A Word of Empathy, Warning, and Counsel for “Narrow” Complementarians
In a recent podcast, theologian John Piper argued that women should not teach in seminaries. This raised a bit of a stir not just among egalitarians but in the complementarian quarters of the Internet.
Wait a second—does complementarianism require that?!
Complementarians unite around the idea that God created men and women equal in dignity and worth but that he has assigned different roles in the church and home. Over the last few years, however, we’ve been having more and more in-house conversations about what exactly that requires. And complementarians are dividing between what Kevin DeYoung calls “broad” and “narrow” versions.
Both narrow and broad complementarians affirm biblical precepts such as “Wives, submit to your own husbands” and “I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man” (Eph. 5:22; 1 Tim. 2:12). Beyond this, differences emerge.
Narrow complementarians are reluctant to say much more about the differences between men and women beyond such texts. They are driven—and this is not a critique—by a biblicist (Bible only) impulse. Their aim is (i) to teach what the Bible teaches; (ii) to avoid mistaking our cultural preconceptions of manhood and womanhood as “biblical”; and (iii) to avoid wrongly binding men and women’s consciences but instead to affirm Christian freedom. The result is a comparatively “narrow” complementarian culture.
Narrow complementarians probably object to Piper’s position. A seminary doesn’t possess the authority of the church. Professors don’t possess the authority of a pastor. And Scripture says nothing about seminaries or professors.
If the narrow camp is driven by a biblicist impulse, the “broad” camp is driven by a theological impulse. They place these Pauline precepts inside of a larger theological “vision” or “definition” of manhood and womanhood that applies to all of life. For instance, Piper defines masculinity as “a sense of benevolent responsibility to lead, provide for, and protect women in ways appropriate to a man’s differing relationships.” Femininity he defines as “a freeing disposition to affirm, receive, and nurture strength and leadership from worthy men in ways appropriate to a woman’s differing relationships.” These definitions then impact a church’s discipleship ministry, and how parents raise their sons and daughters. The result is a comparatively “broad” complementarian culture.
The broad camp shares the three goals of the narrow complementarians mentioned above. But they also aim (iv) to systematize what we see in Scripture about manhood and womanhood for discipleship purposes and (v) to push back on Western culture’s lurch toward androgyny and the interchangeability of men and women. Or at least these are larger emphases than among the narrow.
Broad complementarians either agree with Piper’s position or at least sympathetically disagree. That is, they make a different judgment on this question, but they understand how he got there.
For my own part, you can place me in the broad camp. I probably disagree with Piper’s judgment on seminaries, and I think we need to work on those definitions. But in both cases I understand how he got there. What I would like to do here is to offer a word of empathy and warning to my friends in the narrow camp, and then a couple words of counsel to all of us.
EMPATHY: WE SHOULDN’T BIND WHERE SCRIPTURE DOESN’T
To my narrow complementarian friends, then, yes, thank you for the caution to not bind what Scripture doesn’t bind. This may be the biggest temptation for those like me in the broader camp.
The danger you perceive is the danger of all systematic theology. It’s the danger of trusting the wisdom of human beings—our theological definitions—more than the wisdom of God. You avoid this danger if your definition is 100 percent biblical and properly weighted to all of Scripture’s emphases and dimensions. But how many centuries did the church take to work out the doctrine of the Trinity? And justification? It’s unlikely that any of us—no matter how brilliant or godly—are going to nail the right definition of manhood and womanhood on the first dart throw.
This public conversation about men and women has only been occurring among evangelicals in earnest since the 1980s. Come back in 100 years and see where we are.
Consider furthermore the stakes of a wrong or imbalanced definition of manhood and womanhood. We risk
- turning women into something God didn’t create them to be—less God-imaging queens and more objects;
- turning men into something God didn’t create them to be—less God-imaging kings and more tyrants;
- exposing men to God’s judgment;
- tempting women to sin in other ways;
- undermining Christian freedom;
- missing women’s good gifts.
This is how the Pharisees abused their leadership, after all. They pushed the law into the margins and imposed their man-made traditions on the consciences of their flock.
In the same vein of empathy, let me also admit my limitations. I’ve mostly lived in comparatively egalitarian settings (e.g., Eugene, Chicago, Rochester (NY), London, DC). I’ve not witnessed or experienced the threat of patriarchy. Readers who have lived in regions where it’s more common might grow nervous amidst such talk about definitions of manhood and womanhood. I understand, and I don’t assume there is an easy way around this challenge.
WARNING: MINIMIZING DIFFERENCE HURTS DISCIPLESHIP
At the same time, even with all that, I would warn my narrow-complementarian friends to consider the ways in which a narrow complementarian is inadequate and unsustainable over a generation. If the broad complementarian camp risks erring in the direction of injustice, the narrow camp risks falling into worldliness because it undermines discipleship.
Most complementarians, in my experience, acknowledge at least with their mouths that men and women are “different.” But the members of the narrow camp can be reluctant to say how we’re different. The differences get no stage time.
A dear narrow complementarian friend of mine put it just this way: “Yes, men and women are different. There are two boxes. But we shouldn’t try to say what’s inside those boxes.” Instead, he recommended teaching universal Christian virtues like humility and the fruit of the Spirit, and letting people work out their manhood and womanhood for themselves. This, he assumes, will keep us from imposing our cultural traditions on people.
I understand the impulse. The trouble is, you can’t actually avoid theological definitions or cultural assumptions. Everyone has them. The default “theology” in the cities where I’ve always lived is that men and women are interchangeable, aside from some plumbing. Christians walk into church buildings on Sundays with these cultural intuitions.
All week long, our sitcoms, social media conversations, human resources departments, language rules, clothing styles, career counselors, abortion culture, and more have shaped us in liturgical fashion (HT: JKAS) to view gender as self- and socially-defined.
Just consider: what’s your gut response to someone at a business lunch who begins a sentence, “Women are always _____”? Get nervous? Those nerves reveal your cultural intuitions.
Here we encounter the inconsistency and ironic naivety of the narrow camp’s culture talk. First, they ignore the secular intuitions people already have. Second, they don’t give thought to what will fill the void should they cast off “traditional church culture.” Some other cultural influence will. None of us are as self-defining as we think. Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.
When churches don’t take the time to teach contrary to gender interchangeability, it remains our default cultural assumption.
The same is true, of course, in a patriarchal setting. I’m not calling churches to adopt a 1950s or a pre-industrial revolution sets of gender roles. I wish churches had fought against cultural conceptions of manhood and womanhood, then, too, by teaching the equality and sameness of men and women. Perhaps that would have helped avoid past abuses. I want churches that disciple their members both out of patriarchy and out of interchangability.
In our present environment, refusing to say what makes men and women different, when the whole world is telling us they aren’t, is to forsake our discipleship responsibility.
Christians consume books and teaching in other domains of life—parenting, marriage, justice, politics, the workplace, evangelism, and so forth. We know that good pastoral care and discipleship means teaching Christians what humility and Christlikeness look like in all these domains. Why then would we neglect this whole area of life that has such massive existential and theological significance—being a man; being a woman?
Here’s the danger: the Sunday School classroom (like the public-school classroom) might attempt to treat Christianity and godliness as uniform, androgynous, gray. But under the surface, real gender differences remain. Yet now those differences are unnamed and undiscipled. When they bubble over, they do so in perverse fashion.
Furthermore, when churches hesitate to say what distinguishes men and women, God’s explicit precepts for the church and home begin to look arbitrary, even a little embarrassing. You can hear the Sunday school lesson now: “The Bible teaches that women should not be elders, but here’s what I really want you to hear: women can do everything else a man can do.” The tone or subtext is, “No, these commands don’t make a lot of sense because we all know men and women are basically the same. But he is God, sooo…”
The whole enterprise becomes a minimization project. We minimize our created differences and we minimize the reach and significance of what the Bible does explicitly command.
COUNSEL #1: CONVERSE WITH CHARITY
If narrow complementarianism risks worldliness, and a broad complementarianism risks injustice, what do we do? I have two pieces of counsel.
First, let’s keep the conversation going, but let’s have it with charity. Give others the benefit of the doubt. Enough with the snarky tweets and Facebook posts. Mark Thompson, principal of Moore Theological College, wonderfully models godly disagreement with Piper on the question of women teaching in seminaries here.
This doesn’t mean letting go of concerns about injustice or worldliness. But we should remember how Jesus commended the poor in spirit and the meek. None of us have cornered the market on justice or heavenliness just yet.
Don’t let your social media posts pander to an audience, whether to the left or right of you. “Look at me. I’m not like them. Yuck!” The academy’s phrase for that these days is “virtue-signaling.” The biblical phrase is “pride,” as in “Look at me. I’m better.”
COUNSEL #2: DISTINGUISH LAW AND WISDOM—BETWEEN STRAIGHT-LINE AND JAGGED-LINE ISSUES—AND ADJUST YOUR VOLUME ACCORDINGLY
More foundationally, we need to recognize that the differences between men and women don’t root in biblical precepts, but in God’s design patterns.
God created two kinds of humans—a male kind and a female kind (Gen. 1:27). Let those who extol diversity extol the diversity of genders. Both are needed to image God. God’s design patterns might show up differently in different societies, but a stubborn baseline remains, which is why various similarities, both positive and negative, travel across cultures. The different precepts for men and women in church and home rest on the different design patterns that we see throughout Scripture, especially Genesis 2 and 3. The precepts are not arbitrary.
This is crucial for our present conversation because creation design ushers us into the biblical category of wisdom. And wisdom in the Bible is an overlapping but slightly different thing than law.
Wisdom issues an “ought,” as in “men ought” or “women ought.” But wisdom’s “ought” is a little different than the “ought” of law. Wisdom’s “ought” sounds like something from Proverbs (“a wise son hears his father’s instruction”). Law’s “ought” sounds like something from Exodus (“you shall not steal”). Wisdom’s “ought” comes with an “ordinarily.” Its opposite is folly (the father might be a fool, a thief, or a typical dad who gives mixed advice). Law’s “ought” comes with an “always.” Its opposite is sin. Yes, sin and folly often overlap, but not always.
Law gives us the rules of a game. Wisdom tells us how to strategize to win the game on this day, on this field, against this opponent. It’s circumstantially mindful, and has to think through a host of competing principles.
Borrowing a phrase from political scientist Robert Benne, law helps us with “straight-line” issues. For instance, there’s a straight shot from the Bible verse “you shall not murder” to the practical application “abortion is wrong.” Wisdom, however, helps us with the “jagged-line” issues. These are issues where Scripture doesn’t speak directly but requires a person to balance a number of biblical and circumstantial principles. The movement from Bible to application is jagged, unclear, disputable. Tax policy or health care policy, for instance, are jagged-line issues. They require long, elaborate discussion involving a host variables, some biblical, some circumstantial. They require much wisdom.
Christians, furthermore, should know how to adjust their volume depending on whether the matter at hand is a straight-line law issue or a jagged-line wisdom issue. I’ll raise my voice—metaphorically speaking—over abortion. I’ll speak more softly in the tougher matters of policy or ethics. Why? Because I recognize that my calculations are just that, mine, not God’s. I arrived at those conclusions only after several sharp bends in the road.
Issues of manhood and womanhood root in creation design. They yield “oughts.” But except where the Bible offers a straight-line-command, those are often the “oughts” of wisdom. We arrive at our conclusions by a somewhat jagged line.
A woman ought to act according to her design, her hardwiring, her DNA, her body, her social and psychological constitution. A man, too. Doing so is wise, just as it’s wise to operate everything according to its design principles—from computers, to space-shuttles, to chess. But within those design principles there is freedom of movement, as with a computer, a space-shuttle, a chessboard. As Ecclesiastes 3 teaches, wisdom perceives a time and a season for everything. For a woman to act according to her design might mean different things in different situations. Plus, God builds each woman a little differently. I like how Alistair Roberts refers to manhood and womanhood as “genres.” The political science genre and the history genre have a lot of overlap, and some books in each are more like the other. But they remain distinct, identifiable genres.
When we turn to the “oughts” of pastoral counsel and discipleship generally, we need more than a file drawer labelled “Law” from which we draw various straight-line commands or precepts. We also need a file drawer named “Wisdom,” which teaches us how to approach the jagged-line issues.
For instance, I think Christians are free to drink alcohol based on biblical “law.” But based on “wisdom” I told an alcoholic friend of mine that he certainly should not drink at all, and that he might be sinning by doing so. Do you see? We need both drawers.
JAGGED-LINES AND GENDER
Likewise, many of the everyday questions surrounding gender are jagged-line issues.
- Should mothers work outside the home?
- Can women preach at Bible conferences? Teach at seminaries? A Sunday School class of high school boys?
- Can women join the infantry? The police force?
- Should we raise our sons differently than our daughters?
The Bible doesn’t address these things directly. Yet we will answer them by combining our exegesis of various precepts together with our definitions of manhood and womanhood, whether we’ve consciously built those definitions from Scripture or unconsciously adopted the culture’s paradigms of interchangeability or patriarchy. Each such question requires wisdom. Faithful Christians will disagree. And we need to moderate our volume accordingly.
Let me illustrate with just one question: should mothers work outside the home? If I go looking through the law file drawer, I don’t find any biblical precepts directly on that question. Plus, the Proverbs 31 woman certainly works outside the home. For these reasons, I believe the answer belongs to the domain of Christian freedom, and I wouldn’t bind a woman or a couple’s conscience on this question. Make sense so far?
But hold on. There’s more to say. We need to open the wisdom drawer, too. Based on creational design, I’m personally convinced it serves children for their mothers to provide an assymetrical level of nurting care in the earliest years. This seems consistent with the way Scriptures extols motherhood (see also 1 Tim. 2:15; Titus 2:4–5), with the Proverbs 31 woman’s assymetrical orientation toward the home relative to her husband’s, with the design of women’s bodies, and with the empirical observations of psychologists. Yet even then, I want to know, how much money does the husband make? Are they trying to drive a Lexus or simply make ends meet? What are their school options? If the children aren’t yet in school, are we talking 15 hours or 50 hours outside the home? Would grandparents watch the children or strangers at daycare? What kind of work would she be doing and how compatible is it with nurturing the children? And what if she is a single-mom, heroically trying to do it all? I cannot imagine advising any woman or couple in my church without answers to those kinds of questions. And even then my counsel will be counsel, not a command.
If you do believe the answer to one of these kinds of biblically-unanswered questions is clear, I’d still ask you to moderate how you counsel people. Acknowledge that you could be mistaken, or that you’re dealing with a wisdom matter, not a law matter.
HOW WE NEED A MULTI-NATIONAL, MULTI-ETHNIC, DOUBLE-GENDER CONVERSATION
This in-house conversation among complementarians is going to continue, with lots of practical questions to disagree about. We all need the wisdom file-drawer as much as the law file-drawer, and to know how to adjust the volume accordingly. I might disagree with Piper on women teaching in seminaries, but before I scream “Injustice!” I should recognize that this is a jagged-line issue, and he can make a different yet still reasonable judgment than me. And he might be right.
In the meantime, we should all be humbled by our inability to adequately answer those most basic of questions, “What is a man?” and “What is a woman?” If ever there were a theological and pastoral project that would benefit from the voices of men and women around the globe, it would be this one. How would biblical theologians living in a Confucian, or Muslim, or animistic context answer?
It’s time to get to work, I think.