Four Clarifying (I Hope) Thoughts on the Complementarian Conversation

Let me get two caveats out of the way at the outset.

First, this post is not about Aimee Byrd’s new book, Recovering from Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. The post is occasioned by its release and the conversation surrounding it, but I’m not trying to engage directly with the book or the responses to it.

Second, if complementarianism can be thick or thin, broad or narrow, then my perspective lands on the broad or thick side of the spectrum. I don’t want to be coy about my theological convictions. I believe that by God’s design we are born as men or women, and that this distinction is not first of all about ordination or who can preach but is a distinction that functions in all of life and in all kinds of activity. More on this point later.

With these caveats in place, here are four thoughts—clarifying in my own mind, if not in anyone else’s—on the current conversation.

1. There are lot of questions worth asking. We should be clear about the questions we mean to answer without denigrating or altogether ignoring other important questions.

In my own thinking and writing on this topic, I’ve found John Piper’s question extremely helpful: If your son asks you what it means to be a man, or your daughter asks you what it means to be a woman, what would you say? I appreciate the real-world practicality of the question. I have sons and daughters, and they need to know (and as they get older, want to know) what it means to be a man or a woman. I can talk about being made in God’s image and growing in Christlikeness. Indeed, I should talk about these things often. But the question about growing up into a man or a woman sharpens the tip of the theological spear. “Daddy, what does godliness look like for me as a boy?” “What does godliness look like for me as a girl?” Godliness for my sons and my daughters will look the same in all sorts of foundational ways, but it will also look different in a host of other ways.

If your son asks you what it means to be a man, or your daughter asks you what it means to be a woman, what would you say?

Complementarianism means not only affirming the existence of “a host of other ways” as a general truth, but also trying to help men and women practically know what these differences entail. If the term means anything, then surely complementarianism is about, at least in part, the inherent goodness in the divinely designed difference between the sexes. If we don’t say anything about that difference—and how it’s wonderfully true and beautiful and promotes the flourishing of men and women and children and families and society—then we are neglecting the uniquely good news of this thing we call complementarianism.

So that’s one important question: what does it mean to be a man or a woman? I don’t believe any substantive Christian conversation about men and women can ignore this question. This is especially true for a conversation among complementarian Christians. But I realize it’s not the only important question. You may feel the question of the hour is something else. “Daddy, are girls worth as much to God as boys?” Or, “Mommy, is it okay for girls to be experts in the Bible?” Or, “Can men learn things from women?” These are important questions too (and the answer to all of them is “yes;” and yes, men can ask women for directions). To ask any one of these questions should not be to deny the legitimacy of other questions. We won’t all be drawn to the same questions, but we can acknowledge—and with more than a clearing of the throat—that when it comes to talking about men and women there are many beautiful truths to affirm and a number of ugly lies to refute.

2. We should be mindful of the way our experiences, and especially our own sense of the most pressing dangers, shape what we want to talk about and what we want to guard against.

I freely admit that I usually see dangers on my left more quickly than I see the dangers on my right. I grew up in public schools—in Grand Rapids mind you, but still I was more conservative than most of my teachers and classmates. I then went to a middle-of-the-road Christian school where the majority of the students and professors were quite a bit to the left of me. I served for most of my ministry in a mainline denomination where my friends and I were considered the rightmost tent peg in the denomination. I see the dangers of liberal theology clearly. I know that some slopes are steep and slippery. I can sniff out theological compromise from a mile away, and I think that nose has served me well.

I’m not naïve that there are people to the right of me, but I tend to think their mistakes are obvious and confined to some alt-right fever swamp. Everyone knows that hyper-conservative patriarchy is dangerous, so why are we talking about it? But perhaps not everyone knows what I think they know or sees what I think surely everyone must see.

It’s also important for me to recognize that I’ve seen in my life mainly healthy gender dynamics. My parents love each other. My churches have been full of godly, intelligent, flourishing, strongly complementarian women. Most of my friends have very good marriages. Whatever I know to be true in my head about abuse or whatever I’ve seen of sin and dysfunction in marriages in nearly 20 years of pastoral ministry, there’s no doubt that it still feels deep in my psyche like most husbands are bound to be pretty good and most complementarian men are apt to be fundamentally decent. I don’t have a bunch of stories of boneheaded complementarians. But I don’t deny they are out there—men in our circles saying and doing cringey, offensive, or genuinely sinful things toward women in the church. That I don’t see them doesn’t make them unreal, and that other people have seen them does not make them ubiquitous. My point is we should all be aware that we tend to assume our experiences are normative and the divergent experiences of others are exceptional. This should make us quick to sympathize and slow to accuse.

So what is the most pressing issue facing the church today when it comes to men and women?

In recognizing our own inclinations, hopefully we will be less likely to project the worst of the dangers we see upon those who rightfully see other dangers.

There is no scientific answer to that question. It may seem obvious to you that gender confusion is the big issue, or abuse, or runaway feminism, or a wrongheaded complementarianism, or the worth of women, or the war on boys. I would be foolish to say you aren’t seeing what you think you are seeing. For all I know, you’ve been surrounded by male creeps your whole life. Our assessment of what surely everyone knows and what surely everyone must be warned against may be understandably different. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not calling for an easy intellectual relativism that says, “I guess we are all equally right (or wrong).” I’m suggesting that we should be honest—first of all with ourselves—about what we perceive to be the biggest dangers and why. In recognizing our own inclinations, hopefully we will be less likely to project the worst of the dangers we see upon those who rightfully see other dangers.

3. We should ask ourselves in these discussions whether we want to poke, to provoke, or to persuade.

I think there is a time for all three P’s. Poking and provoking have their place. They are useful in starting conversations and stirring up controversy. But they don’t usually support the goal of persuading.

We live in a day of intense polarization and tribalization. That’s true in politics and true in the church. We may think we are arguing about theology or exegesis. But often we are just raising the flag and rallying the troops. One side thinks of themselves as Team Compassion and the other side as Team Power, while the other side thinks of themselves as Team Truth and the other side as Team Compromise. Of course, people do abuse power and people do compromise the truth. And yet, the sides are often instincts more than arguments, which is perfect for a medium like Twitter where arguments are difficult to make but virtue signaling, outrage, snark, and put-downs are easy.

Our theology must not be formed by personal anecdote or personal angst.

I often think of Spurgeon’s line that when we must enter into polemics, we ought to make sure our words are soft and our arguments are hard. These issues are too important to get Spurgeon’s dictum backward. Our views on men and women must be rooted in robust exegesis and in a careful reading of the catholic tradition of the church. Our theology must not be formed by personal anecdote or personal angst. This goes for those being instructed and especially for those doing the instruction.

Across the political, theological, and ecclesiastical spectrum a lot of us would do well to ask: Am I committed to edifying those who disagree, or am I really more interested in entertaining those already on my side?

4. We need to consider whether the Bible’s “rules” regarding men and women, and even some of our cultural assumptions about masculinity and femininity, are rooted in something deeper than passing stereotypes and something more comprehensive than prescriptive fiat.

I hope no one denies that men and women are equally made in the image of God; they share the same human nature. And at the same time, I believe it’s absolutely critical to affirm (and celebrate!) that this shared human nature finds different expressions in manhood and in womanhood. As Herman Bavinck puts it, “The human nature given to man and woman is one and the same, but in each of them it exists in a unique way. And this distinction functions in all of life and in all kinds of activity” (The Christian Family, 68).

In other words, we are not philosophical nominalists who deny universals and believe only in particulars. We don’t just have males and females; there also exists maleness and femaleness. God did not create androgynous human beings, and he does not redeem us to become androgynous Christians. God made us male and female, and he sanctifies us by the Spirit so that we might follow Christ as men and follow Christ as women.

One of the themes in Bavinck’s book on the Christian family is that grace does not eradicate nature or elevate nature, but grace restores nature. God is in the business of returning us to what was once declared “very good.” That means that while male and female is nothing when it comes to being justified in Christ, the fact that we were created with a specific sex has everything to do with living as justified Christians. We must not misconstrue or despise our God-given sexual difference. “It has been willed by God and grounded in nature,” Bavinck observes. God is “the sovereign Designer of sex; man and woman have God to thank not only for their human nature, but also for their different sexes and natures” (5).

I belabor this point because I fear that the “rules” of complementarianism—male headship in the home and male eldership in the church—are sometimes construed as divine strictures absent any deeper recognition of natural theology and sexual difference. Allow for a homely analogy. Suppose you have two identical basketballs—one you reserve for outdoor use and one you set aside for indoor use. The “rules” of complementarianism are not like the arbitrary labeling of two basketballs. They both work the same way and can essentially do the same thing, except that God has decreed that the two basketballs be set apart for different functions. That’s a capricious complementarianism held together by an admirable submission to Scripture, but in time will lack any coherent or compelling reason for the existence of different “rules” in the first place.

But suppose you have a basketball and an American football. They are similar things, used toward similar ends. You could even attempt to use the two balls interchangeably. But the attempt would prove awkward, and in the long run the game would change if you kept shooting free throws with a football or kept trying to execute a run-pass-option with a basketball. The rules for each ball are not arbitrary. They are rooted in the different structure, shape, and purpose for each ball. It’s not the nature of a basketball to be used in football. In other words, the rules are rooted in nature.

Any attempt to recover biblical manhood and womanhood, or any effort as Christians to recover from the recovering, must start with the recognition that sexual difference is not simply a marker of who may hold the office of elder; it is an indication of the sort of image bearer God wants us to be in all of life. Of course, this does not mean we are bound to impermeable definitions of masculinity and femininity. As Bavinck argues, “No man is complete without some feminine qualities, no woman is complete without some masculine qualities” (8). But the fact that we can speak of some qualities being feminine and some being masculine assumes that sexual difference is real and can be identified.

Nature itself teaches this distinction. The man and the woman, Bavinck points out, differ in physical structure and physical strength, in different rights and duties, in different work before and within marriage, and in different responsibilities relative to the home and to the world (25). Later, Bavinck admits that describing the distinctions “crisply and clearly” between man and woman is difficult. Nevertheless, the distinctions exist and can be set in terms of main features (67). There are outward differences in size and shape, in strength and tone. There are different needs, different movements, and different capacities for suffering. There are differences in the life of the soul related to thinking, feeling, evaluating, and imagining. There are differences in the way they perceive religion and morality (67-69). There are differences in the place men and women occupy in the church and in the home. If the husband is called to be the head of the family, then the wife is called to be its heart (95).

This design is reflected not only in the “very good” of Eden, but in the very bad as well. The sin in the garden was, among other things, a reversal of the family order. Eve took charge, and Adam followed her. Eve sinned not just as a person, but as a woman and a wife; Adam sinned as a man and a husband (10). Not surprisingly, then, Adam was punished in his manly calling as a cultivator of the earth, while Eve was punished in her womanly calling as a cultivator of the womb. God’s callings and God’s chastisements are not indifferent to sexual difference.

Sexual difference is the way of God’s wisdom and grace.

Men and women are prone to different sins and defects (70). Marriage is, therefore, not just a complementary arrangement, but a corrective one. Man and woman are interdependent but not interchangeable. Marriage is God’s good gift because it is “thus grounded in the nature of both” (70). When the man exercises authority in the home he is not just filling a role, he is living out what it means to be a man. And when the woman supports her husband and cares for her children, she is doing the same relative to being a woman.

Way of Wisdom and Grace

This article has already gone on much longer than I intended, so let me close with this final thought.

There is room for different conclusions when it comes to living out biblical manhood and womanhood. We must know our church, know our context, know our family, and do our best to apply what we see in the Bible. But variation is one thing when we end up with different applications; it’s another thing when we aren’t starting from the same place. And that means a theology that elucidates rather than elides the central fact that God made us male and female.

Manhood and womanhood cannot be reduced to authority and submission, or to leadership and nurture. But these things are meaningful expressions of what it means to be a man and a woman, rooted not just in the names we give to people but in nature itself. The expression of nature will not look identical in the church and outside the church, married and single, younger and older, but, importantly, it does look like something and should be visible. Sexual difference is the way of God’s wisdom and grace. The most authentic and most attractive complementarianism will delight in this design and seek to promote, with our lives and with our lips, all that is good and true and beautiful in God making us men and women.