The tragedy of complementarianism....

Error message

Carl Trueman is a complementarian. Really.

He recently assured us of this, despite previously suggesting on his blog that disagreement over the Biblically-ordained roles of men and women is no basis for separation in ministry and despite holding the opinion that many complementarians embrace complementarianism "less because of the Bible and more because they apparently watched Conan the Barbarian a few too many times in their early teenage years."

Unfortunately, he's accurate in claiming to be complementarian. Professor Trueman is straight down the middle of that broad and squishy theological avenue.

Complementarianism--an academic term promoted by men who want to maintain Scriptural truth and camaraderie in the faculty hallway--has always been an uneasy compromise between God's truth and academic credibility: hence, the term complementarian crafted by Evangelical scholars to replace its perfectly adequate, but culturally embarrassing, predecessor, patriarchal.

The pattern of egalitarians enlarging their tents and complementarians retreating before them has been established for decades. The birthing mother to the term complementarian, the now-apparently-defunct Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, died the death of a thousand apologies. 

But Carl Trueman's complementarian leanings are most clearly on display when he suggests that it's possible to hold to egalitarian feminism while remaining a good Evangelical. Though Professor Trueman admits that some Evangelical feminists argue for the ordination of women by saying Paul was wrong--thus denying Scripture--many others happen to think that times have changed or that traditional understandings of passages forbidding women to teach and hold authority over men are simply wrong. In such cases, he writes, feminism does not amount to a rejection of inerrancy, but simply a difference of hermeneutics (the method we use for interpreting Scripture). 

There are honest feminists, Professor Trueman claims, egalitarians possessing Scriptural integrity, and when those advocating the egalitarian position do so for legitimate reasons, there's no reason why they shouldn't be accepted as good, inerrantist Evangelicals.

Two things must be said about this.

First, Professor Trueman seems not to grasp that rebellion against God's Word inevitably reduces obedience to a hermeneutical question. Egalitarianism isn't alone in this: Evangelical apologists for homosexuality follow precisely in the footsteps of their egalitarian predecessors by claiming commitment to inerrancy while questioning traditional interpretations of anti-homosexual passages. In fact, every movement committed to denying Scriptural authority casts itself as the champion of a valid hermeneutical view: they all eventually ask, "Did God really say?" 

Second, and more important, though Professor Trueman views inerrancy as the lynchpin of Evangelical orthodoxy, inerrancy is just another squishy academic neologism that confuses more than it helps.

Inerrancy became the Evangelical rallying cry in the 1970s in response to liberalism's inroads in Evangelical schools and churches. Rather than respond to liberalism's challenges individually, Harold Lindsell, Roger Nicole and other Evangelical leaders forged consensus behind a doctrine they termed "inerrancy," the proposition that the text of Scripture was entirely without error in its original autographs. Yet despite its appearance of rigor, inerrancy has proved an Evangelical Maginot Line.

It's telling that inerrancy stands beside the doctrine of the Trinity as the sole confessional requirement of the Evangelical Theological Society--the professional association of academic Evangelical theologians. You can hold nearly any position you want in any area of theology, but, as long as you affirm Scriptural inerrancy and the doctrine of the Trinity, you can remain a member in good standing of the Evangelical Theological Society.

Inerrancy is not just the last but the only line of defense against heresy within the Evangelical academy. If you were to be cast out of the Evangelical Theological Society for denying the Virgin Birth, you would be cast out solely because your denial of the Virgin Birth was deemed a denial of inerrancy, not because you denied the Virgin Birth. Only denials of inerrancy or the Trinity lead to expulsion. Everything else is hermeneutics.

Meanwhile, as Evangelical academia parades its commitment to inerrancy, Evangelicalism's historic commitment to the authority of God's Word has quietly been discarded.

This is tragic because inerrancy's importance pales before the importance of Scriptural authority. Jesus said, "Whoever has my commands and obeys them he is the one who loves me," not, "whoever insists on the inerrancy of my words loves me." Obedience is fundamental, not inerrancy. Consider the parable of the two sons: one pays lip service to the father, the other rejects the Father's words yet does what the father commands. Which of the sons receives the father's blessing? The one who actually obeys. Requiring subscription to inerrancy in the absence of submission to the authority of God's Word gives the benediction not to the son who obeys, but to the son who pays lip service. 

Give me a simple Christian who obeys the Word any day over a man with a theoretical commitment to the inerrancy of the Word. The man who submits to the authority of the Word will change the world while the inerrantist is still fleshing out his heremeneutics. 

Inerrancy is nothing more than an adjunct to Scripture's authority: though true and necessary, inerrancy must always be subordinate to authority. Make inerrancy, rather than authority, the issue and the battle is lost from the outset.

By reducing the debate over patriarchy from an issue of obedience to a question of inerrancy, Carl Trueman becomes merely another in the long line of complementarian academics who have maintained an academic insistence on inerrancy while throwing in the towel on Scriptural authority.

Yes,  it's possible to uphold inerrancy while denying patriarchy, but only by separating inerrancy from its master, authority. If lip-service to inerrancy is the measure of an Evangelical, then by all means, make common cause with egalitarians everywhere, not just in parachurch ministries but in churches, sessions and pulpits. If our differences with Evangelical feminists are nothing more than hermeneutical distinctions, as Professor Trueman maintains, why not embrace egalitarians everywhere, not just in parachurch ministry?

God has said, "I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man." We can dislike the command, even think it unfair, yet if we obey it we please God. Disobey it, and we are rebels. The command admits no alternative: there is obedience or rebellion, nothing more, nothing less. And the rabbit of rebellion will not disappear if we slowly wave a hermeneutical wand over its head and pronounce, "Inerrant, inerrant, inerrant," as Professor Trueman seems to think.

The characteristic error of Professor Trueman, as of so many other Evangelical scholars, is to think that the authority of the Word is established by the authority of the academy. Egalitarianism, he claims, is a permissible Evangelical view because he, as an Evangelical scholar committed above all to inerrancy, is willing to accept egalitarians as inerrantists.

Professor Trueman assures us that most egalitarians are good Evangelicals. Perhaps so, but Evangelical holiness is the lowest of low-hanging fruit these days. Egalitarians may indeed be good Evangelicals, but by any Scriptural measure they're less than obedient Christians because their teaching denies the Word of God.