Two weeks ago, Kevin DeYoung posted a question and a concern about the “New Wave Complementarianism” described by Wendy Alsup in a blog post of hers. Since I’m the one who coined the phrase in conversation with Wendy, I took full responsibility for it in the comments section on his blog. There has been a good online discussion within complementarian circles as a consequence. Pastor Thabiti Anyabwile, who always models a gracious tone for me, commented on the subject here. Owen Strachen, Executive Director of The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, responded with a gracious post. Christ and Pop Culture joined the conversation here and here, with Brad Williams really giving me things to think about. I also thought Trevin Wax brought up some great points on his blog here.
Some of my complementarian friends and I have conversations via phone or email. We talk about Jesus, the Christian life, motherhood, children, our writing projects, what we are reading and other subjects friends share with each other. One of the concerns has been the disparity or dissonance between what we believe the Bible teaches about men and women, and the current complementarian Church culture. (There are exceptions of course.) Out of one of these conversations with my friend, Wendy Alsup, came the post that ignited this online conversation: A New Wave of Complementariansim. We are thinkers and writers, most of us have other passions as well. However, we care about the Church, and we care about women in the Church. We feel this burden acutely, and because of it, we try to write about these issues faithfully and graciously. Our friend, Hannah Anderson, has done good work on this subject here, a response to Kevin DeYoung here, and here. Wendy has followed up her original post with some clarifications here. The last thing anyone felt was “the impulse to rescue counter-cultural doctrines from their own unpopularity,” as was one of DeYoung’s concerns. As an aside, if anyone is concerned with my Reformed bona fides, I would say that I stand in the theological heritage of D.A. Carson.
I’m not as developed of a writer as Wendy and Hannah but I want to take the time, before the conversation got too far along, to sketch out a foundational issue. This issue is so important that I don’t want to touch any of the theology before this gets addressed.
I’ve been thinking a lot about where this disparity between doctrine and culture and theology and tone comes from. It’s all too easy to chalk it all up to sin, but in reality there are always certain thinking patterns and habits which drive us to sin in certain ways.
I want to show this by way of two examples:
Church A subscribes to what is generally called a complementarian view of manhood and womanhood. The subject matter is preached on from the pulpit. The men are very concerned that the women in the congregation are submissive. Ecclesiastical structures are set up so that the women may only participate in “safe” non slippery–slope areas such as singing, playing the piano, helping in the nursery and teaching Sunday school. The women are also in charge of all areas of hospitality. These doctrines are held as those of primary importance. Sermons range from how women ought to dress in modesty to how to be better wives and mothers. Complematarianism is on everyone’s radar. So much so that skirt and dress lengths start to get judged. There begins to be spoken and unspoken “rules” about women working outside the home, how many children families have, what education choices a family is allowed, what books women are allowed to read, etc. Most families are very careful to keep their marital troubles to themselves lest they should look less “holy.” When a wife finally has the courage to talk to the elders about some issues with her husband she is told to go back and be “more submissive.” Women in this church start viewing each other in a way that allows certain forms of competition to start setting in. Now suppose there’s a church meeting, things are getting heated, when the rubber meets the road, lo and behold we find that quite a few of these women who looked submissive on the outside are not so submissive in heart.
Church B also subscribes to a complementarian view of manhood and womanhood. They see the tides of culture lapping at the door of their church and they want their church members to stand strong against the worldly tide. They love Jesus. The gospel is preached with firmness and compassion every Sunday no matter where in the Scripture the pastor is preaching from. They prioritize heart transformation over behavior modification. They want to encourage men and women to use the gifts God has given them to serve the Church near and far, and so they set up Ecclesiastical structures and opportunities to maximize the giftedness of the congregation. Through modeling and when it comes up in the course of preaching through the Scriptures manhood and womanhood is discussed. The women are encouraged to study the Scriptures above other books, the men also are encouraged to study the Scriptures and opportunities are made available for each to do so. This is not a perfect church. Everyone knows they are a sinner in need of grace from God and from one another. Although there is discernment, the church culture is warm and compassionate on those who find themselves in trouble. There are some marriages in distress and since no one is shamed for not living up to the “complementarian” standard they are willing to go seek help. The elders (who are all men) make it very clear that Christ and the gospel are the center of that church. The elders desire the flourishing of all who are in their care, and so they work at creating a church culture toward that end. They see that in order to have strong families who can withstand the onslaught of the surrounding culture, both men and women need to be invested in. Not wanting to set up marriage or family as an idol they work hard at encouraging these things without falling into the error of making their congregation believe that their identity is in any role, rather union with Christ for men and women is stressed. Singles do not feel less valued.
On paper, both of these churches might look the same. They would have the same statement of faith, possibly a statement on why they have the Ecclesiastical structure which they have etc. But what is the difference? What births such divergent church cultures? It is law and grace. Although in a substantial way their doctrine is the same, the enfleshing of the doctrine is different. Church A’s presupposition in its approach to the doctrine is law. Church B’s presupposition in its approach to the doctrine is grace. It is the very same doctrine yet one sees it as law to be obeyed, the other a grace to be given with longsuffering and love.
Now these are hypotheticals, and not inevitabilities, but follow this dynamic: Although Church A started off with the same doctrine as Church B (on paper) it wasn’t long before Church A started over–reaching and setting up extra–Biblical markers. This happens because when we approach the things of God through “law” it doesn’t take long before we become judges of all we survey.
And so what I believe has happened (again setting aside certain theology which feeds some of these variants) is that many churches in the “complementarian” end of the spectrum have set up a “law” approach to these doctrines. Some of this is tied up with a lack of gospel–centrality (which is something I discuss in my book Gospel Amnesia).
I think if we are honest, we cannot deny this disparity between the theology and the application. Pastor Anyabwile has some great posts on this from January 2011 which can be found here and here and here and here and here. These really are a must read.
If we know there is a disparity, and we can see that what causes it is a law versus grace mentality, then we can move forward and talk about some of the other issues with this as the backdrop.