The gender conversation 9: Complementarian Churches

There’s no doubting that gender continues to occupy a lot of time, space & energy in the church. It regularly raises the emotions and generates a lot of heat and little light. It can also put Christians into camps where the ‘the other side’ can be seen, talked about & treated as a problem or worse ‘the enemy’. In the church this is nothing short of disastrous. So I’ve invited Hannah Mudge to a blog conversation with me about faith and gender.

Click here for part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5, part 6, part 7, part 8

P: So, complementarian churches – how do you see us? Misguided, oppressing women whether we mean to or not, on a slippery slope to misogyny and domestic abuse (I’ve heard that one a few times), a few steps away from the Vision Forum? I hope I’m exaggerating but I’d be interested to know how you view churches like mine.

I would hesitate to apply labels to complementarian churches because I know that there is such a breadth of belief about gender that really differs from church to church. I’ve read some intriguing research, for example, claiming that many members of complementarian churches actually have ‘functionally egalitarian marriages’ and I know that this is a huge bugbear for some more hardline pastors in the USA. I know that some complementarian churches would teach that women cannot hold positions of authority in society, and that gender roles are practically a salvation issue. But then I know some where gender is barely discussed and no-one really talks about the fact that all those in positions of power are men. I myself attended a complementarian church for some years and gender was very rarely brought up on a Sunday. It was clear from the attitudes of some that male headship was very important to them and some were more hardline than others, but some other members of the congregation struggled with the complementarian stance and the fact that many things were off limits to women.

I would also hesitate to say that “complementarian churches are on the slippery slope to domestic abuse”, but I think it has to be recognised that churches that emphasise male headship, female submission, and a fairly authoritarian outlook can easily enable abuse and let it go unchecked. When a woman is being abused by her husband, she should not be counselled that she needs to make sure she’s submitting to him and praying for him, rather than actually getting help, or her husband being dealt with. The attitudes of some prominent complementarian figures have shown that there is often a less than sympathetic outlook towards women. As for women who attend complementarian churches, again I don’t want to put a label on them or make judgments. If they’ve come to those conclusions about scripture and how they want to live their lives, that’s up to them. If they are happy with their lives and happy in their marriages, that’s great. I know that lots of them may not be, but that’s going to be the case wherever you go. The one thing I find frustrating is when women who are happy in a more traditional role insinuate that because they’re happy with this, they don’t see why some women might not be happy. We need to recognise the breadth of choices that women might want to make and the giftings they might have. I’m aware that works both ways.

I certainly wouldn’t lump New Frontiers et al in with Vision Forum, don’t worry! Vision Forum and similar ministries have created a dangerous set of beliefs that is extra-Biblical, tied up with US culture to the extent that many of their ideals would be unworkable elsewhere in the world, take a thoroughly revised view of history, and elevate fathers/heads of households far beyond what’s right, or indeed normal. There are barely hidden white supremacist views and very visible dominionist views. There are rules around “betrothal” and “courtship” that mean that marriages are practically arranged. Many churches practice excommunication and shunning. These groups have taken complementarianism and created cults.

One thing I worry about is the way complementarian churches can be pretty discouraging to women who feel they don’t fit the mold being offered to them, or limiting when they have gifts they feel they can not use. You mention that you’ve worked in churches where women have been involved in a wide range of roles – that’s great. But sadly we’re still often confined to singing, serving refreshments, and looking after children, which is fine if that’s what you want to do. A friend was telling me recently of a youth event run by a complementarian church where some teenage girls came away extremely upset and not wanting to go to church any more. They had been told that women who aspire to leadership roles have a “Jezebel spirit”. If this sort of thing is stopping people from attending church, there’s a problem. I’m friends with several women who have left the church due to the stance on women they encountered there. Some are still believers, some aren’t.

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10 Thoughts to “The gender conversation 9: Complementarian Churches”

  1. Dave Warnock

    Phil,

    “Misguided, oppressing women whether we mean to or not, on a slippery slope to misogyny and domestic abuse (I’ve heard that one a few times)”

    To be fair you would also have to ask Hannah to comment on the frequent claims by complementarians that those supporting equality are on a slippery slope to wanting to legalise marriage between more than two partners, or marriage between humans and animals.

    It would also be helpful if you were willing to recognise that Newfrontiers have been influenced by people who exhibit misogyny and who have a poor track record when it comes to challenging domestic abuse. Driscoll, Piper and anyone in leadership at Sovereign Grace come to mind. With company like this there are grounds for concerns over slippery slopes.

    1. Hannah Mudge

      Good point Dave – I would also say that the influence of Driscoll, Piper and SGM on gender would be a concern for me. I wonder about the extent to which they are truly an influence on members of NF?

      1. Dave Warnock

        My feeling is that there has been some distancing by some people in Newfrontiers but that they are still very influential on the leadership. I suggest that we see that a lot on the Newfrontiers theology blog.
        I recognise that there are some loud voices who listen to these views a lot but that this does not entirely reflect the leadership.
        I also think your points about the position of women in the congregations is important and that there are assumptions made by men that all is ok.

    2. I think Hannah has it right, I think the influence those leaders have is probably overstated and greater in your eyes than it is in mine, I don’t see it like that at all.

      As for your slippery slope point – the marriage argument relates mostly to sexuality doesn’t it? But my question, as a complementarian, was how she saw churches like the one I lead and not the other way around.

      1. Dave Warnock

        Phil,
        For some the marriage argument is described as a slippery slope that gender equality leads to gender confusion which leads to same sex marriage which leads to opening marriage to multiple partners which leads to marriage between humans and animals (and you have made some of those connections yourself).
        I was suggesting this in terms of how Hannah sees complementarian Churches given that they use this slippery slope argument.
        In other words the slippery slope is used in opposite directions. Hannah commented on one of them.

        1. Sure I’m aware of the slippery slope arguments. I don’t use that but I do say that if not careful there is no reason why arguments in favour of one couldn’t be used by another. That is not the same as a logical progression from one to another.
          Steve Chalke for example did exactly that. And no one yet has given a good reason as to why their arguments in favour of same sex marriage couldn’t be used for polygamous marriages. Which given that there are at least as many muslims as gays would seem just a reasonable democratic extension.

      2. Dave Warnock

        Google has over 500 hits for Driscoll on the Newfrontiers theology site. Seems quite influential to me.

        eg from this year: “Many of us have enjoyed and been inspired by the ministry of Mark Driscoll. He is a phenomenal preacher and visionary leader.”

        1. Well a bunch of those are comments and a bunch of those are posts that disagree with him from films, cities, leadership and other stuff. And so what if some people have been inspired by him? Doesn’t mean they agree with everything he says nor should they have to continually point out where they disagree.

          I’ve just been with 40 Newfrontiers leaders for the last three days, we’ve had Pete Grieg with us today. I’ve not heard Driscoll mentioned once, but we have prayed for Justin Welby, heard that Sandy Millar (formerly of HTB) is coming to be main speaker at a leaders event. We’re more influenced by Nicky Gumbel than Mark Driscoll. He’s probably not even top 10 or 20. Move on.

  2. Sad in the USA

    I had never encountered the terms ‘complementarian’ or ‘egalitarian’ until moving to the USA. I had grown up in an excellent church, with excellent teaching (from very well educated and gifted pastors) with both men and women taking the position as lead pastor (although it was not called this in my denomination) throughout the 35 years I attended. It was a loving and blessed community fully committed to Christ and his word. New Frontiers was my first experience with a church that had opressive attitudes towards women. I was shocked and confused, it was and is still hurtful to me to think of their teaching on women. I would never attend a church like that, I feel some degree of sadness for my friends that do, as I believe they are living under a lie – or as you put it “oppressing women wether we mean to or not”. Praise God for the new covenant that Christ gave us on the cross. (and for those who think they can avoid the slippery slope to oppression, I point you to John Piper – who seems to be a bit of a poster boy for the movement- and his views on submission and spousal abuse in marriage – just google it for yourselves)

    1. Hi and thanks for your comment. Sorry to hear of some of your negative experiences.

      I’m aware of John Piper’s comments and follow up comments which are also worth listening to. But if there is a slippery slope on one side, the chances are there’s a slippery slope on the other too, isn’t there?

      As for iving under a lie, that’s what the discussion about the Bible is all about. And if we are living under a lie what does that say about your view of the church for the majority of the last 2000 years. There are a lot of difficult issues raised by that view. But let’s keep engaging.

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