Why Baptists can’t (currently) be ‘complementarians’

Posted on January 13, 2012


I gestured at this argument in an introductory book on Baptist theology I have coming out soon; reading the proofs, it occurred to me that a more substantial discussion would not be out of place. Probably, I ought to write a journal article – ‘had we but world enough and time…’

One of the themes of the book is the extensiveness of ecclesiology; I argue (contra various people) that Baptists are distinguished only by their ecclesiology, but then argue (contra various other people) that ecclesiology is actually quite far-reaching, and so our distinctiveness here makes (or should make) us a quite distinct body of believers. I illustrate this in various ways, with various arguments, as the discussion proceeds; one has to do with the question of gendered accounts of various church ministries.

Historically Baptists have some ‘form’ on this issue; we were already being castigated in print for allowing women to preach in 1646 (Thomas Edwards’s Gangraena, unsurprisingly). Of course, that practice has not remained universal in the history since, but, considering the period before the founding of the Salvation Army, only the Society of Friends can realistically claim to have be more open to the ministry of women than Baptists were. BUGB was amongst the first denominations to open the ordained ministry to women in the C20th, and has now committed to ‘radical equality’. If some of the churches have lagged in recent times, the denomination has led.

My reflection, however, was very contemporary. No student of evangelical theology can fail to have noticed that the justifications for denying the ministry to women have changed in recent decades. Very crudely, a ‘proof-texting’ approach, resting on appeals to a couple of (apparently-decisive) verses, has been replaced by a developed theology of gender, in which male ‘headship’ is intended by God in creation, and so shapes proper gender roles in family and church (& possibly wider society).

I am happy to acknowledge the power of this presentation, even whilst disagreeing with it. In its best forms (I have never seen in well-expressed in a published piece – it may be there, but I’ve missed it – but in conversation, I have heard remarkably impressive presentations) it feels to me a bit like the best versions of dispensationalism: it is an overarching narrative which appears to make sense of many otherwise-troublesome Scriptures, and which can be rejected only by the articulation of an equally convincing counter-narrative. As such, I respect those who profess commitment to it, whilst disagreeing with them.

Unless, that is, they are Baptists.

If this ‘headship’ account of how to interpret Scripture is correct, then Baptist ecclesiology is wrong. And vice-versa. On this definition of what it is to be a ‘complementarian’, Baptists cannot be ‘complementarian’.

The ‘headship’ account of ‘complementarianism’ turns endlessly on a narrative of ‘authority’. Men are created to exercise authority; women to sit under authority. In the family, the man (all men?) are to take a lead, the woman (all women?) are to follow. In the church, a woman should not exercise authority over a man; in the world, even, in some worked-through accounts, a woman should not be in a position where she is required to tell men what to do (John Piper speculates openly as to whether women may properly drive buses on this basis).

Now this can be made sense of in an episcopalian or presbyterian polity. In either case, the church is composed of those who exercise authority (clergy/elders) and those who submit to it (the rest). If only men are permitted to exercise authority, then only men should be clergy, or elders. I have Anglican and Presbyterian friends committed to a male-only ministry and, whilst I disagree with them, I accept completely that their stance is defensible and coherent given the current terms of the debate, and their churchmanship.

I cannot say the same of Baptist friends, however. In a congregationalist polity, which is at the core of Baptist identity, authority, which is of course held by Christ alone, is mediated through the church meeting. All members, female and male, have an equal role in discerning Christ’s call on the gathered church; all members, female and male, have an over-riding (and so equal) responsibility to watch over each other, and to bring rebuke and challenge when they see a sister or brother fall into sin. In a Baptist church authority is necessarily exercised by all the members, over all other members, indifferently. Unless membership is denied to women, which has – in my view shamefully – happened in Baptist history sometimes, women and men, and all other believers, regardless of status, are called to an equal exercise of authority. The newly-baptised teenager has a duty – not just a right – to call the pastor to account; certainly a woman has a duty – not just a right – to call a man to account. In a Baptist ecclesiology, that is, women necessarily exercise authority over men.

The conclusion seems inescapable: if headship theology is right, then Baptist polity is wrong; if Baptist polity is right, then headship theology is wrong. On the currently-popular account, Baptists cannot be complementarians.

(Of course, there are other ways of defending the restriction of ministry to men – Catholic accounts of representation being the most obvious – and someone might develop an authentically Baptist theology of male-only ministry one day. My point here is simply that the currently-popular accounts of why ministry is male-only necessarily fail for Baptists.)

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