Embracing Complementarianism (book Review)

One of the most enduring controversies through my lifetime has been concerning the role of men and women in both church and family.  The disagreement within evangelicalism has fallen between those who describe themselves as “complementarian” and those who describe themselves “egalitarian.”   I’ve written about the subject with reference to both home and church here, and here and you’ll find definitions and descriptions of the positions in both documents.

I personally take a complementarian position which often seems to involve going against the flow of contemporary society.  Graham Beynon and Jane Tooher pick up on this challenge with their recent book “Embracing Complementarianism: Turning Biblical Convictions into Positive Church Culture.”  They observe that because it is difficult and controversial, many would prefer to skirt away from discussions about it.  They argue that this is a misstep.  Complementarianism, properly understood should not be seen as something difficult which if pressed we are compelled to defend, rather, it should be seen as positive teaching that will encourage healthy church life and the valuing of all men and women as well as their gifts to the benefit of healthy relationships.

The book includes discussion about

  • How society around us views gender and gender roles with consideration of different types of feminism
  • How we are made noting that men and women are equal but different.
  • That God calls men and women into his family and into service
  • That male leadership in church is a good thing
  • What healthy churches and healthy ministry should be like including discussion on why authority is often resisted but is a positive thing.

The book includes plenty of practical suggestions about how healthy complementarianism can be practiced in church.  This includes suggestions for how to engage women in the elders’ deliberations and how to engage their gifts on Sundays and in small group settings too.

There’s also a useful section on how to work through a process of determining your position on complementarianism and communicate it to the church.  For interest, the second of my documents linked above on male and female leadership is an example of the type of position paper used in helping a church determine and communicate its position.

I have a few quibbles and differences with the book. These include a couple of minor stylistic ones.  I find the current tendency for co-written books leads to interrupted flow with the need to constantly clarify who is talking at each point.  Additionally, Christian popular level books have slipped into an irritating habit of including, often superfluous quotes with the cited source introduced each time as “the [role], [name of source]” and when the role  is simply listed asa [author] I’m not sure it adds much.  I also wonder why there is a need on the part of conservative evangelical authors to quote Jordan Petersen and Douglas Murray so frequently, especially to the exclusion of secular commentators from across the political/cultural spectrum.

More signficantly, I think there are three areas where the book is deficient. First, it sets the disagreement up as between complementarians and feminists whereas within the evangelical church the interlocuters identify as “egalitarians”.  Egalitarians are not necessarily the same as feminists and I would suggest that the differences matter to our discussions.

Secondly, whilst an overview of Scriptural teaching is provided, I don’t think that the book gives enough attention to in depth engagement with the key Bible passages including response to different interpretations of them.

Thirdly, given that the complementarianism applies to both home and church I think it is regretful that more attention isn’t given to the former. Indeed, my view is that the church as the spiritual household reflects an outworking of what happens in the family homes of believers.

Finally, the areas where I would disagree, although I don’t think these are particularly major differences I think they are still worth a mention.  First, with reference to church leadership,

Ministry doesn’t mean one thing for a man and another thing for a woman, but all ministry is done within the context of male leadership within the church. So, we expect women to teach, correct, rebuke and encourage, just as men should, and vice versa. While there are overall leadership roles given to men, there are no passages suggesting that the mutual ministry of the church looks different for men than for women.[1]

I agree with the general point here except that I would modify it to say “in the context of male eldership…”  I believe, as explained in more detail in the links, that whilst eldership is male, leadership is not just about elders and not just male. Families need fathers and mothers.  Incidentally, I think I would also prefer to talk in terms of stewardship than leadership because too often the former is associated with secular views of goal setting, influence and status.

In one of the places where family home life is mentioned, the authors write:

elders are the “head of the household”, who take overall responsibility for the teaching, instruction and managing of family life so that it is governed by God’s word and grows in these ways.[2]

Note that in this specific quote, family home life isn’t so much being discussed as used as an example for the church.  Again, I’m in general agreement here but would suggest that whilst 1 Timothy talks about elders being men who are able to manage the home, there is also a Scriptural emphasis on wives/mothers as having managerial responsibilities towards the family including Proverbs 31 but also Paul’s reference to women as busy at home. It’s not a major difference but may affect a little both home life and church life.

Overall, I think the book offers a helpful introduction to complementarian thinking and practice.  I’m encouraged both by the authors willingness to challenge the wrongs of sexism whilst at the same time encouraging a positive embracing of complementarianism.  It would be helpful as a starting point for church leadership teams looking at how to shape their church position or communicate it.  However, there will be a need for further and deeper reading.

[1] Beynon, Graham; Tooher, Jane. Embracing Complementarianism: Turning Biblical Convictions into Positive Church Culture (p. 111). The Good Book Company. Kindle Edition.

[2] Beynon, Graham; Tooher, Jane. Embracing Complementarianism: Turning Biblical Convictions into Positive Church Culture (p. 98). The Good Book Company. Kindle Edition.

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