9 Marks of Healthy Biblical Complementarianism

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In the conservative evangelical circles I mainly inhabit, there is almost no controversy about whether the Bible allows for women to be ordained as pastors and elders. The people I talk to and listen to are firmly convinced complementarians. That is, they (we) believe that God created men and women equal in worth and dignity but with different roles in the home and in the church. At least very least, this means the office of pastor or elder is to be filled by qualified men. The core of complementarianism is not up for discussion.

How we talk about complementarianism is.

And how we practice complementarianism too.

Is the problem that we lack courage or that we are missing compassion? Have we gotten too soft? Or have we gotten too restrictive? Does complementarianism need a re-branding, a reformation, a revival, or a retrieval?

The conversations can be pointed, the rhetoric heated. And yet, the fact that there is an intra-complementarian discussion taking place is a sign of the relative success of the movement. The complementarian camp is large enough to contain a fairly disparate group of people and personalities. The presence of disagreements and the need for definitions should come as no surprise. Sharpening is not a problem, so long as we are not unnecessarily sharp with each other.

So what does a healthy complementarianism look like? I certainly don’t have the last word on the subject. But here are nine important marks.

1. Creation not accommodation. The differences between men and women are rooted in divine design. This is clear from 1 Timothy 2 and from Genesis 1-2. Complementarianism is not about Paul accommodating to a patriarchal first century culture, let alone about us accommodating the expectations of our cultures inside or outside the church. God has something to say about manhood and womanhood. And what God has to say is rooted in what he designed.

2. Function not simply ordination. The first point may seem obvious, like Complementarianism 101, but it’s an important foundation for this second point. If men and women are different by creational design, then we can’t simply quarantine “ordination” and say that manhood and womanhood have no bearing on church ministry or church roles so long as the pastors and elders are men. The issue is not mainly titles or labels or the laying on of hands. The issue is about function. To be sure, complementarians may not agree on where to draw all the lines concerning home groups and Sunday school classes and public worship, but as a starting place for these discussions we have to remember we are talking about the flourishing of divine design, not adhering to a set of narrow and seemingly arbitrary rules.

3. Warmly embraced not quickly checked off. There’s a difference between affirming complementarianism as an act of intellectual throat clearing—“Look, I don’t think women should be pastors either, but…”—and joyfully affirming the vision as good and beautiful and best.

4. Convictional not merely traditional. There’s also a difference between a thoughtful complementarianism based on the exegesis and application of Scripture and a clumsy complementarianism that is little more than the default position of an overly prescriptive cultural traditionalism.

5. Tender not triumphalistic. No doubt, sometimes the troops need to be rallied. In the sexual insanity of our day, the call to courage is surely appropriate. But we need to realize that all kinds of people can be listening in as we talk about biblical manhood and womanhood. Some of those listening are wavering and some are wolves, but some are hurt and some resonate with broken hearts more than with raised banners. We need to be on guard against rhetoric that is all caps all the time. Let us be persuaders, not just pugilists.

6. Principial not personal. It’s human nature: we personalize when we listen and universalize when we speak. Because we’ve gone toe to toe with liberals, we think battle mode is the way to go, always. Or because we’ve had a bad pastor or a brutish boyfriend, we are always slamming the complementarianism we say we believe in. Don’t size up the whole complementarian universe based on a couple of your most painful experiences.

7. Bible and theology affirming not wife and motherhood belittling. We want the women in our churches to read the Bible, study the Bible, and help others understand the Bible. I love that the women at URC are eager to go deep, get good theology, and challenge their hearts and minds. Yes and Amen to women who study the Scriptures. Go ahead and talk about Deuteronomy as well as diapers. And yet, let’s not ridicule the women for talking about diapers! For most women, at some point in their lives, and often for most of their lives, their identity (after being a child of God created in God’s image) will be bound up in being a wife and especially a mother. Moving deeper into the word does not mean moving away from Titus 2.

8. Careful with words not careless. We all use labels. It’s hard to speak of our immeasurably complicated world without them. But if we use negative sounding isms, let’s explain what we mean by them. Let’s not casually label others as “feminist,” “liberal,” “patriarchal,” or “hierarchical,” unless the situation clearly calls for it and we make clear what we mean. A church that has women read the sermon text (a practice I’m not in favor of) is not automatically wed to the spirit of the age, nor is a church which only allows men to teach classes and lead small groups necessarily oppressive and Neanderthal.

9. Leaning against the culture instead of into the culture. The core convictions of complementarianism will not magically seep into our children or into our churches. The cultural breeze is blowing too stiffly against us. Biblical manhood and womanhood must be taught as well as caught. When it comes to the goodness of God’s divine design for men and women, unless we are pushing forward against the forces of sports and media and politics and business and entertainment, we will end up drifting in wrong direction.

I remember years ago hearing a pastor describe his position on homosexuality as theologically conservative and socially progressive. I could tell by the way he was speaking that everything in him was leaning with the wind. He was holding on to orthodoxy by a thin string. So I wasn’t surprised a few years later when he announced the he had changed his mind on homosexuality and now saw nothing wrong with same-sex sexual relationships. In the same way, we must be careful that our complementarianism is deep, thoughtful, rooted, biblical, and utterly at home with being despised, misunderstood, and counter-cultural. Faithfulness does not mean making as many enemies as possible, but it does mean that for the sake of the good, the true, and the beautiful, we are fine with facing opposition when it is impossible to avoid.

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