By Bob Allen
A movement in evangelical Christianity that promotes male headship and wifely submission in marriage faces competition today not from radical feminists but rather believers who are “complementarian” in name only, according to a panel at a recent pastor’s conference.
“What I fear is that we have many people in evangelicalism who can check off ‘complementarian’ on a box but who really aren’t living out complementarian lives,” Russell Moore, dean of the School of Theology and senior vice president for academic administration at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, said during the April 10-12 Together for the Gospel Conference in Louisville, Ky.
“Sometimes I fear that we have marriages that are functionally egalitarian, because they are within the structure of the larger society,” Moore explained in an audio now posted on the event website. “If all we are doing is saying ‘male headship’ and ‘wives submit to your husbands’ but we’re not really defining what that looks like, in a Christ-centered way of discipleship, in this kind of culture, when those things are being challenged, then it’s simply going to go away.”
Greg Gilbert, senior pastor of Third Avenue Baptist Church in Louisville said he sees a lot of “functional egalitarianism” when he counsels young people.
“You have men who think that being a complementarian and leading their wives really has no feet on it until they come to a decision that they are disagreeing about,” Gilbert said. “But up until that moment, it’s just an egalitarian sort of living together, without male leadership and headship kind of creating the atmosphere of the home.”
Together for the Gospel’s affirmation of beliefs includes a statement that “God has given to both men and women important and strategic roles within the home, the Church, and the society.” Planners recognized that not everyone who comes to meetings, however, believes that God has ordained for men to be leaders in the home and church and used the opportunity to appeal to those still on the fence.
“I don’t think you have to be a complementarian to be saved,” said John Piper, pastor for preaching and vision at Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis/St. Paul. “So it’s not essential at that level, but as soon as you move beneath that level and ask what are the implications of not following through with what Ephesians 5 seems to say or First Timothy 2 seems to say — those would be the classic marriage church texts — the implications hermeneutically for the gospel are significant.”
Piper said “the kind of gymnastics” required to escape such texts chart a direction of biblical interpretation so that “sooner or later you are going to get the gospel wrong.”
Piper said egalitarianism — the view that roles described for men and women in the Bible are not God’s design but reflect the culture of that era — makes senseless Paul’s use of the marriage relationship as a witness to that of Christ and the church. He also said that churches not led by “strong male proclaimers and leaders” sooner or later will “malfunction along the way.”
Moore, introduced as chairman of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, said some people who think they disagree with complementarianism really are opposed to caricatures of the teaching.
He described people who “think they are complementarian and what they mean by that is ‘Woman, get me my chips,’ which is not Ephesians 5.”
“Complementarianism bears a cross,” Moore said “Male headship is, ‘What is in the best interest of my bride and of my children?’”
Moore said the stakes are high, because people who “conform to the patterns of this age” will have an increasing struggle when it comes to questions that previous generations didn’t have to confront.
“A woman came to me once and said my husband has told me he wants to be a woman,” Moore said. “He wants to have gender reassignment surgery and become a woman. He doesn’t want to leave me. He wants to stay together. Martin Luther never had to deal with that.”