In defence of complementarianism

One of the things I’ve seen coming up again and again is the suggestion that part of the problem with conservative evangelical culture that needs to change is complementarianism. Indeed, you will notice that the push is to argue that complementarianism is not only a risk factor for creating abusive cultures but furthermore is, in and of itself abusive.

Complementarianism is the position held by many Christians, particularly from a reformed perspective which understands the Bible to teach that men and women are made equal in nature but also distinctive suggesting different roles in life.  It is important to understand that this is the foundational position of complementarianism and that all other beliefs concerning men and women and practices flow out from it. It is also important to recognise that within that context there are also differences between different complementarians.

In family life, complementarianism will therefore argue that Ephesians 5:21-32 has application today.  This means that the husband is the head within the family and has a form of authority which his wife is to submit to. However, the husband is not to use this to domineer but rather is to sacrificially love his wife.  Some, though not all, complementarians will talk about this in terms of mutual submission. 

In the church, complementarianism means that men and women are co-heirs in the Gospel.  It means that both men and women should be using their gifts to serve the Lord. However, it means that the office of elder is specifically restricted to men who meet the specific qualifications set out in 1 Timothy and Titus.  This has implications for teaching and preaching too. Complementarians will as a minimum argue that this restricts women from being the primary authoritative teachers in mixed settings when the whole church gathers.  Some allow for occasional public speaking/preaching though that tends to be rare, however in many contexts, leading worship, prayer, testimony etc are permitted and increasingly the consensus is that whilst only men can be elders, women may serve as part of the leadership team usually in diaconate type roles.

I’ve titled my post “in defence of complementarianism” and so my intention is to say here why I am a complementarian.  My simplest defence is this.

  1. That it best fits the plain meaning of what the Bible teaches
  2. That if the Bible teaches it, then it is God’s will
  3. That God’s revealed will points us to what is good -therefore it will not be abusive.

I recognise as I write that for many people this will be challenging because there is significant disagreement even among evangelicals about this matter.

The starting point is the Genesis passages that talk about the creation of humanity. In Genesis 1:26-28, we are told that God makes man/mankind. Man is made in God’s image but note that the reference here is to mankind or humankind in gender neutral terms, both male and female are made in God’s image and given dominion over creation.  Men do not have dominion over women. 

Then in Genesis 2, the detail is filled in. God makes the male first and commissions him to till and to keep the land.  He also sets boundaries for man, he is not to eat from the fruit of one specific tree. It is in context that God decides that man should not be alone. He needs a helper who is suitable for him. The Hebrew here talks literally about one who is like but also opposite to the man. Here we pick up the first suggestion of both equality and distinction.

Secondly, for teaching about home life, we turn to Ephesians 5, Colossians 4 and 1 Peter 3. Those passages require wives to submit to their husbands. Notice that it is a specific submission to one’s own husband and not to men in general.  Notice too that the context is “as to the Lord” this is not about a husband being able to domineer or control his wife both because this sets the context and because it sets the example for how headship is to be enacted. Finally notice that it is because the husband is the head.

Now, some people have suggested that the word “head” does not refer to authority but merely to “source” as in the head/source of a river. The problem with this is that in context, Paul describes Christ as head over the church and the concept of headship in Ephesians 1 as it applies to Christ does clearly refer to authority.  At the same time, notice that men are to treat their wives like their own bodies in loving them. Headship also includes the purpose of care and so provides a basis for mutual submission too as the husband sacrificially loves his wife, again following the example of Christ.

Thirdly, when it comes to the church, we find teaching in 1 Corinthians 11 and also in 1 Timothy and Titus.  In 1 Timothy and Titus, it is men who are addressed when the qualifications for eldership are described.  Elders are to be faithful to their wives and godly fathers in the home.

I’ve noticed a little red herring crop up recently where people have suggested that the word for “elder” in 1 Timothy 3:1 is a feminine noun. So, I wanted to pause and deal briefly with that here.  The first thing to say is that as with Spanish and French, the grammatical gender of words in Greek and Hebrew must not be immediately and simplistically assumed to be about association the word with the male or female sex. In this context, the instruction is to “anyone who desires” so that clearly the word for elder here is not intended to be gendered in that way here. Paul is not saying “whoever wishes to be an elder-ess” which would be the consequences of such a wooden interpretation. It is worth noting that the word in 1 Timothy 3:1 is a genitive so that grammatically it relates to something else, that could be to “the office of” or potentially to the word “desires” so that the feminine genitive will be a grammatical choice here.

The other usual argument against the complementarian understanding of what Scripture teaches is that we have taken things that are intended for the specific culture of Paul’s day and applied them as transcultural to today’s church. The argument is that when Paul was writing, women were socially, culturally, literally treated as second class and therefore it would have been impossible for them to lead and teach in the church.

Well first of all, I think we should be careful not to try to over second guess the impact of culture but secondly that view point misses something absolutely wonderful and crucial about the New Testament writers and about Christ.  It is clear that they have zero, that’s right zilch, not a shred of interest in upholding unhealthy cultural norms that go against God’s plan. As I’ve argued before, for example, far from Paul endorsing and regulating slavery, he effectively abolishes it by making it clear that masters are to mutually submit to slaves and that people who work should get rewarded (paid) for it.  Furthermore, women are clearly treated as having status and value. Look at the roles that Phoebe, Priscilla and Junia all play in the church. They are not elders but they are prominent, valued and respected.  Then there is Christ who insists that Mary may sit and join in the conversation with the men and who meets and talks face to face, alone with the woman at the well.  No, the image of a timid New Testament tip-toeing carefully across the culture of the day even when it conflicted with gospel imperatives just does not fit the reality.

So, it is my contention that complementarianism is Biblical and therefore right. It will not be abusive because it is what God intends. That’s not of course to say that it cannot be distorted, misrepresented and misused like anything else to enable abuse. That’s why a correct understanding and application are essential.

However, it also means that it is important that we understand why complementarianism is a good thing.  Why God might intend it for good.  So to answer that, I want to first of all note in big picture terms what it asks of all of us and then to show what it specifically asks of men.

For all of us, the requirement of this application is that we are to  in effect act out or provide an image, a reflection, a picture of Christ’s relationship to his church. I believe that this starts with marriage so that husbands and wives are meant to be constantly presenting that beautiful picture of Christ as the husband and the church as the bride. This then flows into the church as the spiritual household and also requires that we don’t set up anything in terms of church leadership that would undermine the portrayal of the heavenly marriage in the earthly home. What can be healthier than seeking to follow the example of Christ here?

Secondly, in terms of men. I want to gently suggest that what is asked of us in the home and indeed in the church reminds us of the nature of our own greatest failure. What did Adam do in the Garden of Eden. He was present but not involved at the Tree, in effect he was physically there but emotionally absent. He abdicated responsibility and he failed to provide and protect.  Then he hid and finally in a further abdication of responsibility, he attempted to shift the blame.  What the New Testament asks of us in church and home is in effect the reversal of that. We cannot abdicate responsibility or shift blame, we must provide and protect, there is no place to hide. Notice at this point please that those requirements also run completely contrary to the character and actions of bullies and abusers.

So, I want to suggest that this application is crucial to our understanding of churches marked by humility, love, servant heartedness and the desire to make our fellowship and service together a joy.

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