Complementarianism words, movements and organisations

Aimee Byrd’s argument is that when she attacks Complementarians that she is attacking a specific movement, namely the Campaign for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood.  Her argument is that anyone who holds a different position to them cannot be complementarian even if they think they are.  Why, because one particular group of complementarians, the ones that she has in her sights don’t think that the rest of us qualify for the label.

Aimee’s argument is that the word “complementarian” was in effect created by the originators of the Danvers Statement and editors of Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood.  The word didn’t exist before the movement and so the movement is entitled to own and control the word’s usage.

This looks to me like a misunderstanding of how language works and also how movements work.  We encountered something similar with the #BlackLivesMatter movement when people using the hashtag were told that to do so was to support Marxist ideology because some of those involved in the creation and propagation of the slogan at the start were committed to Marxism and have influenced a specific organisation using that name in that political direction.

I argued at the time that there is a difference between the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter, the organisation #BlackLivesMatter and a movement sharing the slogan. You see, movements are different to institutions. A movement by definition cannot be restricted to and contained within one institution.  It is an organic thing and has a life of its own.  You cannot claim that you are starting a movement, it is only later in time that you can look back in hindsight and see that a movement grew out of your idea, organisation or event.  Nor, can you assume that as a founder of a movement that you have control over its direction.  That’s what makes movements both exciting and dangerous at the same time.

So, what about complementarianism? When Aimee Byrd says that anyone who claims to be complementarian today must align with the position of CMBW she is assuming that the CBMW organisation is the Complementarian movement.  She is also assuming that it’s position has been completely watertight, unchanged and uniform since its conception.

That’s not really how things happened.  The truth is that when the Danvers Statement was put together and when the book, Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood was written, the authors were not creating something new.  Rather, they were formulating statements and choosing words to describe something that was already the case, in reaction to new ideas that were coming in.

Complementarianism refers to the root idea that men and women were made to complement one another. It’s based on the wording in Genesis 2 where God identifies the need for a companion for Adam who will be like him but opposite to him.  The word, therefore at its most basic meaning reflects the understanding that men and women are created equal in God’s image and are co-heirs in Christ but have different roles and responsibilities within church and family.  This is and was the understanding of many (perhaps most) Christians prior to the 1980s.

So, when someone said “we have a word for this” instinctively, Christians from across different denominations and networks recognised the word as helpfully describing their position and so were supportive of what the authors of the book and statement were seeking to do.

It is worth remembering therefore that there were numerous contributors to the book and countless signatories to the Statement who even within that context would not have agreed on every single issue.  This also means that there may well have been people who contributed to the book and signed the statement back then who would be deeply uncomfortable with some of the statements made and positions taken by those currently associated with CBMW.

Whilst, in 2010, I happily cited and agreed with some of the chapters in RBMW for my dissertation on marriage, I cannot agree with those claiming to represent the same movement who promote a specific idea of what it means to be a man, so called Biblical Masculinity.  Even as I agreed with some things in the book, I disagreed strongly with others. 

For example, I argued that Piper’s description of the role of the husband and father was shaped more by Southern US culture circa 1950 than by Scripture. I also disagreed with NT scholar Peter O’Brien when he argued that mutual submission was impossible.  I did so, citing older authors such as John Calvin who endorsed mutual submission but also referenced men like Phillip Hacking who overlap with CBMW and would be supportive of its general position but also agreed that Ephesians 5 speaks of mutual submission within the context of husbandly headship.

So, just because some people realised that an English translation of a Hebrew word helpfully sums up a particular description of human relationships does not mean that they can own and control that word and then import additional meaning into it.

Further, just because a particular organisation exists that uses a name, whether that name is Complementarian or #BlackLivesMatter does not mean that the organisation is the same as the movement, can define or control the movement or that those who are within the movement are therefore tarred with the same brush as the organisation.

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