Am I a Complementarian?

Am I a Complementarian?

Michael Patton has taken it upon himself to define both complementarianism and egalitarianism and I think he gets it almost completely wrong. Now I must note that I really like reading Michael Patton’s blog posts and I think he writes with an irenic tone that promotes Christian unity, and in the end he does that even in this post.

What I disagree with are his basic definitions. As I read it, he says that egalitarians deny essential differences between men and women, while complementarians affirm such differences. To quote:

The belief that God has created men and women equal in all things. Men and women are ontologically and functionally equal. The way the sexes function in the church, society, and the family is determined by individual giftedness, not role distinctions according to the sexes. Therefore, each person should be judged individually when being placed in a particular position. We should exemplify this reality by overcoming the stereotypical placement that has traditionally been a part of societies in human history, thereby giving freedom to individuals to follow the path that God has uniquely created them for, whatever that may be. In doing so, we should no longer educate or indoctrinate according to any of the former stereotypes, including those of basic masculinity and femininity. [Emphasis mine, indicating my strongest disagreement; I disagree with the rest to varying extents.]

And of course, complentarians are just the opposite on those key points. He continues to argue that to be consistent, egalitarians need to deny pretty much all differences that are essential and imply that men and women are pretty much the same, except for the plumbing.

I don’t know whether there are complementarians that fit Dr. Patton’s description of them. I know very few egalitarians who fully fit his definition of them. I certainly do not. To me, it looks like an attempt at reductio ad absurdum on the egalitarian position.

In fact, I would state my own essential position quite differently. It is simply that every person, irrespective of gender, should be permitted to serve in the church as they are called and gifted by God. My egalitarian position says nothing whatsoever about how many men or women will or will not possess what gifts and what calling. That is precisely what I reject. I do not think they are ontologically and functionally equal. I just don’t believe that the offices of the church are necessarily tied to such function and ontology, nor do I think that each man and each woman can be defined solely as “man” or “woman.” There are an abundance of other differences.

By implication I am claiming that both men and women may possess those gifts, and indeed that some of each will. My position would be pretty silly if there were no women so gifted, or no men.

What I would ask would be that the simple fact of one’s gender not be the basis of determination. I would think complementarians should be able to work with this quite well. If they are right about essential differences (and here I rely on Dr. Patton’s definition of complementarianism), then one should be able to point to the absence of certain appropriate gifts or character traits that would exclude each and every woman from the position of teaching or being in a position of authority over men.

I am quite capable to declaring that a woman is not called to the ministry, nor gifted for it. I have been in the position of having to say so both to a candidate face to face and to the people who were considering her. (I would never say this to the committee if I was unwilling to say it to the candidate’s face.) But I have encountered even more men who were not qualified, and in my opinion neither gifted nor called. I believe the church needs to be able to make such a decision through whatever mechanisms are available.

I neither know nor do I care what the proportion there is between men and women who are gifted for ministry and called to various church offices. I simply assert that there are some of each and when they are gifted and called the church should admit it and let them serve. Their pastoral and/or teaching roles might even be quite different from one another, and that is good as well.

A further implication of Dr. Patton’s definition, at least as I see it, is that no essentially feminine characteristics would be appropriate to the pastoral role. I would again disagree. I don’t think that a calling to pastoral ministry would mean that a woman must have some collection of masculine characteristics. In fact, one of the benefits to ministry would be the use of some of the characteristics that are often seen as feminine.

In answer to the question in the title, I don’t think I am, but following the definition Dr Patton used, I might be one of those really odd complementarians who accepts differences between men and women, but doesn’t believe those differences mean no woman can be a pastor.

Besides, don’t we all have a measure of submission to at least one man–Jesus Christ?

And on that, I’m pretty sure Dr. Patton and I agree. We further agree that we are not dealing with an essential of the faith. It is an issue on which I have a strongly held and deeply felt position, but not one on which we must divide the body of Christ.

8 thoughts on “Am I a Complementarian?

  1. Hi Henry,
    I just happened upon your site here while Googling.
    Your statement here interests me: “We further agree that we are not dealing with an essential of the faith. It is an issue on which I have a strongly held and deeply felt position, but not one on which we must divide the body of Christ.”
    Can you recommend some sources (which in your experience you have found helpful) that can help me understand what the NT teaches concerning what is essential and what is not?
    Blessings, Robert Firestone

    1. My initial starting point on this was Acts 15, where it seems to me the apostles are dealing with just such a question. I was pointed that way by Alden Thompson, author of Beyond Common Ground: Why Liberals and Conservatives Need Each Other, which discusses his views on that. I would add, however, that one might also consider Paul’s comments in 1 Corinthians and Galatians in which he differs a bit on the essentials, particularly dealing with food offered to idols in 1 Corinthians.

  2. I can certainly cite complementarians who except very little intrinsic difference between men and women that grounds the different roles. D.A. Carson, for instance, insists that it’s a divine decision that grounds it. Even a more essentialist view like S.M. Baugh (I believe), which takes there to be natural capacities that are different on average doesn’t have to see those differences as grounding the different roles but rather might see it as the reverse. The differences are God’s way of making our tendencies fit the already-decided-upon role differences.

    In the other direction, I can imagine an egalitarian who thinks women should be prominent in preaching and in authority over men in the church and that men and women should be equal in decision-making and authority in marriage but who thinks all manner of other characteristics are gender-determined in a way that would still count as essentialist.

    So I think essentialism is neither required for complementarianism (as Carson and Baugh demonstrate) nor incompatible with egalitarianism (as your case shows, and my suggestion makes even more clear).

    A better way to define complementarianism is that it’s the view that God has specifically limited women’s roles in ministry and marriage, usually in the case of the church in terms of authority over men and/or teaching over men, and in the case of marriage with some kind of authority or submission that isn’t fully symmetrical. How and why God does this will vary from view to view, although I’d say it’s no longer complementarianism if it involves a view of ontological superiority of men.

    Egalitarianism, I would say, is the view that God has not limited women’s roles in the church or home in a way that makes them asymmetrical to men’s roles, at least in theory. (Egalitarianism is compatible with any particular congregation having a man in authority over every member.)

  3. I noticed the following interesting argument in Michael’s post:

    1. If we are not complementarians, we will not train men to be men and women to be women.
    2. If we do not train men to be men and women to be women, then there is no way according to which we are training people at all.
    3. Therefore, if we are not complementarians, there is no way according to which we are training anyone.

    There are plenty of things complementarians might accuse egalitarians of doing, but it’s pretty crazy to think they follow nothing in the Bible and do not train their children in any righteousness at all simply because they don’t accept complementarian gender-related stuff. You say he’s got an irenic tone that promotes unity, but he’s smuggling in a pretty serious accusation against egalitarians with this argument.

    1. Perhaps it’s because I’m used to getting that accusation explicitly. 🙂

      My actual objection to that argument is this: If men and women are essentially different, why do we assume some sort of indoctrination is necessary to either reinforce that or to make them so? Will they not turn out different?

      Regarding your prior comment your definition is what I’m comfortable with. I think the real argument here is not to discover what men and women are like, but rather to understand what relevant scriptures have to say to us.

Leave a Reply