Over its long history, the church has appointed men into the episcopate, although women participated in other forms of leadership (e.g., the being part of the diaconate).
But in the late twentieth century, Western Christians became increasingly uneasy with a male only episcopate. If the Spirit gifts Christians, why cannot women do everything that men can do? Why cannot women become pastors, elders, or the equivalent?
In response to this sentiment, a number of Evangelical leaders coined the term complementarianism to promote what they see as a traditional and biblical understanding of gender. Complementarians teach that God created men and women to be equal in worth but diverse in roles. So, for example, complementarians reserve the role of elder/pastor/bishop for men alone. In contrast, egalitarians argue that men and women can equally participate in roles and so women should be allowed access to the episcopate.
Here’s a brief sketch of the Complementarian Movement’s (CM) history.
The Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW) formed in 1987, and they shortly thereafter crafted a statement, called The Danvers Statement. The statement aimed to clarify what it means to be male and female and to uphold the Bible’s teaching of these matters.
The intent of the statement was to include a diversity of complementarianisms, as Denny Burk (the current president of CBMW) notes:
Yes, this has been true from the beginning when the Danvers Statement was first adopted in 1987. It is a very broad statement of complementarian conviction. The diversity has been there for a long time.
— Denny Burk (@DennyBurk) January 29, 2018
In other words, the Danvers Statement does not aim to exclude but to include all those who affirm the complementarity of men and women.
It would take four years until the movement released a comprehensive explanation and defence. Owen Strachan calls Recovering Biblical Manhood & Womanhood “the foundational text of the modern complementarian movement.”
In the preface, John Piper and Wayne Grudem define the beginning of the controversy as “over 20 years ago” (p. 10). So, it began sometime before 1971 and probably after 1966. While they oddly do not define the controversy exactly, it seems clear that they mean the elimination of gendered role differences, the rejection of male leadership in the church, and/or evangelical feminism.
The book aims to resolve the controversy and respond to “evangelical feminists” (p. 10). Piper and Grudem then explain, “But our primary purpose is broader than that: We want to help Christians recover a noble vision of manhood and womanhood as God created them to be -hence [sic] the main title, Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood” (p. 10).
Following the publication of Recovering Biblical Manhood & Womanhood, the movement rose in popularity throughout the 90s and 2000s, and it is now associated with evangelicalism. Many egalitarians (those who affirm the equality of man and women in all ecclesial roles), nevertheless, still remain evangelical but disagree with their brothers and sisters in Christ on the issue of the complementarity of the genders.
CBMW’s mission seems to have been accomplished. They articulated their view of complementarity, and their message made its way into many evangelical churches. But now they recognized another important issue: sexuality.
So they formed a sub-coalition in 2017, calling it “A Coalition on Biblical Sexuality.” This coalition produced The Nashville Statement in the same year.
The statement affirms the Danvers Statement yet goes beyond it by articulating what they believe the Bible says about same-sex attraction and the like.
The Coalition on Biblical Sexuality gives CBMW a new purpose and new energy. And this is the current form of CBMW. Likely, the question of sexuality will overlap with the question of complementarity in the future because of CBMW’s new initiative.
CBMW and the CM as whole has successfully communicated their message over the decades, although the egalitarian movement is growing in popularity.
But the CM still has a long way to go before it can be persuasive to those who are of the egalitarian persuasion. The CM has mainly galvanized those who already agree with them or who would likely agree with them. Those on the fence and those who are egalitarians remain as of yet unconvinced.
I suggest two reasons for this. First, the CM is popular, and so it hasn’t felt the need to persuade the great mass of Evangelicals (especially those in Canada and the UK). In short, the CM movement is comfortable. And due to this comfort, CM proponents may sound overly triumphalistic to unsympathetic ears. And that turns away those on the fence or those on the other side of it.
The CM needs to work on persuasively convincing those who are outside the camp to come into it. Of course, many are doing this now (I am speaking in generalities). But this will be increasingly important for the CM to make strides.
Second, the CM has failed to clearly articulate what acting in a feminine way or a masculine means in a clear and obviously biblical manner. In the 2000s, many associated the CM with Mark Driscoll and his matcho-man approach. Today, it’s still unclear for many what it means for a man to act as a man or a woman to act as a woman.
Some have associated the differences between men and women within a pattern of submission and authority, attempting to base this on the inner-workings of the Trinity (see here and here). But this argument relies on a controversial understanding of the Trinity. So, it probably will not engender a consensus.
Others have defined the differences based on traditional roles in the home (men are breadwinners; women home-keepers). But this has been increasingly difficult to show from Scripture. In the biblical world, men and women worked together from home. The modern separation of work from home created a culture where men traveled to the “factory” and wives stayed at “home.” But is this the vision of complementarity that the Bible portrays?
If the CM wants to clearly articulate how men and women differ and how these differences positively benefit the faith of Christians, then something needs to change.
These challenges are not unsurmountable. And one of the benefits of the demise of North America’s patriarchal default is that Christians will be forced to look to the Bible not culture to define how men and women differ.
As a complementarian myself, I am excited for the future of CM. I look forward to a thoroughly biblical account of the complementarity of men and women that allows us to flourish and fulfill God’s best for us.
 Complementarians define gender and sex as the same thing. So someone’s birth sex is this person’s gender.
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