How did complementarianism end up becoming a boundary marker?

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This was a question asked the other day on twitter. It was expressed I believe as a lament as much as a question. There are Christians who stand foursquare with other evangelicals. They believe the Bible to be God’s inspired word, without error. They confess that Jesus died on the cross to bear the penalty for our sin.  They may well be “reformed” in their theology, affirming the sovereignty of God not just in salvation but in all things.  Yet, the find that a boundary wall has been put between them and brothers and sisters who agree with them on all of those things but differ on one matter.

Indeed, they may well look in on their brothers and sisters who they are separated from with some degree of confusion. Why is it that they are willing to overcome differences over mode and timing of baptism, the days of creation and what communion actually does whilst separating from those who agree with them on those things?

So, I thought it might be worth addressing that issue.  At the outset, I want to put my cards on the table.  I’m a complementarian and I’m part of a local church that holds to a complementarian understanding of leadership in the church and roles in the family. I believe that it is right and necessary for churches to have a clear position on issues like this and to hold to it. I also am happy with church networks such as my own and others like the FIEC and Grace Baptists setting out complementarianism as one of their distinctives.  A network or fellowship is at liberty to determine what is important to them.

However, I do not believe that complementarianism is a first order boundary marker. In other words, if churches are unable to affiliate with your network because they hold to an egalitarian position, it is important to be clear that the issue is that the fit may not be good. And that’s okay, different networks, associations and denominations come with a different feel.  It does not mean that they are in serious doctrinal error, that they are heterodox.

Yet, there is also a reason why it has become a boundary marker and it’s important for those on both sides of the debate to understand why. The reason is that there are potential implications and subtexts to an egalitarian position.  What I mean is this. A lot of the arguments in favour of egalitarianism have been developed using particular forms of hermeneutic. Specifically, we’ve seen the growth of “Redemptive Movement Hermeneutic.”  I engage with that hermeneutic here.

 It’s the belief that the ethics we find in Scripture are culturally bound but on a trajectory. We can therefore apply a new ethic today if our culture is superior to that offered by Scripture.  What that does is set culture over Scripture.  I think you can see why that would be problematic.  The concern of many has been that we are seeing an undermining of Biblical authority and Biblical inerrancy. 

Now, I share that concern. We cannot and must not set culture, reason, tradition or experience over the authority of God’s Word and we should be careful of interpretations of Scripture that do this whether overtly or subtlety. However, I do not believe that every Egalitarian is either doing this or seeking to do this. Some will have adopted R-M-H methodology in order to answer this specific question but have not realised the implications of the choices they have made here.  Indeed, they may be alarmed at how using the methodology might affect their answers to other big questions. They are protected by inconsistency.

Then there are others who have approached Scripture in the same way that complementarians do. They’ve treated it as inerrant and as the authority they submit to. Yet, they have come to different conclusions in their interpretation of specific Bible verses. I may disagree with their conclusions but I can see where they are coming from.

I think that this is important because when we are reaching our conclusions using the same methodology, there’s plenty of room for a conversation. We can hear each other; we can challenge one another.  We might even learn from each other. Yet, when there is disagreement over the methodology, then it makes it harder to even have the conversation. A lot of ground needs clearing first. We are more likely to talk past each other. 

In conclusion:

  1. We need to be asking people how they arrived at their answer, not just the answer they came to.
  2. It is legitimate for associations and networks to take distinctive positions on second/third order issues like this, so long as there is a willingness to recognise and partner with churches/networks that disagree.
  3. We should be careful about turning things into first order doctrinal/fellowship boundary markers when they are not.

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