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.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.