The future is bright; the future is complementary image

The future is bright; the future is complementary

The THINK conference 2018 was, as regular readers will know by now, on The Future of Complementarity. Your perception of any topic is shaped by your experiences, but that of complementarity is perhaps more so than most. From our earliest moments our brains are forming the patterns of understanding of how men and women interact, what their roles are, who is in charge, and whether that’s a Good Thing or a Bad Thing.

I am a confident, contented complementarian in large part because I have been very blessed to have grown up in a home, in churches and in schools where I saw women being treated with equal respect and dignity to men, even while performing different roles. I always felt secure, heard, appreciated and valued, and I saw that the women around me were too. It was a long time before I came across the idea that some people found this model – and the Bible’s teaching of it – oppressive and unjust.

I could see that it was open to abuse, of course, and that that would be oppressive and wrong, but I couldn’t understand how the biblical texts could be read any other way, or how anyone could think that the way God told his beloved children to relate to each other could be inherently negative for 50% of them. I still can’t.

But that is still an unpopular opinion, even in the church circles I move in. When my church appointed its first elders recently several of my friends suddenly discovered they were in a complementarian church, and weren’t sure how they felt about that. We had some really good conversations about it, and everyone discussed it in a calm, reasonable, loving way, but I still felt like a curiosity for believing it.

It was refreshing, then, to be in a conference setting where I felt free to reveal – and revel in – my complementarian proclivities. The speakers – Andrew Wilson, Jen Wilkin, Livy Gibbs, Hannah Anderson and Alastair Roberts – didn’t try to argue for complementarity so much as to affirm it, and to celebrate its richness. If I was unsure of whether it was simply a misreading of a few ‘proof-texts’, my doubts were quickly laid to rest. The beautiful partnership of male and female, sun and moon, heaven and earth, father and mother was established from the foundations of the earth and echoes down throughout the whole sweep of scripture, with both partners in each case ‘improving or emphasising each other’s qualities’ (Oxford Dictionary).

Of course, in a culture that is used to male-female equality meaning male-female identity (in the sense of ‘identicalness’), the suggestion that men and women are inherently better suited for different tasks is a hugely challenging one, especially when we perceive the traditionally ‘male’ roles as having more prestige and value than the female ones. It is incredibly hard to lay aside the decades of paternalism and to not hear statements like ‘the husband is the head of the wife’, or, ‘women’s biology tells us that they are uniquely fitted to be mothers’ as deeply patronising to and dishonouring of women. And when the speakers tried to honour the notion of the home as the central locus of life, rather than just a ‘docking station’ where workers come to recharge after performing the proper and valuable functions in the marketplace, that raised some eyebrows and some objections from some in the room.

I can’t begin to answer those objections here – I’m already eliding hours of careful exegesis into a few rambling paragraphs, and doubtless doing all the speakers a great disservice as I do. The talks will be available online as soon as they’re all nicely edited and beautified, and you can listen yourself then.

The essential point is that both male and female – and the roles they have been designed for – are vitally necessary to complete the cultural mandate to be fruitful and multiply. When God said it wasn’t good for man to be alone, he didn’t send him an elder board (I forget which of the speakers said any of these things, sorry – you were all so good!). There is no fruitfulness and multiplication without male and female cooperating in their different roles in physical relationships. And if, as the conference argued, marriage and physical parenthood is an image or representation of the life of the family of God, which is itself a representation of the relationship of the Church to God, it makes sense that the fruitfulness and multiplication of the Great Commission are also only possible with male and female actors.

In order to make disciples – to bring to life new births in this family of God – we need both fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters (because a member of the opposite sex isn’t just ‘someone you might accidentally sleep with’, as one of the speakers characterised our tendency to think about male-female relationships today in the wake of #MeToo and the Billy Graham Rule).

Of course, this begs the question ‘what might that look like?’ We can picture what men’s fathering role in the church looks like, but how can women mother? And how can men publicly affirm and support those women, as they were urged to more than once in the conference? This post is already too long for me to start answering that now, but tune in next week and I’ll share some ideas of what spiritual mothering has looked like in my experience.

For now, to read a couple of other brief reports from the conference (from a church leaders’ perspective and an egalitarian’s perspective), check out this post on Premier Christianity. And pay attention in church this Sunday – who can you spot mothering others? How are you and your leaders affirming and encouraging them? Who are you fathering/mothering? How are your relationships with your sisters and brothers? Would anyone outside your congregation confuse you for a family? Or is church just a docking station where you go to get what you need to carry you through another week in the ‘real world’?

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