Why I’m still a complementarian

A little while back, Aimee Byrd wrote “Recovering from Biblical Manhood and Womanhood.”  The book was significant because Aimee was writing from a conservative evangelical perspective, she would have at least up until that point been identified as complementarian but in the book she went head to head with the dominant complementarian voices in the US. 

Aimee has been in the spotlight again recently having been invited to speak during a worship service at a Southern Baptist Church.  This has been taken as evidence that she has well and truly left behind complementarianism and embraced egalitarianism. It seems to be seen by some as an act of betrayal and evidence from others that any move from a hard-line position on male leadership roles will lead to that position.

Byrd has responded here.  You will notice two things here. First, Byrd makes a distinction between the regular office of preacher and occasional speaking in church, something akin to prophecy.  This is important because this position has been held by many complementarians for some time. It is in fact the view taken by a lot of Anglican conservatives who are happy for women to hold ordained positions as deacons and curates, so long as the senior minister or vicar is male.  It is also similar to the view I’ve argued for here where I argued that the important thing is that the elders retain responsibility for the regular and authoritative teaching of the church.

The second thing of interest is Aimee’s response to the question of whether she is still a complementarian or is now an egalitarian.

“I am free from the label complementarian or egalitarian. I don’t need them. The questions are more complex than that. Relationships are richer. Service and worship in God’s church is more reciprocal. Men and women are gift.”

Byrd sees these as modern terms that are not relevant to good Biblical exegesis. Interestingly, this seems to be a concern that Elyse Fitzpatrick and Eric Schumacher have in their new book due out by Easter “Jesus and Gender.[1] They have been trying to find a way to escape from the language of “Biblical manhood and Biblical womanhood.”  

I understand the concerns and to a significant extent sympathise.  The language of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood and with it of complementarianism has become extremely toxic.  Indeed, Michael Bird picks up on that problem in this tweet asking whether it is possible for American complementarians to respond to Byrd in a manner that better reflects Gospel love.

This is not a new thing. The way that some men have responded to Aimee and treated her in the past has done nothing to commend their theology and has been outright shameful. As I argued here, if women do not feel safe in our company and our churches then things are badly wrong.

So, it would be tempting to drop the label and find something new. Indeed, that temptation seems to be across the board at the moment. In recent months I’ve seen people wanting to ditch terms including “conservative evangelical” and even “evangelical” itself not because the term evangelical is too fluffy but because it seems to be associated with culture wars and a harsh, politicised agenda.

It would seem that the term “complementarian” would be even easier to ditch.  It refers to one specific aspect of theology and practice.  Do we want to be defined by that. Further, a lot of that theology at times seems to be more culturally/time defined as I argued in Marriage At Work.

And then there is the way in which this one thing seems to have been pushed to a first order matter when it clearly sits at the level of second order. We have to decide how we will structure or local churches but is this something we can break fellowship with other believers over? Surely not.

Yet I’m going to continue to use the label “complementarian” not to say everything that there is to say about me and my theology but as a helpful description of my view on how men and women are meant to relate in the church and the family.

Here’s why. First of all because whilst there is a patriarchal position that assumes that men everywhere are hierarchically over women everywhere, I don’t believe that to be a true complementarian position. I don’t find anything in Scripture when understood through a complementarian lens that requires me to oppose women serving in the military or going into senior management or rising to the role of Prime Minister or President.[2] Strictly speaking, complementarianism comes from the idea that men and women are equal to each other, equal and united in nature but different in a way that means we complement each other.

So, I’ve argued previously that elders are male, because that’s a particular perspective that they are meant to bring. However, leadership is not solely male and that’s because men and women together are needed to serve Christ in the church.  It means that we cannot ignore the concept of headship as we see it in Ephesians 5 -and yes the word contains the concept of authority – but nor can we ignore sacrifice and mutual submission.  If some complementarians have denied the voice of women in the church by not allowing them to use their gifts, egalitarians have also done so by trying to force -fit women into one particular gifting/role, that of elder.  As Fitzgerald and Schumacher argue, we’ve made the question into “who gets to be boss” and that’s a role already taken by someone far better qualified in His Church.

I think the term “complementarian” best describes that position and distinguishes it from the two extremes of either seeing men and women as interchangeable or seeing one as sitting in hierarchy over the other.

And here’s the thing. The term is Biblical. Oh it may have been taken up in the context of contemporary culture battles and it may too often be used to describe an outlook more dependent upon 1950s southern States culture than the Bible or historical Christianity but it is a term that owes its existence to Biblical language.

What do I mean by this? Well, when we  look at Genesis 2:18, we read:

18 Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for[e] him.”

That phrase “fit for him” has the idea in Hebrew of someone who is “like but opposite to….” In other words, someone who has the same nature but faces to so that they bring something different to the situation, they bring a different perspective. In other words, Eve is a helper who complements Adam. 

So complementarian language in my opinion best describes how men and women are meant to relate.  Does that mean each and every relationship is an identikit clone of every other? No.  Does it mean that we have always got it right? Of course not. However, it does seem to best fit the Biblical view of mutual submission in the context of headship.


[1] Watch out for my review coming soon but if want the headline recommendation, it is to get onto your computer and pre-order it.

[2] On this see Steve Kneale here: Women in the armed forces – Building Jerusalem 


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