The future of complementarianism (3): tradition and clarity

This is the third post in Mark’s series on the future of complementarianism. (Read parts 1 and 2.)

The third observation is that those of us who disagree with what (at least seems to be) Piper’s approach of linking what men and women should be doing to claims that men more naturally do some things well and women more naturally do other things well need to realize that if that is Piper’s view then that is arguably also the basic way in which pre-feminist Christians for 2000 years explained the logic behind the relevant Biblical commands. You can, throughout history, find stuff that goes beyond what Piper said and moves more into the first camp we discussed last time—saying that women are weak, or spiritually vulnerable, prone to terrible irrationality, too interested in shopping and having a bizarre interest in romantic comedies or the like—but it seems to me that Piper’s stuff is fairly run-of-the-mill for the last two thousand years. People who don’t like, not just how Piper put things, but the actual content of his talk, are probably not going to like what they read in Calvin or Luther, the post-Reformation divines, the early church fathers or the like either. Those Bible teachers of history are, by and large, going to either be ‘as bad’ as Piper or ‘worse’. That’s important, because in our debates with egalitarians, many complementarians have pushed onto egalitarians that their views are a decisive break with the tradition, and how thousands of years of Christians have read the Bible.

I think we’re going to see (particularly in that fourth group of complementarians, but possibly also in versions of my third group) the emergence of forms of complementarianism that are similarly detached, to a greater or lesser degree, as egalitarianism from traditional arguments as to the reasons for the commands. It’ll be different in that they’ll still agree with tradition as to the meaning of the biblical texts, but they will be very unhappy with many of the reasons Christians have historically given for those commands. That’s going to open up a whole new level of complexity to the debate, for some complementarians really value sticking with the basic mainstream tradition in the gender debate while other complementarians seem to kind of enjoy showing their “biblically faithful” credentials by dissenting from tradition whenever they can. Complementarians who completely reject the validity of arguments that men and women are intrinsically, essentially different and that that difference (whatever it is) stands behind the commands that place these limits on women are reading the texts, at that one point, in a new way. Given the complementarian self-identity that we haven’t moved from tradition, the egalitarians have, that’s going to add an extra wrinkle into the debate if it does indeed take hold.

All of this leads to my fourth observation, on which we’ll finish this post. I think complementarians have to be prepared to talk clearly and forthrightly about what their ‘version’ of complementarianism is and is not and why they’ve come to that conclusion. We need to stop assuming that just because someone is not describing themselves as an egalitarian, and adopts a straightforward ‘plain meaning’ approach to reading the Biblical texts that they, more or less, hold the same single view of ‘complementarianism’. We need to explain ourselves—not just to egalitarians, not just to people who haven’t been convinced yet of one ‘side’ or the other, but also to other self-described ‘complementarians’. We’re going to need to work very hard at clarity—of saying things in a way that maximizes the ability of people to understand what we think and what we do not think and why, rather than saying things in a way that maximizes our protection from the slings and arrows of outrageous complementarian critics. Through proper theological debate, done charitably, we’ll be able to work out if there is One True Complementarianism taught in Scripture which has a variety of expressions (some or all of those positions I have mentioned) all of which can, more or less, accept each other as earthly manifestations of the heavenly complementarianism, or whether there are rival claimants to the One True Complementarian label each of which can only be crowned over the corpses of its rivals. And if it turns out to be the latter, to what degree those rivals can accept each other as valid if not quite as Biblical as the preferred version, and to what degree they have to oppose each other at least as much as they do egalitarianism.

At this point in time I don’t think we can determine where on that spectrum of ‘recognize each other as valid’ through to ‘bad versions of complementarianism are as much a problem as egalitarianism’ we should be in our attitude to ‘in-house’ differences. It is clear that in-house differences often generate quite heated reactions, sometimes even greater than differences with egalitarianism. That suggests to me that this debate has some way to run yet, and complementarianism itself may be transformed by the grace of God into something even more faithful than what we’ve seen to this point—that the debate with egalitarianism might enable complementarianism to see the biblical teaching on gender more clearly than ever happened in the past, or it might, by the grace of God, result in complementarianism ending up sticking very closely to the previous history of thinking at almost every point. Whatever God has in store for ‘complementarianism’ in the future our responsibility is to be clear, very clear, in articulating what we think and why we think it—what it is about the Bible, or a wise understanding of the world we live in, that leads us to the position we have in our ‘in house’ debates. And then to be clear, very clear, about the points at which, and the reasons why, we disagree with someone else who also rejects egalitarianism. Less heat, more light, is needed in these debates between ourselves especially when we need to say, “I think that’s outside the bounds of what the Bible teaches”. We need to work in a way that encourages that clarity and constructive frankness to take place. Thick skins when on the receiving end, and clear explanations of what we do and don’t believe and why when on the giving end is what we need to aim for.

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