Is Complementarianism A Gospel Issue?

Hannah A raised a great question in her discussion of Jen Michel’s post at Her.meneutics: How far does Christian liberty extend in gender applications? The issue of a woman finding one’s place in a complementarian church is a different one from finding one’s place in a parachurch organization, which is by nature a less-organized (in the sense of less strictly governed, not in the sense of being administratively handicapped).

It was St. Augustine who wrote “in essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.” It seems to me that Christians in church and para-church alike all agree with Augustine. We all want unity on the essentials, and liberty on the non-essentials. The underlying issue, then, is whether we consider the question of  roles and relationships of men and women in the church to be an essential, or non-essential doctrine. 

In other words: is the issue of women in the church a ‘gospel issue’?

I believe that the amount of liberty we are willing to extend in gender applications is directly proportional to how firmly we believe our theology of gender to be an essential to the Christian faith. Owen Strachan, President of the Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, certainly sees complementation theology as  quintessential to the Faith. “Complementarity is a simple biological fact and a core biblical teaching. This is not a fourth-order doctrine,” he writes, adding in parenthesis: “as if we can rank any teaching of Scripture.”

It is hard to disagree with Strachan on this. After all, James tells us that whoever keeps the law and stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking the whole of it (James 2:10). Who are we, then, to decide what is “important” in the Word of God?

Firm egalitarians face the same issue: that being that their understanding of the gender passages is intrinsically tied into their hermeneutic and understanding of the gospel as a whole. As such, for writers such as Sarah Bessey, seeing the Kingdom value of women and their call to discipleship is innately woven into the redemptive message of the Gospel. “There is Scriptural justification, historical justification, Spirit justification, traditional and communal justification for women preaching and pastoring and leading,” she writes.

Both complementarians and egalitarians have this right: that salvation is not an abstract concept for neutered souls. Rather the gospel of God’s Kingdom is for men and women (not gender neutral people), embodied souls who are saved in their maleness and femaleness – and somehow we must live our understanding of the Kingdom out in our gendered reality.

In a real way, this is so much more than a question of what women and men can and can’t do in practice – it is a more fundamental question of identity and finding our place in the narrative of God’s Kingdom. Looking at it this way, it seems that it is a essential issue in the Augustinian sense – something in which we should seek unity. And if that’s what we mean by essential, then we will not be able to afford one another much liberty on gender applications.

And yet.

Yet—all of life is undergirded by theology, and our hermeneutic of the Kingdom should affect every aspect of our life and practice. In some sense, everything we do is essential in as much as it is colored by our allegiance to Jesus; and even so we see the Scripture itself tolerating a variety of non-essentials, each of these shaped by the theological scruples and contextual background of the people in question. Is it okay to eat meat? Well, that depends. Are you Jewish? Were you an idol-worshipper? Who are you eating with? The apostle Paul had clear gospel-shaped convictions on this issue (1 Corinthians 8-10), and yet declared it to be a non-essential: an issue we dare not draw a line in the sand on and thereby judge those for whom Christ has died.

Must one observe the Sabbath? Well, that also depends. What do you understand by Sabbath? Are you a Gentile? Are you keeping with the intention of the sabbath and rescuing a fallen ox, or are you defying it an working? Do you mean Saturday or Sunday? And how does Jesus’ resurrection change that?

I do believe Scripture has something to say about the place of men and women in the Kingdom (and I believe it has something specific to say to each, since it was God’s delight to make us different), and I deeply believe that the Gospel should undergird and inform our hermeneutic and application of this question.

But do I think this is an “essential” question, one in which we must have unity? No, I don’t (and neither do any of our Creeds). I would put this into the non-essential category – an area where we have liberty, subject to the Word of God and our Spirit-led consciences. But, there’s still the matter of how we do church in practice. And so to answer Hannah’s more specific questions:

Do you allow for liberty of practice for those who are more/less conservative than you? Yes.

Would you participate in an organization that restricted/supported female ordination because you believed something greater was at stake? Yes, I would participate. But I do not have a clear conscience about teaching men, so at this point would decline an invitation to preach to a mixed congregation. My own conscience is captive on this issue, but I do not feel a conviction to persuade others on it.

Thanks for opening up a good discussion, Hannah.

Now, would anyone else like the saltshaker?


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