Last week, Carl Trueman asked why groups like The Gospel Coalition and Together for the Gospel include complementarianism in their confessional commitments. In short, Trueman thinks it is inconsistent to elevate the importance of a secondary issue like complementarianism while routinely downplaying the importance of other secondary issues like baptism and the Lord’s Supper. He writes:
I am simply not sure why it is such a big issue in organisations whose stated purpose is basic co-operation for the propagation of the gospel and where other matters of more historic, theological and ecclesiastical moment are routinely set aside. If you want simply to unite around the gospel, then why not simply unite around the gospel? Because as soon as you decide that issues such as baptism are not part of your centre-bounded set but complementarianism is, you will find yourself vulnerable to criticism — from both right and left — that you are allowing a little bit of the culture war or your own pet concerns and tastes to intrude into what you deem to be the most basic biblical priorities.
I think Trueman asks a fair question. In fact, the question is not a new one. It has been asked and answered numerous times by members of both TGC and T4G. Justin Taylor has highlighted some of the recent discussion of the matter. I would also point out Kevin DeYoung’s helpful little essay from a couple of years ago as well as Lig Duncan’s piece published in JBMW in 2008. I too editorialized on the topic for JBMW in 2010 (though I’m not a formal representative of either one of these groups). This is not a new question, and so the answers are not really new either.
Having said that, Trueman presses the comparison between the gender issue and ecclesiological distinctives such as baptism and the Lord’s Supper. It is this analogy, I think, that makes his particular critique worth responding to. Is it true (as he suggests) that the gender issue is so analogous to baptism and the Lord’s Supper that it should be removed from the confessional commitments of groups like T4G and TGC? I think the answer to that question has to be “no.” Maybe the best way to explain that answer would be through an illustration.
Every year I visit my dermatologist for a check-up. In those examinations, he looks at everything growing on or under my skin to see if there is anything that needs to be removed. Every year, he observes a number of moles, skin tags, and other unseemly blemishes. For aesthetic reasons, he’ll sometimes suggest that I have one or more of these blemishes removed—a suggestion that I typically refuse. On two occasions, however, my doctor has identified “blemishes” that he insisted must be removed because they were precancerous. I rely on the doctor to distinguish the benign blemishes from those that will develop into something that is malignant. Neither type of blemish will kill me. But what grows out of the latter type of blemish can indeed end my life.
Differences over secondary theological issues are like those blemishes. By themselves, they are merely theological blemishes that do not necessarily threaten the central issues of the gospel. Like those blemishes, however, some of them have the potential to turn into a theological cancer. Some secondary issues have more deadly potential than others, and we all have an obligation to be able to distinguish the former from the latter.
This is not to say that every egalitarian will eventually become a heretic. Roger Nicole remained a convinced egalitarian and an evangelical stalwart all the way to the end. We can think of other individuals for whom egalitarianism has not and likely will never lead to an erosion of their fundamental evangelical commitments. Nevertheless, the issue at hand is not whether or not we can find orthodox evangelicals who are also egalitarian. The question at hand is whether or not egalitarian doctrine itself tends toward the erosion of fundamental evangelical commitments such as inerrancy, the doctrine of God, and penal substitutionary atonement. Is the egalitarian blemish benign or potentially malignant?
While I believe that paedobaptists are wrong in their interpretation of Scripture, I do not believe that their hermeneutic carries with it the seeds of malignancy. I cannot say the same for egalitarian hermeneutics. I believe along with many others that egalitarianism is a potential malignancy. I think Lig Duncan has said it best:
The denial of complementarianism undermines the church’s practical embrace of the authority of Scripture (thus eventually and inevitably harming the church’s witness to the Gospel). The gymnastics required to get from “I do not allow a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man,” in the Bible, to “I do allow a woman to teach and to exercise authority over a man” in the actual practice of the local church, are devastating to the functional authority of the Scripture in the life of the people of God.
By the way, this is one reason why I think we just don’t see many strongly inerrantist-egalitarians (meaning: those who hold unwaveringly to inerrancy and also to egalitarianism) in the younger generation of evangelicalism. Many if not most evangelical egalitarians today have significant qualms about inerrancy, and are embracing things like trajectory hermeneutics, etc. to justify their positions. Inerrancy or egalitarianism, one or the other, eventually wins out.
I know that this latter charge is difficult for egalitarians to hear—especially those that remain committed to evangelical faith. Nevertheless, the existence of egalitarian evangelicals does not mitigate the dangers of egalitarian approaches to Scripture in subsequent generations. Again, it is the potentialities of egalitarianism that make it so deadly, not its expression in any particular evangelical. And we have seen those potentialities played out so many times in history.
Several years ago, Mark Dever published an article in JBMW in which he compared the relative weight of the complementarian issue to that of baptism and church polity. In doing so, he invoked his continuing love and admiration for his mentor Roger Nicole, who was an egalitarian. Dever’s remarks are worth quoting at length:
“Well then” you might say “why don’t you leave this issue of complementarianism at the level of baptism or church polity? Surely you cooperate with those who disagree with you on such matters.” Because, though I could be wrong, it is my best and most sober judgment that this position is effectively an undermining of–a breach in–the authority of Scripture…
Dear reader, you may not agree with me on this. And I don’t desire to be right in my fears. But it seems to me and others (many who are younger than myself) that this issue of egalitarianism and complementarianism is increasingly acting as the watershed distinguishing those who will accomodate Scripture to culture, and those who will attempt to shape culture by Scripture. You may disagree, but this is our honest concern before God. It is no lack of charity, nor honesty. It is no desire for power or tradition for tradition’s sake. It is our sober conclusion from observing the last 50 years.
Paedobaptism is not novel… But, on the good side, evangelicals who have taught such a doctrine have continued to be otherwise faithful to Scripture for 5 centuries now. And many times their faithfulnesses have put those of us who may have a better doctrine of baptism to shame! Egalitarianism is novel. Its theological tendencies have not had such a long track record. And the track record they have had so far is not encouraging.
Of course there are issues more central to the gospel than gender issues. However, there may be no way the authority of Scripture is being undermined more quickly or more thoroughly in our day than through the hermenuetics of egalitarian readings of the Bible. And when the authority of Scripture is undermined, the gospel will not long be acknowledged. Therefore, love for God, the gospel, and future generations, demands the careful presentation and pressing of the complementarian position.
I think Dever is right. Wisdom is vindicated by her children. A quick glance at the historical record shows that the children of egalitarianism have not fared well over the long haul. The same cannot be said of those with differing views of baptism and the Lord’s supper.
I love Carl Trueman. Anyone who has read this blog for any amount of time knows that to be the case for of all the times I’m pointing to his material. He is an unabashed complementarian and a brother in the Lord. But on this point we disagree. The rejection of biblical gender roles has dire implications for evangelical theololgy. The hermeneutics of egalitarianism are a blemish leading to theological cancer. The hermeneutics of variant protestant baptismal views are not.
For more about how egalitarian hermeneutics undermines biblical authority, I recommend the following book: