Why ‘complementarianism’ matters: reflections occasioned by Carl Trueman

Posted on August 25, 2012

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Carl Trueman has an excellent blog post on the Reformation21 site, expressing puzzlement at why so many (American, evangelical) parachurch organisations make complementarianism (male-only leadership) a defining point of their platform. He highlights the potential absurdity of this in characteristically sharp and witty fashion, pointing out that the historical divisions that these organisations choose to bridge (baptismal practice; church polity; doctrines of grace) are, or should be, far more basic than complementarianism, and asking some sharp questions about practice (he imagines a situation of a male, paedobaptist, Presbyterian minister and a female Baptist minister visiting a Baptist church that is part of one of these coalitions, and asks how this will be played out, indicating that every possible answer is absurd.)

As a committed evangelical (indeed, someone who has defended inerrancy in print a couple of times), who is also committed to the principle that not only should all areas of church life be open to women, but that every local church should in fact have female leaders, I might be expected to applaud Carl’s post. He certainly makes his point well, but I think he misses something about the significance of praxis in defining unity. Reflection on that point illuminates something about British evangelicalism also.

Carl’s post asks about theology, and considers practice in the local church; what he misses, I think, is any consideration of what organisations like the Gospel Coalition actually do. I have commented before that church division generally happens on issues of practice rather than doctrine: two people can probably find a way of negotiating a disagreement over (say) Christology, particularly if they both agree not to preach on it; if they disagree over how to celebrate the Lord’s Supper, they are fairly soon going to be worshipping in different congregations, simply because they cannot both practice their beliefs in the same one. The original genius of the first evangelical parachurch groups back in the eighteenth century was their ability to negotiate differences over church order and sacramental practice by removing their organisational activity from the context of the local church: a Bible Society meeting in a town hall can be attended by Baptists, Presbyterians, and Episcopalians indifferently.

At this functional level, what a group like The Gospel Coalition does is hold conferences and write stuff; the fracture points for such a group, then, are going to centre on disagreements over how to organise a conference and/or what stuff gets written and by who. The question of who is allowed to speak in public, then, inevitably becomes a point of division, and so of identity. If the group is going to organise conferences, and is only going to invite men to preach/teach at them, then the restriction of the teaching ministry to men is a defining point of the group, and it is as well to be honest about that.

Why has this not generally happened this side of the Atlantic? We might point to the generally more relaxed attitudes of British churches (Carl’s illustration of a Presbyterian pastor being refused admission to the Lord’s Table because he has not been baptised as a believer does not describe something that would happen in very many British Baptist churches, rightly or wrongly). We might also point to some more nuanced accounts of complementarianism that operate in Britain, largely due to the weight of influence of the Church of England. I suspect, however, that the most honest response would be to say that the same point of division has happened in British evangelicalism, but we have generally been less than open about it.

To take the issue of nuance, a common form of British complementarianism has focused on the issue of authority, rather than the issue of teaching per se. So there are many British evangelical churches which have articulated a position where women are allowed to teach, indeed to be part of the ordained ministry team, but are not allowed to hold the senior role in the team. Churches holding such a position could cheerfully be a part of a conference with both male and female speakers, although they may want some visible asymmetry to reflect their theology. (In some cases this gets convoluted to the extreme, with certain central platforms being denied to women; I have never been able to fathom what theological principle is at play in allowing women to speak to only a certain size of audience…)

That said, some British evangelical parachurch groups do in practice restrict their platforms to men only; I have been told by people on UCCF staff that this is, or recently has been, common amongst university Christian Unions, for example. The rhetoric deployed becomes ‘we have no policy on the issue, but we invite speakers who are acceptable to everyone in the organisation, and some people object to having female speakers.’ This seems to me to be at least disingenuous, and bordering on being dishonest. It ignores the possibility that there may be people present who regard it as important that there is a gender mix in any slate of speakers; it also leads to the organisation operating according to a belief system that it denies having. Despite the rhetoric, the organisation does have a policy on the issue, a policy that is visibly determining its activities; given that it is surely better to be honest and open about the policy, than to deny its existence?

So, unlike Carl, I applaud the Gospel Coalition and similar groups for their honesty, whilst (unlike Carl) disagreeing with their theology on this issue. Any group that is organising multiple conferences, or inviting multiple speakers, is going to have a series of live positions on who they will invite: these positions ought to be stated openly by the group, not denied in rhetoric whilst being enacted in practice.

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