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Complementarianism: A Moment of Reckoning (Part 5)

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Part 5: Moving Forward: A Better Understanding of Church and Wisdom


I believe the Bible establishes two offices: elders/pastors/overseers and deacons. I also believe it limits the role of elder to qualified men, while men and women both can serve as deacons (or, if one prefers for women, deaconesses).

What then shall we say a missions committee chairman is? An executive leadership team? A youth pastor who is not an elder? A women’s ministry director? A pastoral search committee member? Do those positions come out of the elder bucket or the deacon bucket?

The trouble, of course, is that many churches don’t have a sharply defined understanding of what an elder or a deacon is. Plus, the Bible says nothing about these other positions. As a result, the lines blur. They merge in and out of the elder or deacon lanes with little clarity on what’s what.

Also, as I’ve remarked elsewhere, we use the corporate and vague word “leadership” to describe everything, allowing churches to run an end-run around the Bible.

For my part, I’m willing to acknowledge that deacons possess a kind of “leadership” over their particular areas. A deacon of sound, for instance, will give guidance and instruction to his or her team in running the sound system for the church. He or she might be given a budget and make decisions about how to use that budget. In other words, I believe we can make a distinction between diaconal leadership and the kind of elder oversight over the whole congregation that Paul and the rest say belong to the elders.

Yet if churches are going to use non-biblical language like “executive leadership team” or “missions committee chairman,” then they should be more careful about explaining to their congregations whether those positions represent elder leadership or diaconal leadership. They should work harder at keeping every position inside of one of those two lanes.

The deeper point here is, hovering behind the conversations about complementarianism are both different ecclesiological convictions (as Sam Emadi and Alex Duke’s articles make clear), but also different convictions over the sufficiency of Scripture. It’s easy to get good ideas in our heads and to begin to insist on them, as if they were Bible. “We must hire women to solve the abuse problem.” “We must have women participate in elder’s meetings. “We must establish a women’s leadership institute.” “We must create more public teaching platforms for women.” Many such ideas might be fine or even wise in this or that ministry context. Yet to make something a “must” that is not in the Bible puts more weight on it than it’s capable of carrying. The Holy Spirit is not sitting in heaven thinking to himself, “I wish I had inspired the apostles to say that!” When we turn good ideas into musts, those ideas start doing things we never intended them to do.

Scripture is sufficient for all that ails us. Different voices can bring different insights to our understanding of Scripture, but if something is not in the Bible, it is not a “must.” Only the inspired things get to be “musts.”

What we must do is keep reading our Bibles and conforming our thinking and practices to it.


Elsewhere , I have argued that we need to recognize that the differences between men and women in the broader domains of life don’t root in biblical precepts, but in God’s design patterns. And this is crucial, I said, because creation design ushers us into the biblical category of wisdomWisdom in the Bible is an overlapping but slightly different thing than law.

Wisdom issues an “ought,” as in “men ought” or “women ought.” But wisdom’s “ought” is a little different than the “ought” of law. Wisdom’s “ought” sounds like something from Proverbs (“a wise son hears his father’s instruction”). Law’s “ought” sounds like something from Exodus (“you shall not steal”). Wisdom’s “ought” comes with an “ordinarily.” Its opposite is folly (the father might be a fool, a thief, or a typical dad who gives mixed advice). Law’s “ought” comes with an “always.” Its opposite is sin. Yes, sin and folly often overlap, but not always.

The fact that gender differences are governed by the “oughts” of wisdom means there’s some flexibility in gender expression as we move from one cultural location to another. A woman’s skirt in one country might look a lot like a man’s kilt in Scotland. Yet this flexibility of cultural expressions doesn’t mean—as contemporary Christians so often assume—that we can therefore ignore various cultural signals of masculinity and femininity as “merely cultural” and morally insignificant to us.

Paul, for instance, commends long hair for a woman (1 Cor. 11:15), a commendation which depended on certain understandings within his culture. Hopefully, however, we wouldn’t walk up to Paul and accuse him of trafficking in cultural stereotypes. If we did, he might concede the point. Yet then he would go on to say, “Long hair for a woman is crucial for expressing womanhood where I live, and God’s Word commands women to be as women, and men to be as men. Likewise, you should pay attention to the signals where you live.”

In other words, if we are going to be “in but not of” the world, we need to pay attention to healthy expressions of manhood and womanhood in our various culture, just as we pay attention to language differences and other social cues.

To sum up: manhood and womanhood belong to divine design, yielding some flexibility and the need for wisdom in how we live out our manhood and womanhood. Yet that’s not an excuse for ignoring various cultural expressions of each, but paying close attention to them, and striving to participate in healthier versions of them for the sake of the biblical goal: maintaining both equality and difference.


As a concluding word, I’d like to acknowledge how grateful I am for the ministry of CBMW. They do not bat 1.000. Who does! But they’ve shown a courage that many of us lack, including myself. They have sought to teach what the Bible says on a topic that will win them few friends and many enemies in our present moment. I don’t understand why every complementarian, broad and narrow, is not grateful for that, even when they disagree. We should honor our brothers and sisters in Christ and cheer their efforts to learn from the Bible. Not only that, we should emulate them by working harder on this topic.

After all, the road ahead is likely worse. It’s harder to be a complementarian today than it was just five years ago, and I assume it will be harder still five years from now. Our culture increasingly lacks any conceptual category for it. I went to a public high school in the late 1980s and a non-Christian college in the early 1990s. Thinking back to those days, my non-Christian classmates still believed that men and women were different. People could make jokes (some appropriate, many not) that depended on a basic sense of our differences. But these intuitions are quickly vanishing. The reigning ideologies of the day both cause us to willfully refuse to see the differences between men and women, and simultaneously make us incapable of seeing them.

Perhaps the inevitabilities of nature will reassert themselves within this generation. Yet sin is irrational, and I won’t be surprised if our culture’s certainty of androgyny worsens. Insofar as that’s the case, the idea that “these hateful Christians” would continue to insist on distinctions of roles in any form whatsoever will sincerely astonish, frighten, and anger otherwise kind, respectable, and loving non-Christians. Even the narrowest of the narrow complementarians will find themselves anathematized.

Which means, the task for complementarians more than ever—CBMW included—is to continue reforming ourselves according to God’s Word. Above all else, again, we must conform ourselves to the Bible. We must work to understand authority and difference as well as equality from the Bible. A right understanding and practice of each will be the best defense against abuse and abdication both. That way we will “Keep [our] conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation” (1 Peter 2:12).

[1] Rachel Green Miller, Beyond Authority and Submission (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2019), 16.