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.
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.