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Biblical Complementarianism versus Feminism and Patriarchalism

December 4, 2020

When I was pastoring a church next to Yale University, we adopted a firm complementarian policy. For those of you who are not aware of the general climate of elite universities, let me just say that a complementarian view of men and women is not exactly normative in that culture. In fact, it would be viewed with distinct suspicion, disdain, perhaps at times derision. However, our policy regarding complementarianism was never really a bone of contention in that climate. Why? Frankly, we had bigger fish to fry and more pertinent issues that we were constructing apologetics about: Is Jesus the only way to God? Is the Bible authoritative? Does God exist? In that climate, if you are seen to be a group that believes the Bible, it is not intrinsically surprising that you also believe what the Bible says about any number of issues—including gender and the roles of men and women.

But there was another reason, and I think it had to do with our firm commitment to advance what I would call biblical complementarianism. I often would say—and still do—that a biblical approach to the roles of men and women must cut both ways. It must cut against radical feminism and it must also cut against traditional patriarchalism. If you are going to follow what the Bible teaches, you need to own up to the fact that Jesus only chose male apostles; that Paul says he does not permit a woman to teach or have authority over a man; that the predominant language with relation to God is male—Father, for instance; that the Bible teaches that a husband is the head of his wife as Christ is the head of the church; etc.

But you must also own up to the fact that the Bible describes Phoebe as a Deacon, that she was a powerful patron, in all likelihood, of the church that met at her home; that the first witnesses of the resurrection were women; that Lydia’s conversion played an important, if not decisive, role in the planting of the church at Philippi; that Euodia and Syntyche were no doubt influential figures in that same church, or else why was their disagreement so damaging to the whole body; that the husband-wife ministry team of Priscilla and Aquila taught the word of God more accurately to none other than the powerful male preacher Apollos.

I am convinced of the Bible’s teaching about complementarianism. I have risked my career, my livelihood, and my reputation for what the Bible teaches in this regard. Let no one accuse me of being a “soft” complementarian; I bear the marks and the scars of standing up for Christ in this regard. But I’ll tell you this: the Bible is as against male patriarchal bullying as it is against radical feminism. And if I believe that male pastors are to lead, I certainly am not going to let the Bible be used as a weapon to discourage the Phoebes in the church at large.

It is essential to grasp the overall logic and beauty of the Bible’s teaching about complementarianism. It is an articulation of what Paul calls a “mystery.” The role of men and women in marriage and in the church—that is the twin area that the Bible specifically addresses—is intended to reflect the mystery, what was-hidden-now-revealed, of the gospel. Men and women, both made in the image of God, both equal in Christ, have different roles to play in marriage and in the church.

On the one hand, there is the self-sacrificial grace of Christ that comes to serve and lead and be our head through his sacrifice at the cross. On the other hand, there is the receptive faith and trust that we are called to respond to with submission and acceptance of his self-sacrificial love. It is a dance, a role play, that men and women in marriage and in the church are called to portray, to be a visual image of the gospel, of the mystery that has been revealed in Christ.

When you go to a well-functioning biblical home, you can sense, almost feel, almost see, the visual display of self-sacrificial love on the one hand, and faith and trust on the other. Embedded into the gift of marriage is a mystery of Christ and the church. And the church itself—the bride of Christ, of course—is also intended to reflect that mystery as godly male elders and pastors sacrifice their very lives for the bride of Christ and the bride receives and respects and honors that sacrifice through faith and trust. So the mystery of the gospel is enacted through the role of men and women.

But none of that has anything to do with bullying behavior, demeaning denigration of women, or plain name calling. Far from it. If—as I have heard it sometimes rather crassly described—men are meant to be knights in shining armor, they certainly must be at the very least kind and polite and gentlemanly (what an old fashioned word that seems but how important!) to women.

In practical terms, I am convinced that the role of elder and pastor, the pulpit that represents that office in the local church, is barred from women. Outside of that I see plenty of room for liberty. One of the most influential, if controversial, recent Prime Ministers in my home country England was a woman. I don’t think the Bible has anything to say against that. I, of course, also come from a country with a Queen. I also don’t think the Bible has anything to say against that. The roles of politics and leadership outside of the church and marriage are not designed by God to be a mystery that reveals the gospel, and so the role play that the church and marriage advance are not threatened by a Queen of England (one might say that many of the best monarchs in English history have been Queens, if that were relevant).

So Christian women: be encouraged. Be a Phoebe, if God so calls you. And men, complementarian men: the Bible cuts both ways. Yes, it speaks against radical feminism. By all means, beat that drum. But it also speaks against patriarchalism. And if you wish to be heard with credibility, by feminists and egalitarians alike, make sure you also let the Bible speak against patriarchalism too.

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