. This usually ends up with denying the possibility of women being ordained bishops, or even priests or preachers.Does complementarianism always lead to a denial of the validity of female church leadership? I want to argue that when you take complementarianism seriously (mind you, I don’t really like the term - I want to suggest another which I will come on to in a moment) it actually leads you to the conclusion that women bishops are, at least in our culture, right, proper, and necessary.
The biblical texts on the issue have been trawled over many times and so I don’t intend to do so here. It seems to me that we have to start from theological reference points, which the whole of Scripture give us rather than individual proof texts. The key ones seem to me those we find at the beginning of the Bible, which orientate us in all our thinking about gender:Genesis 1.27: ‘God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.’ This is of course is confirmed by Jesus in Matthew 19 and Mark 10.
Genesis 2.22 – 24 ‘the man said this is now bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh, she shall be called ‘woman’ for she was taken out of man. For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united with his wife and they will become one flesh.’These texts suggest that fundamental to our nature as human beings is the fact that we are created male and female. In other words, it is impossible to be human without being one or the other. There is no such thing as a genderless human being. Humanity comprises both, and is in a sense incomplete without both. This leads to what I think is the central theological reference point, which is that men and women need each other. We are interdependent. I mentioned a moment ago that I am not very happy with the term ‘complementarian’. It seems a trifle weak and passive. I much prefer the term ‘interdependence’. A Christian anthropology tells us that we are not isolated individuals completely self-subsistent in our own autonomy (as post-Cartesian thought has taught us to think we are) but instead we need God and we need each other. And that latter idea is expressed most radically in our need for the ‘other’, across the central distinction which runs through the whole of humanity: that of gender.
This is confirmed in the New Testament in 1 Corinthians 11.11 -13, where Paul writes ‘in the Lord, woman is not independent of man nor man independent of woman. For just as woman came from man, so man comes through woman, but all things come from God.’ In this passage, often referred to in the debate, Paul argues that, in the Genesis story, woman did indeed come from man, in that Adam was taken from Eve (as is stated in 1 Tim 2.13 – another key verse of contention), which might imply a certain priority to maleness. However, he also argues that subsequent to the original creation every man comes from a woman – his mother. In other words, there is no such thing as a man who has come into being without the help of woman, nor a woman who has come into being without the aid of a man. It is Paul’s way of making the point that men and women are interdependent. They cannot exist without each other, are incomplete without each other. They are drawn to each other. And there is something missing if there is any one gender in sight.We sense this of course every now and again. One might enjoy a ‘boys night out’, or a ‘girls evening’, but most of us wouldn’t want that all the time. We all experience a certain fascination with the opposite sex. In other words, something remarkable happens when men and women come together. Men need women, and women need men, and this of course is not just about marriage. Single people also need proper friendships with the opposite sex and in a sense are incomplete without those good, healthy relationships. The other gender offers something which we cannot find within our own gender, and that expresses a fundamental theological truth: that we are not independent, but interdependent on that which is different from us.
Male and female do offer something different to one another. Now of course we instinctively feel that, but it is notoriously difficult to pin it down. Once we start to try to define male or female characteristics, we find ourselves quite quickly running into trouble. We might suggest that men are tough and women are gentle, men are rational and women are emotional, men are strong and women are weak. The minute we say those things however, we can think of all kinds of examples where it is the other way round. This kind of typecasting never quite works. The difference between men and women are real in that we sense and instinctively feel them, and yet they are undefinable and mysterious. Maybe it is important that we can’t define these differences or we would begin to define, limit and stereotype each other in terms of them. Persons would lose their individuality and uniqueness in a lazy pigeonholing of others. Of course that difference is expressed physically in the different shape of male and female bodies, but there is also something emotional and psychological that is hard to tie down but is there none the less. This is a point that Karl Barth insisted on strongly in his thought on gender, saying that trying to define this difference was to go beyond what revelation allows us to say.This is an argument for mutuality in Christian ministry. Christian ministry needs both men and women. Now, cultural circumstances may have an impact. Jesus found a way of holding together the interdependence of men and women in his group of disciples in a very patriarchal society in the first century towns Roman Palestine. There was perhaps a certain scandal associated with female leadership and so different roles were found in the early churches to express the interdependence of male and female. In other cultures around the world today, it also might remain appropriate for men and women to play different and distinct roles.
However this is the important point: It is not that we in the 21st Century west have finally understood the equality of men and women, in way that that those primitive people in the Bible didn’t quite get. As I see it, this is not fundamentally an issue about equality or justice, not least because Christian ministry is not about status (as if Bishops were the CEOs, the goal of every ecclesiastical career), but about service – it is about going lower, not higher. The issue is the need the Church for both male and female insights, wisdom, and contributions to Christian ministry. Women should be bishops not because they can do the same job as men, but because they can offer something different and equally valuable. The house of Bishops needs women and is impoverished without them. Of course the same would be true if we had an all-female house of Bishops as would be true of any all-male or all-female church, party, or group.
This is perhaps a new way of recasting the debate. Complementarian arguments are frequently used to justify denying episcopacy to women, but it seems to me that when they are taken seriously they actually lean in the opposite direction.At the heart of Scripture we find this radical interdependence between men and women in the pre-fall created order and in therefore the Church. We need to find ways of expressing that in culturally appropriate forms. To ordain women as both priests and Bishops, alongside men seems to me absolutely the right thing to do in our culture, to express this mutual interdependence and to ensure the full rounded contribution of both genders to the church and its leadership. Although we like to think we are independent, men need women and women need men and the church needs both.