Complementarianism in Crisis? image

Complementarianism in Crisis?

"Complementarianism as currently constructed would seem to be now in crisis," writes Carl Trueman. "But this is a crisis of its own making -- the direct result of the incorrect historical and theological arguments upon which the foremost advocates of the movement have chosen to build their case and which cannot actually bear the weight being placed upon them."

Personally, I’m quite optimistic about the fallout from the whole debate. (More optimistic than Carl Trueman? Who knew?) I think correctives are good. I think robust challenges to faulty formulations of doctrine will, in the end, produce health rather than decay. Admittedly there is a certain type of complementarian argument that, in all likelihood, will be either gradually jettisoned, or refined and nuanced until it can no longer be recognised as the same thing, and this, I suspect, is what Carl means by “complementarianism as currently constructed.” But the overall effect of that change will be positive, rather than negative, for complementarianism as a whole, let alone the church as a whole. I say that for five reasons.

The first is clarity. It is now much clearer than it was, to me and I suspect to many others, that (a) order or taxis in the Trinity, (b) the submission of Christ to the Father after the incarnation, (c) the eternal submission of the Son to the Father, (d) the denial of the eternal generation of the Son, and (e) the affirmation of three divine wills, do not have to belong together. (The fact that some have defended Wayne Grudem and Bruce Ware by denying that (c) is heterodox, when the real charge of course concerns (d) and (e), misses this important distinction, as others have shown). There is far more diversity on some of these points than it previously appeared (at TGC, in CBMW, amongst the contributors to the Starke and Ware book, and so on), and that makes it easier to appraise the arguments for each claim on its merits, rather than assuming they come as a package deal. For my part, I have always held to (a) and (b), and never (d)—which is pretty orthodox—but I had never really thought about (e), and my position on (c) has changed from enthusiastic advocacy, to support with reservations, to outright rejection. The unbundling of these various issues has made that whole process clearer for me, and probably for others.

The second is unity. The Trinitarian angle on the complementarian/egalitarian debates of the last thirty years has certainly raised the stakes. It has tied sex roles into the divine being, and in doing so has turned areas of reasonable disagreement into areas where charges of heresy could well be, and have been, levelled in both directions. So the disentangling of related but in principle separable claims about God has, I imagine, lowered the temperature somewhat. Egalitarians like Scot McKnight and Mike Bird (both of whom, it is worth noting, are thoroughly persuaded that men and women are complementary!) seem relieved that complementarians are not irrevocably wedded to a doctrine they regard as heterodox; many complementarians will no doubt be equally relieved no longer to be tarred with that particular brush; and that should make dialogue both gentler and more constructive all round.

The third is simplicity. Complementarianism doesn’t need the Son to be eternally submissive to the Father (and, as we’ll see in a moment, such a claim actually distorts the essences/roles distinction anyway); if Christ submits to the Father in the incarnation (John; 1 Cor 11:3) and into eternity future (1 Cor 15:27-28), then the central complementarian claim here—that submission does not imply inferiority—stands, whether or not we extrapolate it back into eternity past. (The point should be obvious, given biblical exhortations to submit to governments, church leadership and so on, but you’d be surprised how often our cultural assumptions of equal rights, democracy and the like get read into our theology). This simple point made, complementarians can then get back to talking about marriage and church government from passages that are primarily about marriage (e.g. Song of Songs; 1 Cor 7; Eph 5; 1 Pet 3) and church government (e.g. 1 Cor 3-4; 1 Thess 1-2; 1 Tim 3; Tit 1; 1 Pet 5).

The fourth is history. The shakedown has exposed faultlines on the relationship between historical and creedal theology on the one hand, and biblical exegesis on the other, with charges of scholasticism and biblicism being levelled. (The relationship between theological and denominational lines here has been intriguing, with Baptists generally on one side and Presbyterians generally on the other. As a presbyterian credobaptist, but neither a Presbyterian nor a Baptist, I have found this fascinating.) But again, one of the outcomes of the debate has been to draw the attention of a large number of non-specialists, myself included, to the wealth of Trinitarian reflection that has taken place across the centuries, the rich resources it provides for engaging in theology today, and the perils of neglecting it, either through ignorance or misrepresentation. More briefly: in the battle between the “scholastics” and the “biblicists”, the scholastics have won. Ultimately, that strengthens the church.

The fifth, and probably the one most worth thinking about pastorally, is liberty. I’m drawing here on some excellent work by Hannah Anderson, Wendy Alsup, Aimee Byrd, Rachael Starke and others, so I’ll try to represent this point as clearly as possible: maleness and femaleness aren’t roles. They are essences. So if you say that the Son has always been subject to the Father, and then say that this serves as an analogy for the way women are to relate to men, then you give the impression (as much as you may dispute it) that women are innately subject to men, and always will be. If, on the other hand, you say that the Son newly and voluntarily submitted himself to the Father in the incarnation, and that Christ’s relationship to the Father from his incarnation onwards is an analogy for the relationship of wives and husbands—which, I would argue, is what is actually happening in 1 Corinthians 11:3—then you give the impression that women are not innately subject to men, but that wives choose to submit to their husbands.

Here’s the key paragraph from Hannah and Wendy’s excellent post:

Being a wife is a role; being a husband is a role; being a servant is a role; being a citizen is a role. Being male and female are not roles. While our biological sex necessarily shapes the roles we hold (in marriage, a woman will be a wife and not a husband), submission does not stem directly from gender but from a role that exists in the context of relationship. A wife submits to her husband not because he is a “man” but because he is her husband and has committed himself to certain vows and duties in the context of their marriage. The same is true of a servant and master, a congregant and elder, and a citizen and his government. Submission happens in context of specific privileges and responsibilities found in specific relationships bound by specific covenants.

And if recent debates have made that point clearer, then complementarianism will be by far the stronger for it.

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