4 Dangers for Complementarians

Four dangers to which we should be particularly sensitive, even while we stand firm in the face of pressure from our more aggressive critics.

I think we need to engage with people in this middle demographic differently than we do with more aggressive egalitarians and feminists. And I don’t think it’s a sign of compromise to listen to some of their critiques. After all, some of the problems they are reacting against are real. At times complementarians have used provocative and unhelpful language; at times we have been ungentle in our tone; at times we have overstated what complementarianism entails; and tragically, in some complementarian cultures the gifts and contributions of women have been squelched or at least muted.

 

I am not ashamed to be complementarian. It has never been a dirty word for me, because I’ve grown up seeing godly expressions of it in my family, and hearing compelling arguments for it from my ministry heroes. More than anything, C. S. Lewis books like Perelandra have shaped my thinking about gender. (For anyone curious, I’ve summed up why I’m complementarian here.)

Though I don’t particularly emphasize this point in my theology, it often generates a strong reaction when it comes up. In my setting in Southern California, actually, it is often regarded as antiquated and inherently sexist. And throughout our culture, it seems to be getting only more and more controversial to affirm, with the TGC Confessional Statement, that “men and women are not simply interchangeable, but rather they complement each other in mutually enriching ways.” We might expect even stronger backlash in the years and decades ahead.

But as I’ve grown in my friendships with people on different sides of this issue, I’ve observed many who are less hostile to the idea of complementarianism but nevertheless avoid the term. People in this demographic fall somewhere between complementarianism and egalitarianism; they often have a high view of Scripture; they often oppose aggressive feminism; they often like some complementarian ministers (say, Francis Chan or Tim Keller); they may even line up pretty closely to complementarianism on paper.

Why, then, do they reject the term? Sometimes they are simply confused or conflicted on the issue, but most often, they had a bad experience with a particular person or group that goes under the “complementarian” label.

I think we need to engage with people in this middle demographic differently than we do with more aggressive egalitarians and feminists. And I don’t think it’s a sign of compromise to listen to some of their critiques. After all, some of the problems they are reacting against are real. At times complementarians have used provocative and unhelpful language; at times we have been ungentle in our tone; at times we have overstated what complementarianism entails; and tragically, in some complementarian cultures the gifts and contributions of women have been squelched or at least muted.

Of course, many people will disagree with complementarianism—often quite vehemently—no matter what we say or do. But the truth is offensive enough without our help. We don’t need to add to its offense with our own faults and foibles. I therefore list four dangers to which we should be particularly sensitive, even while we stand firm in the face of pressure from our more aggressive critics.

1. Stereotyping gender roles.

In cultures where complementarianism is embraced, it can be all too easy to confuse the essence of masculinity or femininity with one particular expression of it. But marriages and church cultures patterned after complementarian convictions will not always look the same; they take on shape and beauty as expressed through particular personalities, cultural locations, and relationship dynamics.

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