There’s more than one type of complementarian

The other day, I wrote in response to Aimee Byrd’s article claiming that complementarians could not listen.  One of the issues I and others have raised is that Aimee seems to assume that there is only one type of complementarian.   Aimee has set herself up as neither complementarian nor egalitarian as though this is a binary choice between extremes and therefore moderates can offer a third way in between the extremes.

In reality, we are not dealing with a binary choice. In fact, there is in my opinion a kind of spectrum meaning that some egalitarians will find themselves more in agreement with some complementarians than with certain other egalitarians and so too for complementarians.

So, under the egalitarian umbrella we might include those who are radical feminists and those who believe in gender interchangeability. At that end of the spectrum are those who believe that there is essentially no difference between men and women at all, just as at the other extreme are those who treat men and women as though they have different natures. However, egalitarianism also includes those who recognise that men and women are made equal but different.  They will recognise that this means that men and women will differ in terms of what they contribute to family life and ministry.  They do not think this should be a hierarchy or job title matter in the life of the church, so they will happily appoint women as elders and pastors but their concern will not be just for equal rights but also and more importantly that the church benefits from all  gifts and voices.

Egalitarians will also include those who have come to their position by employing liberal hermeneutics such as the Redemptive Movement Hermeneutic which undermines the inerrancy of Scripture. However, there are also egalitarians who have reached their conclusions whilst holding to conservative/reformed hermeneutics. They’ve approached the text of Scripture in the same way as other conservative evangelical friends but they have reached a different interpretation. It’s worth reminding ourselves that we believe in the infallibility and inerrancy of Scripture, not our interpretations.

In the same way, there are differences of approach within complementarianism.  First of all, there are those who act as though they believe that men and women have different natures and treat women as a lesser species. They seem to propose a genuinely hierarchical system where all men everywhere may exercise authority over all women everywhere.  I am not even sure that we can strictly describe this as complementarian.[1] True complementarianism assumes that whilst there are distinctions between men and women, that they have the same nature and are made equally in God’s image.

Those who lean towards that position are likely to believe that women should not have leadership roles in any walk of life including the workplace and in politics. In fact, their assumption tends to be that men and women function in different spheres so men are responsible for the public sphere of workplace, government, military and church whilst women, under the authority of men are responsible for the private sphere of home and family. 

However, many complementarians would argue that the question of different gender roles is limited specifically to the family and to church.  So, for example, most UK based complementarians have had no problem with having not just one but three female Prime Ministers and for most of the last 100 years, a female head of state too.  Perhaps this latter experience has affected conservative evangelical thinking in parts of the Commonwealth such as Australia too.

In terms of church life, complementarians include:

  • Those who believe that only men can be pastors/elders/ deacons and preach/teach in the church. In other words, all leadership and authority positions are held by men.
  • Those who believe that only men can be elders and preach/teach but include women on the leadership team, primarily as deacons with practical responsibilities.
  • Those who believe that only men can be elders but allow for women to preach/teach occasionally under the authority of the elders.
  • Those who believe that eldership is male but that leadership is both male and female. This means they include female leaders as part of plural leadership who have spiritual responsibilities
  • Those who believe women can be ordained to ministerial roles within the church as long as the senior minister is male.

However, there are two other factors to consider.  The first is seen in Aimee’s interaction with Dani Treweek.  Dani has ben ordained within the Anglican Church, so properly speaking she is the Rev Dr Dani Treweek.  Aimee argues that Dani cannot possibly be a complementarian and ordained.

However, apart from the point that Dani is ordained and is complementarian (if a bloke had told Dani that she couldn’t possibly be both of those things they would have been rightly in a lot of trouble for mansplaining!)  Aimee’s argument misses another point.  Many complementarians simply do not recognise the “ordained/non ordained” distinction.  I have been an elder and pastor in a church, I have leadership and teaching responsibilities but I’m not ordained and do not use the title “Rev”. That’s because I come from an evangelical tradition that takes particular objection to distinctions between laity and clergy.  We want to emphasise the priesthood of all believers. 

So for many of us, the debate has nothing to do with ordination at all.  In fact some of the concerns that those in Anglican and Presbyterian denominations have about the need for ordination simply don’t apply to our context.  In reality, there are lots of things that in a church that requires ordination and licencing that the majority of women and men could not do.   In our church context there are no barriers to a woman sharing what God has laid on her heart or leading communion.  When we had a teenage girl at our old church who wanted to be baptised and asked if one of the women could do the baptism, there was no problem whatsoever. 

This leads to another difference.  I’m increasingly uncomfortable with people talking about complementarians saying that men have authority over women in the church or the family.  It’s not that the word “authority” is necessarily wrong but the phrasing there suggests hierarchy and power/control over.  I don’t think that this is what the Bible is getting at when it talks about headship.  Rather, authority is not about power over in order to command.  Authority is about being authorised to. So, I want to emphasise the responsibility that husbands and elders have to provide and protect. Headship is not about having people under you to boss about. It’s about having people given into your care to look after.

That’s why I personally find models that get us thinking in terms of institutions and hierarchies unhelpful.  We do better to use family language.  Churches as families need father figures but they also need mothers too. 

If we are to listen better, then it is important that we don’t assume that those holding a different position to us can all be lumped under the same umbrella.  We need to appreciate the nuances and differences within opposite positions.  We also need to allow others to describe their position rather than imposing it on them. 

[1] I’m also not sure that those who push certain radical feminist and gender interchangeable positions are strictly speaking egalitarians because they either do not see a difference in gender or they are in effect seeking to reverse the hierarchy. 

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