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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.