Complementarianism & Theological Triage


For a variety of reasons, and I’m sure there are many, the issue of complementarianism in the church has once again become a flash point within conservative evangelicalism. If your church is anything like mine (and it probably is), church members are asking questions about the latest denominational report or Twitter controversy, elders are having discussions about what’s appropriate at church and what’s not, and opinions about this celebrity male preacher or that celebrity female teacher are being shared online. If you’re like me (and you’re probably not), you’d like to avoid the whole controversy, not because you don’t value women but because you know that no matter what you say or how you weigh in, some people in your congregation are going to be unhappy. But even if you’re more confident in your contribution to this conversation than I am in mine, none of us want the polarization and division that this topic seems to bring.

To the end of bringing light rather than heat to the subject, I’d like to offer some help on how to talk and think about the application of complementarianism within your own congregation, whether that’s with people you agree with or people you don’t. I’ve found two ideas helpful.


The first principle is theological triage. Triage is the assignment of degrees of urgency in a medical emergency so that one can determine the treatment that will most likely maximize survival. If someone has a gunshot wound to the chest and a fractured arm, you deal with the chest wound first. The broken arm is serious, but it’s not going to kill the patient.

In the same way, we need to assess the urgency and seriousness of the various challenges the application of complementarianism poses to both our cooperation in and among local churches and our conscience before the Lord. Is a woman preaching on Sunday morning of the same seriousness as a woman teaching a mixed gender teenaged Sunday School class? Is a woman serving on a finance committee that shapes the budget of equal urgency as a woman serving as an elder?

Two errors are common: we treat everything as if it’s life-threatening to biblical faithfulness—or we treat nothing that way, save for the gender of those who hold the office of elder. When everything is an emergency, or nothing is, it’s hard for two people to have thoughtful, respectful conversation when they agree on the principle but disagree on the details.


Being able to categorize issues as 1st, 2nd, or 3 rd tier will go a long way toward bringing light and reducing heat. We can divide almost everything into one of these categories. Once we know which tier an issue falls in, we will better assess what kind of response is called for.

1st Tier

First-tier doctrines and practices are necessary for salvation and the historic orthodox faith. The Trinity, monotheism, the Incarnation, the bodily resurrection of Christ, etc., belong in this category. In other words, the core beliefs summarized in the Apostle’s Creed. As Protestants, we’d add justification by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone; the inspiration and final authority of Scripture; and the necessity of the new birth. Theological convictions in this category are not only worth dividing over, they define what it means to be a Christian, and to reject any of them is to be outside orthodoxy itself, not to mention salvation.

2nd Tier

Second-tier doctrines and commitments are necessary for either a) the organization of the church, or b) the protection of the gospel and the long-term health of the church. The former includes our convictions about baptism, church government, biblical offices, and the Lord’s Supper. The latter includes everything from our conviction about the sovereignty of God in salvation, to finer points of ecclesiology, the doctrine of inerrancy, and our view on sanctification, to name just a few. Theological convictions in this category will necessarily cause us to divide into different denominations and local churches, but does not call anyone’s salvation or orthodoxy into question. We consider those on the other side of these questions our brothers and sisters in Christ.

3rd Tier

This category contains all of our biblical convictions that are matters of conscience, but that don’t necessarily divide us from others, either in the local church, or larger cooperative associations such as denominations. This is by far the largest category, and in my estimation would include everything from specific views of the millennium, to the beverage use of alcohol, from views on married women working outside the home, to the church’s responsibility for social justice. Scripture speaks to all of life, and therefore we rightly develop biblical convictions on a wide array of issues. But Christian liberty and the doctrine of conscience mean that we do not require complete agreement on these issues for fellowship or cooperation.


As far as I can discern, there is no aspect of complementarian theology that is 1st tier, and I’m not aware of any who argue it is. If evangelical egalitarians can be saved (and they can!), then so too can my complementarian brothers and sisters who apply the principle differently than me. Right away, that means we can turn down the volume and the heat. Important issues are at stake, but salvation and historic orthodoxy are not among them.

On the other hand, there are some aspects of complementarian theology that seem to clearly land in the 3rd tier. This, it seems to me, would include many (most?) of our conscientious convictions that are inferences and perceived implications of scriptural truth. Much of what I understand to be “broad complementarianism” falls in this category. Convictions about the role of women outside the home, the nature and characteristics of biblical manhood and womanhood, the priority of child-bearing, and parental responsibilities for childhood education are all important and consequential. But complementarian Christians of goodwill can disagree about these and a host of other issues and still take the Lord’s Supper together, or cooperate in missions and church planting.

This leaves the 2nd tier for many of our complementarian convictions, especially those that affect the organization and life of the church and family—what’s been called “narrow complementarianism.” Often, this includes conversations about what constitutes a violation of women “exercising authority over men,” per 1 Timothy 2:12. Simply put, churches need to agree as to whether or not women are permitted to pray and prophesy publicly; similarly, families need to agree on the roles and authority established within marriage. You simply cannot have women elders and not have them at the same time in the same church. The husband cannot be and not be the head of his household at the same time.

But when it comes to the church, the issues are more than simply organizational and principial. The tension and the arguments are most often about application. People who agree a woman should not preach on Sunday to the gathered congregation disagree about whether she can teach a mixed-gender Sunday school or youth group. People who agree a woman should not teach a mixed-gender Sunday school disagree on whether she can facilitate a mixed-gender inductive Bible study. People who agree that women should pray publicly at the weekly prayer meeting disagree about whether women should pray publicly in the Sunday morning gathering.

To make matters even more complex, context matters. Something that’s 2nd tier when you’re deciding which church to join might become 3 rd tier in evaluating denominational cooperation. Or vice-versa. For example, while we shouldn’t use 2nd tier issues to build pharisaical hedges around 1st tier issues, we should be alert to how the former affects the latter. Egalitarian rejection of the 2 nd tier issue of gender roles and identity in the home and church has surely made the more radical rejection of 1st tier issues of sexual identity and practice by the LGBTQ community seem more plausible to many.

Let’s take teaching mixed-gender Sunday school as another example. Someone could feel that in good conscience they could not join a church where women teach mixed-gender Sunday school. That’s 2nd tier. However, the elders of that church also understand that this conviction doesn’t prevent them from cooperating with other churches in missions who do allow such teaching. In terms of denomination, that’s 3rd tier. Are they being inconsistent? Not necessarily, but at this point we need another principle to guide our judgment. While it would be nice if every issue fit neatly into one category or another, the reality is that they affect and bleed into each other. Our temptation is to guard against the bleed, but in fact our goal should be to guard the line of Scripture.


I want to borrow a principle from the Charles Simeon Trust. I’ve both heard it and taught it during their preaching workshops. It’s simply called “staying on the line.” The idea, in terms of preaching, is that we want our preaching to stay on the line of Scripture, neither adding to its message, nor taking away from it. This flows from the conviction that God’s Word is the power of salvation, and when we stray from the line of that Word, it’s no longer his Word we’re preaching, but our own.

So what does this have to do with complementarianism and theological triage? The Scriptures have some very specific things to say about the role and function of women within the church, by way of prescription (e.g., that older women should teach what is good to younger women, Titus 2:3–5), prohibition (they should not teach or exercise authority over men in the church, 1 Timothy 2:12), and description (e.g., how they should pray publicly, 1 Cor. 11:1–12 or how they should speak the truth in love about both theology and the Bible to others, including men, Eph, 4:15, Acts 18:26).

In these situations, we’re on the line of Scripture. But we’re constantly faced with questions of application that aren’t clearly addressed in the New Testament. Missions committees, budget committees, inductive small group bible studies, Sunday School, and mixed-gender high school youth groups are not addressed directly because they did not exist. With at least some of these, we’re moving away from the line of Scripture.

Applied to theological triage, the idea of “staying on the line” suggests that the closer we are to both the original context and the application of explicit Scriptural teaching, the more likely this is a 2nd-tier issue. That’s because to disobey a clear command, or to command what is explicitly prohibited, is to overthrow the authority of Scripture and to require us to sin against conscience. An easy example of this is having women serve as elders or preach to the gathered congregation on Sunday morning. To do either is to reject the Scripture’s authority over our lives and our churches. In such a case, we simply cannot cooperate within a local church and may not be able to cooperate within a denomination.

On the other hand, the further we are from the original context and application of Scripture, the more likely we’re in a 3rd-tier issue. That’s because we’re deep in the realm of wisdom and discernment of the implications of our theological commitments. An example of this might be women serving on a missions committee that determines which missionaries are supported each year and for how much. Arguably, that committee is exercising authority over men who want to go to the mission field. But just as arguably, the women on that committee may or may not be exercising the kind of authority Paul had in view in 1 Tim 2:12. Reasonable people could disagree on the application, but all should agree that it’s a question of wisdom and implication, not explicit command. Neither the authority of Scripture (and thus my conscience) nor the ultimate health of the church hangs in the balance. If I think women should be able to serve on such a committee and my elders decide they shouldn’t, I don’t need to break fellowship with them. I can submit to their leadership while I continue to try and change their minds.

So let’s go back to women teaching mixed-gender Sunday school and the decision of one church to not allow it, and yet cooperate with other churches who do. As a matter of conviction, they understand that adult Sunday school is close enough to the context of 1 Tim 2:12—Lord’s Day, gathered congregation—and therefore precisely a violation of 1 Tim 2:12—”I do not permit a woman to teach . . . a man.” And yet, in humility they also understand that other churches who share their principle disagree on applying that principle to the novel context of Sunday school, believing it applies specifically to the authoritative teaching that happens in the context of Sunday morning preaching.

My point is not to convince you of either position, or even that they made the right decision. It’s simply to illustrate a way forward in our conversations and arguments that turns down the volume, reduces the heat, and increases the light because it keeps the conversation focused where it should be—the careful discernment and application of biblical principles with both wisdom and humility.


Everywhere we turn, there’s controversy. Is there room for Beth Moore in the SBC? Should we be telling women teachers to “Go home”? My own denomination (Conservative Baptist) has a clear statement restricting the office of elder and the function of preaching to men. But many of the CB churches in my area have female staff “pastors” who preach regularly. Is it meaningful that they are not elders? (They don’t consider elder and pastor to be the same office. I don’t think the distinction matters, since Paul prohibits women from the function of teaching men, not just the office of elder.)

For all sorts of reasons, I don’t think this controversy and pressure should surprise us. We live in a post-#MeToo world. We should thank God for that. For too long, we’ve defended traditions as if they were the line of Scripture when they weren’t. We need to repent to God of that. Our enemy, the devil, has not ceased his roaring against the church. And so we must depend on God in that.

And then, with courage and charity, as pastors we should speak to our congregations. Courage is needed because some issues will mean we must divide. In my own case, while we can associate we cannot cooperate in the planting of churches that are confessionally complementarian but functionally egalitarian. But charity must not be forgotten either, for even when we disagree, we are disagreeing with our brothers and sisters in Christ. In the controversy with fellow complementarians, there are many important issues, but there are no 1st tier issues.

Michael Lawrence

Michael Lawrence is the senior pastor of Hinson Baptist Church in Portland, Oregon.

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