Why a New Wave of Complementarianism? Because The Old Wave Went Too Far.

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While Wendy Alsup has struck a chord with her proposal that there is a a New Wave Complementarianism about to wash up on the shore of evangelicalism, I for one am glad for it. I am glad for the critique, and I am glad for what I hope is a timely discussion about what it means to be a complementarian. Since her original post, Kevin DeYoung, Thabiti Anyabwile, and Owen Strachan have weighed in on the issue and asked some helpful questions of Alsup’s proposal. I simply want to articulate some reasons why I think this discussion is necessary.

I should point out from the start that Amy Peterson did a great job of summing up a few things right here at CaPC, especially Anyabwile’s thought about Alsup erroneously equating modern complementarianism with patriarchy. It’s not Alsup’s fault if the director of the Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood equated the two. If she is confused as to the difference between “old” complemenatrianism and patriarchy, she seems to have good reason.

That’s why this discussion needs to take place. I am myself a dedicated complementarian, and I don’t want to have to make that assertion with a laundry list of caveats. I am not interested in getting rid of old wave complementarians, or even ushering in a new wave, I am interested, as Pastor Anyabwile said, in starting with definitions.

To that end, it seems to me that we ought to start by following Alsup’s lead, ironically enough for complementarians. There is nothing wrong or objectionable about the eight concepts she put forward. DeYoung didn’t seem to reject them himself. In fact, he was left wondering why it would be necessary since pretty much every complementarian he knows basically adheres to them.

Here’s why: the old wave has gone beyond this simple list.

We have had pontifications that worship services ought to have a “masculine feel“. We have been told that little boys should never play with dolls and that it was offensive for Sesame Street to do so. It is strongly implied that it is a womanly dereliction of duty to work outside the home or make more money than the dad. It is as if we are embracing cultural programming, which is ever shifting, to be part of the definition of what it means to be a Biblical man. It is not.

Pink is not a girl color. If a boy hates to play sports, he is not less manly. A boy can love fashion, enjoy the piano, love to cook, and wear pink. He is still a man; he is still manly. I have a relative who stays at home to take care of eight children, half of whom are foster children. He is not a man fail. He is a dad, a stellar and commendable man. His wife’s job as a CEO helps make this possible. She can do this without usurping his manliness or without abdicating her motherhood. You may be of a different opinion, but you don’t get to impose it onto a family where a real man is the head. Because he won’t suffer it, and he shouldn’t.

When we go beyond biblical simplicity, we risk enforcing our vision of a glorified past culture or a dream of our perfect culture where it does not belong. We say that all boys ought to be adventurous and love camping, and fishing. We begin to alienate boys who hate those things and love things you might label as feminine, which until recently included being a nurse or a receptionist.

I know a boy who plays dolls with his sister. He pretends to be the dad, and he cares for the ‘babies’ with his sister. He is a good care-giver. If someone came in and told that boy he was being too feminine, they would have to contend with the man of the house about it.

So yes, I am absolutely persuaded that we need to have this conversation. We need to have it because we are asserting that being a ‘provider’ is strictly related to bringing home the most money. We are defining gender roles based on what feels right to us according to our current and resent past culture, and not along strictly Biblical lines. The stay at home dad “man fail” is particularly baffling: less than 100 years ago almost every dad in Alabama was a stay at home dad, and the mom worked equally hard beside him in the fields at home. Let’s talk about how many of these assertions are actually based on our culture rather than inviolable Biblical principles.

About Brad Williams

Brad is the pastor of a Baptist church in a small town in Alabama. Brad has a lovely wife, two children, two dogs, a cat, a turtle, and five bee hives. Besides the incredible fact that he managed to persuade his wife to marry him, he is proud that he served six years in the Army National Guard, managed to graduate college with an English Lit. degree, graduate seminary, and finish the original Bard's Tale as a youngster by making maps on graph paper.

  • http://twitter.com/sometimesalight hannah anderson

    Thank you so much for highlighting this conversation. We must find a way to keep talking with each other about this–so many, many different issues have been conflated over the last couple of decades that it’s time that we sit down and sort through our stuff. Looking forward to good things!

  • Jennifer Shaheen

    Amen, Brad! Great thoughts all around.

  • Faith N.

    *slow clap* So good, Brad. Biblical, grounded in common sense, and balanced. Even though my marriage and personal views lean more towards egalitarianism, I really respect what you wrote here. Thanks for adding to the discussion.

  • Lauren

    As an egalitarian, I am genuinely curious then- how does this differ practically from egalitarianism? I’ll admit, I’ve grown up in an environment where complementarianism is starkly defined by its rigid gender roles and “separate spheres”, so while I’m intrigued by this development, I’m confused as to how this is still practically considered complementarianism.

  • bfad5e

    I think this is an excellent post and I look forward to seeing how this new wave shakes things out.

    Here is where things confuse me: the label “complementarian” comes from the belief in different gender roles that complement each other. From your post, it sounds like you believe that this is taking things too far – women can choose the role materially providing by working outside the home without being unfeminine and men can take on the role of primary caregivers as stay at home dads without being emasculated.

    However, it sounds like you would still hold to the belief that men are to be in charge of their household and that only men should be in positions of leadership when it comes to church governance. If that’s the case, then it sounds like the new wave doesn’t care about complementary roles but about who should be in power. In other words, the new wave is stripping complementarianism of the things that allowed that label to work while leaving the patriarchal aspect in place.

    The definition of patriarchy is “a system of society or government in which the father or eldest male is head of the family” or “a system of society or government in which men hold the power”. If all that this new wave is concerned about is preserving the supposedly biblical positions of men as leaders in both the home and church government then I think that the word patriarchal best fits.

    I don’t mean this comment as an attack – I am not using “patriarchy” pejoratively, but it seems like to me that this new wave is trying to rehabilitate complementarianism by re-defining it as simply patriarchy when it comes to leadership positions in the home and church.

    Please help clear up my confusion / set me straight.

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  • http://twitter.com/sometimesalight hannah anderson

    As someone eagerly promoting this “new wave” (although I find the terminology itself very difficult). the question for me is one of broadened the conversation, of creating larger paradigms than either egals or comps are accustomed to using. I still consider myself comp because I do believe that the concept of headship exists in the home and church. (Much as the Church has for over 1900 years.) But we need to talk about headship in better, more robust ways than the typical authority/submission paradigm that both egals and comps utilize. The problem, for me, is what has been left out of the gender conversation that has created skewed and perverted expressions of headship and submission. Whether or not that makes me a complementarian or some new creature all together, I don’t know. At some point, labels hinder more than they help.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jbwilli1 Brad Williams

    I would argue that the office of elder/pastor/teacher is restricted to men because they are positions of authority, and that husbands ought to be the leaders of their homes. The difference is that I would not get very specific in how that leadership at home is exercised.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jbwilli1 Brad Williams

    Good questions, bfad. I am not putting this forward as a total “New Wave” explanation. I’m not interesting in dividing complementarians. My purpose is to help us think more clearly about what we mean when we say a ‘role’ is masc/fem.

    To that end, I would say that the genders do complement each other. I do believe that there are distinct roles for men and women. I’m just asking for caution when we start assigning certain things people do, such as “home-maker” or “nurse” as masc/fem. You can be a nurse in a masculine way, and you can be one in a feminine way. We simply shouldn’t confuse the issue by saying, “Home-keeping is a girl’s job” or “Secretary work is for girls” or “Boys are made feminine by playing with dolls.” That simply is not the case, and many complementarians are speaking this way.

  • bfad5e

    Thank you for clarifying some of your thoughts on this. I have just one brief comment to add.

    You stated, “You can be a nurse in a masculine way, and you can be one in a feminine way.” The problem I see (and possibly you do too?) comes when trying to explain how one is a masculine nurse as opposed to a feminine nurse. Doing this usually leads to making blanket statements that might be true in general but aren’t essentially true of either gender.

  • Esther Starr

    Well, I actually agreed with that John Piper sermon. As a woman, I don’t mind Christianity’s having a masculine feel. Not in the least little bit. ;-) But seriously… what’s the problem with what Piper’s getting at there? Seems biblical and reasonable to me.

    As for the Sesame Street, I think what Strachan was getting at is that the feminist agenda manifests itself in subtle ways as well as in-your-face ways. You KNOW the people making Sesame Street are rampaging feminists, and you know that they knew exactly what they were doing with that episode. Sure, if I found my little boy playing with a doll I wouldn’t think it was a big deal. But that episode was designed to get a particular message across about gender roles writ large, a message we as complementarians must firmly oppose. Think about the old movie Kramer vs. Kramer. Dustin Hoffman learns to be a good father to his little boy, which is a good thing in and of itself. However, the movie goes WAY beyond that to drive home the message that it’s “better” for all concerned if the mother goes off and “discovers herself” while the father stays at home, because the mother can’t take care of the little boy as well as the father can. Houston, we have a problem.

    Am I saying there can’t be practical circumstances which would leave a family in a position where the mother is working outside at home while the dad stays home? No, and I’m not saying a family in that situation is necessarily doing something wrong either. I suspect Owen wouldn’t say so either. What I would say is that such a situation is, in a way, tragic. It’s a sad circumstance. Moreover, the woman could get so comfortable in her career that even when the man is able to find work, she feels reluctant to give it up. Now it’s not just a matter of practicality, it’s a matter of habit. It’s hard to shift gears abruptly when you’ve gotten used to a certain state of affairs. Once again, I’m not saying there can’t be legitimate situations where the family falls back on the stay-at-home dad/working mom formula. But I think we can safely say that it’s unfortunate and sad.

  • Ben

    Esther, I think your comments perfectly articulate a brand of complementarianism that oversteps its bounds, and as a result helps give rise to the desire for a “new wave.” The simple problem is this… you think every God-honoring, Christian family should essentially look the same, or at least highly similar. You believe we can “safely say that it’s unfortunate and sad” when a family doesn’t follow a particular formula. But you don’t have good grounds for that belief.

    Good theology works to determine what the text DOES say, but it also seeks to understand what it does NOT say. Complementarians want to preserve some separation of roles, and that’s ok insofar as Scripture guides us with respect to authority roles in the church and in the home. But stating that a man “must” provide and a woman “must” stay home is to go WAY beyond Scripture… it simply does not require those things, and so neither can we.

    Some complementarians are merely attracted to that model and that lifestyle, and that’s ok. I work, and have done so even in times when I didn’t want to. I quit seminary, in fact, because taking care of my family was more important. My wife takes care of our home and does most of the child-raising, and I help out as much as I can. That works for us. Nobody stops us from living that way if we so choose.

    But it would flat out wrong of us to demand that anyone else follow our model unless we had explicit commands from God (not vague references to cultural norms) in Scripture. Frankly, there is far more justification for you being required to cover your head and not wear jewelry than there is for you being required to stay at home while your husband works.

    Ultimately, the most significant request being made by “new wave” types is that complementarians simply be faithful to their own stated hermeneutical principles.

  • John Turner

    In what are men to lead? In the primary text on this subject (Ephesians 5:15-33), Paul suggests that it is in taking the initiative in self-giving love, and I am pretty sure that he has in mind ways far more everyday and subtle than merely jumping in the way of a potential bullet (although taking the bullet certainly counts as self-giving love). Leadership does not mean being the boss so much as it means sacrificing selfishness and seeking the best for the loved one. Women are not excluded from the challenge to sacrifice selfishness, but neither are they asked to be doormats for macho autocrats. Men, in seeking the best for their wives, surely are to consider their individual spiritual gifts.

    I view myself as somewhere between complementarian and egalitarian. Both positions seem too rigid and ideological for what the Bible has in mind. The many prominent women in the leadership circle of Paul’s missionary endeavors should give pause to anyone claiming biblical ground for excluding women from spiritual leadership positions. We need to be certain that we are correctly translating and interpreting passages such as 1 Corinthian 14:34-35 and 1 Timothy 2:11-15 in their canonical and theological (and, to some degree, cultural) context before we use them to place limits on what women can do in the life of the church.

  • Esther Starr

    “The simple problem is this… you think every God-honoring, Christian family should essentially look the same, or at least highly similar.”

    No, I didn’t say that. I said repeatedly that there can be sad circumstances where a family is forced into an unnatural scenario. A couple could earnestly be seeking God’s will and reach the decision that there’s simply no way to make ends meet unless the woman works. I’ve known God-honoring, Christian people who made that decision. I’m not questioning their faith. ALL I’m saying is that such a situation is sad.

    This is a more extreme example than working outside the home, but consider women in the military. There’s something fundamentally _wrong_ about a military family where the woman is serving and the man is at home. Deep down, I think everyone knows it’s wrong, but they don’t want to admit it because we’ve been collectively brainwashed into believing men and women are interchangeable. But when you hear stories about women who have to stop and breast-feed their babies between missions… everything inside you should be screaming “This is wrong!” It’s just not how men and women were created, and I think to some extent people should be able to see that by the natural light. I believe the Bible is divinely inspired to guide us to the truth, but I also believe God gave us common sense. Common sense says it’s wrong to put women in combat.

  • Ben

    I’m not making an argument about women in combat, and really my point still stands. In saying that a woman working and a man staying at home is “sad” and and “unnatural”, you reinforce my statement that you believe all families should be working toward (even if temporarily swayed from) your idealized model.
    My simple point is that you do not have Scripture’s support on this stance. You should reconsider it. It is fine for people to pursue that model should they so choose, and certainly if a man’s wife prefers to be at home he should model self-sacrificial leadership by taking on the burden of work and provision. But if a wife wants to/prefers to work, self-sacrificial leadership for a man in some cases may well mean staying at home even if he is perfectly capable of full-time work.

  • Jesse Cadd

    Excellent article which I agree with wholeheartedly! However, something was bugging me as I read through it…I don’t actually think this issue is part of the specific conversation that Wendy has brought up. It may be a tangential issue certainly worth discussing in its own right, but it isn’t part of *this* issue.

    Unfortunately, I wasn’t entirely sure if my suspicion was correct, so I went back and read Wendy’s article which you linked to above. In that article, she linked to an earlier article she had written: http://www.theologyforwomen.org/2012/02/things-that-undermine-complementarian.html

    In this article too, I found no mention of the “defining roles too rigidly” issue you brought up here, until the very end in an italicized parenthetical note:

    “(There are other sub issues where complementarians read into
    Scripture and impose standards on themselves that Scripture does not.
    But that’s not so much a complementarian problem as just a universal
    tendency toward legalism. So I’ll save for another post our often
    unhelpful projections from silence in Scripture on the topics of working
    women, childbirth, organic cooking, educational choices, and so

    Now, I’m fairly new to this conversation (the “new wave” conversation), and it’s been several years since I did the bulk of my research into the more general comp vs egal debate. Here’s how I would distill the 8 points that Wendy identified as common to those who would identify themselves as “new” vs. “old” in their complementarian thinking:

    1) No conflict
    2) No conflict
    3) No conflict
    4) Possible conflict – Foh’s interpretation
    5) No conflict
    6) Possible conflict – Complementarity in reflecting God’s image
    7) No conflict
    8) No conflict

    I did not bother identifying the points with which I perceive no real conflict between “new” and “old”. Regardless (as far as my earlier point), none of them directly address the “rigid role definition” that your article addresses.

    For the points she does bring up that are potential conflicts, I am not at this time prepared to give my final opinion. I am enjoying the conversation as it emerges, and especially the spirit with which it is ongoing. I thought that DeYoung, Anyabwile and Strachan’s responses have been generous and engaging overall. I hope both “sides” in this highly specific internal debate continue to give each other respect and love as it proceeds. It would be a tragedy if complementarians were to “divide” over this.

    Regarding item 4: Foh’s interpretation of Genesis 3:16, I shall have to read Wendy’s “Somewhat scholarly analysis” http://www.theologyforwomen.org/2012/04/somewhat-scholarly-analysis-of-genesis.html to see what her reasons are for discounting Foh’s interpretation. Personally, I am with Anyabwile at the moment in thinking it’s not an either/or issue, but both/and. In my (limited and personal) experience, idolatrous desire can mix well with usurpation of authority. Of course it’s not about our experience, but what scripture actually says that matters, so I’m open to being convinced otherwise.

    Regarding item 6: Complementarity as a reflection of God’s image – This is a tricky one. To the extent that both male/female possess the image of God, I agree. But is it true to say that male/female complementarity is necessary to provide a “complete” picture of God’s image? Is it possible that God designed masculinity as a reflection of an essential nature within the Godhead? In a sense, is it possible that God is primarily masculine, with secondary feminine characteristics? I think this gets to what Wendy is in disagreement with on this point and I’m curious to see what both sides have to say.

    Back to the issue discussed in your article…while I absolutely agree with your sentiments, I would also say that the best of the complementarian scholarship that I have read (RBMW, etc…) was very careful to address such issues as rigid role definitions. That is not to say that there may be a tendency or perception that some within the complementarian sphere do not always adhere to their own carefully defined beliefs. And there are some (such as Driscoll) whose sometimes sloppy and lazy articulations should be addressed head on from within the fold. Even Piper (who generally I admire) can seem to over-emphasize some aspects when he gets passionate. Ideally, we should be able to quote a leader’s own words back to them to show them how they are blurring the line between law and grace at times.

    One final thing: I don’t get the issue with equating patriarchy with complementarianism. The reason patriarchy is not used is purely marketing (as I understand it) since it leaves such a bad taste in some people’s mouths as an after effect of too much (bad) feminist propaganda. If the plain definition of patriarchy is taken, I see it as very much in line with complementarianism, and the history of the word’s coinage bears that out, as has been written elsewhere. I just don’t see the big deal about acknowledging that. The problem is that there is a perverted form of patriarchy/complementarianism that most people associate with the word “patriarchy” that is an abuse of properly situated authority. So naturally we don’t generally use a word that gets negative reactions off the bat. Definitions are important, yes, but let’s not be afraid of calling a spade a spade. We’re all friends here, right?

    (Similar to the use of “darwinism” which can mean something very specific and compatible with Christianity, but commonly is taken to include metaphysical assumptions about there being no God and randomness requiring no purpose or design. Therefore Biologos pushes for terms such as “theistic evolution” or “evolutionary creation” to at least get a foot in the door and allow for a real conversation to commence. Meanwhile, others who want to frame the debate differently use terms such as “neo-darwinian synthesis” to specify that type of naturalistic darwinism popularized by Dawkins, etc…)

    ((Side, side note: Any other TE Complementarians out there? Am I alone? ;-)))

    (((Ok, really…last side note: I actually started with a fairly positive perception of patriarchy as a word. Mainly because I associated it with the Patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob) and it seemed a natural way for the world to work as a child. But that’s neither here nor there…I just think it’s interesting that it is *possible* to like the word in and of itself.)))

  • Esther Starr

    Frankly, I think that Genesis verse is kind of obscure. Hebrew can be a cryptic language, and this is one example. I would be wary of reading anything into it too heavily one way or the other. But I don’t think complementarian theology rests on that verse anyway, so it’s not a big deal as far as I’m concerned.

  • http://www.facebook.com/brianesh73 Brian Eshleman

    “When a father washes diapers or performs some other mean task for his child, God, with all his angels and creatures, is smiling, not because that father is washing diapers, but because he is doing so in Christian faith.” Luther