Complementarian and Egalitarian Straw Persons

I recently ran across the the master’s thesis of an ardent evangelical egalitarian, written at Regent University Divinity School (Virginia Beach) in 2010. You can Google it if you want to, but I don’t want to pick on the (female) author in particular, so I’ll leave her name out of it. It opens this way:

INTRODCTION [sic]

The argument has grown tiresome, redundant, and frustrating: should women be allowed to hold leadership roles over men in the Christian Church? Many Christian leaders and biblical scholars have agreed to allow women in their pulpits, but many still cling to a view that makes the Apostle Paul look like a male chauvinist, who has given a universal principal [sic] that women are to be silent, and never hold a church office.   Many from the latter group are known as complementarians. Well known complementarian frontrunners, John Piper and Wayne Grudem, reason that the Apostle Paul taught that the husband/father figure of each family is ordained by God to lead his household, wife, and children. She and their children are to submit to his every rule, whim, and decision; life as they know it is a male dominated monarchy. Boys are taught to be strong leaders and providers, while girls are taught to be good followers and dependents.

I got this far and decided I would not read further. The misspellings of “principal” and “introduction” in a master’s thesis (and a few strained phrases like “well known complementarian frontrunners”) are not what led me to throw up my hands, but rather the frankly malicious straw man she sets up in this very first paragraph. There may be self-described “complementarians” out there whose view of male-female roles in marriage means that women and children must submit to the father’s every “whim,” but I personally can’t say I’ve met these extremists. I’m a complementarian, now a published one, and my whim is generally to read quietly without interruption (though I like to have my wife nearby so we can be together). Let me tell you: my whim is rarely if ever obeyed in my household. If the only way you can get something you want is to get up an hour before the rest of the family, I wouldn’t call it a “whim.” I aspire to be a strong leader and a provider, but my home is not a monarchy; far from it. I think this author has set up a straw man.

But, mutatis mutandis, here’s the reason I didn’t read the rest of what this woman wrote: I don’t want to set up a straw-man (or straw-woman!) of evangelical egalitarianism. I recently got a copy of a CBE newsletter in the mail (unsolicited), and I stayed up past my bedtime last night reading one female scholar’s observations about the role of women in ETS. She raises some difficult and even uncomfortable questions: if ETS allows female scholars as members (its official doctrinal statement is silent on complementarianism/egalitarianism), why haven’t any of them been presidents, executive committee members, or givers of keynotes? (One or two women did give keynotes in 1986, apparently, when the topic of the annual conference was gender roles.)

I think the writer found conspiracies and malevolencies where there were none—she doesn’t seem to permit complementarians to have Christ-loving, Bible-honoring motivations for their viewpoints. But there were some objective things the writer pointed to that I had to admit I had little answer for. I’m prepared to have a conversation with egalitarians. I believe—and how can any of us know before we’re tried?—that I have an open mind, and would bend where the Scripture bends, stand where it stands.

I repeat here what I’ve said before: the evangelical left loves to critique complementarianism. And more power to them. Marshal your best exegetical arguments, egalitarians, and put pressure on us to be biblically faithful. Don’t let us remain complacent, assuming that our gender-role traditions are necessarily worth preserving. It’s hard work to weed the garden of one’s own cultural and religious customs, and sometimes the only person who can spot a particular dandelion (or even a gargantuan kudzu vine) is the gardener next door. But when you set up a straw man and paint all complementarians as extremists, you make it hard to listen. I will try, by God’s grace, to continue to believe that egalitarians have something valuable to teach me. Will you try, egalitarians, to do some field work observing complementarians? Do some statistical studies about how often men like John Piper and Wayne Grudem insist that their wives “submit”? (Hint: I’ve never done it, except when I was certain my wife needed a nap and she was resisting!)

This seems to be the crux of the issue as it’s playing out right now: how do complementarian and egalitarian viewpoints affect praxis? Does complementarianism, statistically speaking, lead to overbearing husbands and dispirited wives? On the flip side, does egalitarianism lead to liberal views on homosexuality? These are important questions, not as important as what, in fact, the Bible teaches—but they bear on our interpretation of the Bible. If all complementarian men were petty tyrants, that would tend to undercut the plausibility of their biblical interpretation. But I’m not buying it.

Author: Mark Ward

PhD in NT; theological writer for Faithlife; former high school Bible textbook author for BJU Press; husband; father; ultimate frisbee player; member of the body of Christ.

1 thought on “Complementarian and Egalitarian Straw Persons”

  1. The thing that I don’t believe egalitarians get is that commands to a person are not necessarily commands to another. A command “to submit” for one person is not a command “to enforce submission” to the other.

    A person can sin in failing to submit, and the aggrieved party who is sinned against (by such non-submission) can sin also by trying to enforce the submission he believes (possibly rightly) that he is owed.

    As hard as it is, husbands are to love their wives like Christ loved the church. And Christ loves a church who fails frequently yet Christ’s method is to continually woo.

    The egalitarian rightly baulks at oppressive relationships but their solution to the misuse of power is to inappropriately appropriate power.

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