Controversies on Gender and Gospel

Apparently, a session at the latest Together for the Gospel conference has generated some controversy in the blogosphere on how we talk about the gospel and gender issues. I wasn’t at the conference, and I haven’t listened to the session. I have noticed a lot of criticism, but I haven’t read the criticism in detail. Actually, this last week I mostly just got my boys ready for school, bought groceries, and did laundry all while high on cold medicine. And vacuumed. I did a lot of that. But while doing laundry or vacuuming, I also tend to think and mull over bits and pieces of news I pick up online. And this week, I’ve had that controversy buzzing around in the back of my head (along with the cold medicine).

In my post on Things That Undermine the Complementarian Position, I said this.

“Problem number 1 is calling this debate a gospel issue. Now it’s true that the interplay between husbands and wives in the home is a TESTIMONY of the gospel as it reflects the nature of Christ’s profound love for the church. But being a testimony of the gospel is not the same as being the gospel. I said in another post that the gospel informs everything, but it is not everything. And we start entering dangerous territory quickly when we are not precise in how we talk about the link between the gospel and the complementarian position. The gospel plus anything is not the gospel at all.”

The gospel informs everything, but it is not everything. Perspective helps on this issue. I was raised in a group that followed the teaching of “separation.” The wikipedia article is somewhat helpful if you want to understand the doctrine of separation. The groups with which I was associated also espoused an idea called “secondary separation,” where you separate from those with which you agree on the gospel if they don’t also separate from the people with which you disagree. Extrapolated out by people without common sense, the end result was that my Christian college forbid the attendance of any student or staff at Southern Baptist or Presbyterian Church in America churches. At some point in my early 20’s, I stumbled across John 17 and Ephesians 4 in my own Bible study, and the Spirit started working in my heart on this idea of who could hang with me in fellowship as believers.

John 17 20 “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, 21  that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22  The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, 23  I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.”

In terms of the glory of God and furtherance of the gospel, unity is a precious thing according to these words of Christ. There is something about the oneness of believers in Christ that gives testimony of the truth of Christ and His love for the world. And from Ephesians 4,

I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, 2 with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, 3 eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. 4 There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— 5  one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6  one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.

There is only one Body of Christ, and we must be eager to maintain with one another in it unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. The punishment that bought us peace was upon Christ, and that peace binds us together, like ligaments hold a body together. In fact, that same Greek word for bond is used in Colossians 2:19 exactly that way.

Colossians 2 19 and not holding fast to the head, from whom the entire body, being supplied and held together by the joints and ligaments, grows with a growth which is from God.

Putting it all together, we are bound together like ligaments in the Body of Christ by peace. What bought us this peace? His punishment on the cross! It bought us peace with God and therefore peace with one another. So we are held together as the Body of Christ (which gives testimony to the world of His love for them) singularly by the gospel—all Christ’s life, death, and resurrection has accomplished for us before God.

This shows me that there is a gospel testimony that trumps (not sure that is the right word, but you get the idea) the testimony between husbands and wives of Christ and the Church. Or one that supersedes it from which the other flows. And that is the broad unity of all who put their faith in Christ. The question we all must wrestle through is what impact we will let disagreement over the second testimony (which is definitely spoken of in Scripture as a testimony) of husbands and wives, heads and bodies, reflecting Christ and the church, have on that larger testimony of unity among believers. That is a big question. I know in my own heart the answer for myself. But I have lived under the extrapolation of secondary separation to the point that I couldn’t attend a PCA church, and I am extremely wary of the road that sets up secondary issues as a dividing line between Christian fellowship.

In my own life, I don’t see my conservative convictions on gender issues as a gospel issue. I definitely see living them out as something that I can not do apart from the gospel. In my life, it is gospel empowered. There’s no way to do it otherwise. And I want to give testimony of the gospel as my husband and I interact with love and submission as Christ does with His Church. But I’m uncomfortable with language that links my convictions on gender with the gospel. The gospel plus anything is not the gospel at all, and I need to be precise with the words I use to reflect the link between gender and the gospel.

I do however see it as a Scripture issue. I have a core conviction of the perspicuity of Scripture—that Scripture is transparent and can be taken at face value. Paul talks of the mysteries of Scripture that have been revealed. The Greek term for mystery is musterion. It has a slightly different meaning than our English word mystery. In English, we think of a mystery as something dark, puzzling, and hard to be known. In contrast, the Greek word is simply a truth in which someone has been initiated, such as the initiation into a cult in which the mysteries of the cult are revealed. In Christianity according to John Stott, the mysteries are those truths we could not discover on our own but that God has now revealed openly to the whole church.

The mysteries of Scripture have been revealed through Christ, and the Word is transparent. I can read it at face value, and with a little bit of study (and the Spirit’s enabling), take its instructions in a straightforward way. THAT conviction is core to my beliefs on gender issues. If I don’t take Scripture at face value and try to work my way around words like head, submit, or respect, I feel I lose way more of Scripture that is precious to me than I gain in equality.  Of course, face value is in the eye of the beholder, and there’s the rub.  Yet it is a goal nonetheless.

All that to say, gender issues are not gospel issues.  The gospel affects everything, but it is not everything.  That distinction has to be CLEARLY made. On the flip side, my convictions on gender stem from my convictions on the perspicuity of Scripture. And if I give up a face value reading of Scripture, at what point does that affect my reading of the very gospel that unifies us?

I do not know the answer to that last question.

19 Responses to Controversies on Gender and Gospel

  1. kbonikowsky May 3, 2012 at 3:19 am #

    It is impossible to take ONE (or a few) Scripture at face value in a void. We must interpret Scripture with Scipture. (I know you know this.) WHICH Scripture we interpret with is what separates our two gender paradigms. My paradigm comes from:

    Genesis 1:26-27
    Genesis 3:15
    Luke 24:22-25/John 20:17-18
    Acts 2:18
    Romans 16:7
    1 Cor 7:4
    1 Cor 11:10-12
    Galatians 3:28
    Ephesians 5:21
    …to name a few of the big ones.

    Gender in God's kingdom can not be an issue to the gospel because Jesus did not make it an issue. Let the redeemed of the Lord say so.

  2. Rachael Starke May 3, 2012 at 3:57 am #

    If I understand the controversy rightly, the issue was around how complementarianism itself is defined. This session (or what I've read about it) seemed to conflate complementarianism to be about marital roles – the modelling of the gospel through marriage, rather than the two genders each uniquely modelling the nature of the Trinity (one expression of that modelling being marriage, but not all).

  3. Rachael Starke May 3, 2012 at 3:59 am #

    IOW, I was one of the really upset. The gospel is the cleared lens through which we are able to view gender rightly.

  4. Wendy May 3, 2012 at 4:01 am #

    Thanks for adding, Kay! I always learn from your feedback.

  5. Wendy May 3, 2012 at 4:03 am #

    I don't understand exactly, Rachael. If you have time, can you explain more? Or maybe you could PM me.

    Actually, it won't kill me to go listen to the session. I should do that, though this post wasn't intended to be particularly about that.

  6. Elizabeth Chapin May 3, 2012 at 3:10 pm #

    I'm curious which session of the conference stirred up controversy and is it available online?

  7. kbonikowsky May 3, 2012 at 4:45 pm #

    hmmm, for some reason that isn't working.

  8. Abigail Dodds May 3, 2012 at 4:57 pm #

    Hi Wendy! Glad you took this up again. I think your last two paragraphs get to the crux. I won't comment on the gender controversy, but say this: Jesus is over and in and through all of life. He commands us about our lives. Whether we follow those commands and whether they are life to us shows how much the Gospel has truly penetrated us, not the other way around. Gospel first and always, then loving, life-giving obedience to the whole counsel of God second.

    I hope this isn't too long, but I'm pasting a portion of the sermon from last Sunday by Jason Meyer, our candidate for preaching and vision to replace Pastor John, it seemed apt:

    “Second, the image that I want to use for Christians is “potato soup” and the “word cloud.” Paul could summarize his message this way: “I resolved to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:1). What does Paul mean? Surely, he knew other things and preached other things. He did not merely keep repeating the words “Jesus Christ and him crucified,” did he? One author I read actually charged Paul with being a deceiver when he spoke these words. This person claimed that Paul intentionally deceived the Corinthians; he let his rhetoric get away from him in this summary—he spoke falsehood here.

    I completely disagree. This comment shows an inability to understand how centrality works. It is not rocket science—children can get this. Kids let me aim for your attention right away. Do ever help your parents cook? Imagine that your mom tells you that she is going to make potato soup. She gives you a list of ingredients and you are supposed to put them together. You find that there are many more ingredients in this recipe than just potatoes. Why do they still call it potato soup? There are many other ingredients added, but there is a main ingredient. The main ingredient defines the dish and so it stands out front and center in its very description: potato soup. It is not as though the individual ingredients do not matter, that is not the point. The point is that the main ingredient gives the other ingredients purpose—how would adding this ingredient contribute to the taste of potato soup.

    The same image comes into focus with the word cloud. The word cloud has some words appear in larger font that have a greater place of prominence or that are repeated more often. What is the word cloud for your life? What will the word cloud be for our church? It must be the cross of Christ or we have missed Paul’s resolve and we have missed the heart of the gospel.

    So the fountain is open. The price has been paid. The cross is not a great act of sacrifice to commemorate, nor a historical display at a museum to marvel at from a distance; it is a gift from the God of the universe to receive. Draw near to the cross—the heart of the Gospel—there you will find the heart of God and become a child of God.”

    If you're interested in the whole message, it walks through the events of the Gospel story and is called, “The Centrality of the Cross.” It's on

    How I love the Gospel and its outworking on all of life! It is to be received, loved, trembled at, enjoyed.

    Thanks for heralding it Wendy!

  9. Wendy May 3, 2012 at 6:48 pm #

    Here's the link to the session.

  10. Wendy May 3, 2012 at 7:12 pm #

    Ok. I listened to the session. The opening raised red flags, but then it settled down a bit. At the end, I didn't feel that much new or different was said at all. The basic thing they communicated was that they believe complementarianism is important because it reflects a testimony of the gospel, especially in the relationship between Christ and the Church.

    There were 2 things that were said for which I have pushback. Someone made the argument that we shouldn't hide from this but should be willing to be countercultural. I'm all for offending my culture, but I want that offense to be centered around the one true stumblingblock, Jesus Christ. He's the rock of offense and blessed are those who do not stumble and fall because of the radical claims we make about Him (Mt. 11:6) — that He is God and the only way to God. I feel strongly against promoting secondary stumblingblocks in a way that blocks people from THE Stumblingblock. That's not to say that I don't like talking about this, debating it, or advocating for it among believers. But I'm wary of arguments that advocate bold, countercultural dogmatism over respectful, loving discussion on a secondary issue.

    Also, I get the sense that some of these guys really believe that churches and individuals who don't agree with complementarian views must have a different understanding of the gospel or that the gospel hasn't fully penetrated their life. That's a dangerous idea. It stems from a wrong view of the glorification of the Church. The Church (big C, all of the elect held together by the bonds/ligaments of the peace Christ bought for us on the cross) is being sanctified and one day WILL be glorified, but that glorification isn't fulfilled totally until the marriage supper of the lamb. She will one day be spotless, but she's not now and won't be totally in this life. Here and now, we are to bear long with others who believe in THE stumblingblock even if we do not agree on secondary issues. That's a non-negotiable implication of the gospel.

    One day, all believers will be agreed. But not today. But we are to bear with one another anyway.

    As an extension of that, I'm wary of the increased passion leaders seem to bring to the table on this, like if we don't continue to harp on it, culture is going to overtake the Church and we are going to lose precious doctrine.

    That's not our job. It's God's. And He's very good at it. I'm not worried at all about correct views on gender in marriages and the Church falling by the wayside. I think we'll debate it and we will affect each others' understanding by conversation that sharpens each other, but fundamentally, the same Spirit that Christ spoke of in John 15-17 is the one still living in each of our hearts, reminding us of Christ and convicting us of the truth. A reformed view of the gospel, the Church, and God's Kingdom demands this type of confidence.

  11. Wendy May 3, 2012 at 7:14 pm #

    Got it. I understand now why you were concerned. Yes, it was all about roles in marriage, and that is just a piece of what the Bible teaches about gender.

  12. Ann Sandifer May 3, 2012 at 7:54 pm #

    Panel discussion from the T4G:

    Wendy, unless I have misunderstood something, I would have thought what was said in this T4G panel discussion is similar to what I have read on your beliefs posted on the complementarian position, that you are basically on the same page on this issue with these men. Help me here if I've misunderstood.

    John Piper is the only panelist with whom I am familiar other than hearing Ligon Duncan speak a few times at conferences, and I often listen to Piper's sermons and read DG blogs. Maybe I'm missing something, and please tell me if I have, but I cannot imagine that either of these two men believe this issue of Biblical relationship between husband and wife and that relationship being a picture of or testimony by modeling Christ and His church to others is a “plus” in what you warn as Gospel “plus.” Hopefully not, as it is not! Our testimonies as fallen individuals is rarely very good. The Gospel stands alone as God's truth for the salvation of man and is fortunately NOT dependent on anything involving God's people, not even the telling of it. God is most capable of saving and sanctifying whomever God intends to save and sanctify.

    And I do not sense from what these men are saying in this panel discussion that they would want the body of Christ to be divided over this secondary, though important, issue. It is an issue worthy of much thought and discussion and bringing scripture to bear, particularly the Gospel.

    I appreciate the continued thoughts in your blog on the topics of complementarianism, Gospel as primary and nothing added on, that the Gospel informs everything, though isn't everything, and today's comment that the Gospel testimony trumps all other testimonies. YES it does!

    Especially found the comments on doctrine of separation, and on secondary separation, fascinating and useful. Never heard those terms, though have seen them in action. From a former church which strives to be a Puritan one, I called what was going on in that local gathering of believers “shunning” other believers within their midst who did not believe and/or live exactly as they did, though secondary separation is probably a better term to use.

    As a new believer in 2005, the Lord brought me to that church within a few months of being in His light and for a long season (6 years) and for various reasons, to clarify my faith for sure, and some I'm yet figuring out. I knew early on that striving to be a Puritan of old did not necessarily make me a good follower of Christ and certainly was not unifying within His body, which was my heart's desire. I grievously saw first hand how differences on secondary issues in Christ separate His people.

    I find it good to make sense of my past, and your discussions have been a help in this regard and in helping me clarify thoughts on Christ and His way for me/us. Giving thanks for your heart for our Savior and for this blog!

  13. The Blog bites better than the Bullet. May 3, 2012 at 9:19 pm #

    Since the word “complementarian” is not found in the Bible, I don't feel I have to adhere to all of its unwritten expectations. ;0) That said, I believe that if you believe the Bible, you will be consistent and accept God's word for what it says, even when it goes against the grain. That does include a pinch of understanding of the culture at the times of writing, of course.

    My understanding is that the Bible is quite liberating to women, because it states that gender has no bearing on individual salvation (“we are all one in Christ”), yet it accepts women as women and men as men by valuing them as equal human beings yet clearly different in their sexuality.

    People seem to forget the context of wives submitting to husbands is put in the context of mutual submission. God is not honored when anyone “lords themself over” others.

    Having said that, I believe ultimately and generally men are to lead, and women are to help, but both are to be the unique personalities they were created to be. For example, some (healthy) women have strong leader-type personalities and pair well with (healthy) men who are more passive!

    My problem with erecting hierarchies in the home or simplisticly stating “men need respect and women need love” is that eventually women tend to get stifled/disrespected, and men could potentially get abusive/unloved. Jesus leads from a servant-heart; God is the most humble lover we know.

    The gospel is where our definitions should flow from, and I don't think the Bible is as concerned with our cultural descriptions of men and women as we are currently (mainly because our culture is very confused on this issue, so naturally we are). I think it just tells men “be men” and confirms that women can be who God made them to be.

    Thanks for making me think! :o)

  14. Wendy May 3, 2012 at 9:34 pm #

    Ann, for the most part, I'm on the same page with the men on the panel, but they have been more and more using terminology that makes me think they are elevating it above the place it has in Scripture in terms of primary and secondary importance. Here's the other article where I talked about my concerns more.

  15. Wendy May 3, 2012 at 9:35 pm #

    Oh, and the other difference is the point I've been making about Genesis 3:16. The majority of them hold the view that the woman will want to control her husband, and that has definitely colored the tone with which they talk about those who differ from them.

  16. Wendy May 4, 2012 at 2:16 pm #

    Thanks for sharing those, Luma! I am SO glad to see those articles. It's long past time. 🙂

  17. Luma Simms May 4, 2012 at 2:47 pm #

    Yes, indeed. I especially liked this from Horton:

    “So enough with the beards (if it's making a spiritual statement). Enough with the “federal husband” syndrome that goes beyond the legitimate spiritual leadership of the heads of households found in Scripture. Enough of the bravado that actually misunderstands—sometimes rather deeply—what real sanctification looks like in the lives of men as well as women. And why does every famous pastor today have to write a book about his marriage and family? Beyond Scripture, there is godly wisdom and Christian liberty. Biblical principles focus on what it means to live in Christ by his Word and Spirit, and even in those few passages that speak directly to men and women, there will be legitimate diversity in application.”

    I just want to say: Amen, Amen and Amen!