New Wave Complementarianism and the Revenge of the Straw Men

A couple weeks ago, author and blogger Wendy Alsup wrote a breakout post titled “A New Wave of Complementarianism,” noting a stirring among complementarians who feel uneasy with some of the beliefs and practices traditionally aligned with that position. The topic generated a passel of exuberant “amens,” some doubtful side-eye glances, and a handful of truly disturbing responses.

I counted myself among the amens. I’m an egalitarian woman, in an egalitarian denomination, who writes for egalitarian organizations, but I only disagreed with one of the eight distinctives Alsup uses to define New Wave Complementarianism–that there are positions of authority only men should hold.

Honestly, I’m a little afraid that positive commentary from egalitarian circles might hurt their cause in some people’s eyes, but I feel like I need to say something. Because sisters, we have a Euodia and Syntyche situation on our hands. We have powerful ministers of the gospel being hampered, divided and distracted by an ongoing disagreement.

Many of the women involved in these conversations are women I am immensely drawn to; women whose work I respect and whose passions run parallel to mine. I imagine we’d be friends if we lived near each other–that we’d get together for coffee to laugh about our kids, talk about God, brainstorm new ministry initiatives, and crack intellectual jokes about our divergent theological leanings. I imagine we’d proof each other’s articles, pray with and for one another, shed tears over each other’s hurts, and leap to one another’s defense when things got sticky.

Reading Alsup’s post and others like it, I was reminded again of how much we have in common. But reading the responses, something else occurred to me. Is it possible that we’re having a hard time meeting in the middle not because there’s such a gulf between us, but because each side is being defined by its fringe?

Here’s the thing. Most of the posts and comments I’ve read regarding New Wave Complementariansism make me want to cheer. I recognize my own heart, hurts, doubts, and hopes in these women’s words. But some (not all) of the negative pushback they’ve received was truly troubling, the sort of cringe-worthy comments that anyone unfamiliar with fundamentalism would hardly believe existed nowadays. We’re talking about ideas that strike at the heart of female personhood, that have women created less-fully in the image of God than men are.

Whoa, Nellie.

It was like the straw man showed up on their doorstep, live and in person, with his hair on fire.

It kinda freaked me out.

But then it occurred to me. Egalitarianism has its straw men too, and like the ones on the complementarian side, they are very real. There are egalitarians who diminish or deny the inspiration of scripture. There are egalitarians who make more of their freedom in Christ than their obligation to serve others. There are egalitarians who seem more loyal to feminist theory than biblical, Christ-centered theology, and wind up accommodating syncretistic attitudes toward sin.

Now, I could talk until I was blue in the face about how that’s not REAL biblical egalitarianism. I could explain that those views are contrary to the stance of Christians for Biblical Equality, and refer back to Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity Without Hierarchy, as complementarians often do with the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood and Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. But my protestations won’t make the straw men go away, or keep them from being lumped in with a theological position that I consider to be of great practical importance. And just because someone is on the fringe of a movement doesn’t mean that they don’t have an influential voice within it–in fact, their weirdness draws attention, whether most of their compatriots think they’re nutters or not.

It’s maddening. The labels being used in this conversation are not only imprecise; they can be downright inaccurate and even deceptive. It’s like trying to squeeze into size twelve jeans from Banana Republic because that’s the size you buy from The Gap. They’re owned by the same company, and you’d think they should fit, but yeah–good luck with that.

*cough*

Anyhow. New Wave Complementarian sisters, I like your jeans. In fact, I have a pair just like them. Aren’t they the best?!

Here’s what I think. I think we should reach across the gender divide, lock hands, and refuse to let go. I think we should speak about our beliefs and experiences with honesty and charity, never forgetting that we are beloved sisters in Christ. I think we should trust the Holy Spirit to lead and convict, and be careful not to disparage the work He is doing in and through someone else’s life, even when we don’t “get it.” I think we should keep the main thing the main thing, and team up for the good of the kingdom and the glory of God.

And I think we should consider coming up with a new label. Barnabas babes? For women who passionately pursue and encourage ministry, even in the midst of controversy, disagreement, and sharp cultural debate?

(Okay, kidding, that’s a HORRIBLE name! :-D But I’m only half-joking about needing a new label, for the five minutes before it’s co-opted, anyhow.)

What do you think?

29 Responses to New Wave Complementarianism and the Revenge of the Straw Men

  1. Hannah Thomas May 7, 2013 at 9:41 am #

    ”’My caution, then, is that we don’t make a new version of complementarianism that has for one of its main objectives appeasing egalitarians. ”’ (DeYoung)

    I look at one of the last sentences, and I think…he truly doesn’t get it does he?

    I’m sorry but if he could possibly glance back at history – or the organizations, individuals – he seems to feel is under attack just for a moment.

    The whole agenda starting with using the words ‘Evangelical Feminism’ or ‘evangelical feminists’ or terms along those lines were meant as derogatory terms – and he darn well knows it. They were not meant as general terms, etc. Those are the labels egalitarian’s didn’t use, but were used against them. I guess their way of using ‘love’ or something.

    The fact that people are being told, ‘what do you tell a little girl or little boy when they ask it is to be a woman or a man in biblical terms’ outside the plumbing part – which they seem to feel people can’t answer unless comp properly. Everyone knew what they meant, and it made no cotton pickin sense. AS if only they can tell people what biblical whatever is.

    I guess he missed the fact that people can look at these campaigns that speak of gender blurring, and gender sameness and realize appeasing, or even attempting to come together somewhere along the faith lines is NOT their goal. They (DeYoung and crowd) make this very clear. The way they describe it no one can recognize the difference between man or woman, or heck realize when things transform into HOMOSEXUALITY before their very eyes – only THEY see this. (thud – my head against the wall) This was born out of nastiness and he knows that as well.

    Appeasing? Somehow I doubt that is the goal. It seems a matter of people within their ‘circle’ don’t agree with their views (or distortion), and clearly see the path they don’t want to go down…even with their ‘soft’ pedaling of this is not patriarchy, hierarchy, but GOD’S way! Seriously, at times you tend to feel slimed after hearing their theories.

    No offense Mr. DeYoung, but I think people are tired of hearing the gong or cymbal being played. It’s hurting their ears.

    I can’t stand people playing the ‘we are misunderstood’ card after playing this ugly game of ‘us against them’ in the way they did. This excuse about how egal’s think they are all ‘mean’ is a high school tactic…and quite frankly most of us have grown up and moved past that.

    It would be nice to come to the table and talk like adults. Realize that we have much more in common than what we have been told, and learn to be a ‘body’ of Christ. Matter of fact – it would be awesome…and no doubt God would be pleased!

    I for one am encouraged by this starting point.

    • Jenny Rae Armstrong May 7, 2013 at 1:54 pm #

      “Realize that we have much more in common than what we have been told, and learn to be a ‘body’ of Christ.”

      Yes, exactly. I think sometimes we fear that if we don’t distance ourselves from people who are different than us, people will believe we condone everything they do, say, or believe. This sort of attitude is SO harmful!

  2. Wendy Alsup May 7, 2013 at 9:43 am #

    Jenny, thanks for the article. You are right — positive feedback from an egalitarian will give some a reason to criticize this idea even more, but that is truly sad in my mind. I learn best when I allow my beliefs to be tested for their own blindspots by those who think differently than me, but many see such discussion as only a slippery slope toward compromise.

    I appreciated your observation that both sides tend to be defined by their fringe. That’s too bad.

    • Jenny Rae Armstrong May 7, 2013 at 2:04 pm #

      Thanks Wendy. The “us vs. them” posturing IS really sad, and can be found in complementarian and egalitarian circles. I think it’s fear. People feel that they or their theology is under attack in some way (and sometimes it is, I guess) and react instead of respond. The ironic thing is that from a theological perspective, this is a relatively small difference, but the practical working out of these issues is HUGE, which makes it scary. I mean, not too many women feel personally threatened by someone else’s view of, say, election. :-) There has been so much hurt, and we all need an extra helping of grace in this area.

  3. Suzanne Burden May 7, 2013 at 9:50 am #

    Oh, Jenny! Yes. This is one of the reasons I have never called myself an “egalitarian.” Though I’m sure others have called me this and many other names as well! :) And the jeans thing, well, the jeans thing is just bringing me laughter, and I needed a laugh today. Thank you, dear sister. And a shout-out to all who define themselves as complementarians or egalitarians or something in between: Jesus calls you beloved, the one that he loves, and he delights in you! Let’s love each other and keep talking and remembering that we do all of this for the One who loves us most.

    • Jenny Rae Armstrong May 7, 2013 at 2:14 pm #

      “Jesus calls you beloved, the one that he loves, and he delights in you! Let’s love each other and keep talking and remembering that we do all of this for the One who loves us most.”

      Suzanne, you are lovely!

      Side note–there was a point at which I resisted the “egalitarian” label, because I know it creates barriers with some people, and I didn’t want to make that an issue. But when I started writing for CBE I figured the cat was out of the bag. :-D It’s unfortunate that even the terminology we use to talk about these issues is so loaded.

  4. Tim May 7, 2013 at 9:55 am #

    Jen, this is a wonderful call for unity and reconciliation. You’ve done it without trying to erase the differences and instead poiting out the similarities. If Peter and Paul could disagree on how best to minister and still embrace one another within the body of Christ, those of us around today should certainly do the same.

    Cheers,
    Tim

    P.S. Michelle Van Loon posted a piece yesterday not about the fringe but about the margins, and you get a shout out in it: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/pilgrimsroadtrip/2013/05/out-to-the-margins-tim-fall/

    • Jenny Rae Armstrong May 7, 2013 at 2:15 pm #

      Thank you, Tim! That was a great post! It was fun to hear a little bit more about what you do during the day, and how you view your judging (among other things).

      • Tim May 7, 2013 at 3:02 pm #

        Thanks. It was also fun to be able to talk about how I view your awesome bloggishness, Jen!

  5. ed cyzewski May 7, 2013 at 10:45 am #

    Fantastic post! It is always helpful to remember the role that the fringes play.

    I think one of the challenges in the complementarian/egalitarian dialogue is that some of the mainstream language that complementarians use is still pretty hurtful. I know that it’s hard to say who speaks for a movement, however, there are nationally recognized pastors who say some pretty combative things. If anything, there is a range of opinions and views on each side. A spectrum perhaps? While those on the fringes say the really hateful stuff, there is a mix of rhetoric that can still cause it’s fair share of damage.

    • Jenny Rae Armstrong May 7, 2013 at 2:23 pm #

      Good point, Ed. I think its easy for people to forget how incredibly sensitive these issues can be for people, and how important it is to tread lightly, whatever your beliefs. This came up a bit on Facebook. Many people have been deeply wounded by patriarchal systems, committed Christian women are still being barred from ministries that they truly feel the Holy Spirit has called them to (and being called nasty names besides), and I think that needs to be acknowledged. We need to get out of the pattern of reacting, of fighting and hurting each other, and strive for unity, even when we disagree. Certainly we can disagree without discounting or attacking people!

  6. Carlene Byron May 7, 2013 at 11:55 am #

    Combativeness, throwing up straw men to assault, and turning on each other all seem to be the order of the day. This particular issue is only one where it happens, unfortunately. I posted the following after I experienced a rather startling attack via a “Christian” Facebook page a week ago. http://wp.me/pZQMq-Wf

  7. Elena Johnston May 7, 2013 at 12:35 pm #

    Amen!

  8. Luma Simms May 7, 2013 at 12:45 pm #

    I had a great laugh at the “Barnabas babes!” :-)

    I agree with Wendy, positive feedback from egalitarians would make us even more suspect. It grieves me deeply.

    My desire, as Wendy can attest to, has never been to appease anyone. My desire is to have a conversation with brothers and sisters in Christ as Jesus described: “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:35)

    By the way, I saw your article in Relevant from a few months ago. I actually had a response/different take but I don’t know if they will publish it. I think you raised some good concerns.

    • Jenny Rae Armstrong May 7, 2013 at 2:29 pm #

      Thanks Luma! If they do publish it, please let me know–I’d love to check it out!

      I agree–being able to come to the table, like Karen mentioned below, is SO healthy and important! And since when was everyone in the church expected to believe exactly the same thing, and live it out the same way? “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; and in all things, charity.”

  9. Karen Yates May 7, 2013 at 1:19 pm #

    First, just a praise for you, Jenny, for your heart for unity and less labels and more understanding. This is a most gracious post.

    For me, I’m borderline exhausted by the egal/comp conversation. I can’t stand the fighting from both sides, the mean things we say to each other, the way we respond defensively and ungraciously, the way we attack back, the ways we are doing it on a public platform in front of a skeptical, largely disinterested in Jesus, culture. Can we blame them for not wanting to join this Family, when we pick on each other and uninvite each other and have no room for “speaking about our beliefs and experiences with honesty and charity?” This is not the only issue where we are a divided Family, but it is an easy one to point out. Sometimes it feels like we are all sitting at the table enjoying dinner, drink, discussion, community, and then someone “fringe” says something ridiculous, and it gets tense immediately. There are MANY people around the table that are ‘in the middle,’ (which is not to say they don’t have a theological position, but that they can engage in conversation graciously and lovingly). There are MANY people around the table, happy to be there, who want to “keep the main thing the main thing,” who are still engaged, but only with people who show the ability to listen and converse with respect. But when I hear name calling and see meanness and slander and bullying at this most beautiful, holy table, I take another sip of wine, turn to the person beside me, and talk about the Denver Broncos. :)

    Thanks for the call to unity.

    • Jenny Rae Armstrong May 7, 2013 at 2:31 pm #

      “Sometimes it feels like we are all sitting at the table enjoying dinner, drink, discussion, community, and then someone ‘fringe’ says something ridiculous, and it gets tense immediately. There are MANY people around the table that are ‘in the middle,’ (which is not to say they don’t have a theological position, but that they can engage in conversation graciously and lovingly).”

      YES.

  10. Beth May 7, 2013 at 3:40 pm #

    Jenny, thanks again! I love your writing and your constant call for unity. I was raised secular, and though not exactly a skeptic, find the whole ‘church thing’ difficult to engage. I’ve felt Jesus tugging and pulling at me for years, and I love him and follow him, but am constantly repelled by all the division amongst Christians, even in my tiny, conservative town. Still feeling like such an outsider to faith, I often think- if people that call themselves Christians are so divided amongst themselves, what on Earth is the point? I am SO GRATEFUL writers like yourself how give me hope, and nudge me towards putting on my tennies and running the race alongside. Thanks!

  11. Kathi May 9, 2013 at 11:17 am #

    Is there a difference between being gender equal and being assigned different roles I your definition? As I read scripture and live life I recognize that equal does not mean “exactly the same.” It means bearing the same “weight.” My role as a woman differs from my husband’s role as a man. That does not mean he is more “worthy” or of greater value than I, or vice versa. BUT it also doesn’t mean we necessarily need to take on one another’s roles. It seems that there is distinction in defining a role vs a gender. Gender equality is NOT the same as role equality. That is defined Biblically. If the church is a type of marriage, does it not make sense to believe there can be different roles without that meaning that one gender is viewed as being “less than?”

    • Jenny Rae Armstrong May 9, 2013 at 4:37 pm #

      That’s a common argument, Kathi, and there is some merit to it. No one (at least, no one who isn’t way out on the fringe) is saying that women and men are the same, and the cultures that we live in also tend to assign different roles to men and women that aren’t based on biology. Some people believe that the Bible does as well, while others believe that differing roles described in scripture were teaching people how to honor Christ in their specific cultural context. Not to mention, there just isn’t that much ABOUT gender roles in the Bible–it’s in there, but it’s not the focus we make it out to be.

      But, the “equal but different” argument has always bothered me. It’s essentially the same as the “separate but equal” argument used to defend segregation in the American south. What we honestly have is a caste system in which some people are never allowed to fill certain roles based not on ability, merit, or aptitude, but on how they were born. Some people believe that this is what the Bible teaches and what God wants, and I can respect that. However, to call that equality is rather offensive, IMO, especially when one “caste” is leading the other one.

      • Sophie May 18, 2013 at 9:50 am #

        “What we honestly have is a caste system in which some people are never allowed to fill certain roles based not on ability, merit, or aptitude, but on how they were born. Some people believe that this is what the Bible teaches and what God wants, and I can respect that.”

        But it’s not really a respectable belief. I’m not sure that you would have respected the beliefs of those who upheld segregation because of ‘the curse of Ham’ so why respect complementarianism? This is one of the reasons I’m not a Christian anymore – because I see that people will justify injustice to themselves in the name of God, and it does damage to real people and is regressive. What we’re hearing from a lot of modern complementarians is that sexism is not OK in any walk of life at all – the boardroom, the schoolroom, the bedroom, the seats of power – but nonetheless, God loves sexism so much that He insists on upholding it in the church. The idea that it’s not really sexism because it’s religion is just denial. It’s the minimisation of women’s influence, and the marginalisation of their thoughts, experiences and voices. If you are putting men’s voices front and centre because they are men, and silencing women because they are women, what else do you call it but sexism? If you are giving men influential positions and denying them to women purely on the basis of their gender, what is that except sexism?

        To me it makes God look like some crusty old guy who isn’t comfortable with women having equal rights and equally dignified treatment to men. Oh, He’ll let the ladies work outside the home and choose who they marry these days, as a compromise with the modern world – but in His house, it’s His rules, and the little women will sit down and keep quiet like they’re meant to. What I’m trying to say is that I think it’s a nonsense to say that complementarianism is respectable at all, whether you believe it because you’re trying to be faithful to the Bible or not.

        • Tim May 18, 2013 at 6:25 pm #

          You’re not a Christian any longer because Christians get things wrong? I don’t really understand that, Sophie. Being a Christian makes sense because Jesus Christ is God, not because his people get things right all the time. The only reason not to be a Christian would be if Jesus isn’t who he said he is.

          • Sophie May 18, 2013 at 9:52 pm #

            Whether Jesus is God or not actually isn’t necessarily the most important thing to me, because if Jesus is a complementarian then I don’t want to know Him; He is wrong about women and He is wrong about me. Think about certain Calvinists. They hold so fast to the doctrine of God’s sovereignty that they make Him into a monster who almost actively sends disasters to earth for the sake of glorifying Himself, and considers them to be ‘good’. Even if such a God existed I’d never be able to worship Him. Soft complementarianism might not make God a monster but it does diminish women. No God worth my worship would actively seek to diminish women, just as no God worth worshipping would be happy to see a tsunami hit a busy coastline.

            I have no idea if Jesus is God. I wasn’t around when Jesus was on earth. I don’t know anything about analysing ancient manuscripts for truth or falsehood. I don’t personally know a single person who ever met Jesus in the flesh when He walked the earth, or saw Him rise from the dead, or ever saw any kind of proof that He was God. I can’t build a faith on knowing intellectually that Jesus is God. I have to choose whether or not to believe in Jesus based on other things. One of those things is the evidence of God’s goodness in the lives of His followers (because God is good). When I see people reject something that I know to be good because the Bible tells them otherwise; when I know that Christians have damaging beliefs that they probably wouldn’t have if they didn’t believe in the Bible, I become sceptical of whether the Bible (and the supposed God behind it) is a good thing or not.

            Supposing you had a manual for building a toaster. You follow it to the letter, but discover at the end that what you have built is not a toaster but an A-bomb. So you lend it to your friend and he also somehow builds a bomb rather than a toaster. Thinking it’s just a coincidence, you lend it to your entire social circle, but one by one almost all of them end up with bombs, not toasters. Wouldn’t you think that there was something wrong with the manual, that it wasn’t really doing what it claimed it would do? That it was confusing people and causing negative consequences that shouldn’t be happening if it were any good at being what it was supposed to be, i.e. a toaster manual?

            There are a lot of people – most of the Christians I’ve ever known , in fact – who would be egalitarian in their outlook (a morally good thing IMO) except that they find the Bible won’t allow them to be (a morally bad thing IMO). So they have to perform mental acrobatics and cognitive dissonance to reach the point where they believe in the values of equality that we’ve learned to hold so dear – the values summed up by MLK as judging somebody for the content of their character, not the colour of their skin – and yet simultaneously believe that women may not do things simply because they’re women. They say that the Bible that proclaims freedom is the same Bible that diminishes women through complementarianism. When it comes to women, the Bible has apparently been giving bomb building instructions, not the toaster building instructions it promises. That makes me question its trustworthiness as source of information about God who must necessarily be good, and the Bible’s claims about God including its claims about Jesus.

          • Jenny Rae Armstrong May 18, 2013 at 10:45 pm #

            Very well said, Sophie. I believe that the Bible establishes within the first few chapters of Genesis that gender hierarchy is a result of sin, not what God intends or wants at all, so that is a non-issue for me. And to stretch your metaphor past the breaking point, I think those passages used to support the suppression of women are not like people trying to build a toaster and winding up with a bomb–I think those passages are much more like people who only have bombs trying to figure out how to disarm them and turn them into toasters. Consider the cultures they were written in. Gah.

            Also, you have touched on why I am not a Calvinist. I don’t know enough about Reformed theology to comment intelligently, which is why I typically don’t, I have serious issues with some of those TULIP petals. Many of my friends are, wonderful people who I love, admire, and respect, but to me–I can’t help it–it seems dualistic.

            What it comes down to for me is that I believe, heart and soul, deep down in my bones, that God is good and that God loves everyone. I also believe that the entire Bible needs to be read through the lens of who Jesus was, because Jesus showed us how human beings were meant to live in relationship with God and one another. Did the Israelites do all sorts of weird crap in the OT? Of course they did, just like other nations around them, because they were messed up human beings, and God put up with it because he knows we’re all messed up human beings, and he is ridiculously patient. Did Jesus get partake in that weird crap? No? Than neither should we. That’s how I see it anyway. That probably makes me an Anabaptist. But I don’t know much about Anabaptist theology either. :-)

            So, I believe God is good, and if people say or write or do things that make it seem otherwise, it’s because of our crap. If God really was the way some people say he is–well, that would be horrible. I’ve been reading “The Last Battle” by C.S. Lewis, and this conversation reminds me of how the Narnians were enslaved by the False Aslan. That book has gotten downright freaky, now that I understand it better.

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