4 Approaches to a Balanced Complementarianism
May 4, 2016
I have been following the concerns raised over at the Mortification of Spin with respect to imbalances in the practice and teaching of biblical complementarianism (I think particularly of some of Aimee Byrd's posts - here and here). I have long been an admirer of CBMW (Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood), though I am not formally associated with them. Moreover, I was encouraged by Kevin DeYoung's recent blog post on this topic.
In my view, the gender complementarian case has been well made, centered on key passages like 1 Timothy 2:11-15 and Ephesians 5:22-33. This does not mean that all evangelicals accept these arguments, although they are clear and persuasive enough that complementarianism should be embraced and practiced by professing Bible believers. There are, however, excesses in the broad conservative Christian movement that do a great deal of harm both to people and to the complementarian position. Identifying these excesses is therefore in the interest of those who believe that biblical gender identity is an important issue in our time and a significant feature in healthy Christian living.
It is not my intention in this post to enter into preceding debates and the particular points that have been made. But I would offer the following four approaches that will help us practice the Bible's gender teaching while avoiding harmful and unbiblical excesses:
1. Practice male ordained leadership and fully empower female church membership. 1 Timothy 2:11-15 is not a problem that needs to be solved or an embarrassment that needs to be explained away. Rather, it is apostolic teaching that reflects the creation order of God and the intention of Christ for his church. To this end, Bible-believers should ordain only men to the offices of elder and deacon, in keeping with 1 Timothy 3:1-13. (Yes, I am aware of those who argue that this passage does not restrict women from the diaconate, but in my view these are exceedingly weak arguments). Moreover, the public duties in the church associated with these offices should also be performed only by men. I refer to the public reading of Scripture, prayer, and the administration of the sacraments, which functions have long been understood to be tied to the office of minister (i.e., the office has functions and those functions are for the officers). Churches that toe-the-line by ordaining only men, but who then highlight women performing the functions of those offices in the worship service, are not in my view embracing the apostolic mandate.
At the same time, Galatians 3:27-29 clearly grants the full privileges of church membership to women. Therefore, women should not be disenfranchised as church members. This takes place in churches that practice "household membership," so that only heads of families participate fully in congregational meetings. I realize that unmarried adult women get to be the head of their household, but why should wives and young women in the home be excluded from the privileges and obligations of church membership - voting on a pastor, electing officers, approving budgets, etc? Moreover, women should be fully integrated into ministries like evangelism, worship and music, missions, and Christian education, as well as ministry support bodies like the nursery and kitchen (where we also should encourage men to serve). In the church I serve, women participate on every committee under the leadership of an elder or deacon (depending on the committee). My wife is deeply involved in the missions committee of our church and I am not bothered at all to say that she provides important leadership to our missions program. Women provide leadership and service in most aspects of a healthy and balanced church, and like non-ordained men they do so under the ordained headship of male officers.
2. Teach wives to submit to husbands, but not all women to all men. Complementarianism emphasizes the clear biblical mandate to male headship in the home, as in the church (Eph. 5:22-24; 1 Peter 3:1-6). It is not easy submitting to the knuckle-heads that many wives have married, but it is their duty to do so as Christian women. Proper feminine submission is (as my wife often puts it) "kinetic." It is not servile, which is why Paul and Peter employ a different word for wives than Paul uses for slaves in their relationship to masters (Eph. 5:22; 6:5). Being a biblical helper requires wisdom, creativity, and godliness. So we should put the most positive biblical angle on feminine submission and then unashamedly teach it.
But notice that Paul writes, "Wives, submit to your own husband, as to the Lord" (Eph. 5:22). Two things stands out. First, submit to "your own" husband. Wives do not submit to husbands in general. Girls do not submit to boys in general. On a date, the woman is not to obey the guy (and if he demands this, she should jump out of the moving car and change her phone number!). It is true that the biblical principle of male headship will urge women to a general responsiveness to men. But "submit" is a very pointed command and it is reserved for marriage (wives to husbands) and the church (members to ordained leaders - Heb. 13:17). Second, notice that wives submit to their own husbands "as to the Lord." The husband is not her god and she should not submit with an awed trembling appropriate for oriental semi-divine potentates. Rather, she wisely and proactively submits to her husbands as an act of worship to the Lord Jesus Christ, seeking for his blessing and glory above all other things.
3. Train husbands to love rather than dominate their wives. The point of male headship in both the church and the home is not the glory of the small-egoed men but rather the glory of God and the well-being of those under this covenant care. In both the church and the home, male leaders must be called upon to provide nurturing and protecting love that stimulates growth and health for those under our care (see the Masculine Mandate in Gen. 2:15). Pastors and elders should frown upon and in some cases discipline men who misuse their God-given authority in the home to oppress or otherwise harm their wives and children. In the church that I serve, the elders have many times summoned a husband to give an explanation for his failure or abuse of leadership in the home. To be sure, this is the exception - we do not regularly intrude into home affairs - but as needed we think our duty to provide this pastoral oversight. The women in our church should feel cared for by the ordained leadership, even as they are likewise challenged and exhorted to live up to their own callings as Christians. In a healthy church, a wife does not have to dominate her husband because she can be confident in the spiritual leadership that is provided to her husbands by the elders of the church.
Meanwhile, rather than a celebration of the privileges of male headship in marriage, Christian husbands should be taught and encouraged to love their wives actively and sacrificially, as the Bible teaches (Eph. 5:25-33; 1 Pet. 3:7). Jokes that demean wives should be strongly frowned upon and a culture of male servanthood should permeate our complementarianism. Does this mean that male heads should do the dishes at home? He certainly does in my home, since my wife daily expends herself in wearying service to me and our five children. (Plus, my way of loading the dishwasher is the right way...) While it is true that a godly and submissive wife should do her best if her husband is harsh and evaluative, she should also have the privilege of pastoral care from the church that urges her husband to provide a more nurturing and caring headship.
4. Raise daughters to be snowflakes, not ice cubes. It doesn't take a brilliant cultural observer to realize that our society is waging a massive assault against God and his creation when it comes to gender. In response to the pagan androgyny all around Christians today (see Peter Jones for more here), Christians should cultivate clear gender identity. Without massively expanding this post by giving the details, girls are different from boys and vice versa. There is such a thing as femininity and another thing called masculinity. Therefore, a girl growing up in a godly church should not be confused about what it means to be a woman, and a boy should pick up on godly manhood by the examples and influences in his Christian environment. Both boys and girls should learn from clear Bible teaching about their distinctive identifies and callings. At the same time, as I once heard Don Carson state, "God makes snowflakes rather than ice cubes." Ice cubes all look exactly the same - they are forced into a rigid mold. Snowflakes are each unique - not one exactly like another - but at the same time they fit a God-designed pattern. In like manner, girls should be raised to cultivate feminine principles and follow female examples from the Bible and in the church, while urged to cultivate her own God-given uniqueness and calling. Ditto for the boys.
There is much more to be said about a balanced complementarianism, but I will submit just these four approaches in the hope that they will encourage and clarify. In general, our complementarianism should not be reactive but biblically pro-active, seeking to attain not to man-glorifying ends but a God-glorifying blessing in the church and in the home.