Confused by Complementarianism? You probably should be.

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Given that the issue of complementarianism is raising its head over at The Gospel Coalition, it provides an opportunity to reflect on an issue that has always perplexed me: why is the complementarian/egalitarian debate such a significant bone of contention in parachurch cobelligerent organisations whose stated purpose is to set aside issues which divide at a church level but which do not seem to impact directly upon the gospel?   Why, for instance, is this issue of more importance than, say, differences over baptism or understandings of the Lord's Supper?  Historically and confessionally, those have been the issues that divide, so it is strange to see the adjective 'confessional' applied to movements which actually sideline the very doctrinal differences which made Protestant confessions necessary in the first place.

One answer is that egalitarianism as a position is usually accompanied by lower views of scripture and the presence of other, more serious errors and heterodoxies.   That might well be true in some, perhaps even many, cases but it is not necessarily so, any more than it is true that all complementarians are thoroughly orthodox on all other issues or hold the position for biblical reasons.  I have known quite a few complementarians who seem to be such less because of the Bible and more because they apparently watched Conan the Barbarian a few too many times in their early teenage years.  

Still, it is true:  I have indeed come across those who argue for women's ordination on the grounds that Paul was simply wrong; but I have also met those who think we have simply moved on from Paul's time, that he was right then but that his teaching cannot be applied directly to the twenty-first century context.  Further, I have met those who profess to hold to inerrancy and who  think that the relevant texts are authoritative but that the complementarian understanding of them is wrong.  The latter two classes of people seem to me to be raising primarily hermeneutical issues; and the last group in particular does not seem, on the face of it, to be advocating a necessarily low view of scripture in the typical sense of the phrase.   Indeed, I see no reason why one could not be an egalitarian and an inerrantist.  And if it is a hermeneutical difference, how does one decide that this particular difference among inerrantists is more egregious than, say, those between Baptists and Paedobaptists or Dispensationalists and Amillennialists?  

Further, there seems to be inconsistency even in the way the issue plays out among evangelical leaders.  Some years ago, it was pointed out that paedobaptist Presbyterians could preach at some Baptist churches but could not take the Lord's Supper there.  That may seem odd to some but it is entirely consistent with a Baptist view of the church.   So here is a question: could a female Baptist minister, baptized by immersion, who is a professing Christian (albeit in error on the point of complementarianism) who happened to be on holiday in the vicinity of such a church - could such a lady, I ask, attend morning worship there and take communion?   

If the answer is yes, then it is clear that this Baptist church rightly puts no barrier around the Lord's Table beyond baptism and a credible profession of faith; but it then raises acute questions.  For example, why does the parachurch coalition apparently take a stricter line than the church on what is treated in such a church as no barrier to fellowship at the Lord's Table?  And why does it take a laxer line on an issue that is deemed major enough by the church to create a situation where a visiting Presbyterian preacher is functionally excommunicated straight after his sermon on a Sunday morning?

By contrast, if the answer is no, this visiting lady Baptist minister could not take the Lord's Supper at this church, then egalitarianism appears to have been raised to the level of a sin which brings the credibility of one's public profession of the Christian faith into serious doubt.  If that is the case, then churches presumably need to start disciplining even those members who may believe in egalitarianism too.  

This is not the only awkward question one might ask: for example, which is more unacceptable to a Baptist - a woman preaching credobaptism or a man preaching paedobaptism?   But that is for another day.  In the meantime, do not misunderstand me: I do write as a convinced complementarian and a member of a church where no elders or deacons are - or can be -- women, though none of them are - or can be - Lutherans, Baptists or Dispensationalists either.  It is thus not complementarianism in itself to which I object; I am simply not sure why it is such a big issue in organisations whose stated purpose is basic co-operation for the propagation of the gospel and where other matters of more historic, theological and ecclesiastical moment are routinely set aside.  If you want simply to unite around the gospel, then why not simply unite around the gospel?   Because as soon as you decide that issues such as baptism are not part of your centre-bounded set but complementarianism is, you will find yourself vulnerable to criticism -- from both right and left -- that you are allowing a little bit of the culture war or your own pet concerns and tastes to intrude into what you deem to be the most basic biblical priorities.

Posted August 24, 2012 @ 9:22 AM by Carl Trueman

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