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What the Heck Even is a “Complementarian”?

The Reformed internet world, one of the more peculiar varieties of internet worlds, has been downright pullulating with posts about this thing called “complementarianism.” We’ve learned that it can be “thick” or “thin,” adjectives which do not immediately endear themselves to the reader. The “thin” complementarians worry that complementarianism is in danger of becoming “thick,” and they suggest that this is some new thing. “Patriarchy” is bad and must be avoided. Todd Pruitt, in the previously-linked essay, explicitly says that the thicker complementarians– ok, we really must dispose of that adjective– the more comprehensive complementarians are “outliers” who have been “attracted to” complementarianism and are “loony hangers-on.” Later on in his essay, he explains that these loons are the ones who suggest that male leadership applies beyond “the church” and “the home.” It’s crazy to suggest such, whereas it is perfectly rational to state that principles which do apply in church and home stop dead in their tracks upon contact with the public square.  Mr. Pruitt has objected to this characterization of his position, stating that he does not believe all extensions of complementarianism beyond the church and home are loony. I was attempting to synthesize his concerns under this logic, but will now retract this description of his personal views so as not to derail the larger conversation, though I do await further explanation. As it stands the term “patriarchy” is his culprit, serving as a catch-all to signify the “loony” extensions which can result in a variety of applications.

On our own site, Ms. Cherney gave a profound and entertaining meditation on this question, suggesting that what’s really at stake is not  a rule here or there but instead the real categories of “men” and “women.” “Real,” is being used in the philosophical sense, of course. There are either “real” universals or there are not, and if there are, then those universals do give us comprehensive instruction for all of life, including the public square. Put in this way, the comprehensive complementarianism is the only actual sensible variety, and the “thinner” variety seems to be forced to retreat to divine positive law, “We only have male headship because the Bible requires us to. There’s no other good reason for it.” Surely that is an untenable position. But things are not so easy.

For instance, Pastor Wilson added to this conversation with a semi-speculative post on sexual aesthetics, but his Chestertonian rhetoric ended up playing right into the hands of Carl Trueman, whose simple rebuttal is quite devastating. Even though Dr. Trueman himself has not put together any sort of “explanation” of how his brand of complementarianism makes sense of creation ordinances, the harmonious relationship between nature and grace, or the natural law, he really doesn’t have to. He wins the short-term optics, and in a big way. Pastor Wilson does come across looking rather out of touch. And this shows the challenges of this conversation.

A few thoughts, for what they’re worth.

  1. If male-headship is only a matter of special revelation– “faith” rather than reason– then it is of a kind with the Incarnation or the mode of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist. It might be very important, but it is more or less inaccessible to non-believers, and it has no necessary connection to the natural order. It’s a religious value, like so many odd things are. Of course, a transformationalist Christian might suggest that the cosmos is becoming complementarian, and the modern spin-off of the Two-Kingdoms Reformed could retort that the complementarian church and agnostic world will always be fundamentally distinct and qualitatively different, but neither camp would be in a position to say that complementarianism is simply the way that God created the human race. This seems patently unbiblical, however, as we will discuss below.
  2. The very term “complementarianism” is strange. It has a sort of scientific sound about it, as if it is some technical term. It’s very different from that awful “patriarchy,” though it’s not clear how– other than ethos and inflection. Non-Christians certainly don’t see a difference. Telling them that complementarianism only applies in the Church and in the (Christian and private) home might make them feel a little better, but it will not answer their criticisms about the unjust nature of male priority. Thin complementarians join the feminists in decrying the patriarchy, but they will find their co-belligerency very short-lived.
  3. The New Testament does not present male leadership as a new teaching nor as a particularly “distinct” feature of Christianity over and against other religions or cultures. To the contrary, it generalizes and appeals to the creation account, to Adam and Eve (1 Cor. 11:8-12; 1 Tim. 2:14). Paul even founds the “teaching authority” of the church in the domestic hierarchy: “Let your women keep silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak; but they are to be submissive, as the law also says. And if they want to learn something, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is shameful for women to speak in church” (1 Cor. 14:34-35). Beyond simple generalizations, the Apostle Peter uses that dreaded expression “weaker vessel” (1 Peter 3:7). I don’t think this observation means that Christians should fearlessly spout chauvinistic banalities, but it does give me pause at modern “conservative” Christians who bend over backwards so as to not sound like they are saying that they think women are naturally indisposed to certain activities.
  4. The tradition is also very strong on this point. Surely John Knox is not an “exotic” or “obscure” figure in the history of Presbyterianism. He might well be wrong, but he is, nevertheless, so very Scottish. It really is not credible to say that a comprehensive complementarianism is a newcomer to the conversation, and the attenuated complementarians really ought to admit this and explain their principles and whether or not those principles are consistent with their own religious tradition. This is especially true if they want to separate sexual norms from the creation ordinance. If complementarianism really is a matter of special revelation, then one’s ecclesiastical tradition must be admitted and openly discussed.
  5. How much of “complementarianism” is a conservative counter-reaction to the gains of feminism? Those gains might be legitimate, it should be said, but they should still be admitted. This seems very likely to be the case, given what we’ve said above. It isn’t the comprehensive complementarians who are new or exotic, but actually the reverse. The attenuated complementarianism is very clearly new in terms of history, and its rhetoric and socio-political sensitivities only make sense in light of our modern context. What should we learn from this?
  6. There is certainly a difference between principles and implementation, and I think even the thickest of comprehensive complementarians agrees. Given this, how should we be strategic about our rhetoric and generalizations while declining to back away from our principles?

All of that is, perhaps, a long way of saying that Pastors Piper and Wilson have the better argument as such, but that Dr. Trueman and his friends have the stronger position when it comes to persuasive leverage. It’s a shame that some feel that their case can be strengthened by straw-manning the opposition or associating them with the truly problematic fringe characters like Gothard. And it will be a tragedy if one side simply swallows the reductio of the other and throws prudence to the wind. We’ve seen a failure of composure in more ways than one. Some of these exchanges have also seemed to be a disagreement over style rather than substance, though many basic questions remain. What the heck even is a “complementarian”? What are the basic principles, and from where do they come?

This is a conversation that very badly needs to occur, but it’s one that perhaps cannot occur in the right way given the high tensions and sensitivities involved. We need to think about how to think about this, and we need to talk about how to talk about it. We have an archive of these very topics on TCI, and several of the installments there might be good points of departure.

By Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the associate pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church in Vancouver, British Columbia. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a Director for the Davenant Institute.

13 replies on “What the Heck Even is a “Complementarian”?”

CS Lewis argues that the church is nearer the centre of reality and therefore its members are called to express their real selves as male and female – hence the clear distinctions we make in the church. Man-made bureaucracies and organisations may be necessary and useful but are artificial, and so their members are perforce treated more as human units, without distinction. Thus, I suppose we are on shakier ground if we insist on distinctions outside the church, although thoughtful men and women will want to humanise their interactions with others by recognising these distinctions and taking sex into account. Whilst they recognise the equal worth of the sexes, this may then legitimately influence their degree of cultural support for regarding men and women as always and in all circumstances interchangeable in public life.

Lewis: ‘The factory and the
political party are artificial creations – “a breath can
make them as a breath has made”. In them we are not dealing
with human beings in their concrete entirety only with “hands”
or voters. I am not of course using “artificial” in
any derogatory sense. Such artifices are necessary: but because
they are our artifices we are free to shuffle, scrap and experiment
as we please…. With the Church,
we are farther in: for there we are dealing with male and female
not merely as facts of nature but as the live and awful shadows
of realities utterly beyond our control and largely beyond our
direct knowledge. Or rather, we are not dealing with them but
(as we shall soon learn if we meddle) they are dealing with us.’ Priestesses in the Church? http://www.episcopalnet.org/TRACTS/priestesses.html

The protest you refer to at the end of your first paragraph is odd, given that Mr. Pruitt says: “All good churches, all good movements, and all sound doctrines eventually attract a few outliers now and then. Calvinism, the pro-life movement, and even the OPC all have their loony hangers-on. This is also the case with complementarianism. …Perhaps I am naïve. I have always assumed that complementarianism simply affirmed what the Bible states about male leadership in the church and headship at home.”

Mr. Pruitt also could at least have done the service of linking to the writer to whose characterization he was objecting.

A few of your assumptions or thoughts are really quite beyond the pale.

For one thing, just because male-headship (or really any scriptural command not given specifically to the church) is based on special revelation in no way nullifies its claim on the non-believer.

In addition, complementarians do not state that male and female distinctiveness only applies in the home and the church. What most complementarians state is that in the home, when there is a husband/father, he is to be in authority. Those who frame this whole debate around the fear of feminism forget that the men left the home and gave up on headship before the feminist movement gained any traction.

In the church, ordained men are to be placed in authority and women are not to exercise authority.

In other spheres, such as civic society and the workplace, women should seek to fulfill their ezer and life-giver roles, just as the positive female figures commended in the scriptures always have – Proverbs 31, Deborah, Ruth, Esther, Lydia, Priscilla, etc….

Why must we insist on either complicating things or trying to subsume all authority under “our own” headship, rather than leaving the matter with Christ in His Word?

Steven, I’ll just say that while Ms. Cherney’s piece is of interest of me, as I intend to pursue a philosophical study of gender once I actually have the time, her piece was little more than musings. She didn’t argue a point, and when my fiance pointed out her imprecise use of philosophical language (claiming, for instance, that women are “ontologically receptive”), she did not offer any explanation, but essentially claimed that she was just writing an entertaining essay.

As someone (a female) who is deeply affected by claims people make about the “meaning” of gender, I’m disappointed that this topic is not treated more seriously. Chestertonian claims with all their generalizations and impreciseness will not do. People’s lives are on the line. If someone gets their theory of gender wrong it’s not just “Whoops. My mistake.” Women lose out on opportunities to develop their gifts and know their worth as humans made in the image of God.

And if people get it wrong in the other direction, there are severe consequences as well.

Like what? Men having less opportunities? Ha! Please tell me how you might stack that deck? Given, a deck full of cards contrary to the facts.

I am not understanding your dismissive stance? If one accepts the possibility one could violate the Scriptures commands concerning gender and grounded in the created order, then why would doing such leading to negative consequences be far fetched?

The only way that your dismissal would even make sense is if the simply assumes that the Bible has nothing to say concerning gender or that whatever it says is simply fine to ignore.

Hermonta,

1) Petitio principii: If S were to violate either SL or NL then S would–according to SL v NL–be subject to negative consequences. However, S has yet to be proven to violate SL v NL. Thus, it’s begging the question.

2) False dilemma: Nothing in my comment logically commits to either a view of biblical silence or willful ignorance (or disobedience) to SL or NL. Therefore, your comment presents a false dilemma.

3) In the sentiment of Sean Connery in Finding Forrester, maybe you should stick to soup questions.

Honestly, Hermonta, I think we are speaking past one another. Hopefully, we are both committed to this issue enough to walk away from these blog post comments and resume a lifetime of study regarding the issues.

Steven,

You concluded with the following:

“This is a conversation that very badly needs to occur, but it’s one that perhaps cannot occur in the right way given the high tensions and sensitivities involved. We need to think about how to think about this, and we need to talk about how to talk about it.”

You’re right. Let’s think. But maybe we should talk about our talking first:

For instance: why the apologetics for your little denomination’s current crises? And, most peculiarly, defenses in favor of a celebrity figure with less than a sliver of integrity to stand on?

Also, I presume you are making claims to the Reformed scholastic tradition when you refer to philosophical realism and offer endorsement to Ms. Cherney’s piece. In my opinion, any comments on these issues claiming authority from this tradition is entirely rushed and merit no weight given the fact that no one has done anything in these topics like what Muller has done for orthodox Reformed theology or what the neo-scholastics did for classical philosophy. These issues deserve much more time than a simple Aristotelian or Thomist nod.

Sounds like the thinking about the thinking about the thinking of this issue needs more thinking. So I think.

Relax. Take some time. Maybe the conversation which so “very badly needs to occur” might do better without us for now.

Respectively yours,

Ray

Steven,

Finally, thinking about my thinking about my thinking… I wonder, what sources are you consulting? I’m most familiar with Maritain, Finnis, Stein, and Cory but would be eager for your recommended reading if you think my thinking might be enriched by reading another to further our talking.

Thanks,
Ray

Okay, let us go back through both of your statements here.

“Like what? Men having less opportunities? Ha! Please tell me how you might stack that deck? Given, a deck full of cards contrary to the facts.”

Why would the number of opportunities for men or women be the standard by which to judge whether something is negative or not/just or not?

Next post

“1) Petitio principii: If S were to violate either SL or NL then S would–according to SL v NL–be subject to negative consequences. However, S has yet to be proven to violate SL v NL. Thus, it’s begging the question.”

I didnt beg any question. It is you that begged the question. If one wishes to take a neutral stance between concerns, then one is not allowed to dismiss one side without first putting something forward as a basis for the dismissal. You assumed “a deck full of cards contrary to the facts.” that you never placed on the table. Without that assumption, how would your comment make sense?

“2) False dilemma: Nothing in my comment logically commits to either a view of biblical silence or willful ignorance (or disobedience) to SL or NL. Therefore, your comment presents a false dilemma.”

Again, if you want to be neutral, you cant dismiss without putting forward a reason for your dismissal.

“3) In the sentiment of Sean Connery in Finding Forrester, maybe you should stick to soup questions.”

You just might want to slow down a bit and put forward actual argumentation before reaching for snide remarks.

“Honestly, Hermonta, I think we are speaking past one another. Hopefully, we are both committed to this issue enough to walk away from these blog post comments and resume a lifetime of study regarding the issues.”

Lifetime of Bible study on all sorts of issues is an awesome thing to think about, but that doesnt imply that we can say nothing concerning the status quo on an issue until the end of a lifetime of study. You certainly are not waiting until the end of such study, to put your views out there.

There’s really no point in responding to you aside from building off of your remarks to clarify our position:

1) Neutrality does not exist in any issue. Our theological principia resides in the being of God, his Revelation. and the Holy Spirit’s illumination to all saints. And, while living and moving in this, our philosophical principia are as follows: the rational knowability of God’s being as the efficient, formal, and final cause; the reality of creation brought forth ex nilhilo and conserved through participation with God’s being; and the ability of the Imago Dei to grasp reality through its participation with the transcendentals of being that the “I AM” has created and upholds. I presuppose all of this–and lots more–when I claim that you’re begging the question. And, I–especially–want Mr. Wedgeworth and all of the editors of CI to know that these are the principles that we are bringing to the table when we claim that any use of Aristotelian, Thomistic, or Reformed scholastic traditions to justify patriarchy, onerous examples of complementarinism, abuses of natural law theory, or the mere political gain of promoting the failed ministry of Doug Wilson or prospects of saving the CREC from engaging these issues are (in our opinion) an abuse of scholarship, academic integrity, intellectual honesty, and a blemish to Reformed orthodoxy and its intellectual and spiritual influences.

2) As I hope the above makes clear: We do not accept that the Bible is the only source of knowledge regarding these issues. In fact, I think it is a very confusing source when taken alone. While I certainly hold to the doctrine of sola scriptura, I remain perplexed by an interlocutor who assumes that by committing one’s self to a lifetime of study on these issues then one must spend it on the study of the Bible. This smacks of biblicism.

But, hey, why should I respond any further? Nothing substantial has been said nor asked. Hence: “No soup for you!”

So your stance isnt neutral but you didnt put forward why the number of opportunities for women vs. men is the standard by which you wish to judge justice etc.

You then write a plenty when it seems that such simply reduces down to the claim that “Patriarchy = bad”. At least with that much writing, one would hope to find a defense of something but nope, just a claim asserted.

Yeah, you can keep your soup.

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