The seduction of big-tent compromises...

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The Building of Big-tent Complementarianism

CircusTent02.jpgBack in 1987, the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW) issued the Danvers Statement. And as far as it goes, the statement is good, so many signed on. As we approach the Statement's thirtieth anniversary, though, its weaknesses are growing more apparent. Its strength is what it says about sexuality in the home and church. Its weakness is what it doesn't say about manhood and womanhood in the "rest of life." 

In places, the Statement uses generic language that could be taken to include the civil sphere. Still, the plainest reading leaves the impression that the entire document is intentionally limited in its application to the private spheres of home and church. At several key points it is impossible to understand it any other way. There is a discussion of the effects of the fall and redemption on the relationship between the sexes with sub-points for both the church and home, but then only silence on life outside those two spheres.

This is the only statement on biblical sexuality embraced by the conservative church today, so why is it silent concerning what it means to be a man or woman in the public sphere, which is to say in the majority of life?

The answer seems to be that CBMW wrote the Danvers Statement and adopted a big-tent complementarianism inclusive of both "thick" and "thin" complementarians in order to fight for what really mattered to CBMW's founders—male senior pastors and elders in the church, and tie-breaking authority for husbands in the home. To CBMW's founders, giving up the public sphere seemed a small price to pay in order to get more people to support their efforts to protect male authority in the private spheres of church and home.

For a long time, CBMW's strategy flew under the radar of the larger church. As far as anyone knew, CBMW was the responsible voice for "biblical sexuality" or "biblical manhood and womanhood." No one tracked what CBMW wasn't saying because what they were saying was quite helpful where things mattered most. Which is to say the strategy seemed to be working. But as our culture has drifted into an ever-more-insane rebellion against the meaning of sexuality with parents paying surgeons to alter their child's plumbing and Bruce Jenner appearing on the cover of Vanity Fair in women's lingerie, CBMW's strategy of large-tent complementarianism becomes increasingly exposed as short-sighted and incapable of protecting biblical sexuality even in those private spheres of life.

The Failure of Big-tent Complementarianism

Heresy is like a weed. Chopping it down doesn't do anything. It has to be pulled up by its root. Breaking it off without getting the root only makes its grasp on the soil more tenacious. Similarly, constructing a big-tent complementarianism that makes its peace with half a heresy is sure to end with the tent upside down and inside out. It's inevitable that, in time, the tent will topple.

Egalitarianism is heresy. Egalitarianism's core principle is the denial of distinctions, so men and women are the same, Father and Son are the same, Islam and Christianity are the same; and, ultimately, the Creator and creation are the same. To egalitarians, order and hierarchy are like kryptonite because they recognize the distinctions between people—distinctions that are ordained by God. For the egalitarian, "equal but different" is the anti-creed. It is an impossibility. Equal must mean "the same in every respect." Feminism is one branch of the egalitarian heresy focused on obliterating the distinctions between men and women. Note that religious feminists call themselves simply "egalitarians."

Thin complementarians are really just semi-egalitarians. Though they'll argue for the man being head of his home and only men serving as senior pastors and elders, they'll speak of these male responsibilities as mere "roles" God has assigned to men, rather than women. Such thin complementarians do not believe "roles" flow out of the fundamental nature of man and woman as created by God. Thus when pressed to explain why women shouldn't be pastors, the complementarian doesn't speak of Adam being created first, then Eve; nor does he explain the fundamental distinction God has made between man and woman in the capacities and gifts He's placed in each sex which are integral to that sex. Instead, he'll say something like, "I don't know why God has chosen men to be elders. I think women would make great elders. Lots of women I know would make much better elders than men. Nevertheless, God has said that only men are to be allowed to be elders, so we have to obey Him."

When asked why women aren't the head of the home, the complementarian doesn't explain God's Order of Creation of Adam first, then Eve. He doesn't open up the distinctions God has placed at the foundation of human sexuality. Rather, he speaks of leadership or tie-breaking authority in marriage and family life as a "role" coming out of a few seemingly arbitrary declarations by God. The only place semi-egalitarians will admit to hard distinctions between men and women is reproduction. And, even then, only sexual intercourse which is to say the putting together of body parts. After the child is born, Mommy can pump and Daddy can stay home, if they like. What matters is that the child has parents—not that he has a father and a mother.

Complementarians built their tent large enough to include semi-egalitarianism, so it's been something of a shock to watch the tent shake and start to collapse recently as semi-egalitarians turned on thick complementarians. The semi-egalitarians led off with jabs and an uppercut or two before trying to land a roundhouse knockout. The jabs and uppercuts were classic feminist talking points repeated ad nauseum. The roundhouse was their ridiculous claim that complementarians are heretics who reject Nicene Trinitarian doctrine.

Egalitarians hate distinctions, so the semi-egalitarians attacked their fellow complementarians saying that any hierarchical distinction in the Godhead between God the Father and God the Son was a repudiation of the Son's equality with the Father. They claimed that all the Scripture texts that reveal asymmetry in the Godhead are merely indicative of the "roles" played by the Father and Son in our salvation, and those roles have nothing to do with Who the Father and Son are, eternally. Like the roles of man and woman in marriage, Fatherhood and Sonship in the Godhead are roles, also, and being arbitrary, they could be reversed. The Father could as easily submit to the Son and the Son could as easily command the Father. This egalitarian lie has hoodwinked many, including a number of otherwise "thick complementarians."

Some are still urging the unity of the complementarian movement, but it seems apparent that whatever glory days big-tent complementarianism enjoyed in the past, its moment has passed. According to semi-egalitarian Liam Goligher who preaches in the pulpit of Philadelphia's Tenth Presbyterian Church, complementarians are shameful and embarrass him. The tent is collapsing because they have introduced a "new teaching" that goes beyond the need for "wives to submit to their own husbands in the Lord or the prohibition on ordination for women in the church." Goligher ridicules thick complementarians' "new teaching" which, he claims, "presumes to tell women what they can or cannot say to their husbands, and how many inches longer their hair should be than their husbands!" Were there any question of Goligher's intent, in his attack he names one of CBMW's founders, Wayne Grudem. There's no question then that big-tent complementarianism is dead.

Big-Tent Revival

The spectre of men measuring women's hair by the inch Goligher trots out is as ridiculous as his Calamity Jane routine over thick complementarians' Trinitarian doctrine denying the Nicene Creed. Both are straw men and the men who use straw men never hope for anything higher than smearing their opponents. The point is never discovering God's truth or defending it. The point is scaring the stupefied.

Thick complementarianism has never been about measuring women's hair, nor has it ever denied Nicene Trinitarianism.

Rather, thick complementarianism works to guard the good deposit, showing that the Bible teaches us much more about sexuality than simply who is to fill the role of the head of the home and who is to fill the roles of senior pastor and elders in the church. The Bible and nature both reveal that men and women are different by design and those differences must inevitably come out in how we interact with each and every person each and every minute of the day—yes in the home and church, but also at school and work and in the subway and at the grocery store. 

The fact is, if what the Bible reveals of God's creation of man and woman has nothing to tell us about man's and woman's hair, it also has nothing to tell us about men who wear bras and women who wear combat fatigues. But thanks be to God, Scripture does address each of these matters, explicitly. 

Thirty years ago, in an attempt to defend male headship in the home, we made a sinful and unsustainable compromise with semi-egalitarians. Today we face a similar enticement to make a halfway covenant with "celibate gay Christians." They promise not to bed one another even while they demand acceptance of their homosexual desires and their gay and lesbian identity. Will we continue to settle for partial truths, or will God give us the faith to address the root of these errors, trusting the Holy Spirit to bring men and women to repentance and faith that is characterized by the unashamed embracing of God's full truth and real freedom in Christ? Meeting the sexual libertinism of our day with the polite request that those who want to identify as "gay Christians" merely agree to abstain from homosexual intercourse is the same faithlessness that caused us to meet the egalitarian feminism of thirty years ago with the polite request that those who wanted to deny God's order of creation merely agree to allowing men to have tie-breaking authority in the home and men serve as the senior pastor and elders. In both battles, sowing the wind of these halfway covenants will reap the whirlwind of even more sexual debauchery both in the world and the Church.

Being a godly man or woman is just as difficult out in public as it is in the privacy of the home and church. In the face of the sexual anarchy that characterizes our world today, non-Christians and Christians alike are crying out for clear and bold teaching from Scripture concerning how and what God made man and woman. Sadly, the compromise we made three decades ago silenced our witness to God's truth. We were too afraid of offending our "brothers" gathered with us in our big tent.

Now that the destructive nature of this compromise has become clear, I was inclined to be encouraged when incoming president of CBMW, Denny Burk, announced in his vision for the future of CBMW that because "churches find themselves facing questions about manhood and womanhood that were barely imagined when the Danvers Statement was written," he would make good on his promise to provide "a new statement of conviction concerning these current challenges" by leaving CBMW's halfway covenant behind.

On the surface, what Burke said sounds good. Wouldn't it be wonderful if CBMW began to speak about Western culture's "total revision of sexual and gender norms," as Burk put it. Wouldn't it be helpful if CBMW began to speak prophetically against our culture's narratives of victimhood concerning gender and sexual identity, calling those living in sin to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ.

There's still time to make good on his promise, but so far Burk seems to be going in the opposite direction. Near the end of his piece, Burk does the ear-scratching "I feel your pain but I have good news" routine:

We want to come alongside those brothers and sisters who are dealing with painful gender and sexual identity issues and who wish to know what God would say to them. The gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ speaks to all of our deep-felt needs, offers us hope, and sheds light on the path that leads to life. At the end of the day, this is the good news we aim to communicate.

This is quintessential big-tent talk. It is meant to be understood in two ways by two groups of people. It will get buy-in by those on both sides of the aisle. It isn't offensive. It tells everyone "yes" and no one "no."

It also sows seeds that will yield bad fruit a few short years from now.

We don't need to compromise with those who, like the translators of the ESV, agree that homosexual intercourse is out of bounds and yet are unwilling to condemn the effeminacy that God condemns (1Corinthians 6:9). We don't need another big tent.

What we need is faithful teaching and preaching on sexuality that explains the fundamental differences between men and women. What we need is faithful teaching and preaching that commands us to honor God by confessing the sex He made us—and confessing it not as some role we take on or off depending upon what day of the week it is and where we are, but as our station in life in every place at all times.

Joseph and his wife, Heidi, have five children, Tate, Eliza Jane, Moses, Fiona and Annabel. He graduated from Vanderbilt University and Clearnote Pastors College. He is currently planting Christ Church in Cincinnati with several other families.