Still Complementarian


In the summer of 2016 the MOS team was in the center of a rather public controversy over the doctrine of the Eternal Submission of the Son (ESS). I believe strongly that this is an errant doctrine. It is a serious error because it distorts the truth of the eternal relations within the Godhead. Unfortunately, many Reformed-ish evangelicals today believe that so long as we have a proper doctrine of Scripture and of justification we are in good shape. “The doctrine of God is too esoteric to draw thick lines” I have been told. The theologians of the early church would have cringed at such an attitude. The major controversies of the first few centuries of the church were about guarding a biblical doctrine of God. We must understand that maintaining robust doctrines of Scripture and salvation are directly connected to a biblical doctrine of God. Indeed, the doctrine of God is the font from which the other doctrines flow.

Obviously, this controversy over ESS placed MOS and the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW) on a collision course. CBMW had been perhaps the major purveyor of the errant doctrine of ESS among evangelicals. This doctrine maintains that the roles of leadership and submission Scripture prescribes for the family and the church are founded upon eternal relations of authority and submission within the Godhead. The problems with this doctrine are significant. For instance, ESS holds that there are different wills within the Godhead; that the Son at times has a will which differs from the will of the Father. And since, according to ESS, the Father has greater authority than the Son, he must submit his will to the Greater (The proponents of ESS seem to not understand the significance of the dual natures of Christ. When he prayed in the garden, “Not my will but yours be done” our Lord was praying according to his human nature in which he fully identified with us. Christ’s human and divine natures are not confused or mixed. In his eternal divine nature there is no difference in will or authority between the Son and the Father). Not surprisingly therefore, ESS also holds that that the Father is given greater glory than the Son and Spirit (that alone puts ESS outside the simple statement of faith of the Evangelical Theological Society which holds that the Father, Son, and Spirit are equal in glory). There is precious little difference between ESS and tri-theism.

One of the primary proponents of ESS has written that the Godhead may be compared to a family in which the Father is analogical to the husband, the Son is analogical to the wife, and the Spirit is analogical to the child. That is horrific theology which owes more to Greek paganism than biblical theism. And while it appears that CBMW seems to have been quietly moving away from ESS since the summer of 2016 they have yet to issue a statement repenting of and disavowing that error. Enough time has passed and good material written on the subject since 2016 for CBMW to formally reject ESS. For the good of the church and the glory of God I hope they will.

During the summer of 2016 I wrote a piece for MOS stating that I would no longer use the term complementarian to describe myself. From now on, I wrote, I would simply refer to myself as confessional (as in the Westminster Confession of Faith and its catechisms). I resisted the term complementarian because of its origins in CBMW. Given their promotion of ESS, I wanted nothing to do with the term.

However, in recent months I have found that the term is nevertheless helpful and probably needed. The term confessional is wonderful of course. But for obvious reasons, it says very little about some of the contemporary challenges regarding the differences between men and women. The term patriarchy does not appeal because it can be used too easily to distort the full biblical witness concerning men, women, family, and the church.

Since this Spring I have been preaching through the opening chapters of Genesis (after 20 sermons we are just finishing up chapter 3). During these months I have come to the conclusion that the term complementarian captures quite well the biblical witness regarding the relationships between men and women within the family and the church. It is a term which is helpful in understanding the Bible’s prescription that husbands are to gently lead their wives and that only qualified men are to preach and occupy church office.

As I look around at the current controversy in the Southern Baptist Convention (my former denominational home) over women preaching to and leading men I am concerned by the foolishness and danger of re-ordering or otherwise ignoring God’s prescription for complementary roles of leadership between men and women in the church and family. The differing roles designed by God – roles that are complementary – reflect God’s wisdom. To reject God’s wisdom is to step into dangerous territory. How many denominations have slid into liberalism and apostasy with this one step of casting the relevant biblical texts on leadership within the home and church into the sea of cultural irrelevance?

Lord willing, in the coming weeks I will be posting a series of articles under the heading of What It Means to be Human. If we are to properly understand and be grateful for God’s design for leadership and submission within the home and church then we must begin in Genesis. I will address such subjects as our creaturely status, the significance of being embodied, the complementary nature of gender, and the meaning of sex.