Does it matter what position we take on roles of men and women in the church and in the home?
Is anything at stake for the health and well-being of the church, and in our human relations, and for the sake of the gospel? In light of calls from some to consider this a secondary issue that should be set aside for the sake of unity, it is important to see why this issue matters both for human thriving and for ecclesial fidelity. I would like to suggest that the complementarian position on biblical roles of men and women is, in at least two important senses, central and not peripheral, primary and not secondary, and so should not be set aside.
Equal but different
The complementarian position is the view that God has created men and women equal in their essential dignity and human personhood but different and complementary in function, with male headship in the home and believing community being understood as part of God’s created design.
By claiming that complementarianism is in some senses central and primary, please notice what I am and am not here claiming. I am not saying that Scripture’s teaching on an all-male eldership in the church, or male headship and wifely submission in the home, is central and primary doctrinally. No, I would reserve doctrinal primacy for such cardinal Christian beliefs as the triune being of God, the full deity and full humanity of Christ, the atonement of Christ as penal and substitutionary, the bodily resurrection of Christ, justification by faith alone, Christ’s literal and physical return to earth one day yet future, and the eternal destiny of all peoples in either heaven and hell – doctrines, that is, that impinge on the very truth of the gospel itself.
In what respects then is biblical male/female complementarity central and primary to the Christian faith? Here are two reasons.
Cultural battle lines
First, I believe this doctrine is central strategically in upholding the Christian faith within a culture all too ready to adopt values and beliefs hostile to orthodox and evangelical conviction.
As one examines the pressure points in which our increasingly neo-pagan and secular (catch the irony of this juxtaposition) culture is attempting to overthrow Christianity, it is clear that the battle lines are not, today, primarily doctrinal. Perhaps in the days of liberalism’s ascendancy this was the case, but it is no longer so. One might even become nostalgic musing on the ‘glory days’ in which arguments were thrown to and fro over such issues as the Christ’s virgin birth, the reality of the resurrection, the truthfulness of Scripture, and on and on.
Today, instead, the primary areas in which Christianity is pressured by the culture to conform are on issues of gender and sexuality. Postmodernists and ethical relativists care little about many doctrinal truth claims; these seem to them innocuous, archaic and irrelevant to life. What they do care about, and care with a vengeance, is whether their feminist agenda and sexual perversions are tolerated, endorsed and expanded in an increasing post-Christian landscape.
Because this is what they care most about, it is precisely here that Christianity is most vulnerable. To lose the battle here is to subject the church to increasing layers of departure. And surely it will not be long until ethical departures (the church yielding to feminist pressures for women’s ordination, for example) will yield even more central doctrinal departures. I find it instructive that when Paul warns about departures from the faith in the latter days, he lists first ethical compromises and the searing of the conscience as the prelude to a full-scale doctrinal apostasy (1 Timothy 4.1-5).
Don’t be naïve
Shall not the complementarian and egalitarian simply agree to disagree, to live and let live, as it were? At one level, of course they should. Egalitarianism is not, by itself, a heresy. Yet we must not be naïve about the strategic urging of the church by our secular and neo-pagan cultural elite to move away from long-held and clear biblical guidelines concerning manhood and womanhood.
This is not a matter of indifference. Until and unless the church follows the full cultural agenda in accepting the unqualified and fully equal ministerial practice of women with men, and in endorsing all forms of sexual expression as equally legitimate ‘preferences’, there will be no rest for conservative, biblical Christians. So, to be at ‘peace’, the temptation will be to compromise.
As the name-calling and slanderous accusations mount against conservative Christians, the pressure strengthens to give in on these issues of gender and sexuality. After all, we might reason, we haven’t given up anything central to the gospel. But what must be clear is that to the extent that compromise on issues of biblical manhood and womanhood occurs, the church establishes a pattern of following cultural pressures and urgings against the clear and authoritative teaching of God’s written Word. When this happens, even though the compromises take place on matters which are not doctrinally central to the faith, the church becomes desensitised to Scripture’s radical call and forms instead a taste for worldly accolades.
As Jesus taught, the one faithful with little will be faithful with much. But the reverse surely holds as well. To compromise on lesser matters will pave the way for compromises on those that are greater.
Second, in light of the revealing insight of the Apostle Paul, that marriage has been designed by God from the beginning to be a reflection of the greater and permanent union of Christ and his bride, the church (Ephesians 5.31-32), it follows that human marriage – one man and one woman in a covenant commitment for life – is of highest importance for Christians to uphold and defend. These gender relationships, then, are not socially contrived or culturally formed, as might well be true in other areas of human life. No, here we have a divinely revealed pattern that instructs what marriage truly is. As creatures of the living God, and particularly as members of that common bride of Christ, we Christians have no alternative but to uphold what God has designed, knowing that this is of his making.
Christ and the church
But, you might inquire, don’t egalitarian Christians also affirm the sanctity of marriage as designed by God? So why would you include this as a basis for thinking of complementarianism as central and primary?
My reply is simple: the same apostle who conveys to us the revelation of the mystery (i.e. truth formerly unknown, now made known) that marriage reflects the more ultimate relationship of Christ and the church, is the same apostle who describes just how that marriage should look. Wives are to submit to their husbands as the church submits to Christ (Ephesians 5.24) and husbands are to love their wives as Christ loves the church (Ephesians 5.25). In other words, it is not marriage in general that is designed to reflect Christ and the church; it is marriage of this kind – with male headship and wifely submission – that God designed to reflect this marvellous reality. We have no right to tamper with God’s design, and indeed we have the privilege to uphold the glory of marriage in ways that put on display the wisdom and beauty of such complementarity worked out, reflecting the greater reality of Christ’s love for his bride, and her longing to follow faithfully in submission to him.
For these two reasons, then, complementarianism is central and not peripheral, primary and not secondary. Where the church is called on to withstand cultural pressures and maintain its commitment to counter-cultural revealed truth is, for us today, primarily on issues of gender and sexuality.
May God give grace to believe, embrace and practice the clear, wise and good teaching of God’s inspired Word. Nothing else will serve the well-being of the church, and anything less will lead, in time, to its demise. May God be pleased to direct, empower and use faithful Christians and faithful churches in all the ways he sees fit, for the advancement of the church and the glory of his matchless Son, our Lord and Saviour, Jesus the Christ.