A couple of years ago, I abandoned complementarian theology. At the time, I abandoned it because it wasn’t working for me. But now that I’ve had a couple of years on the outside, I know I will never return to it. Here’s why:
- No one agrees on how to be complementarian.
Granted, there are variances in every theological camp. But for people who claim that complementarianism is God’s plan for humanity and best reflects the gospel, no one can seem to agree on how it should play out.
The premise generally remains the same: God designed men to be leaders and women to submit to their authority. This means that a woman cannot exercise spiritual authority over a man, and the man has the final say in all decisions. Sounds easy, right? Except that it’s not. It raises tons of questions, such as:
- Can a woman teach an adult coed Sunday School?
- Can women be deacons?
- Can men be stay-at-home fathers?
- When is a person exercising spiritual authority?
- If a man decides to spend his family into poverty, at what point can his wife rebuke him (if at all), and how?
Many of the big complementarian advocates–such as John Piper, Wayne Grudem and Russell Moore–have attempted to answer these questions, and all of them have come up with different answers. Some say women can be deacons and teach, others forbid it. Some say a woman can confront her husband about sinful behavior, others say she must go through her pastor. Grudem, in fact, once published a list of 83 church ministries, discussing which he thought should be opened or closed to women. This wouldn’t be so much of an issue, except…
2. The goalposts are always moving.
Don’t believe me? Try being a female domestic violence victim looking for help. If the pastor you approach doesn’t chew you out for daring to bring an accusation against your “federal head,” he will first ask if you have submitted enough. Well, of course you haven’t, because if you had, there wouldn’t be a problem. Complementarianism is the magical Jesus plan that makes everything beautiful. Oh, you submitted some more and your husband is still an abusive jerk? He’s not a real complementarian, then. Submit until he becomes one.
Or try being a man who decides for himself how he should best manage his household. Comp leaders say they grant leeway for people to decide how complementarianism will play out in their marriages…until they see a man opting to do something that’s not very manly…like driving a minivan, caring for kids, doing domestic chores or letting his wife make certain decisions. Then all of a sudden, he’s a “man fail.”
Speaking of which…
3. Complementarianism contradicts itself.
It tells men that they are spiritually obligated to lead and exercise authority over their wives. Their wives exist to serve them and tend to whatever needs they have. If the woman disobeys or refuses to submit, the husband has the right to discipline her–by rebuke, withholding affection, spanking, cutting off her credit cards, etc. But…the man must not ever be selfish, controlling or domineering.
You can’t preach that men should always be in control and then chide them for being controlling. The very definition of controlling is putting yourself in control of everything.
Now some would argue here that there’s a distinction between leading and domineering, and that there is a line at which the husband’s leadership would become abusive. Ok, so where’s the line? How does a complementarian pastor determine which request has been made out of selfish intent, and which is reasonable? After all, the woman exists to serve her husband’s needs. If the husband says he needs three pickup trucks, a 5-course dinner and sex twice a day every day, who dares to say that is unreasonable?
Which leads me to…
4. Complementarianism is confusing.
Comp theology is based on only a handful of scriptures, yet comp advocates say that being complementarian is a “gospel issue.” So as a complementarian, man or woman, you’re always having to check yourself:
- Is it ok that I made this tiny decision without checking in with my husband first?
- Should I support my wife leading our home Bible study group?
- Am I being a real man and a leader if I _____?
- Can I rebuke my husband if he is _____?
At any time, a pastor or church leader might accuse you of not being comp enough, which means that you’re in danger of falling out of God’s favor, misreading scripture, misrepresenting Christ’s relationship to the Church, and ending up in an unholy marriage. So you’re always having to question if what you are doing is good enough. But you don’t ever know if it is good enough, because the advocates themselves can’t agree on where the lines are. But they know it is the clear teaching of scripture! So just do it!
5. Much of comp theology isn’t actually biblical…and leads to idolatry.
See, many complementarians teach that men aren’t just decision makers; they are also spiritual leaders in all spheres. They provide a spiritual covering for their wives and families that keep them in God’s favor. I have searched and searched, and I cannot find a single scripture to support this assertion.
But here’s how it plays out…
A woman is told that she needs this spiritual covering in order to operate within her spiritual gifts. If she wants to do ministry (one that is open to her, anyway), she must have the blessing and spiritual oversight of a man. Another godly woman cannot provide this, nor can a board of people. It must be someone with a penis who says, “I extend my spiritual covering to this woman and take personal responsibility to ensure her ministry remains biblical.” So while a woman may be saved, baptized, filled with the Spirit, gifted, trained and clearly called by God to minister, comp theology says she cannot biblically go forth without a man to speak for her and legitimize her activities. And in nearly all cases, they expect this man to be the woman’s husband. Woman doesn’t have a godly husband? Too bad!
This is idolatry. This is usurping God’s role.
Here are men claiming that the most important thing a woman needs for ministry is their approval. Calling is not enough. The Spirit is not enough. Accountability from other sources is not enough.
This is not biblical. This is an affront to God’s sovereignty.
These leaders also say that if a man fails to lead spiritually or has a less-than-ideal relationship (or no relationship) with God, then his wife won’t be blessed and will struggle in her own relationship with God. What about 1 Corinthians 7:14? What about 1 Timothy 2:5?
What about single women? What about divorced women? What about orphaned women? What about women with bad fathers and/or husbands?
And many of these leaders claim to believe in the “ontological equality” of women to men–meaning that men and women are equally made in the image of God; they simply have different roles. But they clearly do not believe this. When the Holy Spirit isn’t even enough to grant a woman a spiritual covering capable of blessing, empowering and legitimizing her life without the authoritative headship of a man, then the woman is clearly inferior by design. There is no other way to slice it.
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I know and love many people who consider themselves to be complementarians. They are good people who will always be welcome at my table. But after experiencing and examining this doctrine, I’ve decided I can’t go back to it. Comp theology has some serious biblical and practical issues that need to be addressed.