Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Complementarian Confusion and Clarity

In the last few days I have found myself responding to many questions about a change recently made by our academic neighbor to the north regarding not admitting men into two Bible classes taught by a female instructor. This, along with a recent chapel message by the university president, Dr. White (which I was not present to hear), has been taken to mean that Cedarville University will not have women teach men in Bible classes, and is said to be a "strengthening" of the school's view on men's and women's roles. The position I take on the issue on male/female roles (called "complementarianism") has been attacked in conversation and in writing because of the decision, and find myself trying to explain to many what I think the Bible teaches, why the decision may have been made (I have no "insider knowledge" on this matter), and what I think about it.

[This article on the Christianity Today website reports on this recent decision and reactions to it. In the article, the classes in question are said to be geared toward equipping women for ministry to women. One of the classes, on scriptural understanding of gender roles, seems to include subject matter that would be helpful to both male and female students. No mention is made of whether or not women faculty would continue to teach general Bible classes open to students of both sexes. Until this year, this was accepted practice.]

I am not writing to tell C.U. what to do--it should do what its trustees and administration believe is correct. I pray and hope for the very best for the school, as a member of the community, as an alumnus, as an adjunct instructor who happily affirms their doctrinal statement, and as a pastor to so many who work and study there.

I write as a pastor for my flock because so many of you have been asking me questions that indicate you may not understand what complementarian thinking is, and how complementarians may differ on the ramifications of our view. One of you pointed me to a blog that called complementarianism "a theological position that forbids women to 'teach or have authority over' men and teaches that men stand in authority over their wives"--a definition that touches on truth but is so poorly stated it creates a caricature instead of clarity.

The two major evangelical views on this issue are complementarianism, which I will discuss below, and egalitarianism. This latter view is held by the majority among American evangelicals today, and holds that there are no essential distinctions to be kept between the roles of males and females in the church or the family--women and men both may be pastors/elders, and there is no special leadership role in the family given to husbands and fathers. There are many places you can find this position explained, expanded or defended, but I'll leave that to you if you choose.

Complementarians teach that God created humanity in his image, and created us as male and female. While equally valued human beings, males and females are distinct, and each of us is born, according to God's plan, as one or the other.  [Please visit this site of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood for the rationale and the core beliefs of biblical complementarianism--CBMW has wonderful resources explaining more fully a robust and biblical vision for men's and women's roles].

This created sexual identity carries with it obvious biological differences, and beyond biology, in God's design he has given the man the role of leader (Paul uses the term "head" in 1 Corinthians and Ephesians) within the marriage and family relationship, and the woman the role of "helper," i.e. "partner" who "completes" the relationship with her unique (and "complementary") gifts and abilities. Further, in the New Testament, the role of leader within the spiritual family of faith--the church--is also given to men as pastors/elders/overseers.

Why is this? Paul's argument in 1 Timothy 2 is that this was both God's created order (male was created first, then female as helper), and that the Fall was indicative of what happens when male leadership is abandoned (the man was not deceived but the woman was deceived by the serpent). Genesis 1 and 2 are taken as the paradigm to follow, and Genesis 3 a result of not following it.

Within the curses pronounced in Genesis 3, the balanced relationship between male and female was corrupted in keeping with the disobedience both male and female exhibited in the Fall. The woman would now desire to control her husband (as she had in leading the decision to disobey), but the man would either abandon his leadership role or use his greater powers (physical and societal) to "rule" as master--dominate--her. Instead of a partnership with a loving leader and well-suited partner, the male-female relationship would have to deal with the constant tendency toward conflict seeking control (I taught on this extensively in our Genesis series a few years back; you can go to the church website's media page and find the sermon videos there; the audio will be uploaded soon).

But why does this created order affect church order? The simple answer for me is that the New Testament says so. In 1 Corinthians 14, Paul says women are to keep silent in the church's corporate teaching times--not an absolute ban on speech, but on women filling the prophetic teaching role there. 1 Timothy 2 says women are not permitted to teach or exercise authority over men--again, in the setting of public worship, and "teachers who exercise authority" is the description of the overseer/elder/pastor role, for which the qualifications are given in the next chapter. In the qualifications for pastors/elders/overseers, only men are considered in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. But women are considered in the qualifications for deacon in 1 Timothy 3 and Phoebe is called a "deacon(ess)" in Romans 16. While Jesus demonstrated that women had equal status as people and as his followers, his choice of all men as apostles shows that even in his own ministry, he could treat people equally and yet maintain distinctions in roles. This has been the historic understanding of this passage by all major streams of Christian teaching from the first century until the eighteenth, and aside from Methodism, until the twentieth.

I hasten to add the following: other than those places where God has specified a role for men or women, I believe that men and women have freedom within their giftedness and circumstances to pursue their goals to the glory of God. Complementarianism values the unique roles of each sex, but does not require adherence to societal norms that may or may not represent biblical requirements.

For example, complementarians honor and celebrate motherhood, but this does not mean that married women who are mothers cannot work outside the home. We urge that men exercise appropriate leadership in marriage, family and the church, but we do not hold that only men can be leaders in other settings (political, economic, academic and societal).  We would deny that men may dominate their wives, homes, or in the church in an unspiritual, self-serving way--such approaches are not complementarian.

While women are not to hold the role of the authoritative teachers within the local church, many women's intellectual and teaching gifts can be used to teach men and women truth, including biblical truths, in various other settings. Mothers teach sons and daughters in the home and their instruction is to be heeded along with that of fathers, according to the Book of Proverbs. Priscilla, along with her husband Aquila, took the preacher Apollos aside and explained to him "the way of God" more clearly (Acts 18:26). Men filled the role later identified as deacons when the seven were chosen in Acts 6, but Romans 16 and 1 Timothy 3 speak of women in this major role of service, and the early church's history has women deacons (sometimes called "deaconesses") in prominent reports; while it only has men as elders/pastors/overseers. The history of missions is replete with women (single and married) who have evangelized men and women (in culturally appropriate ways) and been the founders of church planting movements, even while never serving as pastors themselves.

Cedarville University's leaders have decided to limit enrollment in two classes taught by a female instructor to women. They may follow the pattern of some other Christian-affiliated schools and choose to hold a "church" standard for the classroom--at least for Bible and Theology classes--believing that teaching these subjects to men is to be viewed as an extension of the local church's function and thus under the restriction that only men should teach them. Other complementarians might see the "church-university parallel" as incorrect and thus a misapplication of the biblical teaching. Both are operating from complementarian views, but their actions will differ.

So, to the people who tell me that they disagree with complementarian thinking because they disagree with a particular decision or action someone who holds this view has taken, be careful. You can have different understandings of how male/female differences may play out in areas not specifically addressed in the Bible, and still be complementarian. Only if you reject basic role distinctions between male and female are you rejecting this point of view.

I hope this helps those of you struggling with this issue and brings some clarity for your thinking. And of course you can let me know if you have questions!