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Gerald Hiestand recently wrote a review of How I Changed My Mind About Women in Leadership (Zondervan) for The Gospel Coalition. He makes the point that the book serves “a useful purpose for complementarians who desire to better understand the existential angst that drove their egalitarian brethren beyond the complementarian fold.” His takeaway is four suggestions as to how complementarians can address that “existential angst.”

The common objection raised against Hiestand’s review was, “Do we need to address the egalitarian existential dilemma? Isn’t Scripture enough?” For Protestants, that’s a fair question. Scripture is sufficient and, for complementarians, it is clear about matters concerning women in ministry. However, the existential dilemma for egalitarians is real and complementarians should not be too dismissive.

Let me clarify what I mean by “existential dilemma.” I don’t have in mind the angst of Jean Paul Sartre, but rather, that complementarianism is unsatisfying to egalitarians. It doesn’t make sense of reality to some. A woman could say, “I am gifted at teaching and preaching. Why would God give me these gifts and desires if I’m not supposed to use them? There must be a different explanation for the restrictive passages in the Bible.” Or there’s the argument that, “Evangelicals have been on the wrong side of justice issues before, such as slavery. How are we sure that we’re not on the wrong side of the women-in-ministry debate?” Pastors should take these concerns seriously and labor to answer them appropriately.

I find John Frame’s “tri-perspectivalism” helpful here. For Frame, knowledge has three perspectives to it: the normative perspective, situational perspective, and existential perspective.

  1. The normative perspective asks, “What do God’s norms [the Bible] direct us to believe?”
  2. The situational perspective asks, “What are the facts?”
  3. The existential perspective asks, “What belief is most satisfying to a believing heart?”

According to Frame (and I think he’s right), “You can’t have one perspective without the others, and with each, you will have the others.” All three perspectives are interdependent.

Now let’s adapt this to the discussion of women in ministry. For complementarians, we believe that God directs us by his Word to restrict women from particular ministry positions (normative). We believe it makes sense of how God created us, both male and female (situational). And assuming that we happily hold to this position, it’s satisfying (existential). We should conform our worldview and feelings around the Word of God—the norm above all norms. But, as with the examples above, one perspective can affect the other two since they are dependent upon each other. A situational perspective can dramatically affect the way the we interpret Scripture, a normative perspective. Therefore, our arguments—especially for pastors—should be persuasive to the situational and existential perspective, as well as the normative.

If we believe complementarianism is biblical, then we can trust that complementarianism makes sense of reality and can be satisfying to believing hearts. To borrow an illustration David Powlison uses for biblical counseling, making the case for complementarianism to another is like jazz. Jazz demands the ability to improvise around a “call-and-response” pattern to a composition. It’s not chaos. It’s centered around one reality—one musical reality—as it bobs and weaves. In the same way, we shouldn’t be scared to move the discussion beyond biblical imperatives, bobbing and weaving from one perspective to the next, knowing full well that each is a perspective of the same reality of God’s design. We can be compelling about interpretive matters in Scripture, as well as to the matters of the human heart. Complementarians are strong on Scripture—praise God for it—but we often perform poorly as we move from the normative perspective to the situational and existential perspectives.

Below are ways, especially for pastors, that might help us think more clearly about the situational and existential realities of our listeners:

  1. Be mindful that there may be women listening to you who have been abused by their husbands or there may be some who have watched their mothers be mistreated by their fathers. A complementarian vision for the family and local church can often times feel like a knife in the ribs. Any argument for authority will sound like a breeding ground for abuse cases. We should be mindful that there are some who may need complementarianism packaged more sensitively. We must not only be mindful of such listeners, but defend them against the abusers. Abuse is horribly sinful and church leaders should actively defend the abused. To be complacent in such matters is grievous. However, complementarianism can be very compelling when men defend the helpless.
  2. We should understand that more and more Christians, especially in the last 20 years, have grown up in local churches where women are in explicit or functional leadership. Or they grew up in homes where the father hasn’t faithfully led his family, leaving much of the decision making and leadership to the wife. Egalitarianism makes perfect sense of their reality and such interpretations of Scripture can seem very compelling. As pastors bring Scripture to bear upon the hearts and lives of such people, keeping these situations in mind can help make a case for complementarianism more persuasive.
  3. I remember sitting with 60,000 other college students, enthralled by the life-changing message of “Don’t Waste Your Life” by John Piper at Passion OneDay 2000 in Memphis, Tennessee. I had never heard anyone preach like that. Like most young Christians, Piper had a huge impact on me. I picked up as many of his books as I could, including Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, which he edited with Wayne Grudem. I can’t imagine that book having the same impact on me without Piper already having affected my life in other areas. So I’m sympathetic to those who shape their views on women in ministry based on someone else’s view—a pastor or author—who has helped shape so many other areas of their lives. We should not be so quick to accuse them of not taking the Bible seriously. To be sure, we should bring the Bible to bear on them, all the while being careful not to undermine the impact someone else has had on their life (in other ways) for good.
  4. Some just need to see it worked out in the life of the church. They need to see that women can joyfully submit to the leadership of their husbands and their pastors. They need to see men who are faithful and kind, strong and loving, courageous and humble in leading their family. For some, consistently watching faithful Christians delighting in God’s design finally causes an “It works!” reaction.

Let’s be quick to recognize that the hangups people often have with complementarianism aren’t just interpretive issues. Unfortunately, they often are more complicated and time-consuming than a rumble over Ephesians 5 or 1 Timothy 2. But the slow plodding, patient appealing, and faithful example will often bear much fruit.