Mary Kassian wrote a fine essay recently in which she poses the question, “Where can women teach?” She lays out eight principles to guide our answers to that question in various situations. The principles flow from her central conviction with regard to the question, which she states in the beginning of her essay as follows:
As a complementarian, I believe that God wants us to honor his design for men and women by following the principle of male headship in our homes and church families. The church is God’s family and household (1 Timothy 3:15; Hebrews 3:6; Galatians 6:10). The family part is key. The Bible teaches that in the nuclear family unit, as well as in our corporate church families, the father — or multiple fathers in the case of the church — has the responsibility to lovingly lead and humbly govern the family unit.
Kassian’s argument here goes deeper than exegetical observations on a handful of Pauline commands (as important as those are). By tying her conception of gender roles in the ministry of the church to the concept of fatherhood, Kassian advocates for a broad, rather than a narrow, complementarianism. Or, in my preferred terminology, a “thick,” rather than a “thin,” complementarianism.
The difference between these two visions is that, whereas both affirm a pattern of male headship in marriage and in the pastoral office, only thick complementarianism then goes on to place the biblical commands with regard to these two spheres of life in a broader context of the inherent meaning of manhood and womanhood. As a result, thick complementarianism is willing to see broader principles at work that could have applications in other spheres of life not explicitly given as New Testament commands in Scripture (e.g., the impropriety of women serving in combat roles in the military). Thin complementarianism, on the other hand, restricts itself to simple obedience to the New Testament commands, but refuses to articulate any underlying reason for those commands in broader theological principles that could potentially have application beyond those commands. Some thin complementarians have also advocated recently for the propriety of women preaching occasionally, so long as they do not hold the office of pastor (or, in some cases, “senior pastor”).
I will go ahead and predict now that there will be no generational endurance for thin complementarianism. If our approach to male headship in marriage and the restriction of the pastoral office to men amounts to saying, “The Bible says it. It doesn’t really make sense, but we obey anyway,” then it won’t take long before future generations of Southern Baptists find themselves discontent with interpretations of Scripture that stand so far removed from their underlying modern assumptions about men and women. Yes, we should obey any command of God, whether we understand it or not. But the reality is that the generational endurance of counter-cultural teachings largely depends on having a deep understanding, not only of what God commands, but also of why he commands it (insofar as he has made that known to us). In an age when there is no shortage of ways to manipulate biblical interpretation in order to get the result you want (and to sound sophisticated while doing so), it’s only a matter of time before a denomination steeped in thin complementarianism decides that the egalitarian interpretations of 1 Timothy 2:11-15 and Ephesians 5:22-33 weren’t so far off the mark after all. And once that domino has fallen, it won’t take long for our sexual ethic to fall with it. There will be a direct line from women occupying our pulpits today to our pastors blessing same-sex unions tomorrow. Ask yourself: in what mainline denomination that now affirms homosexuality has that pattern not been followed?
What does all of this have to do with Mary Kassian’s article? Simply this: Kassian raises a deeper question about the theological meaning of male and female. Her aim is not simply to obey 1 Timothy 2, but also to live in light of the theology that stands behind 1 Timothy 2 and pervades the whole canon of Scripture. She seeks to expound the public ministry of the Word of God in the gathered church (i.e., “preaching”) as an inherently fatherly act. That concept is lost on most of us due to the eviscerated vision of fatherhood that our culture has handed us, but there is rich meaning in it.
What is the theological difference between fatherhood and motherhood? I’ll let C.S. Lewis answer that question for us, from his essay “Priestesses in the Church?”:
Suppose the reformer stops saying that a good woman may be like God and begins saying that God is like a good woman. Suppose he says that we might just as well pray to “Our Mother which art in heaven” as to “Our Father”. Suppose he suggests that the Incarnation might just as well have taken a female as a male form, and the Second Person of the Trinity be as well called the Daughter as the Son. Suppose, finally, that the mystical marriage were reversed, that the Church were the Bridegroom and Christ the Bride. All this, as it seems to me, is involved in the claim that a woman can represent God as a priest does.
Now it is surely the case that if all these supposals were ever carried into effect we should be embarked on a different religion. Goddesses have, of course, been worshipped: many religions have had priestesses. But they are religions quite different in character from Christianity. Common sense, disregarding the discomfort, or even the horror, which the idea of turning all our theological language into the feminine gender arouses in most Christians, will ask “Why not? Since God is in fact not a biological being and has no sex, what can it matter whether we say He or She, Father or Mother, Son or Daughter?”
But Christians think that God Himself has taught us how to speak of Him. To say that it does not matter is to say either that all the masculine imagery is not inspired, is merely human in origin, or else that, though inspired, it is quite arbitrary and unessential. And this is surely intolerable: or, if tolerable, it is an argument not in favour of Christian priestesses but against Christianity. It is also surely based on a shallow view of imagery. Without drawing upon religion, we know from our poetical experience that image and apprehension cleave closer together than common sense is here prepared to admit; that a child who has been taught to pray to a Mother in Heaven would have a religious life radically different from that of a Christian child. And as image and apprehension are in an organic unity, so, for a Christian, are human body and human soul.
Christians do not worship a goddess. We do not call upon God as our mother. To do so would radically reorient our perspective on the divine-human relationship from one of transcendence, whereby we have been created freely by the Word of the God who stands above us as Father, to a kind of pantheism or panentheism, whereby we emerge from God’s essence like a baby emerging from the womb of his mother. Our conception of the meaning of male and female holds implications that radically affect the entirety of our worldview.
That is why the question of women preaching (even if only occasionally) is not a light matter. If the male-female dynamic written into creation mirrors the divine-human relationship, it makes perfect sense that God would ordain the deliverance of his Word to the gathered church by means of a male voice. That is why the “big tent” approach to the Baptist Faith and Message (which almost all SBC leaders seem to have affirmed at this point on the question of women preaching) is simply an irresponsible one. If our churches nurture future generations in a faith that is quite comfortable with a female voice resounding from the pulpit, those future generations will end up thinking of God very differently than we do today. It is long past time for the SBC to begin thinking about gender with the kind of deep theological perception that Mary Kassian has modeled for us.