As I have observed popular debates about complementarianism over the years, I have noticed how people often confuse what the doctrine is with other associations that have little or nothing to do with the teaching. In short, folks confuse the essence with the accidents.
What do I mean by confusing essence with accidents? An essential property of any object is a property that it must have, while an accidental property of an object is one that it happens to have but that it could lack (source). You may bite into an apple that happens to have a worm in it, but you would be painfully mistaken if you were to conclude that worms are part of the essence of an apple. The apple may be worse for the wear because of the worm, but an apple is an apple with or without the worm. Likewise, you may bite into an apple dipped in caramel. In that case, you can be sure that the apple has been greatly improved. But still, you know that the improvement is an accidental property of that particular apple. The apple is an apple with or without the caramel.
A similar dynamic is in play when we think about biblical doctrines. For example, I am a pastor in a Baptist church. Many Baptist churches across the country have Sunday School every week. Mine does, in fact. But it would be a mistake to conclude from that fact that Sunday School is a part of the essence of being a Baptist. A church can be Baptist with or without Sunday School. Being a Baptist neither stands nor falls on whether Baptist churches have Sunday School. If you think otherwise, then it’s likely that you don’t know what it means to be a Baptist.
This kind of confusion seems to be at the heart of many of the debates about complementarianism that I have observed over the years. Critics of the doctrine make much of the fact that some complementarians espouse essentially literal Bible translation, conservative politics, the eternal functional subordination of the Son (EFS), etc. Other critics point to abuse or misogyny carried out in the name of complementarianism. It is a profound mistake, however, to conclude that any of those things comprise the essence of complementarian doctrine. None of those things are definitional of the doctrine in any way. Some of those things arguably may seem like improvements to complementarianism. Some of them are obviously no improvement to any doctrine. And some of them are in fact in opposition to the essence of the doctrine (e.g., abuse, misogyny). But no matter how you rate them (improvement or detriment), none of them are complementarianism. The doctrine neither stands nor falls on any of them.
Consider, for example, the EFS issue. If someone were to write a tour de force essay or book demolishing EFS once and for all, that person would not have landed a single blow against complementarianism as such. EFS simply is no part of it. If you don’t believe me, go read The Danvers Statement. It’s not there. Obviously, there have been prominent complementarians who have held to some form or other of EFS. But there have also been countless complementarians who have never held to any form of EFS. And they weren’t any less complementarian for not having held it since EFS simply isn’t at the essence of the doctrine. This is why Fred Sanders can say “I am complementarian for utterly predictable, exegetical, non-trinitarian reasons.” The debate about EFS is an important question in its own right and deserves our serious attention. It’s just not definitional of complementarianism. That is why complementarianism didn’t go away after the Trinity debate of 2016. Complementarianism neither stands nor falls on EFS. Those who think it does have confused the essence with an accident and raise questions whether they even know what the doctrine is.
On what basis would I make such a claim that EFS is no part of the complementarian essence? Doesn’t that claim assume that there is some identifiable essence to the doctrine? Well, yes it does. And to get to the bottom of this we have to do a little history. As I have shown at length elsewhere, theologians coined the term complementarianism about a year or so after the drafting of the Danvers Statement. The term actually doesn’t appear anywhere in Danvers itself. They coined the term as a shorthand for the teaching in Danvers. Thus, Danvers represents the essence of the teaching and the measure of what is essential and accidental to the doctrine. If we reject this common point of reference, then we are forced to accept the absurd conclusion that complementarianism is any and everything any complementarian anywhere has ever believed. In short, we’d have to conclude that apples are made out of worms and caramel.
The examples of this fallacy in the literature are just too many to document in a short blog post. And EFS isn’t the only accretion spuriously held forth as an essential ingredient of the doctrine. I simply raise the issue here to encourage readers to be alert to these kinds of fallacious polemics against complementarianism. Make sure you know what complementarianism is when evaluating the writings of critics who employ this fallacy. They often cannot distinguish the apple from the worm, but there is no reason for you to make the same mistake.
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