Let’s Talk about Complementarianism—Theologically
So far as I know, the word “complementarianism”—with its current meaning in evangelical Christian circles—first appeared with the formation and rise of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood in the 1980s. John Piper and Wayne Grudem (and their friends and followers) use the term to say that, while men and women complement each other with their differences, and are of equal value as human beings created in God’s image and likeness, they are not equal in terms of “headship” in God’s sight in the home and in the church. According to complementarianism, as defined by Piper, Grudem and their followers, in the church and home “headship” should belong to a man—especially to a husband and to the elders or other male leaders of the church. In practical terms, feet on the ground, so to speak, only men should teach and lead in the church and only the husband should make the final decision in the family.
To be fair, Piper and Grudem, if not all their followers, have always argued that what they mean by their complementarianism is that men should lead lovingly, with the best interests of the whole church and the whole family at heart, and women should follow and obey only when the male “head” is leading lovingly, not when or if he is leading in a sinful, selfish, abusive way.
However, as anyone who has studied Piper’s and Grudem’s complementarianism will know, they leave unclear exactly what a woman should do when a “head” (male leader) is being abusive or selfish. Still, their emphasis is on loving leadership as true Christian “headship.”
The real issue here is authority. Complementarianism robs women of any and all authority in relation to men—at least in the Christian home and church. Women are always to be submissive and subordinate to proper male authority, leadership, headship.
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Several questions come to mind about this complementarianism.
In what ways do women “complement” men in a Christian marriage, family, church? To “complement” would seem to imply needed contribution—that women contribute something to marriage, family, church, that men lack and need. What is it? That is not clear to critics of complementarianism.
Also, according to complementarians, women are not supposed to teach men or preach the gospel to men. And yet, most complementarians are perfectly happy for women missionaries to preach and teach men and women on the “mission field.” I have heard that complementarians allow exceptions to this rule—where and when there is no competent male teacher or preacher to do the work. Exceptions to a rule always raise questions about the rule!
Complementarianism gave rise to a contrary point of view sometimes called “egalitarianism” which holds that there is no such thing as “male headship” in the church or family and that leadership should be shared by men and women. Also, according to egalitarians, women who are called by God to preach and teach should be free to preach to men and teach men—in any context (not just on the “mission field”).
The two sides both claim to be supported by scripture. Indeed, it does seem that both sides are supported by scripture. Therefore, experience has to have some say in settling the controversy.
Of course, as always, my advice to women who are strongly dissatisfied with complementarianism is simply don’t go to those churches. And if you are in a marriage where your husband appeals to complementarianism to exercise “headship,” simply refuse to obey if his decisions and actions are wrong.
My advice to complementarians is to listen to Piper and Grudem when they urge that true male “headship” is always and only selfless and loving.
However, as a theologian, since I think scripture leaves this unclear, I turn to tradition and experience. Tradition is also unclear; there have always been strong women leaders in some Christian contexts. And we have the problem that what amounts to complementarianism in terms of authority and rule was taught and enforced by men.
So what about experience? What does experience tell us? It tells me that many women are called by God to preach and teach—even to men.
Here is something about today’s evangelical complementarianism that annoys me because it seems to represent a glaring contradiction. Most, if not all, of these churches sing songs written by women. When a congregation sings a hymn or song written by a woman, they are being taught by that woman. Think, for example, of Fanny Crosby, but I could name scores of great women hymn writers. I have never heard of a complementarian church cutting hymns written by women out of their hymn books. And I have visited complementarian churches that gladly sang hymns written by women! I always think to myself “Do you not understand that you are being taught by a woman when you sing these songs?”
Most people today have forgotten about the great Bible teacher Henrietta Mears who had such a tremendous influence on the likes of Carl F. H. Henry—a hero of complementarians. Mears taught huge Bible classes in California in the 1930s and 1940s and influenced numerous men and women to go into the gospel ministry. And she was not alone. There were and are other great women missionaries, evangelists, church planters and Bible and theology teachers.
During a recent road trip I was caused to remember two women evangelists and church planters of a generation before me who were legendary in the upper plains states of the U.S. for driving around planting churches—many of which still exist.
If scripture did speak clearly with one voice on this subject, that would be different, but I do not think it does. I think any honest reading of scripture has to reveal that it contains materials that can support both complementarianism and egalitarianism. Therefore, experience has to become part of any decision between the two perspectives.
As I have said here before several times, I am both a complementarian and an egalitarian. I believe male and female human beings are different in complementary ways, but I also believe that difference does not require, nor does God require, a hierarchy between them.
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