The crisis in complementarianism...

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Dr. Carl Trueman has just proclaimed that “complementarianism as currently constructed would seem to be now in crisis.”

He’s right, but not for the reason he gives.

Conservative Evangelicalism is not in danger of abandoning the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity. That doctrine is so well-established Scripturally and historically that I am confident clear-headed argument will correct those who err. So if Trinitarian orthodoxy is alive and well, what is the true crisis among complementarians?

The real crisis is...

this: will complementarians minimize manhood and womanhood, limiting its meaning to a few isolated and narrow points; or will manhood and womanhood be taught and practiced in a comprehensive Biblical way. Will complementarians be able to cast a vision of the beauty and glory of man and woman in a way that shows its significance for all of life, or will their view be reduced to a few limited tenets about ordination and household structure?

In practice, complementarianism has been forced back—pared back, really—to two points: 1) No female pastors, 2) the husband is the official head of the wife. This is how Dr. Liam Goligher, Senior Minister of Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, put it in his recent, histrionic attack on several well-known complementarians:

I am an unashamed biblical complementarian. The original use of that word took its cue from the biblical teaching about the differences yet complementarity of human beings made in the image of God while not running away from the challenges of applying biblical exhortations for wives to submit to their own husbands in the Lord or the prohibition on ordination for women in the church. With only those two caveats, as Calvin told John Knox, women may be princes in the state, but not pastors in the church.

Leaving aside Goligher's utterly false representation of Calvin’s position, it is clear how Dr. Goligher intends to limit Complementarianism: no female pastors and the husband is the (theoretical, at least) head of the wife. His position is ably summarized by Dr. Trueman, who writes that Complementarianism “lost its way when it became an all-embracing view of the world and not simply a matter for church and household." Trueman claims there are “problems that occur when the issue of male-female complementarity is detached from the specific issues of marriage and church.”

And let’s be honest: a great many (perhaps most) complementarians agree with Drs. Goligher and Trueman. In practice, complementarianism struggles to get beyond these two basic points and those who identify themselves as "complementarians" are quite satisfied to limit their defense of manhood and womanhood to the church and the household.

Yet, let's also be honest and acknowledge that a complementarianism that is not an “all-embracing view of the world” is a complementarianism that’s not worth its salt. It might hold up for a generation, but it is not vital enough to last to our children’s children. Our sons will begin to wonder “why shouldn’t women sign up for the draft?” Our daughters will begin to wonder “why shouldn’t I keep working after our baby is born? After all, I make more money.” Our sons will begin to wonder “what’s wrong with adopting a metrosexual affect?” Our daughters will ask, “why don’t they ever let a woman teach adult Sunday school? They let non-ordained men do it.”

The clear, bright lines in the home and church are useful and necessary. But if complementarians don’t figure out how to hold up manhood and womanhood as glorious, all-encompassing, life-affecting realities, ones that penetrate down to the core of our humanity, then we will have failed. Our children are already asking these questions, and more. Indeed, they’ve already answered them, and in a way that would shock our Reformation forefathers. Can you imagine what John Knox would say about today’s metrosexual affect? Can you imagine what John Calvin would say about women being drafted into the military?

So here is what’s going on: the Mortification of Spin crew is engaged in an intentional, long-term project of restricting complementarianism to those two, thin and attenuated, bright lines. They started last summer by jumping all over Dr. John Piper for simply suggesting to a woman that, before she signed up to be a police officer, she consider what implications it might have for her womanhood. They ridiculed the idea that there was any “biblical manhood and biblical womanhood filter” that life and career decisions needed to be put through. 

Herein lies the crisis. Will complementarianism remain true to its founding, which regards masculinity, femininity, manhood, and womanhood as real and comprehensive truths? Or will it adopt the mantra “a woman can do anything a non-ordained man can do,” and thereby effectively neuter and androgynize every position other than pastor? 

Will we have church cultures and public squares that are gloriously sexual – filled with the diversity of manhood and womanhood – or will we, instead, be neutered and impotent? 

Complementarians must learn to emulate Dr. Piper. Manhood and womanhood have implications for every single human relationship and must be worked out “in ways appropriate to a man’s [and woman’s] differing relationships,” as Dr. Piper so artfully worded it 25 years ago in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood.

We have to be willing to say: your manhood or womanhood makes a difference in how you live as a single person, in how to treat someone of the opposite sex, in what kind of jobs and careers you do or don’t have, in what kind of positions you accept or don’t accept, in what kind of habits and dispositions you choose to cultivate in yourself, in what kind of person you are aiming to become in every aspect of your life.

The real crisis is that many complementarian churches not only cannot do this, they will not do this. Many churches and pastors in conservative denominations and church-planting networks like the PCA, OPC, and Acts29 would prefer to stick with the simple mantra “a woman can do anything a non-ordained man can do,” whether that’s teach mixed-sex Sunday school classes or be CEO of a Fortune 500 company. Do they not remember this half-way position has already been tried and has failed in countless denominations and churches that now have women pastors? 

So, complementarianism is indeed in crisis, but Drs. Trueman and Golisher are tilting at a windmill.

The real danger isn’t Arianism. The real danger is the loss of humanity. We’re in danger of losing the precious truth that from the beginning God created us male and female, and it was very good. The precious truth that we were designed for a joyful life together; that there is a divine and natural design for man and woman; that fatherhood and motherhood are comprehensive callings which shape the entire life of our community.

So by all means let us explore the rich theology of the Trinity. Let us delight in contemplating Who God is and what benefits we derive from Him. Amen and amen. I look forward to watching that discussion unfold.

The Trinity certainly does have implications for our understanding of man and woman. From Genesis 1 we learn that “God said, let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule…God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.” God Himself, in His mysterious One-in-Many, is somehow imaged by man as male and female. Likewise, we can hardly miss that God has revealed Himself as Father and Son, not Mother and Daughter. That God is the pater from which every patria on heaven and earth derives its name surely tells us something about manhood.

But, resolving our Trinitarian disputes will not resolve the underlying crisis in complementarianism. Were Wayne Grudem and Bruce Ware to reverse their position today about the Eternal Functional Subordination of the Son to the Father, and everyone suddenly agreed on all points of Trinitarian theology, we would still have all the same ethical questions in front of us. And 1 Corinthians 11 would still speak directly to them. The Holy Spirit, through the Apostle Paul, would still be teaching us today about the headship of man over woman and the many implications of that headship (including, yes, hair length, as much as the Spinsters might think it silly).

The Trinitarian arguments of Grudem, Ware, and others, are only one piece of a broad theological argument. There is clear grounding for manhood and womanhood in creation and God’s relationship to his creation. For it is God who created us with our sexually differentiated natures as men and women. It is in Genesis 1-3 that we see the nature and vocation of man as sexually complementary. It's in the dust and in the rib. It’s in Adam naming Eve and God coming to Adam after the Fall. It’s in the curses, in the thorns, and in childbearing.

Likewise, God’s relationship with creation reveals something about man and woman. It is God who claimed His church, provides for her, protects her, and is leading her into glory. In Ephesians 5 we see how the husband’s sacrificial leadership is patterned on Christ while the willing submission of the wife is patterned on the church.

If there is an Eternal Functional Subordination of Son to Father, then that is a wonderful illustration of how total equality of nature can coexist with hierarchy. But even if there isn’t, the Biblical doctrine of sexuality remains secure, and the challenge in front of complementarians remains the same.

Carl Trueman, Aimee Byrd, and Liam Goligher should not be permitted to throw dust in our eyes by accusing us of bad Trinitarian theology. Mortification of Spin is on a quest to limit the meaning and purpose of sexuality. but in the process, they are bringing out into the open the real deficiencies of complementarianism today.

The questions remain:

What does it mean to be a man?

What does it mean to be a woman?

Dr. Talcott earned his Ph.D. in philosophy from Indiana University — Bloomington after majoring in philosophy at Hillsdale College. David resides in Plainfield, New Jersey with his wife, Anna, and six children. He is an Elder at Covenant Presbyterian Church of Millburn and Short Hills (PCA), and an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at The King's College in New York City.