Exploring the biblical theology of Christian egalitarianism

The authority of police officers, ship’s captains, and men

Someone asked me this question the other day.

I recently read a complementarian article that compares women’s subordinate roles in the church with that of the occupation of a police officer or other authority figure in society. The complementarian position is that even though these individuals have authority over us, we are still equal in value before God. . . There’s something that doesn’t ring true about this comparison but I’m having a hard time disputing it. Can you help me?

Here’s what I wrote back.

The main problem with the police officer analogy is that in many countries today anyone who wants to join the police force, meets the requirements, and passes the tests can become a police officer. But, according to many complementarians, women can never be in certain positions of authority in the church. Let me add that, in healthy societies, the authority of police officers is regulated and greatly restricted.

Furthermore, corrupt, abusive, or inept police officers should be sacked and lose their authority. But many complementarians believe that all men have a greater level of authority than women regardless of morality and competence.

gender roles authority women Christian ministryPhoto is of Admiral Michele Janine Howard of the USA Navy.

I’ve heard people use the position of a ship’s captain in a similar way. Complementarians who use this analogy point out that we need a captain in charge so that the ship will run smoothly, but that the captain and their crew are equal as human beings. This analogy also falls down.

A capable sailor may one day hope to become the captain of a ship. But, according to complementarians, a woman, no matter how capable, can never hold certain leadership positions in the church.

Complementarians say that men and women are equal in value before God. Yet most do not give men and women opportunities to function as equals.

Many complementarians also say that women are equal to men in being (ontology). Yet they further say it is because of their being, their female-ness, that all women are immediately disqualified from certain ministries that some may, in fact, be perfectly suited to. This doesn’t make sense.

The “equality” of complementarians is theoretical or spiritual rather than practical, and there is a cap on what women can be and what they can do based solely on gender. But how can the theological and spiritual principle of the equality of men and women simply be theoretical and not have a practical and sociological outworking in the body of Christ?

Complementarians insist that being male is one of the primary prerequisites for ministries such as being a senior pastor or a teaching elder, and that women are automatically disqualified regardless of ability, talent, or experience. This is not equality.

Complementarianism is a form of sexism. Analogies used by complementarians are designed to mask this sexism and may sound plausible at first, but they don’t stand up to a closer look.

What other analogies used to support complementarianism fail under scrutiny?


Postscript: May 20 2018
The Analogy of Different Roles in Soccer

On Twitter, J.D. Greear, pastor of The Summit Church in Durham, North Carolina, defended complementarian gender roles with this analogy: “Ronaldo is not allowed to touch the ball with his hands in a soccer match but his goalie is. Does this distinction of roles mean the goalie is superior in essence to Ronaldo as a player?”

My response on Twitter: Ronaldo is playing a position that suits his ability. Hopefully, the goalie is playing his position because he has a superior ability as a goalie. In the church, we need to have people in ministries that suit their abilities, and gender has little to do with ability.

Also, Ronaldo touches soccer balls with his hands every day, just not when he plays a certain position during a match.

complementarian gender roles


Postscript: September 25 2020
The Analogy of Teachers and Students

Someone sent me an email today and brought up the example of a hierarchy between teacher and student. This example was given to her to illustrate that a hierarchy of authority is normal between men and women and it doesn’t mean the sexes are unequal in worth: “Just like how a teacher has more authority than a student but both are still equally image-bearers.”

Here’s my response: Interestingly, Jesus says that a student is to become like their teacher when they are fully trained: “A disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone who is fully trained will be like his teacher” (Luke 6:40).

The problem with the complementarian argument is that a woman can never have the same level of authority as a man no matter how well trained or competent she is.

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Related Articles

How Christian Egalitarians Understand Equality
Paul’s Theology of Ministry
Partnering Together: aul’s Female Coworkers
Authority in the Church
Can a Woman be a Pastor? Yes or No?
Women Bible Scholars and Translators in the Church
Articles on 1 Timothy 2:12 here
The Status of Christian Women, in a Nutshell
Galatians 3:28: Our Identity in Christ and in the Church

artigos em portugues sobre igualdade entre homens e mulheres no lar e na igreja

30 thoughts on “The authority of police officers, ship’s captains, and men

  1. “Complementarianism is a form of sexism.”

    In a nutshell!

  2. In the police officer/society analogy, the police are men and the rest of society under their law enforcement authority are women. Is that really the message comps are trying to teach? The analogy breaks down immediately in societies like Australia and the U.S. because police are ultimately under the authority of everyone else in society. But for a comp doctrine person, that would mean that society represents men in the analogy and police are the women.

    The analogy only works under comp doctrine if one is talking about a true police state. Then the authorities are truly in charge and society just does what they say without question. There you have the analogy to comp doctrine for how men lead and women don’t.

    1. The complementarianism ideology of authority is closer to that of the police state scenario; nevertheless, complementarians would insist that the “officers” (men) and the “public” (women) are equal in value.

      I’m highly suspect of a supposed theoretical or theological “equality” that doesn’t play out in real life. This sounds like doublespeak. Complementarians use the word equality but at the same they teach that men have authority and women don’t.

  3. Note, firearms are the only reason women are in the police force today. Guns are the great equalizer. Were it not for guns, the superior force needed to be projected by the police would dictate an all-male force due to man’s superior physical strength in comparison to woman in general. It is the presence of firearms that masks the sex distinctions. Likewise, technology in general has contributed to great sexual confusion in society at large by making life much easier — pushing a button v. using physical strength. But great differences exists in other traits beside physical strength. It is these other less visible traits that have best suited men to leading roles in ministry. That said, Christian ministry has become much more feminine in its appearance in our day compared to former times. Much of the transformation took place due to industrialization taking men out of the home. Women became the ministry’s primary listening audience and like a business, the church transformed to meet the demands of a new market. The church lost its militancy. Women can easily fit into the leadership of today’s church.

    1. Hi Doug,

      The majority of police officers in the UK, with the exception of Northern Ireland, do not carry firearms. The same is the case for police officers in Norway, New Zealand, and Iceland.

      Since ministry typically does not involve hand to hand combat or physical strength, I don’t see that your point about firearms is relevant to this discussion.

      Also, whether police officers are male or of both sexes doesn’t change the complementarian analogy.

      Furthermore, women significantly outnumbered men in the first and second-century church.

      1. Marg, I was not defending complementarianism, but simply speaking to the issue of women holding positions of leadership in the church. As for the differing structure of police forces, yes, I was referring to here in the US. Even so, I would assume all other forces have at least have a highly networked, fast response setup which allows rapid backup with firearms if needed. Apart from rapid backup, most patrols would probably be all male, or at least armed.

        1. I think the thought that police officers need to be able to use brute force or violence in order to accomplish their duty is revealing in and of itself. Studies show that having more women police officers reduces police violence perhaps by deescalating potentially violent encounters between police and civilians (https://www.thecut.com/2016/07/more-female-cops-less-police-violence.html).
          Complementarians insist that male/female differences are extremely important than insist that because females aren’t like males they can’t do certain jobs. Why wouldn’t they instead say, “females are important to this job BECAUSE they bring something different to the table.”

          1. Thanks, Jenn.

            Excellent points.

          2. The 2019 miniseries ‘Unbelievable’ which is based on the true story of two police officers tracking down and stopping a serial rapist is a great illustration of the point Jenn makes.

          3. 🙂 Yes, real-life detectives Stacy Galbraith and Edna Hendershot linked the rape of Marie to a string of other similar crimes. They successfully tracked down the rapist and arrested him. And they exonerated Marie of false reporting. (Source)

        2. Hi Doug,

          I don’t appreciate the demeaning way you speak about women and femininity on this page and elsewhere on my site. So I will no longer be ‘approving’ your comments

          Not all women are strong, but some are, and make excellent leaders. Some men make terrible leaders.

          In some police forces, governments and institutions, they purposefully recruit more women, because they have observed that women are less easily corrupted and that they get on better with the people they are called to serve. These are worthwhile strengths.

          Generally speaking, men and women do have some differences, that’s why we need women, as well as men, as leaders in all fields. For example, women sometimes see important things that men miss. And women interrelate more empathetically than men. Though there are exceptions to any generalisation.

          I’m sorry that your experience with women has not been positive, but I dare say the women around you do have valuable strengths. I hope you will be able to see them.

    2. @ Doug.
      A few links to some posts on my blog:

      Examples of Girls and Women Being Assertive at Work, in Life, Women as Rescuers and Heroines

      That post above has a link to an example of a Chinese police woman who confronted and defeated a machete-wielding male attacker with her bare hands.

      A few headlines I’ve blogged on before (at my blog), either in that post, or in separate ones:

      -“Viking Warrior Discovered in Sweden Was a Woman, Researchers Confirm”

      -“Female Israeli Solider Uses Martial Arts to Fight Off Crowd”

      -Onna-bugeisha – was a type of female warrior belonging to the Japanese nobility. Many women engaged in battle, commonly alongside samurai men.

      -“And Fellow Conservatives Are Supposedly Worried About Lowering Standards to Permit Women In: United States Navy Changes Fitness Rules, Wipes Slate Clean for Nearly 50K Sailors Who Failed Fitness Tests”

    3. Hi Doug,

      I disagree with your argument because I served in the United States military (2009 – 2015) as a military police officer and graduated top of my class in physical fitness. A couple years later, I moved into the Chaplain Corps as a chaplain candidate (Military officer and student studying to become a chaplain) and graduated as the Distinguished Honor graduate (#1 in my class).

      Your argument seems to suggest that a man is automatically stronger and superior and that makes him a better police officer and that women are weak, less than, and incapable of serving at the same level. This is ABSOLUTELY NOT TRUE. The lens you see the world and how you define ‘strength’ and ‘ability’ seems to be very limited and patriarchal. God gifted me with athletic abilities and leadership skills, which I use on a daily basis and absolutely enjoy.
      In addition, I have served as a police, military, and hospital chaplain and my gifts and talents have been defined by God, not man. So those who have issues with me leading and succeeding I often suggest they take their arguments to God because it is not between me and those individuals, but rather their own theological social, and cultural perspectives. I am just living out what I know God has called me to do, which right now is preaching, teaching, and counseling to mostly men.

      Lastly, policing is not about brute physical strength and super egos…. always trying to beat people down and lock them up. Policing at its core is about emotional intelligence, community, serving, and protecting, which takes a highly skilled individual to know how to connect with people. It is an art and a skill to serve and very few people understand this.

      1. Thanks for your excellent comment, Anne.

        I think Doug means well, but, like you, I have a major problem with how he views society and relationships, and how he views men and women. I won’t be ‘approving’ any more of his comments.

        (I hope you will forgive me for editing your comment, Anne. I have no problem with what you wrote, but others may. I try to avoid any language that may come across as inflammatory.)

        1. Understood. Thanks.

  4. I wrote a similar post or two a few months ago, such as this one:
    Christian Gender Complementarian Analogies Do Not Work

    In the secular world, women can apply for and obtain many types of occupations and roles if they are qualified, but under complementarianism, no matter how skilled, educated, or otherwise qualified a woman is, a complementarian will always bar her from a church position or from having equal authority in a marriage based on her biological sex alone. There is no chance for advancement for women in complementarianism.

    Further, some complementarians (such as Piper) either discourage or preach against Christian women (or any woman) holding authority over men in any situation or role, or certain types of occupations in secular culture, not just within the church.

    1. Thanks for linking the article, Daisy.

      I totally agree with this: “If you are a complementarian, I kindly ask you to please stop using the example of comparing a General to an Army Private, or a Skipper to a First Mate, an employee to a boss, in order to convince critics of your view that you honestly value women . . .”

      This mentality is insulting to women, and, in marriage, these analogies have even less credibility. A marriage is not an army or a ship or an organisation. It is a relationship between two people. A relationship of two equal people does not function at its best if one person is always in charge. It functions best when both people can operate in their strengths in any given situation and not have to worry about who has or doesn’t have supposed authority.

  5. I have the same problem with that comparison only it’s not in the church but in marriages to justify husband being the leader. Some comps argue that employee is under the authority of a employer or supervisor, or a junior officer in the military is under a captain and the list goes on. The problem is that a husband like a employer or supervisor to their wives in which they are in charge. Like you said it’s between two people who are in unity, one flesh joined together with God as the true authority. Also those in authority get to that position due to their experience, wisdom, capabilities not due to gender. Women can be cops and military leaders yet some churches think women shouldn’t be leaders simply because of their gender regardless of their experience and capability. This is due to the misguided teachings of the scriptures that say women shouldn’t have authority over men but I already discussed that in my post on my first blog. Having a new understanding of these scriptures could help resolve the issue of women’s roles in the church. Great article again. God Bless

    1. Yes, the analogies are used for marriage too, and are equally, if not more, flawed in this context.

      Sadly, many Christians have an unhealthy view of authority in the church and in marriage.

  6. I am so, so grateful to you Marg for using your talents to speak the truth about the worth and value of women. I am so grateful you come up against sexism in the church. I lived in a home where male domination brought extreme violence. After I accepted Christ, I ended up marrying an abusive spouse who did the same thing. Oh, how I wish the church would have helped me see the worth and value of myself as a woman. Unfortunately, they reinforced the sexism I grew up with.
    I pray that our young women can see the egalatarian nature of God, the Bible and have better lives because of this amazing insight.
    God bless you and I pray that the fruits of this ministry are spread far and wide.

    1. These are my prayers too, Eva.

      I hope you no longer have to deal with male domination. Blessings!

  7. Thanks for writing this article Marg.

  8. Indeed. I have seen many bad military references from complementarians! As far as a ship captain goes, have they never heard of a mutiny? If you are bad enough at your job you might lose it.

    Also, being a woman is not a position or job, that you can quit or change.

  9. On the analogy you encountered, I think one of the con jobs that comps use is their terminology about roles. I think they craft their terms to sound as innocuous as they can, but what they call a role is really a caste. I wish they should be straightforward in their terminology, but even if they choose not to be, we egals can point it out to them.

    1. Sadly, I think the people making these analogies are being sincere and that they are the ones who are conned.

  10. I found this a very helpful read, I love your logic and clarity (and brevity too)

    1. Thanks, Stef.

  11. I’m late to the comment party, but I’ll add a comment here: the pastors at my church believe that the Trinity contains the “equal in value, yet different roles” a.k.a. “eternal subordination of the Son.” God the Father is the boss (the equivalent of a human father or pastor); Jesus is equal in value, but no authority over the Father (the equivalent of a wife or congregant); and the Holy Spirit is like your conscience. This is more of an extreme comp view, yet sadly gaining more popularity. I’m really bothered how “equal in value, with different roles” gets tossed around without much thought. Obviously, restrictions don’t equal equality.

    On a side note, my husband is in the Army. I see a lot of women with authority, and given to their strengths. It’s sad that women are treated better and according to their talents in government than in some churches.

    1. Hi Jamie,

      Thankfully, ESS theology (eternal subordination of the Son) is losing popularity. It seems it was devised with one purpose in mind: to keep women subordinate to men.

      Also, the members of the Trinity don’t always have different or distinct roles. Often they work together, with a sharing and overlap of roles. More on this here.

      Importantly, the Bible never states that the Trinity is a model for marriage or gender relations. (More here.) The model for marriage given by Paul is the unity, yielding, self-sacrifice and love of Christ and his church. (More here.)

  12. Rom 12:6 We have different gifts based on the grace that was given to us. So if your gift is prophecy, use your gift in proportion to your faith.

    7 If your gift is…….. If it is leading, lead enthusiastically. If it is helping, help cheerfully.

    Roman’s 12 speaks about a number of gifts assigned by grace, one of which is leadership. There is a notable absence of any gender reference here, because…

    Leadership is a gift assigned by grace not a role assigned by gender.

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