Gospel Priorities and Complementarianism

Scot McKnight passes along a question about the centrality of complementarianism in the theological commitments of the “young, restless and reformed.” In short, the question is this. Must one be a complementarian in order to be “gospel-centered”? Why should “young, restless and reformed” egalitarians be divided from their complementarian counterparts? Since both groups have a similar commitment to the gospel, the penal substitutionary atonement, justification by faith alone, etc., why should they be divided from one another over a secondary issue?

These are fair questions, and they have been addressed by complementarians here and there over the years. I will attempt an answer here, though I do not claim to speak for any particular group. I offer three observations that may help clarify why the “young, restless and reformed” often stand apart from reformed egalitarians. This is how I see things, and I hope that these thoughts will be helpful to readers as they sort through these issues.

1. A ranking of doctrinal priorities is necessary. Albert Mohler wrote a great little article on theological priorities that has become somewhat boilerplate among the “young, restless and reformed.” It’s titled “A Call for Theological Triage and Christian Maturity,” and it outlines a three-part framework for understanding theological priorities. Mohler’s argument relates directly to the question at hand.

First order issues are those doctrinal points that distinguish Christians from non-Christians. In other words, a rejection of a first order doctrine means a rejection of Christianity. Some doctrines that fall into this category are Nicene Trinitarianism, Chalcedonian Christology, justification by faith alone, and the authority of scripture. Differences over these issues are the difference between heaven and hell.

Second order issues are those doctrinal points that distinguish Christians from Christians. In other words, no one’s Christianity is necessarily at stake in differences over these issues. Genuine believers can have disagreement on these points, though they will find it difficult if not impossible to do church together. The question of believer’s baptism versus paedo-baptism falls into this category.

Third order issues are those doctrinal points over which Christians may disagree without any rift in local church fellowship. One’s position on the timing of the so-called “rapture” or disputes over the interpretation of specific biblical texts would fall into this category.

Mohler identifies the “women in ministry” question as a second order issue. It’s not a doctrinal point that determines whether or not one is a Christian, but it is an issue that keeps Christians from doing local church ministry together (just like baptism). I agree with this assessment, and I assume that most of those in the “young, restless and reformed” group would as well.

2. Secondary does not mean tertiary. Since second order issues do not distinguish Christians from non-Christians, some people are quick to treat second order issues as adiaphora. I would argue, however, that such thinking is a mistake. There are many second order issues that directly affect how healthy a church and it members will be. The women’s issue is a case in point. For example, an egalitarian perspective on church leadership is often accompanied by an egalitarian perspective on the role of husbands and wives in the family. Differences on this issue lead to radically different definitions of what a healthy Christian home will look like.

For complementarians, leadership and submission in marriage are not insignificant details but reflect our seminal commitment to the gospel itself. According to Ephesians 5, this gospel is either affirmed or denied in how husbands and wives relate to one another. Husbands are to lead with self-sacrificial love, and wives are to follow that leadership. Discipleship in a complementarian framework means that husbands should be learning how to be leaders, protectors, and providers for their home. In a complementarian framework, families are unhealthy and marriages are at risk where this kind of leadership is absent. Egalitarians say that this kind of leadership is unbiblical and immoral. Complementarians say that this kind of leadership is essential for a husband’s faithfulness to Christ. These two perspectives cannot be reconciled with one another in local church ministry. This may be a second order issue, but it is certainly not tertiary or adiaphora.

3. There is such a thing as the slippery slope. This is the argument of Wayne Grudem’s helpful little book Evangelical Feminism: A New Path to Liberalism (Crossway, 2006). There are a number of hermeneutical and theological moves made by egalitarians that seem to create a slippery slope toward liberalism. That is not to say that all egalitarians become liberals (Millard Erickson and Roger Nicole, for example, remain evangelical stalwarts). It is to say that where egalitarian modes of argument are embraced, subsequent generations are at risk for even greater error. Grudem notes that egalitarianism often leads to the denial of anything uniquely masculine, to calling God “our Mother,” and to the approval of homosexuality.

This slippery slope is particularly dangerous for those who embrace trajectory hermeneutics like that of William Webb. Webb’s hermeneutic creates the conditions for an egalitarian reading of the Bible, but it does so at the expense of the functional authority of scripture (even though Webb and his followers would not agree with this characterization). Where this happens, we’ve moved from second order territory to first order territory (see Grudem’s JBMW article on this point). Richard Hayes is another example of an egalitarian who adopts hermeneutical strategies that grate against the very authority of scripture that he otherwise aims to uphold (read here and here).

History is a witness of the slippery slope that begins with an egalitarianism that then leads into any number of unorthodox, unbiblical directions. It is for this reason (I believe) that the “young, restless, and reformed” are more reluctant to partner with egalitarians than they are with those who disagree with them on other secondary issues. The hermeneutical and theological associations of egalitarianism are simply more dire than those that attend differences over issues such as baptism.

Churches, homes, and individuals are healthier where a robust complementarian framework prevails. Where it is absent, they are at risk. Moreover, the glory of Christ and his love for his bride is most clearly on display in churches and in marriages that embody Christ’s sacrificial love for and leadership over his bride. Where it is absent, the vision of that glory is diminished. This is not adiaphora, and that is why the “young, restless, and reformed” have identified complementarianism as a decisive factor in their theological priorities.


P.S. Both The Gospel Coalition and Together for the Gospel have explicitly included complementarianism as a foundational part of their theological commitments.

P.P.S. After writing these reflections, I was reminded by a friend that Kevin DeYoung answered the same question last year. Read DeYoung’s take here.


  • Michael Templin

    “Some doctrines that fall into this category are Nicene Trinitarianism, Chalcedonian Christology, justification by faith alone, and the authority of scripture. Differences over these issues are the difference between heaven and hell.”

    Do those same Bishops that wrote the creeds advocate the protestant doctrine of sola Fide? No. They believed that you must have the Eucharist, baptism, community, and faithfulness to Jesus.

  • danny

    Quick thought: you defend separation in the local church over this issue, but you didn’t answer the question why The Gospel Coaliton or T4G should separate from others. That are not, after all, a local church. Does that make a difference in this conversation?

  • Donald Johnson

    On the family, each couple can decide for themselves how they will organize their family. If a couple believe that a hierarchy is God’s best they can do that regardless of what the church they attend teaches and the same thing for an egal couple.

    What these non-egals are doing directly contradicts Jesus’ desire for the body of Christ to be one.

    Furthermore, they are insulating the flock from the exegetical discussion. Witness Philip Payne’s recent review of the ESV Study Bible where he points out 27 departures from the Greek text in variance to what the translators and study note authors claimed to be doing.

    The end result of such thinking by non-egals will be another split in evangelicalism, sadly. “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.” ala the Wizard of Oz will be what the non-egal leaders will say to their flock about egal teachers. And then the conquest will be complete, the split finalized. Is this what the non-egals really desire?

  • Tom1st


    Gordeon Free has never gone down your slippery slope.

    NT Wright has never gone down your slippery slope.

    Craig Keener has never gone down your slippery slope.

    Stanley Grenz never did.

    John Wesley most certainly didn’t.

    It’s only a slippery slope when you only look at the evidence that best supports your case. There are plenty of other examples that it’s not slippery at all.

    Should I begin listing the slippery slope of Complimentarians and all the people that said abusive things and did abusive things int he name of hierarchy?….No, I won’t because I recognize it as that – a slippery slope…a logical fallacy…a confusion of correlation and causation.

  • Nate


    Your desire against a split in evangelicalism seems rather shallow when you refer to complementarians as non-egals. I don’t recall (although it may have happened) that anyone on this blog refers to you as a non-comp. This is the same kind of rhetoric that pro-choice folks use against pro-life folks by referring to them as anti-choice. If you want fruitful, honest discussion it would serve well to not throw stones at your opponents while trying to make your point.

    As for your comment about a couple determining for themselves about family regardless of what the church they attend teaches is true. However, for an egal couple to remain in a church that is predominantly comp will cause points of intersection which would seem to do the body of Christ in that place harm. Or visa versa for a comp couple in an egal church.

    I don’t believe this causes a split in evangelicalism, I believe it is another level of denominationalism, which Protestants have been accustomed to since the Reformation.

  • Donald Johnson


    I believe that the genders are complementary just different from yours as I believe in complementarity without hierarchy and you believe in some form of equality for the genders, just different from mine as your equality does not extend into the home and church (and for some, into society). But that is a mouthful.

    The prominent difference between us is along the spectrum of hierarchy, specifically male hierarchy. The rest is packaging around that difference as far as I can see.

    Some patriarchalists have criticized CBMW over their decision to not use that word. The term maculinism is accurate but not known by many and I can see how complementarian sounds better.

    What I would like would be plain speaking and respectful terms to describe the fundamental difference between these models. I tried to do that with egal and non-egal but am willing to learn and reconsider. It would be nice if it was a short form for both models. Does anyone have ideas?

  • Donald Johnson

    I read Mohler’s article on triage.

    In medical terms, triage is an assignement of a person requesting medical attention to 1 of 3 categories: (1) will likely live if care is not provided, (2) will likely die if care is not provided, (3) will likely die even when care is provided.
    Under resources constraints, the idea is to concentrate on those in category 2, in an effort to preserve the most lives.

    I do not see how to map these 3 triage categories to Mohler’s 3 types of differences categories, except that there are 3 categories in each case. Mohler’s is a priority list with a cut off after priority 2. But it fails to incorporate the idea that congregations and even denominations can change their understandings of Scripture. The SBC and the PCA split from others in their denoms over the issue of slavery, but I doubt very much any in those denoms today think that that was correct to do, so interpretations that were once seen as important enough to fight over and now 150 years later seen as something to repent over.

    My prediction is similar for the gender issue.

  • John

    I hear what you are saying, Donald, but I think we have to take into account other parts of our ecclesiology. In a top-down hierarchy, this conversation is barely relevant – the church will have a confession or leadership or something making clear their stand, and leaving it up to the participant whether they can fellowship in good conscience. But for baptists (like Denny) and other congregationalists, the issue becomes more important. The people that come together are also responsible for the direction of the church and its leadership. Because of this, I don’t think egals and comps can really fellowship in congregational churches. The most loving thing in this case is to fellowship separately, even if you love each other and visit each other outside of church (as, I think, we should).

  • Donald Johnson

    I am a member of a Baptist church, so I am familar with their governing structure.

    What I think is actually going on is some comps see some churches “defecting” over time and becoming more egal, as a congregation studies the gender question and the relevant verses. One way to minimize the possibility of such “defections” is to make it next to impossible for such to happen, hence “no egals welcome here” signs being posted.

    I think this strategy will ultimately fail, but the transition will slowed and made bumpier than it otherwise would be.

  • Thomas Newell

    “Why should “young, restless and reformed” egalitarians be divided from their complementarian counterparts?”

    I am not aware of many who fall in this group Denny. From my experience, and the Christian leaders I interact with, there appears to be a direct correlation between being young and reformed, and being complementarian.

    Also, after reading the comments over at McKnight’s blog, I think the question should actually be in the reverse. It appears that many egals tend to make it a core issue than comps do. Plus it does grow old to hear all the names and labels that egals apply to comps.

  • David Rogers

    “It appears that many egals tend to make it a core issue than comps do. Plus it does grow old to hear all the names and labels that egals apply to comps.”

    Oh its a core issue to comps, too. Labels like “liberal” come all too quickly even when the discussion attempts to make a text-based argument.

  • Thomas Newell

    Your distorting my words there David. I did not say that gender roles is not a core issue to comps, of course it is. But I was highlighting the comments over at the Jesus Creed and how they indicate it is much more central to the Gospel for egals than it is for comps.

  • David Rogers

    I’m sorry but I don’t see how my comment in any way “distorted” your words. I added to the statement that egals make it a core issue. You affirmed that it is by saying “of course it is.”

    I also stated that labels are not exclusive to egals.

    Criticize what you want about the content of what I said, but I do not see any kind of distortion of your words. Please elucidate.

  • Donald Johnson

    Denny wrote above: “Discipleship in a complementarian framework means that husbands should be learning how to be leaders, protectors, and providers for their home. In a complementarian framework, families are unhealthy and marriages are at risk where this kind of leadership is absent. Egalitarians say that this kind of leadership is unbiblical and immoral.”

    As an egal, here is how I would phrase it: “Discipleship in a egalitarian framework means that spouses should be learning how to be leaders, protectors, and providers for their home. In a egalitarian framework, families are less healthy where this kind of dual leadership is absent. Egalitarians say that complementarian teachers are teaching half the truth in many cases, that is, it is not what they say that is wrong, it is what they do not say, but should say if they want to teach all that the Bible teaches.”

  • Sue

    they indicate it is much more central to the Gospel for egals than it is for comps.

    I agree. For some egals, it is like slavery. How could a slave owner promote the gospel?

  • Tom1st

    Who’s worse, William Webb and his trajectory hermeneuticsm who seeks to create a funtional equality between men and women “at the expense of biblical authority” (as defined by Denny, of course), OR Denny’s SBC forefather’s who used a literalist hermeneutic to enslaved African Americans?

    Should we appeal to slippery slope here, too, with how literalism leads to subjugating blacks?

    I thought not. Because there’s a difference between causation and correlation.

  • Donald Johnson

    On baptism being a secondary issue, I know a Baptist church that teaches believer’s baptism, but does not deny membership to those who were infant baptized and claim it was effectual, after hearing what this Baptist church teaches on baptism. In other words, they deliberately decided to NOT separate over this as they truly believe in the Baptist principle of soul liberty.

    The point is separation over baptism is a choice of the churches that separate over this. And I see the same for the gender issues.

  • Nate


    That church is about as baptist as a church that claims to be Lutheran but denies that Luther nailed the 95 theses to the wall of the Castle Church.

    While churches have a right to separate over baptism, to call one-self baptist and accept infant baptism as believer’s baptism equivalent is not Baptist.

  • Donald Johnson

    They do not accept infant baptism as equivalent, they teach believer’s baptism.

    But they have decided (in my words) that the (historic) Baptist principle of soul liberty in interpreting Scripture “trumps” the Baptist idea of believer’s baptism; that is, if a person after hearing the rationale of the church for credobaptism STILL does not think they need to do it, then they can still become (full) members if they wish.

    Another way of seeing it is that this Baptist congregation does not see itself as a Magisterium (infallible teaching authority) on the issue of baptism.

    Now one might disagree with their stance and decide that baptism IS something to divide over; but again that is the choice of the congregation.

    Incorporating complementarian models of interpretation in the base statements of those groups is a way of squelching the exegetical conversation on the gender issue once one is inside that group, to declare that for those groups, it is decided and does not need any further discussion, hence my claim that it serves as a “egals not welcome here” sign as well as a way to innoculate the members from exposure to egal ideas since “we do not do that here”.

  • Nate


    Accepting any form of baptism other than immersion as an acceptable identification to becoming a member is not historically baptist, not even close. That was my point!

    My comment on that was not related to the comp vs egal issue. And yes, their stance compromises historical baptist’s and actually, in my opinion, degrades the memory of all the baptist believers that were drowned and put to death by those who believed credobaptism was heretical and anti-orthodox. That church is blind to the realities of church history and the historical significance of baptist heritage.

  • Donald Johnson

    The made a choice over which idea was more important. My point is raising it was that some do not think baptism is a category 2 issue. It is possible to have a congregation that does not think it is something to divide over.

    Others may disagree with this congregation’s decision, but that was their decision. I was not there when it was made, but I am sure someone wanted to be a member but did not see the need to be baptized, even after hearing the credobaptist teaching. So rather than say no, they said yes.

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