To quote Shakespeare, “What’s in a name?” Many evangelicals claim the name complementarian. I have myself identified that way since the time I first became aware of the term about fifteen or so years ago. For many who identify as complementarian, they use it simply to mean that they are not egalitarian. They believe that Paul’s instructions to husbands and wives in Ephesians 5 and on male-only elders in I Timothy 3 transcend time or culture and remain relevant for today. However, I have come to realize that the term complementarian was coined by a group of people with a very specific agenda related to evangelical feminism. The outworking of some of their agenda has been seen in the recent debate on the Eternal Submission of the Son. I personally have some big differences with those who founded the conservative complementarian movement and would love for there to be a different word to identify non-egalitarians.
Except that I believe in complementary genders in the image of God.
I did some research on the term complementarian, and I was fascinated to note that while the term complementarian was coined by those who founded the Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, the concept of complementary genders had a long history of being used and valued by egalitarians long before the Danvers Statement.
One of Giles’ observations is that what we now have — in the reality of this debate — is hierarchical-complementarians (those who use the term “complementarian” today) and egalitarian-complementarians (those who are called “egalitarians” today). Both believe in complentarity of the sexes:
Because God made humankind man and woman (Gen 1:27-28), virtually all theologians agree that man and woman complete what it means to be human; the two sexes are complementary. Man alone or woman alone is not humanity in its completeness. Since the earliest descriptions of the evangelical egalitarian position in the mid-1970s, egalitarians have unambiguously affirmed the complementarity of the sexes. …
Grudem, in his 2006 book, Countering the Claims of Evangelical Feminism, tells us how his side came to use the words, “complementary” and “complementarian.” He says the first time those arguing for a hierarchal relationship between men and often used the word “complementary” was on November 17,1988, in the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood’s founding document, the Danvers Statement. He says, that as far as he knows, “it had not been previously used in this controversy.” It had indeed, as I will show below. In the Danvers Statement, the stance taken is not called the “complementarian” position. Grudem tells us that he and John Piper, in editing the 1991 symposium, Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism, “coined” the term “complementarian” as a self-designation of their position. In other words, they invented it. In this book, the editors admit that, in designating their understanding of what the Bible teaches on the sexes the “complementarian” position, they were seeking to establish a new term for what had hitherto been called the “traditional” or “hierarchical” position. From this point on, virtually every book written by an evangelical in support of the creation based subordination of women has designated the stance taken as the “complementarian” position and constantly spoken of the man-woman relationship as “complementary.”
I find this history interesting and validating. For I have long resonated with the idea of complementary genders while being subsequently uncomfortable with how that vision has played out practically through the writings of the Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. It is good to know that historically, the discussion wasn’t between one group who thought there was 100% parity between men and woman and another who believed God created complementary genders. You can believe in complementary genders without identifying fully with the group who claims to be the “flagship organization for the complementation movement”, the Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood.
The other concerning thing for me has long been the manipulation (in my humble opinion) of Scripture and theology to fit the perceived ills of evangelical feminism by those who coined the term complementarian. Now, don’t get me wrong. I have been clear on my strong belief that we can not write off large swaths of New Testament teaching on gender just because we feel like it limits us as women, which I believe many evangelicals do. I have strong push back for evangelical feminists who would deny the importance of Paul’s epistles in particular. But God forbid I manipulate Scripture to validate my concerns with the more liberal position. And, frankly, that is exactly what happened, starting with Susan Foh’s admitted reinterpretation of Genesis 3:16 in 1975.
“THE current issue of feminism in the church has provoked the reexamination of the scriptural passages that deal with the relationship of the man and the woman. A proper understanding of Genesis 3:16 is crucial to this reconsideration of the Biblical view of the woman.” Susan Foh, The Westminster Theological Journal 37 (1974/75) 376-83
Reexamination. Reconsidering. Prior to Foh’s concerns with evangelical feminism, Genesis 3:16 was never interpreted to mean a woman would have a desire against her husband to manipulate or rule over him. It makes no sense that God would speak something to Adam and Eve at the Fall that the Church would not understand until the problem of modern evangelical feminism, almost like the curse was non-existent for women before we suddenly came to understand the real problem during 2nd wave feminism. That is, frankly, ludicrous. I’ve written a long article here about why I think Foh was wrong in her interpretation of Genesis 3:16 and how it has harmed women in the Church.
According to CBMW’s history page, Foh went on to have a crucial founding role in CBMW, and her new interpretation fit nicely with their agenda. The thing is that she didn’t need to reinterpret Genesis 3:16 to support Paul’s writings as constraining the Church for today. She found a convenient way to pin the issue of evangelical feminism on a woman’s rebellious heart but at the expense of the perspicuity of Scripture and a historic understanding of the passage.
I’m deeply disturbed and have been for some time with conservatives employing liberal methods of coming up with new interpretations to fit a modern cultural issue. This has been brought to light again with current debate on the Eternal Subordination of the Son. This doctrine too was not on the radar of 20th or 21st century theologians until Bruce Ware and Wayne Grudem, also both founders of the Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, brought attention to it in … you guessed it … response to evangelical feminism. I’m not sure exactly when Ware and Grudem began to focus on Eternal Subordination of the Son. Grudem wrote about it in his Systematic Theology in the mid 90’s, While there seemed to be theologians talking about this doctrine in history, Ware and Grudem are the first (that I can find) who highlight it in conjunction with gender roles in the Church.
Ware and Grudem seem the first to popularize this doctrine linked to gender (as early as Grudem’s 1994 Systematic Theology). And, again, their discussion of this doctrine is a RESPONSE to evangelical feminism.
Ware, like Grudem a past President of the Council on Biblical Manhood & Womanhood, has contributed numerous journal articles and book chapters to scholarly complementarianism. His book on the Trinity entitled Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Crossway, 2005) shows the necessary linkage between authority-submission relationships in the Godhead and authority-submission relationships in the church. https://9marks.org/article/a-brief-history-of-complementarian-literature/
Grudem and Ware have unapologetically set gender relationships as the frame for their handling of ESS. In the book, One God in Three Persons: Unity of Essence, Distinction of Persons, Implications for Life (co-edited by Ware with essays by both Ware and Grudem), Grudem introduces the topic with the essay: “Doctrinal Deviations in Evangelical-Feminist Arguments about the Trinity.” In Grudem’s book Evangelical Feminism and Biblical Truth (2004), his first chapter in response to evangelical feminism teaches that the “equality and differences between men and women reflect the equality and differences in the Trinity.” Ware, Grudem, and the Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood on which they sit fundamentally link their understanding of ESS and Trinitarian relationships to gender. http://www.theologyforwomen.org/2016/06/the-eternal-subordination-of-son-and.html
In conclusion, the nomenclature issue isn’t really an issue in my opinion. But it does help to understand why so many more people resonate with the idea of complementary genders than with the specifics of complementarian application that the Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood supports. But the reinterpretations of Scripture, in my opinion, are a massive issue. They reframe the spectrum of debate on women’s issues in the Church from liberal and conservative to liberal and another kind of liberal. We can’t play lose and fast with Scripture to fit our agenda. Liberals can’t. But conservatives can’t either. This is clearly the case with the reinterpretation of Genesis 3:16, and I’m concerned it may also be the case with linking ESS to gender (and not just marriage) as well.
I don’t know what this means for the future, but I will say these things again and again here on this blog because I think the clarity of Scripture is a precious thing and the old doctrines are still worth fighting for. “There is nothing new under the sun,” the author of Proverbs wisely instructs us. And we don’t have to manipulate Scripture when we think we are facing some new issue in our culture. The Church for the most part has been there and done that. And the Bible is sufficient at each recurrence of old problems. We could have had the same reclamation of orthodox doctrine around gender in our denominations without the doctrinal/hermeneutical gymnastics some have used to make their point.