Several weeks back there was a bit of a dust-up in conservative Reformed Protestant circles over the following simple question: Does being a man or a woman have any ethical significance for the way we live together in civil society? Despite the success of feminism in radically reworking gender roles over the past half century, conservative Evangelicalism has maintained a modest conviction that our sexuality has ethical import. Certain New Testament passages compel conservative Evangelicals to maintain that women should not be pastors and that the husband is in some way the head of the home. The group of Evangelicals who hold to this, which readers will quickly ascertain is simply a boringly normal version of the historic Christian and Jewish teaching on such matters, are commonly called Complementarians. In their view, men and women are distinctive complements to one another rather than identical and universally interchangeable parts.
But, this teaching about the importance of our sexual nature as male and female is generally limited to two distinct spheres (home and church), and generally limited to the barest of convictions (that a man ought to be in the position of headship). Thus far goes the resistance of conservative Evangelical Protestantism against the onslaught of feminism.
Beyond this lies a parting of ways. Some Reformed Evangelicals argue that we cannot go further and develop a broad theological view about the nature of manhood and womanhood. So, Aimee Byrd writes that there is no “biblical manhood and biblical womanhood filter” that our ethical questions need go through. In other words, when asking the question “should I do this?” or “should I be like that?” it makes no difference whether you are a man or a woman. You do not have a male or female nature that would offer you guidance on your basic ethical questions about what kind of person you should be and what kinds of activities you ought to engage in.
On this view, our sexual nature simply does not have that kind of significance. So, Dr. Carl Trueman writes that Complementarianism “lost its way when it became an all-embracing view of the world and not simply a matter for church and household.”
Talcott ends up defending Piper’s side of this, and for good reason in my view. Here are some of my own reflections on this discussion, and I’ll be eager to hear feedback from those who may disagree. For my part, I regard this as a conversation among friends. All sides of this particular debate share the same first principles. The real question is the extent to which our first principles apply.
As best I can tell, Trueman and Byrd are chafing against the suggestion that complementarian principles might be applied outside the domains of church and home. In Trueman’s words:
I rarely read complementarian literature these days. I felt it lost its way when it became an all-embracing view of the world and not simply a matter for church and household. I am a firm believer in a male-only ordained ministry in the church but I find increasingly bizarre the broader cultural crusade which complementarianism has become. It seems now to be more a kind of reaction against feminism than a balanced exposition of the Bible’s teaching on the relationships of men and women. Thus, for example, marriage is all about submission of wife to husband (Eph. 5) and rarely about the delight of friendship and the kind of playful but subtly expressed eroticism we find in the Song of Songs. Too often cultural complementarianism ironically offers a rather disenchanted and mundane account of the mystery and beauty of male-female relations. And too often it slides into sheer silliness.
Likewise, Byrd writes:
I affirm that Scripture teaches that my husband has the responsibility of headship in our home… I also affirm that only certain men are called to ordination in the church as pastors and elders. Those are special leadership positions that I affirm as a result of the goodness and authority of God, who is the authority of us all. Isn’t this what a complementarian believes?
Trueman gives a list of “problems that occur when the issue of male-female complementarity is detached from the specific issues of marriage and church.” To do so is to fall into “cultural complementarianism”—which he calls a “bizarre… cultural crusade.”
I am not here trying to defend everything that flies under the banner of complementarianism. Every movement has its margins. But I do believe that Trueman and Byrd’s specific critique of Piper hits wide of the mark. There is no problem with Trueman and Byrd questioning whether Piper has correctly applied the principle of headship outside the sphere of church and home. The problem is that they seem to question that such an effort should be made at all.
Both Trueman and Byrd affirm the headship principle as it applies to the domains of church and home. They are uncomfortable with deriving implications for male-female relationships outside those two spheres. Trueman believes that trying to develop guidelines like Piper’s—which extend outside the sphere of church and home and into the workplace, politics, etc.—leads to absurd, infantile, unbiblical rules.
But is it really the case that complementarian principles extended outside church and home leads to a “bizarre… cultural crusade”? I don’t think so. If complementarianism is a creation principle, then the implications are necessarily wide-ranging. The biblical norms of manhood and womanhood apply wherever human beings appear in the world. That is why the apostle Paul applies those norms to hair-length (1 Corinthians 11:14). The law of Moses forbids cross-dressing (Deut. 22:5). When Paul wants people to behave courageously, he tells them to “act like men” (1 Corinthians 16:13).
What is going on here? Why are those culturally-encoded gender norms given the weight of apostolic decree? Paul tells us the answer. “Nature”—which is Paul’s way of talking about creation norms—teaches us what it means to be created in the image of God as male and female. There are implications of this teaching which necessarily extend outside the domains of church and home.
This is not a defense of Piper’s particular framework (although I think it’s useful). It is a defense of his attempt to come up with one. Piper is simply trying to define manhood and womanhood based on the creation norms that are set out in Genesis 1-2 and that are elaborated through the rest of scripture. That is a noble effort that we would all do well to emulate. Furthermore, we need to figure out how to apply biblical gender norms to the nitty gritty details of our daily lives. Such application is not “detaching” complementarianism from church and home (as Trueman has it). It’s simply trying to apply scriptural teaching to all of life.
Complementarian readings of scripture have laid the groundwork for a faithful response to recent cultural developments such as the mainstreaming of transgenderism and feminism. If we limit our application of first principles to church and home, we unnecessarily hobble our ability to speak to these salient challenges that are confronting the church and that must be answered.
One final point. Trueman and Byrd write as if complementarianism has recently become something that it wasn’t before. That may be the case, but Piper’s remarks on this point are not evidence of that. The framework from Piper that they are critiquing has been in print for at least 25 years, going back to Piper’s work in Chapter 1 of Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. This is an old complementarian conversation, not a new one.
UPDATE: Carl Trueman has posted a response to Talcott here. He pushes back on the notion that he denies the importance of gender differences and clarifies:
What we did argue was that the kind of complementarianism advocated by John Piper and company, focused as it is almost exclusively on issues of authority, hierarchy, and submission between the sexes, leads to horribly complicated micro-management and confusion once it is extrapolated to the whole of life. The evidence? That there is so much agonizing over how women should give travel directions to men who are lost, whether women should lift weights in the gym, how a housewife should relate to the mailman, etc. To those unfamiliar with the evangelical discussion on this, yes—these are things which have been raised as serious questions. I leave the reader to decide on whether my use of the term ‘silliness’ was appropriate or excessive.
I do not believe it is fair to say that Piper-style complementarianism focuses “almost exclusively on issues of authority, hierarchy, and submission.” Any reading of Piper’s voluminous works on this subject proves this not to be the case (read This Momentary Marriage, for example). In popular discussions, the “hierarchy” thing gets a lot of ink because it’s precisely this point that is contested by secularists and egalitarians. There’s no contest over men loving their wives self-sacrificially—another critical component of complementarian teaching which shows up over and over in Piper’s writings. It’s the authority-submission piece that people tend not to like, and that is why there is so much heat over that issue. In fact, even egalitarians want to be known as “complementarian” just so long as you subtract the parts about authority/submission.
Trueman also says that complementarians are in danger of reducing themselves to a “reactionary movement, defining itself over against feminism.” Even if he were right about this, I’m not so sure we’d be in bad company. I think Athanasius could have been accused of fostering a reactionary movement that defined Trinitarianism over against Arianism. Perhaps the Synod of Dort might have been accused of defining reformation theology over against Arminianism. Is the Christian church the worse off for those “reactionary movements”? Sound doctrine has often been clarified over against error. There’s nothing new or scandalous about that.
What I would still like to hear from Trueman is how he fits the headship norm of Genesis 2 into his anthropology. Is there such a thing as maleness and femaleness? If there is, then how does the headship norm—which Genesis 2 establishes as a creation norm—inform his view of maleness and femaleness? Is there really no legitimate application of that norm outside the church and the home?
To be fair, I think complementarians have a lot of work to do in this area. The Danvers Statement itself is pretty limited in its application to the church and home. But its minimalism is not consistent with its own first principles when those two domains are deemed the only relevant domains for living out manhood and womanhood.