Complementarianism: A Moment of Reckoning (Part 2)


Part 1: Today’s Tension: Broad Versus Narrow Complementarianism

Part 2: Different Intuitions and Pastoral Burdens

Part 3: How Do We Move Forward? A Better Understanding of Authority and Equality

Part 4: How Do We Move Forward? A Better Understanding of Abuse and Gender

Part 5: How Do We Move Forward? A Re-Commitment to the Sufficiency of Scripture

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Part 2: Different Intuitions and Pastoral Burdens

As much as anything, the differences between the broad and narrow corners of the complementarian camp root in different instincts and different pastoral burdens.


In the home, for instance, one husband and wife will read the Bible and feel burdened for the wife to remain at home while the children are young, while another Christian couple won’t. What’s the difference? The two couples have different instincts based on how they were raised, the friend groups they keep, the church they attend, the decade they occupy, the social class they occupy, and what’s generally treated as “normal” around them.

Scripture commands both couples to conform their minds to God’s version of right and normal. Still, both couples can’t help but pick up their Bibles and begin the discipleship process affected by their different social and cultural locations. What will seem beyond the pale to one may not to the other. One couple feels free to use daycare for their two-year-old, while the other does not. I don’t mean to suggest these two reactions are morally equivalent. I’m merely trying to describe the role of our intuitions.

Part of the tension between the two corners of the complementarian camp, in other words, roots in the fact that both corners look to the other corner and say, “You’re the ones impacted by your cultural context.” The broad feels that way about the narrow, and the narrow feels that way about the broad, like older and younger generations which are suspicious of one another.


Related to differing intuitions are differing pastoral burdens, particularly among church leaders. So ask two complementarians, “What’s the biggest problem facing the church’s understanding of manhood and womanhood today?”

One answers by pointing to Western culture’s fifty-year assault on what the Bible teaches about men and women. He talks about things like second-wave feminism, the LGBT movement, and how more and more churches treat men and women as interchangeable. He’s concerned, in other words, with Satan’s challenges to difference and authority.

The other answers by pointing to the threat that abusive male authority has long posed to women and families. She talks about how evangelicals have given a pass to Donald Trump’s sexist language, how pastors have encouraged women to remain in abusive homes, or how church leaders have refused to believe women who report sexual assault. She’s concerned, in other words, with Satan’s challenges to equality.

Hopefully all evangelical readers can agree that Scripture addresses both his and her burdens. Yet once again, different experiences and intuitions will lead these two complementarians to emphasize different pastoral burdens. If she has spent years counseling abused women and avoiding leering “Christian” men, she will more likely put challenges to equality on the front burner. If he has spent years counseling marriages that grow distant and dissolve because the husbands were quick to say, “She sinned, too,” and refused to recognize their greater responsibilities of leadership, of course he will put challenges to difference and authority on the front burner.

In short, I don’t think it’s overly simplistic to say that narrow complementarians generally feel burdened pastorally by challenges to equality, while broad complementarians generally feel burdened by challenges to authority and difference. What’s unfortunate, furthermore, is how these separate burdens align themselves to some measure with broader political divisions in the United States today. The Left is perhaps more animated by challenges to equality, while the Right can be more animated by challenges to the traditional forms of authority. This only turns up the heat.

Meanwhile, Satan loves to attack both equality and difference; he loves when two believers who feel different burdens malign one another. I think theology professor Luke Stamps is right when he says,


Implicit in Stamps’s observation is that burdens and intuitions change over time. What seemed like a big deal yesterday doesn’t seem like a big deal today. Or vice-a-versa. And it’s nothing short of arrogant and self-deceived for anyone to claim a God-like immutability and to argue one is not affected by the social movements and cultural winds swirling all around us. We’re all shaped by our friends and family.

In retrospect, it was perhaps inevitable, therefore, that the complementarian tribe would splinter moving from the 1980s and 1990s to the 2000s and 2010s, as one generation gives way to another, particularly when Western culture itself has changed so dramatically on matters of gender.

For instance, I recently encountered this tweet from a pastor who, according to his Twitter description, possesses degrees from two SBC seminaries that both teach a broader complementarianism (I have no knowledge of him otherwise).

Notice the date of his tweet: Oct 29, 2019. My guess is the 1999 or 2009 version of this man had a different set of intuitions, given where he chose to attend seminary. Otherwise he would have chosen schools with more female faculty members. Somewhere along the line his instincts changed, even if his complementarian principles did not. What didn’t bother him before—a few or no female faculty members—bothers him now. Before, perhaps, he loved John Piper, as did many men who attended one of his seminaries. Now, however, he listens to a John Piper podcast saying that women should not be seminary professors, and he’s ready to pick a fight: “Please @ me,” which is a Twitterese for challenging people to respond to him.

Our intuitions can change by flowing with the cultural winds, and they can change as we assert ourselves against those winds. We can underemphasize dangers by flowing with it, and we can overemphasize those dangers by fighting against it.

Intuitions can change within an entire convention, too, as they have within my own Southern Baptist Convention. Twenty years ago, a few women might have preached from time to time in a Southern Baptist church. But other churches and convention leaders treated the practice with a critical eye, or at least with a “don’t ask, don’t tell” posture. The 2000 Baptist Faith & Message didn’t address it, but it didn’t need to. Today, however, the climate has changed. Convention leaders register vigorous support for such preachers, even invoking combative rhetoric: “A convention not big enough for her is not big enough for me.”

It’s silly to deny nothing has changed, as some do. What was on the periphery has been brought into the center and given a place of honor.


A significant part of pastoral wisdom, then, involves self and cultural awareness. It also involves knowing which problems are the big threats and which are the small threats, which are immediate and which are long term, and knowing how to calibrate our responses to each.

To put my own cards on the table, I think the egalitarian and androgynous push of the last several decades is a front-burner, generationally urgent issue for the church, and anyone who denies this is naïve. Our culture’s assault on gender differences and authority is generationally urgent because it’s unique to this Western moment, this time and place. This is our battle, and if you cannot see that, I believe you are more affected by our time and place than you realize.

The problems of abuse and male superiority are not generationally urgent, but are universally chronic. They have impacted every time and place since the Fall. They are bound up in the human condition. That’s not because men are worse than women. It’s because every fallen human will use every conceivable point of privilege to their self-righteous advantage, whether wealth, intelligence, beauty, or brute strength. Anyone who denies that both genders will use all their advantages to get their way, including the fact that men too often take advantage of or even abuse their wives, is naïve. This is every generation’s battle, and if you cannot see that, I believe you have a shallower understanding of sin than you realize.

So we must not take either set of problems out of our sights: the generationally urgent challenges to difference and authority and the universally chronic challenge to equality.

All this leads to our present moment: a reckoning for complementarianism.

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Read part three here.

Jonathan Leeman

Jonathan (@JonathanLeeman) edits the 9Marks series of books as well as the 9Marks Journal. He is also the author of several books on the church. Since his call to ministry, Jonathan has earned a master of divinity from Southern Seminary and a Ph.D. in Ecclesiology from the University of Wales. He lives with his wife and four daughters in Cheverly, Maryland, where he is an elder at Cheverly Baptist Church.

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