Complementarianism and the Next Generation
Most millennials have never heard of complementarianism. And I confess that in my eight years in student ministry, I haven’t done much teaching on this issue. I know I’m not alone.
Here in Portland, Oregon, I get together with other pastors and youth workers at least a couple of times a month to discuss various ministry topics and to pray. Not once has the topic been women in the church. It would just be awkward. Okay, I admit, it would be me who would make things awkward. Because to many of my colleagues I would sound like a chauvinist.
Most Christian colleges and universities have already made up their mind what they will teach the next generation on this issue. And trust me, it isn’t the complementarian model. Far from it. Just like in the rest of the world, many Christian professors, deans, and presidents laugh at this “ancient” and “oppressive” view.
Yet God’s Word speaks clearly to the roles of men and women in the church. And while God’s design is ancient, it is as liberating today as it was in Eden. Thus, we need to model and teach on this issue—especially for the next generation of believers. Why is this so crucial? Because when it comes to roles of men and women in the church and in the home, we are talking about the image of God. So how should we teach and model God’s design for men and women? And why, as student pastors, are we being silent on this issue?
First off, the issue of a woman’s role in the church and the home is not always black-and-white, certainly when it comes to student ministry in the church. Questions like, “Can a woman teach the Bible to teenage males?” hinge on when we understand a teenage male to become a man. It hinges on this because Paul makes it clear that a woman must not teach or assume authority over a man (2 Tim 2:12). It is clear that this principle is not grounded in culture but in God’s creation design (2 Tim 2:13). This may feel like a hard pill to swallow in our cultural context.
I also think there are other, less obvious reasons why student and lead pastors may both refrain from addressing this issue. Here are three possible reasons.
The ubiquitousness of porn has distorted how men and women think about and treat one another. It has re-wired our brains. A pastor will be reticent to teach Ephesians 5 if he is secretly indulging in porn. This pastor should be serving and laying down his life for his wife and providing leadership for his congregation. Instead, he’s using images of the women he is called to serve for his own selfish and perverted gratification. This distorts the image of God in us—and our ability to see it in others. And in this context, to teach that it is a woman’s role to submit to her husband simply seems self-serving and grotesque.
The porn problem in the church and amongst millennials makes the truth of different and complementary roles sound bizarre. That a wife is called by God to submit in love and trust to her husband, that it is not her role to serve as elder, seems strange in a pornographic, self-gratifying culture. But the “otherness” of Scripture’s teaching should seem strange. In fact, the different and complementary roles between men and women are rooted in the Godhead, as the Son submits to the Father.
A pragmatic avoidance of complementarianism goes something like this: culture already takes issue with our main message (the gospel), so why put another stumbling block like complementarianism in the way of our cultural despisers?
Just last week I had a coffee with Tom, an agnostic father who attends our church because it’s an opportunity for him to be with his family. Tom explained to me that it didn’t make sense to him that his son-in-law Charlie could one day serve as an elder, but it was not possible for his daughter Cary to ever serve in that role. I had hoped to talk to Tom about the gospel, not men and women in the church. But it’s clear just how off-putting this conviction is to our non-believing friends and neighbors. So, the pragmatic thinking goes, shouldn’t we just give in on this issue and admit that our pastoral forebears were secretly chauvinistic and patriarchal women-haters? Isn’t it about time to let women start serving as pastors?
Most now-egalitarian gospel-preaching churches and ministries still confess that their authority is the Bible and that complementarianism/egalitarianism is a matter of biblical interpretation. But this raises the question: In the midst of a culture that is not only predominately egalitarian but increasingly agnostic on the notion of gender at all, why are churches and ministries are just now switching sides on this issue? Were the 1,950 years of Christians who went before us just so blind by their patriarchal societies to rightly understand the Scriptures? Today, if the cultural elites argued for complementary roles for the genders, I do wonder if so many Christian ministries and pastors would still be arguing for egalitarianism.
Ecclesiastical, academic, and cultural power is all in the hands of the egalitarians. My father studied New Testament at Fuller Seminary. He saw the way the wind was blowing in the 1970s. He wanted to be a feminist. He wanted to be an egalitarian. But he would not exert his power nor his preferences over the Bible. The Scriptures held the final authority.
But scholars like my dad are rarer and rarer. Instead of the authority of Scripture being celebrated and submitted to, it is more fun to point out how Scripture has been used to rationalize all sorts of injustices. Isn’t the abuse and tyranny of men over women just another example in this long and sad story of the abuse of Scripture?
WHERE TO GO FROM HERE
The porn problem, pragmatism, and cultural power all seem to recommend that we not make complementarianism an issue. After all, wouldn’t it just be easier if we were all egalitarian—or at least not loudly complementarian?
However, if we refuse to teach and model complementarianism for the next generation, we will distort the image of God for them. Further, we will suggest that what culture recommends is more important than what Scripture clearly teaches. We must conform to the Scriptures that teach us the glory and beauty of man and woman both created in the image of God and serving him in complementary, yet different roles.
Much could be said on how we can do this faithfully. But I see four obvious ways to model and teach God’s design for men and women in the church and home.
1. Men need to step up in the home.
Many men are not loving their wives as Christ loved the church. Instead, they are abdicating their authority in the home. They aren’t leading in the home by reading God’s Word. All too often it’s the woman who brings the children to church and leads the family in prayer and makes difficult decisions for the family. Men too often take advantage of the gifts and patience of their wives—and the children notice. So when Scripture paints a picture of men laying down their lives sacrificially for their wives—just as Christ has done for his bride, the church—nothing sounds more abstract or out-of-reach.
Children are first taught about love, or the lack thereof, in the home. Because of this, fathers must commit themselves to loving their wives with a sacrificial leadership. They need to be present and engaged. With God’s help, years of modeling this well will help to create a category for the gospel for both their children and those who are in close contact with the family.
2. Men need to step up in the church.
Four years ago, our church’s children’s ministry was dominated by women volunteers. Few men were willing to change diapers, teach 4th graders, or provide leadership and vision in this area of the church. Then some of us in leadership were given the opportunity to observe a children’s ministry at another church in which the leadership comprised almost entirely of elder-qualified men. Understand, this other church’s children’s ministry wasn’t so healthy because men held the reigns of the ministry. Rather, it is God’s design that men lead by humble service, not domineering, but providing leadership and serving the least of these. That is what made this ministry culture so healthy, and it was evident immediately. If you have benefitted from healthy male leadership in the church that is sacrificial, attentive to women, and in accordance to the authority of God’s Word—you’ll never want to go back to anything else! Unfortunately, few Christians have this kind of culture in their local church.
3. Women need to teach.
All too often, egalitarians argue with straw-man complementarians. In these cases, it is said that complementarians have no category for women with the gift of teaching; it’s said we demand they stay quiet, and stay at home. Of course this is a misrepresentation. Titus 2:3 clearly teaches that older women should teach younger women. And what are they to teach?—“What is good, to love their husbands, and children, to be self-controlled, and pure, to be busy at home, to be kind, and to subject to their husbands.” All this “so that no one will malign the word of God.”
There are many parallels between Titus 1’s qualifications of an elder and this description of what women are to teach. The key difference is who Titus calls the older women to teach and that they are to be subject to their husbands. Older women teach the next generation the glorious way of humility and submission in the way of the Savior.
When there is a healthy women’s Bible study at your church with wise, godly women teaching God’s Word to women hungry for God’s Word, it will be a blessing to your entire church and a profound witness to a watching world.
4. We all need to submit.
There are essentially two sides to the issue of women in the church. Are the students who come out of your church going to college with the question: “Which side has arguments that are most in submission to God’s Word?” Or, are they leaving with the question: “Which side has the arguments that sound the most intelligent and compelling to me? I’m afraid that many students follow arguments simply because they are attractive. Who sounds confident, cool, and smart? More often than not, those are the ones our students are submitting to.
This is why we need homes and churches built upon the authority of God’s Word, where even the most confident, cool, and smart among us are submitted under the authority of King Jesus. Who is the functional authority for the students in your context? The media, their friends, their parents, the pastor? Let’s pray that all of these lesser authorities would be increasingly submitted to the ultimate authority of God’s Word.
And you know what? Students will notice. When they see the husband, the father, the discipler, or the pastor confess sin in light of God’s Word, they notice. So pastor, when you preach on 1 Timothy 2, do you tell them that this is cultural and doesn’t really have any direct meaning for us today? Or do you say, “This is difficult; this is profoundly counter-cultural. But we need to hear this.”
Complementarians may be weird; they may be out of touch. But teaching and modeling faithful complementarianism in the home and the church will help make sense of the image of God and the gospel for our kids, that is to say, for the next generation of Christians who will, Lord willing, follow our example and do the same.