If it happens that ongoing developments encourage a rethink among some of those people who consider themselves egalitarian, a move to a more biblical understanding by former egalitarians will be aided by two main gestures by complementarians.
First, good arguments. Complementarians need to do more than show that the exegesis of the debated texts is brutally against the egalitarian position. This is true, and we need to keep showing this carefully, clearly, and forcefully (and, I would say, winsomely as well). But we need to also show how a complementarian position makes better sense of the Bible’s teaching on authority, love, and equality; and makes better sense of things such as the Trinity, of salvation, of human nature and the like. In short, that the position of the church for two millennia on how human life is ordered, and particularly in the home and the church, makes better sense of life, and life lived by faith in Christ, than this grubby interloper sneaking in waving Enlightenment credentials as though they are a genuine basis for theology or ethics.
We have to show, not just that the Bible says what we claim it does, but that what it is saying is genuinely good to those whose culturally-informed instincts are to see its teaching as evil and who therefore to reject it as not really the teaching of the Bible (because all Christians know that the Bible can’t teach something evil and so will accept any reading, however strained, rather than one that seems genuinely harmful). We need to do what we have been doing, but expand the debate out to show how our views stand behind a whole range of critical components of Christian belief and practice. We need to show that necessary submission arising out of gender-based relationships is good for women, good for men, and good for church. We need to take a stab at showing why God’s commands limiting women’s authority over men are expressions of his goodness.
The other thing will probably be even more important, however. Complementarians will need to do church well. If egalitarianism is substantially wrong (which it is), and has some fundamental connections with theological liberalism, then it will probably lead to limited growth and systemic problems in church life. A correlation will be observed over time between having women in senior leadership positions and the age, gender make-up, and numerical growth of congregations, and the biblical literacy and spiritual formation of their members. Churches with a long history of women in charge will, over time, tend to have older congregations, little new growth through evangelism of the unchurched, a lot more women than men actively involved, decreasing levels of biblical and theological literacy, and produce few new young leaders seeking ordination—that is, much the same demographics as liberal churches.
As always, whether that correlation is also due to causation will be merrily contested ad infinitum, but the correlation should appear, just as it has with evangelicalism’s quarrel with liberalism. And this will lead some egalitarians to reconsider their view and look for a solution. Cue complementarianism waiting in the wings.
But complementarianism can be true and still have those problems, or other ones equally off-putting. Bad theology makes godliness hard but good theology doesn’t make godliness automatic. Timothy was called on to watch his doctrine and life. However, if women thrive in complementarian churches—if non-leading women (and non-leading men) flourish in complementarian, supposedly ‘authoritarian’, churches more than in egalitarian ones; if the churches themselves flourish numerically because more kids grow up to own the faith of their parents, more families are involved in the life of the church, and more unchurched are reached, and if women leaders in those churches are treated with a genuine dignity and honour and not as second-class citizens, most of the criticisms and concerns of egalitarians will be hard to maintain by those who are fair-minded. It’s hard to see all that and still say, “But youse are all misogynists!” (The criticisms still will be maintained, because not all human beings are fair-minded, but you can’t have everything.) If complementarians show by their actions that people are treated with dignity and honour and as equals even though they don’t get to ‘call the shots’, that will make it hard for thoughtful egalitarians to believe that our position really is a form of apartheid. And that will mean some egalitarians will reconsider and move in a more complementarian direction.
So the future of this debate is going to involve some big changes in institutions, and some of those changes will create a ‘teaching moment’ for some of those people who considered themselves favourable to women’s ordination. For those of us who are complementarian, the challenge will be to recognize this and reach out relationally and conceptually to help them move to a more biblical and more edifying way.