There’s a new wave of complementarianism stirring. It’s not made up of true egalitarians, though those in this new movement respect many egalitarian concerns. Too often in the past, egalitarians and feminists were made out to be the bad guys with a complete disregard for the very real issues that concern those who hold feminist and/or egalitarian views. This new wave is also not the same as old school complementarianism, which rose up in the 1970’s in reaction to 2nd wave feminism. That type of complementarian view was founded upon Susan Foh’s interpretation of Genesis 3:16 as a desire among women after the fall to control their husbands. It is often linked with patriarchy.
I know of this new third way because women have been emailing me, messaging me, and calling me since I first started writing on things I noticed that undermined the traditional complementarian position back in 2010. Then almost exactly one year ago, I wrote my somewhat scholarly analysis of Genesis 3:16. Boy did that generate feedback. The vast majority of that feedback was positive from complementarian men and women. I also posted on the Gospel Coalition website, and again, woman after woman (including some who write for the Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, The Gospel Coalition, and other respected blogs) wrote me privately to encourage me. This topic resonated! Like me, there are many women who love the Word and love the Church who have felt dissonance with the older version of complementarianism, especially when it came to the interpretation and implications of Genesis 3:16. The view that a woman’s root problem is that she desires to control the men in her life is painful to hear, in part because it is confusing from our real-life experience. I know of no better word to describe it than dissonance – the simple inconsistency between this belief we’ve been taught and the reality of our experience and the experience of those around us leaves us uncomfortable, feeling that something isn’t sitting right and is unresolved. The result is a growing 3rd way of interpreting and viewing gender issues in the Church that is neither egalitarian or hard core complementarianism/patriarchy.
Based on my observations and knowledge of the women who are writing on this new wave of complementarianism, I offer what I think are its tenets.
1) Belief in the trustworthiness of Scripture. These women (and a few men I know as well who’ve talked about this subject), love the Word and study it hard. They read, they study, and they listen. And they do it all from the foundation that the Bible is God’s written Word, handed down through the Holy Spirit and preserved by God for the instruction of His children.
2) Belief that the Bible interprets itself. The Bible is the best commentary on itself and gives us a great deal of information that, when coupled with common sense interpretive principles (like the fact that story is different from instruction), leads to much more clarity on issues of gender in the Church than some claim.
3) Respect for Church history and the Creeds. Which leads to number 4.
4) Strong disagreement with Foh’s interpretation of Genesis 3:16 that the woman’s desire for her husband will be a desire to control him. This new wave of complementarian believers notes that Foh’s interpretation of Genesis 3:16 has no history in the Church. Before 1970, no Church father/theologian had suggested her interpretation of Genesis 3:16. Instead, this new wave embraces Genesis 3:16 as reflecting an inordinate longing by the woman for the man, an idolatrous longing that is often the root of very bad choices on the woman’s part. The answer to which is greater dependence on God, not the man, which then frees the woman to help the man as God originally intended.
5) Identifying with aspects of feminism. This new wave of complementarians does not see feminism as the root of all evil on gender issues. I personally think feminism rose up to address legitimate concerns, but a movement is not going to solve such root issues of the heart. Only Christ can do that. Feminism is simply a coping mechanism – helpful on some things, harmful on others.
6) Valuing complementary views of gender. This new wave still values distinctions in gender. God obviously created complementary genders. If men and women didn’t bring separate yet equally valuable things to the gender debate, we would not even exist to have this debate! In the older form of complementarianism, women were created with complementary gifts to aid the man in the areas in which he is lacking. Women were created to complement the man. But this new wave views this complementary nature not so much from the perspective of Genesis 2:18 (I will make a helper suitable for him) but more from Genesis 1:27, where God made man and woman in His image. It takes two distinct though obviously overlapping genders to reflect the fullness of the image of God (and even then we still are lacking in our reflection of Him). Complementing genders are about two genders reflecting God, and the female gender brings some things to this reflection that men don’t as well, and vice versa.
7) Not setting up marriage and family as the end all for women. For too long, conservatives have mixed up good things with ultimate things. Some set up marriage and family as the goal for every believer. I understand how that happened. Feminism seemed to undermine what women did of value in the home, and Christians felt they needed to strongly emphasize the value and need for women in the home. But few are good at emphasizing something positively and still distinguishing it from something that is ultimate. What I do for my husband and children is powerful and important. It is personally my first physical priority by my conviction. But I do not hold the view that my single female friends or married friends without children have any less powerful and important role to fulfill in the Body of Christ.
8) Not threatened by the terms submit or respect or the concept of male-only elders. Why? It goes back to point number 1. Those I know in this new movement trust Scripture, and that goes a long way when it comes to embracing/understanding a controversial word. Many also feel strongly that churches should allow women deacons. Why? Again back to point number 1. And point number 3. Female deacons are both biblical and historical.
I won’t name the other women with whom I’ve been talking, but chances are you know them and read their writing online. Chances are, you ARE one of them. I’m encouraged by all of this because, first and foremost, this new wave of complementarianism is founded on a strong love of the Word (not a desire to control men – an accusation I’m braced to hear against myself at some point). And perhaps after talking about this for a bit, we can all back off from conversations about gender and just go BE our genders, reflecting the character of our Creator as we are redeemed and restored to be like Him once more.