In 2019, I wrote an essay for Eikon about “Mere Complementarianism.” I wrote the essay in part to confront an idea that seemed to be gaining traction within evangelical discussions about gender. A growing chorus of voices had been making the claim that complementarianism is a new doctrinal innovation invented by Baby Boomer evangelicals in the late 20th century. They claimed it was a theological novelty that would peter out when the baby boomers are no more. In his newsletter, Aaron Renn has made this case at length, writing that…
The future of complementarianism looks grim, because it was developed as a response to a specific set of cultural circumstances in the late 1980s that no longer exist, and because it’s a theology of the Baby Boomers, especially the early half of that generation, that seems likely to fade away along with them.
In Renn’s essay, the term “complementarianism” reduces to a sociological descriptor rather than a theological one. This basic stance toward complementarianism has been extended in a spate of recent books which treat the doctrine as if it were created out of whole cloth by white men who wish to assert and maintain a destructive patriarchy. Just yesterday on social media, Beth Moore apologized for ever having supported such a man-made doctrine and admonished anyone who treats complementarianism as a first order doctrine. The Religion News Service ran a story with reaction from historian Kristin DuMez, who is even more pointed, saying…
This whole complementrian[sic] ideology is a historical construction… All the packaging that comes with it — what it means to be a man, what it means to be a woman — that’s a historical and cultural creation, even as it’s packaged and sold as timeless, inerrant and biblical.
Beth Allison Barr weighs-in similarly, saying that Moore’s words are like the war-cry of Joshua and the Israelites at Jericho and will cause the complementarian walls to crumble,
She just shouted. This is going to be the beginning of the end of complementarianism.
I will resist the urge to rewrite my 2019 essay. If you want to read my more fully formed thoughts on this, you can read them here. Having said that, it is worth making several observations about these things.
1. I take the “man-made doctrine” charge seriously. Jesus directed one of his harshest rebukes against scribes and Pharisees who had elevated man’s opinion to the level of God’s revelation:
Matthew 15:7-9, “You hypocrites, rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you, saying, ‘This people honors Me with their lips, But their heart is far away from Me. But in vain do they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men‘” (emphasis mine).
The implication of Jesus’ words is clear. No one should ever elevate a man’s opinion over Scripture. Anyone who does such a thing would rightly fall under this censure from the Lord himself. Applied to the current discussion, this means that if the claims about complementarianism being a man-made doctrine were true, then you should not believe in the teaching. Indeed, you would be morally obligated to expose the false teaching for what it is along the lines that Jesus reproved the scribes and Pharisees. Have the courage of your convictions, and let your flag fly. What you should not do is go quiet about your convictions. Thankfully, some people are now voicing their dissent, and it is clarifying indeed.
2. The claim that complementarianism is a man-made doctrinal innovation is a myth. The word “complementarianism” is indeed a relatively new term. But it is a new term coined to refer to an ancient teaching that is rooted in the text of Scripture. On the contrary, egalitarianism is the doctrinal innovation, not the biblical idea that men and women are created equally in God’s image with distinct and complementary differences. Indeed, some version of what we now call “complementarianism” is what the church has assumed for its entire 2,000-year history. Recent attempts to flip this script amount to unserious historical revisionism.
Complementarianism is not a “man-made” doctrine. It is a summary of what the Bible has always said about manhood and womanhood. In fact, the term was designed as a shorthand for the biblical doctrine articulated in the Danvers Statement. If you haven’t read Danvers, you won’t really understand what complementarianism is as a theological proposition. The Danvers Statement says things like this:
Anyone who reads these bullets and concludes that these are “man-made” doctrines is deeply mistaken. This is a faithful summary of what is taught in Holy Scripture, and our consciences are bound to Scripture as God’s inerrant and unchanging word. God’s truth is good for us. His special and distinct design of male and female image-bearers is all for our blessing and flourishing. These differences bear witness to the most precious gift of all—the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ (Eph. 5:32).
3. Complementarians have always held this teaching as a second order doctrine not as a first order doctrine. It is on the level of baptism in our doctrinal hierarchy. It is not on the level of the deity of Christ or the Trinity. To be wrong on a second order issue does not mean that someone is not a Christian. Having said that, there are two important caveats to add to this observation.
Caveat One: This does not mean that second order issues are unimportant. They certainly are very important, for they define who we can do church with. A church will either baptize babies, or it won’t. A church will either be congregational, or it won’t. There are no “in between” positions on these questions. Likewise, a church will allow female pastors, or it won’t. It will either hold husbands accountable as heads of their home, or it won’t. There is no “in between” position. That is why these second order doctrines are rightly a part of our church confessions. It is why denominations like my own have undertaken to define these issues as a doctrinal basis for our work together. A big part of our mission work together involves church planting. Those churches will either have female preachers, or they won’t. That is why it has been absolutely right and necessary for denominations like my own to define confessionally second order issues like complementarianism.
Caveat Two: History has proven that complementarianism is a second order doctrine that frequently implicates first order doctrines. In this way, complementarianism isn’t like other second order doctrines (e.g., baptism). Historically, we don’t see a lot of evidence for differences over baptism being a gateway to denial of first order doctrines. The same is not true of people who depart from biblical teaching on biblical manhood and womanhood. Those departures are often followed or accompanied by more serious departures. Perhaps Lig Duncan has said it best:
The denial of complementarianism undermines the church’s practical embrace of the authority of Scripture (thus eventually and inevitably harming the church’s witness to the Gospel). The gymnastics required to get from “I do not allow a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man,” in the Bible, to “I do allow a woman to teach and to exercise authority over a man” in the actual practice of the local church, are devastating to the functional authority of the Scripture in the life of the people of God.
By the way, this is one reason why I think we just don’t see many strongly inerrantist-egalitarians (meaning: those who hold unwaveringly to inerrancy and also to egalitarianism) in the younger generation of evangelicalism. Many if not most evangelical egalitarians today have significant qualms about inerrancy, and are embracing things like trajectory hermeneutics, etc. to justify their positions. Inerrancy or egalitarianism, one or the other, eventually wins out.
I know that this latter charge is difficult for egalitarians to hear—especially those that remain committed to evangelical faith (and there are many!). This isn’t a universal statement about all egalitarians. Nevertheless, the existence of egalitarian evangelicals does not mitigate the dangers of egalitarian approaches to Scripture over the long haul, and that is Lig’s point. And we have seen those potentialities played out so many times in history.
Several years ago, Mark Dever published an article in which he compared the relative weight of the complementarian issue to that of baptism and church polity. In doing so, he invoked his continuing love and admiration for his mentor Roger Nicole, who was an egalitarian. Dever’s remarks are worth quoting at length:
“Well then” you might say “why don’t you leave this issue of complementarianism at the level of baptism or church polity? Surely you cooperate with those who disagree with you on such matters.” Because, though I could be wrong, it is my best and most sober judgment that this position is effectively an undermining of–a breach in–the authority of Scripture…
Dear reader, you may not agree with me on this. And I don’t desire to be right in my fears. But it seems to me and others (many who are younger than myself) that this issue of egalitarianism and complementarianism is increasingly acting as the watershed distinguishing those who will accommodate Scripture to culture, and those who will attempt to shape culture by Scripture. You may disagree, but this is our honest concern before God. It is no lack of charity, nor honesty. It is no desire for power or tradition for tradition’s sake. It is our sober conclusion from observing the last 50 years.
Paedobaptism is not novel… But, on the good side, evangelicals who have taught such a doctrine have continued to be otherwise faithful to Scripture for 5 centuries now. And many times their faithfulness have put those of us who may have a better doctrine of baptism to shame! Egalitarianism is novel. Its theological tendencies have not had such a long track record. And the track record they have had so far is not encouraging.
Of course there are issues more central to the gospel than gender issues. However, there may be no way the authority of Scripture is being undermined more quickly or more thoroughly in our day than through the hermeneutics of egalitarian readings of the Bible. And when the authority of Scripture is undermined, the gospel will not long be acknowledged. Therefore, love for God, the gospel, and future generations, demands the careful presentation and pressing of the complementarian position.
I think Dever is right. Wisdom is vindicated by her children, and you will know them by their fruits (Matt. 7:16-20). A quick glance at the historical record shows that the offspring of egalitarianism have not fared well over the long haul. I recently finished reading yet another book in which an embrace of egalitarianism goes hand-in-hand with a denial of inerrancy. More and more this embrace goes hand in hand with an affirmation of LGBT. These trajectories are not new. They are well-worn paths that discerning Christians will be wise to avoid and that faithful pastors will lead their flocks away from. Colin Smothers wrote a discerning article two years ago explaining these trajectories. He writes,
We should acknowledge that many egalitarians don’t believe the Bible condones homosexuality. But generally speaking, the ability to maintain those commitments is more a function of doctrinal precommitments, not hermeneutics. While defending their position, many egalitarians employ the same hermeneutical method used to affirm same-sex relationships. Interestingly, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a complementarian church that endorses homosexuality. In fact, if a church affirms homosexuality, you can be sure that the church is also already thoroughly egalitarian.
Our culture’s current focus on intersectional grievance is only making these ruts even deeper. Faithful Christians will be need to be vigilant against these temptations.
4. A wise friend once said to me that complementarians often run the risk of minding the fences while ignoring the field. What she meant was that we can be so focused on boundaries that we forget the wide places in between. And it is in those spaces that there is great freedom and opportunity for both men and women to have meaningful ministries within the church. Yes, there are clear boundaries in Scripture for men and women in ministry, but this does not negate the opportunities for ministry that God gives to men and women. No Christian—male or female—should ever feel they are without a ministry. There is plenty of room to roam in the field, and the boundaries help us to see that. I still believe that with my whole heart.
My sincere pastoral concern, however, is that the wide places in between are not wide enough for some. Certain complementarians are making a bee-line for the fences to see how sturdy they are or perhaps even to see whether they can straddle the boundary. Some wish to gather momentum and numbers to make a full scale assault on the boundary. These kinds of challenges to the biblical teaching are underway right now.
Faithful pastors and ministry leaders who care about the Bible’s functional authority within the church are going to have to prepare themselves and their congregations for these challenges. These conflicts are only going to get worse in the days ahead. That means we are going to need more discipleship and more biblical grounding for God’s people. More instructing husbands about how self-sacrificially to lead, protect, and provide for their families. More exhortation to wives to affirm and support that leadership. More encouragement for singles to embrace the calling God has given them and to spend their singleness for the glory of Christ and to be fully assimilated into the life and ministry of the church. More instruction for children about what it means to be male and female image-bearers and God’s design for each. More teaching God’s people to do everything that Jesus has commanded us, not just the things that go with the grain of the ambient culture (Matt. 28:19-20; Gal. 1:10).
The biblical vision of manhood and womanhood is under assault right now. Contrary to what the critics are saying, the Bible’s complementarian vision of male and female is the most beautiful, life-giving, culture-reforming, gospel-inculcating vision on offer. If we are going to be faithful to Christ in our generation, we must model and declare that vision anew in the face of new challenges. I’m in for the long haul. I hope and pray you will be too.
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