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R. Albert Mohler Jr. on the State of Complementarianism

November 20, 2019

Editor’s Note: Below is an interview with Dr. R. Albert Mohler, Jr., president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. In the interview, CBMW asks Dr. Mohler about the state of complementarianism and the hermeneutical issues at stake in today’s debates on gender and sexuality.

CBMW: During the conservative resurgence in the Southern Baptist Convention, the issue of women in ministry was a kind of proxy battle in the larger war over inerrancy. In recent years, however, the Southern Baptist Convention has seen the issue of women in ministry crop up again, but this time among inerrantists. What is this larger conflict about? Hermeneutics? Natural revelation?

RAM: Evangelicalism in the 1970s and Southern Baptists in the same era were presented with multiple fronts of theological challenge. Egalitarianism, as a product of second wave feminism, arrived just at the moment when evangelicals were also confronting real challenges to the inspiration and authority of Scripture. For many Southern Baptists, the issue of inerrancy was at first rather abstract. It came down to the fact that seminary professors and others could say that they rejected the word “inerrancy” but still affirmed the truthfulness of Scripture. It was a way of playing with words that left many lay people and some pastors frankly confused. 

But when it came to the question of whether women should serve as the pastor of a church, that was so tangible that all evangelicals and Southern Baptists could understand what was at stake. So it was a hermeneutical issue, yes, but behind the hermeneutical challenge is the fact that the basic issue is the authority of Scripture. Those who disagreed over the question of women serving as pastors (and that is how the question was framed in the 1970s) were operating not only from different hermeneutics, but also from radically different understandings of the inspiration and authority of Scripture. That became more clear over time, and in the crisis and controversy in the Southern Baptist Convention, that was one of the major flash points. It was, frankly, beyond the imagination of Southern Baptists that many of the issues now related to the entire LGBTQ spectrum could even be questions. 

What was also unforeseen was the challenge we face now of defining some of the questions of complementarianism in a new context and for a new generation. To affirm inerrancy is to accept certain hermeneutical boundaries, but it’s clear that to affirm inerrancy does not in itself settle all questions the church now faces over what it means to be male and female in Christ, in the family, and in the church. This is a new challenge, but we do need to recognize that once you affirm the inerrancy of Scripture, you are limited to certain plausible hermeneutical questions. So, the issue of the inspiration and authority of Scripture and the right reading of Scripture are always close at hand with these questions.

CBMW: When complementarianism arises as a topic, it is often caricatured with a defensiveness on what women cannot do, rather than what they can do. What must complementarians do to better project a robust, joyful complementarianism that is not defined (rightly or wrongly) by negation?

RAM: I think we have to recognize the historical context that produced negation. This is the perpetual predicament of those who defend biblical orthodoxy: we’re often in the position of having to say, “The Bible doesn’t teach that.” The reality is that any coherent position includes both affirmation and negation, and we should just be honest about that. 

An affirmation of biblical truth, which would include the affirmation of complementarianism, has to be rooted in a joyful biblical theology that is grounded in God’s purpose in creating human beings in His image, His purpose in making us male and female, instituting marriage, and the gift of sexuality. We must also remember that men and women are to be partners, according to Genesis, in the great work of bringing order and human flourishing; the Bible could not begin more clearly with a positive affirmation. 

The Bible also deals with negation, but all of this has to be set within a joyful biblical theology. Neither complementarianism nor trinitarianism or any other theological truth can be presented without the necessity of being clear about what the Bible teaches and what’s incompatible with biblical revelation. And if complementarians have failed to demonstrate a joyful biblical theology that begins with the celebration of the goodness of what God has created and the rightness of that order and the beauty of humanity as made in God’s image and the glory of the assignments given to men and women, then shame on us. But this is also a reminder that our theology has to show up not only in arguments, but in a comprehensive affirmation of biblical truth joyfully presented to the people of God.

CBMW: On your ranking of pressing needs within confessional evangelicalism, how important is the recovery of natural revelation? Does this mean an embrace of natural law?

RAM: This has been a long debate in Protestant circles and one that I entered formally in the 1980s, largely through involvement with Dr. Carl F. H. Henry. Dr. Henry and I presented papers on this very issue at an academic conference even as the LGBT revolution was appearing on the horizon. In a determination to be biblically and theologically consistent, I have to argue that our theology can never be based upon natural revelation. 

Given the effects of human sin, natural revelation and natural law turn out to be far less convincing than they ought to be. Political and moral debates in the United States over the last 30 years have underlined this truth clearly, if disappointingly. For example, in debates over the sanctity of human life and the integrity of marriage, arguments from natural law alone should have been convincing to Americans based upon what God has revealed in the natural order. But clearly, they were not. And I have failed to uncover a single example in which someone has been genuinely convicted or convinced by natural revelation or by natural law alone on any matter of major controversy. 

Evangelicals solidly grounded in the Protestant Reformation understand the truthfulness of the natural law, and we also understand its cogency and convincing power once one is committed to a biblical view of life and the world. The problem is that those who most often operate from a different worldview refuse, as Romans 1 makes clear, to see what is truthfully and authoritatively revealed in natural revelation and through the natural law. Evangelicals, by the way, can make full use of natural law reasoning as a structure of argument, but the argument still has to be based ultimately on biblical authority and drawn from biblical sources. Natural law becomes illustrative and demonstrative — not foundational.

CBMW: In recent years, CBMW has broadened its mission to include the Nashville Statement alongside the Danvers Statement. It did so in order to equip evangelicals on issues related to sexuality, especially in the aftermath of the LGBT revolution. What is your understanding of the relationship between Danvers and Nashville, and how important are the issues addressed in these confessional statements to evangelical faithfulness?

RAM: The Danvers Statement appeared at the very time that some were making the argument that evangelicals should embrace an egalitarian worldview and a hermeneutic required in order to justify an egalitarian argument, period. Put simply, explicit biblical teachings have to be relativized and enormous hermetical obstacles have to be overcome in order to get to the point where one can argue that a woman should serve as a pastor of a church. 

As a young Southern Baptist, I began to look very closely at how these arguments for egalitarianism were being made, and I discovered that long before they appeared in some evangelical circles, far less among Southern Baptists, they were very common in mainline Protestantism. In particular, I started looking at the arguments being made within American Episcopal circles, and what I discovered is that, already by the mid and late 1980s, the same people who had been arguing in the 1970s for egalitarianism were already arguing for what was then styled “gay rights” or “gay liberation.” And I noticed it was the same hermeneutic, it was the very same approach to Scripture. These were entirely parallel arguments, and sometimes they were even the same argument. So it didn’t take much detective work to recognize that the LGBT revolution would follow very fast on the heels of second wave feminism, and that calls for evangelicals to join the gay rights revolution, as it was called, would follow fast on the heels of egalitarianism.  

Now, I want to be careful. This is not to say that all who affirm egalitarianism are logically required to affirm the positions advocated by the LGBT movement. It is to say — and I’m glad to go on the record on this and have for many years — that the hermeneutic is essentially the same. So, egalitarians who do not go on to affirm the sexual revolution, I think they do so as an act of will, not as a requirement of their hermeneutic. 

The last part of your question comes down to the fact that much of what has happened in the evangelical world since the early 1980s would have been inexplicable without the specific affirmations and denials of the Danvers Statement. And I think, over time, the same will be true of the Nashville Statement. Part of our responsibility is to do exactly what those two statements do, following the example of other confessional statements and doctrinal statements such as the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. We have to be clear about what we affirm and then what that simultaneously denies, and written statements are absolutely necessary if there’s going to be mutual accountability.

CBMW: The Danvers Statement was written to address challenges from feminism. Thirty years later, the Nashville Statement was written to address other challenges, like those surrounding identity, orientation, and transgenderism. The pace at which these challenges evolve isn’t slowing — what do you see in the next wave of challenges that complementarianism will need to address? Where does the revolt from reason and natural revelation ultimately take our culture?

RAM: At this point, it is not at all clear what the end game will be, but we do know that once the hermeneutical brakes are taken off, there are virtually no limitations on what will be allowable and eventually celebrated. So, the egalitarian movement was followed very quickly by the gay rights and gay liberation movements, and then they were transformed at the level of individual identity, and then the gender revolution — and by that I mean the rejection of the so-called gender binary. All this has happened within not only my adult lifetime, but really within a single generation. That pace of social and moral change is unprecedented, as has been noted by even secular historians, who may contrast the speed of our current moral revolutions as compared to, for example, the very long period required for western civilization to put an end to the slave trade. 

Now in late modernity you have social change aided and abetted by the breakdown of the family, the erosion of social cohesion, the volatility of social and digital media, and even now various forms of transhumanism and the confusion of human beings and machines, human beings and other creatures. A society that loses a coherent definition of what it means to be human is a society in which it will be increasingly dangerous to be a human being.

CBMW: Why should evangelical pastors and theologians devote energy to promoting and defending complementarianism?

RAM: I don’t believe for a moment that evangelical pastors, leaders, or church members should spend any time whatsoever defending complementarianism as complementarianism. There is no time to be wasted in the support of any mere “ism,” but the church has the responsibility to receive, to celebrate, to teach, to preach, and to apply the Word of God and all that it contains. So, I would argue that an affirmation of what Scripture teaches, beginning in the very first chapters of the Bible, will require a definition and defense of complementarianism — but not as complementarianism, but as God’s revealed truth. 

Luther rightly said that we have to defend the Word of God at the very point at which it’s being attacked. I think we understand that that means we have to be willing to define a position as established in Scripture and defend it; but no doctrine stands alone, and eventually no doctrine can be defended alone. Eventually the church must stand clearly upon the comprehensiveness of biblical truth. In that sense, every doctrinal battle, every doctrinal controversy represents multiple dangers. One is to avoid all necessary definition, and the other would be to define the issue in a way that is abstracted from the totality of biblical truth. That’s a good reminder to those of us who are complementarians: we don’t start out in our self-identity by being complementarians, but by being committed to the gospel, to Christ, and to the Scripture — and then trying to live that out and think that through faithfully.

CBMW: Imagine a dystopic future where the Southern Baptist Convention endorses same-sex marriage. What acts of capitulation must we now safeguard against so we do not accommodate?

RAM: I have to go back to an assertion I made earlier based upon the observations that came to me even as a doctoral student back in the 1980s. That is, the parallelism between the hermeneutic of egalitarianism and the hermeneutic of the so-called sexual revolution and, eventually, and far more radically, the hermeneutic that facilitates the denial of the so-called gender binary. I think the tripwire would be allowing and facilitating an approach to Scripture that would allow what Scripture does not allow and would fail to affirm what Scripture does affirm, and I guess even before that would be embarrassment over holding to biblical truth. We’re social creatures, and that’s a very powerful social impetus. The secular world around us is doing its best to make us embarrassed to hold to virtually any vestige of biblical truth. Sadly, some of those same pressures are found among some who consider themselves to be evangelicals who think the only hope for evangelicalism is becoming less offensive to the world. There will be no end for that logic. 

CBMW: What are the blind spots within complementarianism that we must do better to address?

RAM: I think one of the most dangerous blind spots or challenges for complementarians is being very clear that complementarianism does not mean male superiority. It just doesn’t. It instead affirms different and distinct roles for men and women in church and in the home. But it is not grounded in male superiority; it is grounded in various arguments in Scripture, some based in creation, but the fundamental issue is that there is a stewardship of authority and a stewardship of responsibility that is assigned to men — and not just to men, but to husbands and fathers in the home and the church, specifically to those who are called to spiritual leadership in the teaching office. So it’s wrongly understood to imply that every man in the church has authority over every woman in the church. That’s simply not true. 

Another blind spot I think we have to watch is failing to correct abuses that come in the name of complementarianism. Any time you talk about a structure in creation in which there are different assignments of authority and responsibility, then evil men can use such arguments to their own sexual, physical, and narcissistic inclinations. Consequently, complementarians who are not careful can allow not only men to believe that they are in a position of some male superiority, but girls and women to believe that what is being taught is female inferiority. So I think we’ve learned over the course of the last several years that this is not a hypothetical danger, and it needs to be articulated very clearly. 

CBMW: What must evangelical denominations do in the present to secure a future complementarian witness? 

RAM: Preach the Word in season and out of season. Be always ready to give an answer for the hope that is in you. It’s the same exhortation given to every generation of Christians. We don’t demonize egalitarians, but we do and must offer a robust counter-argument. We can’t assume — and I think in many ways this is the greatest danger — that younger evangelicals have thought through these issues, because so many of them came to adulthood long after the debates reached evangelicalism in the 80s and 90s. So assume nothing. Teach everything revealed in Scripture, and do so happily, confidently, and in a way that’s matched by our own obedience. Our arguments will mean nothing if contradicted by our lives.

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