A Reply to Denny Burk on the Centrality of Complementarianism

There has been some discussion about why organizations like Together for the Gospel and The Gospel Coalition include a complementarian clause in their confessional statements (see their respective videos here and here). Carl Trueman speaks for many when he says he is confused by this emphasis on gender roles. He writes,

[W]hy is the complementarian/egalitarian debate such a significant bone of contention in parachurch cobelligerent organisations whose stated purpose is to set aside issues which divide at a church level but which do not seem to impact directly upon the gospel?   Why, for instance, is this issue of more importance than, say, differences over baptism or understandings of the Lord’s Supper?  Historically and confessionally, those have been the issues that divide, so it is strange to see the adjective ‘confessional’ applied to movements which actually sideline the very doctrinal differences which made Protestant confessions necessary in the first place.

This is not a new question, however; and Denny Burk gives an answer in the form of a metaphor:

Every year I visit my dermatologist for a check-up. In those examinations, he looks at everything growing on or under my skin to see if there is anything that needs to be removed. Every year, he observes a number of moles, skin tags, and other unseemly blemishes. For aesthetic reasons, he’ll sometimes suggest that I have one or more of these blemishes removed—a suggestion that I typically refuse. On two occasions, however, my doctor has identified “blemishes” that he insisted must be removed because they were precancerous. I rely on the doctor to distinguish the benign blemishes from those that will develop into something that is malignant. Neither type of blemish will kill me. But what grows out of the latter type of blemish can indeed end my life.

Differences over secondary theological issues are like those blemishes. By themselves, they are merely theological blemishes that do not necessarily threaten the central issues of the gospel. Like those blemishes, however, some of them have the potential to turn into a theological cancer. Some secondary issues have more deadly potential than others, and we all have an obligation to be able to distinguish the former from the latter.

Two reasons are given to explain why egalitarianism is likened to a cancerous mole. First, there is what I call the tortuous gymnastics objection as articulated by Lig Duncan:

The denial of complementarianism undermines the church’s practical embrace of the authority of Scripture (thus eventually and inevitably harming the church’s witness to the Gospel). The gymnastics required to get from “I do not allow a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man,” in the Bible, to “I do allow a woman to teach and to exercise authority over a man” in the actual practice of the local church, are devastating to the functional authority of the Scripture in the life of the people of God.

The second is the “new path to liberalism” argument as stated by Mark Dever (and more precisely by Wayne Grudem):

Dear reader, you may not agree with me on this.  And I don’t desire to be right in my fears.  But it seems to me and others (many who are younger than myself) that this issue of egalitarianism and complementarianism is increasingly acting as the watershed distinguishing those who will accomodate [sic] Scripture to culture, and those who will attempt to shape culture by Scripture.  You may disagree, but this is our honest concern before God.  It is no lack of charity, nor honesty.  It is no desire for power or tradition for tradition’s sake.  It is our sober conclusion from observing the last 50 years.

I thinks this a great discussion and I left this response in the comments of Denny’s post:


Thanks for this post. Some thoughts in response. First the Duncan quote:

“The gymnastics required to get from ‘I do not allow a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man,’ in the Bible, to ‘I do allow a woman to teach and to exercise authority over a man’ in the actual practice of the local church, are devastating to the functional authority of the Scripture in the life of the people of God.”

I’ve never understood why the tortuous “gymnastics” charge picks out egalitarians and not others. Are not the same broad principles applied to Jesus’s command “do not to resist an evil person (Matt 5:39) such that, when considering cases like rape, the victim is allowed “to resist an evil person?” The point is there is a time and place where this instruction holds and where it does not. Likewise, as egalitarians tend to read Paul’s restrictive passages, the purpose of the restrictions are explained as taking into account uneducated and contentious women. Again, we might disagree about this, but the authority of Scripture is not at stake; rather, it is our *interpretation* of Scripture. Just because someone holds a more expansive range of cases where an imperative applies does not mean one holds a stronger view of the authority of Scripture. We would not grant that to a hardcore pacifist; why should we grant this to Duncan? No good reason I can see.

Second, I think the sort of arguments which conclude “egalitarianism is a new path to liberalism” are flawed. They represent the so-called “track record” like this:

[1] If one holds to egalitarianism, then one (probably) undermines the authority of Scripture.
[2] If one undermines the authority of Scripture, then one is (probably) on a path to liberalism.
[3] There are people who hold to egalitarianism.
[4] Therefore, there are people who are (probably) on the path to liberalism.

Call this THE ARGUMENT. In order for THE ARGUMENT to go through, one has to show that premise [1] is true, that is, that holding to egalitarianism is a *causal factor* that, at least, increases the likelihood of undermining the authority of Scripture. But I think this is far from clear in light of the sizable contingent of scholars who truly hold to the authority of Scripture AND egalitarianism.

Obviously, holding to egalitarianism isn’t a sufficient condition for undermining the authority of Scripture (a la Roger Nicole). And of course, neither it is necessary. One can deny the authority of Scripture while rejecting egalitarian gender roles. Plenty of conservative Muslims and Jews do just that. Therefore, I think THE ARGUMENT would be better stated like this:

[1] If one does not hold to the authority of Scripture, then one is (probably) on a path to liberalism.
[2] If one is on a path to liberalism, then one (probably) holds to egalitarian gender roles.
[3] There are people who do not hold to the authority of Scripture.
[4] Therefore, there are people who (probably) hold to egalitarian gender roles.

Of course, evangelical egalitarians would agree with this argument, because the determinative issue is whether one holds to biblical authority–not egalitarian gender roles.


CBMW and T4G: Is Male Headship Quasi-Essential?

A comment I read on another blog makes an insightful observation:

As I see it, CBMW and many in my own theological camp are in somewhat of a bind. They know that the complementarian/egalitarian debate can’t be cast as a first-order, gospel-or-die issue, but yet they don’t want people to walk away thinking that it’s simply a garden variety 2nd order issue where you believe what you want and I’ll believe what I want. Hence, you find attempts to craft a space for complementarianism that sits somewhere between a first order (i.e. gospel) and a second order issue. You can see the same thing in Article XVI of the T4G Affirmation and Denial Statement. Article XVI’s affirmation doesn’t say that complementarianism equals the gospel, but insists that it is a “testimony to the gospel” — yet there’s no explanation what the statement means by this phrase. Moreover, the last sentence of Article XVI indicates that a church can’t ”confuse” these issues (and relax its complementarian stance) without “damaging its witness to the gospel.” Note first that there’s no definition of what ‘confuse’ means here, and there’s also no suggestion as to which interpretive standard is being used to measure what would constitute said ‘confusion’. As with the affirmation, the denial in Article XVI hasn’t said that complementarianism and the gospel are one and the same, but it has nonetheless intimated that there’s a very, very thin line separating the two. It’s at best a quasi-argument.

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.

RMG on Palin and Complementarianism

Rebecca Merrill Groothuis has an insightful post on the Com-Palin controversy here. Money quote:

In the end, it seems that the “clear teaching” and literal meaning of Scripture on “complementary roles” for manhood and womanhood—which up to now has fairly consistently meant that God created men to be leaders and created women to be subordinate to male leadership—is not such a consistent and comprehensive perspective after all. Rather, when push comes to shove, it simply means that in the church and home, men must be the boss and women must be subordinate to male authority. Outside these two realms, gender “complementarity” is either moot or nonexistent. What, exactly, God did at creation is immensely unclear. God did not create man and woman with certain different propensities inherent to the nature of manhood and womanhood, because, after all, outside the church and home, in the world at large, “differences,” whether deemed mandated or inherent, disappear. There is definite confusion in the camp of the complementarians.

My Take on the On Faith Question

My take on the On Faith question is similar to Richard Mouw’s: it is not hyporcritical to suppose that women can serve as governing leaders of a nation but not a church, but it is inconsistent. Hypocrisy entails an insidious level of dishonesty pertinent to the issue that traditionalists avoid.

Nevertheless, the question is interesting, because it reveals deep presuppositions about biblical interpretation that cuts through the fog of rhetoric about traditional gender roles and the evils of feminism. Quite frankly, Sarah Palin is a problem for traditionalists–or “complementarians” as they like to call themselves—because she is a conservative feminist. She is just as big of a problem for CBMW as she is for secular feminists on the Left.

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One Faith: Is it hypocritical to think that a woman can lead a nation and not a congregation?

The Washington Post hosts a forum called On Faith that poses this question: Women are not allowed to become clergy in many conservative religious groups. Is it hypocritical to think that a woman can lead a nation and not a congregation?

Here are the highlights of the contributors:

Brian D. McLaren:

I just talked to a leading conservative religious leader about this the other day. He believes that the New Testament texts regarding women only apply to the church and not the secular world. I find that line of interpretation very convenient for conservative churches, and impossible to justify theologically. My guess is that more and more of the daughters of today’s religious conservatives will decide to a) abandon their parent’s approach to interpreting the Bible, b) decide the “secular” world is a more hospitable place and spend more time there and less in the church, or c) change churches

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Voddie Baucham: Palin not a Pro-Family Pick

Voddie Baucham is not happy about Sarah Palin and calls her an “anti-family pick.” He writes:

First, if Mr. McCain was pro-family, he would want to see Mrs. Palin at home taking care of her five children, not headed to Washington to be consumed by the responsibilities of being second in command to the most powerful man in the world (or serving as the Governor of Alaska for that matter). Let me also say that I would have the same reservations about a man with five children at home seeking the VP office.

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