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Two Concerns With Complementarianism Today

Jane Tooher | Nov. 3, 2022

The belief that God made men and women equal in value and dignity, and distinctive in certain responsibilities and roles, is a conviction which has historically been the normal position and practice of the church across the world. However, in recent decades, this complementarian position has become a storm centre.

The Controversy of Complementarianism Today

Some of the debate comes from changes in our wider society which have pressured and challenged the church. Issues of gender swirl around in our culture with alarming ferocity, and they connect to deeply held feelings about equality and justice. Saying that men and women are different, and that they might have different roles, has been out of step with most of Western culture for decades.

There has also been much debate within the church. We want to please and honour God, but that means knowing God’s will for a situation. So, understandably, we ask, “What does complementarianism look like?” or “What should women do or not do?” We might worry that we’ve mistaken traditionalism for right biblical understanding. Or we might see that the Bible teaches a complementarian position but feel uncomfortable or embarrassed about it.

Given all this, it’s not surprising that some in the church respond by ducking the issue: they stick with familiar patterns of church and ministry and in effect say, “Let’s not rock the boat”. 

Nevertheless, our conviction is that teaching and practising a more robust complementarianism leads people from a reluctant acceptance to a joyful embracing of God’s word in this area. However, there are some concerns regarding how complementarianism can end up looking in churches in the West today that need to be identified first. 

Concern #1: Separatism

The first concern is separatism: that is, that women’s ministry tends to get separated from other, general ministry. So, you end up with “normal ministry” for everyone, such as preaching and small-group Bible studies—and then there’s women’s ministry, which often involves a women’s Bible-study group, one-to-one discipleship, counselling, toddler groups and so on.

In any area of the Christian life, if behaviour is reduced to a series of “yes/no” answers, the chances are that we’ve missed something of the dynamic that should be in play.

There is undoubtedly lots of great ministry happening in these settings, and there are sometimes male equivalents. There can also be lots of logistical reasons as to why things get organised like this, and even some advantages in having separate streams.

Our concern, though, is that if ministries become mainly separate, there isn’t much complementing going on. While you won’t find the word “complementarian” in the Bible (it’s been chosen to sum up a position), it nonetheless captures a dynamic that’s woven throughout Scripture—of men and women complementing each other: a synergy that comes through togetherness. If a church has mainly separate ministries, though, it can be hard to see how the contributions of men and women combine to give an outcome that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Concern #2: Focus on Boundaries

The second concern is that complementarianism leads to a focus on boundaries. The question becomes: What can a woman do or not do? Where are the boundary lines? Can a woman lead a mixed-sex Bible study, teach teenage children, lead the whole congregation in prayer, lead a Sunday service or preach a sermon? Of course, we have to answer questions like these because we have to make decisions about what will happen in practice. The concern isn’t that those decisions get made; the concern is that the ministry of women sometimes then becomes all about staying inside the permitted boundaries. 

In any area of the Christian life, if behaviour is reduced to a series of “yes/no” answers, the chances are that we’ve missed something of the dynamic that should be in play. Decisions in Christian life and ministry are rarely tick-box answers.

One author, Michelle Lee-Barnewall, draws a parallel with ethical questions. Imagine, she says, if someone asked if they could drink alcohol or gamble as a Christian. It’s not a wrong question, and we would have to help them answer it so that they could decide how to live. But if our approach was to only give “yes/no” answers to those sorts of questions, we’d be missing something. We’d be missing a bigger perspective on what a holy life is all about, how sanctification works, and how it flows from the gospel.

Questions and answers that focus on boundaries usually miss the dynamics that shape the actual decision made. In a similar way, a focus on who can do what in church is likely to miss the beauty of the relational dynamics between men and women. 

Going Wider and Deeper

In our new book we talk about two additional concerns with complementarianism today, and we aim to go wider—wider than the usual discussion of contested passages and arguments that establish the complementarian position. While these have their place, we also need to consider wider issues such as gender itself, the nature of church, and the components of ministry. You can think of these as bigger pieces of a jigsaw into which complementarianism fits. But they aren’t often discussed very much, or even at all.

We also want to go deeper: deeper into what “equal and distinctive” means in practice; deeper into how the issues of equality and distinctiveness are fleshed out in real church life; and deeper into the different practical decisions that have to be made. As a result, this book will basically assume a complementarian position rather than argue for one, although we will look at some of the key passages on the way through.

We also want to be positive. Much talk around complementarianism can be negative in tone, only really emphasising what women cannot do. At other times, the discussion is tinged with embarrassment about placing any limit on the role of women, and so it emphasises that limits only apply to a few areas of church life and moves quickly on. We want to strike a different tone: to embrace complementarianism as God’s good design and spend some time exploring what it looks like.

This article is an excerpt adapted from Embracing Complementarianism by Jane Tooher and Graham Beynon. This practical book helps ministry leaders to think biblically and intentionally about implementing complementarian convictions.

Jane Tooher

Jane Tooher serves on the faculty of Moore Theological College in Sydney, Australia, where she lectures in Ministry. Jane is also the Director of the Priscilla & Aquila Centre, a centre that aims to encourage women in ministry in partnership with men.

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