Complementarians Respond to Egalitarians

Complementarians Respond to Egalitarians November 3, 2015

Screen Shot 2015-10-17 at 3.25.53 PMJohn Stackhouse’s Partners in Christ may be the most honest book ever written in the complementarian-egalitarian debate; it is without doubt the fairest book on the topic I’ve seen.

This honesty begins with method. In essence, anyone who claims his (or her) view covers all the evidence is overcooking the claim. Notice these words of candid method:

… the task of Christian theology is not to arrive at the one, timeless, seamless answer that fits everything nicely into place without strain and without remainder. The task instead is to formulate an interpretation that does the best job, relative to the other options available, of explaining most of the most important data, and as much of the remainder as possible. The fact, then, that my paradigm does not explain a particular detail as well as does another interpretation must be acknowledged in the interests of both Christian honesty and the humble openness we should all maintain in hopes of having our ideas improved. For if I dismiss a contrary datum or interpretation, explain it away, or otherwise circumvent it, I miss an opportunity to reconsider and reconstruct my interpretation for the better. But the fact that my paradigm does not explain every detail as well as does another interpretation in any particular case doesn’t mean that it isn’t overall the best one that is currently available. And if it is the best one available, then it is the one we ought to adopt (93).

You might read it twice. Christian theology often cannot cover it all but must settle for the best explanation available. Take, as John does, the complementarian claim that the Trinity supports that view, or the egalitarian claim that the Trinity supports that view. The complementarian thinks functional subordination supports female subordination while the egalitarian thinks the perichoretic equality of the person supports that view.


The first, and perhaps last, troubling thing to notice here is that this argument is deployed by both complementarians and egali tarians. Both sides, that is, think that they can win points by referring questions of (human) gender to the doctrine of the Trinity. So if both sides think that x proves their point, then likely x isn’t going to be terribly helpful. …

All orthodox Christians affirm that the members of the Trinity are indeed coequal. We also affirm that the Son and Spirit willingly submit to the Father. Moreover, we affirm that the Spirit humbly bears witness, not to himself, but to the Son (94).

For my part, I think the complementarians get the better of this sort of argument. The Father is always pictured in the Bible in the supreme position vis-a-vis the other members of the Trinity. It is to the Father that Jesus prays, and it is to the Father that he instructs us to pray in the Lord’s Prayer. It is the Father to whom the Son always defers. And the Holy Spirit is sent by the Father in the name of the Son (96).

You might then wonder why Stackhouse is on the feminist side of this debate. Here’s why, and he’s right:

The problem I have with the complementarian reference to the Trinity in regard to gender is that it is a bad theological move to attempt—by anyone, on any side of this issue. Any strong parallels between the inner life of the Trinity and human relationships just aren’t there. For one obvious thing, the Trinity is/are three and when it comes to gender we are instead talking about two. For another, the divine Father and Son are depicted as, yes, two males, and even the biblical pronouns for the Spirit are masculine [neuter?]—even though our theology reminds us that neither God nor any of the members of the theology reminds us that neither God nor any of the members of the Godhead is actually male. Finally, it is in Genesis 1 that we encounter the introduction of the idea of human beings—male and female created in the image of God. And in this passage there is no explicit reference to the Trinity at all. Indeed, nowhere in the Bible does an author draw permanent implications from the nature of the Trinity to human relations (96).

He discusses 1 Cor 11, though the posts I have had this year about Lucy Peppiatt’s book shows that using 1 Cor 11 for most any intepretation is problematic — in fact, the passage is most likely involves citation of opponents and counterarguments — but this is what Stackhouse comes to:

In the context Paul is addressing, patriarchy is indeed affirmed by the pattern of Christ’s deference to the Father. And one key implication of the passage is that women do not have to feel that they are less valued by God because they are called to submit to their husbands, for Christ our example has submitted fully to his Father. Whether, however, Paul (and the Holy Spirit) intends to go beyond this justification of Christians submitting for the gospel’s sake to the current social custom of patriarchy to decree patriarchy as an eternal principle of gender relations is exactly what my model disputes (97).

The use of the Trinity analogy is a recent argument, it is used by complementarians and then critiqued and reused by egalitarians; the analogy at best breaks down and — to be honest — is the ultimate trump card that will not cooperate with the design of its argu-ers.

Here are some other problems he takes on:

The submission of wives to husbands and the care of husbands for wives provides an important picture of the relationship of God with Israel and, later, of Christ with the church. To assert an equal partnership of women with men today thus recklessly disposes of this lovely and important pattern of how God relates to Gods people (98).

The pastor is a priest, an intermediary between God and his people. Thus he stands in for Christ, the great Mediator, and only a male person can properly represent Christ in this role since Christ was male (102).

History shows us that women emerge in church leadership only in pathological situations—extreme revivalism, schismatic groups, and the rise of cults (105).

Christian feminism is simply a capitulation to secular feminism—it is a case of sheer worldliness, of conforming to a secular cultural agenda (108).

This kind of argument can be used to support the legitimization of homosexuality (111).

If women don’t stay home, children will be neglected (117).

If this paradigm of gender is to be accepted, then the church should still not only tolerate, but comply with, patriarchy today in the many parts of the world that still practice it—and that is repugnant (120).

Each of these claims is dealt with honestly and fairly.

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