Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Complementarians, You Have Some 'splaining to Do!

Last week, the Christian section of the blogosphere erupted with posts about the role of women in Christianity, and after reading many of these posts I'm left with lots of questions about the Complementarian movement.  (For those of you just joining us, they're the group that thinks women should take a submissive role to men.)

I must say that I envy Rachel Held Evans, the blogger who started last week's blog topic.  With the sleight of her hand, she got the blogosphere talking about this topic, and even my own writers were stumbling over themselves to meet her deadline.  (Why don't they meet my deadlines with that sort of enthusiasm?)

Anyway, here's some of the issues that you complementarians out there need to work out:

1 - You're Inconsistent.  You claim that women shouldn't act in authority over men, but it happens all the time.  (For example, every married complementarian man that I know asks his wife for permission to do everything.  The domestic implications are never taken seriously.)  Women who can't be preachers or music ministers are allowed to become missionaries and take up those leadership roles as long as they are in other countries.  And the churches that espouse complementarian beliefs have women speak from the pulpit as guest speakers or lead worship for the church once in a while without anyone complaining.  I am told that this is different because these women are "acting under the authority of a man."  Well, if that's the case, then we should be able to promote women to senior pastors as long as the president of the association is a man, right?   Since none of these things exist in the Bible (senior pastors, denominational associations, worship leaders, etc...) we are all just making up our own rules.

These inconsistencies exist, in my opinion, because the complementarians can't make heads or tails of this issue any more than the rest of us.  They've set up some rules but can't back them up absolutely, so they bend those rules with ad hoc explanations and expect us to ignore the problem this creates.  But if it's OK for women to be in authority sometimes then why not at all times?

2 - You've Confused Your View with Patriarchy.  Is the 1950s housewife something your church believes in as an icon of womanhood?  Is that Biblical, or just traditional?

 The ideal woman, according to most complementarians.

Of course, it's not Biblical.  The Bible describes the ideal woman in Proverbs 31, and, among other things, she buys land with her family's money without discussing the deal with her husband - she's that good and she doesn't need his advice or approval.  Can you imagine a complementarian husband coming home to find that his wife had purchased a house or a field without his input?

The ideal woman, according to the Bible.  (image)

3 - Stop Assuming that Egalitarians Don't Respect the Bible.  Every single defense of complementarianism I've seen includes a phrase like, "we complementarians take the Bible seriously," or, "in these situations we must turn to the Word of God and not our social agendas," or, my favorite, "egalitarians simply are not submitting to God."  These are childish character attacks, and I don't see why every defense of complementarianism needs to be limited to an assumption that no one else respects the Bible.  Your Egalitarian friends are Bible-believing Christians, like yourselves, who are not convinced that the Bible agrees with your views.  (Besides how would you like it if I accused you of using your views to keep women in line?  Surely, no one would use complementarianism as an excuse for their own bigotry, right?)  You like to say that "it all comes down to how we read the Bible," but you're wrong.  The Bible passages about women are confusing, and people with the same hermeneutic approach will come to different opinions.

4 - The Bible Never Says that Women in Ministry is "Not Ideal" or the Result of Men Not "Stepping Up."  When women do ministry work in the Bible they are praised for it, and there are no caveats that say that the women were only there because the men were absent - that's something that complementarians like to throw in.  I'm told by complementarians that if men would "step up" then women would not have to do ministry work, but that's not a real argument - it's just rhetoric.  (If cats would "step up" then men and women wouldn't have to do things, but that doesn't prove anything.)  Of course, that argument also insists that women, for some reason, shouldn't have to work.  Once again, that's not Biblical.   The Bible does not ask men to shield women from responsibility.

This is especially funny to me, because the complementarians are always accusing the egalitarians of following social agendas (those uppity femenists!) rather than the Bible, but I see that complementarians are merely imposing Father Knows Best into their theology.

"You've got your cultural traditions in my theology!"  "No, you've got your theology in my cultural traditions!"

5 - There's No Reason to Oppose Women Having Careers.  I read the entire Bible as a teenager looking for answers, and I was very surprised to find out what was not in there.  Why would anyone insist that a woman should stay home while the man works?  There's nothing in the Bible about that sort of thing.  Again, this is a chauvinist, patriarchal fantasy.  Some Christian leaders teach that women should avoid working to stay at home with the kids, but they are only giving us their opinions based on their own Leave it to Beaver Nostalgia - the Bible does not limit a woman's career choices.


OK, I'm done, and I hope to never discuss this again because (1) I like this site to be appealing to non-Christians and this is the sort of topic that drives the away, and (2) I'm tired of typing the word "complementarian."  I mistype it every time.


Anna M. said...

Well, Adam, I think you’ve got some ‘splaining to do! =)

This is why I hate labels. Not all complementarians believe the same things!! The most common type of complementariansI I have found don’t fit into your understanding of complementarians.

1) Your definition of authority is very loose here. There are different types and levels of authority. The type of authority I think men have in limited situations (head over a local church, and in a marriage/family) is not a domineering authority. It is the type of authority that allows freedom but the ultimate responsibility lies with the person in charge. And in a marriage this is balanced with what is said in Eph 5 – sacrificial love not domineering love. Thus in a marriage OF COURSE a husband will seek permission from his wife for some things. Because an Ephesians 5 husband will not run over his wife. He cares for her and he wants her input, and there is a way in which they make decisions together, because a husband who makes decisions without his wife is showing selfishness and not Eph 5.

As for your comment about women preaching from a pulpit. I’m all for that – as long as there is a male in authority. Now your comment “Well, if that's the case, then we should be able to promote women to senior pastors as long as the president of the association is a man, right?” Nope. Well, I say no because I know you go to a Baptist church. And in the Baptist world the associations hold NO authority over local churches. You might want to brush up on your Baptist polity. =) Now if you apply that to a top-down denomination – say Episcopal….maybe that could work. But only – ONLY - if the person in authority over that local church truly took that task seriously.

2) “Is the 1950s housewife something your church believes in as an icon of womanhood? Is that Biblical, or just traditional?” No and Yes. At least for me it is. After all before there was June Cleaver there was the Proverb 31 woman. I believe that male authority would encourage the type of woman we see in proverb 31. Encourage your wife, or the women in your congregation to use the gifts to the best of their ability. If the male authority does not do that then I believe he will be held accountable for that – and God won’t be too happy with him.

While there may be some complementarians who confuse June Cleaver as a biblical woman – not all do. Please don’t lump them all together.

3) Stop assuming complementarians don’t respect the Bible.
The comments you cite from some are divisive and hurt the discussion that needs to go on. But to be completely honest I have heard just as many egalitarians say the EXACT SAME THINGS. Remember every time you point a finger you have 3 more pointing back at you. =) (And I say “you” because you’ve lumped all complementarians together – so I am lumping all egalitarians together.)

Also, as for the other blog you mentioned who got this whole discussion going this past week…. Yah, she isn’t open to discussion. I posted a comment on her blog pointing a major flaw in one of her arguments (she took a passage out of context and used it as a neon sign supporting her view) and I suggested that she abandon that as a support for her view and use other passages instead. Yah… she deleted my comment.

Anna M. said...

Part 2:

4) You’re right the bible never says women in ministry is not ideal. It praises women for their work. BUT it does say that men are to be head pastors. You can’t just look at women in ministry – you have to separate out ministry the way the bible does. There is something different about the role of head pastor – the requirements are very different. Women are never praised for being head pastors in the Bible. They are praised for all the other amazing work they do.

While some may be imposing Father Knows Best into their theology there are just as many who do not.

5) Only the extremes who use the label “complementarian” think women should not have a career. There are A LOT of complementarians who celebrate and support women having careers and doing amazing things in churches – even preaching.

Mark Boone said...

I can't see how any of this refutes the complementarian view. But there are a number of good points about the way complementarianism is practiced.

Number 3 seems overstated. Surely not "every single defense." I'm a complementarian, but the whole point of my "Albert, Beth, and Chris" post was to get past that sort of thing. And was such an accusation leveled against egalitarians in "Complementarian or Egalitarian? Yes and No"?

Adam Jones said...


1 - My definition is not like yours. That proves my point. Try as much as you like, I doubt you could prove to me that your definition of "authority" is correct, simply because the Bible is not terribly specific about the extent of this authority. Why should I fill in the blanks with restrictions when I could justify freedom in those blanks just as easily? No one can tell me.

The head of the Baptists has authority in the local church. He oversees the guidelines of each church in the association and can work to remove said church from the association itself. Now, that may not be the authority you want to see in place, but it's authority of some sort. Who's to say exactly how much control a man must have before it's the acceptable amount of authority?

2 - The average complimentarian wants a woman who is #2 in the household, but the Proverbs 31 woman is a leader.

3 - I'm sorry that you think I'm being unfair to lump all of the complementarians together, but I keep seeing the same arguments in each article, and it's distracting from the actual discussion. It's a trend that needs to end.

4 - What are the requirements of a head pastor? I never read about one of those in the Bible. Men are not praised for being head pastors, either, not anymore than they are praised for being fiber optic engineers. The first churches met in people's houses, and our method of doing church doesn't equate very well.

5 - Complimentarian leaders, like John Piper, say that women should stay at home and avoid working. That's baggage that a complementarian cannot avoid carrying with them because it's so commonly spoken from the top of the movement. And it's foolishness. The complementarians would do well to rid themselves of such nonsense and call those people what they are: "chauvanists."

Mark Boone said...

Adam, on number 3, is it possible that you have mistaken an argument that egalitarians have misunderstood some passage of Scripture for an argument that they don't take it seriously?

Adam Jones said...


When I read a defense of Complementarianism, it will imply the author takes a higher view of Scripture than their opponents. It's a strong trend in those articles.

Mark Boone said...

A "strong trend" doesn't equal everyone.

Have you really never read one defense of complementarianism that did not accuse egalitarians of not taking Scripture seriously instead of simply misunderstanding it?

reneamac said...

Mark, I haven't read any published (book-form) defenses of C that did not accuse Es of being too loose or liberal with Scripture.

It's certainly the position of heaviest hitters Piper and Grudem.

Mark Boone said...
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Mark Boone said...
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Mark Boone said...
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Mark Boone said...

All very interesting, but my concern was Adam's remark that "every single defense" he's seen makes this claim. I find that very hard to believe.


But since you brought them up, do Piper and Grudem say that all egalitarians don't take the Bible seriously, or only that some don't?

(And were Piper and Grudem writing scholarly works responding to major theologians who just happened to be Chris [who rejects the authority of Scripture], rather than Beth [who doesn't]?)

Mark Boone said...

Maybe I misunderstood the scope of Adam's remark. I thought it referred to websites, including this one. Did it only refer to books?

Adam Jones said...

Mark, if you want to split hairs, there's probably something I've read defending complementarianism that doesn't involve such things, but that's far, far, far from the norm.

Mark Boone said...

Thank you! That's all I need to hear!

FoucaultsShadow said...

Does this issue matter to the non-white, non-affluent, non-Western, non-Christian? As with most Christian issues, they are only relevant and/or interesting in the unpersecuted West? That is, the root of modern Christian thought has its origins in boredom?

Ultimately, each position is indefinitely contestable, and the arguments for both are only more or less strong depending on the cultural assumptions in play(?) In the end, isn't this simply a discourse on power--who should have it and why?

Lastly, Egalitarians make the assumption that their position is normative, when other forms might be more functional in non-Western cultures?

reneamac said...

Grudem accuses Webb--in a review of SW&H in a scholarly journal--of contradicting "the Reformation principle of sola Scriptura," denying NT authority, and reading the Bible in a way "entirely foreign to the way God intended..."

Grudem is perhaps the heaviest C heavyweight. That he so accuses Webb, who couldn't make his commitment to Scripture more clear, is weightier, I think, then whether Grudem would say all Es play fast and loose with Scripture. To accuse someone as conservative and careful as Webb is essentially to accuse all.

Anna M. said...

Adam, how are you defining authority?

1) While the Bible does not give the 7 points to authority as we may wish, it does describe authority. Here is where I get my understanding of authority in relation to the marriage relationship and the church structure:

Eph 5.24, compares the relationship between husband and wife to that of the submission of the church to Christ. And, the relationship of Christ and the church is not an egalitarian one. I’m not about to delineate all the biblical texts that explain how the church is supposed to submit to Christ. But if you look at those they will describe what authority is and how one responds to it. It is authority based in chesed (pure loving-kindness). This is not a domineering authority, but one that is always seeking the best for the other, sacrificial love.

As for authority in the church, (again no bullet points or treatise is provided like we may wish) but my understanding of church authority comes from the following passages: Titus and the Timothy (both are written to the authority/leaders in churches and as such there is much within these books that describe authority and how that looks); Heb 13.17; Acts 20.28; 1 Peter 5.

As for the comment about Baptist structure. There is no “head of the Baptists” – there may be some who desire this mythical position, but it does not exist. Baptist churches, associations and conventions choose to mutually cooperate. Either side can choose to terminate the relationship at any time for any reason. The following website explains this relationship: http://www.baptistdistinctives.org/wpassets/article15_7_25_05.pdf

2) There are many complementarians who do want this. But there are many who do not. There are more than two sides to the issue.

3) I’m sorry, but your lumping people together does not help the issue either. It only continues to polarize the issue limits the ability to have discussions.

4) No we don’t do church like they did in the NT. I use the term “head pastor” to avoid confusion with the other types of pastors that churches have today. My term would correlate most to the overseers, and elders mentioned in the Bible - and their requirements are given in the pastoral epistles. And, yes, church leaders are praised (2tim 1.3, 1thess 2.13).

5) Yup those things are foolish. But so are the Egalitarians who come out swinging and lambast anyone who disagrees and actively seeks fights on this issue (I have met MANY egalitarians who are this way.) Through your logic they give all egalitarians a bad name and you should call these people out and call them what they are “close-minded fools.”

Anna M. said...

"To accuse someone as conservative and careful as Webb is essentially to accuse all."

Really? That's quite a leap.

I sure don't agree with Grudem in much of what he says, but that is an unfair statement.

reneamac said...

Grudem makes himself clear: anyone who does not read NT patriarchal commentary "literally" (except for "three to five 'culturally relative' commands... that carry symbolic meaning" (which speaks to Webb's point (and Adam's) about inconsistency)) does not take the Bible seriously.

Anna M. said...


Well, if he says that then that is something different. That is different than what you said before.

But I am curious, where exactly does he say that for one to not take it "literally" does not take the bible "seriously"?

if i am looking in the right place, i am looking at the article by grudem that was linked a few posts back. i have found in this article where he talks about 3-5 culturally relevant commands.(which he prefaces with "my suggestion" which hints at possibly some humility in how he presents his view) but i have not found where he says the other. granted, i have not read the whole article. what page is this on? or is it in a different source?

there is much grudem says i dislike, and i would not be surprised if he does say something like that - but i would like to read it for myself.

reneamac said...

Anna, the way in which Grudem accuses Webb of a "fundamenta[l]" "denial" of the authority of Scripture because Webb does not believe certain texts regarding women to be universally applicable ("written... not for us to 'move beyond,' but to obey") simply does not leave room for egalitarianism at all (346). One cannot consider such texts universal and be an egalitarian. To accuse Webb in this way is to accuse all.

[I just realized my use of quotation marks around the word literal in my previous comment may have seemed like a direct quote from Grudem, it isn't; I used quotes there because what people mean by literal is... complicated and often inconsistant. My apologies for any confusion.]

For Grudem the egalitarian position is a slippery slope ("...how much of the NT is left?" (345)) straight down to liberalism (in regard to authority of Scripture). Perhaps I am misreading Grudem's last two (to three) paragraphs; I don't think I am.

(Yes, same source; I should have re-linked to it sooner: http://www.etsjets.org/files/JETS-PDFs/47/47-2/47-2-pp299-346_JETS.pdf. Again, my apologies.)

Thank you for engaging with me on this. What do you think?

Mark Boone said...


I think you've misread Grudem on some points. When he says, "how much of the NT is left" he is speaking of his own position, after the five qualifications he made. (And the whole point of asking that question was to point out that his five qualifications are not a slippery slope.)


I don't quite understand your case that Grudem accuses Webb of not taking the Bible seriously (rather than innocently misunderstanding it), or of your case that such an accusation extends to all egalitarians. I think you take Grudem to be arguing that all people who do not take certain texts regarding women to be universally applicable are denying the authority of Scripture.

I don't think that's what Grudem is saying. Page 302: Grudem's case is that Webb's ultimate authority is his 18 criteria for determining which commands are universally applicable.

In other words, here we really may have (despite what I thought earlier) a difference in hermeneutical method; Grudem wants to use all the usual techniques of arriving at the author's intent wherever it is ambiguous; but Webb has the unusual approach of filtering Scripture through a set of 18 criteria, which thereby become his ultimate authority.

In other words, if someone arrived at egalitarian conclusions using Grudemn's own hermeneutic, his criticism wouldn't apply.

In other words, it doesn't look like his critique of Webb applies to all egalitarians.


I think the really important points to make here are twofold:

1. Albert should be exceedingly careful not to falsely accuse egalitarians of being Chris. (Albert shouldn't do this because many egalitarians are Beth.)

2. Egalitarians should be just as careful not to falsely accuse complementarians of carelessly accusing egalitarians of being Chris.

Ann M. said...


basically i agree with mark. the differences between grudem and webb are (fundamentally) in what hermeneutics they use. they disagree with each other in those approaches. i see grudem as simply explaining why he does not agree with webb's hermeneutics (and thus his conclusions). no where in the article have i found where grudem accuses webb of a "fundamental denial" of the authority of scripture. he says he has "concerns related to the authority of scripture" in webb's view.

honestly, for someone who believes so completely different than webb, grudem comes across as very ****.

Anna M. said...


Sorry! i accidently posted the previous comment before i finished (hence the astriks. please disregard (it won't let me delete it.)

basically i agree with mark. the differences between grudem and webb are (fundamentally) in what hermeneutics they use. they disagree with each other in those approaches. i see grudem as simply explaining why he does not agree with webb's hermeneutics (and thus his conclusions). no where in the article have i found where grudem accuses webb of a "fundamental denial" of the authority of scripture. he says he has "concerns related to the authority of scripture" in webb's view.

honestly, for someone who believes so completely different than webb, grudem comes across as very congenial.

you can only say "for him to accuse webb is to accuse all" if the all is defined as those who use the same hermeneutics as webb.

Adam Jones said...

Mark - the are complementarians who don't use that argument, but they are like the Republicans who don't vote to lower taxes. It's central to the theme of the complementarians that they assume their interpretation is the one you must come to if you take the Bible literally.

Anna - I am not working from any set definition of "authority." I could give you one, and you could give me yours, but we would never convince each other that we had the right definition. No one has ever been able to convince me that they could understand the Bible verses about this topic, so it's going to remain "debatable" in my mind until someone does convince me. Until then, I'm going to allow freedom where I cannot justify restrictions.

FoucaultsShadow said...

...Hence, the real issue has been reached. Hermeneutics. As such, it is the least reliable of all the sciences and one system cannot be shown to be true above all others. Moreover, each is indefinitely contestable, and is often chosen a priori. The justification for any selection whatsoever is usually an appeal to common sense, a notion that is deeply contingent upon socio-cultural factors.

More than this, all points mentioned in my first post stand.

Mark Boone said...
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Mark Boone said...

"It's central to the theme of the complementarians that they assume their interpretation is the one you must come to if you take the Bible literally."

Not so. But it's in the ballpark. Let's try this one:

"It's central to the theme of the complementarians that they assume their interpretation is the one you must come to if you acknowledge the authority of the original meaning of Scripture and also understand that original meaning."

That is so.

But it's not very interesting.

You see, Albert's typical argument for his position is based on the authority of Scripture AND on his understanding of its meaning. Chris rejects authority, but Beth only rejects Albert's understanding of biblical meaning.

Now Albert may think Chris has a moral problem in not acknowledging the authority of Scripture. But the worst he thinks about Beth is that she doesn't understand the meaning of some passages in Scripture; that's a perfectly reasonable thing to think; she probably thinks the same thing about him, and if he's not pretty arrogant, he probably thinks the same thing about himself, perhaps with other passages.

(I'm a complementarian, and I sure don't understand everything about Romans 9, for one.)


Of course, this assumes that Albert is clear-thinking and is not a jerk. If he is either, he may think much worse about Beth. But that's because he's a jerk or isn't thinking clearly--not because he's a complementarian.

Mark Boone said...

Foucault, maybe if I can find some time away from changing diapers and various other responsibilities I'll look at your remarks more closely. But I though I would point out that one doesn't have to be a French-style postmodernist to take hermeneutics seriously. One can also be an Augustinian.

Jean-Luc Marion managed to pull off both.

Adam Jones said...

There are some issues in the Bible that are very disputable, and some that are not. Only Christians on the fringe want to deny Jesus' resurrection, for example, but the End Times is up for grabs. I think this issue is similar, because no one can come up with an answer that satisfies. So, I'll allow freedom until I'm certain I know where the walls should be built.

Mark Boone said...

I like that, Adam! And I agree with most of it, especially if by "disputable" you mean "things on which we can disagree without being heretics."

But if you mean something like "things that can't be resolved," I don't agree that this particular issue is one of them. At any rate, I do find the complementarian answer satisfying. It's sad that you've apparently seen so much abuse of it. I haven't seen that much abuse of it, and I've seen it lived out very well in many marriages among friends and relations.

Adam Jones said...


I've seen complementarianism lived out in marriage very well. I've seen the same success with egalitarians, and with couples who don't know those theories, at all.

As Bethany pointed out in her post, most people find themselves in the middle of the conversation trying to find out where to set their boundries.