Christianity,  Theology/Bible

How Important is Complementarianism? A Response to Carl Trueman

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:

Wayne Grudem, Evangelical Feminism: A New Path to Liberalism (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2006).


  • Ali Robbie

    Thanks for commenting on this, Denny. Sadly, I agree with you about the results of egalitarianism, though I usually will clarify by saying that it applies most to those who try to justify their egalitarianism by the Bible. There are egalitarians who come to that position without spending time trying to justify it from the Bible, and these are the ones who are more likely to hold onto inerrancy.

  • Matt Svoboda


    Thank you for this blog post. I must admit that at first I agreed strongly with Trueman. The inconsistency has always bothered me (even as a committed Complementarian). Within theological triage I have typically thought, “Treat 1st tiers as 1st tiers, 2nd tiers as 2nd tiers, and 3rd tiers as 3rd tiers.” So, as I have seen some inconsistencies it has been frustrating in the past.

    Your analogy was extremely helpful. While there are inconsistencies in how some 2nd tier doctrines are treated I now see the necessity of the distinction. The real issue is the hermeneutics used to get to the differing positions, which isnt the issue with Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. I will be using your analogy in the future. Although, I wont be referencing your blemishes directly. 🙂

  • Ali Robbie

    Yes, Mike, but the specific command in the Bible is that we baptise. Nobody is suggesting we do not baptize; the disagreement is over how and when. In the case of egalitarianism it’s a matter of polar opposites.

  • Dan Phillips

    …because the authority and perspicuity of Scripture is not?

    You know, someone should really explain that relationship. Oh (looking up to the post, above the comments) wait…

  • david carlson

    seeds of malignancy – Interesting choice of words considering that is one of CT’s points – when he stated – I have known quite a few complementarians who seem to be such less because of the Bible and more because they apparently watched Conan the Barbarian a few too many times in their early teenage years.. That malignancy stains complementarians through and through and needs to be expunged.

    If more complementarians where willing to deal with the log in their own eye (as CT did), I think much of the dispute between the two sides would go away

  • Don Johnson

    And WHOM do Burk and TGC and others who think they are gate keepers think they are to define who are evangelicals and who are not in the way they do? It is simply nothing but arrogance and they should repent.

  • Don Johnson

    Burk wants to claim that the gospel somehow includes a particular way of understanding the atonement that Jesus gave each believer and a particular way of understanding gender relations and a particular way of understanding the Bible’s authority. I may not be in Burk’s “in group” but I do think that a group that refers to itself as “The Gospel Coalition” but are not really willing to accept some of those who accept the gospel, period. So their very name is arrogant and a falsehood. Is God the author of lies? Will he bless such a falsehood and one that is KNOWN to be a falsehood? Who do these people think they are?

    In other words, Trueman is being prophetic, but as is typical, getting the brush off.

  • Adam Omelianchuk


    Thanks for this post. Some thoughts in response. First the Duncan quote:

    “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.”

    I’ve never understood why the tortuous “gymnastics” charge picks out egalitarians and not others. Are not the same broad principles applied to Jesus’s command “do not to resist an evil person (Matt 5:39) such that, when considering cases like rape, the victim is allowed “to resist an evil person?” The point is there is a time and place where this instruction holds and where it does not. Likewise, as egalitarians tend to read Paul’s restrictive passages, the purpose of the restrictions are explained as taking into account uneducated and contentious women. Again, we might disagree about this, but the authority of Scripture is not at stake; rather, it is our *interpretation* of Scripture. Just because someone holds a more expansive range of cases where an imperative applies does not mean one holds a stronger view of the authority of Scripture. We would not grant that to a hardcore pacifist; why should we grant this to Duncan? No good reason I can see.

    Second, I think the sort of arguments which conclude “egalitarianism is a new path to liberalism” are flawed. They represent the so-called “track record” like this:

    [1] If one holds to egalitarianism, then one (probably) undermines the authority of Scripture.
    [2] If one undermines the authority of Scripture, then one is (probably) on a path to liberalism.
    [3] There are people who hold to egalitarianism.
    [4] Therefore, there are people who are (probably) on the path to liberalism.

    Call this THE ARGUMENT. In order for THE ARGUMENT to go through, one has to show that premise [1] is true, that is, that holding to egalitarianism is a *causal factor* that, at least, increases the likelihood undermining the authority of Scripture. But I think this is far from clear in light of the sizable contingent of scholars who truly hold to the authority of Scripture AND egalitarianism.

    Obviously, holding to egalitarianism isn’t a sufficient condition for undermining the authority of Scripture (a la Roger Nicole). And of course, neither it is necessary. One can deny the authority of Scripture while rejecting egalitarian gender roles. Plenty of conservative Muslims and Jews do just that. Therefore, I think THE ARGUMENT would be better stated like this:

    [1] If one does not hold to the authority of Scripture, then one is (probably) on a path to liberalism.
    [2] If one is on a path to liberalism, then one (probably) holds to egalitarian gender roles.
    [3] There are people who do not hold to the authority of Scripture.
    [4] Therefore, there are people who (probably) hold to egalitarian gender roles.

    Of course, evangelical egalitarians would agree with this argument, because the determinative issue is whether one holds to biblical authority–not egalitarian gender roles.

    • Don Johnson

      There are plenty of wrong reasons to be egalitarian and just one right one, because that is what the Bible teaches. Jesus was egalitarian inside the 1st century culture that he lived in, but some do not see that (yet).

      They do not see it because they are using flawed hermeneutics (as I see it), but I do not think that they do not accept the gospel just because of that. I think the effectiveness of the gospel is lessened and I think the effectiveness of the body of Christ is lessened by those that use the flawed hermeneutics (as I see it), but I do not think they do not accept the gospel because of that. I just accept that all of us see thru a glass darkly.

  • Michael Plato

    Living in the city of Toronto (yes, decidedly a very liberal city) and having been actively involved in church circles of various denominations, I have had the chance to encounter and get to know dozens women in ministerial positions, including Canada’s first two women (Anglican) bishops. Many of these women are lovely, caring and compassionate people who firmly believe they are doing God’s work. However, to my recollection, not one of them could ever be described as an inerrantist. In fact, few of them could be described as holding to the major Christian doctrinal tenants, and many of them have continued to slide still further from any orthodoxy they may have possessed when they were ordained. I realize what I am offering is anecdotal, but frankly, I think now is the time in the debate to move from the speculative to real world cases. I have never seen egalitarianism lead to greater Evangelical orthodoxy and I am in full agreement with you that egalitarianism is what could be described as a “gateway heterodoxy”.

  • danny pierce

    3 quick thoughts:

    1. I wonder if I can apply Duncan’s ‘gymnastics’ line to his view of spiritual gifts (if I remember correctly he’s a cessationist, though I’m willing to be corrected). After all, Paul said to eagerly desire the spiritual gifts…

    2. I can think of 2 denominations that have always ordained women (or at least for quite some time) yet have not gone down the slippery slope of ordaining homosexuals, denying inerrancy, etc: the Assemblies of God and the Salvation Army. This is not to mention numerous churches/denominations outside of the US who follow the same pattern. And I think the same is true of many African-American churches/denominations, though I’ll admit I’m less familiar with them.

    3. So I guess inerrancy is really the litmus test. That is, as a credobaptist, Denny, Mark Dever, me, etc., would have to argue that paedobaptists are in the wrong and have been for centuries. In fact, if I remember correctly, Dever got in some hot water some time ago for saying that paedobaptists were sinning in their practice of baptism.

    So, following that logic, it’s okay to live in direct disobedience to Scripture (which is what people on either side have to say, no matter how politely we want to put it), as long as you check off ‘inerrancy’ on your statement of faith. Seems odd.

  • Daniel Fiester

    Based on similar reasoning, Answers in Genesis argues that Young Earth Creationism must be a litmus test. According to AiG, Old Earth Creationism rejects a literal reading of the text. Therefore, OEC leads to liberalism. It’s a slippery slope.

    Tim Lahaye argues that the premil position must be a litmus test issue. The amil position rejects a literal reading of the text. Therefore, it leads to liberalism. Another slippery slope.

    Do you think that amil theology or Old Earth Creationism are just as damaging to the authority of Scripture? Why or why not?

  • matthew hosier

    Surely stating that the Lord’s Supper and baptism are secondary issues is a big slippery slope all of its own – how can any fair reading of the scriptures conclude that these are anything but primary gospel issues?

  • Daniel Bohm

    And yet I can’t help to marvel at what God has done through the lifes of Priscilla, Corrie ten Boom, Isabella Lilias Trotter, Mary Slessor, Catharine Booth, Amy Carmichael, Isabella Thoburn, Joy Ridderhof, Gladys Aylward, Betty Stam, Rachel Saint, Helen Roseveare, Elizabeth Green… in no particular order and to name only the famous among them (and I don’t think they just taught the children and adolescents). Somehow, once you enter the “frontlines” of preaching the gospel, the gender issue doesn’t seem quite as important. Is it that we become entrapped in myriads of possible “slippery slopes” while we are navel-gazing?

  • Jay Ryder

    Also relevant to the discussion is how different complementarians actually define the word. As I remember, Denny defines it as patriarchy (which is a cultural construct). When someone like Ligon Duncan defends complementarianism, he’s not defaulting to all the foibles and follies of patriarchy, but rather taking it straight from what the scriptures teach. His books on women in the church are top notch. Thanks!

  • dr. james willingham

    Ignorance is bliss. Complementarianism of the more rigid nature ignores the biblical perspectives on the equality among God’s people. My experience with omplementarianism sure led to some sore results. To this day, I am reminded of husbands who lorded it over wives and children, to the point of justifying practically any evil mentionable. And pastors, once they had the wherewithal of being in the position of authority proved the truth of Lord Acton’s old adage, “absolute power corrupts absolutely.” What gets me is how some complementarians justify their position with hierarchialism. I read a book by the wife of a leading complementarian in the past fifty years, and she spoke of Heaven’s hierarchy as a justification for hierarchy on earth. And yet I observed a Presbyterian Church which is governed by elders withdraw, when the Synod told them to go join another church without a word of encouragement to try and grow or anything of that nature. Just do as we say. But even that church went its own way as the two elders listened to the congregation.

    Here we are children in the family of God, blood bought, no less, adopted, too, but not equals of one another? Yes, there is a functional complementarianism, one with checks and balances, but there is not absoluite. For that we can look to Rome over the past 1500 years or to Germany in the past century and a half. Even the angel of Heaven would not allow the Apostle John to bow before him. Only to God who is, indeed, absolute do we owe such fidelity…not to any human other than the Lord Jesus Christ who is the God-man. The functional folks beat the absolute complementarians in World War I and II, because the former had checks and balances whereas the latter did not. The Bible never gives to any man other than Christ absolute authority, because sinners cannot maintain such a burden without being corrupted by it. One brother might be acknowledge to have authority in time of crisis, like a commander in time of war, who even then has checks and balances, but the kind being advocated as above will lead the Sovereign Grace renewal into grief, something we do not need when we need this theology for a Third Great Awakening..

  • Thomas Renz

    Carl has responded:

    “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.” Really?

    Unlike the “gymnastics required” to get from “For if a wife will not cover her head, then she should cut her hair short,” in the Bible to “We allow women not to cover their heads and prefer their hair to be long”?

    And what about Mark 16:17-18? Should the view that this passage, which was most likely not part of the original Gospel, is non-canonical be a Gospel-distinctive for fear that otherwise we should all imitate former West Virginia pastor Mark Wolford?

    On the mole analogy, those who see women teach and exercise authority in the Scriptures (although not always and everywhere) and therefore see no problem with women teaching and exercising authority in our churches today (although not all women in all circumstances) should not be treated in the same way as those who have come to “egalitarianism” by way of rejecting biblical teaching.

    Wasn’t the whole point of the mole analogy not to judge by outward appearances but to distinguish between healthy and malignant (hermeneutics)?

  • Don Johnson

    Duncan wrote “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.”

    This is so wrong on so many counts.

    1) Everyone I know starts from the Greek text in trying to exegete 1 Timothy, starting from a particular English translation is flawed from the start, as the act of translation is done in such a way to conform to the paradigms of the translator(s), to the way they understand the Greek text, and they can be wrong, as humans make mistakes, have blind spots, etc. No one tries to make some English text into some other English text, so the statement as it stands is a falsehood and furthermore, it is a KNOWN falsehood by the author. Why does such a false statement get published?

    2) The statement assumes it makes sense to rip a (partial) verse from its immediate context as if it was some kind of atomic truth statement found as an axiom of Euclid’s Elements of Geometry. Nothing could be further from the truth, this is a major way to hack the Bible to make it say almost anything one wishes. This is a major flaw of proof texters and should be repented from.

    So Duncan by his very example tells a know falsehood and demolishes the functional authority of Scripture. For this he needs to repent.

  • Jonathan Lewis

    I’m afraid I’m just going to echo the previous two comments, but it needs repeating.

    You quoted Ligon Duncan as saying “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.”

    All I can say is that either Duncan isn’t very well read or else he is deliberately misrepresenting evangelical egalitarians. I have read a number of egalitarian expositions of 1 Tim 2:12 and they all use the accepted historical-grammatical hermeneutic to attempt to understand the verse (and those around it) as it would have originally been understood.

    Check out Wade Burleson’s, for example:

    Is this denying the authority of scripture? Absolutely not. There are plenty more like that.

    Duncan’s actual problem, I would suggest, is that the egalitarian approach is a challenge to his authority, and the authority of other complementarian theologians. They don’t like the fact that the supposed Biblical basis for their exclusive club of church leaders (no women allowed) is being exposed as defective. I think they are the ones with the low view of scripture, hanging on to their discriminatory beliefs rather than letting themselves be changed by the Bible.

  • Jonathan Lewis

    Another thought. There does seem to be a strong connection, in many places, between paedobaptism and liberal theology. For example, I know from personal experience that in England their anglican, methodist, and united reformed churches are paedobaptist and pretty liberal. Unlike the US, there’s hardly any evangelical presbyterians. Whereas the British baptist, independent evangelical, and “new” churches, virtually all credobaptist, are strongly evangelical.

    Requiring people to make a profession of faith as an adult and be baptised by immersion is not something that liberals are attracted to! So I would suggest that there is considerable evidence that paedobaptism does to lead to liberalism.

    In my view it takes a lot more “gymnastics” (to use Duncan’s term) to break the link between baptism and faith than it does to conclude that the supposed bans on women teaching are actually a misunderstanding of the Bible.

    • Alan Wilson

      As a European, I think this is a good point. While I appreciate Denny’s articulation of his position, I fear that there are plenty of examples of places in Europe where paedobaptism has indeed been a slippery slope. How many people have been baptised in the Church of England, or, say, one of the Scandanavian state churches and thus given a false sense of security? By no means am I saying that all paedobaptists are on a slippery slope – far from it – but it is hard to remove the issue from the gospel.

  • Peter Krol

    Thanks for the thoughtful post. Perhaps another way to say what you are saying, Denny, is that gender roles debates revolve around how to deal with the explicit statements of the Bible (like 1 Tim 2:12), while the sacramental debates revolve around how to deal with church’s historic creeds, or with the inferences from Scripture. For example, Scripture explicitly prohibits a woman from teaching or exercising over authority a man, but it does not explicitly command (or prohibit) baptizing babies. This distinction raises the importance of complementarianism, even over sacramental theology.

  • Don Johnson

    My take is you are decontextualizing the Bible.

    Baptisms are listed in Hebrews are one of the “milk” things of the faith, that is, the basic stuff, while gender is not even mentioned. All the while 1 Tim was written to 1 person at Ephesus in the 1st century, so it takes a heap of assumption to claim that whatever is says is transcultural. Do the women members of your church every wear pearls or braids?

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