I resisted the temptation to go for the clickbait title this time. “Should the Women Keep Silent in the SBC?”
Complementarianism is a doctrine established in the Baptist Faith and Message and disdained by our culture, even modern Christian culture.
After nearly 2000 years of a fairly consistent understanding of the biblical truth about men and women, marriage, and roles in the church, suddenly people are discovering new and inventive hermeneutical approaches to demonstrate that the Bible doesn’t actually say what it seems to say. All those verses about submission and about men holding positions of authority in the church – they didn’t mean what they seemed to mean after all.
But in spite of the fact that our world hates the doctrine with the white-hot intensity of a thousand burning suns and that the flow of defectors in the evangelical world to egalitarianism is more than a trickle, we Southern Baptists hold on to the biblical teaching that men and women are equal image-bearers in creation and equal participants in the work of Christ at Calvary but at home and in the church men and women have been assigned different roles by God. As we fulfill our different roles to the glory of God we complement each other.
This doctrine has been established as part of our joint confession, the BF&M. It is what we believe.
But we are finding out that defining complementarianism is much more difficult than confessing it. Application of the principles we confession in real life can be tricky, leading to conflict and division. Certainly, that has been the case recently, as we have seen in the theoretical discussion of a woman serving as SBC president.
In one corner, we have the (mostly) Reformed combatants who hold to very strict interpretations of complementarianism and are willing to condemn anyone who doesn’t hold to their interpretation as egalitarian or in some way doctrinally suspect.
- If you would consider a woman as an SBC officer, you are a troublemaker, or a closet Methodist, or a liberal, or some of the other labels that have been attached.
- If you allow women into roles in your church that they consider forbidden to women, your conservative card is revoked.
- If you have much of anything to do with “that woman” (her name rhymes with Schmeth Schmoore) you are clearly an apostate.
I’m guessing some of these folks are not happy about the wonderful new writers we’ve added recently from the distaff side. “Let the women keep silent on the blogs?”
In the other corner, there are people who identify as complementarians but who reserve only the highest office in the church, the senior pastor office, and perhaps the elder positions for men. They have no trouble with women leading out in every other way in the church, as ministry leaders. They have women pray and sing and serve as staff ministers, as long as they are not the senior pastor. Some push the definition of complementarian to the limit.
In the interests of full disclosure, I’m between the poles but probably a little closer to the second corner than the first.
I am somewhat befuddled by those who speak as if the Bible is absolutely and unassailably clear on every issue of application related to complementarianism. I am convictionally complementarian – sound hermeneutics leads to no other conclusion. But can we not admit that there are some confusing, mysterious truths and concepts that are difficult to apply? If you have every question answered and every mystery solved you may be surer than the Scripture warrants. A little humility wouldn’t hurt any of us here.
- 1 Corinthians 14:34 says that the women are not permitted to speak and should keep silent in the church. Some churches take this verse absolutely. But wait, could there be a context to that? The passage is about tongues and prophecy. Maybe that is the “speaking” women are prohibited from. But a few chapters earlier, in 1 Corinthians 11:4, Paul said that any woman who prayed or prophesied should do it with her head covered. I know, you’ve got it all figured out, but can we at least admit that the exegesis is laborious?
- I’ve spent a lot of time working through 1 Corinthians 11 and I still can’t figure out the whole head covering thing. It is an eternal principle – submission – but the application of it appears to be a moving target. In the early verses it seems clear we are talking about a covering worn on the head but then in verse 15 it says a woman’s hair is her covering. Again, all I’m saying is that the passage is anything but crystal clear.
- 1 Timothy 2:11-16 prohibits a woman from teaching or holding authority over a man. This is rooted in the order of creation and the fall. But then, in verse 16, Paul says that a woman will be “saved through childbearing.” Again, I am aware of the explanations, but it is a difficult passage. What about single women and those unable to bear children?
I have two minor points here.
- Complementarian interpretation of these passages is the only one that honors their grammatical and historical context. They are uniformly rooted in creation and other eternal and universal principles and are not changing cultural teachings. Egalitarian interpretations are fancifully creative but not accurate to the text.
- While we must hold on to complementarian doctrine can we at least admit that there is some room for two people who love Jesus, love the word, and faithfully work through it to come to some different views in applying complementarian principles?
- Couldn’t two people who are both doggedly complementarian disagree on whether a woman could be SBC president?
- Couldn’t two churches, both complementarian, hold different views on whether a woman could lead singing or be a children’s minister, or teach youth aged boys, or some of these other questions we fight about?
- Couldn’t two faithful interpreters disagree on some of the issues we are condemning and almost anathematizing one another about in social media today?
- Couldn’t we demonstrate a smidgeon of doctrinal humility on this issue and agree that while we hold to complementarianism as a convention, that doctrine is going to have a wide range of iterations and interpretations?
- Gulp…couldn’t two Christians disagree on whether that hypothetical “Schmeth Schmoore” person is a heretic or not?
I will make one more point, a major one. We have to do some major work as a denomination in defining the boundaries of complementarianism. I hope we aren’t planning to abandon the doctrine so it would behoove us to clarify its boundaries.
- We must make sure that people know that complementarians do not endorse patriarchal, paternalistic attitudes that degrade women. Some women are not given that lane to run in and are asked to simply stand on the sidelines and bring jello and potato salad while we men do the work of God. Women in some church cultures have been expected to absorb abuse and mistreatment without recourse while men did as they pleased. This is not complementarianism. It isn’t what we teach.
- We must also define as best we can the breaking point of complementarianism. Where do we draw the line? It seems that we have drawn the line at senior pastoral roles and perhaps that is a good place for that line to stay. But in this shape-shifting world we cannot leave that line undefined.
- Within those boundaries, perhaps we can “agree to disagree?” There can be stricter and less strict complementarian churches and each church can follow its convictions without condemning or harassing the other. What a novel concept.
We are complementarian but the problem is that today, complementarianism is in the eye of the beholder. We need to fence the doctrine in a little bit better – on both ends – and give our confession some weight.