The Problem With Our Complementarianism

by Lore Ferguson Wilbert December 23, 2015

Steeped in the neo-reformed, post-fundamentalist, conservative church paradigm there's something rotten in the state of the local church. It's called complementarianism.

It’s a particularly sticky subject for me because I am a complementarian.

When considering a job at a church in Denver, the Rockies were icing on the cake, but the real impetus was hearing one of the pastors talk about historic androcentrism within the local church, and his desire for a more balanced way.

The church’s executive pastor, Gary McQuinn, named so many of the issues friends like Jen Wilkin, Wendy Alsup, Hannah Anderson, and others—all complementarians paying particular attention to women’s involvement and leadership—had been talking about for years. The main difference was he was a man, and he was serious about making changes to how we talk about and view gender roles.

Bit by the bug of second wave feminism in the 1960s and ‘70s, the term “complementarianism” seemed to offer conservative churches an answer. Here was a word that described how men and women were equal and distinct. Same value, different roles. Same intrinsic worth, different intrinsic expressions. It came across a simple answer to a complex equation—as almost all issues concerning the human heart are.

In the 35 years or so since then, liberal churches grew more liberal and the conservative—heaven help us. McQuinn uses the term androcentrism to describe the shift in neo-reformed environments in particular. It means being dominated by or emphasizing masculine interests or a masculine point of view. It wasn't that the theology was all wrong, it was that the voices of church leaders were maddeningly male, through the male perspective, with male interests paramount, and evaluated by males.

Imagine with me for a moment a room of chimps all chimping about how to be a better room of chimps and pandas. Or, if that offends your sensibilities, pretend instead it's a room full of a mustangs mustanging about how to care for the cheetahs among them. Ludicrous, and not just because animals can't reason. Even in a conservative reading of Scripture, the things women alone are not permitted to do are limited to one (maybe two, if you hold that women cannot be deacons). Yet the male voice has predominantly decided for half the church what is best for her and the church as a whole.

This isn't a neo-reformed problem, or a complementarian problem, this is a human problem. We are all ethnocentric, androcentric, or gynocentric by nature and it is work, work, work, from dusk till dawn to right the wrongs we have done and will do with our singular perspectives.

Pastors, bringing women on staff at your church (and not just for "women's ministry") is one of the best things you can do for your church. If you want to be truly complementarian, "Shine a light," McQuinn says, "on the absolute equality and the absolute distinction of men and women." Make them both so beautiful you can't look away.

Don't just bring women on staff, though, be creative in how you employ women. Shining a light on the beauty of distinction means valuing the different seasons and roles women are in. Why can't we pay a stay-at-home mom with profound leadership skills to work from home occasionally and teach leadership skills to other women in similar situations? Why can't we pay a single woman to be a house-mom to large groups of girls for discipleship? Why can't we pay a mother with grown children to teach Bible studies and train mentors?

Church leaders, if you find yourself modeling your staff culture after the world's work culture instead of the other way around, it's time to stop and consider who was the original Creator of work. God designed work—and he designed for it to look a great many ways. Value all of the workers, not just the ones who put on a suit and tie, or plaid and cords, at 8am and come home for dinner at five. Bring women into the echo chamber, and I think you will find their voices soften the echoes you've grown so accustomed to.

A crowd of chimping chimps sounds ugly and a stampeding herd of mustangs is destructive. If your meeting rooms and lead teams are full of male voices, tread softly with that power. It leads nowhere good and nowhere healthy for the local church or the Church as a whole. Christ did a good thing when he called us all his bride, making plaid wearing, pipe smoking men squirm everywhere.

Squirm on, friends. It's the squirm that leads to growth.