I know a good number of you are reading The Gospel Coalition website. Some of you have told me so, and some of you regularly comment on various postings. I’m glad. We believers are called to work together for the sake of the gospel of Jesus Christ. The Gospel Coalition is led by a group of pastors who aim to encourage the church in that calling. A good number of my egalitarian friends, motivated by that same calling, have presented me with questions like this one: “Why don’t you just let go of this complementarian thing so we can all get on together with the work of the gospel? This division between us is just getting in the way.”
Many times I have indeed wished this issue would “get out of the way” so that we could all “get on with it.” At times I have thought we might get by with simply not bringing it up—-you know, focusing on the essentials. We seem to be able to do this better with differences in baptism and eschatology, for example. Good ministry happens in all sorts of contexts. Unity and harmony are good. On we go.
It may be helpful to offer a few thoughts on why it is not possible either to “let go of this complementarian thing” or simply to leave it out of the conversation. At a recent TGC Council meeting, a panel of pastors discussed this question. My thoughts may overlap with theirs at some points. Perhaps that’s a good risk, and perhaps that’s even part of the point, as I add my response to these nearly exasperated questions I’m hearing. The goal here, then, is not to argue the issue itself, but rather to say why we cannot stop arguing it (and how that argument should sound).
This issue is deeply personal—-as we all know. We’re not talking about theoretical theological conundrums. Questions regarding womanhood and manhood touch on our most intimate and fundamental identities. It makes sense that they emerge right away in Genesis; they’re primary. Men-and-women-related issues are all about who we human beings are on the most basic level—-which is why they won’t go away or just fade into the background. We carry them around with us all the time.
As I sat in the room at that TGC Council meeting and listened to the panel on complementarianism, I was intensely aware that what those men were discussing has shaped my life in the most personal ways—-my marriage, my church life, my ministry. If I were not committed to the biblical truth and the gospel goodness of what they were discussing, it might have been hard to listen to that discussion. If throughout my life I had not been placed close to many men who know how to lead lovingly, selflessly, and encouragingly, both in the home and in the church, it might indeed have been hard to listen. I am married to a man who consistently, actively values and encourages my gifts. By God’s grace I have experienced and witnessed some of the joyful flourishing that God intends through the created order affirmed by complementarians. If this were not true, it would be harder for me to hear the biblical teachings of headship and submission in marriage, for example. The teachings would still be there to be heard, and there for the purpose of Christ’s glory and his people’s good, but they would ask even more of me—-more trust in God and his Word, by his Spirit. Clearly, these teachings ask a whole lot of men as well as women. These teachings are not about a creed we sign and then leave on the desk as we go about our business; they come with us everywhere, informing our most personal identities day by day.
It’s fascinating to observe the ways in which issues of gender and sexuality dominate cultural interaction on so many levels. Entertainment and advertising industries depend on the magnetic force of sexual attraction in order to be successful. The topic of homosexuality calls to mind not just an issue or a few people but a passionate group of public contenders for rights, and countless stories of personal struggle. The global economic and political reality of abortion as a “women’s issue” sits like an open sore on the cultural landscape, oozing with a multitude of sorrows. Marriage offers not only the starting point for more and more broken relationships but also the fuel for constant, growing debate. The fundamental fact that God created us human beings in his image as male and female must indeed be fundamental in significance. No wonder the New Testament writers keep going back to it. The starting point of creation offers both the deepest joy in reflecting our Creator and also the deepest potential for rebellion against our Creator. These issues and all their ramifications won’t go away, because they are embedded so deeply and personally in us as God’s image bearers.
It’s also relentlessly practical, this issue. In the area of church ministry, for example, the male and female faces seen and voices heard in worship gatherings are constantly saying something to us about what the church is and how we’re meant to live together. In complementarian contexts, it is noticeable and significant that only men stand in the pulpit as ordained preachers. In such contexts, of course, it is also significant to observe the number of women’s faces and voices included or not included in the week-to-week work and worship of the church. For most egalitarians, however, no number of complementary women’s roles can make up for the imbalance in the pulpit. To go to a conference attended by men and women where only men preach would offer in many cases not blessing but offense at a perceived hurtful, unwarranted, leftover patriarchy.
Many, including myself, often speak of wanting complementarians and egalitarians (the labels are so laborious and inadequate!) to get along better as brothers and sisters in Christ, to love and pray for each other, to serve and teach each other with respect and humility. These are good and godly aims. At the heart level, and as we speak about and to each other, we must hold and follow these aims. There is progress to be made—-such as the progress that has been made over the centuries in better affirming and articulating the truth that male and female are created equally and fully in God’s image—-each valued and gifted and loved by God and so to be treated by each other.
Practically speaking, it’s challenging to work out these good aims. The world of publishing is one place that constitutes fertile common ministry territory, so long as we can bring up gender issues with concern for biblical truth and respect for each other. Shared ministry and worship make cooperation not impossible but certainly more difficult. The prospect of ongoing worship together, for example, is problematic not simply because we might regularly offend each other in relation to this so-personal issue. Is it not true that, for ongoing communal worship of complementarians and egalitarians, someone’s conscience must be violated? Could an egalitarian in good conscience “let go” of the gender issue and sit happily under the preaching of only male pastors? Often, in my experience, when such combined groups come together for regular worship, it is the complementarians who, in order to participate fully, must condone practices they believe are unbiblical. (“What about going to chapel when an ordained woman preaches?”) The group that has removed distinctions will with more practical ease call for uninhibited unity. The group that affirms distinctions as biblical will cherish the flourishing life cultivated by those distinctions and will not be willing to relinquish them. The complementarians will be the ones seeming to embrace outdated obstacles to progress, while they believe they are celebrating blessed, centuries-old truths that can be discarded only at the church’s peril.
In the end, this is a biblical issue. There are those of course who do not make biblical faithfulness central in the ongoing discussion. But for those who do, it is painful to disagree exegetically about an issue bearing such personal and practical ramifications, when so many different voices are affirming love for the Lord and his inspired Word, as well as a desire to see that Word proclaimed with gospel faithfulness to the ends of the earth. Neither complementarians nor egalitarians are living out their theology sinlessly; there is no earthly utopia that will offer final proof. Neither is there any example of sinful perversion of a biblical truth that will discount the actual truth. (The heartbreaking, awful fact that some parents sinfully abuse their children does not negate the truth that children are to obey their parents.) Certainly we all need to aim for less finger-pointing and more prayerful humility in both discerning and living out Christ’s call to reflect him in our marriages and our churches. If we do indeed believe that God’s Word is the unerring light to our paths, we can do nothing but keep listening to it and studying it with all our energy, asking God through his Spirit to guide us in its truth. We can be both unashamed and gracious in teaching and obeying what we understand this Word to say clearly—-and extremely careful about what it does not say.
Complementarians find Scripture to speak clearly and cohesively from beginning to end on the subject of human beings as male and female created equally in the image of God and with distinct roles relating to marriage and the church. The prominence and pervasiveness of this strand of Scripture’s teaching, even more than strands like those of baptism modes or eschatological views, make this a biblical issue that merits and even requires regular attention and discussion—-especially in light of contemporary challenges to centuries-old understandings. The fundamentally crucial issue for all of us in these matters must be to hear and obey the Word of God.
So to my egalitarian friends I would say, “Yes, we need to get on with it!” All of us still imperfect believers need to let go of “every weight, and sin which clings so closely,” as Paul says, in order to run the race set before us with endurance to the glorious end. Finally, even though this issue will not go away, we must indeed get on with it, by the Spirit and according to the Word. There is much gospel work to do.