Is Complementarianism at the very center of orthodoxy?

Recently Scot McKnight wrote about his concerns over what he calls the “NeoReformed” (part 1, part 2). According to him, these ardent Calvinists “are more than happy to call into question the legitimacy and fidelity of any evangelical who doesn’t believe in classic Reformed doctrines, like double predestination.” Whether or not that is the case, he also observes something else that is equally alarming:

“And here’s another issue: the NeoReformed are deeply concerned with complementarianism and see it as a test case of fidelity. Fine, argue your points, but complementarianism is hardly the center of orthodoxy. You wouldn’t know that by the way they write or talk. Some see it as the litmus test of evangelical orthodoxy these days. This grieves me. Don’t we have more significant battles to wage?”

Denny Burk objected to this, without commenting on the merits of McKnight’s label, saying that complementarianism is not understood by the “NeoReformed” to be “the center of orthodoxy” or at “the heart of their doctrinal priorities.” Nevertheless, he goes on to say that egalitarianism is a threat to the auhority of the Bible. To me, this smacks of double-speak because it seems to be the case that to deny complementarianism is to deny the authority of Scripture–which of course, puts the very “center of orthodoxy” at stake!

There is some evidence to back up McKnight’s complaint. For example, the Together for the Gospel statement reads:

We affirm that the Scripture reveals a pattern of complementary order between men and women, and that this order is itself a testimony to the Gospel, even as it is the gift of our Creator and Redeemer. We also affirm that all Christians are called to service within the body of Christ, and that God has given to both men and women important and strategic roles within the home, the church, and the society. We further affirm that the teaching office of the church is assigned only to those men who are called of God in fulfillment of the biblical teachings and that men are to lead in their homes as husbands and fathers who fear and love God.

We deny that the distinction of roles between men and women revealed in the Bible is evidence of mere cultural conditioning or a manifestation of male oppression or prejudice against women. We also deny that this biblical distinction of roles excludes women from meaningful ministry in Christ’s kingdom. We further deny that any church can confuse these issues without damaging its witness to the Gospel.

The message could not be anymore clear: if you deny such an order exists between man and woman you undermine the church’s witness to the gospel. For decades evangelicals of all stripes, complementarians and egalitarians, have found unity in the gospel message of Christ. But with this statement, there can be no unity in the gospel as egalitarians are subtly denounced as undermining it. And there is nothing more at the center of orthodoxy than the gospel itself.

Al Mohler reviewed Wayne Grudem’s book Evangelical Feminism: A New Path to Liberalism? and came to this conclusion:

Nothing less than the future of the Christian church in North America is at stake in this controversy. Evangelicals no longer have the luxury of believing that this controversy is nothing more than a dispute among scholars.

If the future of the church in North America is contingent upon the repudiation of egalitarianism, then the advancement of complementarianism is (and ought to be) “the heart the NeoReformer’s doctrinal priorities.

If complementarianism’s understanding of hierarchy is essential to the Christian worldview (as Mary Kassian argued in her book Women, Creation, and Fall, p. 45), then how could it not be in dispute that the NeoReformed see complementarianism as a litmus test of orthodoxy? If they deny that it is they should qualify or even recant some of the things said above.

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A Correction to “The Logic of Equality”

My inexperience with working with publishers shows. When I opened the fall issue of Priscilla Papers I was happy to see my piece “The Logic of Equality” published. I was not happy to see that I had submitted an incorrected draft to the editor. I had a number of different versions I was working with, and it seems I missed the opportunity in the final review to catch the error.

The sixth reason I give for rejecting the complementarian idea of the Trinity reads like this in the journal:

Sixth, subordination that extends into eternity cannot be merely functional, but must also be ontological. God’s authority is a quality that inheres with the attribute of his lordship. Authority, applied to God, means he has the right to govern all things as well as the ability to control all things. If we choose to use the term “authority” as a quality of God’s lordship, we must apply it to both Father and Son, for both share in the divine attribute of lordship. With this principle in mind, it follows that if the Son is eternally subordinate to the Father, then the Father has a divine attribute that the Son does not have. And since eternity is an intrinsic quality of God’s existence, it logically follows that what the Son is eternally, he is in being. If the Son is eternally subordinate in function, then he is eternally subordinate in being

It should read like this:

Sixth, subordination that extends into eternity cannot be merely functional if it is based on something that is ontological. God’s authority is a quality that inheres with the attribute of his lordship. Authority, applied to God, means he has the right to govern all things, as well as the ability to control all things. If we choose to use the term “authority” as a quality of God’s lordship we must apply it to both Father and Son, for both share in the divine attribute of lordship. Yet this principle conflicts with eternal subordination’s insistence that the Son’s “sonship” subordinates him to a status lower than the Father. If this is the case, it stands to reason that the Father has a divine attribute that the Son does not have, namely that of authority. And since authority is an intrinsic quality of God’s existence it logically follows that what the Son lacks in deity subordinates him not only in function but also in being. If the Son is eternally subordinate in function by virtue of what he is, then he is eternally subordinate in being.

The difference is significant, because it does not follow that if the Son is eternally subordinate to the Father, then the Father has a divine attribute that the Son does not have. Eternal subordination can be conceived as something like a contract: from all eternity the persons of the trinitarian community mutually agreed to arrange themselves hierarchically (perhaps for the purposes of redemption?). In this scheme, it remains conceivable that a possible world may have been ordained where the Father subordinated to the Son. However, if such a world is not possible then it does follow, for eternal subordination is then determined by the Son’s “sonship.” The problem here is that it makes an essence out of the Son’s personhood (“sonship”) that is altogether different from the Father’s essence.

Either way, the point about God’s attribute of authority is at the center of the “sixth reason” and that is what is lacking in complementarian views of the Trinity. If we take the contractual view, the Son empties himself of the attribute in a way that mimics the kenosis view of the incarnation. I’m not sure any complementarian theologian would embrace that. In seeking to avoid this, we could take the “submission is fitting to sonship” view, but as I have tried to show, this falls into ontological subordination.

Lesson learned: reread your submissions to publishers again and again even if you have read the darn thing a hundred times! I await the fair criticism of my unfortunate non sequitur.