A friend asked this searching question the other day – not specifically of me. Rather, they asked men who hold to complementarianism what they would lose if they walked away from that position. It’s an interesting one.
In a sense, there might be something to lose. You see, for some pastors/leaders, it would involve losing their position as a pastor. They would have to leave their church/denomination/network. However, it is also worth observing that for some pastors, actually continuing to hold to that position has proved costly. Now, at my previous church, there were differences of opinion in the church and some people passionately held positions different to mine – both those who thought I was too complementarian and those who thought I wasn’t enough. However, I don’t think that it was an issue that any of the elders from either view point would be voted out on. At the same time, the FIEC require that pastors of FIEC churches sign up to a complementarian position whilst at the other end of the spectrum, I talked with three churches last year moving to an egalitarian position where my complementarianism was an obstacle to me being called to them.
On the other hand, my own response was that actually, I don’t on one level have much -if anything to lose. And that was I think the point that the person was raising. Men don’t lose anything in terms of power/authority/ministry opportunities from becoming egalitarian, whilst for a woman, to chose a complementarian position does involve the loss of those opportunities and so the theological decision is in that sense costly and sacrificial. We do well to remember that before we are quick to hold forth. Though I also think this should challenge us to listen well to Complementarian women such as Rebecca McLaughlin, Ros Clarke and Dani Treweek.
The specific challenge for me in that light is that I’ve argued passionately that complementarianism shouldn’t be about power and hierarchy. Yes, there’s something to do with authority and headship, yes there are specific roles and constraints. However, I’ve argued that we shouldn’t overlay those Biblical roles onto worldly business models. I’ve argued that we need to think in terms of family. That being so, I need to be very careful that I don’t make a theoretical claim about this not being about hierarchy, power and position whilst women experience something that is exactly to do with power and position.
But, I think there are things that we lose, not me individually, but maybe be we together as the Church when we lose complementarianism and I think there are two things specifically. The first is that we lose an important, deep and rich picture of the Gospel. Ephesians 5:21-32 presents marriage as a mystery, Paul isn’t just offering practical marriage preparation. He says that he is talking about Christ and the Church. That God (this is an Old Testament theme too) chooses to present his relationship to us in terms of marriage and that this marriage portrays one who is the head but who also stoops in sacrificial love. Complementarianism insists that marriage isn’t about interchangeable or uniform roles and so I would argue has a better grasp on the non-interchangeable relationship between Christ and his church. We relate to someone who is other than us.
Additionally, the beautiful thing about marriage imagery and Christ is that pagan religions often gave the chief god a consort – a helper, a partner but it was unthinkable that this consort would be human. Instead, it was another god -a goddess. In Ephesians 5, we see how we humanity, we the church are raised up by Christ to a wonderful, undeserved position in him.
Before we move on, I want to be clear here by what I mean. I don’t mean that complementarian marriages per-se offer us the best glimpse of that. They should do but sadly we so often fall short. Indeed, my point would be, as with things like fatherhood, that we are not meant to overlay our experience of marriage onto the Gospel. It’s not that the Gospel is a bit like my marriage. Rather, it is that my marriage is meant to be a bit like the Gospel. So my point is that I believe complementarianism gives the best interpretation of Ephesians 5 and other relevant passages -so that it is that understanding of the Bible’s teaching on marriage which we need for a sharper, richer understanding of the Gospel.
The other thing which we lose is in regards to the church. Incidentally, I think that a wrong application of complementarianism can equally lose this. I think that if we walk away from a Biblical complementarianism that we lose the gift of women to the church. Why do I say this? It sounds counter intuitive. The reason links to what I said earlier about the family image. Families need fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters. Now, some approaches that have been (wrongly) labelled “complementarian and some unhelpful applications of it so silence and exclude women from worship, discernment and discipleship that in effect they deny mothers and sisters to the church. However, I think that egalitarianism can end up doing that too. This happens when we see church as a hierarchical competition and so because it is about power and position, we end up seeking to make women into elders – or to use familial language into fathers – rather than allowing them to flourish and welcoming the gifts they bring as mothers and sisters.
If we lose those two things then together we lose quite a lot.