Complementarianism: A Moment of Reckoning (Part 3)


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

How then do we move forward in the complementarian conversation?

A wrong way forward is to be the kind of complementarian who only knows how to criticize other complementarians but never make a positive case for it, as in, “I’m not that kind of complementarian.”

A wrong way forward is to affirm the categories of difference, but never place any content inside of those categories. That can lead to a functional egalitarianism in our discipleship.

A wrong way forward is to affirm the equality of men and women, but never preach on the essential and indispensable work of women. That can lead to an undervaluing of women’s role in the Great Commission.

A wrong way forward is to focus on male authority, but not male service or responsibility; or to only talk about what women can do, not what they can’t do. Al Mohler responds to such rhetoric, “The reality is that any coherent position includes both affirmation and negation, and we should just be honest about that.” Christians should always ask what can we do and what can’t we do.

Christian growth doesn’t only occur through freedom from restrictions. It comes through the freedom of conforming ourselves to God’s truth. It comes when we do restrict ourselves through obedience, through discipline, through boundaries, like a sapling strengthened by a stake, a rose bush made healthy through trimming, or a child gaining wisdom through study. Being a woman, as I said, is one kind of platform for the cultural mandate and the Great Commission, and being a man is another kind. Praise God for his harmonious gifts.

A better path forward, I believe, means expecting the world, the flesh, and the devil to attack both gender equality and gender difference, at different times in different ways. Therefore, Christians must continue to search the Scriptures for a better understanding of each, always paying attention to new horizons and new threats. More specifically…

We need a more biblical understanding of authority.

There’s a Satanic version of authority and a godly version of authority. There’s authority as intended in creation and exercised in redemption, and authority as exercised in the Fall. Godly authority authors life, like the root of the word itself. It builds up, equips, strengthens, serves. Satanic authority steals, takes, diminishes, destroys.

Godly authority, as set down in Scripture and as I’ve witnessed it, is seldom an advantage to those who possess it. It involves leading and making decisions, to be sure. Jesus led. But what the godly leader feels day to day are not all the advantages, but the burdens of responsibility, of culpability, of even bearing another’s guilt. It’s profoundly costly, usually involving the sacrifice of everything. It requires the end of personal desires. Meanwhile, those “under” that authority often possess most of the advantages. They’re provided protection and opportunity, strength and freedom. Isn’t all this precisely what we see in Jesus’ use of authority?

Beyond this, we need a better understanding of the difference between the authority of command and the authority of counsel. Both types of authority possess the ability to make commands—conscience-binding injunctions, as in, “You must…” Yet only those with the authority of command possess the power of enforcement. Those possessing the authority of counsel do not.

For instance, God gives the state an enforcement mechanism. He calls it “the sword.” He gives parents of young children an enforcement mechanism: “the rod.” He also gives the whole congregation such a mechanism: “the keys.” The sword, the rod, and the keys allow their holder to unilaterally enforce their commands. The state sends the criminal to prison. The parent disciplines the child. The congregation excommunicates the member.

Now stop and think: does the Bible anywhere give husbands such an enforcement mechanism? What about pastors or elders? In both cases, I believe the answer is no. Husbands and pastors possess true authority, because Jesus will hold wives and church members accountable on the last day. But husbands and pastors possess no such moral right from God (authority) to enforce their decisions.

This dramatically shapes the nature of the complementarian authority and protects against abuse. Husbands must live with their wives in an understanding way. Pastors must preach with great patience. In both cases, they must love, be gentle, woo. They lead by teaching and example, but they must also be the best listeners and understand-er-ers. The goal is never to force decisions. Forced decisions by wives or church members are worth little. Rather, the goal in both cases is to elicit decisions made from love and even attraction. The husband’s loving care should prove attractive to his wife. An elder’s holiness should be appealing to a member.

We need a more biblical understanding of equality

Just as there is a Satanic and godly version of authority, so there is a Satanic and godly version of equality. The satanic version is a product of Genesis 3: “You will be like God.” You are God’s equal. You may define and create the universe for yourself. Everything inside of you is good.

This Satanic version of equality operates by power. It’s defined on the self’s terms. It looks inward, lists the self’s assets and virtues, and then asserts itself by comparing itself to others. “I’m as smart as him.” It possesses a strong sense of entitlement. It lives by making demands. “I deserve this. I have a right to that.” Ultimately, Satanic equality yields a war of all against all as everyone makes their demands.

Satanic equality has little to no room for assigned roles, responsibilities, differences, and, most of all, hierarchies. It seeks to level all hierarchies because the self’s sense of the self is rooted in the self and can therefore tolerate few externally imposed limitations. In one moment, it praises “difference,” but in the next it smothers it because difference always looks like a threat to equality. So it tends to sameness, androgyny, conformity.

Satanic equality follows short-term thinking. It promises immediate gain: you will be like God. Therefore, it despises any role for submission or talk of constraint. It lives on continual self-assertion.

It is atomistic and therefore insensitive to the concerns of others since identity roots in the self. It is self-righteous and self-justifying, always convinced that its arguments are correct; this ultimately destroys relationships. It employs groups and group identities for pragmatic and finally selfish purposes. Groups serve to exalt and empower the self.

Godly equality, on the other hand, shows up two chapters earlier in Genesis: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” This equality is untroubled by the distinction between male and female, or, by implication, any other differences he might have ordained among image-bearers. Equality is rooted in the gift of his image. Image-bearers are equal by virtue of his image.

Godly equality depends upon God’s Word. It’s defined on God’s terms. In the face of this world’s inequalities, it is discovered by faith. Its default mode is not power but humility, a humility that allows it to speak with all the strength of someone who has heard God speak, even when outward comparisons fail. It begins with listening: “Who does God say that I am?” It asks questions and seeks out its responsibilities: “God, what would you have me do?”

Godly equality feels no threat from God-given roles, responsibilities, and even hierarchies. It delights in difference, trusting that every God-assigned distinction possesses purpose and contributes to the countless refractions of his glory. It doesn’t assume that God’s assignments of different stewardships and stations, responsibilities and roles, undermines equality. Rather it views them as so many parts of one body, each part purposed with doing the work of the whole body. It follows long-term thinking.

Therefore, godly equality maintains room for sacrifices, constraints, and the call to submission. God, after all, gives a job to everyone. And with every job he establishes a set of rules, procedures, and jurisdictional boundaries. Every one of us must drive within our lanes, whether we’re a leader or a follower. Every one of us must keep the speed limit, and drive in the direction he tells us to drive. We must all submit to him and to his law. Leaders lead and followers follow—all in submission to him. There is, in that sense, no difference between leading and following for a human. To lead according to God’s law is to follow according to God’s law. They are the same, because his law is one.

Godly equality can maintain room for difference, whether hierarchically defined or not, because everyone and everything serves God. All must submit to him or receive the fire of his judgment if they do not. Yet to live by his law, says the Psalmist, is blessing. It creates a community of peace, harmony, shalom, where individuals bear fruit like trees planted by streams of water.

Finally, godly equality is more sensitive to the needs of others. It recognizes the bond shared among all humanity by virtue of our common creation in God’s own image. It possesses a humble posture toward others, recognizing that everything a person possesses comes from above. It points to groups and group identities for theological purposes. If God has created something, it is good and should be celebrated because it will teach us about him.

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Read part four 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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