Sexual complementarity: A dangerous debate

Its advocates rarely speak of the consequences of women’s noncompliance to their husband’s alleged authority.

By David Burroughs

I read with interest the story in ABPnews/Herald about Dr. David Platt’s sermon given recently at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. In reality, I no longer pay much attention to things said by Southern Baptist leaders these days. But this one caught my eye for three reasons:

• Rev. Platt was speaking at my alma mater.
• Rev. Platt pastors the Church at Brook Hills, a large and influential church in Birmingham, where I live.
• I find this message alarming and careless.

I actually have much respect for David Platt. He takes his faith and his church very seriously, calling his congregation to deep, life-transforming action on behalf of those in Birmingham and around the world who can’t act on their own because of oppression, poverty, sickness and worse. Platt has been an example to me and to many others in this regard.

Watching a video of Platt’s talk given at the chapel on Southern’s campus, I found myself nodding along to his passionate pleas for Southern Baptist students to take care of the poor, engage in social justice and share the gospel. Then seemingly out of nowhere, Platt directed the same passion and emotional emphasis to sexual complementarity, which by definition works to keep women in their place, subservient to men.

In his talk, Platt speaks about four gospel truths, ironically all taken from Genesis, the first book of the Old Testament, not from the Gospels of the New Testament which detail Jesus ’actual words and actions. Watching his sermon, Platt’s gospel truths seemed more like opinion and conjecture, as he repeated his claim that, “We flee sexual immorality in our lives and we defend sexual complementarity for the sake of the gospel in the world.”

Complementarity does sound nice, doesn’t it? It makes one think the point for a successful marriage is giving lots of compliments: “Darling, I love those new shoes you are wearing!”

However, sexual complementarity is merely thinly veiled language for the systematic subjugation of women — plain and simple. At best, this flawed and sexist view suggests that the husband is the only decision-maker of the family and at worst, causes a woman to feel pressured into submitting to any desires and whims of her husband, who has total authority over her — just, they say, as Jesus has authority over the church.

Much has been written for and against this view of a marriage relationship, but this line of thought is just wrong. It’s wrong because the larger biblical narrative shows that God values and loves both genders equally, Jesus treated women as equals and women are leaders throughout the Bible — from Deborah in Judges to Phoebe in Romans.

Sexual complementarity is not only incorrect; it is also dangerous. In today’s society, where speeches have an indeterminate shelf life, overly authoritative words can carry damaging consequences. This teaching too easily leads to spousal abuse. The logic goes like this: “Pastor David says that I am the authority in the home and so you will do what I want and if not, there will be consequences.” And Platt never mentioned anything about consequences for non-compliance.

As Platt neared the end of his talk, he told stories of brokenness in the world that the Christian church needs to address, including sex trafficking. The irony is that sexual complementarity begins with submission to male authority in the home and leads to a culture where women’s thoughts and opinions have less value than their male counterparts. Men become accustomed to an environment where they call the plays and women are expected to comply. Taken to its logical extreme, sexual complementarity eventually leads to a world where sex trafficking is ubiquitous.

As an ordained minister of the gospel and graduate of the same seminary at which Rev. Pratt was speaking, I must disagree. The continued propagation of sexual complementarity as a gospel truth is, in my view, unacceptable and dangerous.

I counter with a Baptist voice celebrating that in Christ there is no Jew or Greek, no male or female. I am thankful for seminaries that accept, mentor and send out powerful women who are preaching an authoritative word in Baptist pulpits around the country. I commend the Baptist congregations who have called women to serve as pastor and to represent them as community leaders. Frankly, as the church has listened to men preach for centuries, I find it refreshing to hear a thoughtful and, yes, complementary word from the Lord from the fresh perspective of a women’s voice.

I believe God’s call does not discriminate and that we can all be gifted to serve and lead equally at every level of our churches and in our communities. I particularly believe this begins at home.

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.