Celebrating the Beauty of Complementarity in Corporate Worship

by Sam Parkison September 28, 2021

Allow me to highlight a way that our church seeks to celebrate the beauty of gender complementarity during our corporate worship gatherings.

A couple of years ago, as I was reading through the Scriptures, I was struck by 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, where the Corinthians are given the instruction: “but every wife who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head, since it is the same as if her head were shaven” (v.5). As tempting as it is, let me invite you to not get bogged down by the curious element of head coverings in this passage (a topic I’m looking forward to wrestling with when we eventually decide to preach through this controversial book!). Instead, I invite you to zoom in on the thing that struck me a couple of years ago. Namely, the fact that Paul just seems to take for granted that women in the congregation were praying and prophesying publicly. It’s as if he’s saying, “Of course, you know that when you assemble together, the women will be praying and prophesying as well. When they do, make sure that they do it like this.”

Given how self-evident it seems to Paul that women will be routinely praying in the gathered assembly, the persistent absence of sisters praying in our worship gatherings was conspicuous. This was a convicting absence for me, as a pastor. So, I began to think to myself, “Where in our congregation would it be appropriate for that to happen?” At our church, we follow a consistent pattern every week: a biblical call to worship, two songs of praise, a corporate biblical confession, a corporate prayer of confession, a private prayer of confession, a biblical/pastoral assurance of pardon, a song of thanksgiving, the public reading of Scripture for the sermon, the pastoral prayer, the sermon, the communion prayer, communion, a final song of thanksgiving, and the benediction.

The only three times of formal, corporate prayer in our liturgy are (a) the corporate prayer of confession, (b) the pastoral prayer before the sermon, and (c) pastoral prayer before communion. The most natural place to have women lead the congregation in corporate prayer from time to time is obviously the corporate confession. So, I concluded that, at the very least during the weeks that our sisters are leading the worship service entirely, they should also be leading out corporate prayer of confession. I brought the issue to my fellow elders, and they agreed wholeheartedly.

However, that does not mean that the entire liturgy will ever be led by our sisters. Why? For a couple of reasons.

Firstly, when we think about the assurance of pardon and the benediction, both of these elements are saturated with a deeply pastoral flavor that seems to brush up against the activities of “teaching” and “exercising authority” over men, which Paul expressly prohibits for women (1 Timothy 2:12). In other words, as a pastor, I want to protect the able sisters in our congregation from (even inadvertently) disobeying God’s Word. But secondly, and related to the first reason, I think we’d be missing a splendid opportunity to showcase, and revel in, the beauty of gender complementarity if we had our sisters lead out in the entire liturgy. For in doing so, we would either have to invite our sisters to engage in these “pastoral-like” activities, or we would have to make these activities “less-pastoral-like” so as to accommodate the sisters leading. In both of those scenarios, we would be missing out on the beauty of female prayer and worship, and male leadership. Which is precisely what Paul roots his prohibition regarding female teaching within (1 Timothy 2:13-14).

You see, Paul is not arbitrarily saying, “Here’s the one thing that women shouldn’t be doing, but regarding everything else, all bets are off.” Were that the case, we would have to consider this prohibition virtually arbitrary; as if men and women are totally interchangeable, and male leadership in the church in this one activity (i.e., teaching) came down to a coinflip. But Paul’s mindset is far more holistic than this. He roots this instruction all the way back to the garden, arguing that this kind of female leadership in the church isn’t fitting, not just because it goes against the grain of cultural customs, but because it goes against the grain of nature. God made men and women differently, to harmonize with one another and complement one another. Male headship in the home, and male leadership in the church is not an arbitrary structural requirement placed on an otherwise amorphous cosmos—as if everything were malleable, and the relationship between the genders are completely up for grabs outside of those two explicit areas. No, male headship in the home and male leadership in the church is reflective of the structured cosmos that God has placed us all within. There is a grain to the universe, and the instructions God’s Word gives to men and women goes with the grain.

Think about it like a symphony. If it is true that all of creation sings out with praises to God (cf., Psalm 19:1-6), we should be thinking, “Where do I come in? Where do I go loud? Where do I quiet down? When do I sing melody, and when do I sing harmony? Etc. etc.” When God gives men and women unique instructions in Scripture, he isn’t just making arbitrary requirements. He’s giving us instructions on the good life. He’s saying, “You’re not a tuba, you’re a flute; I’ve made you to do trills, so do that right… here,” or “You’re not a cello, you’re a pair of symbols. Don’t just play willy nilly; you need to crash as loud and hard as you can right… here!

This is, in my estimation, the answer to many of the debates regarding “complementarianism” in the western church today. Too often, people get hung up on the particulars. On the one hand, you have people getting hung up on the particulars in such a way that everything becomes a slippery slope. Don’t start doing this, because if you do it won’t be long before you cross this boundary. Always keep the boundary in mind! On the other hand, you have people getting hung up on the particulars in such a way that the particulars become mere fences. As long as we don’t cross that line, everything else is fair game. We’re nowhere near the boundary and we’re not on a slippery slope, so it doesn’t really matter what responsibilities are taken up by men and women!

I think a much better way forward is to see the particulars as reflections of the world that God has made, and indications for the good life. Our Triune God is not capricious or half-baked in his instructions. If he’s instructed for men to be on one trajectory, and for women to be on another complementary one, it’s because he’s made us to function that way, and structuring our lives along those lines will actually lead to our joy.

We can, obviously, find reasons to object. We don’t like the idea that we were made to function in a particular way. We want for things to be more up in the air, arbitrary, and amorphous. We want a cosmos that isn’t structured or hierarchical, but is rather malleable for us to structure as we see fit. But the reality is, whatever we come up with is nowhere near as beautiful as the cathedral God intends to build with the very different material of men and women. To stick with the metaphor (which isn’t all that far off from 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, by the way), if men are stone foundations, built to handle weight and deal with wear and tear, and if women are stained glass windows, equipped to beautify and adorn the structure as a whole (or, made to be a “glory” per 1 Corinthians 11:7), it won’t benefit anyone by putting the stained glass window as the foundation or the stone in the windows.

To bring the issue back to our corporate worship gatherings, we have a beautiful opportunity to revel in the complementarity of godly men and women when we worship, especially on those weeks where our sisters lead in some areas while qualified men continue to lead in others. It is more beautiful, not less, when the voice of a godly sister in Christ articulates our corporate prayer of confession, and it is then complemented by the strong godly voice of a brother in Christ, speaking on behalf of Christ the pastorally tinctured assurance of pardon.

All that to say, I invite you to notice the complementary loveliness of your services as often as you can. When you hear the conspicuous presence of the feminine, revel in it. Praise God for it. Imagine how colorless and lifeless our expression of worship would be without it. And when you hear it complemented with masculine leadership, do the same. As we say in the Emmaus Kids Catechism:

Q: Are boys and girls the same?

A: No, they are different.

Q: Why is this a good thing?

A: Because God’s not boring, and their differences are good!