A little while back Carl Trueman pushed back on the empasis by some gospel co-allies on complementarianism. Carl concluded this way:
This is not the only awkward question one might ask: for example, which is more unacceptable to a Baptist – a woman preaching credobaptism or a man preaching paedobaptism? But that is for another day. In the meantime, do not misunderstand me: I do write as a convinced complementarian and a member of a church where no elders or deacons are – or can be — women, though none of them are – or can be – Lutherans, Baptists or Dispensationalists either. It is thus not complementarianism in itself to which I object; I am simply not sure why it is such a big issue in organisations whose stated purpose is basic co-operation for the propagation of the gospel and where other matters of more historic, theological and ecclesiastical moment are routinely set aside. If you want simply to unite around the gospel, then why not simply unite around the gospel? Because as soon as you decide that issues such as baptism are not part of your centre-bounded set but complementarianism is, you will find yourself vulnerable to criticism — from both right and left — that you are allowing a little bit of the culture war or your own pet concerns and tastes to intrude into what you deem to be the most basic biblical priorities.
This seemed smart then and still seems so. My only quibble is with the word “complementarian” itself. Some say it is like the Trinity, a concept derived from Scripture but not actually used. Well, the same goes for “hierarchical” or “patriarchal.” Those are words that are much more likely to be derived from biblical teaching about society but are apparently offensive to gospel co-allies who don’t want to look odd to the watching world. The hierarchies assumed in Scripture, wives submit to husbands, slaves to masters, and believers to emperors, are hardly the social arrangements we take for granted in the United States after the democratic revolution inaugurated by Andrew Jackson. But they do resemble the ones that the Reformers, Puritans, and early Presbyterians took for granted. Just think of the language of “superiors, inferiors, and equals” from the Shorter Catechism’s discussion of the fifth commandment.
The logic of hierarchy and patriarchy is not something that I am going to defend, myself. The little missus and I have reached a level of concord that most observers would call an egalitarian arrangement. I have no stones to through from the windows of my glass house. I do have the shield of two-kingdom theology, though, which allows me to have my cake (egalitarianism of a kind at home) and eat it too (hierarchicalism and patriarchy of a kind in the church).
Still, I do think the Gospel Coalition’s rallying behind complementarianism is troubling. It resembles the version of Calvinism that traffics among the young and restless — lots of talk of divine sovereignty, not so much about limited atonement. After all, that biblical teaching and those Reformed creeds can sound reactionary to modern ears and we don’t ever want to sound extreme — as if believing in a God-man who died and rose again and will come again is moderate.
What is particularly troubling about the Complementarian w-w is what it seems to do to the church. For instance, in Mary Kassian’s “Complementarianism for Dummies,” she writes that complementarians don’t want to be traditional (which is surprisingly close to not wanting to be conservative):
In our name-the-concept meeting, someone mentioned the word “traditionalism,” since our position is what Christians have traditionally believed. But that was quickly nixed. The word “traditionalism” smacks of “tradition.” Complementarians believe that the Bible’s principles supersede tradition. They can be applied in every time and culture. June Cleaver is a traditional, American, TV stereotype. She is not the complementarian ideal. Period. (And exclamation mark!) Culture has changed. What complementarity looks like now is different than what it looked like 60 or 70 years ago. So throw out the cookie-cutter stereotype. It does not apply.
Well, if the culture has changed, shouldn’t the church? And if the culture now puts women into roles of authority, why shouldn’t the church also do so? In fact, the Gospel Coalition recently asked two women to exegete and interpret Scripture for its general (including male) audience. I am personally a great affirmer of the idea that non-ordained women can do whatever non-ordained men can do. But for an organization with ecclesial ambitions, allowing women to teach the Bible seems to put TGC on the road to women’s ordination (which is where some think their star allies are walking).
To come back to Carl’s point, if complementarianism lacks the deal breaker significance of the gospel, so too does women’s ordination. At the same time, the lesson of communions like the Christian Reformed Church is that distinguishing peripheral matters from central ones is not so easy. The ordination of women was not the line in the sand for all conservatives in the CRC. But it was indicative of a general unease in the denomination regarding teachings and practices that had been part and parcel of the church’s Reformed identity but now looked burdensome after a move out of immigrant quarters into suburbia. It is one thing to be prophetic about the environment. It’s another altogether to be so about relations between men and women.
So while complementarianism is not as big a deal as the gospel, the way you treat complementarianism may be indicative of how big the deals you are willing to make.
P.S. I wonder if Keller and Piper really do agree on complementarlianism, especially when it applies to the church and to marriage. This video has a certain poignancy to it that makes me wonder if the folks at Redeemer Church would invite Piper to lead a seminar on women’s role in the church.