Christianity,  Complementarianism,  Egalitarianism,  Theology/Bible

Complementarianism as a Second Order Doctrine

Last week, there was some discussion on social media about complementarianism as a second order doctrine. The issue was brought into focus by a recorded comment that Thabiti Anyabwile delivered about women pastors. He later clarified that he still believes in a qualified male-only eldership. Nevertheless, I think his video statement—if the off-the-cuff remarks accurately reflect his position—would still be problematic because he seemed to imply that having a female pastor would not be sufficient reason to leave a church. That’s much different than reading a book by an egalitarian or acknowledging they are Christians. If your pastor is a female and you are a complementarian, then you necessarily believe that your pastor is forbidden by God from being a pastor (1 Tim. 2:12). On what possible basis could you commend or approve what you have become convinced is disapproved by God?

Declaring the matter a “second order doctrine” provides no basis for such a thing. The category of second order doctrine does not refer to “those biblical doctrines which we are free to disobey.” We must uphold everything that the Bible teaches, no matter where it weighs-in on our doctrinal hierarchy. If you believe the Bible teaches male headship, you are not free to disobey or dishonor that teaching. We must always speak and live as if we believe the Bible to be true. If the Bible is God’s word (and it is!), then we must honor its teaching in all its particulars. We must never do otherwise (Romans 14:23). It is an abuse of “theological triage” to make obedience to second order doctrines optional.

Complementarians have long held this teaching as a second order doctrine not as a first order one. Even Albert Mohler’s seminal essay on theological triage categorizes it as such. Having said that, history has proven that complementarianism is a second order doctrine that frequently implicates first order doctrines. In this way, complementarianism isn’t like other second order doctrines (e.g., baptism). Historically, we don’t see a lot of evidence for differences over baptism being a gateway to denial of first order doctrines. The same is not true of people who depart from biblical teaching on biblical manhood and womanhood. Those departures are often followed or accompanied by more serious departures. Perhaps 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 read—especially those who remain committed to evangelical faith (and there are many!). This isn’t a universal statement about all egalitarians. Nevertheless, the existence of egalitarian evangelicals does not mitigate the dangers of egalitarian approaches to Scripture over the long haul, and that is Lig’s point. And we have seen those potentialities played out so many times in history.

Several years ago, Mark Dever published an article 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 accommodate 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 faithfulness 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 hermeneutics 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, and you will know them by their fruits (Matt. 7:16-20). A quick glance at the historical record shows that the offspring of egalitarianism have not fared well over the long haul. For example, two of the most lauded egalitarian books over the last year are written by authors who deny inerrancy (here and here, see “UPDATE” below). An embrace of egalitarianism often goes hand in hand with a denial of inerrancy. More and more this embrace goes hand in hand with an affirmation of LGBT. These trajectories are not new. They are well-worn paths that discerning Christians will be wise to avoid and that faithful pastors will lead their flocks away from.

Colin Smothers wrote an insightful piece two years ago explaining these trajectories. He writes,

We should acknowledge that many egalitarians don’t believe the Bible condones homosexuality. But generally speaking, the ability to maintain those commitments is more a function of doctrinal precommitments, not hermeneutics. While defending their position, many egalitarians employ the same hermeneutical method used to affirm same-sex relationships. Interestingly, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a complementarian church that endorses homosexuality. In fact, if a church affirms homosexuality, you can be sure that the church is also already thoroughly egalitarian.

Our culture’s current focus on intersectional grievance only amplifies these problems. Faithful pastors and ministry leaders who care about the Bible’s functional authority within the church are going to have to prepare themselves and their congregations for these challenges. These conflicts are only going to get worse in the days ahead.

That means we are going to need more discipleship and more biblical grounding for God’s people. More instructing husbands about how self-sacrificially to lead, protect, and provide for their families. More exhortation to wives to affirm and support that leadership. More encouragement for singles to embrace the calling God has given them and to spend their singleness for the glory of Christ and to be fully assimilated into the life and ministry of the church. More instruction for children about what it means to be male and female image-bearers and God’s design for each. More teaching God’s people to do everything that Jesus has commanded us, not just the things that go with the grain of the ambient culture (Matt. 28:19-20; Gal. 1:10).

The biblical vision of manhood and womanhood is under assault right now. Contrary to what the critics are saying, the Bible’s complementarian vision of male and female is the most beautiful, life-giving, culture-reforming, gospel-inculcating vision on offer. If we are going to be faithful to Christ in our generation, we must model and declare that vision anew in the face of new challenges.


*This post is adapted from a longer essay I wrote last year titled “Is Complementarianism a Man-Made Doctrine?” and published at


UPDATE #1: Beth Allison Barr has claimed on social media that I have high-handedly misrepresented her views on inerrancy. She is referring to one sentence above in which I do not mention her by name but do link to her book’s Amazon page. I write,

“For example, two of the most lauded egalitarian books over the last year are written by authors who deny inerrancy (here and here).”

Barr responded to that sentence alleging that I am saying something “untrue” about her and am not “listening.” I take that charge seriously and very much wish to describe her stated positions accurately. So I followed up with her on social media numerous times and cited portions of her book that were the basis for my claim. I even posted an image of a page from her book in which she excoriates the doctrine of inerrancy as a tool of the patriarchy. I also asked her point blank numerous times if she affirms the doctrine of inerrancy as taught in the Chicago Statement (here, here, here, here, here). She affirmed a lot of things in her responses, but she never affirmed inerrancy. I even asked if she could affirm inerrancy so long as the doctrine is not abused. She still would not affirm the doctrine.

The original basis for my claim that she denies inerrancy is her book. On pages 187-91, she devotes an entire section of a chapter to denigrating inerrancy as tool of the patriarchy. She claims that inerrancy was invented by Calvinists at Princeton Seminary (a tendentious claim all by itself) and that male preachers subsequently wielded the doctrine to suppress female preachers (p. 189). She alleges that “Inerrancy wasn’t important by itself in the late twentieth century; it became important because it provided a way to push women out of the pulpit” (p. 191). Her claim is that inerrancy is merely a pretext for some nefarious patriarchal agenda. She claims her own experience in Southern Baptist Churches and conservative evangelical churches has taught her that,

“Inerrancy creates an atmosphere of fear. Any question raised about biblical accuracy must be completely answered or completely rejected to prevent the fragile fabric of faith from unraveling” (p. 190).

Does this sound like someone who believes in inerrancy? It doesn’t to me either. It sounds like someone who regards inerrancy as a part of the problem.

I am not the only reader who has understood Barr’s book as a denial of inerrancy. Wendy Alsup reviewed the book last year and also came to the same conclusion:

“Barr acknowledges the clarity with which Paul speaks of qualified male authority in the church and home. In response, she argues that Scripture isn’t inerrant. In her view, the doctrine of inerrancy has been a tool used to keep women down and institutionalize abuse” (emphasis mine).

Alsup is not being unfair here. It’s a reasonable interpretation of Barr’s repeated broadsides against inerrancy. It’s the same interpretation I had, and so did many other readers.

I have since listened to Barr interviewed numerous times about her book. In one interview, she is asked directly about inerrancy. She doubles down on her thesis from the book that inerrancy is a malicious tool of the patriarchy and concludes with this statement:

“I challenge that inerrancy is about believing the Bible, because it’s not” (timestamp, 10:35).

Ask any inerrantist if inerrancy is about believing in the Bible. They will tell you to a man (or woman!) that inerrancy is about believing in the truthfulness and the authority of scripture, the very thing that Barr denies the doctrine is about!

Barr has claimed that I have misrepresented her stated views. I don’t think I have. I have asked her repeatedly for clarification on whether she believes in inerrancy, and she has repeatedly declined to affirm it. I have read her book carefully and listened to interviews in which she denigrates inerrancy as a man-made doctrine created and employed for the subjugation of women. If anyone believes this to be anything but a denial of inerrancy, they are free to believe that. But I think they are believing against the evidence of her own stated positions.

I stand by what I wrote.


UPDATE #2: A thoughtful reader suggested that perhaps Barr affirms the substance of inerrancy but simply doesn’t wish to use the word to describe her view. He argues that since Barr tweeted a series of affirmations about the Bible (e.g., here and here), those should be received as affirming the substance of inerrancy even if not an affirmation of the term inerrancy.

The problem with this interpretation is twofold:

(1) Barr’s affirmations themselves do not add up to affirming inerrancy. For example, in one statement she makes an affirmation about the Bible but then immediately denigrates the specific doctrine of inerrancy. She writes,

“I believe the Bible as the divinely inspired word of God, God-breathed, and useful for instruction, correction, and training in righteousness. You are quoting a doctrine made by men & demanding I affirm it as a litmus test for my orthodoxy.”

It’s important to keep in mind that her “litmus test” remark at the end is a red-herring. This conversation is not happening as a litmus test of her orthodoxy but as an attempt to get to the bottom of her claim that I had misrepresented her view of inerrancy. She said that I got it wrong, so I am simply trying to get clarity from her exactly what I got wrong.

In any case, notice that in her statement she affirms “the Bible as the divinely inspired word of God, God-breathed, and useful for instruction, correction, and training in righteousness.” That’s all well and good as far as it goes, but it is not an affirmation of inerrancy. People who don’t affirm inerrancy can affirm that statement. In any case, she immediately follows that affirmation with this disaffirmation, “You are quoting a doctrine made by men…” What does that mean except that she is casting shade on inerrancy as a man-made doctrine? This is not an affirmation of inerrancy, but again seems to imply a denial of it.

(2) Another problem with the idea that she’s affirming the substance of inerrancy but not the word is the actual argument of her book. Her argument is not merely about how people have abused inerrancy but also about how inerrancy itself is problematic. Barr appeals to Barry Hankins’ book Uneasy in Babylon for a working definition of inerrancy and defines the doctrine with these words:

“…biblical inerrancy—the belief that the Bible is completely without error, including in areas of science and history” (p. 188).

Barr then goes on to describe the consequence of this definition of inerrancy.

“For many, inerrancy meant not only that the Bible was without error but that it had to be without error to be true at all. Just like my youth Sunday school teacher, conservative evangelical leaders employed a slippery-slope mentality to weaponized inerrancy. If we can’t trust the biblical account of creation, they argued, then how can we trust the biblical story of Jesus? Either we believe the Bible, literally and in its entirety, or we don’t” (pp. 188-89).

Barr obviously rejects what she calls “weaponized inerrancy.” But notice what “weaponized inerrancy” is in her own terms. It’ the belief “not only that the Bible was without error but that it had to be without error to be true at all.” What she rejects as “weaponized inerrancy” is one of the fundamental claims of inerrancy—that the Bible must be without error to be true at all. Or to put it in the words of the Chicago Statement,

“Holy Scripture, being God’s own Word, written by men prepared and superintended by His Spirit, is of infallible divine authority in all matters upon which it touches… The authority of Scripture is inescapably impaired if this total divine inerrancy is in any way limited or disregarded.”

What Barr rejects as “weaponized inerrancy” is in fact what the Chicago Statement says inerrancy is. Inerrantists believe that Scripture must be inerrant because the Scripture is the word of God. Inerrancy as a doctrine is simply an entailment of the fact that God has chosen to reveal himself to us in the words of Scripture. As Timothy Ward has written in his important book Words of Life,

“Inerrancy is no more and no less than a natural implication of the fact that Scripture is identified as the speech act of a God who cannot lie, and who has chosen to reveal himself to us in words” (p. 135).

Again, Barr seems to view the belief that scripture must be without error as “weaponized inerrancy.” And yet what she calls “weaponized inerrancy” is just inerrancy, which her words give every indication of rejecting.

I suppose it is possible that Barr could respond to all of this and say that she believes in the substance of inerrancy but that she doesn’t like to use the word because it has been “weaponized” as a tool of the patriarchy. That’s fine. That would be a clarification of her views if she were to say something like that. But even if she did, that would be very different from what she says in her book, which was the basis for my claim that she had denied inerrancy—a claim which I stand by as an accurate description of her book.


UPDATE #3: This morning (January 31, 2022), a reader sent to me a recording of Franky Schaeffer’s interview with Beth Allison Barr from last November. In the interview, Barr says that she rejects inerrancy according to her definition of the term. The video below is queued up to the relevant quotation at 19:49. If you want to get more context for this portion of the conversation, begin at 18:24 where Schaeffer brings up inerrancy. Watch the video, and then see my comments below.

Two observations about this part of the discussion.

1. It’s notable that Schaeffer also interpreted her book to be a rejection of inerrancy. He then asks her for clarity on the point. Barr does in fact say that she denies inerrancy according to her definition. She says,

“I am not an inerrantist in what it actually means. If you say, ‘Do you believe the Bible, and do you believe in Scriptural Authority?’ Yes.”

Barr is not saying that she doesn’t believe in the Bible at all or that she is denying the Bible’s authority. Her claim is that she does not believe inerrancy for what it really is. For her, inerrancy is not about the truthfulness or the authority of the Bible. Rather, it’s about “a particular interpretation” that has been used to suppress women. She also rejects the idea that the Bible must be true in all of its parts in order for it to be true at all. She calls this “weaponized inerrancy” in her book. Schaeffer and Barr both reject this idea out of hand (see my comments on this in “UPDATE #2” above).

2. Right after the discussion of inerrancy, Schaeffer asks Barr whether her approach to rejecting traditional gender roles can also be applied to homosexuality. The key part of the discussion begins at 21:26. Watch below, and then see my comments afterward.

Schaeffer asks Barr how she feels about her “argument applied to other areas” like homosexuality. Barr’s response is interesting. She says that her way of deconstructing traditional gender roles can and should be applied to other areas—including to questions of sexuality. She thinks that all evangelical beliefs should be open to such scrutiny, and she’s open to the possibility that she could be wrong. She says that current evangelical beliefs on sexuality are shaped more by fear than by the Bible. So evangelicals need to go back to the Bible and reform their beliefs about homosexuality.

For whatever reason, she doesn’t say in so many words what her position is on homosexuality, but I think reading between the lines she must still hold to a traditional view that homosexuality and gay marriage are sinful. Nevertheless, it is notable that she admits that her approach to deconstructing traditional gender roles can and should be applied to other areas, including homosexuality.

That is the point about egalitarian hermeneutics that I made in the original post above before all of these updates. Egalitarian hermeneutics (and in this case, historical methods of deconstruction) can be applied to first order issues like sexuality. That is why egalitarian approaches to Scripture are so destructive in my view.