Let’s Talk about Complementarianism and Humble Dialogue

Southern Baptists as a people are confessionally complementarian. Articles 6 and 18 of the Baptist Faith and Message 2000, which speak of the church and the family respectively, make this explicit.

VI. The Church
. . . While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture . . .

XVIII. The Family
. . . The husband and wife are of equal worth before God, since both are created in God’s image. The marriage relationship models the way God relates to His people. A husband is to love his wife as Christ loved the church. He has the God-given responsibility to provide for, to protect, and to lead his family. A wife is to submit herself graciously to the servant leadership of her husband even as the church willingly submits to the headship of Christ. She, being in the image of God as is her husband and thus equal to him, has the God-given responsibility to respect her husband and to serve as his helper in managing the household and nurturing the next generation . . .

Recent cultural events have initiated a number of conversations that have revealed, however, that while Southern Baptists are united in their complementarianism, they are not unified in their views as to what that necessarily entails. Complementarianism, then, appears to be more of a spectrum of views than a singular point of belief. The Danvers Statement, initially published in November 1988 by the CBMW and considered the definitive statement concerning complementarianism, comprises each of the following points along the spectrum.

Two notes need to be acknowledged first, however.

First, it seems appropriate to state at the outset that all complementarians believe that while men and women (male and female) were created equal, they were not created to be identical. Those who refuse to acknowledge this are not complementarians in any sense of the word and at no point on the spectrum. Rather, they are either chauvinists who argue that females are created of lesser value than males, or egalitarians who argue that there is no distinction between males and females in value or role.

Second, though these three positions are listed as points, I want to emphasize that these are points on a spectrum. Some will line up behind each of these points. No doubt, many will agree with one of the positions, but prefer a different term. (I fully accept that as a fact and have learned the most difficult task assigned to the first Adam, apart from protecting his wife, must have been giving names to the animals.) But most importantly, many will find their own positions somewhere in the space between the following positions; that is why I describe this as a spectrum of beliefs and not merely three options.

Unrestricted Complementarianism

Those holding to a unrestricted complementarianism (my term, though I have also heard reference to “hard” complementarianism) argue that the admonitions in 1 Timothy 2 are unrestricted in their application. Paul charges men “in every place” to pray with holy hands (v. 8). He instructs that women should be dressed moderately and modestly (v. 9–10), but few interpreters would argue that this instruction is only in place in the church. Verses 11–12 (that “a woman is to learn quietly with full submission” and may not “teach or have authority over a man”), they argue, are then also unrestricted. This position further argues that Paul supported his position with a reference to the creation of Adam and Eve, whose time predates the church (or even the Old Testament congregation). Therefore, they argue, all roles of authority over males are restricted to male headship.

General Complementarianism

Those holding to what I term general complementarianism argue that Paul’s instructions in 1 Timothy 2, especially verses 11–12 are applicable only in two spheres: marriage and the church. Paul’s reference to Adam and Eve, then, need not be categorically subsumed under the church, but rather exists as reference to the necessity of male headship in the marriage.

They would argue, then, that women are free (and encouraged) to express their leadership gifts in every realm save two: the home and the church. Can a qualified woman, then, serve as President? Yes. Can she serve as CEO? Yes. Can she serve as seminary professor? Yes. And should men submit to her leadership in those venues? Yes.

In the home, however, she is called to submit herself to the authority of her husband’s servant leadership (as unto the Lord) and in the church, she is called to submit herself to the authority of the elders and deacons. Those roles are to be assumed by qualified men in accordance with 1 Tim 3 and Titus 1.

Restricted Complementarianism

Those espousing restricted complementarianism (similar to that termed “soft” complementarianism) argue that the office of elder and/or senior pastor alone is that which is restricted to male headship. They might argue that the New Testament knows of no office of Sunday School teacher, associate pastoral staff, or age-based minister and, as such, could not have mandated qualifications or restrictions. Rather, that which is made clear by the New Testament is that women are prohibited from the office of elder.

These complementarians would agree with the general complementarian view that wives are to be submitted to their husbands, but every role in the church apart from senior pastor or elder is open to their full participation. According to this view a woman could teach a mixed-gender Sunday School class, serve as an associate pastor or minister of music, or even preach in the worship service of the church as long as she did not aspire or seek the role of senior pastor or elder.

Positions past the extremes of the spectrum

Chauvinism: Though critics of complementarianism may accuse its adherents of being chauvinistic and Chauvinists may even claim to be complementarian, the affirmation of the equality and value of men and women differentiate the two views. Chauvinists are disparaging toward women and seek to derive their authority from a sense of spiritual superiority. Chauvinism is not even a Christian position. If one were to view the spectrum of complementarianism as a plateau, unrestricted complementarianism is situated at the edge, but chauvinism is at the bottom of the adjacent cliff.

Egalitarianism: Egalitarians argue that because God has created men and women equal in value and dignity, there must then be no distinction between them concerning roles and offices of the church. General and genuine equality mandates general and genuine equal opportunity. When, in dialogue with complementarianism, egalitarians are presented with biblical texts inferring different roles in the church and home (1 Tim 2–3, Eph 5), they respond that the contexts of the texts are culturally and/or temporally specific and limited in application. Egalitarianism may certainly be believed by Bible-believing Christians. However, this view is not in accordance with the Southern Baptist Confession of Faith. Again, viewing the spectrum as a plateau, restricted complementarianism is situated at the edge opposite unconditional complementarianism, but egalitarianism is at the bottom of the adjacent cliff.

A Call for Humility in Dialogue

As evangelicals, or more specifically, as Southern Baptists enter into necessary and helpful conversations about complementarianism, it is necessary that we do so in a spirit of humility. Southern Baptists are united in our affirmation that “The husband and wife are of equal worth before God, since both are created in God’s image. The marriage relationship models the way God relates to His people. A husband is to love his wife as Christ loved the church. He has the God-given responsibility to provide for, to protect, and to lead his family. A wife is to submit herself graciously to the servant leadership of her husband even as the church willingly submits to the headship of Christ. She, being in the image of God as is her husband and thus equal to him, has the God-given responsibility to respect her husband and to serve as his helper in managing the household and nurturing the next generation.” Moreover, we are united in affirming, “While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.”

In light of our unity, can we not then jettison pejorative accusations of “liberal,” “chauvinist,” “egalitarian,” or “feminist” from these heated discussions? If we are people of the Book, and we are striving to believe, teach, and live in accordance with the Book, should our conversations not resemble fraternal discussion wherein we encourage one another to be further conformed to the text rather than the verbal mudslinging that has become typified by secular politics? Should not our “speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt,” so that our varied responses be appropriate for the conversation and conversation partners (Col 4:6)?

Adjunct Professor.
PhD in Theology.
Head Barista at Caffeinated Theology.
Just give me Jesus . . . and coffee.

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